NDPR Review: William Child’s “Wittgenstein” (Routledge)

NDPR has published a review — written by Paul Livingston (Philosophy, University of New Mexico) — of William Child’s Wittgenstein (Routledge 2011). To access the review in full, please click here. Here is how it begins:

In 1962, Stanley Cavell published a highly critical review of what was then one of the few secondary books in English on Wittgenstein’s late philosophy, David Pole’s Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein. In his review, entitled “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy,” Cavell challenged, among other things, the ease of Pole’s suggestion that “Wittgenstein’s central ideas . . . are essentially simple,” Pole’s tendency to assimilate Wittgenstein’s views to received positions within “analytical philosophizing,” and, especially, his pervasive failure to appreciate what Cavell saw as Wittgenstein’s specific methods, including his continual appeal to ordinary language. Those who share something of Cavell’s sense of the importance of such methodological considerations, and their relevance to the ongoing reception of Wittgenstein’s thought, may find cause for concern in the fact that William Child’s guidebook Wittgenstein essentially replicates several of these problematic features and omissions of Pole’s work. Still, this should not prevent us from appreciating the genuine merits of Child’s book, which is uniformly clear, comprehensive and (according to its own method) highly rigorous.  As such it will be very useful for those approaching Wittgenstein for the first time or seeking an understanding of how the various arguments, views, and positions one may cull from his texts can be situated within the discussions and debates that occupy many analytic philosophers today.

Child’s book begins with an informative, if breezy, summary of Wittgenstein’s biography, using quotations from letters and memoirs to establish something of the unique and uncompromising character that animated his writing and philosophizing. The next two chapters concern the Tractatus. In chapter 2, Child moves quickly and lucidly through the “picture” theory of meaning, the truth-functional structure of propositions, and the tautological nature of logical propositions. Chapter 3 treats the Tractatus‘ conception of the interrelated issues of the structure of reality and the limits of language, offering three interpretations of the early Wittgenstein’s “metaphysical picture”: a “realist” interpretation according to which there are absolute, objective facts about the basic constituents of reality; an “idealist” interpretation according to which these ultimate constituents are “dependent on our system of thought or language,” (p. 55) and finally a “quietist” or “deflationary” option on which the very question of dependence is ultimately nonsensical. Chapter 4 gives an illuminating description of the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking from his return to philosophical work in 1929 to the Philosophical Investigations, including Wittgenstein’s critique there of his earlier thought, and chapters 5 and 6 treat the topics of intentionality, rule-following, mind and private language. Chapters 7 and 8 discuss topics that are often passed over in synoptic accounts of Wittgenstein’s work: the late work On Certainty, and Wittgenstein’s views on religion and ritual belief. Finally, the concluding chapter 9 gives a brief overview of what Child understands as Wittgenstein’s “legacy and influence” for the practice and concerns of analytic philosophers today.

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