Revolutionizing Ourselves: Wittgenstein’s Politics


Terry Eagleton in Commonweal:

The “form of life” is a crucial concept in the late philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is more an anthropological notion than a political one. Forms of life consist of practices such as rubbing noses, burying the dead, imagining the future as lying ahead of you, or marking in one’s language a distinction between various forms of laughter (chortling, braying, tittering, and so on), but not between an adolescent and pre-adolescent nephew, as some tribal society might feel it appropriate to do. None of these practices is immune to change; but here and now they constitute the context within which our discourse makes sense, and are thus in some provisional sense foundational. A foundation is not necessarily less of a foundation because it might not exist tomorrow or somewhere else in the world. As Wittgenstein remarks in his homespun style, don’t claim that there isn’t a last house in the road on the grounds that one could always build another. Indeed one could; but right now this is the last one.

Wittgenstein insisted that forms of life are simply “given.” When asked why one does things in a certain way, one can only respond, “This is simply what I do.” Answers, he maintains, must come to an end somewhere. It is no wonder, then, that Wittgenstein has gained a reputation for conservatism. Yet though he is indeed in some ways a conservative thinker, it is not on this account. To acknowledge the givenness of a form of life is not necessarily to endorse its ethical or political values. “This is just what we do” is a reasonable enough response when asked why one measures distances in miles rather than kilometers, but not when asked why one administers lethal injections to citizens who are no longer able to work.

Morally and politically speaking, Wittgenstein was certainly no apologist for the form of life known as twentieth-century Western civilization.

More here.