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  • Misreadings: Steiner and Lewis on Wittgenstein and Shakespeare

Wittgenstein did not publish the corpus of texts that constitutes his late philosophy. Rather, he left a number of notebooks filled with observations—short, sometimes even aphoristic remarks that stand in loose and unsystematic connection to one another. After his death, his students began publishing these texts. Some of these notebooks were clearly written (and rewritten) with the intent to prepare a publication, such as the ones that have been published as Philosophical Investigations.1 In other cases, the editors grouped together observations on similar topics from boxes filled with Zettel or from various notebooks, as was the case with the publication of Culture and Value.2 Only in 2000, with the publication of all of the notebooks (in the original language) on CD-ROM, could a broader audience gain access to Wittgenstein’s texts and read the remarks in their original context.

Culture and Value contains seven remarks on Shakespeare—all the remarks that are present in the Nachlass.3 All of them stem from Wittgenstein’s late period; the first is dated 1939/40, two are from 1946, and four were written in 1949 and 1950. The remarks do not present themselves as an attempt to propose a systematic interpretation of Shakespeare; they are not organized, and are very general. Wittgenstein does not, for example, mention a single text4 or quote a single passage, and typically he is more concerned with other people’s reactions to Shakespeare than with the Bard himself.5 Wittgenstein feels “deeply suspicious of [End Page 229] most of Shakespeare’s admirers” (CV, p. 95f, April 1950 or later) and clearly thinks that he is overrated—praised “without understanding & for specious reasons by a thousand professors of literature” (CV, p. 55, August 1946). When commenting on Shakespeare himself, however, he is very cautious, often relativizing or using conditional language. When he states, for example, “Shakespeare’s similes are, in the ordinary sense, bad,” he continues by saying, “So if they are nevertheless good—& I don’t know whether they are or not—they must be a law to themselves” (CV, p. 56, August 1946).

Soon after the publication of Culture and Value (and therefore before the publication of the entire Nachlass), we find an interesting reaction to Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare by George Steiner;6 more recently, Peter Lewis addressed the issue in this journal.7 Both seem to be troubled by Wittgenstein’s remarks, though Steiner is more direct. He concludes his essay by stating that “Wittgenstein misreads Shakespeare” (Steiner, p. 128) and suggests that a “great logician and epistemologist can be a blind reader of literature” (p. 127).

Both critics take it that “with respect to aesthetics . . . Wittgenstein is a follower of Tolstoy” (Lewis, p. 242f) and therefore take Tolstoy’s critical essay on Shakespeare as a key to interpret Wittgenstein’s remarks. But there is a second key, as Steiner suggests: “Wittgenstein’s critique is . . . underwritten by a differentiation of the most challenging and farreaching order” (Steiner, p. 120). Steiner here thinks of Wittgenstein’s use of the term “Dichter,” which, he suggests, is far richer than the English “poet.” When reconstructing Wittgenstein’s use of the term, however, he does not analyze Wittgenstein’s texts but rather the conceptions of Dichter that emerge from “the theories of art and of education as they evolve from Schiller and Kant to the present” and that he exemplifies “by reference to an analogous use in the work and thought of certain of his immediate contemporaries” (p. 121); namely, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, and Martin Heidegger. According to this conception, the Dichter is not a craftsman or wordsmith; there is rather an ethical and theological dimension to this term: the Dichter is one who “knows ethically,” “carries a ‘responsibility for life,’” and “speaks being” (p. 121f):

The full range of these several uses—the exaltations of the Dichter’s calling, the ethical, salvational function of a true Dichter, together with the key inference of a prophetic-didactic explicitness—underlies and animates Wittgenstein’s diacritical resort to the term in dissent from Shakespeare.

(p. 123) [End Page 230]

Wittgenstein’s critique, according...


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