Wittgenstein and the Fear of Public Language

Rei Terada

“Throughout his life Wittgenstein was convinced that he could not make himself understood”— so a friend recalls.1 Wittgenstein’s confidence in the stability and public character of language coexisted, it would seem, with a dreadful expectation that he would himself be unintelligible. Commentators who relate Wittgenstein’s psychology or biography to his philosophy often do so by setting them in opposition: by writing his polemic against private language, it is suggested, Wittgenstein fought off a personal susceptibility to myths of romantic solitude. But the assumption of antagonism may not be apt: hard-core belief in the public nature of language and a terror of isolation may well go together. The more public language is, the more awful failures of communication must be. When one can no longer imagine that an utterance retains a meaning independent of its reception, an ineffective utterance matters more. Without an ideal standard, we need only to be generally, not completely, competent; but at the same time, we need only to be generally incompetent to become linguistic pariahs. And for the very reason that one’s intelligibility is never perfect or finally destroyed, each exchange counts. Wittgenstein’s life and work alike show that these incremen1. M. O’C. Drury, “Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), 93. Drury was one of many students who found Wittgenstein’s anxiety contagious. He published a collection of essays entitled The Danger of Words and discontinued his memoirs of Wittgenstein because, according to Rhees, he thought “what he had written would do more harm than good” (ix).

Common Knowledge 8:3 Copyright 2002 by Duke University Press


tal shifts in the account book of one’s intelligibility are large enough to perceive with the naked eye. While it is sometimes assumed that Wittgenstein’s general legacy is a view of language and social learning that is comfortable, agreeable to imperfections, Wittgenstein’s writing and life themselves show that some amount of anxiety is built into any public language model. Language games, like other games, are agonistic; they produce wins and losses as well as draws and exchanges. While this feature does not discredit Wittgenstein’s otherwise persuasive model of communication, it does disturb our impression that the little conflicts of everyday communication are not worth worrying about. They are a recurring focus of Wittgenstein’s own thought: he is a vivid anthropologist of normal enmity. And although he insists that the pain of normal conflict is itself normal, he makes it clear how personally consequential such pain can be. For Wittgenstein, commitment to public language entailed living in an economy in which, he believed, he was one of those who would have most to pay. The secondary literature avoids dealing with this issue by solving the problems posed by Wittgenstein’s works, then imagining the world described by its solutions. I would therefore like to make the experiment of refraining, at times, from the explication of difficult passages in order to bring forward the phenomenology of social exchanges in Wittgenstein’s life and texts. His phobia of misunderstanding is worth considering, not so that we can come up with a different idea of language that would avoid it, but so that we can understand what normal enmity is really like. It is both discomfiting and illuminating to observe the deeply unconventional and exceptional Wittgenstein justifying conventionalism and defending rules against exceptions. Wittgenstein’s intellectual consistency and his tendency toward self-denial conspire to sacrifice Wittgenstein’s own normality, in his view, to that of his philosophy.


Pe a c e a nd M i nd : Pa r t 3


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