Allan Janik: No Corner on the Truth

On Wittgenstein and cultural history, with Prof. Allan Janik

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | September 2011

Allan Janik began teaching in Vienna in a Kaffeehaus.  That was in 1989, and space was in short supply. He didn’t even get a classroom, much less an office.  But this suited Janik just fine. He’s a philosopher and intellectual historian, and a Kaffeehaus was where he belonged.

"I’m basically an anarchist," he confessed, when we met at the Café Bräunerhof in late August. These were good teaching years for Janik, who flourished in the free-wheeling atmosphere of a university with a long intellectual tradition and few rules.

"In those days, the students did what they wanted to," Janik said. "They pushed me around something terrible, but they were so brilliant, so interesting, it got to be fun to listen."

Janik is a good listener, and it was through listening to what wasn’t being said that he began his inquiry into Wittgenstein and the city that created him. Before he and Toulmin set to work, the prevailing understanding of Wittgenstein had emerged from his time in Cambridge, England, under the wing of Bertrand Russell, who considered him a genius, "passionate, profound, intense, and dominating," and his great Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus a work of logic.

"This meant ignoring the part of the Tractatus that Wittgenstein considered ‘the point of the book,’" Janik said. He and Toulmin believed that "the greatest philosopher’s works were almost inevitably a response to the perplexities and conundrums his society faced." Often these were not strictly philosophical, but religious or aesthetic, scientific or political.

"We radically rejected the notion that there was such a thing as ‘philosophical truth’" Janik wrote in 1985, "to which only people termed philosophers by virtue of some professional training had access. No one has a corner on that kind of truth."

Completed 40 years ago in 1971 and published two years later, Wittgenstein’s Vienna preceded virtually all other major works in the field. Many of the now familiar sources were not yet available, leaving some things to conjecture.

"We had Carl Schorske’s essays, for example, but not his book (Fin de Siecle Vienna) which came out later. And our book was already at the press when William Johnston’s book (The Austrian Mind) came out," Janik said.  "So we had to fall back on circumstantial evidence of what we though thought Vienna would look like to someone with Wittgenstein’s concerns.  In the mean time, we know that it wasn’t so far off, but not completely on target either. We would write this differently today."

But books have a life of their own. "Toulmin used to say they are are like children," Janik remembered. "Once you bring them into the world, they go their own way. We were surprised at it’s success; we thought we were writing for an audience of philosophers!"

Not that Wittgenstein’s Vienna didn’t have it’s critics: "People misunderstood what we were up to, some very dramatically," Janik said. Arthur Koessler (author of Darkness at Noon), whom Janik admired, wrote a scathing review in the Observer.  "‘Don’t read what Janik wrote’, Koessler said – and called me ‘an abominable stylist.’ I always wanted to put that on the book jacket!"

Many of the old Vienna and Central Europe scholars thought it was "a real hack job," Janik remembered. "On the other hand no one had done it – and no one did anything afterward, or tried to do it better. We could have kept researching this forever.  But we agreed, this was something we wanted to get out."

One has the sense that Janik has felt isolated in academia in Austria. Having broken new ground, he often still finds himself  alone in his approach to intellectual history here. All the important work in the field, he told me, has been done by foreigners. The most important book on Egon Schiele is by a Frenchman, Jean-Louis Gaillemin; the definitive biography of Karl Kraus, by an Englishman Edward Tims; for Adolph Loos, the best book, he says, is by a Dane.

"I was always disappointed in my historian colleagues," Janik admitted. "They are very good at documenting everything around a figure, they can dig up all the bits and pieces relating to a Klimt or a Schiele.  But then the interpretation.  How do you compare this to French impressionism? How to compare with other forms – they don’t know how to do that. They don’t even have the European perspective.

"You’ve got to be able to do more than document; you’ve got to be able to think in analogies, to feel out their limits.  I quit on Vienna, because I’d been talking to people who were nodding their heads very politely, but who weren’t not really listening."

Here, finally, seems to be the heart of Janik’s intellectual quest.

"It’s about how you write about cultural history; In the Anglo Saxon world, it’s written by historians. Here people can only do this in German studies, or the occasional art historian.  And they don’t have an adequate set of conceptual tools for interpreting social change, or cultural change for that matter.

It is hard to imagine having a short conversation with Allan Janik; his knowledge is vast and his interests irrepressible.  Over the course of two and a half hours, we ventured far beyond Wittgenstein or Vienna.

But the initial concerns that originally fascinated him with Wittgenstein continue to be relevant.

"Rethinking Wittgenstein’s place, in the hypocrisies and ambiguities of his time…" he paused. "What I find so terribly frustrating, is how hard it is to get anybody to be honest, to engage in an honest public debate. Austrian politics is sham politics." Still, or maybe again. So Janik is engaged on aemocracy of EU ight on the current degeneration of the political parties in Austria across Europe.

"What is politics, what is pluralism? How do we ask these questions (with out the political framework), " he wonders? "What does it mean to speak with people who have legitimate differences with you, and how can we ever talk about something like the common good."

Still, he takes satisfaction in the perennial success of Wittgenstein’s Vienna, that allowed him to raise the questions closest to his heart.

"It’s not clear whom we convinced, but at a certain point, ours became the running thesis," he said, shaking his head. Then he smiled.

"This goes to show what the history of ideas can do!"

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