Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Illusions Generated By Markets Like Those Created By Language On Holiday

I have been reading a book, edited by Gavin Kitching and Nigel Pleasants, comparing and contrasting Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Marx. This is the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, not of the Tractatus. The authors of the papers from the conference generating this work do not seem too concerned with arguments about the differences between the young Marx and the mature Marx, albeit many quote a passage from the German Ideology about language. (I think this post is more disorganized than many others here.)

Anyways, I want to first consider a reading of Capital, consonant with the approach of Friedrich Engels and the Second International, but at variance with an analogy to Wittgenstein's later philosophy. One might think of the labor theory of value as a scientific approach revealing hidden forces and structures that are at a deeper level than observed empirical reality. Think about how, for example, physicists have an atomic theory that explains why tables are hard and water is wet. Even though a table may be seem solid, we know, if we accept science, that it is mostly empty space. Somewhere Bertrand Russell writes something like, "Naive realism leads to physics, and physics shows naive realism is wrong. Hence naive realism is false". Similarly, you may think purchases and sales on markets under capitalism are made between equals, freely contracting. But the science of Marxism reveals an underlying reality in which the source of profits is the exploitation of the workers.

Wittgenstein, in rejecting his early approach to language, rejects the idea of a decontextualized analysis of the sentences of our languages into an ultimate underlying uniform atomic structure which explains their meaning. Rather, in his later philosophy, he gathers togethers descriptions of the use of language, to dispel and dissolve the illusions characteristic of traditional philosophy. He is hostile to ideal of an ultimate essence for meaning, and points out the multifarious uses to which language is put. Some of his famous aphorisms include, "Nothing is hidden" and his explanation of the point of his philosophical investigations as "To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle". Some of his descriptions are not from actually existing societies, but from imagined primitive societies. Some of these imagined societies are described near the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations, much as in the first chapter of Piero Sraffa's Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities.

Can Marx be read in an analogous manner, as attempting to dispel illusions, while claiming that no hidden essence or foundation underlies capitalist economies? Such a reading, I think, will emphasize Marx's remarks on commodity fetishism and "real illusions" that come with non-reflective participation in a market economy. It also makes sense of Marx's literary style. Both Marx and Wittgenstein are attempting to encourage a fundamental change so that our form of life will not generate these illusions.

Perhaps such a reading is in tension with the view of Marx's account of exploitation as descriptive, not normative. What about Wittgenstein's saying that philosophy "leaves everything as it is"? How can one read Wittgenstein and Marx as pursuing complementary projects when Marx writes, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it"? Various essays in this book address these issues. I guess what concerns me more is Marx's Hegelian style, quite different from Wittgenstein. (I rely on English translations.)

This book also alerted me to some issues in Wittgenstein interpretation. When Wittgenstein writes of a form of life, is he writing of human life in general (in contrast, say, to the form of life of a lion)? Or would different human cultures and societies have different forms of life? Does Wittgenstein encourage a political quietism since he does not provide an external standpoint outside of language to criticize rules? (I think the last objection draws lines more firm than is compatible with Wittgenstein's comments on family resemblances.)

I also have two new books to look up, Gellner (1959) and Winch (1963). Gellner sounds like an unscholarly polemic that yet was influential in turning philosophy away from the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, J. L. Austen, and Gilbert Ryle. Winch seems to argue those studying society must use the terms that members of a culture use, and with the same understanding. So perhaps this is a Wittgensteinian argument that social science is not possible, or at least must lower its aims. But I have not read it yet.

  • Ernest Gellner (1959). Words and Things: A Critical Account of Linguistic Philosophy and a Study in Ideology London: Gollancz.
  • Gavin Kitching and Nigel Pleasants (editors) (2002). Marx and Wittgenstein: Knowledge, Morality and Politics, London: Routledge
  • Peter Winch (1963). The Idea of a Social Science, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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