Oskari Kuusela reviews Stephen Mulhall’s Wittgenstein’s Private Language

The new issue of The Philosophical Quarterly includes a review — written by Oskari Kuusela (University of East Anglia) — of Stephen Mulhall’s book, Wittgenstein’s Private Language: Grammar, Nonsense, and Imagination in PI 243-515 (Oxford Univ. Press 2007). To access the review online, please click here.

Here is how the review begins:

Stephen Mulhall’s book is a contribution to the debate on Wittgenstein’s discussion of the idea of a private language, a debate which now stretches over some fifty years. However, rather than assuming the standard approach of focusing on the possibility of or the idea of a private language, and the significance of this to the philosophy of mind or language, Mulhall takes a different approach. His strategy is to bring considerations of Wittgenstein’s methodology to bear on interpreting his remarks on private language, and in this way to find a new angle to the topic.

I think this strategy is successful, enabling Mulhall to produce interesting close readings of Wittgenstein’s remarks, and to make important points about his methodology – even though the focus on methodology seems limited in certain respects (see below). In particular, Mulhall’s readings of Wittgenstein’s remarks seek to illustrate how the form and content – what Wittgenstein says as compared with how he says it – are not sharply distinguishable in his writings. This intertwinedness of form and content is significant because it throws doubt on the predominant tradition of Wittgenstein interpretation, which seeks to extract generally applicable arguments from his remarks, intending thus to state more clearly his regrettably idiosyncratically expressed thoughts. The traditional approach, however, exhibits insensitivity to the details of Wittgenstein’s text, an insensitivity suspicious given his painstaking attention to the details. Was Wittgenstein’s endless redrafting of his remarks merely a personal obsession, or did it serve philosophical purposes? Although the answer is not obvious, there is clearly an issue here to be addressed, to which Mulhall importantly draws attention. Another, not unconnected, happy deviation from the norm is Mulhall’s attention to Stanley Cavell’s often ignored discussions of Wittgenstein on private language, from which Mulhall draws significant methodological lessons.

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