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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.”
The revolutionary significance of Must We Mean What We Say?, Stanley Cavell’s first book and the best introduction to his thought, becomes increasingly evident fifty years after its publication, confronting us with newly relevant, transformative thinking about modernism, the idea of culture, ordinary language philosophy, the history of twentieth-century analytic philosophy, American philosophy, the 1960s, Wittgenstein, Rawls, Kant, Kierkegaard, Beckett, Shakespeare, and such eternal philosophical themes as truth, passion, utterance, self-knowledge, skepticism, and the value of criticism. Cavell’s intervention in ordinary language philosophy revolutionized its practice, overcoming its dogmas and challenging the analytic tradition from within, broadening its audiences. His focus on self-confrontation as central to philosophical practice, the shepherding of ordinary utterances into uses within forms of life, shows that the philosophical preconditions of democratic thinking lie in the embedding of meaning in everyday life, rooted in the ethical and aesthetic aspects of how we mean what we say.
In 1969 Stanley Cavell's Must We Mean What We Say? revolutionized philosophy of ordinary language, aesthetics, ethics, tragedy, literature, music, art criticism, and modernism. This volume of new essays offers a multi-faceted exploration of Cavell's first and most important book, fifty years after its publication. The key subjects which animate Cavell's book are explored in detail: ordinary language, aesthetics, modernism, skepticism, forms of life, philosophy and literature, tragedy and the self, the questions of voice and audience, jazz and sound, Wittgenstein, Austin, Beckett, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare. The essays make Cavell's complex style and sometimes difficult thought accessible to a new generation of students and scholars. They offer a way into Cavell's unique philosophical voice, conveying its seminal importance as an intellectual intervention in American thought and culture, and showing how its philosophical radicality remains of lasting significance for contemporary philosophy, American philosophy, literary studies, and cultural studies.
In February of 1901, about two weeks after the death of Queen Victoria, a 22-year-old King's College undergraduate named Edward Morgan Forster joined the Cambridge intellectual society known as the Apostles. Forster's admission into this club brought him into contact with many eventual affiliates of the Bloomsbury set: philosophers Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, economist John Maynard Keynes, and Leonard Woolf—best known today, of course, as husband to Virginia. Though Forster never read Moore's Principia Ethica (1903), nonetheless he shared the Bloomsbury group's dedication to the liberal values of “tolerance and enlightenment inaugurated in […] Moore's Cambridge.” In 1910, Forster established himself as one of the foremost English novelists of the age with Howards End, a work that signals his liberal sympathies, even as it criticizes the material realities that his society's liberalism has wrought.
The following year, 1911, another shy, uncertain young man entered this sphere of influence: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein had been studying engineering in Manchester but, having grown depressed, he traveled to Cambridge and showed up unannounced in Russell's rooms, wanting to discover whether he had any talent for philosophy. Like Forster's admission into the Apostles, Wittgenstein's sudden arrival in Cambridge proved a crucial turning point in his career. Under Russell's tutelage, Wittgenstein developed his early philosophy before the outbreak of the First World War prompted him to volunteer for the Austrian army. Upon the publication of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy for several years, but he eventually returned to Cambridge in 1929 and spent much of the next two decades developing his mature philosophy of language, encapsulated in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein's work responds to the same historical circumstances that Forster, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists found disorienting. Like many works of literary modernism, his writings are permeated by anxieties about the fragmentation of human community, about the possibility that we may not be able to go on understanding or communicating with one another.
In the particular cases of Forster and Woolf, the resonances between their fiction and Wittgenstein's philosophy extend even farther. These three figures occupied a shared intellectual space; despite his more solitary nature, Wittgenstein moved in many of the same social circles as Forster and Woolf did.
“That the world is my world,” Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus (1922), “shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world” (TLP, 5.62). In context, this remark helps Wittgenstein to develop his claim that language cannot speak coherently about anything “outside the world” (TLP, 6.41); since I can never view the world apart from my own subjective perspective on it, it seems that “the language which I understand” contains within it the possibilities of meaningful expression as such. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein attends more fully to the diversity and multiplicity of human linguistic practices, revising his youthful assumption that the language possessed by one individual speaker might provide sufficient evidence for an overarching analysis of the relations between word and world. In the late 1920s, just as Wittgenstein began to develop his later philosophy, William Faulkner wrote the two novels that would put him on the map as a major modernist writer: The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). These texts function as fictional explorations of the early Wittgensteinian notion “that the world is my world.” In both novels, Faulkner uses stream-of-consciousness narration to give voice to the inner lives of his characters, showing the inability of speakers to transcend their own subjective viewpoints and conceptions of language. Frederic Jameson has written that modernist texts take “the experience of atrocious solitude” as their fundamental theme. In this respect Faulkner's novels and Wittgenstein's Tractatus exhibit a similar modernist sensibility.
Just as the Tractatus seeks to mark out the limits of language, so Faulkner's speakers lament their own discovery of these limits. The Sound and the Fury shows the mute Benjy Compson “trying”—and failing—“to say.” As I Lay Dying contains Addie Bundren's bitter contention that “words are no good.” Faulkner scholars have long pointed to these two memorable lines as indexing broader attitudes on the part of the author toward his literary project. For example, James Snead argues that Faulkner uses Benjy's line to convey a fundamental insight about linguistic signification: “From the first word we are unable to ‘say,’ and ‘trying to say’ only worsens things.”
In the final scene of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Sally Seton, Clarissa's friend and erstwhile romantic interest, speaks of the barriers that restrict us in our efforts to know other people:
For what can one know even of the people one lives with every day? she asked. Are we not all prisoners? She had read a wonderful play about a man who scratched on the wall of his cell, and she had felt that was true of life—one scratched on the wall.
Sally here provides an apt expression of the skeptical position that Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953) seeks to challenge. But what is it about the “particular circumstances” (PI, §154) of Sally's life that have led her to this defeatist understanding of her epistemological position vis-à-vis other subjectivities? This kind of question is one that works of fiction can (and do) answer more perspicaciously than Wittgenstein's Investigations. Here, it is telling that Sally, specifically, voices this sense of epistemological limitation, since the novel suggests that her and Clarissa's aborted romantic relationship may have offered possibilities of interpersonal intimacy lacking in the more conventional marriages into which both women eventually enter. Clarissa recalls “the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally,” which possesses “a quality which could only exist between women.” Her comments suggest that those looking to do more than simply scratch on the wall of another's inner life may find heterosexual marriage disappointing and need to seek out unconventional alternatives. In this way, Mrs. Dalloway raises a philosophical issue that Woolf 's next novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), takes up: Are there particular forms of social relation that most fully enable interpersonal intimacy? Is heterosexual monogamous marriage the ideal vehicle for intimate knowledge of another? Or might a different type of relationship—say, between two individuals of the same gender—enable even stronger forms of intimacy?
These are epistemological questions, but they are also historical ones. Both Wittgenstein and Woolf wrote during a period of increasing popular dissatisfaction with the social norms surrounding Victorian marriage: an institution that came to look increasingly outdated in a twentieth-century context, its patriarchy and oppressiveness increasingly apparent.
Of all Britain's literary modernists, Virginia Woolf may have been the one who explored the problem of other-mind skepticism most urgently—and who produced the most memorably innovative fiction as a result. Of all the philosophers who lived and worked in Britain during the modernist period, perhaps the most unique and, ultimately, most influential to take up this same problem was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Just as Woolf 's fictions give narrative shape to epistemological questions, so Wittgenstein's philosophy uses literary techniques—dialogue, imagery, metaphor, suspense—to explore these same concerns. So it is a powerful irony of literature's relationship to philosophy in the modernist period that neither of these two towering figures had much intellectual interest in, or personal affection for, the other.
Ray Monk writes that Wittgenstein and Woolf “may have met” at some point through their mutual friend John Maynard Keynes, but that “neither seems to have made much impression on the other.” In fact, we can be even more definitive: Wittgenstein met both Leonard and Virginia Woolf in Sussex County, England, in late August 1925, at Keynes’ summer house in Lewes. Woolf documents this encounter in a letter dated September 20, 1925, and written to Saxon Sydney-Turner, another member of Leonard and E. M. Forster's Apostolic brethren. Woolf 's letter refers in passing to an argument between Sydney-Turner and Wittgenstein, noting gleefully that the typically reticent Sydney-Turner “talked without ceasing […] of the soul, and matter, till [Wittgenstein] was moved to offer himself to you as bootboy.” Woolf 's brief comment makes it difficult to discern the precise nature of Sydney-Turner and Wittgenstein's disagreement, though it is tempting to speculate that they argued over classical music, a subject about which both held strong opinions. What the letter does make clear is Woolf and Wittgenstein's antipathy toward each other. There were clear reasons for this mutual skepticism: Wittgenstein disliked the Bloomsbury Circle's tendency to engage in “frank discussion[s] of sex in the presence of ladies,” and during this same visit, he was apparently quite rude to Keynes's new wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, whom Keynes had married earlier that month.