Wittgenstein’s Impact on Contemporary Philosophy

In my last post I began to talk about some of my philosophical influences, and what I thought they had in common that distinguished them from other philosophers. Given that most posts on this blog about philosophy are going to explain what the views of these philosophers are and why I believe they have something important to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates, I’m going to focus in this post on characterising the distinctive sort of neglect that I think many of these philosophers have received in mainstream philosophy, focusing for now on Wittgenstein alone.

What inspired me to take this route is the following quotation from an article by Ray Monk (author of the engrossing Wittgenstein biography The Duty of Genius) regarding the influence of Wittgenstein on contemporary thought:

Ludwig Wittgenstein is regarded by many, including myself, as the greatest philosopher of this century… And yet in a sense Wittgenstein’s thought has made very little impression on the intellectual life of this century. As he himself realised, his style of thinking is at odds with the style that dominates our present era. His work is opposed, as he once put it, to “the spirit which informs the vast stream of European and American civilisation in which all of us stand.” Nearly 50 years after his death, we can see, more clearly than ever, that the feeling that he was swimming against the tide was justified.

In one way or another, this image of swimming against the tide applies to many philosophers that I mentioned in my last post. As Monk indicates with respect to Wittgenstein, fame has little to nothing to do with the actual impact that these philosophers have (or, more appropriately, haven’t) had on contemporary philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose principal contribution to philosophy was a magnificent tuft of hair.

I think it’s worth considering exactly what it means to say that a philosopher can gain significant renown and have as much influence as someone like Wittgenstein—a household name in 20th century philosophy if ever there was one—without making a significant impression on the discipline within which they work.

John Etchemendy opens his book The Concept of Logical Consequence with a description of Tarski’s impact on contemporary philosophy of logic that I think neatly encapsulates the kind of influence that typically comes hand-in-hand with renown within a discipline:

The highest compliment that can be paid to the author of a piece of conceptual analysis comes not when his suggested definition survives whatever criticism may be leveled against it, or when the analysis is acclaimed unassailable. The highest compliment comes when… the definition is treated as common knowledge. Tarski’s account of the concepts of logical truth and logical consequence has earned him this compliment.

Though Etchemendy here speaks particularly about conceptual analysis, there’s a point that can be made here about lesser degrees of compliment that philosophers often receive more generally. Philosophers that make a lasting impact on a discipline are not necessarily those who are deemed to have succeeded in putting forth a viewpoint deemed incontestable (in fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing in philosophy), but rather those whose contribution becomes an essential and indispensable feature of the debate or region of philosophy itself.

The nature of this contribution can take any number of forms other than conceptual analysis. It can sometimes take the form of contributing a conceptual distinction thereafter deemed essential to a (sub-)discipline, as with Frege’s distinction between sense and reference. It can often take the form of contributing a distinctive stance or viewpoint to a debate that then goes on to have a life of its own outside the writings of that author, as with Bentham’s promotion of utilitarianism. It can at other times take the form of shaping or forming the nature of a debate or region itself, as with Davidson’s program for a Tarskian semantics. It can sometimes instead take the form of an interpretation of the ideas of a key figure that becomes so commonplace that the line between the interpretation and the original position become blurred for all but the specialist in that area, as is arguably the case with Dummett’s Frege. And on rare occasions, it takes the form of seemingly rejuvenating and reconceptualising an entire (sub-)discipline itself, as could not unreasonably be said of Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics.

The point is that the contributions these philosophers have made are, in one way or another, essential to the contemporary state of these sub-disciplines. What makes their contribution essential in this way is usually the fact that their ideas have been integrated or absorbed into the sub-discipline, in one of the above ways, or perhaps some other way, to such an extent that one cannot understand the current state of these areas of though without understanding their contribution to them first.

One way to understand Monk’s statement about Wittgenstein is that whilst he is undoubtedly well-known, he has manifestly not had this sort of influence on contemporary philosophy (at least the later Wittgenstein; for its influence on logical positivism and its introduction of truth tables into the philosophical tool-box alone, the Tracatus probably did have the impact discussed above). Whilst it’s very likely that you will have a chance to take a dedicated course on Wittgenstein at some point during an undergraduate degree in philosophy, it’s far less likely that Wittgenstein would be included on the syllabus for a standard introductory course on the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, or epistemology, despite the fact that the later Wittgenstein had a lot to say on these topics.

Furthermore, whilst this is a fairly accurate representation of many UK universities, I get the impression that the likelihood of coming across Wittgenstein in a US course on these topics is even slimmer (comments from readers from across the pond would be appreciated on this point). The fact is that the way these disciplines have progressed, especially in the States, is such that they have not incorporated Wittgenstein’s ideas in the same way that the ideas of other philosophers have been. To put it bluntly, you simply don’t need to understand Wittgenstein to get on in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, whereas you’d have a hard time getting along in these areas without having a good grasp of, say, Kripke, Davidson, Gettier, and Lewis.

The fame that Wittgenstein has achieved is more comparable to that of a pre-Frege historical figure than it is to those philosophers considered an indispensable part of the canon of 20th-century analytic philosophy. Whilst it would be extremely odd to attain tenure in one of these fields without at least having a working knowledge of most members in a typical philosophical canon (think pub-conversation-level knowledge of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy), it wouldn’t be odd to attain tenure without ever having mentioned them in your publications and your contributions to contemporary research, and I think the same is true of Wittgenstein. (I think this is also reflected in the fact that graduate courses that split their modules into ‘historical’ and ‘topical’—or ‘historical’, ‘theoretical’, and ‘practical’—typically place Wittgenstein in the ‘historical’ category.)

I think that the same holds, to varying extents, of all the philosophers that I mentioned last time, though it rings especially true of Austin, given his historical importance (speech act theory itself notwithstanding, which has achieved integration into linguistics and the philosophy of language). The fact is that the views these philosophers hold on topics in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics are still for the most part quite marginal, even when at first glance their stature would seem to indicate otherwise.

For someone sympathetic to the views expressed by these philosophers, this lack of integration into the mainstream of these sub-disciplines is disappointing. The reason seems to be that whilst these philosophers have something interesting to say, the meta-philosophical views that they hold stand at odds with those shared by the majority of mainstream analytic philosophers, which makes engagement with their position difficult.

Whilst the main source of the cold reception that these philosophers have had in more orthodox circles is undoubtedly philosophical, I think that there are interesting quasi-sociological reasons, too, and since these are relevant to my view of my own eventual position in the wonderful world of academic philosophy, in the next post (and, I think, the last on this topic) I’ll try to explain how it is that a philosopher with the stature of Wittgenstein or Austin (at least in his heyday) can end up having a relatively marginal contemporary role within the sub-disciplines they worked within.