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Reviewed by:
  • The Literary Wittgenstein
  • Ayal Donenfeld
John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer , eds. The Literary Wittgenstein. London: Routledge, 2004. xi + 356 pp.

I think I summed up my position when I said: Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

This book takes as its starting point the idea that Wittgenstein's literary style is an inseparable part of his philosophy. Its overall concern is with Wittgenstein's normative claim that philosophy ought to be written only as a form of literature.

Literature and philosophy have been in opposition from the dawn of Western philosophy. The view held was that philosophy is argumentative and that, therefore, literature was relevant to philosophy mainly on those occasions when the ideas contained in the writings could be reconstructed as an argument. Whatever was literary in philosophical writing was considered, at best, harmless.

The reason for wanting philosophy to be argumentative is that only in that way, so it seemed, could one be persuaded by it in the right manner, namely, by reasons. Of course, a literary piece can sometimes be more persuasive than a philosophical text, but it is not by reasoning that it convinces the reader.

One can accept that the notion of Reason as a-historical and a-cultural is outdated but still insist that philosophy should be argumentative. However, one of the main features that made an argument attractive is not its validity but its being based on some self-evident truth. Without the notion of a self-evident truth that was regarded as a truth of Reason, some of the attractiveness of the view that philosophy should be argumentative is lost.

Yet there is another, different though connected angle from which one can view the opposition between literature and philosophy. If literature is held to be a personal expression of the author, then one [End Page 183] can see the question whether philosophy should be a form of literature as a question of whether personal expression has a place in philosophy. An argument does not have to be universal in the way traditional philosophy took its arguments to be; however, it does tend towards an impersonal style of philosophizing. For the traditional philosopher one's personal convictions have no place in philosophy, just as they have no place in science.

It seems that the question of whether philosophy should be written as a form of literature is fundamentally the question of whether philosophy should assign a space for the personal voice. One can see how remote this conception is from the traditional conception of philosophy.

I shall survey the ways in which The Literary Wittgenstein relates to this issue—leaving out, for lack of space, the reasons why this idea of philosophy as literature has come to the forefront at the present time.

The book proposes to persuade us that philosophy should be a form of literature not by refuting the opposite view but by demonstrating, mainly via a series of examples, the fruitfulness of reading Wittgenstein's writing according to this position. It offers a broad range of approaches to the relationship between Wittgenstein's philosophy and literature. Its broad scope includes an essay by Bernard Harrison, "Imagined Worlds and the Real One," that shows how, by seeing the way language and praxis interpenetrate, one can see how artistic acts are constrained; a reprint of Cora Diamond's essay "Having a Rough Story About What Moral Philosophy Is" that discusses the way a literary text can be read in a philosophical way; as well as essays by James Geutti, "Monologic and Dialogic: Heart of Darkness and Linguistic Skepticism," and Rupert Read, "Wittgenstein and Faulkner's Benjy: Reflections on and of Derangement," that show how one can find similar philosophical themes in Wittgenstein's philosophy and Conrad's and Faulkner's fiction.

I shall focus on two themes that seem to me central to the subject. The first theme concerns the indispensability of the literary qualities of Wittgenstein's texts for his philosophy. The second theme is concerned both with the way literary works can be used to contribute to philosophical understanding in general and to the understanding of Wittgenstein...


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pp. 183-188
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