Book Review: Deconstructing Ludwig Wittgenstein
Continental ‘philosopher du jour’ Alain Badiou’s attack on the author of the Tractatus is ‘entirely original and patently false’
Some 500 books have been written on Wittgenstein, far more than on analytic philosophy’s other co-founders, Frege, Russell and Moore. In Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, Alain Badiou makes his own contribution to this "galactic mass of glosses", and winks, "it would certainly be in bad taste on my part if I were not to declare… all books on Wittgenstein are excellent."
This dainty self-compliment does not, unfortunately, cleanse the bad taste left behind by almost everything else on Badiou’s unpalatable menu.
Wittgenstein was the scion of one of the wealthiest and most cultured families of fin-de -siècle Vienna. Gifted with a brilliant technical mind, driven by intellectual curiosity, and intensely passionate about values, he produced his seminal Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus before he was thirty. It inspired the Vienna Circle with its distinctive and seemingly positivistic account of what counts as the world, how language meaningfully depicts that world, and the framework function of logic and mathematics. Those notions spread across Britain and America, as Vienna’s leading philosophers fled the Nazis for Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Iowa and UCLA. (I earned my own PhD at UCLA, where my professor David Kaplan had done his PhD under the great Viennese Rudolph Carnap.)
Britain and America, thus, became the strongholds of analytic philosophy, which is marked by a commitment to clarity about the philosophical question and to careful reasoning about the possible answers, often with painstaking attention to the roles of language and logic. Continental philosophy, as it evolved in Europe, criticises analytic philosophy as excessively technical, ahistorical, apolitical and pseudoscientific. Analytic philosophy, in return, criticises continental philosophy as excessively literary, psychoanalytic, historicist, politicised and pseudoscientific. Or they ignore one another, uneasily sensing that something else called philosophy is on the other side of the Atlantic Wall (per Giovanna Borradori’s term).
Enter Badiou, French philosopher du jour, lionised on the book jacket with the pronouncement, "A figure like Plato or Hegel walks here among us!" Can he guide us heroically over or around or through the Atlantic Wall? Surely he is winking at us with an apparently antagonistic title like Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy?
Alas, the title is no wink. Plato walks not among these pages, for there is neither dialogue nor midwifery to be found. Walking among us, rather, is the grandiloquent utterer of the 1977 line, "There is only one great philosopher of our time: Mao Zedong." Badiou does allow that the Tractatus is a masterpiece. But why? He can find little redeeming value in the early Wittgenstein and refuses to acknowledge his mature work, a decline into "sophistry". He revels in sneering ad hominems and name-calling. Wittgenstein is a "misogynist" and a "Stalinist of spirituality", guilty of "too much arrogant skepticism", "masked by a kind of speculative insolence", beset by "philosophical contempt for philosophy", using "language of latent despair", with a "career" in scare quotes, which has the "absurd and disgusting" feature of ending up at Cambridge.
If the Tractatus is a masterpiece, then, it is a masterpiece of antiphilosophy. Philosophers are friends of wisdom (right?), so antiphilosophers must be enemies of wisdom, friends of foolishness. Badiou is more specific. Philosophers, for him, are "political militants", "aesthetes", "lovers", and "savants", who speak with an "authoritarian" voice as they erect their "cathedral of ideas".
Antiphilosophers are "awakeners" who keep us philosophers on our humble path – and we thus apparently owe them the same respect we owe those diseases that make us stronger if they do not kill us. Antiphilosophers eschew systems, hate mathematics, find Plato "abominable", tend towards mysticism, and derivatively define themselves by their philosophical foes – Pascal vs. Descartes, Rousseau vs. the Philosophes, Kierkegaard vs. Hegel, Nietzsche vs. Plato.
Why does Wittgenstein merit this epithet? It is partly, says Badiou, because of the philosopher’s "vigilant hatred" for mathematics. This is a criticism that is entirely original and patently false. Badiou rejects Wittgenstein’s conclusion that mathematical statements, serving as scaffolding, are strictly without sense. He thus reinterprets as "hatred" Wittgenstein’s fierce interest in the logical foundations of mathematics, which led him first to Frege, then to Russell, and then to the creative and influential views of the Tractatus.
And Wittgenstein also partly merits this epithet because he consigns the important things – philosophy, art, spirituality, morality – to that arena which cannot be spoken, but only shown, since those statements are, likewise, strictly without sense. This is the point of the famous final line of the Tractatus. Having used the ladder of language to this lofty perspective, Wittgenstein sees that he now must throw it away, for "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." His distinction between saying and showing is provocative and fruitful, echoing similar distinctions made throughout history and worthy of exploration by friends of wisdom. It may fail, for reasons that Wittgenstein himself develops in his mature work. But it is not foolish.
Badiou’s bombast finally testifies in defense of Wittgenstein. Not that Badiou admits that Wittgenstein might be right. But this uncharitable and incomprehensible critique shows it. For silence would say so much more.
Philosopher David Wilson is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Webster University in St. Louis
by Alain Badiou, trans. Bruno Bosteels
Verso; Tra Edition (2011), pp. 192