Wittgenstein and Political Theory: The View from Somewhere

January 14, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein was unarguably one of the most compelling and applicable thinkers across so many disciplines. Here, Christopher Robinson, assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at Clarkson University in New York, takes up the challenge of exploring what consequences for political theory and theorising Wittgenstein's later remarks especially may have.

A fairly robust familiarity with the Philosophical Investigations, one of Wittgenstein's most influential works, although it was not published until after his death, is perhaps necessary to properly engage with what is nevertheless a lucidly argued and extremely thought-provoking book.

Although Wittgenstein did not explicitly speak of politics and political theory, his general remarks supply a valid and useful way to avoid the dehumanising and divisive results of political theories that postulate epic, ahistorical, universal viewpoints unable to be reconciled with human, mutable, evolving realities.

It is a constant temptation for philosophers and political theorists to retreat to the mountaintop in search of the wider view, or privileged viewpoint, not considering the pitfalls of such distance.

Wittgenstein put forward ideas of seeing things as they are, rather than grandly theorising well beyond what we do see and experience, to try to avoid becoming entrapped in conceptual mires, or within language games, and to flexibly move between language games - the unfixed, boundaryless, rich terminology of particular areas of thought or study - in order to gain a greater, more grounded perception of what we do as humans. And what we do as humans, how we try to live and improve the lot of ourselves and each other, is given as what "politics" is really supposed to be.

The mistaking of political theory for - or its priority over - politics leads to a divorce from this rough-ground reality into a synoptic viewpoint that cannot help but ignore, dehumanise, disenfranchise and leave open to harm large sectors of humanity. Seemingly for Wittgenstein -although this is always a worry, with the capacities humans devised for destruction in the 20th century - we can no longer afford to theorise in this way. Although not explicit, this surely has application in politics. Whether this derives from Wittgenstein's own experiences of conflict and the extreme changes to his, and general, life in the first half of the 20th century as a result of conflict, I am not as convinced as Robinson. That in no way detracts from the persuasiveness of his general argument here, however.

This synoptic view, leading to the rigidification and bureaucratising of society, leads politics to become expressed only in dissent and local action groups trying to improve the lot of certain groups against the top-down theorised prescriptions/proscriptions of the state.

I count it as one of the strengths of this book's argument that initially I felt "politics only as dissent" seemed a little sweeping until I reflected on it. Exploring various examples of the harsh realities strewn about by pre-eminent bureaucracy trying to shoehorn (the author's term, although I swear it occurred independently in my thinking) rich, complex, definition-defying human situations into its one-size-fits-all schema, I find myself agreeing.

The privileged, removed view of life, society and humanity is empty. Like Robinson, I never felt Wittgenstein's loosely cohering style of remarks indicated any lack of focus; simply that they showed the incredibly difficult and forever evolving task of never ceasing to think for oneself in any area of life. He never wanted to spare anyone the effort of thinking for oneself - and the fact that he did not wear the badge of any party does not mean his intellectual therapy is not as applicable in political theory as elsewhere.

Wittgenstein and Political Theory: The View from Somewhere

By Christopher C. Robinson. Edinburgh University Press. 208pp, £60.00. ISBN 978074

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