• Pim van der Heijden

    Dear Roland (and everyone who reads this),

    Thank you for the concise essay on Hamann’s ‘metacritique’ of Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft! I thought it was an enjoyable read. It is nice to see that Hamann’s metacritique is related to the much later works of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. This appeals to the imagination, so to speak, and I believe that this is a good thing. Such associations can also appeal to stereotypes that cry for nuance or additional elaboration. It would be cool to have some discussion here, so I will proceed with a remark on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. I tried to keep it short.

    You state: “Hamann predated the late Wittgenstein’s brilliant insights into the historical growth and essence of language as an everyday tool for human communication, rather than philosophical rigor.” Footnote 3 elaborates: “Ludwig Wittgenstein famously renounced his systematic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) for its focus on language as a precision instrument in his posthumously published Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953). In the latter book, language is instead presented as nothing more than an extremely versatile tool for human communication and interaction.”

    What does this mean? There appears to be no difference between “instruments” and “tools”, so the dilemma we’re having is one of “precision” versus “versatility”. As a metaphor for this dilemma we could, I guess, imagine single-purpose tools (or instruments) such as can openers versus multi-purpose Swiss Army knives, or a Dremel for that matter. So far so good. In relation to Wittgenstein 2 however the word tool is now expected to express something about the essence of language. Of course, Wittgenstein 2 is famous for saying that the meaning of a word is determined by its “use”. Concluding that this means that language is “nothing more than a tool” would merit enormously from hinting at the sort of contextualism Wittgenstein was after and explicating the related concepts of “language games”, “rules” and “forms of life”. Moreover, a notion of language as an “everyday tool for human communication” is still very much in line with what is called the “picture theory of language”, propagated by Wittgenstein I. Thus, even when words are extremely versatile, a theory of truth based on correspondence, a key idea of the Tractatus, can still easily be upheld. What the later Wittgenstein added was that language games can be seen as self-sufficient forms of life having immanent sets of rules.

    Additionally, I’d like to say something about the paradox of “philosophical rigor” versus “human communication and interaction” which you seem to pose as a dilemma between two mutually exclusive concepts. It is probably right that both Kant and Wittgenstein 1 relied on a “similar” theory of language. Wittgenstein 2 stuck to being philosophically rigorous, like his ‘predecessors’ and his philosophische Untersuchungen—which is actually a collection of notes, that are sometimes hard to force into a coherent view—expresses a wealth of philosophically rigorous thoughts on the nature of language. Furthermore, he did not solve the paradox by opting for language as “human communication and interaction”. This is so because language games can to a certain extent be autonomous. Additionally, the arguments are mostly systematic and do not necessarily imply the historical contingency of meaning. So I’d like to suggest to somehow relate Hamann’s critique on Kant, commenting that the meaning of concepts do change over time, to their common contemporary Hegel.

    Thanks for reading!


    • Roland Bertens

      Dear Pim,

      Many thanks for your comment, and my apologies for taking so long to respond. The comments you make are very much to the point, and touch (as far as I’m concerned) precisely on the problems of language raised by Hamann and picked up on by Wittgenstein later. I’ll offer some thoughts in return, because the Hamann-Wittgenstein nexus deserves to be discussed in more depth.

      If I understand you correctly, you offer two points of criticism/nuance. The first concerns the meaning we want to attach to Wittgenstein’s description of language as ,variously, a set of ‘games’, a ‘tool’, or a way of saying meaningful and true things about the world. Based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Wittgenstein, it is tempting to say that he throws out the baby with the bathwater when he renounces the claims made in his Tractatus of a few decades earlier on language’s primary function of allowing humans to assert matters of fact or truths about the world. It turns out, Wittgenstein seems to contend, that language is far too complex and fraught with ambiguities to merely see it as a tool through which human beings can come to agree on what is ‘out there’. In a playful reading of the Investigations, it seems more as though Wittgenstein is happy to give language its due by recognizing the various functions it can serve in human interaction and communication outside of this function of facilitating the search for truths. But I very much agree that this leaves open the question of whether he intends to do away with that (realistic) assessment of the function of language. It seems more as though he’s just opening up the field for newer understandings of what language is and can be. (However, our agreement on this point does not take away the fact that Wittgenstein is seen by many analytic philosophers as a sort of heretic, or at best a schizophrenic, for renouncing in the Investigations claims made in the Tractatus that were seen by many philosophers as providing a new foundation for philosophy itself.)

      On your second point I’m going to have to disagree with you a little bit. First, I’m not sure whether I oppose ‘philosophical rigor’ to (the messiness of) ‘everyday human communication and interaction’. In making the link between Hamann’s and Wittgenstein’s thoughts on language, I state that “Hamann predated the late Wittgenstein’s brilliant insights into the historical growth and essence of language as an everyday tool for human communication, rather than philosophical rigor”. The ‘rather’ here implies that Wittgenstein merely raised doubts about the primacy of language as a tool for philosophical rigor, but did not fully discard that function. The beauty of the Investigations for me lies precisely in the way Wittgenstein takes various problems or oddities inherent in everyday and philosophical language, turns them around in his mind, and then makes a neutral observation about them. (In the Introduction he describes the Investigations as a sort of sketchbook filled during a walk in the countryside, I think.) So in keeping with Wittgenstein’s own thoughts about the versatility of language, I think we shouldn’t want to opt for an either/or choice in seeing language as only a facilitator for philosophical/scientific discussion or a mere ‘Swiss army knife’ for dealing with a variety of situations.

      As far as my own thoughts on the subject are concerned: of course you read between the lines well, and saw that I personally think that language is more of a Swiss army knife than a precision tool for coming to truths about the world. But this then raises the obvious question: if language is such a useful tool for coming to consensus on what there is in the world (for instance, running away after someone yells “Watch out, a tiger!” and you have verified that there is in fact a tiger nearby) doesn’t this usefulness of itself not prove that there is a world out there about which we can reach a measure of consensus? Leaving matters of solipsism and whether agreeing that there is a tiger is on a same level as coming to Platonic truths about what ‘justice’ is aside, Wittgenstein’s ideas on the versalitity of language very much allow for a common-sense approach in talking about reality. But then, I am very much an empiricist, basically taking David Hume’s nonchalant tossing aside of his own skeptical thoughts as the last words on the subject.

      More discussion on the subject would involve me also invoking Heidegger and Richard Rorty, but I’m curious as to how you fit Hegel into all this. History as determinant, yes, but relating these ideas to the historical growth of language?

      I’m curious to hear your ideas!


  • Pim van der Heijden

    Hi Roland,

    Many thanks for your thoughts and elaborations! Sorry for sounding a bit polemical. Luckily, this might enhance the fun.

    Firstly, I agree with you that Wittgenstein was “opening up the field for newer understandings of what language is and can be.” However, like Hamann, he was not “just opening up the field”. Both the younger and the later Wittgenstein did this in a very particular and novel way. Therefore, the options for an interpretation of what his later writings implicate on the philosophical status of language and the “correspondence theory of truth”, or the “picture theory of language”, espoused in the Tractatus, are limited. Indeed, both Hamman and the later Wittgenstein were no ‘correspondence realists’. Kant was neither. One thing is certain: language turned out to be a lot more than just an “extremely versatile tool for human communication and interaction.” As forms of life, intrinsically having rules for the use of words, language-games might even dictate human life to a great extent. But in Hamman’s account language appears to be secondary to human life, based on human interaction. In short, I thus believe that Wittgenstein’s thoughts are of a wholly different kind than Hamman’s criticism of Kant based on our everyday understanding of the world.

    Secondly, it is good to hear that neither you nor Hamman opposes “’philosophical rigor’ to (the messiness of) ‘everyday human communication and interaction’.” Kant probably did neither. Generally, I’d like to remark that Kant was actually preoccupied very much with faith. Kant’s preoccupation with reason did not exclude faith at all. On a moral basis, that is, being concerned with human actions and affairs, his enterprise was even an attempt to “make room for faith”. This is highly interesting. Therefore, I believe it is unjust to depict Kant somewhat as a stereotypical ivory-tower-rationalist who antagonizes much of what a perceptive person like Hamman deems valuable. Kant, so to say, was more reasonable than that.

    Finally, I suggested that it would more fitting to relate Hamann’s criticism to Hegel, because Hegel proposed that views on philosophy be historicised. Also, he wrote on Kant, and was more or less a contemporary. Wittgenstein’s views on the contingency of language do not directly imply an historical contingency. Moreover, his philosophical notes were not based on demonstrations of the change of meaning of words over time. Hegel’s philosophy was neither. But expressly treating thought as a dialectical process that develops over time, as Hegel does, might be closer to what Hamman suggested.

    Best wishes,