Wittgenstein and the Creativity of Language ed. by Sebastian Sunday Grève and Jakub Mácha
What is creativity? It is clearly something we know by seeing it manifested in a multitude of different ways and contexts. It could perhaps stand as an emblematic example of the limitations of a general explanative account. In this anthology the editors have orchestrated an exceptionally inspiring collection of essays that explore the vast examples of creative language used in Wittgenstein's philosophical practice and the creative potentiality of language overall. The anthology consists of eleven essays divided into introduction, overture, and three parts containing three essays each. The collection offers a wide scope, ranging from styles of writing and aesthetic forms of expression to ethical reflections and philosophy of mathematics, all multifacetedly interconnected. Together the form and the diversity stimulate the reader to make innovative connections and develop an overarching understanding, much like Wittgenstein's own writings do.
We get a taste of this with our first glance at the book. The cover image—a small cast-iron radiator in the corner of a room—and the prefatory recollection by Hermine Wittgenstein on her brother's dedicated work in constructing the pair of radiators (the other positioned in a corresponding corner of the room) constitute a delicate and rich setting, since together they bring to mind so much of Wittgenstein's own flavor of creativity.
The anthology opens with an elegant overture by Stephen Mulhall in which he creatively explores poetry and the usage of poetic language in philosophy. He analyzes "Missing Dates" by William Empson, a villanelle where "reader and poet have a new appointment with an old friend at the end of every tercet, with each encounter aspiring to reveal new meaning" (p. 48). (The words "fills" and "kills" reappear throughout the poem.) Empson describes the challenge of making the villanelle come to life despite the many repetitions, "every time [a] line is repeated it has to mean something different" (p. 41). [End Page 257]
The transition from Mulhall's overture to Alois Pichler's account is smooth, despite the great difference in styles of writing. Pichler asks, what does the aphoristic criss-cross form of Philosophical Investigations do? It implicitly criticizes the standard, linear form of writing philosophy by constantly stepping out of line. Wittgenstein pauses, jumps, focuses on detail, overwrites, rearranges, and returns to topics, metaphors, concepts to look at them again, in various contexts, from different angles, and in the light of different philosophical problems. In PI Wittgenstein creates "new appointments with old friends." Concepts and practices reappear but their meaning or significance is never predictable, never the same. Wittgenstein pays attention to the different ways in which they appear and thus to the differences in meaning. Pichler shows us what a philosophical way of writing capable of capturing this liveliness of language looks like.
The introduction (by Grève and Mácha) and Garry Hagberg's contribution (in part 4) examine the relation between rule following and creativity in language and explore what they see as the misconceived view that Wittgenstein saw linguistic practice and linguistic meaning as essentially constituted by rule following. By engaging with art historian Kirk Varnedoe's study A Fine Disregard, Hagberg targets the view that intelligible language use can only repeat what has already been conventionally or communally established. Varnedoe opens with an example displaying how rugby was created on the foundation of the game of football (soccer) but how it, because of "a fine disregard for the rules of football," was the institution of something new. William Webb Ellis took the ball in his hands and ran with it, thereby originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game. Varnedoe uses this as a metaphor for illustrating how key innovations in art are "formed predominantly from the resources inside our own traditions." Stylish progression requires "someone understanding how the rules might be changed, and acting on and transforming those rules" and further, "someone standing on the sidelines to value this innovation rather than demeaning or suppressing it" (p. 160). Hagberg illustrates what this might mean in discussing examples from literature and visual arts with fine attentiveness to the viewer or critic, acknowledging that an innovation—a creative reformulation or rule bending—may appear "ultimately meaningless" (cf. p. 161) for someone who fails to see the continuity.
The relation between rule following and creativity in language is a central theme also in Grève and Wolfgang Kienzler's essay that inquires into the bounds of linguistic creativity in trying to lay bare the internal structure of the groups of remarks in Wittgenstein's critique of Kurt Gödel's incompletedness theorems. Wittgenstein shows that Gödel's paradoxical claim "there exists a sentence P, which is true but unprovable" doesn't make sense and that the paradox does not arise within mathematical practice, which is strictly rule bound, but is created when mathematical results are being transformed to statements of ordinary language. [End Page 258]
The last section, Creativity and the Moral Life, hold some of the book's most philosophically original works, but I also have some objections. I will raise one here. Ben Ware beautifully places Wittgenstein among the ocularcentric traditions in twentieth-century philosophy and shows how Wittgenstein's remarks on vision and aspect-perception can play an ethical role; helping oneself to see things right or differently makes for a thoroughgoing working on oneself and the deformities of one's own thinking. Ware's piece is impressively well substantiated with references to Wittgenstein's work; however, in my opinion Ware doesn't quite succeed in explaining what the "modernist ethics" growing out of Wittgenstein's philosophy would be and how it opens up a "utopian and conceptual space" from which one can imagine the future otherwise. I do not get a good grasp of the terms he uses; neither does Ware, I think, succeed in showing that Wittgenstein's remarks on aspect-seeing are well suited to be resituated politically to suggest a path of future change. The social dimension and future perspective that this resituation seems to require are lacking. Briefly put, my critique of Ware's essay is that he finds more in the passages from Wittgenstein than I see there.
Oppositely, my critique against Danièle Moyal-Sharrock's essay—which appears in the first section of the book—is that she fails to acknowledge important merits in Wittgenstein's philosophy. She claims that the fullest use of language is to be found in literary language, since it engages full-bloodedly with human values and the human psyche, whereas philosophy only engages intellectually. She further claims that Wittgenstein's writings cannot take us very far toward understanding the creativity of literary language. I object to the sharp distinction she makes between philosophy and creative literature—philosophy as making a "stating use" of language and literature as using language to "creatively present." In my view Wittgenstein's way of doing philosophy problematizes this distinction. F. R. Leavis, whom Moyal-Sharrock refers to with appreciation, says, "Nothing important can really be said simply—simply and safely; . . . so as to ensure that the whole intuited apprehension striving to find itself . . . is duly served, and not thwarted. It takes a context, often a subtly and potently creative one, to do that" (p. 132). Wittgenstein is a fine example of someone who forms his whole practice around this insight, using analogies, attending to context, moving over a wide field of thought in a criss-cross manner in order to get something better into view. [End Page 259]