Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 March 2022
This chapter highlights how Cavell’s pioneering interpretation of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” bears on literary studies. It traces an influential misreading of the Investigations deriving from Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) whose understanding of “language-games” has become foundational to the conception of postmodern literature put forth by leading literary scholars, even as it relies on an unacknowledged simplification of how Wittgenstein understands the linked concepts of “language-games” and “rules” in the Investigations.
Cavell’s “Availability” essay exposes the problems with this postmodern reading of Wittgenstein. As Cavell makes clear, Wittgenstein compares the “rules” of language to “moves in a game” in part because he wishes to emphasize the differences between these two cases: unlike those of, say, a board game, the rules of “everyday language” cannot be exhaustively listed or written down, and yet, “the absence of such a structure in no way impairs its [i.e., language’s] functioning.” For this reason, as the “Availability” essay shows, “rules” turn out to be a concept of only secondary importance within the Investigations; rather, language-games emerge against the backdrop of what Wittgenstein calls “forms of life” or, elsewhere, “the natural history of human beings.”