More making sense of nonsense: from logical forms to forms of life
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A familiar way to read the Wittgenstein corpus is to see it as split into two periods during which two radically different accounts of the nature of language are advanced. Such great emphasis is often placed on this shift that it is common to speak of 'two Wittgensteins', the early and the late. On this reading, Wittgenstein's later writings are best understood as a reaction to, even a straightforward rejection of, his early work, which culminated in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Crudely, he is alleged to have radically revised his understanding of how language operates by abandoning the picture theory of meaning; and its attendant metaphysics and semantics and advancing, in its place, the idea that 'meaning is use'. Amongst other things, this reading often inspires the thought that his philosophy underwent an important shift from realism to anti-realism, when his views changed. For convenience, I will class such readings of this sort as 'doctrinal' interpretations, since they promote the idea that in order to understand Wittgenstein's philosophy one must primarily focus on his theories about language.
This standard form of interpretation has recently been challenged by those who seek to demonstrate that it cannot be easily made to fit with Wittgenstein's claim that he was not engaged in any form of philosophical theorizing at all. For example,in a series of important papers, James Conant objects that the doctrinal interpretation cannot accommodate the remark that philosophy, ‘...is not a body of doctrine. On such grounds, both he and Cora Diamond argue convincingly that any simple doctrinal interpretation fails, '...to take seriously what Wittgenstein says about philosophy itself'. Furthermore, these detractors emphasize that such claims were made during both periods. But if there are no theories or doctrines advanced even in the Tractatus,then familiar talk of the 'picture theory of meaning' and the 'doctrine of showing' is wrong headed. For the fact is that it is not possible to make sense of such labels unless it is also accepted that the book contains, '...numerous doctrines which Wittgenstein holds cannot be put into words'. Diamond regards such acceptance as a 'chickening out' response brought on by a failure of nerve, poor interpretation or both.