Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism

By Chase, Greg | Twentieth Century Literature, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism


Chase, Greg, Twentieth Century Literature


Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism, by Rebecca Schuman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. 220 pages.

Wittgenstein and Modernism, edited by Michael LeMahieu and Karen Zumhagen-Yekple. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 301 pages.

A compelling case exists for reading literary modernism alongside the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The case in part is historical: the span of Wittgenstein's life (1889-1951) makes him a nearly exact contemporary of canonical modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce (both 1882-1941). Wittgenstein briefly joined--and then promptly quit--the same Cambridge intellectual society that counted among its members such Bloomsbury-affiliated figures as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, and Woolf's husband Leonard. Scholars have often identified cosmopolitanism and global warfare as two key features of Western modernity; Wittgenstein was an Austrian native who lived much of his adult life in England, and who fought for the Austrian army on the front lines of World War I. But the case is also stylistic. Though Wittgenstein's thought has long been associated with logical positivism, it would be a mistake to assume that Wittgenstein shared the logical positivists' disdain for the literary, as Michael LeMahieu has shown. (1) In fact, Wittgenstein stipulated that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition" ([1977] 1980, 24) (2) and wrote expressive, aphoristic remarks like, "What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle" ([1953] 2009, 309). Such writing suggests an aesthetic sensibility closer to Friedrich Nietzsche's--and thus to that of modernism--than to the logical positivism of Rudolf Carnap.

Two recent books make significant contributions to the body of scholarship that reintegrates Wittgenstein into the literary and cultural contexts of his historical moment: Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism, by Rebecca Schuman, and Wittgenstein and Modernism, edited by LeMahieu and Karen Zumhagen-Yekple. The collection includes essays from some of the most prominent scholars to have explored Wittgenstein's relations to aesthetic modernism (Marjorie Perloff, Charles Altieri, Allan Janik) and features exciting work from a number of additional voices. Both books are admirable testaments to what the academic community stands to gain from interdisciplinary scholarship on philosophy and literature: both books make ambitious, generally persuasive claims about how the two fields inform and clarify each other, while avoiding the temptation to ignore or elide important disciplinary distinctions between them.

Schuman begins with the epigraph Wittgenstein selected for his major late work, Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953), from a play by the nineteenth-century Viennese dramatist Johann Nestroy: "But overall, the thing about progress is that it always appears greater than it really is" (5).The line speaks to Wittgenstein's inclination to dissolve, rather than solve, philosophical problems; instead of offering new answers to questions that have traditionally preoccupied philosophers, Wittgenstein often suggests that such questions are not worth asking in the first place, since they rely on unclear or nonsensical uses of language. As he writes in the Investigations, "Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? ... But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood" ([1953] 2009, 118). As Schuman shows, this impulse persists throughout Wittgenstein's career, despite significant methodological distinctions between the Investigations and his first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (originally published in 1921). Bringing this Wittgensteinian perspective to bear on Kafka, Schuman finds that his works often mislead us into thinking we have made progress in understanding what they mean. …

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