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Wittgenstein and bourgeois philosophy

an astronomer predicts that a comet will appear over
Britain in January 1974, the fact that he or she, as
an expert, thinks that this is so, is a good reason
that a layman can have for thinking that the comet
will appear. As a layman, the reasons which the
astronomer has for thinking this do not enter into
the formation of his beliefs; those reasons are
~ather subject to criticism from fellow members in
the community of astronomers who are sufficiently
familiar with the theory on which the prediction
Vas based. The natural scientist reasons about nature and with scientific colieagues, and his or her
conclusions constitute the rational grounds for many
of the layman’s beliefs about the natural world.

If the social world is reduced to the natural
one, considerations like these come into play structUring the Vay in which a theorist like Downs thinks
about his object of study.

If one is to escape from
the constraints imposed by a technocratic ideology
it is essential that one concede that when dealing
with human societies, the object of study comprises
groups of rational interacting human beings, who can
both be reasoned about and reasoned with. This
implies that the community of social scientists can,
potentially at least, be expanded to embrace the
members of society themselves, and with this socialjsation and democratisation of knowledge the distinction betwee~ layman and expert is progressively
(‘roded. Along with it the opinion of the ‘expert’

loses its sacrosanct character and no longer serves
in itself as a rationally adequate ground for the
‘layman’s beliefs about society.

Consioerations like these provide us with some
idea of the sense in which an ideology may be said
to ‘reflect’ a material base. For it is now clear
that the technocratic mode of thought derives its
plausibility from the fact that it is grounded in a
social system which is characterised by a rigid
oivision of labour, and by a corresponding fragmentation, specialisation and hierarchisation of
knowledge, which is taken to be of the ‘natural
order’ of things. As a consequence of these divisions
the utterances of those who wield power are set up
as if they were not to be questioned by the masses,
who are always confronted by jargon whenever they
attempt to penetrate beyond the claims of those in
iluthority. As such the ideology not only ‘reflects’

a social system, it also legitimates and reinforces
it, precisely by posing questions which presuppose
its basic divisions rather than undermining them.

~lat is more, as we have seen above, a technocratic
idt?ology also serves as a basis for the reproduction
and intensification of these divisions from which
it springs to the extent that it is embodied in”
insti tutions ,.,hich so structure society that conflicts between ‘multipl~ goals’ are not ‘allowed’.

Explanations of this kind do not exclude explanations for the tenacity of ideological discourse
which appeal to bias, like those which were
presented in the earlier part of this paper. As
Was suggested there, the occurrence of bias has
itself to be explained in terms of a particular
kind of social structure, and what we have done here
is to unravel some of the characteristics of that
structure. ~at has emerqed is that the cleavages
Vhich underpin liberal democratic ideoloqv and the
related technocratic ideology can be woven into the
very framework of a social formation, shackling
in the first instance the minds of the intellectuals
who reflect on it. Nothing short of a revolution
in consciousness is required of them if they are to
free themselves from the limits it imposes.


L. Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other
Essays, New Left Books, 1971, p2l.


T am grate:ul to Roy Edgley and John ~tepham for
extensive criticisms of an earlier draft of this

J. ~epham, ‘The Theory of Ineology in Capital’,
Radical Philosophy 2, Summer 1972, pp12-l9.



L. Althusser, ibid., pp127-l86.


R. Edgley, Reason in Theory and Practice,
Hutchinson, 1969.


R. Edgley, ‘Freedom of Speech and Academic
Freedom’, to be published in John Mepham (ed.),
Ideology, Social Science, Freedom of Speech,
Harvester Press, 1974.


N. Girvan, Copper in Chile, Institute of
Social and Economic Research, University of the
West Indies, 1972, p60.


This is discussed in more detail in my ‘Copper:

The Chilean Experience’, of which I have a fe-,
copies available.


Subversion in Chile: A case study in U.S.

corporate intrigue in the Third ~Qrld, Spokesman
Books, 1972. Figures in brackets in the te~t
refer to page numbers in this selection from
the Anderson papers.


A. Downs, An Economic’ Theory of Democracy,
Harper and Row, 1957. pp4-5, 6.

and bou..geois
KT Fann
Most Marxist philosophers dismiss Wittgenstein as a
typical bourgeois philosopher whose philosophy is
essentially reactionary. It is strange that these
same Marxist philosophers find it perfectly.permissible for Marx to learn from the arch idealist-conservative philosopher Hegel but do not permit themselves
the benefit of learning from a philosopher of
Wittgenstein’s stature. Just as Marx had to settle
his philosophical accounts with Hegel modern Marxist
philosophers must settle their accounts with

It is true that the formalism, solipsism, and
mysticism of the early wittgenstein was bourgeois
philosophy at its logical extreme. Precisely because
of this, Wittgenstein’s later attack on his early
philosophy constitutes a major attack on bourgeois
philosophy in general. The later wittgenstein was a
fighter against bourgeois philosophy from within.

His attack on formalism, solipsism and skepticism,
his characterization of traditional philosophy as a
kind of disease to be cured, his branding of metaphysical statements as nonsense, and his urging his
students to quit academic philosophy and do something
useful – all this and more can only be regarded as
a progressive movement within bourgeois philosophy.

Like the proverbial child who called attention to
the king’s nakedness Wittgenstein called attention
to the emptiness of bourgeois philosophy.

Engels remarked somewhere that those who
employed the Hegelian method became revolutionaries
and those who followed the Hegelian system became
reactionaries. Wittgenstein made a significant
contribution to the philosophical method which may
well prove to be an important contribution to the

development of dialectics. Most of his followers
ignored the progressive aspec~s of his philosophy
and turned it into an irrelevant nitpicking word
game. As Wittgenstein correctly predicted, ‘The
seed I am most likely to sow is a certain jargon.’

Wittgenstein was the bourgeois philosophers’ philosopher par excellence. He was addressing himself
primarily to bourgeois philosophers and their problems. Consequently his writings are quite unintelligible to someone who is not in the grip of
those philosophical problems. But let’s not throw
away the baby along with the bath. water. There is
a useful kernel beneath the obscure shell.

It is the
task of radical philosophers to employ Wittgenstein’s
method to bring clarity to the discussion of
important issues.

Willgenslein’s conceplion
of language
Wittgenstein’s major criticism of traditional philosophy is directed at the metaphysical conception of
language as typified by his own youthful work. The
youthful Wittgenstein assumed that the function of
language was to picture facts. According to this
theory, combinations of linguistic elements corresponds to combinations of the elements of reality.

The individual words in language name objects, the
object for which a word stands is its meaning. The
greater part of Wittgenstein’s later work is directed
against this conception of language.

Wittgenstein starts the Blue Book with the
question: ‘What is the meaning of a word?’ This
question, like the questions ‘What is time?’, ‘What
is truth?’, ‘What is beauty’, etc, produce in us a
mental cramp.

We feel that we can’t point to anything in
reply to them and yet ought to l~int to something.

(We are up against one of the great
sources of philosophical bewilderment: a
SUbstantive makes us look for a thing that
corresponds to it). fBB, pI] 1
The phrase ‘the meaning of a word’ exercises a
certain spell which results in the idea that there
must be a thing (either an object or a quality)
corresponding to each noun and adjective, that this
thing is the meaning of the word, and is named by it
as an individual is named by a proper name. To break
this spell Wittgenstein first suggested that
instead of asking ‘What’s the meaning?’ we should
ask ‘What’s the explanation of meaning?’. This
replacement brings the question down to earth and
helps to cure us of the temptation to look for
some object which we might call ‘the meaning’.

[BB, pl]. Later he made the famous recommendation:

‘Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use.’ One
advantage of this slogan is that ‘use’ carries with
it no suggestion of an object corresponding to a
word. Another is that ‘use’ cannot be understood
merely by looking at the word, it can only be
understood in contexts. This is why Wittgenstein
suggests that instead of comparing the relationship
between the word and the meaning to that between
the money and the cow that you can buy it with, we
should compare it to the relationship between money
and its use [PI, sec.120]. The use of money is
not an object separable from the money, and the
specific use of money to buy things (cf. the specific
use of words to name things) is only a part of,
and makes sense only in, a larger and more complicated system. Thus Wittgenstein provides this rule
of thumb in the Investigations: ‘For a large class
of cases – though not for all – in which we employ
the word “meaning” it can be explained thus: the
meaning of a word is its use in the language’.

[PI, Sec.43]
Wittgenstein then compares words in a language
with tools in a tool-box.

‘Think of words as instruments characterized by their use’ [BB, p67].

of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers,


a saw, a screwdriver, a ruler, a glue-pot, glue,
nails and screws.

– The functions of words are
as diverse as the functions of these objects’ [PI,
Sec.ll]. A word is characterized by its use just as
a tool is characterized by its function. This
analogy aptly reminds us that words are used for
different purposes.

Sentences as well as words may be understood as
tools or instruments. When we become confused about
the sense of a sentence, “Vi ttgenstein offers us the
following advice: ‘Look at the sentence as an instrument, and at its sense as its employment’ [PI, Sec.421].

‘Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose,
do we say this? VJhat kind of actions accompany
these words? .. In what scenes will they be used;
and what for?’ [PI, Sec.489].

It is in this way that
we come to see how words and sentences a~e instruments used to accomplish certain purposes. Thus, for
Wittgenstein, ‘To understand a sentence is to be
prepared for one of its uses.

If we can’t think of
any use for it at all, then we don’t understand it
at all’. The use of language ordinarily has a point
just as instruments are usually made for some
purposes. But there is no single point of the
practice of language as a whole.

It is not one
practice or one instrument, having one essential
function and serving one essential purpose. Language
is not one tool serving one purpose but a collection
of tools serving a variety of purposes.

is not defined for us as an arrangement fulfilling
one definite purpose. Rather “language” is for us
a name for a collection’ [Z, Sec.322].

What emerges is an instrumentalist (or pragmatic)
conception of language.

‘Language is an instrument.

Its concepts are instruments’ [PI, Sec.5G9].

So far we have directed our attention to the
practical aspect of language.

However, Wittgenstein
was interested in reminding us of another important
feature of language, i.e. its social nature. The
point is made whenever he compares languages with
games, or whenever he speaks of, and constructs,
different ‘language-games’. Wittgenstein compared
language with a chess game and looked at a word as a
piece in chess and an utterance as a move in cheS5.

‘We are talking about the spatial and temporal
phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial,
non-temporal phantasm…

But ,.,re talk about it as we
do about the pieces in chess when ~e are stating
the rules of the game, not describing their
physical properties. The question “vhat is a word
really?” is analogous to “What is a piece in chess?'”
[PI, Sec.10B].

To understand what a piece in chess is one must
understand the whole game, the rules defining it, and
the role of the piece in the game.

Similarly we
might say, the meaning of a word is its place in a
language-game. Using a sentence is, thus, analogous
to making a move in chess following the rules.

Wittgenstein put it this way:

… a move in chess doesn’t consist simply in
moving a piece in such-and-such a way on the
board … but in the circumstances that we call
‘playing a game of chess’, ‘solving a chess
problem’, and so on. [PI, Sec.33]
Such a move
is comparable to making utterances in a language:

Can I sa y ‘bububu’ and mean ‘If 1: t doesn’t rain
I slJall go for a walk?’ … It is only in
language tlEt I can mean something by something.

[PI, p18e note].

Thus we cannot call anything a word or a sentence
unless it is part of that kind of a rule-governed
activity which we call a language. A language, we
may say, is a set of activities (or practices)
defined by certain rules.

In order to be clear about the social nature of
language Wittgenstein analysed the concept of
following a rule:

What does the activity called
‘following a rule’ consist in? To start with,
Wittgenstein asks, ‘Is what we call “following a
rule” something that it would be possible for only
one man to do, and to do only once in his life?’


[PI, Sec.199]. Wittgenstein says that it is not
possible (it doesn’t make sense) that there should
have been only one occasion on which someone followed
a rule. Of course, we can imagine situations in
which a new rule is followed by someone only once
and then set aside.

If such a case should arise, it
would happen only because there already exist rules
and the practice of following them. Wittgenstein
is talking about the practice of following rules,
not this or that particular rule.

It is not
possible that only once in the history of man there
was such a thing as followi~g a rule.

It is not
possible that there should have been only one
occasion on which an order was given, a promise made,
a question asked, a debt procured, or a game played.

Following a rule, making a promise, giving an order
and so on, are customs, uses, practices, or institutions [PI, Sec.199]. They presuppose a society, a
form of life. Consequently there cannot be ‘private
rules’ or ‘private language’.

Language is public

and social. 2

The therapeutic conception
of philosophy
In his later writings Wittgenstein repeatedly brings
out the practical and the social nature of language
– a conception of language quite consistent with the
Marxist theory of language.

It should be kept in
mind, however, that Wittgenstein did not intend to
construct a theory of language.

He discussed certain
very general questions about language at great length
only because he thought most philosophical errors’

were due to a false conception of language.

He was
interested in giving a broad description of the
workings of language only because he thought
‘philosophical problems arise when language goes on
holiday’ [PI, Sec.38]. Philosophers are fond of
using his words in grandiose formations to give the
appearance of profundity. Wittgenstein says

It is not every sentence-like formation that
we know how to do something with, not every
technique has an application in our life, and
when we are tempted in philosophy to count
some quite useless things as a proposition, that
is often because we have not considered its
application sufficiently. [PI, Sec.520]
A metaphysical statement for him is like ‘ .•. a wheel
that can be turned though nothing else moves with
it, (it) is not part of the mechanism.’ (PI, Sec.271].

Thus, the confusions which occupy philosophers, says
Wittgenstein, ‘ … arise when language is like an
engine idling, not when it is doing work.’ (PI,
For wittgenstein, then, philosophical problems
arise from a misinterpretation of our forms of

Philosophical questions are ‘confusions’,
‘vexations’, ‘intellectual discomforts’, or ‘mental
cramps’ comparable to some kind of mental illness.

He also said that philosophers were in a muddle
about things; that they ask certain questions without understanding what those questions mean; that
the asking of those questions results from ‘a vague
mental uneasiness’ like that which leads children
to ask ‘Why?’, Hence, ‘A philosophical problem has
the form “I don’t know my way about”.’ [PI, Sec.123]
A person caught in a philosophical perplexity is
compared to a man who wants to get out but doesn’t
know how, or a fly in a fly-bottle.

Philosophy, as
Wittgenstein conceives it, is thus ‘a battle against
the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of
language.’ (PI, Sec.109]
His aim is – ‘To show the
fly the way out of the fly-bottle.’ [PI, Sec.309].

The metaphorical description of philosophical
problems in psychological terms is an appropriate
characterization of Wittgenstein’s own methods and
aim of philosophy.

‘The philosophical treatment of
question is like the treatment of an illness’

[PI, Sec.255]. Just as there is not one conclusive
therapy for all mental illness; ‘There is not one
philosophical method, though there are indeed methods,
like different therapies.’ [PI, Sec.~J. The sort

Photograph of Wittgenstein as an Austrian army
officer, from his army identity card, June 1918.

From wittgenstein by Wiliia~ Warren Bartley III,
reviewed below.

of thi~g he means by ‘methods’ are, for example:

imagining or inventing language-games or forms of
life to loosen up a mental craIllP; calling attention
to some well-known facts which are forgotten when
one is philosophizing; finding and making up intermediate cases to show connections philosophers fail
to see; reminding someone that certain questions do
not arise; poking fun at a metaphysical statement to
make its oddness ring; bringing words back from their
metaphysical to their everyday use; supplementing
the one-sided diet of philosophers with examples and
more examples; and so on. Wittgenstein employed
many other devices.

Which device is most suitable
for a given occasion would depend on the illness and
the person afflicted by it.

wittgenstein’s most important contribution to
modern philosophy lies in his methodology.

He is
reported to have said ‘All I can give you is a method;
I cannot teach you any new truths.’ . In one of his
lectures he said, ‘I am in a sense making propaganda
for one style of thinking as opposed to another .••
Much of what I am doing is persuading people to
change their style of thinking.’

The style of thinking he was opposing was the metaphysical style of
thinking and his own style of thinking can be
described as a dialectical style of thinking.

may be relevant to point out that Wittgenstein himself thought there was a social function in his

He once admonished a student who made a
stupid political remark by saying, ‘What is the use
of studying philosophy if all that it does for you
is to enable you to talk with some plausibility
about some abstruse questions of logic etc, if it
does not improve your thinking about the important
questions of everyday life; if it does not make you
more conscientious than any journalist in the use of
dangerous phrases such people use for their own


Leaving the social function of Wittgenstein’s
philosophy aside, the immediate goal of Wittgenstein’s
philosophical theory is analogous to psycho-therapy namely to get rid of the illness.

‘The real discovery


is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing
philosophy when I want to.

-The one that gives
philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented
by questions which bring itself in question. The
clarity that we are aiming at is’indeed complete
clarity. But this simply means the philosophical
problems should completely disappear.’ [PI, Sec.133].

Wittgenstein makes it quite clear what he was doing.

‘The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one
or another piece of plain nonsense and ?f bumps that
the understanding has got’ by running its head up
against the limits of language.’ [PI, Sec.119].

This negative (or ‘critical’ in the Marxian sense)
philosophical task of uncovering or unmasking bourgeois philosophy is made abundantly clear when
Wittgenstein .said, ‘Where does our investigation
~et its importance from, since it seems only to
destroy everything interesting, that is, all that
is great and important? .. What we are destroying
is nothing but castles-in-the-air and we are clearing
up the ground of language on which they stand.’

[PI, Sec.l18]
Wittgenstein conceives his philosophical task to
be helping those who are obsessed by philosophical
problems to achieve complete clarity, so that they
are no longer tormented by those questions. Philosophy, in this sense, ‘leaves everything as it is.’

[PI, Sec.124]. Once this clarity is achieved, once
their mental health is recovered, they can go on to
do other things. Like psychoanalysis, therapeutic
philosophy can help afflicted individuals gain
sanity. However, like psychoanalysis too, which can
be of only a very limited use because it fails to
deal with the underlying social causes of mental
illness, Wittgenstein’s therapeutic philosophy can
only have a limited function because it does not
deal with the social causes of the philosophical
disease. It would only be fair to point out that
Wittgenstein seems to be aware of this when he said,
‘The sickness of a time is cured by an alteration in
the mode of life of human beings, and the sickness
of philosophical problems can be cured only through
a changed mode of thought and of life, not through
a medicine invented by an individual.’ [RFM, pS7].

Wittgenstein’s medicine was, in the’end, impotent
against the philosophical sickness of the time.

His goa of dissolving bourgeois philosophy could
not be S 8cessful. As Marx and Engels pointed out
long ago, ‘ ••• all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism ‘”
but only by the practical overthrow of the actual
social relations which gave rise to this idealistic
humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the
driving force of history, also of religion, of
philosophy and all other types of theory. ,3


Abbreviations: BB for Blue a;d Brown Books,
PI for Philosophical Investigations, Z for Zettel
and RFM for Remarks on the Foundations of


Compare this with Marx: ‘Man is in the most
literal sense of the word a zoon politikon, not
only a social animal, but an animal which can
develop into an individual only in society.

Production by isolated individuals outside of
society – something which ~ight happen as an
exception to a civilized man who by accident
got into the wilderness and already dynamically
possessed within himself the forces of society
– is as great an absurdity as the idea of the
development of language without individuals
living together and talking to one another.’

A Contribution to the Critique of Political
Economy, Chicago, 1904, p268.




The German Ideology, Moscow, Progrl:ss Publishers,
1964, p50.

Language, I”ulhand polilics:

.A. conceplion
of philosophy
‘Trevor Palemao’

l.The significance of insignificant acts
In this book I shall criticise a variety of everyday
communicational acts and omissions, including both
those which occur in face-to-face situations and those
which emanate from the mass media.

I do so in the
context of an attempt to theorise a practice or
practices of intervention already carried on in
opposition to such phenomena but which I think might
well be developed further.

It is therefore not the
object of this book to contribute to anyone, nor
even several, academic disciplines (though I draw on
a range of academic work), but rather to produce a
sort of manual which might be used in the conduct of
everyday life.

But why is everyday life important? Why should
making it different make any difference? I answer
these questions by stating and illustrating a central
assumption of the book, namely, that nothing o~e
may say or do is non-significant; every action has
meaning, even if that meaning is unconscious to
oneself or others.

In contrast to this position,
when an action is taken for granted,l it is treated
as non-significant, that is, without meaning.

taking for granted is habitual, probably unavoidable
if we are to get on with a job in hand, but often
disastrous in its consequences when it is never
challenged. To take for granted an action is equivalent to naturalising it, that is, consigning it to
the realm of nature external to Man and lacking
meaning in itself. Thus the action hardens into an
alien thing, over and against Man, unamenable to
control or change – despite the fact that it is
nothing but Man’s own action which is being thus
reified. When generalised, such reification gives
rise to a metaphysics of meaninglessness, and its
practical consequences are variously theorised as
alienation, privatisation and apathy. The causes of
such development clearly lie not in the mind of the
individual, but in the specific forms of social
organisation which generate such a consciousness.

And the irony is that the very consciousness which
is generated by these social forms is incapable of
understanding the processes which have given rise to
it and, thus, unable to criticise these processes in
theory, it reproduces and strengthens them in practice.

Developments in Western society – bureaucratisation, technologisation – intensify the process of
reification in everyday thought and behaviour: the
use of phrases such as ‘I only work here’ or ‘I’m
This article is a slightly edited version of the
first chapter of Trevor Pateman’s forthcoming book,
to be published by the Harvester Press in paperback
and hardback in Spring 1975. The editors of
Radical Philosophy are grateful to the Harvester
Press for permission to print.


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