Visions of the City - Wittgenstein and Linguistic Modalities in Modernism

Master's Thesis 2010 54 Pages

Literature - Comparative Literature


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Wittgenstein’s Private Language and its Use

III. Woolf, Eliot, and the Parallax of Private Language

IV. Conclusion

This thesis asserts that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, expressed primarily through his formulation o f the private language argument, offers a uniquely illuminating perspective to the works of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. The very idea of the private language argument is inherently built upon a limit. Through it, Wittgenstein poses a paradox to us: in examining the limitations of language, it is impossible to determine what the limit is from the angle at which language no longer plays a role. In this light, language is the currency of comprehension. In examining the efficacy and dilemmas of language, its meaning, its use, its necessity of public rules and one’s subsequent acknowledgement of them, Wittgenstein’s later work, Philosophical Investigations, is employed throughout the body of this thesis. This paper argues that it is not enough to merely consider the fact that Woolf and Eliot take an ethical stance (an action-based position formed from their own interactions with the city of London) upon the epistemological problems of private language; rather, it is more useful to assert the potency of the two authors’ differing solutions to the problems of language that are found in their respective works.

I. Introduction

The city, its allure, its pageantry and its paradoxes, is a topic that clearly holds a specific premium in the imagination of many authors and thinkers, particularly in the collective writing within the modernist period. T.S. Eliot, an American, and Virginia Woolf, an Englishwoman, both had a distinctive passion for London, though they went about their work in largely different ways. In both Woolf’s and Eliot’s intellectual spheres (cemented firmly within their bodies of work), the allure of the city is that of the possibility of knowing the “Other,” of managing to attain a knowledge of intimacy which, as the passage of time mandates, turns necessarily inward to an intimacy with knowledge. This particular mode of knowledge, that which rests in the conscious knowing of knowledge, takes a lively form in the modernist canon. The image of the city excites in Woolf the knowledge of the potentiality of the knowledge of intimacy. Closeness and intimacy are two topics with which both authors struggle: intimacy is a subject best left loosely defined as the knowledge of the other. Understanding, in the truest sense of the word, is the closest to intimate one can become with another, and to that end, Woolf and Eliot are concerned not only with such a knowledge outwardly, but also inwardly. Martha C. Nussbaum examines this question in her article, “The Window: Knowledge of Other Minds in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse”:

People are sealed hives full of bees that attract other bees and keep them off. In her complex image Lily Briscoe indicates that both that knowledge of the mind of another is a profound human wish—it feels as if to have that knowledge would be to be finally at home, in one’s own hive—and, at the same time, that this knowledge is unattainable. The hives are sealed. […] Knowledge is a project that draws us to one another, and we cannot bear to let that project go (Nussbaum, 55).

To further this quotation, the vision of the knowledge of intimacy, which really is the definition to be used in this case, the vision of the city is larger inasmuch as it serves as a space of potentiality. Woolf often remarks on the lurid cultural structures of the city in a nostalgic manner, where the city, in all its grime and pollution, is seen as a live, though perhaps dying, organism that is bravely withstanding history’s threat of total erasure. Eliot’s work, in contrast, often moves toward the nihilistic vision, the stance that the city is the machine of simultaneity— both depositing its poor and disenchanted and creating in it the magic of potential that Nussbaum remarks upon in the above article. In The Wasteland, little can be said about any form of optimism, or redemption. Yet in other poems, Eliot seems to agree with Woolf’s confluent narratives that depict the range of the human emotion in a way that is both deeply despairing and ultimately uplifting. By examining the authorship of Woolf and Eliot, and comparing their visions of the city, one becomes keenly aware of the ideological trappings of what was a revolutionary shift in culture. Yet it is only through a close reading, through an examination of language in and for itself, that such a project is able to be undertaken. The linguistic structure of the modernist age is the porthole through which to understand the temporal modes, and ultimately philosophical visions, which both Woolf and Eliot saw in the city. But this cross-examination of the two writers (which at times fits the thesis/anithesis mold of the Hegelian dialectic) is incomplete without a specific lens through which to focus one’s criticism. For this matter, the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and that of Wittgenstein scholar Saul Kripke will be employed.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s importance in literary fiction becomes akin to necessity, particularly when adjudicating authorship with intention, context with the subtext, and ultimately, as is the intention of this thesis: the fissures between one and the other, I and thou, that language (the logical machine that is as complex as the organisms which use it) eventually lies before us. In highlighting the efficacy and dilemmas of language, its meaning, its use, its necessity of public rules and one’s subsequent acknowledgement of them, Wittgenstein’s later work, Philosophical Investigations, will be employed throughout the body of this thesis. His philosophy is distinctive in its own bifurcation, and the problems he attempts to readjust, or even redefine to some extent, are present in his second book. Philosophical Investigations is useful for a reason beyond the obvious philosophical and linguistic gifts that Wittgenstein bestowed the world: it is in this last work, published posthumously, where a man returns to the old problems of language and attempts to reevaluate what he once thought was certain. The fabric of this thesis is fashioned by texts and authors who sought a connection beyond what they had originally crafted (out of the ideas that there are ultimate truths) and what they would later wish to reexamine: the realization that some truths are far more complex at second sight. It is almost without mention that the primary duty of philosophy (in its interaction with the major problems of societies, cultures, and so on) is not so much within the establishment of certainties pertaining to some radical or otherwise previously unknown statement/theorem on truth but rather in the dissolution of such practices. Wittgenstein, with the tradition of philosophy behind him, asserts by practice and by a more succinct assertion that the truest duty (inasmuch as it is the “real” and only duty of philosophy) is in the redefinition of the problems that confront us. Everything becomes open to this question of definition under Wittgenstein. Few Wittgenstein scholars emphasize the value of such a regenerative position as Saul Kripke. His work in modal logic and linguistics will become instrumental in approaching the cultural problems of authorship in the modernist period. It is Kripke’s work in modal logic as well as his examination of Wittgenstein’s private language argument that will be employed. In Kripke’s form of modal logic, Woolf’s authorial model can be examined, evaluated, and delineated between two specific propositions (in reality, one) that point to the same truth, yet in opposite directions:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten1 2

Woolf determines that she will challenge the publicly recognized status of language, under the supposition that (B) is the case both publicly and privately, whereas Eliot steers away from and delimits his narrative from obvious objections to such a text. Therefore what would appear to the possibility of the knowledge of intimacy is limited in part by her private vision of the city (B). Yet (B) represents both public and private life, at least insofar as the preliminary definition permits itself, so it can be the case privately, notwithstanding the ticklish fact that it can only hold the case potentially in a public light. That the city holds the potentiality of the intimate knowledge of knowing what one another means when they partake in the governing set of rules relegated to the public domain and usage. For the purpose of this thesis, the particular set of public rules that will be examined is that of language and the knotty question that follows: what does one mean by what one say? And less broadly: is it possible, or necessary, to have knowledge of the meta-linguistic conception that takes place before one says what one means, since such a knowledge, it would appear, is the truest manner in which to know the answer to the question. Finally, the result of this dialectical examination will shed light on what the authors within a specific period meant to signify when the characters of their works engage with one another.

As a subtext to any criticism of literature, a body of works, the semi-visible object (similar to Lacan’s concept of the Real) of fiction is that of form. It is in the creation of the arrangement of words (the authorship of form) that ultimately offers the reader insight into its own manifestation. Such a subcategory must also be incorporated into the body of this thesis alongside the more evident linguistic studies. Therefore, while it is still the subtext, form must be analyzed at the same time as language and its public meanings and interpretations, thus offering a sharper angle on which to approach the greater parameters of this project. Perhaps in the most simplistic sense, one can posit the following as a central stance that encompasses the problematics of Woolf’s and Eliot’s work: in one’s search for clarification (identified here as a means of both resurrection and creation) one inevitably encroaches upon the exact same problem one attempts to depart from in the first place, which is the demystification of meaning, clarification over elusive structures of “knowledge,” and perhaps most importantly, the retroactive attempt to find clarity within chaos. In short, the effort in seeking clarity, in finding and piercing through the veils that separate one from the other, the opposite effect that one initially seeks takes place. The quest for clarity runs remarkably parallel to the desire to distinguish. Distinction, therefore, is both the object of the seeker’s desire as well as the source of the seeker's misery.

So in the beginnings, and perhaps ends, of this philosophical inquiry, if we use the term “inquiry” in a dispatched manner (the messenger departing and returning with an issuance) there emerges a progression toward intimacy (identified previously as knowledge of self and others) with what can be now termed the issued question, the state of play in which the second tier of cognition, past the immediate ideological desires and drives, is of the most importance. To this end, the truest knowledge that both Woolf and Eliot bestow us is that the cultural machinery of the city (the space that is the microcosm of the human condition) is largely dependent upon what, logically, is the case for the author (following the previously used modal proposition). Under the supposition that language relates most clearly the forms of knowledge and ideas that we attempt to relate to each other, it is through language (and its examination) that we are offered entrance to the suppositions of what the case may be. Determining such a matter, observing the author’s role and structurally-guided wish to distinguish (under Wittgenstein’s authority and after Kripke’s usage of modal reasoning) becomes the critical point of interest of this thesis.

II. Wittgenstein’s Private Language and its Use.

The biographical Wittgenstein offers us far less for this paper than the biographies of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Suffice to say, Wittgenstein’s work stands by itself in its own capacity for objective reasoning. The only expression the philosopher’s work ultimately presents to us is that of its rigorous detritions against the “headache” stances of philosophy, the earnest desires on the part of philosophers to declare bold truths about the great problems of ontology and epistemology. Rather than spend one’s time in the inextricable and generally short-sighted arguments and objections of philosophy, Wittgenstein’s thought demands of us a certain kind of comprehension: simultaneously before and past the grand philosophies of being and knowledge stands the realization that “We feel as if we had to penetrate phenomena: our investigation, however, is directed not towards phenomena but, as one might say, towards the ‘ possibilities ’ of phenomena” (PI, §133). Subsequently, what must be taken away from the posthumously- published work, Philosophical Investigations, is the method Wittgenstein uses to observe and define the over-lapping themes that attach themselves to the immediate phenomena. His philosophy, therefore, does not bother itself with the problems of ontology (in the traditional sense that he does not ‘solve’ the questions it poses to him), but instead, Wittgenstein offers a different perspective wherein he undertakes the very problem that such ontological questions pose and, in turn, determines that the paradox it offers is not to be found except within the very statement and interpretation of the problem itself. Therefore, the solutions to the ‘headache’ problems of philosophy are not to be found outside of the problem but within the grammatical confusions inherent within ontological paradoxes.

Wittgenstein’s importance in the analytical tradition is certain in what became a more and more abstract philosophical community in the intellectual sphere of the 20th century. His philosophy of language is without question a large contribution to the philosophical traditions of the 20th century. It must be noted when writing, reading, and thinking about Wittgenstein, that he was a philosopher of his time.

Wittgenstein is concerned not so much with the finality, the ultimate truths and wisdom of philosophy (and what it attempts to seek) as he is with the ways in which we attempt to seek such truths. He is unwilling to accept the troubling circumstances which result in the headache paradoxes, and in his own skepticism he settles himself on the intermediate point of learning how one learns, viewing how one views and judges oneself, how one comes to understand and judge how we can and must perceive knowledge through that perception rather than making a radical jump progressively. He is far more concerned with the manners in which we understand and deal with data that allows us to interpret truths about our world. He is almost completely disinterested in the age-old questions of ontology and epistemology. (With this said, a portion of this paper must necessarily be devoted to Wittgenstein's ontological reason which, as it clearly does relate itself to the philosopher's grammatical obsession, becomes a form of philosophical grammatology.)

It is important to note that under Wittgenstein’s vision of linguistics as a philosophical application of language for language, the grammatical actively overtakes the questions of ontology. Grammatology, as presented in the philosopher’s work, becomes not merely the means of interpreting the various senses of being, it becomes the sense of being in and by itself. The early Wittgenstein clashes with the later work of the philosopher. A more ontological approach in the matter of meaning is to be found in the Tractatus Logico-

Philosophicus (hereon defined as TLP), where the objects and facts operate within a logical space, and thereby can and must be used as identifiers within an ontological scheme. It is evident that the opening of TLP is based upon on ontological claim; Wittgenstein is clearly at odds with (what were) the current set of ideas concerning ontology and categorization as a state of being. The early Wittgenstein wishes to understand the greater whole of life by first categorizing the details, or the objects and states of affairs, as signifiers of the ontological state. The later Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations (PI) , is less consumed by ontology, formed by grammatical necessity as a logical component, as he is by the paradoxical inquiries that come about from the statement of such initial ontological claims. In Philosophical Investigations, the philosopher primarily works on the questions of the secondary reactions that come about after the laying of the logical foundation, as found in the TLP. Yet Wittgenstein, questions the very problems that he so boldly claimed to have solved in TLP, and, as a result, the skeptical paradox comes about after his creation of the private language argument (PLA). One necessarily has to make the point that there is little room for subjectivity in Wittgenstein's work. He places the greatest worth on the rules of language (cf. ‘game analogy’ in PI). Put simply, in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is not so much interested in solving the great 'questions' of philosophy (“why are we here?” and “how must we live?” and the other grandiose queries that make the list) as he is the problems we face with such questions. Therefore, his primary interest in language as the underlying mode of transportation in philosophical inquiry essentially necessitates himself. In a sense, Wittgenstein solves the great philosophical paradoxes by not solving them in a traditional sense. Instead, he demonstrates how the root cause of such quests is based on an inherently faulty principle: the attempt to forge beyond what is simply said and, subsequently, what can be known. (For Wittgenstein, the limit of language is the limit of true substantiated knowledge, and therefore what is said is truthful, whereas what cannot be formulated into words is both a matter of subjectivity; Philosophical Investigations serves as a means through which to view and subsequently understand philosophical inquiry both as a mode and as a means.) In his writing, Wittgenstein offers a method through which to understand not only his own discourse but the very problems he viewed in the inherent nature of philosophical inquiry: the epistemological desires of philosophy often wander into territories parallel with semi-religious desires, rife with the ultimate search for meaning. Contrary to such meanderings stands Philosophical Investigations. It is Wittgenstein's chief interest in the later work to dispel the habits of epistemological stargazing while at the same time producing an epistemological work, in the truest form of the word. Rather than trouble oneself with the trifles (as Wittgenstein sees them) of philosophical inquiry, Philosophical Investigations focuses primarily on the comprehension of knowledge, and to this end, the book's ultimate worth rests on its analysis of perception: the formulation of the details, the matter of perceiving knowledge is the manner in which one finds true knowledge, under Wittgenstein’s view.

What might be taken from Philosophical Investigation as a failure to penetrate the metalinguistic folds of communication is in fact not counterintuitive in Wittgenstein’s treatment of language. To this point, the finality, or the limitations, that Wittgenstein finds within language can only be found from one point of view—that which finds itself on the side of language. The limit of language holds a central place within the philosopher’s work. As he questions many times in his writings: how can one understand or express the limit of what is said from the other side of it? As he remarks in the introduction to his first work, the TLP:

Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather--not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense (LTP, 27).

Such a strong view automatically draws its own significance and its own utility within itself. Under Wittgenstein’s instruction, one must map what is possible and impossible in thought; to do so, of course, we can and must use the one feasible currency of reason: language. The efforts of understanding (and ‘understand’, in this context, evokes a specifically contemplative gesture, and one that would seem necessary to repeat) the limit of language, if it is to be observed from the other side, as the very term ‘limit’ suggests, would be nonsensical. Therefore, the reasons behind Wittgenstein’s emphasis on language as the solitary tool through which to understand and evaluate perception of knowledge and perceptions of thought on knowledge emerge as reasonable and altogether viable claims. The common arguments against the Philosophical Investigations, those particularly shaped around the schisms between language and sensations and Wittgenstein’s seemingly bold claims that sense is a universal understanding so long as it is applied using language (especially in the use of a single word to denote pain) must be examined alongside Wittgenstein’s efforts.


1 (B) Determines that if A is the case, A is necessarily possible, provided that (B) is the case.

2 (B) Determines that if A is possibly necessary, then A is the case, provided (B) is the case.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
560 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
State University of New York at Buffalo
visions city wittgenstein linguistic modalities modernism



Title: Visions of the City - Wittgenstein and Linguistic Modalities in Modernism