Revolutionizing Ourselves

Wittgenstein’s Politics

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. There is plenty of reason to believe that he was deeply unhappy with the culture of middle-class modernity in which, as a formidably cultivated upper-middle-class Viennese, he found himself stranded. “An age without culture” is how he once described it. He may not have been a Marxist himself, but some of his best friends were. They included Nikolai Bakhtin, former White Guard, Parisian left-bank bohemian and French Foreign Legionnaire, elder brother of the more celebrated Mikhail and a member of the British Communist Party; the ancient historian George Thomson, later a convert to Maoism and an Irish-language campaigner; the Communist Party economist Maurice Dobb; and the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, comrade of the imprisoned Antonio Gramsci. Wittgenstein was considered a Communist in some Cambridge circles, and confided to a friend that he was indeed one at heart. His lover, Francis Skinner, volunteered to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, but was turned down on medical grounds. Another friend, Frank Ramsay, was rebuked by Wittgenstein as a “bourgeois” philosopher who shirked a radical break with existing modes of thought.

In 1935, during the ice age of Stalinism, Wittgenstein travelled to the Soviet Union and with typical eccentricity requested permission to become a manual worker there. The authorities were apparently less than enthused by this bizarre proposal. That Wittgenstein was a Stalinist of sorts is not the most well-aired of topics among his admirers, yet it seems to have been the case. His biographer, Ray Monk, is affronted by the suggestion and curtly dismisses it as “nonsense,” while at the same time providing plenty of evidence of his subject’s admiration for Stalin’s regime. Wittgenstein was unimpressed by talk of labor camps and Soviet tyranny, insisting that those who denounced Stalin had no idea of the problems and dangers he confronted. He continued to look favorably on the Soviet Union even after the show trials and the Nazi-Soviet pact, and claimed that what would most erode his sympathy for the regime would be the growth of class distinctions. He was a member of a university that was later to produce a celebrated clutch of double agents, and though he was clearly no spy himself, he was, like Burgess, Blunt, Maclean, Philby and others, an upper-class dissident. He may have been familiar with some of Marx’s work, certainly read the left-wing journal the New Statesman, disliked Winston Churchill, and intended to vote Labour in the 1945 General Election. He was also troubled by mass unemployment and the threat of fascism. Monk is in no doubt that his sympathies lay with the unemployed, the working class, and the political left. “I was looking at a picture of the British Cabinet,” Wittgenstein once acidly remarked, “and I thought to myself, ‘a lot of wealthy old men.’” It is tempting to detect an Oedipal touch in this disdain, given that Wittgenstein’s monstrously authoritarian father was the wealthiest manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian empire.


IF WITTGENSTEIN WAS attracted to the Soviet Union, it may well have been for largely conservative reasons: his respect for order, discipline, and authority; his Tolstoyan idealizing of manual labor (at which he himself was remarkably adept); his high modernist affection for austerity (which he called “going barefoot,” but which in the Russia of the day might more candidly be called destitution); not to speak of his sympathy for a nation that had produced his beloved Dostoyevsky along with a precious spiritual heritage. As for idealizing manual labor, Wittgenstein regularly exhorted his colleagues and students to give up philosophy and do something useful for a change. When a gifted young disciple took him at his word and spent the rest of his life toiling away in a canning factory, Wittgenstein was said to be overjoyed. He did, to do him justice, try to heed his own advice, fleeing from Cambridge from time to time to some more menial way of life, only to be hunted down and taken back into intellectual captivity.

Even so, Marxism was an important if oblique influence on Wittgenstein’s later thought. It was Piero Sraffa’s critique of bourgeois economics, one which sought to restore its reified categories to their historical contexts, which helped to inspire what one might call the anthropological turn in his Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought, and which provided the Philosophical Investigations with what Wittgenstein, in the Preface to that work, called its “most consequential ideas.” It was also Sraffa who made the Neapolitan gesture, fingers swept out from under chin, which played a part in transforming Wittgenstein’s conception of language while the two men were traveling together on a train. When it comes to the expressive body, it is hard to outmatch the Italians.

Wittgenstein’s friend George Thomson once remarked that Wittgenstein was a Marxist in practice but not in theory. It is hard to see how this could be true of a man who reprimanded strikers for lacking self-discipline and castigated peace campaigners as “scum.” He also coupled fascism and socialism as among those aspects of modernity that he found “false and alien.” He may have felt for the plight of the unemployed, but he also ascribed a high value to custom, loyalty, order, reverence, authority, and tradition, and condemned revolution as immoral. Nietzsche, for whom the fineness of a soul can be measured by its instinct for reverence, shared much of this outlook, though he would doubtless have regarded Wittgenstein’s faith in custom, convention, and everyday wisdom as a capitulation to a contemptible “herd” morality. As a man, Wittgenstein could be haughty, highhanded and tiresomely exacting, with more than a touch of aristocratic hauteur. The generous pluralism of his later thought cuts against the grain of his imperious temperament. Its sociability clashes with his monkish asceticism. He considered the English proverb “It takes all kinds to make a world” to be a most beautiful and kindly saying, but appears to have found quite a few such kinds profoundly uncongenial.

If Wittgenstein’s later thought is quite un-Nietzschean, there was nonetheless a dash of the Übermensch about his austere, commanding, nonconformist personality. Like Nietzsche’s animal of the future, he was a free, fiercely independent spirit who sought solitude in Nature. Unenthused by the idea of individual freedom, he came under the sway of Oswald Spengler, perhaps the most influential conservative thinker of early twentieth-century Europe. Indeed, much of his social and political thought would seem to stem from the German lineage of so-called Kulturkritik, with its hostility to science, progress, liberalism, equality, commercialism, technology, democracy, and possessive individualism, its aversion to abstract concepts and utopian visions, all of which prejudices Wittgenstein shared. Kulturkritikers speak up for the spontaneous, intuitive wisdom of the aristocrat, in contrast to the desiccated rationalism of the middle classes. Knowledge is more know-how than know-why. For these middle- European traditionalists, everyday life is innocent of the angst, homelessness, and spiritual torment that plagues high modernism. Few habits of mind are more foreign to modernism than Wittgenstein’s tranquil trust in the ordinary.

What is the secret of the seeming contradictions in Wittgenstein’s politics? How can one be suspended in this way between Marx and Nietzsche? There seems little doubt that this fastidious traditionalist did indeed hold a range of left-wing views. Perhaps some of these faded in later years. But it may also be that his sympathy for Marxism sprang in part from what Raymond Williams has called “negative identification.” As a conservative, culturally pessimistic critic of middle-class modernity, Wittgenstein felt able to link arms in some respects with his Communist colleagues while repudiating their convictions in others. It is a case of adopting one’s enemy’s enemies as one’s friends; or, if one prefers, of the landowner’s secret rapport with the poacher, as against the petty-bourgeois gamekeeper. The traditionalist, after all, has a fair amount in common with the socialist. Both camps think in corporate terms, as the liberal individualist or free-marketeer does not. Both regard social life as practical and institutional to its core. Both view human relations as the matrix of personal identity, not as an infringement of it. Both seek to chastise a rationality that has grown too big for its boots, returning it to its proper place within social existence as a whole.


IS THE LATER Wittgenstein’s thought an expression of his conservatism? It is true that as a philosopher he thinks in terms of customs and conventions, of ingrained dispositions and well-entrenched forms of behavior. And this inclination is doubtless shaped to some extent by his broader social views. Yet there is nothing necessarily conservative about such a case. A socialist society would also work by habitual beliefs and well-embedded forms of practice, at least if it had been in business long enough. It is not as though everything would be perpetually up for debate. Left-wing societies value their historical legacies as much as right-wing ones. Indeed, it was Leon Trotsky who remarked that revolutionaries like himself had always lived in tradition.

All the same, Wittgenstein’s conservatism does indeed place limits on his thought. It is not true, as he claims, that to resolve our problems we simply need to rearrange what we already know. Indeed, it is blatantly, laughably false. Nor is it true, as he suggests, that someone seeking an answer to such questions is like a man imprisoned in a room without realizing that the door is unlocked but he needs to pull rather than push. There is a glibness about such talk that grates. It smacks too much of the donnish complacency that Wittgenstein despised, yet some of whose more unsavory habits of mind he came to adopt. In any case, what of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in a form of life? Are there not times when consensus is thrown into disarray? Cannot customs and conventions be subject to ferocious dispute? “It is characteristic of our language,” writes Fergus Kerr in a paraphrase of Wittgenstein’s argument, “that it springs up on the foundation of stable forms of life, regular ways of acting.” But forms of life are not always stable or ways of acting regular, not least in periods of political turmoil. Wittgenstein himself lived through just such an era—one in which a social and political crisis of titanic proportions made its presence felt among other places in that confounding of stability and regularity we know as modernism. Perhaps his affection for custom and tradition was in part a compensation for this historical upheaval, a twinge of nostalgia for a less contentious age.

It is a striking feature of modernity that we find ourselves unable to agree even on fundamentals. Almost everyone takes the view that attempting to asphyxiate small children is not a course of action to be commended, but we cannot agree on why we agree on this, and perhaps never will. Liberal pluralism may involve striking a pact with those whose views we utterly repudiate. One of the prices we pay for liberty is having to put up with a lot of ideological garbage. In this sense, at least, there is certainly no concurrence within forms of life. One might retort that this is to mistake the essentially anthropological notion of a form of life for moral or political unanimity. Even so, Wittgenstein’s social conservatism can lead him to underplay discord and antagonism, projecting the anthropological onto the political. The idea of structural conflict would seem quite foreign to him. It is hard to shake off the suspicion that when he thinks of a form of life, it is a tribe or rural village that he has in mind rather than an advanced industrial society.

Treating a philosophical problem, Wittgenstein remarks in the Investigations, is like treating an illness. “It is possible,” he writes in his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, “for the sickness of philosophical problems to get cured only through a changed mode of thought and of life, not through a medicine invented by an individual.” Marx might have said just the same of ideology. For both thinkers, such conceptual problems are symptomatic, rather as the neurotic symptom for Freud marks the site of some pathological disturbance in everyday life—one that, like ideology, it both reveals and conceals. Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein are not in the business of treating symptoms. Instead, they seek to tackle the root cause of the disorder, which means approaching its various expressions in a diagnostic spirit. Only through a change of behavior might some of our conceptual snarl-ups be consigned to the ashcan of history. “I am by no means sure,” Wittgenstein comments, “that I should prefer a continuation of my work by others to a change in the way people live which would make all these questions superfluous.”

Persuading people to change how they live is no simple matter. Men and women, Wittgenstein believes, are sunk deep in mental confusion, and to free them from this condition means “tearing them away from the enormous number of connecting links that hold them fast. A sort of rearrangement of the whole of their language is needed.” So radical is this emancipation that it “will succeed only with those in whose life there is already an instinctive rebellion against the language in question and not with those whose whole instinct is for life in the very herd that created that language as its proper expression.” The thinker who has been accused of consecrating the hackneyed wisdom of everyday life rounds upon it here with a Nietzschean snarl (“herd”). The political metaphor of rebellion, the violence of “tearing away,” the sense of a profound antagonism between the conformist “herd” and those capable of enlightenment: this is scarcely the language of a champion of common sense. Indeed, Wittgenstein explicitly disowns any such philosophical populism. You must not try to avoid a philosophical problem by appealing to common sense, he remarks, but allow yourself to be dragged fully into the difficulty so that you might eventually fight your way out of it.

The later Wittgenstein saw the task of the philosopher not as delivering the truth head-on, a strategy that would reduce philosophy to a purely theoretical affair, but as presenting readers with a series of jokes, images, anecdotes, exclamations, ironic queries, wonderings aloud, snatches of dialogue and unanswered questions, so that they may attain the koan-like point at which illumination breaks upon them and they see the world in a new light. It is a set of tactics which Søren Kierkegaard also deploys, under the title of “indirection.” “The only correct method of doing philosophy,’ Wittgenstein remarks, “consists in not saying anything and leaving it to another person to make a claim.... I simply draw the other person’s attention to what he is really doing and refrain from making assertions.” Like Freudian psychoanalysis or the Marxist critique of ideology, philosophy is for Wittgenstein a demythologizing activity, a therapy held in store for particularly grievous cases of mystification. If the philosopher and psychoanalyst are guaranteed never to go out of business, it is not because they teach imperishable truths but because fantasy and delusion are as endemic to humankind as influenza.


DESPITE HIS DARK suspicions of philosophy, Wittgenstein is gracious enough to concede it a limited value. To change the world, he believes, you have to change the way you look at it, and philosophy can be useful in this respect. Yet, though changing the way you look at things is a necessary condition for changing them in reality, it is not in Wittgenstein’s view a sufficient one. This is why he infamously insists that philosophy leaves everything just as it was. Its task is not to furnish our ways of talking with a foundation, since they have one already in our form of life. How absurdly idealist to imagine that it is philosophers who can transform our activity! “That man will be revolutionary who can first revolutionize himself,” Wittgenstein comments, and a philosopher can no more do this for you than he can sneeze on your behalf. Like yawning or vomiting, emancipation is something you have to do for yourself. It is certainly something that Wittgenstein tried to do for himself. For him the need to reconstruct one’s life was no hollow piety. As the son of a fabulously rich industrialist, he gave away most of his considerable fortune and in the course of his riches-to-rags career shifted between spells as an aeronautical engineer, an amateur architect, a Cambridge academic, a village schoolmaster, a monastery gardener, a hermit in Norway and a recluse in the west of Ireland. In all of this, he displayed an exemplary moral courage and integrity. His disdain for dons was no donnish affectation.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy is really a form of iconoclasm. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche declares the overthrow of idols to be a vital part of his task. A hammer, he believes, is among the philosopher’s most precious tools. True to this spirit, Wittgenstein remarks that “All that philosophy can do is destroy idols.” It must free up human thought by dispelling certain reified conceptions that have gained a lethal grip over us. “Philosophers,” he complains, “as it were freeze language and make it rigid.” Wittgenstein’s skepticism of theory is not simply old-style mandarin prejudice, though it is that as well. It is bound up with his materialism. A good deal of our knowledge is carnal knowledge, grounded in our bodily responses. When Wittgenstein writes in the Investigations of how we obey rules “blindly,” he is not out to foster a craven subservience to authority but, once again, to anchor thought in the body. To cross the road the moment the little green figure begins to flash is a sign of the fact that our relationship to the world is not primarily a theoretical one. We follow the signal blindly, which is not to say irrationally. Obeying it so unthinkingly is part of the way we have internalized the shared conventions that govern our form of life, converting them into bodily disposition. We do not need to “interpret” the sign.

Language, Wittgenstein argues, is tied to certain facts of nature, not least to our bodily behavior. We have a range of natural, instinctive responses to others (fear, pity, disgust, compassion and so on) which eventually enter into our moral and political language-games but which are in themselves prior to interpretation. And these responses, belonging as they do to the natural history of humanity, are universal in nature. They are part of what it means to be a human body, however much any specific body may be culturally conditioned. It is on this material foundation that the most durable forms of human solidarity can be built. Imagine trying to learn the language of a culture very different from our own. We would observe how its members cook, joke, worship, mend their garments, punish transgressors and so on, and in doing so could find a foothold for understanding their forms of speech in so far as they are bound up with these activities. Yet much of this depends on sharing the same physical constitution as they do—on what Wittgenstein calls the “natural expressiveness” of the human body. If they respond to having their legs cut off at the knees without anaesthetic by delivering magnificently eloquent lectures on their cosmological beliefs, complete with erudite allusions and entertaining asides, getting to understand them would seem an uphill task. We might do better dating a rabbit. As Fergus Kerr observes, “it is our bodiliness which founds our being able, in principle, to learn any natural language on earth.”

Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is unduly modest. It can be more than a therapy for mystified minds. Yet in seeking to undercut philosophy’s pretensions, he reveals a respect for the mundane world that is unusual among the intelligentsia. In his patrician style, he can indeed be too credulous about established practice. At his finest, however, he combines an artist’s sensitivity to the common life with a prophet’s insistence that ordinary men and women must be torn from their attachment to self-serving fantasies. It is a rare enough equipoise.

This essay was adapted from Materialism, which will be published this month by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission.

Terry Eagleton, the Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, is the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, politics, and religion. He lives in Northern Ireland. This essay was excerpted from his new book, Radical Sacrifice, published by Yale University Press. Copyright ©2018 by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.

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