An Approach to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 34 (4):780-782 (1981)
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Abstract

The main thesis of this book is that Wittgenstein’s early philosophy is an exemplification of Newtonian physics, whereas the later philosophy exemplifies contemporary, relativistic physics. The reader may recall Wittgenstein’s insistence, during both major periods of his thought, upon the separation of philosophy from science. However, Bolton’s unstated premise is that Wittgenstein’s thought was unconsciously determined by two different conceptions of physics. Whatever one may think of this, it leaves a question unanswered. Since both periods of Wittgenstein’s thought follow the development of relativistic physics, why was he initially influenced by Newtonian physics or its expression in modern philosophy? Was this a contingent error of the youthful Wittgenstein, or an expression of historical inevitability? We find no discussion of this difficult problem in Bolton’s book. Instead, he claims, and to some extent shows, that Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, crystallizes the axioms of modern philosophy, which is essentially Newtonian. At the historical level, this thesis is either wrong or uninformative. It is wrong because not all of modern philosophy can be explained on the basis of the peculiarities of modern or Newtonian physics. It is uninformative because to the extent that all modern philosophers took Newtonian physics for granted, the latter cannot account for the sharp differences between, say, John Locke and Hegel. Nevertheless, Bolton provides interesting and plausible reasons for regarding the Tractatus as an expression of that aspect of modern philosophy which may profitably be called "Newtonian." He fails to convince at least one reader that the repudiation of the Tractatus is a repudiation of modern philosophy for anyone other than Wittgenstein and his followers. On the other hand, once we discount, or even disregard, Bolton’s historical thesis, the more traditional virtues of his book come sharply into focus. Having recently reviewed the 686 page commentary by Baker and Hacker on the first third of the Investigations, as well as Wright’s 481 page essay on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics, the author of this note is in a good position to appreciate the economy and lucidity of Bolton’s summary analysis of the main points in the Tractatus. As an example of my disagreement with Bolton’s interpretation, I begin with a brief citation from p. 86

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