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Wittgenstein and Postmodernism: Specifics

Hans Julius Schneider, Potsdam

[ Dave Schneider, web: ]

1. In the later writings of Wittgenstein about language and culture we find two important aspects that are directly related to postmodernism. The first one could be expressed by the slogan 'languages are holistic structures', the second one by 'it is one of the most basic parts of our linguistic competence to transgress the boundaries of structures, to move between them, to project them, 'misuse' them creatively and meaningfully, etc.' My claim is that only the first aspect has been widely recognized; it seems to support relativism. But I think that the second one is as important as the first; it allows to leave relativism behind. And so, at the present point of discussion, it is the more important one.

2. The first one is that Wittgenstein shows his readers the close connection of a language with a 'form of life'. He recognizes that there can be quite different languages and forms of life. Put negatively: He sees that there is not one logical 'super language' behind all the different natural languages. Consequently these cannot be seen as nothing but different 'surface forms' of the same 'deep structure'. This aspect has been widely recognized; an important step of making it known to a wider acacemic public has been Peter Winch's book 'The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy' (1958) and the discussion of 'understanding a primitive society' that followed later.

3. In certain contexts this line of thought was liberating at its time. It loosened the grip of logical empiricism, for example in the discussion about the methods to be followed in the social sciences; for certain circles in the anglo-saxon world it resulted in opening their view to ways of thinking thad had been held in low esteem, like hermeneutics and phenomenology; it helped to bridge the gap between analytical and 'continental' philosophy.

4. But it was received by many people on a particular background of opinions about language. These saw natural languages as similar to scientific languages as they had been projected and constructed in logic and in the theory of science. Such a logical language is a closed system of rules that define exactly what is an expression belonging to the language in question ('well formed

formula' in a logical calculus). This conception has influenced scholars in other fields as well and shows to this day for example in Chomsky's conception of a calculus for natural languages, and even in John Searle's idea that it should be possible to formulate necessary and sufficient conditions for the performance of speech acts. Wittgenstein himself to a certain degree invited this line of thought by using the game of chess as a comparison for a natural language. But there are enough other observations in his texts that should have helped his readers to see the limits of this analogy.

5. So the potentially liberating step was taken only in a restricted form: Like Rudolf Carnap's famous 'princi ple of tolerance' (1934; stating that in the sciences only practical, not philosophical a priori reasons can be given for the choice of a particular scientific language) the new unterstanding of the possibility of a plurality of language games was taken as allowing a choice: Choose whatever 'system of language' you want, but after your choice you are 'inside' your system. There can be a practical competition between systems, in which the success of each language is measured by technical criteria (does it allow predictions, is it elegant or clumsy, does it take many or only a few steps to get to analogous results?), but there is no real dialogue possible between systems, because the meaning of an argument depends on the place its expressions have in the system to which it belongs. A system of language structures all your perceptions; it constitutes a world, a way of life, and both of these come in wholes. So languages are cages; you can choose a new one, but you cannot make a single room from them. Thomas Kuhn's book about 'The structure of scientific revolutions' (1962), directed against the idea of a universal scientific method and its ability to guarantee progress, helped to make known the idea of 'incommensurability': There is no common procedure of measurement between two really different theories (witchcraft and behaviouristic psychology, for example). This is very close to post-modern thinking.

6. The second point in Wittgenstein's writings that I see as relevant for post-modernism I have above expressed in the slogan 'we constantly transgress boundaries in meaningful ways'. It is important for leaving postmodernism behind, I think, but it seems to be less known than the first, especially in the anglo-saxon world. Although Gendlin has pointed his readers' attention to it repeatedly, I will here give an outline of what I (as a philosopher of language) see as its most important characteristics.

7. Wittgenstein's way of tying words to practical activities (and in this way to a 'form of life') is always concrete. An expression functions in a specific activity (like building a house), and in the first steps of his reconstruction of language every expression that has a meaning at all has its meaning in such a specific 'language game'. At the borders of the language game we can only say: Everything is open, there is no tacit agreement and no 'mental', private 'meaning' that could tell me how to go on. (What should I do when I am asked to bring a slab, but there are no slabs left? Is a pane of glass a slab?) There are no 'necessary and sufficient conditions' drawing lines that allow to answer these questions.

8. Together with this openness Wittgenstein discusses our ability to act meaningfully in this open area. And this is a very important point: Meaning does not depend on the prior deliniation of borders (slabs against panes; what to do in in unexpected cases), but in language we constantly, characteristically and from the very beginning cross borders. A simple example of Wittgenstein in his 'Philosophical Investigations' is the case where the order 'slab!' is used not to order something, but to describe ('here I see slabs'). Looking from the perspective of the established language game and in the confines of the old calculus-model of language, we would have to say that the expression 'slab' is misused, the established conventions are violated. But this step is meaningful and is understood. And steps of this kind are found in language everywhere: The moment we stop to think about it, we see that it is characteristic for expressions of natural languages that they do not have fixed borders. Our abilitiy to cross borders and still make ourselves understood is absolutely basic for the functioning of language; think of the importance of metaphors and their constant new creation, like in 'computer virus'.

9. This crossing of boundaries does not only happen on the level of lexical meaning (the traditional domain of metaphor) but also on the level of grammatical structures. In this view, even the logical structures as exhibited for example in the predicate calculus do not exhibit a universal deep structure of the world or of all human thinking. Instead the logical form 'F(x)' (read: x has the property F) started out as a concrete relation (Wittgenstein says: the table and its colour), and only then had been adopted as a more or less universal 'form of representation'. So the form has been transferred from a particular field to lots of other fields which are perceived in its light (like when we say of a person 'he is a bear', a case of metaphor; we use an expression from one field of discourse to say something in another field). Or think of the many different relations we express with one grammatical case like the genitive: The baker's bread, wife, car, death,.. (Who is interested to read more about this hobby of mine may consult my 'Syntactic Metaphor: Frege, Wittgenstein and the Limits of a Theory of Meaning; in: Philosophical Investigations 13 (1990) 137-153)

10. The important point of this for our discussion of post-modernism is not the diversity (if it is taken as an invitation for an attitude of 'anything goes' that would stop at this point). The diversity surely exists and can mean a wonderful amount of freedom. But what has been widely overlooked (and for that reason seems to me to be more important for us) is our ability to move mea-ningfully and communicate successfully in this diver-sity, constantly crossing borders, violating any proposed 'necessary and sufficient conditions'. And this is at the very roots of language; linguistic competence cannot be understood without this ability. So we do not stop at the point of 'anything goes' ('anybody may choo-se her own cage'), but try to get aware of our border-crossing abilities, and to see what it means to move meaningfully across borders.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]