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In the previous post I noted that I am completely unimpressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. What I know of the rest of his work, at least the Philosophical Investigations, has done little to impress me either. (Most of what I read serves to convince me more strongly that he is wrong.)

I suppose I’ve long been predisposed against Wittgenstein because of the unfortunate ways his thought is used in religious studies. In that discipline, Wittgenstein is most often quoted for sections 66-7 of the Philosophical Investigations. Here he introduces the awful analytic concept of “family resemblances,” which has given too many contemporary religionists an all-too-convenient way to defend those concepts, especially “religion” and (premodern) “Hinduism”, that interfere with our understanding more than help it. In the Investigations, referring to the concept of “game” (or rather the German Spiel), Wittgenstein tells us that there is no essential meaning underlying the concepts, only a network of interrelated meanings which he calls “family resemblances.” And I have read far too many articles and books that note how “Hinduism” and “religion” cover a range of concepts that effectively have nothing to do with one another. But then, rather than taking the logical next step and saying that those concepts are misleading and should be avoided when one is speaking precisely and carefully, they find it adequate oto say that “Hinduism” or “religion” is a family-resemblance concept, and expect that the debate is ended by waving the wand of Wittgenstein’s words.

I, on the other hand, am persuaded by Wilfred Cantwell Smith‘s refutation of this concept in What Is Scripture? (p.365-66): “the metaphor gains its plausibility from being based on a fundamental and quite ‘objective’ linkage underlying the observed diversities of a literal family: namely, the genetic commonality of blood kinship with certain genes that constitute the family (and gives rise to some resemblances).” Even if one were to substitute a different metaphor, I don’t find this “network of relationships” approach an adequate way of looking at concepts. Some concepts mislead us and deserve to be thrown out. One could just as easily look at the various phenomena which scientists once tried to describe as phlogiston and say, as these scholars do about “Hinduism” and “religion,” that phlogiston is a family-resemblance concept, thereby keeping it around. Or, one could do the far more plausible thing and recognize that phlogiston is a worthless concept, purging it from our vocabulary.

Wittgenstein often liked to complain that philosophy “bewitches” us with its supposed misuse of language. I often suspect it is Wittgenstein himself bewitching us with his romantic persona: the young philosopher wandering into stodgy turn-of-the-century Cambridge and throwing off all established convention, clad in a leather jacket, actively homosexual in post-Victorian Britain, even waving a fire poker at Karl Popper – and yet getting away with it all because even the dons were impressed by his intellect. Who wouldn’t be dazzled by such a personality? Haven’t all of us wanted at some point to be the cocky young firebrand whose ideas are so brilliant that the rules don’t apply to us anymore? One gets so infatuated by this anti-authoritarian mythos of Wittgenstein that one accepts the authoritarian tone of his philosophical writing, the way so many of his ideas are phrased as commands to be obeyed. (“Don’t think, look!”)

I am deeply tempted by such an account, explaining Wittgenstein’s appeal as all style and no substance. It seems clear to me that Wittgenstein’s personality gives his ideas more of an appeal than their intrinsic worth is likely to merit; no matter how great his thought was, nobody is going to make a movie dramatizing the life of Immanuel Kant. But that’s not to say that there’s no substance there at all. Indeed, I suspect that there must be, for the most un-Wittgenstenian of reasons: my own Hegelian tendencies. The most important philosophical truths I’ve found have been guided by the insight that great philosophers become great for a reason – and not a merely superficial reason, but an important truth that their ideas have caught hold of, something that needs to be incorporated in any future synthesis. (A similar tendency underlies my embrace of Thomas Kuhn’s perspective on authorship, asking how an intelligent person could have written apparent absurdities.) Thus I am inclined to extend the sort of charity to Wittgenstein that he never seems willing to extend to his own predecessors. There’s got to be something worthwhile in Wittgenstein; I just haven’t figured out what it is. And I fully admit I have read very little of him. Readers, you seem to like Wittgenstein a lot better than I do so far. What do you think I’m missing?