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Ludwig Wittgenstein: a Post-Modern Philosopher?

Struck by this realization, Wittgenstein insisted that the best thing now was simply to stop doing philosophy and to try and find in life what could not be said with certainty.”


Calling Ludwig Wittgenstein an important predecessor to the philosophy of post-modernism may strike some as odd, given that, superficially, he has comparatively little to say about cultural issues—let alone morality and politics. This appears to have been intentional on his part; for all the distinctions between his early and later period, Wittgenstein remained committed to the position staked out as early as the Tractatus that philosophy as philosophy could say little of interest about what was most important in life. Instead, we needed to approach such questions as matters of faith and conviction, rather than reason and logic. But this undervalues the implicit concern with such topics that runs through his work, often bubbling up with the striking intensity that was characteristic of both his writing and his personality. In many ways, the limits of language and logic described by Wittgenstein—combined with his ultimately therapeutic insistence that we must be cured of a desire for certainty if we are to be able to live—reflect the day-to-day dilemmas into which post-modern individuals fell better than the epochal but also shrill ruminations of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. 

In the remainder of this essay—drawn from my forthcoming book The Rise of Post-Modern Culture, a sequel to the earlier Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, I will detail the influence this important figure has had on post-modern theory. This can help us better understand the complex discipline. I will conclude by summarizing why—despite the fact that Wittgenstein himself would likely have been hostile to post-modern theorizing—he, nevertheless, inspired many of its most well-known figures.

The Early Wittgenstein 

This emphasis on the therapeutic is at the epicenter of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in all its periods, though always in a curious way. One is never certain whether he wants to cure us of the desire to do philosophy by showcasing how little of interest it can actually accomplish—or if he desires to transform philosophy itself into a cure to liberate us from bad ideas. The answer seems to lie in the typically strict definition of philosophy that underpins Wittgenstein’s work: that it is fundamentally an enterprise that aims to make absolutely certain statements about the world. This is, of course, what Wittgenstein felt that he accomplished in the Tractatus , a mysterious but remarkable text that consists of seven numbered propositions that the author, in the introduction, claims solve the problems of philosophy in a manner which is “unassailable and definitive.” The downside to this closure is that the book also demonstrates in a manner that is equally “unassailable and definitive” that very little of great interest is accomplished by bringing the problems of philosophy to a close. We learn that the world is all that is the case; it consists ultimately in a totality of atomic facts (not of things) and that our thoughts depict a logical picture of the facts as a totality of propositions. Around proposition 4, we come to the assertion that most philosophers, thus far, have reasoned about matters which are senseless, since the questions posed cannot be answered through an appeal to facts about the world. They are thus, literally, nonsensical: 

Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language. (They are of the same kind as the question whether the Good is more or less identical than the Beautiful.) And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.”

For many, proto-analytical philosophers, this claim was regarded with celebration. In one fell swoop, Wittgenstein seemed to have consigned a host of philosophical problems to the ashbin of history. This was regarded as effectively cleansing the discipline of intractable but provocative difficulties that only mired one in unproductive work. But this was, of course, not how Wittgenstein himself regarded it. Rather than liberating philosophy from aesthetics, morality, and theology, Wittgenstein segregated it from these disciplines and—as far he was concerned—consequently demonstrated the impoverishment of philosophy to answer any of the big questions about existence that keep us up at night. Once all of the problems of philosophy were solved, we realize it amounted to little more than a critique of language: serving as a meta-discipline that showed one how to make logical statements about the empirical world which were absolutely true. However, the world so depicted was not just desacralized but colorless and meaningless. It was a Spartan world of crystalline beauty, devoid of everything that makes life worth living. Struck by this realization, Wittgenstein insisted that the best thing now was simply to stop doing philosophy and to try and find in life what could not be said with certainty. This was, of course, exactly what Wittgenstein himself did when he abandoned his studies and turned to a variety of careers over the next few decades. 

While the early Wittgenstein’s conviction that he had attained absolute certainty was hardly in keeping with post-modern theory, the argument that his distinctively logical empirical realism said little that was of ultimate concern was highly creative and characteristically profound. By running up against the limits of what could be said sensibly and showing that it left a great deal of things that matter untouched, the early Wittgenstein traumatically problematized the idea that empirical realism had much to offer to us, normatively and existentially. This widened the gap between facts and values first articulated by David Hume into a veritable chasm. Such alone would have been an impressive academic accomplishment; however, Wittgenstein followed it up with a change in orientation, which was more distinctively post-modern in its implications, if not the flavor of reasoning. The problems with the account of language discussed in the Tractatus appear to have become visible to Wittgenstein as early as his only academic paper—the short “Remarks on Logical Form”—and already discuss how Wittgenstein “used to think” one way about the capacity of language to picture qualitative phenomena like color, which increasingly appear rather mysterious. While it is too stark to characterize the rather gradual transition which takes place as a sharp “break”—something Wittgenstein himself was occasionally prone to suggesting given his trademarked stark rhetoric—there is no doubt that a reorientation towards the language of everyday life was striking for a philosopher who began his career as the patron saint of absolute certainty. 

Perhaps this demonstrates how even the most rigorous thinking still reflects its author’s temperament, regardless of the book.”

Interpreting the Late Wittgenstein as a Skeptic

Wittgenstein himself indicates he was unhappy with his later book Philosophical Investigations. In the introduction, Wittgenstein claimed his humble ambition was to write a good book, and he did not even succeed at that. This more modest tone is in sharp contrast to the younger man, who insisted that the Tractatus gave an account of the world that was unassailable and definitive, leaving nothing left for philosophers to do. Perhaps this demonstrates how even the most rigorous thinking still reflects its author’s temperament, regardless of the book. Wittgenstein’s personality shines through. Regardless, the Investigations does share one very important affinity with the Tractatus, which is its therapeutic—and for a man like Wittgenstein—even spiritual intentions. The job of Philosophical Investigations is to “show the fly the way out of the fly bottle” into which it has been trapped by the conceits of philosophy. Like Martin Heidegger, Wittgenstein is determined to bring an end to conventional philosophy. Unlike Heidegger, this seems to have been his ambition from the very beginning. With that said, where the early Wittgenstein wanted to showcase the uselessness of philosophy by highlighting how little of value it actually achieved, the late Wittgenstein sought to demonstrate how its problems (and the associated yearning for certainty) become dissolved through a proper understanding of how language operates. 

Much has been written about the late Wittgenstein’s turn to the study of ordinary language and its game—not to mention the links to broader “forms of life.” It would be impossible to summarize all of them there. Instead, I will simply discuss two and touch on the ways that they have influenced post-modern theory. 

One influential interpretation is conceiving of Wittgenstein as a skeptic, though whether he is a soft or a radical skeptic is, itself, controversial. The softer form this takes is interpreting Wittgensteinian skepticism as a critique of representational theories of language—put simply, the belief that words stand in for the objects they represent in the real world. There is certainly plenty to back up this interpretation of Wittgenstein as a sceptic, including the significant ruminations on Augustine as one of the first philosophers to indicate that words name objects. Wittgenstein’s arguments that language can never accurately depict some real world—indeed, it is almost nonsensical to talk about some real world outside of language and human practice—is why he is sometimes interpreted as a soft skeptic. In his classic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, the pragmatist Richard Rorty employs Wittgensteinian reasoning to this effect: trying to rid us of the conceit that we have a “glassy essence,” whose job is to reflect some real world back to ourselves through language.  

This is certainly an interesting and important consequence of Wittgensteinian thought, though the kind of skepticism it leads to is comparatively mild. The critique of representation can leave a great deal for us to be certain about on the table, from the truths of logic to those of mathematics. The more radical and vicious iterations of Wittgensteinian skepticism brought to the fore by Saul Kripke devastate the argument that truth—understood as absolute certainty—is attainable. Classically, the ambitions of analytical philosophers held that certainty could emerge through arranging language as a hierarchy of true propositions, with the relations between them governed by strict rules of application and covering all classes of subjects. Philosophy provided a bedrock of absolutely certain, logical rules, which, in turn, could be used to justify mathematics. This, in turn, could be applied as physics and the hard sciences, all the way up to human beings and society. An exemplar would, of course, be the kind of logical project put forward by the Tractatus itself, where each proposition was followed by rules of application and which theoretically specified how any and all sensible statements could be made in a sufficiently rigorous language. However, according to Kripke, Wittgenstein’s devastating rule paradox in S201 gutted this possibility. As put in the Investigations: 

“This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because any course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” 

This poses a problem of infinite regression for any project intending to arrange language as a hierarchy of true propositions governed by rules; however deep one dove, one always found oneself in the Munchausenian situation of the project pulling itself by its bootstraps. At some point, the rules of application could no longer be justified by antecedent rules but, rather, simply had to be taken on faith as practical matter for getting the whole project of rule-following rolling. According to the radically skeptical interpretation of Wittgenstein, this meant that the endeavor to arrive at truth as certainty was bound to run into the paradox. It, thus, either had to succumb or bootstrap itself up for seemingly arbitrary reasons. For Wittgenstein, this was true even of the seemingly incontrovertible claims of mathematics, which were vulnerable to the same paradoxes as more fallible empirical statements. 

Contra the sensibilities of these types, Wittgenstein seems to have concluded that, in everyday life, we have no need for certainty of the kind many philosophers yearn for.

It is easy to see how this remarkable argument could be readily turned to post-modern purposes. To the extent that post-modernism is defined by a skepticism of meta-narratives, including those of scientism and rationalism, the Wittgensteinian paradox can seem devastating. Indeed, it can seem so problematic at first that someone who adopts such a strict view of truth might well think this skepticism should be the primary antagonist in an effort to get a fundamentally Enlightenment and modernist project back on track. But it is worth noting that Wittgenstein himself does not seem to have drawn the kind of radically-skeptical conclusions from his work that Kripke did. Actually, he seems to have tried to harness the implications of the rule-following paradox for pathological purposes by showing that the desire to achieve absolute certainty was doomed to failure—and psychologically harmful to those who yearned for it. Contra the sensibilities of these types, Wittgenstein seems to have concluded that, in everyday life, we have no need for certainty of the kind many philosophers yearn for. Everyone gets along just fine without it, and recognizing this should be a comforting thing. This brings us to the second interpretation of Wittgenstein, which I think has more distinctly but subtly post-modern qualities to it.  

The Analysis of Everyday Life

The skeptical interpretation, while popular and dramatic, always seemed problematic in overemphasizing precisely the kind of manic drive for philosophizing on certainty that the late Wittgenstein was striving to overcome or, at least, moderate to near inexistence. This is reflected in his turn to what—in continental philosophy—we might call the lifeworld. It has always seemed to me that near the end of his life Wittgenstein was moving towards a kind of semantic holism akin to Quine in some periods or Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom circa their analytic reformulation of Hegelianism. Semantic holism holds that while individual words and sentences would be meaningless taken in isolation, their integration into the whole of a given language gives them meaning. The word “apple” may have no sense in itself, but it takes on significance when associated with “fruit,” “tree,” “software company,” and so on. In his short reflections On Certainty, Wittgenstein describes language as a “vast system,” which gives an architectonic dimension to the more scattered and particularist emphasis on forms of life seen in the Investigations. On this reading, Wittgenstein’s argument is that the meaning of linguistic statements is settled by the practices of forms of life, which are, in turn, embedded in a broader culture. The exact relationship among statements, forms of life, and culture is necessarily fuzzy and cannot be settled by philosophy a priori. Instead, it can only be understood experientially through participating in forms of life and potentially becoming embedded in the culture, serving as a kind of philosophical sociologist of ordinary language.  

The post-modern dimensions of this are more complex than the skeptical interpretation of Wittgenstein given above. As Chomsky will point out, even though Wittgenstein does not talk this way, there is an implicit empirical bias to such a take. It means that philosophers have to learn about language through examining practices, and it suggests that the meaning of statements is determined by those practices and the cultures of which those are a part. The lack of meaning words and sentences would have at any level has to be resolved by appealing to an ever higher and more holistic level; words take on greater meaning in sentences, sentences in full conversation, conversation in the context of the language game I may be playing with someone, and so on. Chomsky’s observation that this problematically ignores the important role cognitive processes play in enabling us to generate and understand specifically human languages seems well taken here, as it brings a necessary universalism to an argument that threatened to become culturally relative. As Chomsky observed, without this cognitive emphasis, an overly empirical Wittgensteinian approach would have difficulty explaining why a rock or tomato brought up in the cultural atmosphere of London failed to learn English. 

If sufficiently radicalized, Wittgenstein’s argument can be used to justify a kind of linguistic relativism. Since meaning only emerges in the context of a broader culture, it makes no sense to claim one culture’s understanding of the world is more meaningful or true than any other. They are simply playing a different game with words as it were. This would, of course, be very amenable to any number of post-modern theorists who seek to challenge the idea that there are central interpretations of reality or fundamental forms of knowledge that are genuinely universal and decontextualized. Derrida’s critique of logocentrism and Foucault’s emphasis on the cultural contingency and historical specificity of epistemes and discourses both come immediately to mind. Jean Francois Lyotard readily appealed to Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games” in his critique of meta-narratives; Richard Rorty amicably put Wittgensteinian ideas into dialogue with Heidegger, Derrida, and others to criticize any number of rationalistic tropes; and Luce Irigaray appealed to Wittgenstein to defend pluralistic conceptions of truth.


As a card-carrying iconoclast (dare I say crank?), Wittgenstein would have resisted being called a post-modern theorist. He would have, undoubtedly, found post-modernism’s propensity towards amoral bohemianism and irreligiosity—God knows what he would have thought of schizoanalysis—irredeemably vulgar, its vacillation between playfulness and obscurantism inadequately self-demanding, and lord only knows what his thoughts would have been about the tendency of post-modern theorists to be urbane, publicity seeking intellectuals. However, more than most philosophers, Wittgenstein’s late thinking contrasted dramatically with his own personal inclinations—perhaps, in part, explaining its irrevocable tendency to replicate dualisms at the level of what can be said philosophically and what must, instead, be left to life. So, in spite of himself, Wittgenstein came to influence a generation of figures whose interests deviated wildly from his own.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

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