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  • Wittgenstein and Modernism
  • Michael Fischer

Even in a journal with the welcoming title Philosophy and Literature, contributors rightly feel obliged to explain why they are relating philosophical and literary texts to one another. Seeing literature as an engagingly vivid, "speaking picture" "figuring forth" the difficult abstractions of philosophy (to borrow from Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry) was once a default way of linking the two. But such a connection shortchanges the thinking at work in literature, reducing it to a popularizing tool, and overlooks the stories, examples, and metaphors that inform some powerful works of philosophy. The most thoughtful work on philosophy and literature now sees them contributing in distinctive, equally forceful ways to shared cognitive and ethical goals.

The wide-ranging essays collected in Understanding Wittgenstein, Understanding Modernism1 and Wittgenstein and Modernism2 show the benefits of bringing literature and philosophy into conversation with each other as equal partners. Both books explore how Wittgenstein's achievements in philosophy relate to modernism in the arts. As the editors of these two volumes note, Wittgenstein and modernism invite comparison. As a starting point, Wittgenstein and modernist writers, composers, and artists responded to the same historical moment. The English translation of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus appeared in 1922, [End Page 463] the annus mirabilis of modernism in which The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Jacob's Room were published. In addition, Wittgenstein's receptivity to the literary qualities of philosophy—his claim in a 1934 notebook, for example, that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition"—suggests an affinity with the arts that bodes well for associating him with modernism.

Simply assimilating Wittgenstein into modernism, however, runs into difficulty, partly because Wittgenstein disliked much of the modernist architecture, visual art, and music he encountered, leading him to prefer Schubert over Mahler, for example, and dismiss artists such as Picasso and Duchamp. Wittgenstein's remarkable development beyond the Tractatus complicates things further and works against establishing his standing as modernist on that book alone. I like the fact that the contributors to these two volumes use Wittgenstein's proximity to modernism—and distance from it—to raise questions instead of relying on one to explain the other. Some of the contributors explore which aspects of Wittgenstein's work come to light when we place them in the context of modernism, while others focus on how our understanding of modernism shifts when we count Wittgenstein as a modernist writer.

Rethinking Wittgenstein in the context of modernism generates the best critical work when the contributors pair specific modernist writers and artists with Wittgenstein, among them James Joyce, Robert Musil, Arnold Schoenberg, Wallace Stevens, and Franz Kafka. One of the best essays in Wittgenstein and Modernism, Michael LeMahieu's "Bellow's Private Language," shows how Bellow and Wittgenstein respond differently to their common interest in the idea of a private language. Another fine essay, Garry L. Hagberg's "A Confluence of Modernisms: Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigation and Henry James's Literary Language," in Understanding Wittgenstein, compares how Wittgenstein and James contest a dualistic picture of language that separates inner mental content from subsequent expression. In each essay, we see modernism in progress, taking shape as a writer and a philosopher think through a complex question in distinctive but mutually illuminating ways.

Another essay in Understanding Wittgenstein, Danièle Moyal-Sharrock's "Too Cavellian a Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein's Certainty, Cavell's Scepticism," deserves mention for resisting a conclusion that guides some of the other contributors, namely, that modernism as defined by Stanley Cavell sheds light on Wittgenstein. Moyal-Sharrock objects that Cavell's casting of Wittgenstein as a modernist distorts him, making him "too Cavellian" in his preoccupation with skepticism, disappointment, [End Page 464] and alienation. For Moyal-Sharrock, Wittgenstein's work "sows enlightenment, community and certainty," keeping "Wittgenstein—both early and late—from being a modernist in any but a broad, vague sense" (UWUM, p. 92). While I appreciate the editor including Moyal-Sharrock's dissenting opinion, her portrait of Wittgenstein's thought is much too rosy for me. As a counterweight to her argument, I recommend David Schalkwyk's "Wittgenstein and the Art of Defamiliarization" in the...


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pp. 463-466
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