A Sociological Autobiography: 12 – Encountering Wittgenstein

In my second year at Surrey, 1969-70, the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein cropped up on Irene Brennan’s reading list for metaphysics and epistemology. He was the first genius I had encountered, at least in the guise of a thinker. I lapped up Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, notwithstanding the fact that Anglo-Saxon philosophy had moved on. It remains a supremely eloquent study and I can understand how its author felt he had made a definitive statement (he abandoned his budding career if not his thinking after its publication). But the logical atomism of Russell and his wayward and recalcitrant pupil was no longer fashionable. Even its offspring, the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle (imported to our shores via Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic), was passing from favour. So-called ‘ordinary language philosophy’ was the new kid on the block.

If this new approach was championed by the likes of Gilbert Ryle and J.L.Austin, it was Wittgenstein’s brilliant Philosophical Investigation, published posthumously in 1953, which first sketched a rationale. Wittgenstein had not stopped thinking in his post-Cambridge years! He had returned to let the fly out of the fly-bottle. This is not the occasion for a critical exegesis, even if one were possible. Wittgenstein’s ‘later philosophy’ pointedly defies attempts to translate it into a stance: it is more method than system. I think I half knew this at the age of 20. I do recall rejecting early on any characterization of Wittgenstein as either an idealist or a relativist. I still think him thoughtfully, calculatingly and rightly averse to being caricatured in such ways.

That many anthropologists and social scientists were ready to caricature Wittgenstein’s later thoughts was in part due to Winch’s Idea of a Social Science, very much a philosopher’s attempt to apply his thinking. I might have made passing acquaintance with Winch while an undergraduate but it was only afterwards that I reached any conclusions (that his innovative text rested on an erroneous simplification of what anthropologists and sociologists were about). So for me Wittgenstein was a revelation of sorts. I loved the aesthetics of his writing; a fragment here, a fragment there; look at it this rather than that way. It was all: ‘how about this?’; ‘what about that?’; ‘but what if?’ Professional philosophers, academics, it transpired in these precocious thought-sequences, had (a) fabricated sets of quandaries that only they could hope properly to understand or resolve, and (b) hijacked contemplation for themselves (securing an income and prestige in the process). Academics struggled where no struggle was necessary. They looked in the wrong places, forever checking rooms in buildings of their own design and making. Only if they re-socialized us would we have to share their insecurities, their angst.

Here’s a telling anecdote from a few years later. I went on to teach a unit for medical students intercalating a B.Sc in ‘sociology as applied to medicine’ that I boldly called ‘philosophical issues in sociology’. A seminar or two were devoted to Wittgenstein. The University of London bureaucracy required that any unit described with phrases like ‘philosophical issues’ be approved by its Board of Studies in Philosophy. The Board’s Chair, a Professor Wiggins from Bedford College, insisted that medical students could and should not be exposed to a philosopher of Wittgenstein’s difficulty and subtlety. The fly was still in its fly bottle. How Wittgenstein would have laughed, or cried! I re-named my unit ‘conceptual issues’ and all was well.

I learned three lessons from Philosophical Investigation. The first was the degree of ‘intimacy’ between our ‘forms of life’ and our skilled and nuanced everyday use of language. The second was that we did not need philosophers with appropriate professional credentials to straighten out let alone wrap things up for us. And the third, more pertinent for my future as a sociologist, though I confess it took a while to sink in, was that if we have to talk ‘basic’, sociology is more basic than philosophy. What do I mean by this?

In his notes On Certainty Wittgenstein insisted not only that we cannot doubt in the absence of things of which we are certain, but that certainty here is less problematic than philosophers would have us believe. We simply and obviously do not need to ‘prove’ that we are sitting on a chair, let alone that the chair exists. To doubt such things would leave us doubting everything, which is absurd and not a logical option. Moreover we find ourselves – Maggie Archer would say, are ‘involuntarily placed’ – at certain historico-social coordinates, which give us our cultural frames of reference. Critical realists like Sayer came to call this ‘epistemological relativism’, although I vigorously reject the reference to ‘relativism’ here. It is a good concept, wrongly worded. But sociologists have access to frames and coordinates; it is our bread and butter.

There is a deeper issue here of which I was unaware aged 20. I may perhaps have been primed to convert to anti- or post-foundationalism at a later point. As far as epistemology is concerned, there unequivocally is no self-evident first principle from which all else might be inferred. Descartes and his phenomenological successors were wrong, as were the British empiricists Locke, Berkeley, Hume, J.S.Mill and their progeny (extending to the likes of Russell, the early Wittgenstein and Ayer). Popper, at the time unthreatened by pokers, was onto this: the feet of an oil rig at sea do not have to hit rock bottom, he said, they just have to be sunk far enough to securely bear the weight of the rig. Popper, ironically, was punished for breaking free of the Vienna Circle. He was to remain on the periphery of the Oxbridge-dominated philosophical establishment.

But this is enough. Yet again I am over-reaching myself. The Surrey philosophy lecturers did their job by alerting, worrying, me. They afforded educational opportunities. Sometimes those opportunities were taken in later years; and I write in reflection, weeks from retirement.


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