Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Wittgenstein double-bind - and its solution


I used to be very interested by Wittgenstein and his ideas

although I now regard both W. and my interest in him as mistaken.

One aspect which I recall was that the only thing which enraged Wittgenstein more than people using his ideas without full attribution, was people using his ideas with full attribution - because they always misunderstood and misrepresented the ideas.

Wittgenstein himself did not publish anything after Tractatus - nothing of his 'late' philosophy; so this meant that there was only one way to know what W. was saying and that was to hear him say it - in his actual presence. And to be allowed to do this, one had to be a disciple.

So W. had disciples whom he controlled, not colleagues; and operated as a holy man or guru, not as an academic. This is, indeed, the basis of his appeal.

It is also a proper way to proceed in education - i.e. apprenticeship. Unfortunately, with his 'late' philosophy, W. did not really have anything worth teaching - as he himself was the first to assert, and was confirmed by W.s main patron and supporter Bertrand Russell.

In consequence, there was a weird cult of nothingness - moralistically critiqueing and denying this, then that, then something else... but from no discernible basis - swirling around the personality of Wittgenstein (and continually riven by accusations of misunderstanding and misrepresentation); and this cult proved extremely enduring: it was certainly still going strong twenty-five years ago (when I last looked).

But the phenomenon is fascinating. Of course Wittgenstein was a compellingly intense and uncompromising character - a one off; but it is remarkable that he became by far the most influential philosopher in the sphere of British philosophy - 'despite' - or was it precisely because - he 1. published nothing and 2. had nothing to say and 3. did his utmost to prevent anybody else from referencing or discussing his work.


  1. Interesting thoughts on W. -- but I'm afraid I don't get the title. What "double bind" and "solution" are you referring to?

  2. @WM - A double bind is a situation you cannot win (heads I win, tails you lose) - and that was the situation for those who listened to W. during his lifetime when it came to using his ideas. The solution was complete and utter subordination - discipleship; which involved never talking about, summarizing or critiquing the master.

  3. It is very refreshing to hear Wittgenstein criticized by anyone, which I suppose says something.

  4. @B - If this is still the case, it shows the remarkable 'hold' that is still exerted by Wittgenstien's personality and example, after sixty years!- because his philosophy has really zero remaining influence.

    My impression is that what really impressed people about W. was his uncompromising, burning sincerity. If this had been combined with some positive and true religious conviction - what might have been possible? But as it was W. seems to have attracted the wrong kind of people for the wrong kind of reasons.

    I read everything I could find on W in the mid 1980s and the only remotely critical book, the only onenot under W.s 'spell'' was WW Bartley III's book, which was loathed and abused - although when I read it, it seemed a decent piece of work.

    If anyone *should* have lived in a monastery - mostly for his own good - it was Wittgenstein!


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