As with all geniuses, it is taking the rest of us many years to catch him upby Julian Baggini / May 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
Rankings of the greatest this or the most important that almost always generate dozens of column inches. We shouldn’t be surprised that one exception to this rule is a recently rediscovered list of the most important works of philosophy published between 1950–2000, selected by 16 eminent philosophers for a Chinese publisher. Few outside of academe have even heard of Michael Dummett’s The Logical Basis of Metaphysics, Richard Hare’s The Language of Morals or David Armstrong’s A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility.
The figure whose posthumous masterpiece tops the list, however, has had an enduring appeal and influence that extends far beyond the academy. You may not have read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations but you will certainly have heard many quotes from it, such as “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language,” “the meaning of a word is its use in the language,” “The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” and “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”
Philosophical Investigations deserves first place in the list for its author’s impact on the wider intellectual culture alone. But in one respect it is a very odd choice indeed. For Wittgenstein stood squarely against the mainstream of Anglophone philosophy. For him, philosophy was almost like a disease that needed a cure. As he said in the Investigations, his aim was “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” Philosophers were stuck trying to solve problems of their own making, trapped inside a conceptual “bottle” that they mistook for the outside world.
Wittgenstein’s challenge was impossible to ignore because it came from within the field itself. In his younger days at Cambridge, his exceptional talent was acknowledged by Bertrand Russell. The pupil soon exceeded the master, as Wittgenstein demolished Russell’s theory of judgement. “It is the younger generation knocking at the door,” wrote Russell in a letter to his lover Ottoline Morrell. “I must make room for him when I can, or I shall become an incubus.”
Wittgenstein’s iconoclasm, his strong personality and his gnomic, aphoristic writing style earned him a cult following. Acolytes at Cambridge would even mimic his mannerisms and ways of speaking. This didn’t help his reputation in the philosophical world beyond the Fens. When I…