Some Pretentious Wittgenstein Name-Dropping

“Hastings-on-Hudson is a village, in a Wittgensteinian sort of way,” Mr. Wallach said.  (Quoted in “Creating Hipsturbia“)

Intellectual name-dropping is a favourite pastime of pretentious people and a common facet of academic life. In his book, French Theory, François Cusset has a good section about this phenomena which he calls “The Politics of Quotation” (which is, to be frank, a pretty pretentious thing to call pretentious name-dropping – how was that Cusset name drop, by the way?). He notes that like all name-dropping, to cite certain works is to elevate one’s own work by association. In academic works or discourse it is most effective if the audience is only tangentially familiar with the works of the thinker being name-dropped, but nonetheless impressed by their repute because they (by which I mean the audience – the pronouns are getting a little messy in this sentence) heard other people say smart-sounding things about them (by which I mean the thinker). This way the name-dropper doesn’t have to face any uncomfortable call-outs on the potential vacuousness of their reference.

There are, of course, a slew of reasons why one name would be more impressive to drop than another (“the politics of quotation” as Cusset notes is  a function of the broader politics of academia such as disciplinary positioning, intellectual disputes, etc.) but generally the most effective names to drop are those thinkers whose works are the most esoteric with a great potential for interpretive flexibility. E.g.: Blah, blah, blah, Derrida. Blah, blah, blah, Deleuze. This is helpful because the interpretive flexibility allows for one to evade substantive discussions about the meaning or validity of concepts. On more than one occasion in my academic career have I been in discussions where two or more parties were ostensibly having a discussion about some thinker, where nobody actually knew what they were talking about.

Anyway, I wanted to write a short post about a favourite dropped name, Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein gets “cited” often in STS works, and often questionably. The prominence of Wittgenstein in constructivist accounts of science and technology can probably be attributed to Bloor, who wrote an early influential paper called “Wittgenstein and Mannheim on the Sociology of Mathematics,” (which I can’t actually find anywhere online), and later a book and then another propounding a sociological reading of Wittgenstein (it is interesting to note that neither of these books have garnered any serious attention among Wittgenstein scholars). I think often when people are citing Wittgenstein in STS, they are really citing Bloor. Bloor’s readings of Wittgenstein are inventive and thorough (I don’t mean to imply that Bloor is simply name-dropping) but nonetheless debatable and perhaps uncritically repeated. However, as is often the case, once I begin reading a little bit I find someone else has already beat me to the punch (in this case by 30 years!) and made more or less the same arguments that I wanted to make, albeit more coherently and intelligently. In his review of Bloor’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, Ian Hacking reflects on the hackneyed use of the term “forms of life” and the likelihood that Wittgenstein would disagree with Bloor’s sociological interpretation. These were precisely the things I wanted to discuss, but it would just be better if you read Hacking’s review instead.

However, though likely completely extraneous, I will say a few more brief things about “forms of life.” It is interesting that Hacking calls the term hackneyed thirty-years ago…what does that make it today? A year following Hacking’s review, Shapin and Schaffer made “liberal, but informal” (shouldn’t that be liberal and informal?) use of the term in their influential work Leviathan and the Air-Pump. This work was probably also a big contributor to the term’s persistent clichéd use in STS (though they were undoubtedly influenced by Bloor). There are a few things that are noteworthy about this phrase. Firstly, Wittgenstein used it hardly at all. He mentions it a scant five times in the entire Philosophical Investigations (and only three times in the main part of the book). For good measure, here they are:

19. It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle. -Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering Yes and No – and countless other things. – And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

23. […] There are countless kinds [of sentences]’ countless different kinds of use of all the things we call “signs,” “words,” “sentences.” And this diversity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten. The word “language-game” is used here to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.

241. “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” -What is true or false is what human beings say; and it is in their language that human beings agree. This is agreement not in opinions, but rather in form of life.

(From Philosophy of Psychology, or Part II)

1. Can only those hope who can talk? Only those who have mastered the use of a language. That is to say, the manifestations of hope are modifications of this complicated form of life.  (If a concept points to a characteristic of human handwriting, it has no application to beings that do not write).

341. A dispute may arise over the correct result of a calculation (say, of a rather long addition). But such disputes are rare and of short duration. They can be decided, as we say, ‘with certainty.’ Mathematicians don’t in general quarrel over the result of a calculation. (This is an important fact.) – Were it otherwise: if, for instance, one mathematician was convinced that a figure had altered unperceived, or that his or someone else’s memory had been deceptive, and so on – then our concept of ‘mathematical certainty’ would not exist. […] 345. What has to be accepted, the given, is – one might say – forms of life.

The way the term gets prominently employed is as indicated in proposition 23. There is an obvious resonance here to scholars that were trying to develop ways of thinking about science as a contextualized practice, rather than a manifestation of a set of well-defined and logical principles. That Wittgenstein mentions it so infrequently does not mean that it does not capture core facets of his overall conception of language or that it is unimportant. But it is to say that it is not clearly defined. And it is also apparent that the concept does not stand alone, ready for “liberal and informal” use. Indeed, in the last instance, one is required to include an earlier proposition in order for forms of life to be contextualized (although little is done to clarify matters). This is indicative of Wittgenstein’s work broadly speaking. One needs to understand it comprehensively, not in tidbits. Now, Shapin and Schaffer are by far from the most egregious liberal users of Wittgenstein, and their relativistic interpretation of forms of life – as the conditions for scientific language and practice as being contingent and contextual – is not unusual (though it is arguably unrigorous). But, given that the relativistic interpretation is debatable, or unclear in details (Wittgenstein suggests that there is a universal human form of life, as “shared human behaviour is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language” (206) – not to mention the categorical distinction between the forms of life of lions and humans (PPF 307)) what kind of onus is placed on the concept user?

I’m not trying to say that concepts are not open to interpretation, or redefinition. Certainly conceptual liberties are a matter of taste and debate. Personally, I think if you are going to cite a thinker’s concept in support of your own, it would probably be prudent to justify the use of the concept by being fair to the thinker’s intention, or if reinterpreting the concept, justify the reinterpretation. As Hacking notes in his review of Bloor, there are many other thinkers that would be apposite to bolstering a sociological view of science – Kuhn, Lacan, Garfinkel (and we could add Fleck, Canguilhem, etc.). Indeed, Bloor and STS notwithstanding, there was (and outside of STS, is) no sociological tradition surrounding Wittgenstein. So why use Wittgenstein at all? Is “forms of life” (in German, Lebensform) really that profound of a phrase? There are a myriad other phrases that would shallowly do the same kind of work. Paradigms comes to mind. Or epistemes, or though-collectives, or cultural resources, or even context. “Forms of life” is sexy, I suppose. And I suspect some of it has to do, at least, with the reasons I mentioned above: Wittgenstein is esoteric, has a high degree of interpretative flexibility, as well as a general cachet. And people can get away with reinterpretations of his work in STS because of our distance from philosophical disciplines that might make a critique (which is not to say that there haven’t been critiques). Most people simply haven’t read Wittgenstein and so liberal use of his concepts is easy to get away with. But imagine analogous situations. Haraway’s work is arguably esoteric and open to interpretive flexibility, but I frequently encounter intense debates about the “proper” use of her concepts. Same goes for Latour. Or Heidegger. Imagine if scholars started making liberal and informal use of “situated knowledges,” or “nature-cultures,” or “enframing.” Imagine the horror!

Anyway, that scholars can at times be vacuous and pretentious is hardly a revelation. Really, I just wanted an excuse to use that preposterous quote as a lead.



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