NDPR Review: James Klagge’s “Wittgenstein in Exile”

NDPR has published a review — written by Lars Hertzberg (Åbo Akademi University) — of James Klagge’s Wittgenstein in Exile (MIT University Press 2011). To read the whole thing, please click here.

Here is how the review begins:

In Wittgenstein in Exile, James Klagge discusses the tendency of philosophers from the time of Wittgenstein down to this day to find his thought either difficult to understand, hard to accept, or both. He argues that the difficulty is not so much one of style or method, but rather of the spirit in which Wittgenstein worked, and he suggests that the problem should be seen in the light of the intellectual distance between Wittgenstein and his cultural surroundings, a distance that he himself was painfully aware of and that can be characterized by means of the metaphor of exile. Wittgenstein, Klagge claims, was an exile in space but also in time: in Spenglerian terms, Wittgenstein saw himself as the representative of a culture that was already a matter of the past, while his audience belonged to its present state of decline. (At this point, it might be objected that Wittgenstein saw himself as torn between the old and the new; thus, he worried about the fact that he was not carrying out the kind of work the great classical philosophers had done.) While on this theme, one might ask whether Wittgenstein’s sexual orientation may not have contributed to his sense of exile.

Klagge’s book is rich and varied in content, to the point of being scattered, combining biography and cultural history with philosophy (including 62 pages of endnotes). To make his case, Klagge, on the one hand, invokes facts about Wittgenstein’s life, the way he thought about himself and his work, while on the other hand he discusses features of Wittgenstein’s thought that may strike us as particularly difficult to embrace.

One might ask: does not the idea that we need to invoke something external in order to understand a philosopher presuppose that there is something askew with his work? Wittgenstein put this issue in a nutshell in his letter to C. K. Ogden, the editor of the Tractatus: “Why should the general reviewer know my age? Is it as much as to say: You can’t expect more of a young chap especially when he writes a book in such noise as must have been on the Austrian front?” (Quoted on p. 12).

Be that as it may, this is not the type of explaining Klagge is engaged in. He is not so much trying to account for Wittgenstein’s ideas from his life, but rather to explain our difficulty understanding him from the relation between his life and ours, i.e., as one might put it, the life of the average Western intellectual of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. If there is a shortcoming here, it is to be laid at least as much at our door as at Wittgenstein’s. This seems to me to be a central strand of Klagge’s argument.

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