Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ray Monk: How to Read Wittgenstein, Practical Philosophy

My review originally appeared in Practical Philosophy, Volume 8, No 1, Summer 2006, p. 59.

Ray Monk
How to Read Wittgenstein
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN: 1-86207-724-X (pb), pp. viii + 114.

Oceans of ink have been spilled in the course of the past half century in debates about ‘How to read Wittgenstein’. Having authored the much-celebrated biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990), Ray Monk was almost uniquely qualified to write this new addition to Simon Critchey’s How to Read series. He manages, in very limited compass of this slender volume, to offer the reader a guiding thread by which to follow the development of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. He also troubles himself to occasionally acquaint us with some major alternatives to his own reading.

Books of the How to Read series are comprised of original texts and interpretive comments. Interestingly, Monk chooses to begin with a rather obscure piece; Wittgenstein’s first published work, a short review of the long-forgotten P. Coffey’s long-forgotten The Science of Logic. Monk deftly expounds upon the review to describe Wittgenstein’s state of mind as an undergraduate at Cambridge and enthusiastic convert to the “new logic” of Frege and Russell. This first chapter also helps set the intellectual backdrop for Wittgenstein’s own original contributions to philosophy.

The next four chapters are concerned with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. While explaining the basics of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, Monk is especially exercised by the famously self-destructive paradox at the heart of the Tractatus, i.e., that it apparently declares itself to be meaningless. He mentions Cora Diamond and James Conant’s radical view that Wittgenstein genuinely devised the Tractatus as an example of the kind of out-and-out nonsense we must learn to avoid. Monk’s own mind, however, tends towards the more common view that Wittgenstein thought his book somehow points the reader towards a true vision of the relationship between language and the world.

Chapter six uses the paper, “Some Remarks on Logical Form” to clearly delineate the first signs of Wittgenstein’s growing unhappiness with the system he had worked out in the Tractatus. It offers a short and masterful explanation of Wittgenstein’s technical doubts regarding the nature of the contradiction between statements which attribute different colours to the same ‘place’ at the same time, and how such doubts could eventually help bring Wittgenstein’s early philosophy crashing down in ruins. It is perhaps the best short presentation available of this crucial crisis in Wittgenstein’s intellectual development.

The next three chapters of the book outline Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. The passages are mostly drawn from the Philosophical Investigations, but other late works are also quoted. Monk wants us to read Wittgenstein as a therapeutic philosopher whose illuminating examples and challenging questions will free us of the maladies of systematic philosophy and help us discover new connections between different aspects of our experience. He is unhappy with those who have founded their doctrinaire relativism upon Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘language games,’ and with those who purport to find a knock-down-drag-out argument against ‘private languages’ in the Philosophical Investigations.

The final two chapters should be of particular interest to those involved in philosophical counselling. They describe Wittgenstein’s disdain for modern culture and his insistence that science is inadequate for the understanding of people, art, and all things spiritual. More generally, the therapeutic conception of philosophy which informs all of Wittgenstein’s later work can obviously play an important role in the practice of philosophical counselling. However, I would add a personal caveat to this. To the extent that Monk is right and the later Wittgenstein genuinely disavowed any systematic doctrine, all is well and good. However, if one is trying to convince an audience to accept a particular philosophical view, it might be more honest to set it out in a straight-forward manner than to cajole one’s interlocutors into agreement through what might become a dangerously manipulative ‘therapy’.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee Academic College
Akko, Israel

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