“Wittgenstein, Pedagogy, and Literary Criticism” by Timothy Yu and “Wittgenstein’s Use” by R. M. Berry in New Literary History

One of the pleasures of summer is discovering (or re-discovering) articles published over the last year. Here are two on our “to-read” list:

The Summer 2013 issue of New Literary History includes Timothy Yu’s article “Wittgenstein, Pedagogy, and Literary Criticism” (Vol. 44, No. 3, 361-378). Here is the abstract:

“Both literary critics and philosophers have sought to use the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein to provide a firmer foundation for the way we talk about literature. These attempts have generally fallen short in their attempts to extract a positive theory of literature and reading from Wittgenstein. In working through some of Wittgenstein’s remarks on music and poetry in Zettel, I suggest that Wittgenstein does not give us a “new” way of reading, but instead gives us tools for clearing up misunderstandings about our process of reading. Reading Wittgenstein may help us give literary criticism peace, allowing us to see that our disagreements about critical styles do not prevent us from carrying forward the day-to-day practice of criticism. Wittgenstein’s focus on how we learn to use words turns our attention away from literary theory and toward literary pedagogy, reminding us to think about how we learn and teach the very terms that we debate and question.”

The Autumn 2013 issue of the same journal proposes a number of scintillating reflections on the uses and value of literature, art, humanistic study in the contemporary age. Rita Felski’s introduction sheds light on the stakes of such reflection today: “What are the uses of literature—or film, sculpture, dance, philosophy, music, dramatic performance? And to what purpose are these subjects being taught in colleges and universities? At present, such questions are very much in the air, thanks to a heated back-and-forth about the value of humanistic study. Bristling with a new-found sense of indignation, politicians and pundits are demanding that the humanities be called to account, that professors be required to document the uses of the subjects they teach. There is no longer any agreement, it would seem, that Baudelaire and Buddhism are worth studying for their own sake. To many scholars, such demands seem radically misconceived—a sign of the growing philistinism and creeping corporatization of academic life. Yet in certain cases, interlocutors may be talking at cross-purposes. After all, what exactly do we mean when we talk about use? What does “use” encompass and how might its meanings and possibilities be understood? The essays in this special issue share a sharpened curiosity about a constantly invoked yet rarely examined idea.”

Of particular interest to readers of this blog might be R. M. Berry’s essay, “Wittgenstein’s Use” (New Literary History, vol. 44, No. 4, Autumn 2013, 617-638). Please find the abstract below:

The current “crisis” of the humanities foregrounds conceptual confusions about the humanities’ use. Wittgenstein’s account of meaning as use can help clarify these confusions, but only by making humanistic knowledge internal to the knower’s form of life. Part of the reason recent debates over the practical value of the humanities have proven so unsatisfying is their failure to explain how it is possible for humanistic knowledge to be either useful or useless to the human beings whose lives form its basis. Because in Philosophical Investigations knowledge of human life is normally expressed in how humans live, not in descriptions of how humans live, the practical value—that is, the use—of humanistic study seems obvious only in contexts where dehumanization has become continuous with human life. Martha Nussbaum’s attempt to enlist the humanities in combatting dehumanization fails to account adequately for this dependence of humanistic knowledge on humans’ alienation from themselves and their kind. If Wittgenstein can meaningfully describe the natural conditions of being human, it is only because he addresses readers who, like himself, find it natural in certain contexts to live as though having forgotten them. Chinua Achebe’s account of racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness also addresses readers for whom, in certain contexts, dehumanization comes naturally, but Achebe presupposes, rather than describes, what it means to know another as a human being. In Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, knowing a human being is a matter of acknowledging, not necessarily of describing, naturally occurring conditions of one’s own and others’ form of life. However, in contexts where dehumanization has come to seem natural—that is, where humanity is experienced as an external condition to which, in living, everyone conforms—acknowledging what it means to be human requires describing what one knows. These descriptions will comprise contributions to the humanities. Knowing another as a human being, when not naturally occurring, means getting to know human life better, and getting to know human life is Wittgenstein’s use.

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