- Wittgenstein: A Feminist Interpretation
Alessandra Tanesini's Wittgenstein: A Feminist Interpretation is a splendidly original book that invites feminists and Wittgensteinians to revisit and reconsider some of the central philosophical questions springing from the modern era. Reading Culture and Value (1984), a collection of remarks that Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote from 1914 until his death in 1951, one cannot but hear the isolation, alienation, and discontent he experienced in the world at large and in the world of philosophy. Echoes of this alienation from the philosophical world are in Tanesinis work, positioned as she is within both Wittgensteinian and feminist scholarship. Her reading of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922/1981) as well as Wittgenstein's 1929 "Lecture on Ethics" swims against the dominant stream of Wittgenstein commentary. A growing number of feminists consider Wittgenstein a fellow traveler on the road of critical philosophy, feeling at home in his later writings, where his criticisms of traditional philosophy, with its bewitching pictures and intractable dualisms, resonate clearly. However, too few feminists have engaged Wittgenstein's earlier writings, which makes Tanesini's book most welcome.
This book is complex, challenging, and illuminating—just what you need in a good philosophical companion. While reading it, I was drawn to Wittgenstein's preface in Philosophical Investigations (1968), where he wrote, "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own" (vi). This book does not spare the reader and stimulates thoughts in three ways: the complexity of content and form of Wittgenstein's earlier work, Tanesini's original and rigorous interpretation of those works, and the extension of both of their ideas to issues in feminist philosophy.
While commentators on Wittgenstein are deeply divided on the issue of whether his later work is discontinuous with his earlier work or a repudiation of it, Tanesini makes a compelling case for its continuity in terms of the philosophical problems that animated his work as well as his methodologies. Tanesini identifies another, often-neglected way in which Wittgenstein's works are continuous. Wittgenstein wrote that "work on philosophy—like work in architecture in many respects—is really more work on oneself. On one's own conception. On how one sees things. (And what one expects of them.)" (Wittgenstein 1984, 24). For Wittgenstein, work on oneself was perhaps the highest calling, and, in the broadest sense, the substance of ethics.
The connection Tanesini draws between working on one's self and ethics makes sense of Wittgenstein's own description of the Tractatus that its point [End Page 207] is an ethical one. While many commentators have found this to be an odd comment and instead have glossed over it, Tanesini takes Wittgenstein at face value, making explicit the connections between the philosophical problems of the modern self and the isolation and alienation we experience in our lives. Questions about the meaning of life are terribly important and our philosophical concepts and orientations may deflect or misconstrue them, such that we end up frustrated, alienated, and isolated. The meaning of life is fundamentally connected to the "problem" of subjectivity that is characteristic of the modern period.
According to Tanesini, Wittgenstein diagnosed in the Tractatus and his "Lecture on Ethics" the illness of the modern autonomous self. Philosophical concepts and their problems often have very prosaic and unglamorous origins. Consider the problem of other minds, which arises from some very ordinary experiences that, when in the hands of philosophers, become inexplicable and inexorable. René Descartes' access to his own ideas produced the philosophical picture of the modern self. This modern self has privileged access to his own ideas and recognizes that he has access that no one else can have. Thus, it is but a short step to skepticism about other minds. Skepticism gains purchase when the subject is severed from the rest of the world, and that raises epistemological concerns about if and how we can know others. Skepticism is born out of and then reinforces a lack of trust not only about other minds but also about one...