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Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy is, throughout his philosophical career(s) but perhaps most strikingly in the Philosophical Investigations, characterized by its deflationary nature, and by its resistance to theory. To a Wittgensteinian, philosophical theories do not provide the answer to philosophical questions; instead, the urge to theorize is the source of philosophical questions. We as philosophers strive for “something like a final analysis of our forms of language,” but to the Wittgensteinian this is little more than a pipe dream (Investigations §91). Philosophical “therapy” is thus necessary to “uncover [. . .] one or another piece of plain nonsense” (§119).

Theorists, understandably, are not sure what to make of these claims. Is Wittgenstein advancing a theory about theories—a self-contradicting one, in that case? A meta-theory (but what would such a thing be)? An empirical observation (how is it falsified)? Something he just thinks is true (for what value of truth)? Wishes were true? Is amused (or disturbed) that people treat seriously?

I will not respond at length to each of the possibilities that have been put forth here, but I will say that none of them seem, to me, to be satisfactory. Wittgenstein does seem to be making serious, normative claims about how we should and should not talk about and perform philosophy, and seems to make meaty theoretical claims about what we are doing and how we are doing it when we philosophize—that there really are “bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language” that we need to get rid of (§119).

The therapist can get around these questions, of course, dissolving each one of them in turn; when Wittgenstein's intelocutor asks what is the essence of a language game, Wittgenstein responds with a rumination on the multiplicitous nature of various types of games (§§65-66). But at some point this pas de deux will seem less like a reasoned conversation and more like something out of Monty Python's famous "Argument Clinic" sketch: the Wittgensteinian always has an answer, but it's never the type of answer a traditional analytic philosopher can accept or respect; leaving both the skeptic and the foundationalist with the feeling that they simply have not been addressed and so that they, along with their claims, have simply been arbitrarily rejected (see Gaile Pohlhaus and John R. Wright, “Using Wittgenstein Critically: A Politcal Approach to Philosophy,” in Political Theory 30.6 [2002]: 802.)

These questions centering on Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy will be recognizable to any student of twentieth- and twenty-first century thought, from the Frankfurt School through contemporary queer theory: it is the question of soi-disant “critical” theory, theory which attacks, deconstructs, turns upon itself. Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault (London: Routledge, 1991), calls this impulse “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). The problem with this analysis is that an instrument needs a wielder to use it, and she must use it with a purpose. What is Wittgenstein's purpose?

Anti-theory, it seems, can be a useful critical tool in service of an independently held philosophical position but not a fully-realized, coherent method of living in the world on its own; in many ways, this is the argument I made in The Eschatology of Radical Negativity. Unable to recognize even temporary, strategic, or contingent foundations, it can only blunder on, destructively tearing theoretical structures down for no reason it can articulate. As far as illnesses go, this can seem far more terminally cancerous than any philosophical theory!

Instead of trying to resolve these contradictions, however, I would suggest that Wittgenstein would have us embrace them: he is advocating not “anti-theory” but anti/theory, something which at once both is and is not a theory. This is not merely reading poststructuralism and deconstruction back into Wittgenstein in an eisegetical manner, as some have suggested of far more modest readings than this one (although of course one's reading of poststructuralism and deconstruction will of course influence the exegesis she performs), writing Derrida (for example) “on top of” Wittgenstein.  Instead, I'll demonstrate in a future post how recognizing Wittgenstein's use of this vital contradiction allows us to see the answer to one of the vexed questions of Wittgenstein scholarship—the interpretation of Wittgenstein's other great philosophical treatise, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and its relation to Wittgenstein's later philosophy—by recognizing the strand of mysticism which persists from the Tractatus into Wittgenstein's later work.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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