Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Wittgenstein is a name that looms large on the landscape of twentieth-century philosophy, and one day I’ll get around to actually reading his work. For now though, I’m still dancing around the edges. I’ve written about Logicomix before as a creative introduction to the mathematical and philosophical scene in which Wittgenstein appeared, and about a year ago that led me to an excellent biography on Wittgenstein. This latest book on the philosopher, which had come up several times before in references to Wittgenstein, I found at a university library used book sale. I grabbed it immediately, possibly uttering a small shriek of excitement.
Wittgenstein’s Vienna is a cultural and social contextualization of Wittgenstein’s work. The authors are self-consciously unapologetic that their study is interdisciplinary and not well-suited to the lens of professional philosophy that would view Wittgenstein’s work in terms of the development of analytical philosophy alone. Rather, they say it’s important—essential—in understanding Wittgenstein’s major work to first understand the context in which Wittgenstein wrote, the final days of the Habsburg Empire and its capital Vienna just before the Great War.
By examining the culture of the period—the aesthetic revolts against insincerity and ostentation in music, literature, and architecture centered on the writings of the social critic Karl Kraus—they claim Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a similar cultural artifact, a philosophical response to this environment. Instead of being intended (as it was perceived by the Logical Positivists) as a groundwork for analytical philosophy, Wittgenstein meant the Tractatus to rigorously define the boundary between facts and values. Critically though this was not to exclude values from the realm of importance (as the Logical Positivists took his famous closing phrase, “of what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence”) but rather to protect ethics and all that was truly important (and unspeakable) in the human experience from the encroachment of logic.
For the authors, Wittgenstein’s work is primarily a cultural, philosophical, and even artistic response to his social environment similar to that of Adolf Loos in architecture and will be (and has been) misunderstood without this broader context. As an example of an interdisciplinary study—and in itself a strong critique of philosophy divorced from context—Wittgenstein’s Vienna is wonderful. It takes a real problem—the interpretation of a famously eccentric man and his undeniably influential work—and it offers an answer grounded in full-bodied exploration of that man’s time and context.
My complaint is that though the arguments are compelling and even a pleasure to read, and though the authors make Habsburg Vienna come to life and illuminate things from the origins of modernism to the perils of political stagnation and the linguistic relations between subject peoples at the dawn of Eastern European nationalism, they tend to let a general zeitgeist form the mode of connection between all this and Wittgenstein. That is, a stronger argument would have connected the dots more firmly, including perhaps more of Wittgenstein’s correspondence and biographical links between Wittgenstein and the key cultural players, Kraus in particular. The authors argue that Kraus was central to creating and fostering the cultural critique in which they’re placing the Tractates—going so far as to call the Tractates a Krausian work—but I still was left with questions about the contacts and connections between the two men.
The work is multifaceted and branched off into lots of interesting side-trails along the way of contextualizing Wittgenstein and his work. There were, for instance, arguments related to the birth of modernism, particularly modern architecture. The authors claim, for instance, that the architecture of Loos was a revolt against ostentation and ornament for it’s own sake, that Loos thought use should dictate design. But they say once this mode was established, its minimalism became itself a new orthodoxy: modernism for its own sake, which gave rise to the Cartesian office buildings and apartments of today in which function is completely masked by uniformity, exactly the opposite of what early modernists like Loos had intended.
This work is compelling because it mixes together so many disciplines. Whether or not you’ve heard of Wittgenstein, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy and in particular the philosophy of language, Habsburg Europe, cultural history, art history, or even social criticism, there’s something in here that you can latch onto. Good books have lots of doors that open outward; this one is full of them.
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