An Amateur’s Guide to Reading Wittgenstein

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Wittgenstein in 1950.

If you’ve met me, you probably know I enjoy reading, writing, and talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s one of those strange things where a system of thought and the personality behind it combine such that reading him becomes a matter of compulsion. Strangely enough, however, I’ve only ever had one week of reading for one class where Wittgenstein was a set reading. He’s a name that lurks in the background, popping up in introductions, in comparative studies, in his unspoken influence on recent thinkers, or in the explicit rejection of what he’s supposed to represent. But he himself rarely appears on syllabi outside of introductory surveys.Wittgenstein’s name is recognizable then, but the content of his thought can be a mystery. There are at least two reasons for this. First, no single text of his lays out this thought in an accessible or systematic manner. Apart from the Tractatus and the Blue and Brown Books, every text we have of his was posthumously collected out of notebooks or unpublished typescripts. He organized some of his remarks (The Big Typescript and the first third or so of Philosophical Investigations) in the hope of publishing, but was never satisfied with what he had. The rest were collected and curated by his executors. Since these texts practically never contain arguments, lack apparent structure, and don’t make their overarching purpose clear, they can be baffling and frustrating on first reading. The secondary literature can serve to confuse matters more, arguing over interpretation in light of other agendas. All in all, there’s no 20 pages one can assign to uncontroversially communicate Wittgenstein’s opinion on a given matter.

Second, his thought is hard to pin down. Wittgenstein never won the wrestling match with what he was trying to say (which is, in itself, a part of the point). The thread which runs through his thought—that the conditions of meaning cannot be spoken, but can nonetheless be shown by charting the anomalous movement of significance through diverse forms of language—render his words unsettled. Reading the corpus of his later writing, one sees diffractions and tensions sparked by an attempt to trace the boundaries of sense and nonsense; his attempt to illuminate the conditions of meaning in their irreducible complexity, without falling into the trap of delimiting that which cannot be delimited.

It’s hard to assign Wittgenstein, then. It is difficult to get anything out of any specific part of his writing without being familiar with his work as a whole, and it takes a long time to develop this familiarity—time the vast majority of us just don’t have. Because a few people have asked me how to go about reading him, then (seriously, I’m not making this up), I figured it would be worth putting together a post on how to go about it without needing to set aside five years or so.

This really is an amateur’s guide, laying out some of the things I’ve found helpful. It focuses pretty much entirely on the later Wittgenstein, and doesn’t convey any of his actual thought beyond the very broad strokes traced here. But for all that, I hope it’s of some use.

Step 1: Read Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius. There are several reasons for this. The first is that it’s really good and really affordable. The second is that it’s practically impossible to figure Wittgenstein out without some idea of who he was. Philosophical Investigations does not come across as the writing of someone wrestling with serious existential demons and trying to chart a course of spiritual discipline, but this is (as far as I can tell) precisely what it is. Reading Monk helps to situate Wittgenstein’s writing in the context of his emotional and spiritual life, those things which he didn’t feel capable of expressing but set the context for what he did write.

Step 2: Pick up The Blue and Brown Books, On Certainty, and Culture and Value. These books are short, affordable, relatively accessible (in different ways) and cover a very broad span of Wittgenstein’s life. The Blue and Brown Books is the only long text under Wittgenstein’s name that takes the form of extended prose. It consists of two distinct volumes which were written down by two students as he dicated, in an effort to disseminate some of his thought to the very curious student body at Cambridge. The Blue Book provides an insight into the motivating principles that set his later development in motion, The Brown Book (a much more convoluted text) shows how he hoped to use the concept ‘language-game.’

On Certainty is a collection of notes written over the last two years of his life, and its unique in Wittgenstein’s corpus in that it focuses very specifically on a single question. It’s a good way of familiarizing oneself with his aphoristic and dialogical style, of meandering thoughts jotted down then rearranged as witness to the process of philosophical investigation. Don’t expect an argument to be obvious or a thesis to be stated. Reading it as the collation of various stream of consciousness notes (which it is) rather than a typically laid out philosophical text (whether in the spirit of Kripke or Derrida) makes it much easier to pick out the peculiar rhythms of thought he’s working through. This is also the most ‘mature’ expression of Wittgenstein’s thought, from one of the very few periods of his life when he was happy with what he was writing.

Culture and Value is a collection of the various notes he took over his life relating to questions of religion, society, politics, and aesthetics. They were culled from his notebooks, and it would be lovely to have seen the context within which they were written, but it’s a handy text to have, and contains some of his most beautiful writing.

Step 3: pick up the Investigations. Read it cover to cover once. It’s a difficult book (for me at least), but worth persevering with. Pay very close attention to his use of ‘grammar,’ ‘aspects,’ and ‘temptation,’ as well as the four or five places where the impulse of human persons to imitate divinity pop up.

Step 4: If you’re gripped by his thought, start picking up his other texts. The middle texts (Lectures in Cambridge: 1930-33, Philosophical Remarks, Philosophical Grammar/The Big Typescript, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics) are dense and technical, but a) represent his thought in transition, and b) are brilliant in their own right. The much-later-texts (Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology vols. 1 and 2, Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology vols. 1 and 2) are my favorite portions of his writing, and contain his most concerted attempts to deal with the interrelation of aspects and grammar. But if you find yourselves wanting to read more Wittgenstein this far in, any/all of it will be enjoyable. It’s also worth trying to explore the secondary literature now (my recommended starting point would be Wittgenstein and Justice by Hanna Pitkin, just because it’s a perfect exemplar of how to apply his thought in different fields. Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein is also exceptionally good). Maybe read the Tractatus tooif you feel so moved.

If you’re not gripped by his thought by step 3, though, then stop here. You’ve already read enough Wittgenstein for one lifetime, and probably have some sense of what he was trying to get at and why. It may come in handy, it may not—but at least you’ll be able to associate his name with some content, and begin to spot where he’s been influential in modern discourse/where he’s been misappropriated. And this is plenty.

Hope this is helpful, and if you happen to follow these steps, I hope it’s an all in all enjoyable experience!

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