Wittgenstein and Gadamer: towards a Post-Analytic Philosophy of Language. By Chris Lawn


Pp. xviii, 161 , London : Continuum , 2004 (hb), 2006 (pb), $34.23.

Lawn offers the first detailed comparison of the traditions represented by Gadamer and Wittgenstein in a thoughtful and comprehensive study which leans slightly more toward G than W, but which mainly expresses the hope that analytic and Continental philosophical traditions may be brought together in a Gadamerian ‘post-analytic’ approach.

He starts by adapting a distinction offered by Charles Taylor in order to talk about two traditions of understanding the nature of language: a linguistic holism which is interested in the expressive power of language, and a ‘designative’ approach which is concerned to explore how words map on to the world. G stands in the first camp; W began in the second but moved increasingly toward the first. Lawn's project, in many ways, is to suggest how W's approach needs to be understood even more in line with G's emphases.

Chapter 2 summarises the similarities and differences between them. G is more interested in over-arching theories, perhaps allied to a Hegelian interest in a grand narrative of linguistic development. He also reserves a special place for the poetical, unlike W. The next two chapters explore each in turn. G's emphases on tradition and prejudice are discussed, with a focus on his ‘portrait of dialogical language of the ‘lifeworld’ subverting the proposition as a complete, discrete unit of linguistic meaning truthfully corresponding to a particular state of affairs.’ (p. 63) The chapter on W investigates the question of continuity in his work, and explores the hermeneutic question of the role of interpretation in his thought, which is judged to lack G's subtlety with regard to application. Lawn suggests that ‘The danger of collapse into complete linguistic autonomy and arbitrariness is an omnipresent one in late Wittgenstein.’ (p. 85)

Chapter 5, an extended ‘aside’, asks ‘What has history to do with me?’. Here the critique of W comes into focus: he fails to connect current linguistic practices with the past, whereas G offers a rich account of how language continually overreaches itself in every new form of expression. This is then explored in the most fascinating chapter of the book, a comparison of how W and G treat Augustine's writings on language. W's Investigations famously starts with Augustine's ‘picture theory of language’, but Lawn convincingly shows that this is little more than a set-up for W's own view and does not take Augustine seriously on his own terms. G, by contrast, offers a subtle account of how the great theologian's understanding of the Trinity can be allied to an account of language which takes seriously its own ‘inner word’, not as a vestige of mentalism, but as the presence of language awaiting expression in specific outer words. This chapter successfully demonstrates the power of G's historical perspective over against W's static conceptions of language games in play. Chapter 7 offers a fascinating suggestion with regard to poetic language: where G is taken rightly to value the supreme place of poetic expression, W is shown to fall short of embracing its significance in practice, but, Lawn argues, his own aphoristic style is to be read as a kind of inner ‘poetic dialogue’, tragic and agonistic rather than, as is usually supposed, engaging with an imaginary interlocutor who represents someone else.

In a brief conclusion, Lawn suggests that it is with Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) that the analytic tradition makes its key move toward a sense of its own history and even more the philosophical and hermeneutical significance of its own history, as witnessed for example in the arrival of the ‘philosophical biography’ in recent years (such as Monk on Wittgenstein), or Dummett's history of analytic philosophy. These suggest awareness, at least implicitly, of the kinds of concerns which occupy G, as well as ways in which W's thought needs rounding out.

The book was first of all a doctoral thesis at the National University in Ireland but even so it reads well, is uncluttered in style while still remaining well documented. The text was clearly finished in advance of Gadamer's death in 2002, though this makes no substantive difference to the thesis. This is an elegant and well-conceived project which should make a valuable contribution to the continuing rapprochement of two philosophical traditions too long divided, and which highlights some of the riches to be found in a ‘post-analytic’ philosophy of language.