On a personal level, Wittgenstein’s philosophical efforts reflect a struggle to disentangle his identity from the confusing, mystifying language of his original family. He had been brainwashed, so to speak, under the usurping pressure of his father’s self-centered universe. Hermann Wittgenstein was an epistemological tyrant, defining reality for all those who sought to be connected to him. This philosopher’s thinking, therefore, can be viewed as a self-deprogramming enterprise, ultimately directed toward the possibility of liberating himself from the paternal agenda and claiming his own place in this world.
Wittgenstein’s first book, the only one published during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/2001), is an effort to clarify the relationship between the words of our language and what he called the “states of affairs” appearing in the world we perceive. Two specific assertion appear in this book, ones we believe are charged with personal significance:
“There is no such thing as the subject…”
“ The subject does not belong to the world…” (1922, p. 69)
On a philosophical level, this reminds us that we ought not to objectify the first person singular: the ‘I’ is not an item in the world. We are being told that the experiencing subject is not a content of the world we perceive; it is instead what he spoke of as a ‘limit’ of this world, a standpoint from which what we call “world” and all its contents appear.
If we lift the statements out of their ordinary philosophical context, and think about the personal, life-historical meaning they might contain, an epistemological rebellion on Wittgenstein’s part appears, one mounted against the powerful father who tried to be the all-defining director of his son’s existence. The son is saying:
“’I’ am not a thing belonging to your world, not anything anyone can define or control. My being lies outside the insanity of your self-absorption. Above all, know this: ‘I’ am not an item in the inventory of your possessions, to be made use of as you please!”
The pull of the father’s usurping authority, though, must have continued to be very strong, presenting an ever-present danger of falling back under his control and becoming once again the obedient extension of an irresistible will. This is not just a matter of a child fighting back against a parent who is strict and controlling. Wittgenstein’s separating himself from his father was a matter of rescuing his very being as someone independently real. A crisis occurred in his young life in which he saw that continuing to walk on the road laid out for him by his father would be to become permanently itemized on the list of his father’s many possessions. It would be to embrace annihilation.
A sign of the felt danger of returning to the obliterating conformity of his youth appears in a feature of Wittgenstein’s life that his biographers have noted but not fully understood. It was his incapacity to dissimulate, to lie, to conceal the truth because of the claim of whatever circumstance he was in. If he did move toward some concealment, which happened exceedingly rarely, he was thrown into a crisis of wanting to immediately kill himself. Our understanding of this inability to lie is that presenting anything other than what he felt and knew to be true posed the danger of a re-engulfment by the falseness of an identity based on the need to be accepted rather than on his own spontaneous intentionality and authenticity. If the only possibility was that of a false life, then his only option would have been death.
The philosopher enforced his emancipation from enslavement by cutting off relations with his father, and he refused even to accept his very substantial inheritance after the father finally died. Wittgenstein saw taking the money as sacrificing a very precarious sense of personal existence. The heart and soul of this man’s madness lies in the danger of annihilation that haunted him throughout his life. His philosophy we can thus view as a search for an answer to this ontological vulnerability.
His writings, for the most part, consist in aphoristic meditations focusing on language. He gives us trains of thought that attempt to expose various confusions into which we fall, arguing that many – perhaps all – of the classic problems of philosophy arise as secondary manifestations of these linguistic confusions. Wittgenstein engages himself, and his readers, in dialogues subjecting specific examples of how we speak and think to relentless reflection and analysis. In the process of these conversations, a profound critique of the whole Cartesian tradition emerges, a dismantling of metaphysical conceptions and distinctions that otherwise enwrap our thinking and imprison us within structures of unconscious confusion. Central in this transforming inquiry are understandings of human existence in terms of ‘mind,’ seen as a ‘thinking thing,’ an actual entity with an inside that looks out on a world from which it is essentially estranged. Such an idea, once posited, leads inexorably to a dualism: one begins to wonder how the entity ‘mind’ strangely, mysteriously connects to another entity, ‘body.’ He makes compelling arguments that specific linguistic confusions based on the human tendency to turn nouns into substantives lie at the root of such otherwise unfounded ideas. In Wittgenstein’s universe, there are no ‘minds’ that have interiors, no intrapsychic spaces in which ideas and feelings float about in some “queer medium,” no mysteries we need to be fascinated by regarding how the mental entity and its supposed contents relate to the physical object we call the body. Longstanding traditions in metaphysics are accordingly undercut and the terrain of philosophy is opened up to new and clarifying ways of exploring our existence. Well-known arguments against the coherence of solipsism as a philosophical position and also against the possibility of an individual ‘private language’ definitively refute the idea that it makes any sense to think of a human life in terms of an isolated ‘I,’ or ego. He was a post-Cartesian philosopher par excellence.
Wittgenstein sometimes viewed his scrutinizing of our linguistic expressions and associated patterns of thought as a form of ‘therapy,’ performed upon philosophy and society. It is our view that this therapy he offered to our civilization mirrored precisely the personal effort described earlier, in which his life goal was to free himself from the entangling confusions, invalidations, and annihilations pervading the family system of his youth. In this respect he succeeded in connecting uniquely personal issues to important currents and needs of the larger culture. His philosophical journey therefore allowed him to find a meaning for his life beyond the narrow orbit of his father’s deadly narcissism and helped him avoid the tragic fate of his brothers.
Let us turn now to one of Wittgenstein’s (1953) most important specific ideas: that of a so-called language game. It is an elusive term that he never formally defined in his various dialogues, so one has to note how he used it in various contexts and extract a meaning. Of course one of his most well-known formulations is that “the meaning is the use,” and exists nowhere else, which is a distinctively post-Cartesian view of semantics.
We think of a Wittgensteinian language game as a set of words and phrases, along with their customary usages, that form a quasi-organic system, such that when one uses one or two elements in the system one is catapulted into the whole, subject to its implicit rules, in some respects trapped within its horizons of possible discourse. The German word for this is Sprachspiel, and the word obviously derives from spielen: to play. A language game, in whatever sphere of our lives it becomes manifest, encloses us within a finite system of elements and possibilities, and subjects us to rules we knowingly or unknowingly tend to follow. Such a structure literally “plays” with our minds, shaping and directing our experiences according to preformed pathways and constraining them within pre-established boundaries. Wittgenstein wanted us to become aware of these systems in which we are all embedded, and this would be part of his therapy for our whole culture. The goal is one of ushering in a greater clarity about what we think and who and what we are, illuminating what he spoke of as our “complicated form of life.”
The primal language game of this man’s personal history was the communication system in his early family, which designated his existence – and those of his doomed brothers – as playthings, almost like chess pieces belonging to the father’s controlling agendas and properties. A clear perception of the mystifications and usurping invalidations of his early family world would obviously be of assistance in this man’s attempts to find his own way. He tried mightily in his philosophical reflections to release his discipline and the world at large from its “bewitchment” by language, even as he was able to free himself only very tenuously from the spell cast by his father.
Kierkegaard, S. (1834-1842) The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard. Excerpted in Bretall, R. (Ed.) A Kierkegaard Anthology, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946.
Wittgenstein, L. (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London and New York: Routledge, 1974.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan