Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus
Department of Philosophy, University of Idaho
Presented at the Northwest Conference on Philosophy
Lewis & Clark College, November, 1989

published in Review of Contemporary Philosophy 6 (2007)

"You could say of my work that it is phenomenology."

--Wittgenstein to M. O'C Drury

      For over two decades scholars have been writing and debating about Wittgenstein's relationship to phenomenology. During his so-called "middle" period (1929-33), Wittgenstein used the term "phenomenology" in a positive sense, including an entire chapter entitled "Phenomenology is Grammar" in the "Big Typescript" of 1933. Although some commentators believe that Wittgenstein was influenced by Husserl's Logical Investigations early on, it is clear that his later work, if it can be called phenomenology, is very different from orthodox Husserlianism. In my book Wittgenstein and Phenomenology (1), I argue that there are significant parallels between Wittgenstein and the so-called "existentialist" phenomenologists, especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Even in this context, I found important differences, primarily due to Wittgenstein's cultural solipsism. Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty believe that, despite historical and cultural differences, there are basic forms of life that all human share. Ten years ago, my position was that Wittgenstein disagreed on this crucial point.

     Wittgentstein's rejection of a universal Weltbild and his semantic relativism make the thesis of a deconstructive Wittgenstein an attractive proposition. Both Wittgenstein and Derrida could then be seen as radical descendants of the phenomenological movement, starting with Husserl, moving through existentialism, and then beyond to deconstruction. Henry Staten and Newton Garver are the major proponents of this view (2). In this paper I will review the evidence for this hypothesis. My response is not as favorable as it would have been earlier, because I have revised my understanding of Wittgenstein's concept of Weltbild. I now see that some forms of life--certainty, in particular--are an integral part of any worldview, and certainty in any form falls to Derrida's deconstruction. I conclude that there is no ultimate contradiction between Wittgenstein's deconstructive moments and his reconstructive phenomenology of forms of life. Indeed, each of these dimensions of Wittgenstein's thought fruitfully serves the other, for deconstruction is one of his ways (as it is for Derrida) of performing the phenomenological reductions. Finally, a melding of both elements of Wittgenstein's philosophy protects him from the semantic nihilism of Derrida's position.


     During his lifetime, Wittgenstein was witness to persistent misinterpretation of his philosophy. He was downright rude to members of the Vienna Circle who eagerly sought him out and enshrined the Tractatus as the Bible of logical positivism. (Once, when invited to speak to them about his famous work, he whistled a piece from Schubert instead.) Vienna Circle philosophers would have been shocked to learn that in his first work in returning to Cambridge in 1929, Wittgenstein, breaking decisively with the Tractatus, had resurrected the synthetic a priori. Wittgenstein's comment to Drury came at this time, more specifically when Moritz Schlick was asked to speak about phenomenology to the Moral Science Club. Wittgenstein's full response was: "You ought to make a point of going to hear this paper, but I shan't be there. You could say of my work that it is 'phenomenology.'"(3)

     It is intriguing to speculate about the implications of these remarks. Was Schlick's paper the famous "Is There a Factual A priori?," which was indeed written about this time and was directed against Edmund Husserl's support of synthetic universals? There are at least three possible reasons why Wittgenstein declined to attend. (1) Wittgenstein had stopped going to the club, because he had made a pest of himself by constantly taking issue with what was said at the meetings. (2) Wittgenstein had tired quickly of the fawning attention of members of the Vienna Circle and had no desire to meet Schlick again. (3) Wittgenstein had definitely changed his mind on the synthetic a priori, was positively inclined to phenomenology in general, and wanted to avoid an encounter with Schlick on these issues (4).

     The proponents of ordinary language philosophy also misunderstood Wittgenstein's philosophical intentions. These thinkers conveniently overlooked explicit reservations about the reliability of ordinary discourse. Commentators who read Wittgenstein as a deconstructionist capitalize on those famous passages in he says that ordinary language misleads, tempts, even bewitches us. In so far as grammatical investigations "weaken the position of certain fixed standards of our expression" (BB, p. 43), this can be seen as a form of deconstruction. Wittgenstein's attack on traditional essentialism also parallels Derrida's position. Recall Wittgenstein's sympathy with Socrates' interlocutors, who give examples rather than clear definitions.

     Another reading of the early Platonic dialogues is that it is Plato, not Socrates, who is the essentialist, and the latter would have refuted any thesis put him. The real goal, then, of Socratic dialectic, as Kierkegaard argued in The Concept of Irony, is nothingness, an ironic dead-end, a deconstructive aporia. This means that Wittgenstein's use of fictitious natural histories is not eidetic in the sense of searching for univocal meanings; rather, it is intended to undermine all meaning in a welter of diffuse equivocations. As early as the Blue and Brown Books of 1933 Wittgenstein, according to the deconstructive reading, departs radically from Husserl's eidetic reduction and instead of unchanging essences, Wittgenstein wants to show that there are no essences at all.

     One can say that as the errant child of phenomenology, deconstruction involves, as Derrida phrases it, "a reduction of the reduction...[which] opens the way to an infinite discursiveness," i.e., infinite "spacing" and unlimited equivocation (5). This notion of discursive spacing is integral to Derrida's central concept of differance. Derrida's differeance is apparently derived from Heidegger's "ontological Differenz," but with a significant deviation. For Heidegger Being and beings were ontologically distinct and every being has its own mode of Being such that its identity is secured. This essentialist residue in Heidegger's thought is thoroughly purged in Derrida's philosophy. Indeed, differance can be called Derrida's "reduction of the reduction." Marjorie Grene discovers Derridean spacing in Wittgenstein's epigrammatic style, and she notes the irony that Derrida's own polished prose is not sufficiently disjointed (6). Staten states: "Wittgenstein's language invites being chopped up and carried away in pieces even more than most writers' language, because of the extent to which he has opened up its articulatory spaces. His investigations are broken into discrete 'remarks' which, although they are woven into a sequence with the greatest care, retain an integrity or autonomy that allows them easily to be detached from this sequence." (7)

     One of the chief hermeneutical obstacles to interpreting Wittgenstein's work is that it is nearly impossible to read him in context. Very rarely do preceding or succeeding paragraphs help us in understanding the section at hand. It is well known that Wittgenstein made a habit of cutting pieces from his typescripts and rearranging them in different ways. It is assumed that the Investigations came into being from such a process. Henry Staten implies that there is a right order for the many fragments, but a consistent deconstructive position should insist that there any number of configurations are possible. The editing of the sections of Zettel is the best example of my point. As most of these fragments were lying loose and unorganized in a file box, a deconstructive Wittgenstein could not object to the editor's arrangement or any other order. For Derrida this would be best possible defense against incipient essentialism in philosophical writing. It would prevent both authors and readers from seeking a comprehensive system or theory and completely destroy the concept of authorial intention and the prerogatives that it bestows.

    Instead of suspending the natural attitude so that it may be regained after unchanging essences have been found, Derrida's reduction of the reduction undermines both the natural attitude and its essential ground. This might be described as a "Second Fall" away from traditional metaphysics. In religious terms the "First Fall" is the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, whose descendants have an opportunity to reverse that First Fall by accepting God's plan for redemption. A Second Fall would be defined as that point in which human beings, following, for example, the lead of Sartre's attack on Christian essentialism, refuse a soteriology of any sort.

    The notion of a Second Fall allows us to see the difference between deconstruction and Cartesian doubt on the one hand and Humean skepticism on the other. The systematic doubt of the Cartesian meditations, like most modern philosophy which follows it, never leaves the assumptions of traditional metaphysics, viz., that the truth can be found and it can be expressed in univocal meanings. Even Humean skepticism, as I understand it, is not deconstruction, for Hume was content, after his philosophical reflections, to return to the natural attitude of custom and habit and the ordinary certainty that it provided. In either case philosophy is "redeemed," either by a return to true essences or to the common ground of human experience. I contend that Wittgenstein belongs to the latter school of philosophical soteriology.


     As his discussion advances, Staten is forced to qualify his thesis: "The deconstructive moment of Wittgenstein's writing is not the whole story, but we have heard too much about the other communitarian moment, and not enough about this one."(8) "Communitarian" is the word Staten uses to describe those interpretations of Wittgenstein (such as mine) which focus on Lebensformen as shared ways of acting and understanding. This could be called the conservative, even reactionary, Wittgenstein, whose Afrikaner disciple might respond to critics of apartheid with the defense: "This is the way we do it down here." This position seeks the inerrancy of shared ideologies and world-views which are for the most part uncritical, unreflective, and essentially uncreative. On the other hand, there is revolutionary and destablizing Wittgenstein of imaginative variation and fictitious natural histories, who seeks errancy in all world-views and cultural styles. This is the Wittgenstein who joins Heidegger in a systematic attack on das man and his "idle talk" (Gerede) and who holds that the only limit of new language games and new perceptual aspects is the limit of our imagination.

     Wittgenstein's cultural solipsism can be used to support both interpretations above. On the one hand, it explains how specific cultures become ethnocentric, codifying and enforcing their cultural mores as universal norms. On the other hand, a thoroughgoing cultural solipsism reveals the operation of deconstructive spacing and differance. In many passages Wittgenstein appears to commit himself to a pluralism as radical as Derrida's. The idea of any common ground at all seems to disappear when Wittgenstein thinks of a tribe which has "no expression of feeling "of any kind (Z, §383); or when he imagines "a language in which our "concept of 'knowledge' does not exist"(OC, §562). Wittgenstein's cultural "spacing" is especially radical when he agrees with Spengler that Jewish thinkers like such as Otto Weininger should not be considered part of Western culture (CN, p. 16); or that Mahler's art is "of a totally different sort" than Bruckner's (CN, p. 20). In 1950 Wittgenstein expressed his cultural solipsism most vigorously: "One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all the others in its own nasty way" (CN, p. 86). This is Wittgenstein at his deconstructive best--or worst, depending on your view.

    There is, however, another way to interpret these passages. We must assume that Wittgenstein's unfeeling tribe still has feelings; it simply lacks ways to express them. Wittgenstein appears to contradict this point in this passage from Zettel: "Believing that someone else is in pain, doubting whether he is, and so on, are so many natural, instinctive, kinds of behaviour towards other human beings. . . . Our language is an extension of primitive behaviour" (Z, 545). This seems to imply that there are universal forms of life which necessarily go with basic sensations and primitive behavior. "Pleasure does at any rate go with a facial expression. . . . Just try to think over something very sad with an expression of radiant joy" (Z, §508). Indeed, the idea of raw sensations without an expressive form represents a kind of behaviorism which Wittgenstein definitely rejects. As I have argued in my book, Wittgenstein may be called a social behaviorist along the lines of George Herbert Mead and Merleau-Ponty. This is a behaviorism which holds that socio-linguistic activities are guided by rules, reasons, and intentions (instead of causes). Wittgenstein's view represents a synthesis of the inner and the outer, a combination of both phenomenology and behaviorism. As I say in my book: "Anger is neither merely what I feel when I am angry nor merely what I do when I am angry, but a fusion of the inner and the outer in a Lebensform."(9)

     Let us now look at the example of a culture that has a language without our concept of knowledge. This is hardly fictitious natural history, for we can think of the Chinese as people whose concept of knowledge is significantly different from Western epistemology. It is with regard to grounds for knowledge and certainty that one finds the strongest universal claims in Wittgenstein's later writings. In On Certainty he speaks of a form of certainty (it is a Lebensform [OC, §358]) which is preepistemological; it is so basic that it comes before the idea of knowledge per se or any act of doubting. This "ordinary" certainty can be expressed in terms of "hard" propositions which are simultaneously factual and necessary: "The world exists," "I have two hands," etc. (Wittgenstein remains committed to a form of synthetic a priori from 1929 to the end of this life.) One might say that this kind of certainty comes with life itself, and that without this certainty, life could not go on. This certainty is part of the bedrock of the river of our Weltbild which is the "inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false" and which is "subject to no alteration" (OC, §§94, 99). Even though it is probable that Wittgenstein took the idea of Weltbild from Spengler, here it is clear that he breaks with Spengler's radical cultural solipsism. Being certain is a form of life that all human beings will share, although it will be expressed in many different ways.

     When Wittgenstein speaks of language expressing primitive behavior and contends that ordinary certainty is "something animal" (OC, §359), we are reminded of how much "nature has to say" in the later philosophy. In contrast to Heidegger's Existenzialen, Wittgenstein's Lebensformen definitely have a biological basis. This primitive behavior is fused with specific forms of expression like joy, anger, pretense, hope, prayer, etc. which in turn are expressed in board cultural forms of life such as religion, art, politics, and economics. As I have argued (10), it is cultural styles, not specific Lebensformen, which differentiate among people. This I believe is the meaning of Wittgenstein's enigmatic comment that "someone could hope in German and fear in English or vice versa" (PR, p. 69). Praying and being certain are specific forms of life common to all religious people, but it is the culture that dictates the Muslim's impersonal, nonpetitionary prayer and the American evangelicals highly personal, supremely confident style of divine petitioning.


     We are now prepared to see some important differences between Wittgenstein and Derrida. In former's work there is appears to be some confusion between the roles of culture and nature. When Wittgenstein says that hope is a "general phenomenon of natural history," he must mean that such a history constitutes a fusion of culture and nature. If specific forms of life are as natural to us as eating and walking, then these activities are just as much a part of our natural history as the latter are. While Wittgenstein takes Pascal's motto that "custom is our nature," Derrida sides with Montaigne who believed that nature was our first custom. For Wittgenstein nature does definitely play a role, shaping the customs that flow from our nature, but Derrida believes that nature plays no role at all. For him inscription is everything and inscription is artificial and conventional. As Majorie Grene phrases it: "Where Wittgenstein wants to restore the artifacts of language to their natural unreflective roles, . . . Derrida wants to show us that hope for a natural human life is vain: the artificial dominates the natural. . . ."(11) In a letter to me Staten takes issue with this point as well as many others that I and others make about Derrida in this section. On this specific point, Staten contends that Grene cannot say that Derrida privileges the artificial and the conventional because these very terms depend on an antiquated metaphysics of nature and the natural. Staten has taken on the courageous task of defending Derrida against his critics and protecting him from his "vulgar" disciples. I have the utmost respect for Staten as a scholar, but at this early point in my study of deconstruction I am inclined to side with Grene.

     The return to life itself was the watchword of all the Lebensphilosophen, and most certainly Wittgenstein, but Derrida, having his roots both in life-philosophy and phenomenology, transcends both in a radical way. For Derrida there is no fusion of the inner and the outer, of culture and nature, but an emphatic differance. For Wittgenstein a living language grows up as a natural extension of primitive behavior, and we can count on it most of the time, not for the univocal meanings that philosophers demand, but for ordinary certainty and communication. For Derrida, however, language is mostly bewitchment and equivocation. Instead of Wittgenstein's organic "coalescence of rule and operation," Derrida leaves us, as Grene says, with "traces of traces, inscriptions separable and indeed separated from their import."(12) Wittgenstein's commitment to holism and internal relations comes out clearly in his emphasis on the context (Umgebung) of meaning and the importance of an "overview" (Übersicht), but Derrida breaks with these last vestiges of philosophical coherence. Wittgenstein's general project is to reconstruct language at work, but Derrida's strategy is to deconstruct the alleged workings of any language.


     Returning to Staten's thesis on the deconstructive Wittgenstein, we can now see that he has presented us with a false dilemma. We are not compelled to choose between two competing Wittgensteins; we are not forced to declare that the later Wittgenstein was essentially at cross purposes with himself. There is no ultimate contradiction between exhortations to stroll the streets of the old town, to drive briskly along the straight new arteries to the suburbs, or to come to rest (or get lost) in the maze of suburban cul de sacs. (If the meaning of my poetic flourish is not clear, I am trying to give figurative expression to established languages-games and cultural styles, new formal mathematical, logical, and geometrical systems, and then the more anarchical language-games.) It is true that the suburbanites may be unfamiliar with the old town and may need a guide, just as the inner city people might find the freeways cold and indifferent and the cul de sacs perplexing. Most everyone will definitely need instruction in the formal language games. Of course there will be misunderstanding, even some of the petty and nasty sort that Wittgenstein mentions above. Nevertheless, there will be common ground, the bedrock of a shared world-picture that makes communication among these cultural worlds possible. Reflective people will have the choice of living within established forms of life with das man, or stepping outside the norms and becoming more innovative and creative. Deconstruction, on the other hand, requires us to make the "outside" a permanent way of life, foreswearing the stability and reliability of any living "within." But Wittgenstein sets up a dialectic between ordinary and nonordinary language, the each being used to critique and understand the other. Sometimes fictitious natural histories can help us avoid the traps of the natural attitude, but just as often ordinary language can convince us about how odd and unworkable some theoretical language games are.

     Derrida is interested in only one moment of this dialectic: the anarchic languages that make everything thoroughly peculiar and meaningless. But Wittgenstein's deconstruction has a constructive purpose: it allows us to step back momentarily and, then, reconstructing, it permits us, as T. S. Eliot says, to "arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" ("Little Gidding," V). Instead of going beyond phenomenology to deconstruction, the later Wittgenstein remains in an intermediate stage, a life-world phenomenology much like Heidegger's and Merleau-Ponty's. Wittgenstein's grammatical (=phenomenological) analyses of the Lebenswelt allows us to return to the natural attitude with new eyes and ears.

     Charles Altieri, a literary theorist who uses Wittgenstein to counter deconstruction in his discipline, shows the advantages of Wittgenstein's more constructive alternative. He observes that, even before the advent of deconstruction, major literary theorists explained irony as something "cancerous" on the body of language and as an ultimate threat to meaningful and trustworthy communication. But Wittgenstein's balanced dialectic of ordinary and nonordinary language, as Altieri phrases it, "does not make ordinary existence unstable; rather, it makes it more secure by forcing us back on our natural history as a means to see the ironic contradictions in second-order statements about these processes."(13) Altieri contends that Derrida goes too far in undermining personal identity and the possibility of self-knowledge. Indeed, in their clamor for complete liberation Derrida and his disciples have made true freedom impossible. The freedom of the complete iconoclast or nihilist is a Pyrrhic victory; it does not recognize the importance of community and tradition, viz., the praxis of responsible freedom.

     Deconstructive freedom appears to make the same mistake as Epicurus, who offers his Doctrine of the Swerve as sufficient ground for personal deliberation. True freedom requires some determinism: deliberating agents need to operate in a world that is intelligible and predictable. Communal forms of life and common natural histories are what Wittgenstein offers as this necessary ground for human agency. As Altieri states: "Wittgenstein's way of investigating experiences in terms of established procedures and language games provides a basic source for enhancing human freedom by showing us what our commitments really are. Through these investigations we learn what we depend on in order to carry out the activities that give meaning and purpose to our lives, and, more important, we come to recognize that what is deeply personal is not therefore subjective and arbitrary."(14)

     Henry Staten gives the mistaken impression that Wittgenstein and Derrida are the first philosophers who refuse to subordinate accident to essence and the empirical to the logical. American pragmatism certainly had this as its agenda and Merleau-Ponty's definitely joins Derrida with his famous declaration that "every factual truth is a rational truth, and vice versa."(15) Even a speculative metaphysician such as Whitehead makes it clear that "eternal objects" are subordinate to "actual occasions." The deconstructivists seem to ignore the possibility of intermediate positions between the essentialist tradition which claims too much and their own position which denies too much. (When Derrida's disciple Mark Taylor declares that God is dead, that the self is vacuous, that authors do not actually write books, and that history is an illusion, he does not sufficiently acknowledge the possibility that new ideas about God, history, and the self could perhaps rescue theological language.) My conclusion is that Wittgenstein's life-world phenomenology is such an intermediate position; and that, while Wittgenstein has his deconstructive moments, they are ultimately for a constructive end.

     As a way of summing up the difference between Wittgenstein and Derrida, I offer the following water metaphors. For Wittgenstein human cultures develop and flow in a multitude of rivers with the same hardrock beds. Shifting sand and silt would symbolize the contingent and the accidental features of these cultures and the distinctive ways in which they express the same forms of life. Chinese and Germans would, for example, express knowledge and their certainty of it in very different ways. The open sea would seem the best symbol for deconstruction: there is no firm ground underneath the myriad of waves, none of which ever crest again in the same time and place. The waves do not have the same direction as river currents, but are completely at the mercy of the great storms of the open sea. But alas, it seems my metaphors do imply a victory of sorts for deconstruction: all rivers eventually return to the sea!


1. N. F. Gier, Wittgenstein and Phenomenology: A Comparative Study of the Later Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1981).

2. Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984); Newton Garver, Preface to Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. ix-xxii.

3. M. O'C. Drury, "Conversations With Wittgenstein" in Personal Recollections of Ludwig Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), p. 131.

4. See Herbert Spiegelberg, "Wittgenstein Calls His Philosophy 'Phenomenology,'" Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 13:3 (October, 1982), pp. 296-99.

5. Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry": An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (Stony Brook: Nicholas Hays, 1978), p. 70fn.; quoted in Staten, op. cit., p. 62.

6. Marjorie Grene, "Life, Death, and Language: Some Thoughts on Wittgenstein and Derrida," The Partisan Review 43:2 (1976), p. 273.

7. Staten, op. cit., pp. 65-66.

8. Ibid., p. 156.

9. Gier, op. cit, p. 153.

10. Ibid., chapter 2, especially p. 27.

11. Grene, op. cit., p. 275.

12. Ibid., p. 272.

13. Charles Altieri, "Wittgenstein on Consciousness and Language: A Challenge to Derridean Literary Theory," Modern Language Notes 91 (1976), p. 1408.

14. Ibid., p. 1405. Altieri is paraphrasing Stanley Cavell from his essay "The Availability of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy" in George Pitcher, ed., Wittgenstein: the "Philosophical Investigations" (London: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 157-62.

15. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 394.

16. See Mark Taylor, Erring: A Post Modern A/Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).