Why Isn’t Everybody Into Wittgenstein?


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is known to scholars as one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers. But among the general public, he’s not as popular as I think he should be.  He laid the groundwork for linguistic AI programs like Google Translate by focusing attention on how language gains its meaning through conversational interaction (rather than by simply slapping word-labels on things). He anticipated new forms of communication like the emoji.  He was central to the “ordinary language” school of philosophy that tried to state observations about the world as clearly as possible, avoid obfuscation, and just shut up if you don’t know what you’re talking about (as he famously wrote in his Tractatus, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”) In keeping with that down-to-earth approach, he presented his work, as he says in the introduction to Philosophical Investigations, “not. . .to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of their own.”  For all these reasons, his work is deeply relevant to our age of social media and information overload, in which clear thinking and communication are desperately needed—and difficult.

But the thread of Wittgenstein commentary I’d most like to see relates to the transgender movement. Wittgenstein is claimed by the LGBT community because evidence suggests he loved men (not necessarily exclusively). But I’ve been wondering whether, if he lived today, he’d be part of the effort to avoid pigeonholing people into any fixed categories of gender and sexual orientation at all. In any case, I’m sure he’d be interested in theorizing this cultural development, since one of its key manifestations is the increased attention to language, particularly pronouns and names. He’d certainly agree that it matters how we refer to each other and ourselves, and he’d have creative suggestions about how to resolve the many dilemmas that result when language is stretching to accommodate a shift in cultural consciousness. As far as I know, academic Wittgenstein experts haven’t yet explored this avenue.  But perhaps a paper of dissertation is being written as we speak, and will shortly see the light.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~