Augustine and the "Poetic Composition" of Philosophical Investigations

By Rothstein, Eric | CLIO, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Augustine and the "Poetic Composition" of Philosophical Investigations


Rothstein, Eric, CLIO


Although Ludwig "Wittgenstein is widely regarded as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century," David Stern writes, "there is almost no agreement on even the most basic questions about how to understand the Philosophical Investigations." (1) Two such questions, I propose, are these: what can one say about its genre? And why does Wittgenstein embark on the Investigations by quoting from St. Augustine's Confessions, a paradigm for autobiographical form and in the typology of salvation, but also a book in many speech genres, often lyrical, praising, or imploring? One might guess that the questions are related, from Wittgenstein's advice in 1933-34, early during his work on the Investigations, that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition." (2) If one explores this point by asking if the Investigations in part revisits the whole of the Confessions with a suitably updated poetics, one clarifies its forms of thought, their performance, and the relation more broadly between forms and performance.

"A philosophical problem has the form: 'I don't know my way about,"' Wittgenstein writes ([section] 123). (3) The Investigations, a book about ways about, records "travel[s] over a wide field of thought," with "long and involved journeyings" that crisscross. Reconnoitering its monopolized polylogue, so to speak, one must negotiate "the multiplicity of voices, the lack of clear demarcation between voices, the frequent shifts in topic, the fragmentary arguments, the multitude of questions, suggestions, instructions, stories, and far-fetched imaginary examples" that "often permit, or even invite, multiple readings." One is "forced to work out who is speaking, where the discussion is going, and what larger context or contexts these words belong to." (4) Do ongoing rhetorical criteria or expressive ones govern how we do this? Various philosophers have proposed each. Did Wittgenstein write this way in fidelity to his own mind or feelings? Is he staging an agon among several positions? Does he, a Socrates, nudge readers into the web of his, Wittgenstein's, own intellectual fait accompli? Is he trying to keep us from passivity? "Anything your reader can do for himself leave to him," he wrote in 1948. (5)

With such questions bubbling, one may experience a shock of recognition in moving from the Investigations (1953) to David Lodge's retrospective description of "modernist fiction" a generation later. What appears odd in Wittgenstein is the norm in the novels that Lodge treats. They are, he says, overtly innovatory and concerned with consciousness and the unconscious. So are the Investigations. The novels diminish the traditional scope and scale of external, objective events in favor of "introspection, analysis, reflection, and reverie." In the Investigations, similarly, events--or their discursive equivalents, sharp stages in an exposition or argument--fade and diffuse. We become familiar by inference with the events into which the novels plunge us. Again like the Investigations, they aid us with neither a straight, chronological ordering of materials nor a reliable, omniscient, and intrusive narrator. Their multiple points of view are limited and fallible, and they employ "alternative methods of aesthetic ordering ... such as allusion to or imitation of literary models ... and the repetition-with-variation of motifs, images, [and] symbols, [using] a technique [of] ... 'rhythm,' 'Leitmotif,' and 'spatial form'." (6)

Lodge might have been describing Philosophical Investigations, its mixing of genres, and often cryptic and unresolved lines of argument. As to Leitmotiven, the Investigations also proceeds by repetition-with-variation, as "the same or almost the same points [are] approached afresh from different directions," Wittgenstein writes. Displaying a series of resonant, situated particulars replaces the quest for general, correct positions, such as one finds in almost all Wittgenstein's compeers and successors. …

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