Reading the Philosophical Investigations on one’s own

Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism

Richard Eldridge, Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism (1997)

Because Wittgenstein is rarely taught in literature departments (though many other philosophers often are), literary studies scholars who would engage with Wittgenstein (or with Wittgensteinians like Cavell) in their own work must often make their way through the Philosophical Investigations (PI) on their own. Without the personal guidance of an experienced teacher, this can be a difficult task, but having a good commentary or two ready-to-hand can make one’s first (or second or third) reading of the Investigations much easier, and more intellectually profitable. One of my favorite commentaries on the Investigations is Richard Eldridge’s Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism. Very much influenced by Cavell, it is at the same time a deeply original and wonderfully suggestive interpretation of Wittgenstein as a late inheritor of the Romantic ideal of expressive freedom. Eldridge is very tuned in to the concerns of literary scholars, and so I think his commentary is particularly well-suited as an introduction to Wittgenstein for those who come to the Investigations from the world of literary criticism and theory. Because I think so highly of Eldridge’s work on Wittgenstein, I decided to ask him for his own suggestions of commentaries that he thought would help first-time readers of the Investigations. The following is his response, for which I’m very grateful (I’ve added the links to the titles he recommends):

I actually think that PI (like Hegel’s Phenomenology) is very difficult to enter on one’s own, without some guidance from secondary sources, even if also, of course, one must be judicious in using them and not take them as offering the final word on things. Here are my thoughts about PI guidance.

Overwhelmingly the best—but too monumental to read straight through?–are the four volumes of commentary by Gordon Baker and Peter Hacker (the last by Hacker alone):

G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning (Vol. 1, Pt. 1)

G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning (Vol. 1, Pt. 2)

G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity (Vol. 2)

G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind (Vol. 3)

P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Mind and Will (Vol. 4)

One can read the essay portions of these, though, without the line by line textual analysis and the diagrams of how the sections relate to each other. One will arrive at the best overall reading, I think, by relying on this massive commentary (perhaps read alongside my book on PI, which provides an account of just what B&H are doing: both what I think is interesting about it, and what its weak spots are).

A second way into the text—and perhaps best as a first way–is Hacker’s book Wittgenstein’s Place in 20th Century Analytic Philosophy. One can read just the chapters on PI in this.  But overall it also offers a quite reliable and interesting (albeit parti pris) history of 20th century analytic philosophy from a late Wittgensteinian (as Hacker understands it) point of view.

Anthony Kenny’s Wittgenstein is also quite reliable, though it is, perhaps, somewhat paraphrastic.

Finally, I find Ray Monk’s big biography philosophically reliable, and it’s useful to have the details about the circumstances in which the thinking is going on. Probably if I were to recommend ONE book only, it would be this one!  (Monk was a student of Hacker’s.)

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