Kenny's Wittgenstein

Anthony Kenny's book Wittgenstein is, as one might easily guess from the title, a book about the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kenny approaches his subject developmentally, attempting on the one hand to faithfully present Wittgenstein's thought at various different stages from beginning to end, and on the other hand making a case that there is much more continuity than many of Wittgenstein's readers suppose. Kenny's book moves from a brief philosophical-biographical overview of Wittgenstein's life and work to a discussion of Wittgenstein's main jumping off point - the systematic logical works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell - and then from there jumps straight into Wittgenstein's early notebooks. Kenny explains lucidly how Wittgenstein moved from the tutelage of Frege and Russell to the material of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, and from there how Wittgenstein began to see that work's metaphysics of 'logical atomism' (Russell's term) begin to unravel leading eventually to the work of his later years.

And in narrating this development, Kenny presents a convincing case that the later Wittgenstein is not as drastic a departure from the Tractatus as is often claimed. The work's final chapter, "The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Philosophy", sums up this argument and brings the book's exposition of the essential contributions of this great 20th century philosopher beautifully to a close.

According to Kenny, the alleged drammatic differences between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations are typically articulated along three lines:

(1) In the Tractatus Wittgenstein put forward a metaphysical atomism: the ultimate elements of language are names that designate simple objects; elementary propositions are concatenations of these names, each such proposition being independent of every other such proposition. In the Investigations it is argued that the words 'simple' and 'complex' have no absolute meaning, and the search for the ultimate independent elementary propositions is regarded as a delusion. (2) In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is interested in the formal structures of symbolic logic as a key to the ideal essence of the proposition and of language; in the Investigations he has abandoned the idea that language has an essence and devotes himself to the study of the idioms of ordinary language. (3) Whereas the Tractatus held that sentences had meaning or sense because they were pictures, the Investigations says that the meaning of a sentence is its use or employment or application; the conception that a significant sentence is a picture is replaced in the later thought by the view that the sense of a sentence is determined by the circumstances in which it is uttered and the language-game to which it belongs. (pp. 173-4)

The first point Kenny rightly concedes. The basic thrust of Wittgenstein's later work is based on a critique of this aspect of his early work, as he began to see that the atomism of that work - e.g. the indepencdence of elementary propositions - was untenable.

The second point, according to Kenny, is both right and wrong. The truth of point (1) certainly requires a reworking of the way Wittgenstein understands what is required in the analysis of ordinary language, but the Tractatus is already concerned with ordinary language - it only misfires because of the assumptions of logical atomism. And so point (2) overstates the point.

The third point, however, Kenny thinks is almost entirely misguided. Wittgenstein doesn't so much move from the picture theory of the proposition to the notion language-games. Rather, the latter extends the former and fills it out. Kenny's account of Wittgenstein's development goes to great pains to ensure we see that even after the rejection of atomism he still returns to the notion of a picture. While pictures don't get a lot of mention in the Investigations itself, they do show up in basically all of the intervening works from the 1930's, and it continues to be a powerful concept for Wittgenstein's understanding of language even after his full 'maturation.' As such it is unfair to say that there are two Wittgensteins as it has been common to argue.

After responding to these three points in kind, Kenny lists again 8 theses that he had used earlier to explain the picture theory and how it was modified (though not abandoned!) by the later Wittgenstein. From there he posts a long quote from the Introduction to the 1913 (pre- Tractatus) "Notes on Logic", and then lists 6 ways that the later Wittgenstein largely maintained the same philosophical vision: 1) Philosophy is purely descriptive. 2) Philosophy is not a natural science. 3) Philosophy and pictures. 4) Philosophy consists of logic and metaphysics. 5) Philosophy is the doctrine of logical form. 6) Logical propositions are unique.

Overall, Kenny's book was an enjoyable read, and one that was accessible even to a novice like myself. And importantly his exposition succeeded in making me eager (and, I hope, more able) to dive into my next self-appointed philosophical task: to tackle the Philosophical Investigations itself.

Disclosure: I did not receive a free review copy of this book, probably because Wiley-Blackwell Publishing has no idea who I am. I think my sister bought it for me for Christmas last year. Which was very nice of her, because Blackwell books are really expensive (list price for this 183 page paperback book is $38.95).