(OPE-L) Marx and Wittgenstein

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Thu Nov 13 2003 - 00:08:54 EST

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2003.10.13

Kitching, Gavin and Pleasants, Nigel (eds.), Marx and Wittgenstein:
Knowledge, Morality and Politics, Routledge, 2002, 320pp, $95.00
(hbk), ISBN 0415247756.
Reviewed by:

David G. Stern
University of Iowa

What, the reader of this review may well wonder, is the point of a
collection of essays connecting Marx and Wittgenstein? After all, "it
is possible to take almost any two thinkers of genuine insight and
sophistication and to find some parallels and commonalities in their
thought. Indeed, doing so is one of the favourite intellectual
pastimes of all academics." Indeed, one could legitimately ask
whether "any two thinkers have less in common than Karl Marx and
Ludwig Wittgenstein." Consider, for a moment, the case for the
prosecution. On the one hand we have Marx, political activist and
economic theorist, the founder of the 'science' of 'historical
materialism,' whose Theses on Feuerbach proclaim that "philosophers
have only interpreted the world in various ways, the thing however is
to change it." On the other, Wittgenstein, a philosopher who "showed
virtually no interest in conventional political activity," famous for
writing that "philosophy . . . leaves everything as it is" and who
asked himself "who knows the laws by which society evolves?" only to
answer "I am sure they are a closed book to the cleverest of men."

Gavin Kitching's excellent introduction to Marx and Wittgenstein not
only anticipates and responds to these objections-all of the
quotations in the previous paragraph are taken from his opening
essay-but also provides a helpful orientation as to the range of
approaches taken by the contributors to this volume. Kitching's
response to these objections is carefully measured. He sums up the
point of the book in terms of three interrelated aims, aims that echo
the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Kitching
tells us that the book as a whole aims to show that (1) there are
important commonalities in the thought of the two writers; (2) there
are, nevertheless, important differences between Marx and
Wittgenstein, and among Marxian Wittgensteinians; (3) yet a synthesis
of Marx and Wittgenstein can be "mutually enriching" (pp. 2-3).

The principal historical connections lie partly in Wittgenstein's
sympathy for certain aspects of the left in the 1930s-he is said to
have described himself as "a communist, at heart"-and partly in the
question of the role that Pierro Sraffa's Marxism might have played
in his role as "stimulus for the most consequential ideas" of the
Philosophical Investigations.1 The principal systematic commonalities
lie in Marx's and Wittgenstein's rejection of the dualism of subject
and object, observer and observed, and their turn toward human action
or practice. The principal differences, as indicated above, have to
do with the contrast between Wittgenstein's opposition to scientism,
and scepticism about a science of society, and the Marxist pursuit of
such a science. Furthermore, the individual contributors disagree
greatly about the possibility and desirability of a synthesis of Marx
and Wittgenstein. I will return to the question how far the book
realizes its editors' aims after a brief survey of the individual

The fourteen essays are arranged into six parts, each bearing a title
that sums up its contribution to the story mapped out in the
Introduction. In Part I, "Conventional Wisdoms," T. P. Uschanov
reviews the reception history of Ernest Gellner's polemical attack on
Wittgenstein's philosophy in general, and Gellner's caricature of him
as a covert political conservative, pursuing his political
commitments under cover of philosophical impartiality, in particular.
While Gellner's critique, largely composed of shoddy rhetoric,
insinuation and personal abuse, created considerable controversy, it
was dismissed by the philosophical establishment at the time.
However, his caricature of Wittgenstein was enormously attractive to
those who needed a convenient rationale for dismissing him. It has
since become conventional wisdom in many quarters, and especially
among social scientists, and is certainly part of the reason why a
relatively small number of social scientists on the left have taken a
serious interest in Wittgenstein.

In Part II, "Commonalities," four different ways of connecting the
two thinkers are explored. Ted Schatzki approaches the connections
between Marx and Wittgenstein by considering their conceptions of
natural history; David Rubinstein looks at their understanding of
culture and practical reason; David Andrews gives a
Wittgenstein-influenced reading of Marx on commodity fetishism; and
Terrell Carver discusses their relationship to postmodernism.

In Part III, "Wittgenstein and Sraffa," Keiran Sharpe and John B.
Davis, both experts on economics and philosophy, provide informative
and complementary accounts of how Sraffa's Marxism, and his
particular approach to economics and questions of economic theory,
could have influenced Wittgenstein's work on the Philosophical
Investigations. Sharpe sees the link in terms of the emphasis on the
inter-relationship between social action, criteria, and context in
Sraffa's work, and the ways this would have led him to criticize the
"asocial epistemology" (127) of the Tractatus. Davis highlights the
parallels between Gramsci's unveiling of hidden structures of power,
Sraffa's historicist critique of neo-classical economics, and
Wittgenstein's discussion of family resemblance, rule-following and
practice. Sharpe, by dint of carefully assembling and arranging the
available evidence, makes a surprisingly strong case for what must be
a matter of conjecture; Davis makes the far stronger, and highly
implausible, claim that Wittgenstein's later ideas "presupposed the
same philosophical posture of critique that Sraffa's (and Gramsci's)
possessed" (142).

Part IV, "Disjunctions," draws our attention to a leading area of
disagreement among the contributors, concerning the nature of the
relationship between the everyday use of language and
social-scientific uses of language. In view of Peter Winch's pivotal
role in the debate over this topic, and his formative influence on
most social scientists interested in Wittgenstein, it is appropriate
that both Ted Benton, in "Wittgenstein, Winch and Marx," and Nigel
Pleasants in "Towards a critical use of Marx and Wittgenstein,"
approach this issue by means of a discussion of Winch's
interpretation of Wittgenstein. Benton identifies a tension in Winch
between the naturalistic tenor of most of his work and his commitment
to the anti-naturalistic view that one cannot give a causal account
of human action. His proposed resolution is to give up the
anti-naturalism, a position that is justified by an appeal to
"Wittgenstein's naturalism." Benton's Wittgenstein has a conception
of human nature that is a restatement of Marx's: a Wittgenstein, like
Rubinstein's and Schatzki's, made safe for a traditional sociological
theory, by way of a reading of his philosophy as a theory of
practice. Pleasants, on the other hand, like Fann, Kitching, Carver,
and Read, contends that a construal of Wittgenstein as a practice
theorist, a philosopher who put forward a theory of the social
constitution of mind and meaning in order to undermine the
methodological individualism of traditional philosophy, reproduces
the very methodological errors Wittgenstein opposes. Pleasants'
Wittgenstein conceives of philosophy as an activity of clarification,
one that brings about a change in the way we look at things but does
not consist in the production of a theory of society or of practice:
"what is to be avoided is the tendency-of both Wittgensteinians and
Marxists-to automatically assume there must be an authentic
'Wittgensteinian' or 'Marxist' line on whatever engages their
interest" (165).

Part V, "Forerunners," complicates the relatively self-contained
story told so far, as it draws connections with previous work on the
Marx-Wittgenstein connection. The first published essay on Marx and
Wittgenstein, Ferrucio Rossi-Landi's rich and provocative "Towards a
Marxian use of Wittgenstein," originally published in Italian in
1966, is reprinted in a slightly shortened version. Joachim Israel's
"Remarks on Marxism and the philosophy of language" looks at the
encounter between Wittgenstein and Marx within Marxist philosophy of
language. He first considers Volosinov and Bakhtin as anticipators of
Wittgenstein, then turns to a critique of Rossi-Landi's reading of
Wittgenstein, and ends by recommending Markus' use of Wittgenstein in
developing a contemporary Marxist philosophy of language.

Part VI, "Knowledge, morality and politics" reprises the subtitle of
the book and promises the most direct engagement with the aim of
showing how the encounter between Marx and Wittgenstein can be
philosophically productive. Kitching's "Marxism and reflectivity"
approaches the question of whether Marxism is a science by way of a
highly critical reading of Wright, Levine, and Sober's Reconstructing
Marxism. He identifies the leading failure of that book as a lack of
reflexivity, the very reflexivity that Kitching identifies as central
to both Marx's and Wittgenstein's approach to understanding practice.
Read's "Marx and Wittgenstein on vampires and parasites" draws
parallels between Wittgenstein on the relationship between the
language of everyday and philosophical language, and Marx's account
of exploitation in capitalism. Finally, Fann's "Beyond Marx and
Wittgenstein (A confession of a Wittgensteinian Marxist turned
Taoist)" provides an apt autobiographical conclusion. It tells the
story of his journey from postwar Taiwan to the US in search of a
rational faith, his combination of Wittgenstein's critique of
metaphysics with Marxism-Leninism's critique of capitalism, his
proselytizing support for Mao's Cultural Revolution, his rediscovery
of Wittgenstein's anti-scientism after the collapse of communism, and
his Taoist rejection of Wittgenstein's and Marx's demanding ideals in
favor of a life lived as an end in itself, not as a means to an end.

To what extent, then, will the book as a whole realize its editors'
hopes that bringing Marx and Wittgenstein together in this way will
lead to an open, intense, and honest "dialogue both among and between
Marxists and Wittgensteinians" (xv)? That depends, to a very large
extent, on how one conceives of such a dialogue. Given the
differences in outlook and loyalties separating most Marxists and
most Wittgensteinians-the differences briefly summarized at the
beginning of this review-it seems unlikely that this collection of
attempts to forge links between Wittgenstein and Marxism will have
any more impact on "dominant understandings of Marx or Wittgenstein"
(Kitching, 11) than the surprisingly large number of previous
attempts to do so, a tradition that already includes a number of
books (Manser 1973, Rubinstein 1981, Easton 1983, Kitching 1988,
Pleasants 1999) and many more journal articles.

However, that would be an overly narrow way to answer the question of
the potential impact of this book. Pleasants provides a helpful
framework here, distinguishing three broad kinds of attempts at
relating Marx and Wittgenstein (161). First, there are accounts that
try to show that Marx influenced Wittgenstein, either through
Wittgenstein's reading of specific texts of Marx, or via some
intermediary. As Pleasants notes, these projects are a familiar, and
fairly limited, kind of intellectual history. Furthermore, given the
very scanty evidence, they will always seem speculative at best,
wishful thinking at worst. Second, there are interpretations that
argue for some similarity, or parallel, between certain aspects of
their views, a "conventional scholarly exercise in textual
interpretation and theoretical construction" (161). The principal
problem with this approach, as T. E. Wilkerson unkindly but pithily
observes in his review of another "Wittgenstein and . . . " project,
is that "any two philosophers are similar in some respect, but there
is often little profit in dwelling on the similarity."2

Third, there are writers who go further afield than the historians
and the drawers of similarities. Typically, they use methods or ideas
derived from one thinker to reconstruct the other, or draw on both
for social and political criticism. It is this project-making use of
Marx and Wittgenstein, rather than interpreting them-that is
encapsulated in the epigraph to Rossi-Landi's contribution: "Do not
seek for the meaning of a philosopher, seek for his use: the meaning
of a philosopher is his use in the culture." (Pleasants, 161;
Rossi-Landi, 185) These parts of this collection, those that go
beyond the letter of what Marx and Wittgenstein had to say, are the
ones that have the greatest promise and will hold the most interest
for a readership extending beyond those specializing in Marx and
Wittgenstein. Indeed, the particular topics discussed in this book
are connected with a number of broader currents of contemporary
thought. For there is a renewed interest at present in bringing
together Wittgenstein's contribution to a critique of traditional
philosophy, and his emphasis on bringing words home to their ordinary
uses, on the one hand, and a radical, or liberatory, ethics and
politics, on the other. Three collections of new essays that
exemplify these developments are The Legacy of Wittgenstein:
Pragmatism or Deconstruction (ed. Ludwig Nagl and Chantal Mouffe;
Peter Lang, 2001); Slow Cures and Bad Philosophers: Essays on
Wittgenstein, Medicine and Bioethics (ed. Carl Elliott; Duke
University Press, 2001) and Feminist Interpretations of Ludwig
Wittgenstein (ed. Naomi Scheman and Peg O'Connor; Pennsylvania State
University Press, 2002).

Furthermore, there is a strikingly autobiographical dimension to many
of the essays in this collection; taken together, they cast light on
the Nietzschean idea that "philosophy is always autobiography" (Fann,
282). In contrast to most professional philosophy, which aspires to
read as if written from nowhere, many contributors tell us about the
relationship between their professional and personal lives and the
ideas they discuss. Carver's insightful essay draws our attention to
the need that readers have to construct an authorial persona when
reading Wittgenstein or Marx, a characterization of the "who, when
and why of writing it," in order to understand what the author wrote.
Carver notes that we do not only have to be able to tell a story
about what motivated Marx and Wittgenstein in order to interpret what
they wrote. The same point about emplotment "certainly applies to the
way that interpretations of texts by Marx and Wittgenstein are
constructed by commentators . . . Readers thus have the job of
learning about commentators as authors when reading their texts, as
well as learning about Marx and Wittgenstein when reading theirs"
(96). Similarly, we readers of Marx and Wittgenstein have the job of
learning about the contributors to the volume as authors when reading
their texts. One of the pleasures of this book is the willingness of
a number of authors to tell us about how their personal, political,
and philosophical lives are related. Part of what we learn from their
autobiographical stories is the moral seriousness of their
interpretations of Marx and Wittgenstein: the sense of elation felt
on discovering that they could reconcile certain views, or their
distress at finding that certain aspects of one or the other's
thought had to be rejected. We also learn that the most interesting
connections between Marx and Wittgenstein that the book draws are
neither historical connections between those two figures, nor
systematic parallels between their thought, but rather the
connections that have been forged by their readers.


1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Preface. Ray Monk
reports that Wittgenstein once told Rowland Hutt: "I am a communist,
at heart" (Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, p. 343. New
York, Macmillan, 1990.)

2. T. E. Wilkerson, review of Russell Goodman's Wittgenstein and
William James, Mind 2003, p. 346. I should add that I do not agree
with Wilkerson's harsh assessment of Goodman's book.

 Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

ISSN: 1538 - 1617

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