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  • Why Wittgenstein is Not Conservative: Conventions and Critique
  • Christopher C. Robinson (bio)

Where in the world constructed of language is theory, and what has become of the theorist?”

Sheldon S. Wolin


When Wittgenstein looked at a particular neighborhood or form of life in the city of language what he examined were surface details and activities. Activities were performed with adherence to rules that were perhaps beneath the surface, but these subterranean features could be made visible by asking the question, “What is the rule for...?” or by a dispute over a play in a game that requires reference to the rules, or even by a behavioral faux pas that breached a rule or rules resulting in embarrassment. The rules themselves were the product of the activities visible on the surface. They affect the activities with incomplete and indeterminable reciprocity. As products or codifications of activities, the rules demarcate the activity from other activities (chess from checkers, for example), but at the same time these rules have a provisional character. That is, they can be amended, bypassed (with something akin to a “mulligan” in golf or a “do over” in some referee-less street game), or dropped altogether. Indeed, language-games and forms of life come into being and die out transforming what Wittgenstein called “the city of language” in small but distinctive ways. This city of language before us is actually a palimpsest where the surface includes traces of razed structures and older districts buried over by time. Older versions of the city become part of what counts as the bedrock upon which the newer city is built.

Let me begin, then, with the image of the city of language presented by Wittgenstein the author of the Philosophical Investigations as opposed to Wittgenstein the flaneur that walked its pages. Wittgenstein the author is able to take the longer and wider view of the mapmaker; the walker cannot see the organizing parameters of the city from his street-level view but assumes there is a larger logic holding things together. The author’s cartographic description of the city is brief and occurs early in the Investigations to both illustrate the complex and living or incomplete quality of language and to set the dramatic stage upon which the philosophical walker will travel. Wittgenstein begins by responding to the objection that the language-games he has explored in the first seventeen remarks consist solely of orders (i.e. “Bring me a slab!” PI, 6, 19) A language composed of orders is incomplete, goes the objection. In articulating this criticism, Wittgenstein is repeating his own objection to the one-dimensional picture of language as representational advanced as complete in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Out of this self-criticism, then, Wittgenstein offers an image of language as more than an instrument or set of tools for the production of meaning. This “more than” quality of language is presented by Wittgenstein as unrepresentable and resistant to ontologization (as the “house of Being” for example) because of its dynamic character. The edges or limits cannot be seen from the outside (at least by humans), but they can be experienced or felt from the inside, or imagined and expressed synoptically from the God’s-eye standpoint of the author.

One is a tourist even in his or her home city because of development or sprawl that alters the perimeter constantly, and because of the transformations, sometimes subtle and private, within neighborhoods on the inside. Each alteration tells a story.

Our language may be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses. [PI, 18]

At the center is the historical beginning of the city. It is largely unplanned. Buildings and streets were added on as needed, but in a relatively compressed way to maintain convenience and defense in the form of propinquity. Squares fulfilled the need for public gathering spaces where goods could be sold and speeches and pronouncements made, heard, and debated. For a long time, the city was not designed, per se; it...

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