Wittgenstein, Realist?

This semester, my term paper for my Wittgenstein class was an attempt to read Wittgenstein in light of a Deleuzian account of immanence. I was interested in this in part because what became clear to me after a semester or so of reading Wittgenstein: contrary to what’s become the dominant continental reading after Meillassoux, and contrary to a lot of his antirealist interpretation in analytic circles, I don’t think that Wittgenstein’s thinking is rooted in a correlationism. Here’s some scattered thoughts on why I think such a project could be worthwhile—I’ve been thinking that it’s something I may come back to down the line to expand at greater length.

The conventional reading is summed up pretty well, I think, in terms of Meillassoux’s account of ‘strong correlationism’ in After Finitude. Basically, the correlationist reading of Wittgenstein would interpret Wittgenstein’s reservations about talking about a world outside of language, and of the impossibility of giving final grounds for language’s access to things-in-themselves, as referring to a situation in which you have a thinking subject on one side, who apprehends a world on the other, and whose access to that world is mediated by what renders her thinking intelligible: language. Subject and object are correlated in language, and thinkable only on the basis of language, and so language becomes the transcendental correlate without which neither subject nor object are considerable in-themselves. The subject’s only ‘access’ to the world, then, is via language-games that render the world intelligible, and so one is always forced into a position of skepticism about any knowledge that would claim to be real regardless of the formation of a given language-game. Meillassoux, of course, thinks that this formation leads to problems—ancestrality becomes unthinkable in any ordinary sense, and fideism becomes inevitable with regard to claims about the fact that ‘there is a world.’[1]

Wittgenstein himself, while reluctant to label his own position (in part because he was famously leery about ‘theory’ in philosophy) did at least provisionally use the term ‘realism’ to describe the basic orientation of his thought.[2] This should strike one as strange, if the correlationist reading is the correct one. What sort of realism is possible if, as Wittgenstein thinks, to ask about what is ‘outside’ language is always a confused project?

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why this has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’, ‘false’, ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will still keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. 

And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding,” they believe of course that they can see beyond these. [3]

To use a well-worn metaphor Lacanians like to throw around to talk about the Symbolic order, we might say that there is something going on with the structure of language, something akin to the way a slightly mis-sized rug produces wrinkles that make it look like something sits underneath the rug, causing the wrinkles.

Faced with this feature of our language, we are tempted toward two options. One temptation is to insist on the priority of what ‘lies’ underneath the rug: we attempt to discern the shape of the invisible givenness that ‘bends’ the rug, and in so doing we generate fantasms of transcendence which are retrojected as causes or conditions for the rug. We might detect something like this temptation in the fixation on givenness found in certain strains of post-Husserlian phenomenology, or even a in neoplatonic metaphysics of participation which underlies so much theological-philosophical thinking.

The other temptation that faces us is to flatten the rug—recognizing that nothing lies beneath it, we try to ’subtract’ this remainder. We might recall here the ideal-language philosophies of the early 20th century, or attempts to reduce the world to a ‘flat,’ de-mystified ontology, a scientism, or even the various speculative realisms. Here the emphasis is on ‘subtracting’ the subject to gain the world, to think the world apart from the subject and the ‘transcendences’ her language retrojects.

It’s here that—even though Wittgenstein doesn’t give anything like a theorization of immanence—there’s an opportunity to give Wittgenstein the sort of monstrous offspring that Deleuze liked to give to various philosophers.[4] Both of the above strategies, I think, enact transcendence. Both—in an attempt to think the world as it is before or without the subject—double the world in thought. Both think the world and something apart from the world: the world and the subject, the world and its transcendent condition—and this and, this possibility of doubling and the mediation entailed therein precisely is transcendence. Transcendence and immanence are, after all, relations before all else—relations enacted in thinking.[5] To think a radical immanence, then, is to refuse both of these temptations, and Wittgenstein thinks at least part of the way in that direction, proceeding in terms of an investigation into the ‘logic of sense’ that starts only from determinate sayings and follows their logic wherever it leads. Thinking from immanence, however allows us to suspend the remaining quasi-transcendence operating in Wittgenstein’s thought: namely, the relative transcendence of sense in relation to nonsense. It’s no secret that, for Wittgenstein, there is a certain priority to sense in the context of philosophical investigation; the task of a philosopher is to examine how meaning and sense are made, how words are used. What is excluded in this formulation is the way in which the question of sense may not in fact be the same as the question of use. The specter of madness consistently haunts Wittgenstein’s investigations; in examining how it is that words come to mean for their users, words and statements which do not mean—mad statements, nonsensical statements—are viewed only from the perspective of sense. Madness is broken sense, incorrect or incomplete sense. In light of an explicit theorization of immanence, however, we are able to think nonsense in its constitutive relationship with sense—not as a privation of a prior sense, but as mutually given alongside sense, as itself doing things in a variety of ways.


1 The problem of ancestrality, for the uninitiated, goes like this: there seems to be a problem that emerges when ‘correlationist’  philosophies attempt to think a discourse that would claim to be able to speak about objects and events which are not only prior to the correlation in question, but in which the correlation itself arises as one event among others. It’s not that the correlationist philosopher has nothing to say about the discourse of the scientist, but that the she must posit a layer of meaning more primordial than the scientific one, so that what the scientist is really saying requires a kind of translation. The scientist’s language is subtly translated by the philosopher’s meta-reflection on the correlate: what the scientist’s reflections amount to more precisely is not simply ‘x occurred,’ or ‘there is y,’ but x occurred/there is y for humans, for the kind of observer who can make sense of x and y. Meillassoux thinks this forces you into a fideism, not with regard to manifest facts, but with regard to speculative claims about any absolute which gives the world as such.

2 “Not empiricism, and yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing.“ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 325.

3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 15.

4 Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical stance would, of course, preclude him from offering this kind of account.

5 Daniel Colucciello Barber’s reading of Deleuze has been invaluable in clarifying this point for me. See in particular Daniel Colucciello Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).


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