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  • Wittgenstein and The Waste Land
  • Mark Erwin


The return to ethics in literary studies has been urgent and ambitious. For its enthusiasts (many of them reputable humanists eager to recover ground lost in three decades of “structures, signs, and play”) the stakes can be quite high. As Charles Altieri explains, “the effort to get theory right is also in a limited domain an effort to get a life right.” 1 And of the new voices in ethical criticism, Altieri’s is one of the most comprehensive and compelling. By connecting the philosophy of Wittgenstein (surprisingly) with Charles Taylor’s Hegelian expressivism, he shows how “expressivist aesthetics” can be a vehicle for “expressivist ethics.”

Altieri uses Wittgenstein to address Stanley Fish’s claims about the radical relativity of criteria for interpretation, both in literary criticism and in social interaction. Fish argues that interpretation always rests on the thin contingency of social conventions and thus has no real foundation. Altieri counters by explaining that the dense complexity of conventions, however contingent, provide enough ground for various levels of cultural consensus. He can then say, with reference to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, that interpretive criteria deserve a dramatic rather than a scientific treatment—that is, a treatment that preserves their significance within the rich contingency of their context; Wittgenstein thereby offers a “grammatical pragmatism” that allows members of a community to agree and share their understanding without being bothered too much by the contingency of their agreement (Altieri, pp. 99–100).

Altieri invokes this grammatical pragmatism in order to connect aesthetic appreciation with moral expression. He suggests that the [End Page 279] criteria the public uses to interpret art is analogous to the criteria it uses to interpret shared values and the individual acts that publicize a moral identity. He agrees with Taylor that we behave morally by projecting an identity constituted by second-order values that we choose and can express in a way that our community will understand. He therefore explains Wittgenstein’s claim (from the Notebooks) that “ethics and aesthetics are one” by saying that “both depend on a concept of expression, on the ways in which a particular subject’s ‘how’ projects its purposiveness in the objective world” (Altieri, p. 233). Altieri concludes that by learning to interpret the elaborate and self-conscious forms of expression in literature, we can enrich our own expressions of moral identity, our “purposiveness,” and learn to interpret the similar expressions of others.

It is tempting to challenge Altieri by asking right away what sort of responsible self-expression we can adopt by reading a modern poem like The Waste Land; but his inclination to apply Wittgenstein seems promising and bears further examination, since Wittgenstein’s distinction between showing and saying bespeaks the difference between literary and philosophical ways of using language. Altieri does not quite “get it right,” however, and not only because he confiates Wittgenstein’s early and late work. For the Wittgenstein of the Notebooks, ethics and aesthetics are one, not because they express “purposiveness,” but because they manifest a way of looking at the world, seeing it either as a happy world or as an unhappy world. Ethics and aesthetics are both forms of vision. Indeed, the early Wittgenstein discounts the very possibility of projecting “purposiveness”: “I cannot bend the happenings of the world to my will: I am completely powerless. . . . The world is independent of my will.” 2 It is difficult, then, to use Wittgenstein to discuss morality in the familiar sense of actions, consequences and moral deliberation.

Nonetheless, Wittgenstein associates our vision of the world with our ethical disposition in a way that suggests a more tentative, although more plausible, means of recovering a moral service for the work of art. In his “Lecture on Ethics,” Wittgenstein elaborates this definition of ethics as a form of vision or experience. He argues that it is impossible for us to make statements of absolute value in language; but he notes that we always feel inclined to invoke absolute values when we have an experience we cannot rationally put into words. For example, he posits his own sense of wonder at the apparently miraculous existence of the world. “But,” he...

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pp. 279-291
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