6. Wittgenstein, Kant, and the Critique of Totality

One of the most central and familiar elements of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is his call to replace the traditional inquiries of philosophy with investigation into the “use” [Gebrauch ] of words in their various practical connections and surroundings, linguistic and non-linguistic.[^290] Again and again, Wittgenstein counsels his readers to abandon the search for “deep” or esoteric inquiries into the nature of things, in favor of reminders of the ways we actually employ language in the vast variety of contexts and situations that comprise a human life. But despite the familiarity and widespread influence of Wittgenstein’s appeal to use, I argue in this chapter, this appeal has acritical significance that commentators have often missed. What has been missed in projects that construe Wittgenstein as offering a theory of meaning as grounded in social practice, in fact, is a far-rangingcritique of totality that runs through Wittgenstein’s work, early and late.

For although he constantly directs his readers to recall the “use” of a word, Wittgenstein nevertheless just as constantly resists the natural temptation to think of this use as an object, a unity, or a whole, accessible to a comprehensive, theoretical understanding of practice or enclosable within a set of determinate rules. In this way, his practice of linguistic criticism works to undermine the totalizing assumptions behind not only what can be called a “metaphysical” picture of the nature and force of rules but also the concrete technological and material practices that this kind of picture tends to support. Wittgenstein’s philosophical method, in fact, challenges just those features of thought that Adorno, inNegative Dialectics, characterized as “identity thinking,” and joins the tradition of critical theory in its criticism of the totalizing assumptions that underlie it. Seeing this connection - a connection ultimately rooted in the common Kantian heritage that Wittgenstein’s project shares with the project of critical theory - can help us to understand thepolitical significance of Wittgenstein’s investigations of language in a new way, and suggests farther-ranging implications for the kind of philosophical reflection they embody.


It is a familiar point that one aim of Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason , particularly in theTranscendental Dialectic , is to exhibit the fundamentalincompleteness of human thought. This incompleteness is, for Kant, a consequence of the operation of the very principles of reason itself, of the inevitability of its own critical questioning, in accordance with these principles, of its own scope and limits. What Kant, in theDialectic , calls “transcendental illusion” results from our tendency to misunderstand the principles of reason, construing these actually subjective rules as if they were objective principles really governing things in the world. The misunderstanding results from reason’s inherent function, to synthesize the principles of the understanding into a higher unity.[^291] It does so by means ofinference , striving to reduce the variety of principles of the understanding [Grundsatze ] under the unity of a small number of inferential principles of reason [Prinzipien ].[^292] But in so doing, reason also creates the problematic “pure concepts” or “transcendental ideas” (A 321/B 378) that stand in no direct relationship to any given object.

The transcendental ideas arise from reason’s synthesis by means of inference, in particular, when this process of synthesis is thought of ascomplete .[^293] According to Kant, in seeking to unify knowledge under higher inferential principles, reason seeks the condition for any given conditioned, leading it ultimately to seektotality in the series of conditions leading to any particular phenomenon:

Accordingly, in the conclusion of a syllogism we restrict a predicate to a certain object, after having first thought it in the major premiss in its whole extension under a given condition. This complete quantity of the extension in relation to such a condition is calleduniversality (universalitas) . In the synthesis of intuitions we have corresponding to this theallness (universitas) ortotality of the conditions. The transcendental concept of reason is, therefore, none other than the concept of thetotality of theconditions for any given conditioned.[^294]

The search for totality, Kant explains, takes three forms, corresponding to the three kinds of inference through which reason can arrive at knowledge by means of principles.[^295] These three forms furnish the rational ideas of soul, world, and God that are the objects of transcendental dialectic. In each case, however, the transcendental critique will show that the pretension of these ideas to furnish to knowledge objects corresponding to them is unfounded. Whatever thesubjective validity of the ideas of reason in instructing us to pursue the search for ever-greater unification, the attempt to provideobjects of knowledge corresponding to the total synthesis of conditions cannot succeed.

Accordingly, one upshot of the Kantian critique of the totalizing ideas of reason, significant for the critical projects that would descend from it, is that the work of reason in synthesizing knowledge is, for Kant,essentially incomplete . The critique of transcendental illusion opens an irreducible gulf between the sphere of possible knowledge and the satisfaction of reason’s own demands, disrupting every attempt or pretense to present the work of reason as complete or completeable. As John Sallis (1980) has argued, the Kantian critique of totality thus reveals the impossibility of any final repair of the “fragmentation” that is characteristic of finite knowledge. By contrast with the unifying power of the deduction of the categories in theTranscendental Analytic , which succeeds in gathering the manifold of intuition into unities under the categories of the understanding, the “gathering of reason” attempted in theTranscendental Dialectic ultimately fails:

Thus, in each of the gatherings of reason, critique exhibits a radical non-correspondence between the two moments that belong to the structure of the gathering, between the unity posited by reason and the actual gathering of the manifold into this unity. It shows that in every case the actual gathering of the manifold falls short of the unity into which reason would gather that manifold. An inversion is thus prepared: With respect to its outcome the gathering of reason is precisely the inverse of that gathering of pure understanding that is measured in theTranscendental Analytic . Whereas the gathering of reason culminates in the installation of radical difference between its moments, the gathering of understanding issues in identity, unity, fulfillment.[^296]

Whereas the categories in theAnalytic result in a gathering of the representations of the intuition into a unity that is stable and uncontestable, the gathering of reason fails to result in a unity of knowledge, instead installing a kind of essential difference at the heart of reason’s work. This difference is the gap between reason’s actual attainments and its own irrepressible demands; it recurrently determines the failure of reason to complete its synthetic work. The line of critique, stably drawn in theAnalytic between the field of possible contents of experience and that which transcends this field, accordingly becomesdestabilized . The work of reason’s self-critique becomes a practically endless dialogue, an ever-renewed questioning of the claims of positive knowledge and a critical interrogation of its intrinsic claims to totality. The line that critique draws between truth and illusion becomes, rather than a stable line between two fields of definable contents, the unstable and constantly shifting line of reason’s rediscovered finitude in the face of its infinite aims.

Kant’s installation of radical difference and essential unsatisfiability in reason’s own work proves essential, moreover, to the ability of critical practice to disrupt the totalizing claims ofinstrumentalized andreified conceptions of reason. In his lectures on Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason , Theodor Adorno suggests that this moment of Kantian critique is in fact the source of critique’s power to break up the hegemony of the “identity thinking” that ceaselessly determines its object through the abstract assumption of a stable and complete unity of knowledge:

On the one hand, we think of theCritique of Pure Reason as a kind of identity-thinking. This means that it wishes to reduce the synthetica priori judgments and ultimately all organized experience, all objectively valid experience, to an analysis of the consciousness of the subject. … On the other hand, however, this way of thinking desires to rid itself of mythology, of the illusion that man can make certain ideas absolute and hold them to be the whole truth simply because he happens to have them within himself. In this sense Kantian philosophy is one that enshrines the validity of the non-identical in the most emphatic way possible. It is a mode of thought that is not satisfied by reducing everything that exists to itself. Instead, it regards the idea that all knowledge is contained in mankind as a superstition and, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, it wishes to criticize it as it would criticize any superstition. …

Now the greatness of theCritique of Pure Reason is that these two motifs clash. To give a stark description we might say that the book contains an identity philosophy - that is, a philosophy that attempts to ground being in the subject - and also a non-identity philosophy - one that attempts to restrict that claim to identity by insisting on the obstacles, the block , encountered by the subject in its search for knowledge. And you can see the double nature of Kant’s philosophy in the dual organization of the Critique of Pure Reason . [^297]

According to Adorno, Kant’s thinking is implicitly totalizing in its attempt - with one of its voices - to reduce all knowledge to a unity of categories ora priori representations, to delimit the sphere of possible knowledge to the closed field of transcendental subjectivity, excluding all that lies outside this field. But at the same time, as Adorno notes, Kant’s recognition of the essential incompleteness of reason’s work inscribes non-identity within the project of critique, disrupting every totalizing claim to reduce knowledge to a stable unity. According to Adorno, it is this recognition of non-identity that makes Kantian critique enduringly relevant for the criticism of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment patterns of rationality. In particular, the recognition of an essentiallimitation and incompleteness of identity thinking allows its pretensions of unity and totality to be recurrently interrogated and criticized. “Dialectics,” Adorno says inNegative Dialectics , “is the consistent sense of nonidentity.”[^298] Kant’s early recognition of this provides both the source and the enduring model for critical theory’s continued application of dialectical critique to existing norms and regimes of social behavior.


Standard interpretations of the critical element of Wittgenstein’s philosophy often present his intention as one of drawing or articulating aline between meaningful language and nonsense. Thus, for instance, in his classic discussion of theTractatus , Maslow suggests reading it as “a kind of Kantian phenomenalism, with the forms of language playing a role similar to Kant’s transcendental apparatus.” This interpretation, Maslow says, involves seeing language “not only [as] an instrument of thought and communication but also [as] an all-pervading factor in organizing our cognitive experience” (p. xiv); the task of Wittgenstein’s critical philosophy is, according to Maslow, thus to establish the nature of this factor and mark its necessary bounds. In a similar vein, Pears (1970) suggests understanding Wittgenstein’s thought as a whole as inspired by the “Kantian” desire to understand the forms of language in order to deflate the pretensions of philosophy to go beyond them.[^299] According to this interpretation, the critical purpose of theTractatus is to investigate the logic of language in order to pave the way for a rejection of nonsense. Once the logical conditions for the possibility of meaning are clearly understood, it will be possible clearly to distinguish utterances that satisfy these conditions from those which do not. This distinction will provide the Wittgensteinian linguistic philosopher with a new basis on which to criticize and dismiss the substantial claims of metaphysics that Kant already attacked, claims which can now be dismissed as not only going beyond any possible experience but also any possible sense.

Within the context of this usual way of viewing Wittgenstein’s critical intentions, his appeal to practice can seem to have an essentiallyconservative flavor. On the usual interpretation, the purpose of Wittgenstein’s treatment of meaning as use is to remind us that a word only has significance insofar as it functions within a well-defined and established ordinary practice, one of the many unities of intersubjective speaking, acting, and accomplishing that Wittgenstein (so it is often supposed) designates as “language-games.” This interpretation of Wittgenstein as a conservative thinker has in fact prompted some to reject Wittgenstein’s method outright.[^300] Alternatively, others have accepted and celebrated what they see as the “conservative” implications of Wittgenstein’s appeal to use.[^301] Still others, along similar lines, take the supposed uncriticizability of practices on Wittgenstein’s view to establish a relativism that denies the possibility of criticizing any practice or “language game” from any position external to it.[^302] On all of these interpretations, however, Wittgenstein’s appeal to use has the significance of dismissingnonsense on the basis of an identification ofsense with the unity of a practice. The accordance or nonaccordance of a piece of language with the standards or criteria established by an existing practice - itself thought of as, in principle, a bounded and demarcated unity - determines the extent to which it has sense. As the stablebasis for the critical determination of sense, the unity of practices is itself, on this standard interpretation, immune from criticism. The delimitation of the bounds of sense and the identification of nonsense can only confirm and consolidate existing practices, tracing their boundaries ever more securely, but never challenging their underlying stability.

Despite the near-ubiquity of this usual reading, however, Wittgenstein can be read differently. In particular, an alternative interpretation becomes possible as soon as we seeanother way in which Wittgenstein inherits the critical legacy of Kant.[^303] For Wittgenstein, I shall argue, does not invoke “use” only, or primarily, toconfirm the logic of existing practices by identifying their boundaries with the bounds of sense. For even though Wittgenstein’s invocation of “use” calls upon us to remember the way that the sense of a word is dependent on its usual employment, on the surroundings of practice in which it ordinarily functions, Wittgenstein also constantly and recurrently aims to challenge the assumption of any stable theoreticaldelimitation of these surroundings.

Indeed, as Alice Crary (2000) has recently argued, the standard interpretation of Wittgenstein’s project as drawing a stable critical line between sense and nonsense itself results from the assumption that Wittgenstein formulates a “use-theory” of meaning according to which the “place a bit of language has in our lives - the public techniques to which it is tied - fixes or determines its meaning.”[^304] As Crary argues, this standard way of understanding Wittgenstein’s intention makes the assumption of a fixed line, determinable in principle, between the kinds of use licensed by these “techniques” and those outside their bounds more or less inevitable. This, in turn, generates the entire debate between “conservative” interpreters who see Wittgenstein as arguing for the inviolability of established practices and “conventionalist” or relativist interpreters who see him as establishing the contingency of any particular set of practices. Against this, Crary urges that we need not see Wittgenstein as theorizing meanings as “fixed” at all:

Wittgenstein hopes to expose as confused the idea that meanings might somehow be ‘fixed’ (whether independently of use or otherwise). There is, he wants us to grasp, no such thing as a metaphysical vantage point which, if we managed to occupy it, would disclose to us that meaning were ‘fixed’ in one way or another and would therefore enable us to bypass the (sometimes enormously difficult) task of trying to see whether or not a new employment of a given expression preserves important connections with other employments. His aim is to get us to relinquish the idea of such a vantage point and, at the same time, to relinquish the idea that what we imagine is to be seen from such a vantage point has some bearing on our ability to submit practices to criticism.[^305]

As Crary suggests, we can actually gain a new sense of the critical implications of Wittgenstein’s practice of linguistic reflection by seeing the way in which itresists the idea of the fixity of meaning that underlies the most usual way of understanding them.[^306] This problematizes the usual understanding of the shape of Wittgenstein’s inheritance of Kant - according to which Wittgenstein would be involved in the project of drawing a fixed, stable line between sense and nonsense - but also makes room foranother way of understanding the Kantian legacy of Wittgenstein’s method. If Wittgensteinian reflection on meaning is not the drawing of a stable line of critique, but rather an ever-renewed process of reflecting on the shifting and unstable boundaries of sense, then one result of Wittgenstein’s method, like Kant’s own critique of reason, is to call into question the totalizing view that any such line can be drawn at all.

Wittgenstein’s first work, theTractatus , already carries out a practice of reflecting on meaning by reflecting on use, and enacts, at least implicitly, a critique of the assumption of thetotality of use. The preface specifies the aim of the book as that of drawing “a limit to thought, or rather - not to thought, but to the expression of thought …” (TLP , p. 3). For Wittgenstein in theTractatus , the critical line is not to be drawn between two regions of thought that are independently identifiable; this would involve thinking onboth sides of the limit, which would be impossible. Instead, immanent reflection on the uses of terms and propositions in ordinary language is itself to provide the basis for any possibility of critically distinguishing between sense and nonsense. As we saw in chapter 3, Wittgenstein’s use-doctrine of meaningfulness in theTractatus supports, as well, the official Tractarian account of the origination of philosophical error. According to the account, the illusions that lead us to philosophical inquiries typically arise frommistaking the uses of words in ordinary language. Because ordinary language allows one and the same sign to be used in various possible ways, we very often misconstrue our signs or fail to give them any determinate use at all. Accordingly, Wittgenstein says that the correct method of philosophy would simply be to criticize this kind of mistake:

The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science - i. e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy - and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. (6.53)

By reminding ourselves of the uses that we ourselves have given - or failed to give - our signs, we correct the typical errors that lead to philosophical speculation.

In the practice of philosophical criticism that theTractatus recommends, therefore, reflection about the correct or legitimateuses of signs suffices to expose the errors of ordinary language and positive metaphysics alike. But nowhere in theTractatus does Wittgenstein suggest that it must ultimately be coherent tostate the rules of “logical syntax” that distinguish sense from nonsense. In fact, the suggestion of theTractatus as a whole is that any such statement must undermine itself:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. (6.54)

The remarks that “frame” theTractatus thus suggest a pragmatic and performative dimension of its teaching that do not appear on the level of straightforward theory. Rather, as recent commentators like Diamond (1991) have suggested, they invite us to undertake a certain kind of elucidatory self-criticism. According to Diamond, the point of the book is not to show or reveal some metaphysical structure of the language and the world, substantial in itself, that can be said or described; the point is, rather, to dramatize the nonexistence of any such structure by showing that the attempt to describe it immediately results in nonsense.[^307] The text invites us to see this by leading us to enter imaginatively into the supposed theory of the world and language that it outlines, and then showing us how, by the very lights of this theory itself, every proposition that attempts to express it must be nonsense. In this “play of the imagination” - constituted by our initial identification with, and then forceful separation from, the position of the philosopher who takes the sentences of theTractatus to outline a substantial theory - we come to see the illusoriness of the perspective from which the propositions that theoretical philosophy formulates can seem to have sense. We gain the kind of “solution” that is “seen in the vanishing of the problem” - vanishing not in the sense of having been resolved or answered, but in the sense that it has been revealed asnot being a problem at all.

In the particular case of theTractatus theory of meaning, therefore, attending to the ‘frame remarks’ allows us to see how the very same critical movement thatdraws the line between sense and nonsense also serves todestabilize it. Thus, the practice of distinguishing sense from nonsense, rather than depending on a stable theoretical boundary, becomes a constantly renewed work of reasoning in concrete cases, without the assurance of any unitary criterion of meaningfulness exterior to this work itself. This compels us to recognize not only the inherent instability of the critique of nonsense, but also theTractatus ’ ongoing engagement with the metaphysics that it criticizes.[^308] If Tractarian critique is self-critique, then it cannot result in any stable, unified, or totalizing demarcation of the bounds of sense. The reflection on the uses of words that it calls upon us to undertake does not actually aim at, or conclude in, the demarcation of a stable region of “sense” to be distinguished from another region of “nonsense.” Instead, the idea of such a stable demarcation isitself one of the pieces of metaphysics that theTractatus centrally aims to confront. The self-critical practice of linguistic reflection problematizes, in its very critical movement, every attempt to authorize such a line.

For the later Wittgenstein, then, seeing the great variety and heterogeneity of the contexts in which we can significantly employ a word means seeing the complexity of anything that we can understand as its “use.” And although there is a sense in which theuse of the word is present to my mind when I understand it (in the sense that, if I understand it, I knowhow to use it), knowing the use in this sense does not mean having thetotality of the word’s uses present to mind, not even in a shadowy or schematic way.[^309] To understand the word is to know how to use it, and the understanding of a word is manifest in the kinds of use one makes of it, in a diversity of contexts, over time. But even while seeing this, there is a deep temptation to think that to understand the use of the word is to grasp the totality of its use all at once, in the moment of understanding; and accordingly that this totality of use must exist as a whole, present to the mind as a unity underlying all the diverse instances of its expression. The temptation is, evidently, of a piece with those underlying psychologistic theories of content that explain it in terms of private and subjective acts, objects or events. Like these theories, it seeks to explain our actual performance in terms of the presence to mind of a superlative item, capable of underlying the infinite diversity of this performance in a way no symbol or picture could actually do. Wittgenstein’s critique of it, like the analytic tradition’s longstanding critique of psychologism, develops the specific significance of reflection on the structure of language to the point of its inherent instabilities. It applies this reflection critically to show the untenability of the very assumption of a totality of use, underlying the use of ordinary words, that descriptions of this structure most often presuppose.

The opening sections of theInvestigations develop Wittgenstein’s invocation of use by reminding the reader of thediversity of uses of words, of thevarious ways in which they function and bring about results.[^310] The “Augustinian” picture of language with which theInvestigations begins is, itself, Wittgenstein argues, a characteristic result of failing to see this diversity of function.[^311] Augustine’s mistake is like the failure of someone who, seeing the visual uniformity of a printed script, assumes that the uses and purposes of the words are as uniform and similar as the script itself appears to be.[^312] Characteristic philosophical errors - for instance the error of assuming that every sentence is a proposition, or that every propositional sentence is the “assertion” of a judgment - themselves result from the same tendency to miss the great multiplicity of different purposes of words in the language.[^313]

Wittgenstein’s criticism, in theInvestigations , of the explicit theoretical position of theTractatus itself consists partly in reminding the reader of the inherent complexity and heterogeneity of the uses of any word.[^314] Missing this complexity, Wittgenstein argues, we are inclined to think of the meaning of a word as something uniform that it carries with it on each occasion of its use. In pursuing philosophical questions about meaning, we can become seduced by the appearance that the term or proposition carries its significance with it like an aura, that this significance accompanies it automatically into every kind of application.[^315] Insofar as theTractatus sought to answer the general question of the nature of meaning by introducing a general account of the logical form of propositions and language, it too committed this characteristic error of reducing the diversity and heterogeneity of uses of a word to a unity co-present with it on each occasion. The search for an explanation of meaning led to the assumption that there must be “strict and clear rules of the logical structure of propositions,” somehow hidden in “the medium of the understanding.”[^316] The assumption of an underlying logical structure of language thereby became an “unshakable” ideal, an assumption of “crystalline purity” that dictates the form that the investigation must subsequently take.[^317]

Resisting this ideal, “we see that what we call ‘sentence’ and ‘language’ has not the formal unity that I imagined, but is the family of structures more or less related to one another” (PI 108). Meaningful language itself is not a region ofpraxis that can be delimited by the introduction of any uniform theoretical standard or criterion. Instead, it is a complexfamily of structures and concepts, interconnected in the most various and diverse ways with the whole variety of material and social practices that comprise a human life. Wittgenstein’s heuristic use of the concepts of ‘family resemblance’ and ‘language games’ themselves aim to remind us of this irreducible diversity. In each case, looking to the ‘use’ of a word - reminding ourselves of how it is actually used - means also reminding ourselves that our understanding of this ‘use’ is no stable unity, no delimitable totality, but rather an essentiallyopen application of the word to ever-new contexts of significance.


We have seen that, in the opening sections of thePhilosophical Investigations , Wittgenstein’s investigation of use leads him repeatedly to criticize the characteristic assumption oftotality that presents theuse of a word as a theoretically definable whole. Another version of this assumption, in fact, is the main critical target of the skein of interrelated passages standardly described as the “rule-following considerations.” For Wittgenstein, the “metaphysical concept of a rule” that he critiques in these passages is itself atotalizing concept; its effect is to present a mythology of the application of words as grounded in the presence to mind of the totality of this application, all at once. Wittgenstein’s internal critique of the concept of a rule aims to disrupt this totalizing assumption, exposing the untenability of the mythological picture of use it formulates.

According to Wittgenstein in theInvestigations , one of the key sources of theTractatus ’ positive picture of meaning was the assumption that “if anyone utters a sentence andmeans orunderstands it he is operating a calculus according to definite rules” (PI 81). TheTractatus ’ positive appeal to rules of “logical syntax” underlying the use of language distorted the actual form of linguistic practice, construing the variety and multiplicity of our uses of words as controlled by a uniform underlying system. But this misunderstanding was, for Wittgenstein, just one case of a more general and ubiquitous one that arises whenever we think of our linguistic practices asconstrained by intelligible rules that, by themselves, determine the correct and incorrect application of words across an infinite diversity of cases. Wittgenstein’s account of the source of this error echoes his account in theBlue Book . Seeing that reflection on meaning is reflection on use, we are tempted to think that the whole use of the word must be, in some sense,present in the mind on each occasion of its use.[^318] We then think of the rule itself as a superlative item, somehow capable of determining an infinite number of cases, despite being itself a finite item.

The thought that “in aqueer way, the use itself is in some sense present” to the mind on each instance of successful understanding is thus the most characteristic source of the metaphysical picture of a rule that Wittgenstein criticizes.[^319] When we think of the “entire use” as underlying and determining any specific instance of it, we are tempted to think of it as captured by something - the symbolic expression of a rule, or a picture or image - thatitself determines each of an infinite number of instances of application, that determines what is, in each of an infinite number of cases, theright way to apply the word in question. Against this metaphysical picture of the rule, Wittgenstein reminds us that any finite, symbolic expression of a rule is capable of various interpretations. No such expression suffices to determine or delimit, by itself, the infinite number of cases in which a word is used correctly. When thought of in this superlative way, the symbolic expression is really “a mythological description of the use of a rule” (PI 221).

Wittgenstein’s critique of rule-following therefore seeks to disrupt a characteristic picture of thetotality of the use of a word; but it also targets a typical way of thinking about identity of meaning that tends to hold this picture in place. This becomes evident atPI 214-16, where Wittgenstein responds to an interlocutory suggestion that an “intuition” must be needed, in each particular case of the development of a series, to determine the correct way to go on. Characteristically, Wittgenstein’s response is areductio of the interlocutor’s invocation of ‘intuition’ in this case:

  1. If you have to have an intuition in order to develop the series 1 2 3 4 … you must also have one in order to develop the series 2 2 2 2 …

  2. But isn’t the same at least the same?

We seem to have an infallible paradigm of identity in the identity of a thing with itself. I feel like saying: “Here at any rate there can’t be a variety of interpretations. If you are seeing a thing you are seeing identity too.”

Then are two things the same when they are what one thing is? And how am I to apply what the one thing shews me to the case of two things?

  1. “A thing is identical with itself.” - There is no finer example of a useless proposition, which yet is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted.

This appeal to an “intuition” is one characteristic recourse of the metaphysical picture of the rule. The interlocutor attempts to ground this picture, ultimately, in what he thinks of as theself-identity of a rule, its sameness to itself across the infinite set of its instances. If the metaphysical picture of the rule were correct, indeed, a rule would be a finite item that determines an infinite number of cases byrepeating itself identically in each of its instances of application. The self-sameness of the rule, its abstract identity with itself, would provide the ultimate basis for its uniform applicability across an infinite number of possible cases. The application of rules would be thinkable only as the infinite repetition of a self-same item, even across a great variety of cases and contexts. In challenging the characteristic assumption of totality that leads to the metaphysical picture of the rule, Wittgenstein’s critique also challenges this assumption of self-identity. Along with it, he challenges the characteristic impression of necessity that most often accompanies the adumbration of logical, semantic, or grammatical rules of use, the impression that these rulesthemselves determine what can be said, and on what occasions. The point of the critique is not that there are no necessities governing our use of language, but that the attempt to schematize these necessities in rules conceived as by themselves determining, all by themselves, possibilities of significant usage mistakes the reality of language’s own inherent possibilities of self-critique. Presenting these possibilities as if they were determined already anyway by a fixed set of articulable standards, it forecloses the essential and constitutive openness of language to the heterogeneity of its applications, and the standing openness of these applications to ever-changing terms of immanent linguistic critique.


I have argued that a decisive element of Wittgenstein’s critical invocation ofuse is his critique of the assumption of totality that would portray the use of a word as a stable unity of practice. Insofar as Wittgenstein’s method directs us to seek the meaning of a word by reflecting onpraxis , its aim is not to introduce any kind of unifying theory of linguistic practices, but rather to disrupt the assumption that any such unification is possible at all. The assumption of totality that Wittgenstein criticizes is a characteristic feature of philosophical attempts to theorize meaning positively, including what may seem to be Wittgenstein’s own attempt in the positive movement of theTractatus . But the significance of Wittgenstein’s critique of totality is by no means limited to its bearing against specialized philosophical theories. Indeed, it is well known that Wittgenstein thought of his philosophical work as relevant to the resolution of cultural, political, and social questions, even though it has not always been obvious how this relevance should be understood.

Many of Wittgenstein’s remarks inCulture and Value exhibit his well-known pessimism about the idea of technological progress and his lack of faith in the social and material practices of the modern world.[^320] As is also well known, Wittgenstein was at least somewhat sympathetic with Marxism, and his thinking in theInvestigations may have been significantly influenced by that of the Marxist economist Sraffa. But beyond these personal and biographical connections, Wittgenstein’s central philosophical texts also in fact exhibit a deep concern with the metaphysics that underlies contemporary institutions and social and material practices.[^321] In particular, Wittgenstein was undoubtedly well aware of the dominance, in the twentieth century, of a regime of thought that tends to assimilate individual, concrete acts of reasoning and communication to a unified field of abstract, formal logic. His ownTractatus was misread - most significantly by the Vienna Circle logical positivists - as a contribution to the theory of this field. And over the period of his interactions with the Circle, Wittgenstein became acutely critical of the motivations of those who saw in logic the key to a new “construction” of the world.[^322] Wittgenstein was also, doubtless, aware of the way in which this regime of thought can support dominant cultural practices of technology, systematization and calculation. Characteristically, these practices treat individual actions as significant only insofar as they can be evaluated and repeated from the standpoint of abstract rationality, which itself is conceived as a system of universal rules.

Commentators have long speculated about the political implications of Wittgenstein’s work, but it is only recently that a significant number of interpreters have begun to see his practice of linguistic reflection as supporting a practice of critique that is radical and potentially liberatory with respect to prevailing social practices and norms. McManus (2003), for instance, has argued that Wittgenstein’s consideration of prevailing practices of measurement and calculation, particularly in the context of the philosophy of mathematics, can actually support a far-ranging critique of our tendency to treat these numerical practices as referring to substantial realities in themselves. Without such a critique, McManus suggests, we tend to “reify” the relevant practices, giving them an unquestioned and otherwise undeserved value. Similarly, Janik (2003) suggests that one target of Wittgenstein’s critique of rule-following might be the kinds ofregularity that a certain conception of rule-following in fact tends to produce in our political and social practices of legislation and authority, and accordingly that Wittgenstein can be read as a critic of some of these practices.

For these commentators, Wittgenstein’s critical reflection on rules offers a position from which it becomes possible both to question the assumptions of regularity and fixity that underlie normal descriptions of the regularity of typical practices, for instance of calculation and legislation, and to criticize these practices themselves on that basis. When, in particular, large sectors of social practice and prevailing institutions become governed by deeply held assumptions of regularity and uniformity, such a critical reflection on the sources of these assumptions becomes particularly important. If the current analysis is correct, in fact, these particular suggestions for the application of Wittgensteinian critique are simply isolated examples of a much more general and far-ranging critical method, bearing notonly against the assumptions implicit or explicit in particular practices of calculation, automation, and legislation, but also against the whole complex of deeply-held metaphysical assumptions that make the normative logic of these practices possible.

The Frankfurt school’s concept of “reification” offers more general terms for thinking about prevailing social practices and their foundation in totalizing patterns of thought, including the “identity thinking” that Adorno criticizes throughout his comprehensiveNegative Dialectics .[^323] The critique of these linked concepts targets not only particular instances of injurious or oppressive practice, but the whole cultural style of an entire historical period. For the early Frankfurt school, the critical examination of socially dominant characterizations of reason and rationality provides a particularly important critical index of such a style, one that Wittgenstein himself occasionally characterizes as the “spirit” of modern, Western civilization. Wittgenstein’s own critique of the metaphysical concept of the rule strongly resembles the Frankfurt School’s sustained criticism of the regime of thought and practice that construes rationality as formal, symbolic ratiocination.[^324] Against this regime, Wittgenstein, like Adorno and Horkheimer, seeks to re-inscribe in our thinking a sense of the openness of everyday practices to novelty and difference, and of the necessary failure of any attempt to enclose this difference within a totality of theory or explanation.[^325] Beyond simply echoing the Frankfurt school’s critique of reification, however, Wittgenstein’s self-reflexive philosophical method also offers to give us the terms in which we can formulate this critique as alinguistic one: that is, as a critique of assumptions and habits of thought that lie deeply concealed in language itself, and that only linguistic self-reflection offers to remove.[^326]

In suggesting that we can read Wittgenstein as critical of the ideological support of prevailing social practices, I do not mean to suggest that he himself thought of this kind of social critique as a prevailing, or even an explicit, goal of his philosophical practice. It is true that Wittgenstein says little explicitly about the social and political implications of his own work. But as we have seen, this has not prevented commentators from interpreting the social and political implications of his view of language. Indeed, it seems obviously appropriate to interrogate the critical consequences of Wittgenstein’s practice, given the evident Kantian background of his project of reflection. What I have offered in this chapter is an alternative interpretation of these consequences, one that shows that Wittgenstein need not be construed as a social conservative or as contributing to the dominance of entrenched conceptions of reasoning and rationality. Instead, I have argued, we can read him as offering new terms for the identification, diagnosis and interrogation of the deep ideological foundations of these dominant and entrenched conceptions.

If this is correct, then another benefit of the kind of reading I suggest here is that it can begin to open, in a new way, reflection on the question of the relationship of analytic philosophy to the larger historical contours of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. In particular, it begins to show how the characteristic analytic turn toward language can yield a kind of critical thought that continues the Enlightenment project of demystification, of identifying and criticizing the illusions of metaphysics, while nevertheless resisting the reified and standardized forms of rationality that have so often resulted from this project in the past.