- Purchase/rental options available:
CR: The New Centennial Review 2.3 (2002) 109-138
[Access article in PDF]
The Sacred Heart of Dissent
State University of New York at Buffalo
for Elisabeth Wegenstein
Is There a Limit To Language?
I begin my discussion with a text that, to my knowledge, appears nowhere in Nancy's writing. I do so because I believe it to be one of the founding texts of twentieth-century ethics, a tradition that has achieved its most lucid expression, in my mind, in the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Nancy. The text is a lecture given by Wittgenstein to a Cambridge audience in 1929, and the title is, simply, "A Lecture on Ethics."
The text can be read as the crucible of two trajectories in contemporary thought, and were the specter of authorial intention of any consequence, I would be forced to admit, on the basis of what he says there and in his later writings, that Wittgenstein himself would have certainly favored one reading over the other, and not, as it will become clear, the one whose thread I will follow here. That said, what we can at the very least praise in Wittgenstein's genius is that quality which Lacan claimed as the power of the signifier itself, namely, "to signify something quite other than what it says," 1 which allowed him to open the door, with the very words he thought would close it, to a world of thought he thought to be deprived of sense. [End Page 109]
Having distinguished between the trivial and true meanings of ethical sentences by referring to their relative or absolute value—which in Kantian terms would more or less correspond to the distinction between conditional and categorical imperatives—Wittgenstein claims to have a kind of revelation:
I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say, I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. 2
The intentionally correct interpretation of this paragraph, I believe, is the one that has inspired such deflationist pragmatist thought as that of Richard Rorty, who claims to find in the later Wittgenstein inspiration for his program of philosophical therapy, of correcting the annoying tendency philosophers have of mistaking sloppy uses of language for big philosophical questions. In this reading, properly ethical statements, statements that present themselves as absolute rather than as relying on a validity relative to an implicit goal, are philosophical chimeras, invoked because we tend to talk that way, not because there in fact exist any non-relative ethical values to which to refer.
The famous phase, "to run against the boundaries of language," would, in this reading, be intended to connote futility, for the nominalism of the later Wittgenstein tended to disavow the prospect of things existing about which nothing could be said, and hence the notion that language might have any boundaries whatsoever. The other reading, nevertheless, takes more seriously such phrases as "beyond the world," and "beyond significant language"—not, however, because of a belief in a noumenal realm free from the [End Page 110] causal determinations of the phenomenal, nor because of a conviction concerning the existence of immutable laws unconditioned by the variance of history and textuality, but rather because of a lurking suspicion that language, insofar as it is embodied in communities of communicating beings, engenders limits and limitations specific to the practice of verbal communication, and that, furthermore, the existence of ethical...