Wittgenstein’s Ladder [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 51 (2):434-436 (1997)
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Marjorie Perloff’s Wittgenstein’s Ladder investigates the relationship between Wittgenstein’s manner of writing—a “process of interrogation... tentative, self-canceling, and self-correcting” —and what she terms the “‘ordinary language’ poetics so central to our own time”. “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry,” Wittgenstein proposed, in Perloff’s translation of a remark in Culture and Value. What form of poetry, Perloff asks, do we find in Wittgenstein’s work? We find a “poetry” which, “travel[ing] over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction,” attempts to “command a clear view of the use of our words” through a sort of “understanding which consists in ‘seeing connexions’”. In particular, we find a poetry which brings out the beauty and complexity and strangeness in everyday communication by “arranging what we have always known” into texts in which we might think language through, from within. In the words of the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth: “One of the lessons for art which we can derive from the Philosophical Investigations is that I believe the later Wittgenstein attempted with his parables and language-games to construct theoretical object-texts which could make recognizable aspects of language that, philosophically, he could not assert explicitly”. Just as Wittgenstein-as-philosopher constructs texts which make language visible rather than employing language to make assertions, so Wittgenstein-as-poet, Perloff suggests, dramatizes our life in language rather than using language for self-expression.



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