WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Hans-Johann Glock: "Wittgenstein and history", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 236-262. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).

Hans-Johann Glock: Wittgenstein and history

Wittgenstein and history

Many contemporary analytic philosophers feel that Wittgenstein is history, or at least that he should be. And his place in the history of Western thought has of course been widely discussed by scholars.1 But Wittgenstein’s own attitude to history is not a topic which is either obvious or popular. To the best of my knowledge, fortified by an examination of existing bibliographies,2 there is no explicit discussion of it. This is no coincidence. Obviously, unlike the nature of logic, language and the human mind, history is not a topic that looms large in Wittgenstein’s writings, whether it be the Tractatus, the Philosophical Investigations or the posthumous publications from the Nachlass. Unlike ethics, religion and aesthetics, moreover, it is not even a topic that he broached explicitly in lectures and conversations.

Nevertheless, there are a few scattered remarks. And there is also a certain amount of biographical evidence. In this essay I attempt to exploit these meagre resources in order to discuss and assess Wittgenstein’s own thinking about history – both the history of philosophy and history in general – and about historical modes of thought. The occasion for such an attempt is provided by the fact that these topics have recently acquired a new importance in the debate about the nature of philosophy in general and of analytic philosophy in particular. In section 2 of this paper I introduce what one might call the historicist challenge to analytic philosophy, and distinguish different varieties of historicism. In section 3, I critically discuss Wittgenstein’s attitude to the history of philosophy and its connections to the positions of other thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the logical positivists, Ryle and Quine. While Wittgenstein himself was indifferent or hostile to historical scholarship, he has inspired several historicists. For this reason section 4 briefly considers the question of whether Wittgenstein’s reflections on other topics such as language or the nature of philosophy willy-nilly support historicism, either directly or indirectly. The final section turns from the history of philosophy to history in general. It compares and contrasts Wittgenstein’s account of conceptual investigations with the genetic method derived from Nietzsche and recently promoted by Bernard Williams, according to which proper philosophy needs to take account of the historical development of our conceptual scheme.

Varieties of historicism

Lack of historical awareness is one of the prime accusations that continue to be levelled against analytic philosophy. It unites its two main rivals within contemporary Western philosophy. While so-called continental philosophy is an avant-garde movement that draws on post-Kantian thinkers from the European mainland, what one might call traditional philosophy devotes itself to the historical and philological study of the philosophia perennis ranging from the ancients to Kant. More surprisingly, perhaps, the criticism is also shared by some who by common consent are analytic philosophers themselves.

From a continental perspective, Rorty accuses analytic philosophy of being ‘an attempt to escape from history’,3 and of working against historical self-consciousness.4 From a traditionalist perspective, Ayers has devoted an article to lambasting analytic philosophy for its alleged historiographical failings.5 Combining both, Rée complains about the ‘condescension’ towards the past and the unhistorical idea of timeless philosophical positions.6 The analytic critics, finally, include historians of the analytic movement like Sluga7, Baker8 and Hylton9, who deplore its lack of historical self-consciousness, but also Bernard Williams, who has urged analytic philosophy to adopt a more historical and genetic perspective in general.10

For the purposes of this article I shall use the label ‘historicism’ for any position which promotes historical thinking in philosophy and warns against ignoring or distorting the past. According to Plato, ‘the truth is known only to the forefathers’ (Phaedrus 274c).11 Echoes of this attitude are audible in certain traditionalists, who convey the impression of being irked by the suggestion that some of their contemporaries might see further philosophically than the giants of yore.12 Aristotle was far less pious than Plato. Yet even he insisted:

For our study of the soul it is necessary, when formulating the problems of which in our further advance we are to find the solutions, to summon the opinions of our predecessors, so that we may profit by whatever is sound in their suggestions and avoid their errors (On the Soul I 2.403b20).
Some historicists are wont to make stronger claims. According to Taylor ‘philosophy and the history of philosophy are one. You cannot do the first without also doing the second’.13 In the same vein Krüger assures us that ‘philosophy is essentially of an historical nature’. The reason for studying its history is not just the ‘pragmatic’ one of ‘studying historical material in order to produce trans-historical philosophical insight’, since the only philosophical insight to be had is itself historical in nature.14 This intrinsic or strong historicism has to be distinguished from an instrumental or moderate historicism. According to Aristotle, studying predecessors is necessary, but only as means to an ulterior end, namely to advance the solution of substantive problems. The passage even seems to leave open the possibility that such insights are achievable by other means, even though we forsake the benefit of learning from the achievements and mistakes of the past. On such a view, a study of the past is useful to philosophy, without being indispensable. If it is historicist at all, then only in an etiolated, minimalist sense.

Failure to distinguish these positions has muddied the waters in recent debates. Thus the popular term ‘doing philosophy historically’ has been used indiscriminately for positions ranging from the minimalist thesis that philosophy and history of philosophy can enrich each other,15 through the moderate thesis that history of philosophy is an indispensable means, to the strong thesis that it is intrinsic to the mission of philosophy.16

Even minimal historicists, however, have attacked analytic philosophy. One can distinguish three historicist criticisms. The first is that analytic philosophers simply ignore the history of the subject – the charge of historiophobia. The second is that in so far as they consider the past, they distort it, by reading features of the present into it – the charge of anachronism. The third complaint is not confined to the history of philosophy; it is that analytic philosophy adopts an unduly anti-genetic attitude towards the concepts and theories with which it grapples.

As regards Wittgenstein, the second charge is not much of an issue. Admittedly, even in the writings he himself authorized for publication – principally the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations – he commented on thinkers ranging from Plato through James and Frege to Russell. And of course one can legitimately ask whether these comments faithfully reflect the claims to which he refers. More intriguingly, there is even a question as to whether Wittgenstein was always accurate in presenting his own earlier positions. Perhaps it is ‘the Ghost of the Tractatus’ rather than the work itself which provides the target of some of his later self-criticisms,17 or perhaps the later Wittgenstein was just very adept at extracting the important fundamentals of his earlier views.18

Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s comments on either his own work or that of others are extremely rare by the standards of twentieth century philosophy. Furthermore, as will become all too obvious in the sequel, he never pretended to engage in exegetical or historical scholarship of any kind. This by itself, however, is a point worth noting. Leading contemporary historicists like Rorty, Baker, Sluga, and Hylton have been influenced by Wittgenstein either directly or indirectly. Wittgenstein himself, by contrast, can be and has been accused of historiophobia. In the next two sections I shall explore the two sides of this tension.




1Recently, e.g. Hacker, P.M.S. 1996, Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers), and Stroll, A. 2000, Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press).
2Shanker, V.A. and S.G. Shanker 1986, A Wittgenstein Bibliography (London: Croom Helm); Frongia, G. and B. McGuinness 1980, Wittgenstein: A Bibliographical Guide (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).
3Rorty, R. 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 8-9.
4Rorty, R., J.B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner 1984, 'Introduction', in Rorty, R., J.B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner 1984 (eds.), Philosophy in History (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 1-14; p. 11.
5Ayers, M. 1978, 'Analytical Philosophy and the History of Philosophy', in Rée, J., M. Ayers and A. Westoby 1978, Philosophy and Its Past (Hassocks: Harvester), pp. 42-66.
6Rée, J. 1978, 'Philosophy and the History of Philosophy', in Rée/Ayers/Westoby 1978: pp. 1-38; p. 28.
7Sluga, H. 1980, Frege (London: Routledge), p. 2.
8Baker, G.P. 1988, Wittgenstein, Frege and the Vienna Circle (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers), p. ix.
9Hylton, P. 1992, Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon), p. vii.
10Williams, B. 2002a, 'Why Philosophy needs History', London Review of Books 17 October, pp. 7-9; Williams, B. 2002, Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton: Princeton U.P.).
11Unless otherwise indicated, all references to published works by Wittgenstein are to latest revised editions. I have provided my own translations wherever appropriate. References to the giants of yore follow established systems.
12E.g. Ayers 1978: p. 60 and MacIntyre, A. 1984, 'The Relation of Philosophy to Its Past', in Rorty/Schneewind/Skinner 1984: pp. 31-48; pp. 35-38.
13Taylor, C. 1984, 'Philosophy and its history', in Rorty et al. 1984: pp. 17-30; p. 17.
14Krüger, L. 1984, 'Why do we study the history of philosophy', in Rorty et al. 1984: pp. 77-102; p. 79+n. Similarly Rée 1978: p. 30; Baker 1988: p. xv.
15Hare, P. 1988, 'Introduction', in P. Hare (ed.) 1988, Doing Philosophy Historically (Buffalo: Prometheus), p. 14.
16Piercey, R. 2003, 'Doing Philosophy Historically', Review of Metaphysics 56, pp. 779-800; pp. 798-99.
17Kenny, A.J.P. 1974, 'The Ghost of the Tractatus', in G. Vesey (ed.) 1974, Understanding Wittgenstein (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 1-13.
18Hacker, P.M.S. 1975, 'Laying the Ghost of the Tractatus', Review of Metaphysics 29, pp. 96-116.



Last change: 2005.4.7 by ap