From: K.S. Johannessen and T. Nordenstam, eds., Culture and Value: Philosophy and the Cultural Sciences. Papers of the 18th International Wittgenstein Symposium. Kirchberg am Wechsel: 1995.

J. C. Nyíri:

 Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Post-Literacy

The not ion of post-literacy is here used in the sense of "secondary orality" as defined by Walter J. Ong in the early 1970s.1 The term refers to the new, electronically mediated culture of spoken, as contrasted with written, language. Secondary orality is post-literal in the sense of being different from, but also rooted in, grafted upon, literacy. Thus secondary orality is certainly not identical with the orality of pre-literal cultures - with primary orality, as Ong calls it. While the orality of pre-literate cultures serves as the sole medium of collective consciousness and memory - think, for instance, of Homer - secondary orality designates a phase in which users of language have recourse to writing, book printing, and the electronic recording of texts and data. However, from a semantic point of view, secondary orality does in important ways parallel primary orality. The meaning of utterances is in both cases intrinsically bound up with the extra-linguistic situations in w hich those utterances occur. Or rather there is no sharp dividing line between the linguistic and the extra-linguistic: Names have a fundamental function, but they belong together with, and not merely designate, their bearers; and the utterance is not a complex of names, but a dynamic act in itself, a deed. By contrast, written language consists of separate words, each of which has a literal meaning, designates a definite concept or object. Context does play a role, but only as a guide t o recognize the proper designation. The meaning of a written text is open to interpretation, but does not alter with the changing circumstances. As the metaphor has it: Spoken language is alive, written texts are dead.

 The thesis I will here put forward is that the genesis and the direction of Wittgenstein's later philosophy is not independent of the emergence of secondary orality. The thesis as such is not new. I first propounded it in my essay "Wittgenstein and the Problem of Machine Consciousn ess"2. And Toulmin in his Cosmopolis, in the section "The Return to the Oral" pointed out that the later Wittgenstein "was moving away from the expression of beliefs in written propositions to their transient, contextual expression in language games, speech acts, and utterances generally". 3 Now in order to render this thesis plausible - to show how natural it is to view Wittgenstein's later philosophy from the perspective of the orality/literacy chasm - I shall introduce my main argument by a two-stage detour. In the second stage of that detour I will draw attention to the importance Plato had for Wittgenstein in the early 1930s; in the first, I will briefly refer to Havelock's interpretation of Plato as the philosopher, of literacy triumphant, in Greece.

 What Eric Havelock has shown in his monograph Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963) is that writing was, for Plato, not just a new medium in which to express his philosophy; on the contrary, the experience of literacy formed the very source of Platonism. When Plato inquired about the nature of justice, or the beautiful, or goodness, he was not merely asking new questions; he was asking questions with regard to abstract terms that were simply not there in the Greek language prior to the rise of literacy. It is the syntax of writing that creates abstract terms; and it is the impression given by written language that all words signify basically in the same manner, namely by designating something.

 It is known that Wittgenstein enjoyed reading Plato; but the significance Plato had for him is quite underrated, and has never been properly understood. In the year 1931 Wittgenstein refers, in his notebooks, at least eleven times to Plato, quoting a number of passages, even quite long ones. Plato certainly plays a role in those notebooks no other philosopher ever came near to. The passages Wittgenstein again and agai n quotes belong to those where Plato's way from a specific view of meaning to a specific ontology becomes particularly clear. Wittgenstein obviously had a feeling that the point in the history of philosophy to which he wanted to return is the one at which Plato had taken the wrong turning. As he said to Schlick in 1931: "I cannot characterize my standpoint better than by saying that it is opposed to that which Socrates represents in the Platonic dialogues" (TS 302:14).

 If Wittgenstein's oppositi on to Plato was motivated, to some measure at least, by the emergence of post-literacy, he was certainly not aware of this. In fact he was unaware of the radical epistemological differences between written and spoken language. Two authors who could have influenced him here, but, judging by the way Wittgenstein's arguments will proceed, clearly did not do so, were Oswald Spengler and Bronislaw Malinowski. In Spengler's Untergang des Abendlandes he could have found the idea that writing is, as Sp engler had put it, a quite new type of language, implying "a complete change in the relations of man's waking consciousness", liberating the mind "from the tyranny of the present". While speaking and hearing, Spengler emphasized, take place only in proximity and in the present, writing bridges distance both in space and in time.4 Malinowski's essay "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages" appeared as an appendix in the Ogden and Richards volume The Meaning of Mea ning. Wittgenstein of course must have had some acquaintance with the volume; but he nowhere mentions Malinowski. In the latter's essay "primitive living tongue, existing only in actual utterance" is contrasted with "dead, inscribed languages". The former, Malinowski stresses, is "to be regarded as a mode of action, rather than as a countersign of thought". In a primitive language, he writes, "the meaning of any single word is to a very high degree dependent on its context"; indeed it is dependent, as he puts it, on the context of situation - i.e., on the extra-linguistic environment. Written documents, by contrast, are "naturally isolated", the statements contained in them "are set down with the purpose of being self-contained and self-explanatory". Spoken linguistic material "lives only in winged words, passing from man to man", word-meanings being "inextricably mixed up with, and dependent upon, the course of the activity in which the utterances are embedded". Language i n a preliterate culture is never "a mere mirror of reflected thought". In writing however "language becomes a condensed piece of reflection", the reader "reasons, reflects, remembers, imagines". And it is significant that in Malinowski's estimate such reflection is a philosophically dangerous enterprise, leading to a "misuse of words", bestowing "real existence" upon meanings - giving rise, that is, to Plato's ideas and to medieval realism.5

 My suggestion is th at although Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy, came to represent attitudes we might regard as post-literal ones, he did not receive them from Spengler, Malinowski, or any possible similar source. Rather, he acquired these attitudes through being directly influenced by phenomena of a secondarily oral type. To such influences Wittgenstein must have been particularly susceptible. Although he was an obsessive writer, Wittgenstein had a problematic relation to written language, especially to written lan guage in its fully developed form: the printed book. Already in the preface to his Wörterbuch für Volksschulen Wittgenstein had complained about the distorting effects of typography; and his reluctance to publish his writings is of course notorious. Here also come to mind his poor orthography; his anachronistic predilection for having people read out loud texts to him; the common observation that his favourite readings he really knew by heart; the aphorism and the dialogue as conspicuous stylistic features of his writing; and even his tendency to explain arguments by using pictures and diagrams.6

 A post-literal phenomenon clearly having specific impact on Wittgenstein was the film, both in its silent and in its "talkie" versions - to apply here the terminology of late twenties. 7 Going to the movies was almost an addiction with Wittgenstein; and it is striking that he regularly used the film metaphor to illustrate philo sophical points, points in particular where the relation of the signified to signs belonging to more than one media was at issue. In England the first "talkie" films were shown in 1928, in Vienna towards the end of 1929. Wittgenstein must have been exposed to new experiences of language through watching them, as also, earlier, through watching silent films. One is not left without possible conjectures as to the nature of those new experiences. Béla Balázs, in his book Der sichtb are Mensch, published in Vienna in 1924 - a book that soon became very influential - reflecting on the silent film makes the following observation: "On the film ... speaking is a play of facial gestures and immediately visual facial expression. They who see speaking, will learn things very different from them who hear the words."8 Balázs published a second book on the film, in Berlin in 1930, this time on the sound film, again addressing the issue of how herewith l anguage comes to be seen in a new perspective.

 Now even though coming to articulate linguistic intuitions characteristic of post-literacy, and developing arguments and notions which today serve as important instruments for dealing with philosophical problems pertaining to secondary orality, Wittgenstein, as I have already suggested, was not aware of the true nature of his enterprise. He certainly hit the nail on the head when he wrote, around September 1929: "In mir streubt sich ein Freudscher Wid erstand gegen das Finden der Wahrheit."9 The word "sträubt" Wittgenstein here spells with an "e" instead of an "ä". In all other instances I have come across in his manuscripts he does get the word right. The appropriate Freudian explanation would thus be: his resistance is directed, really, against being coerced into standardized spelling - that is, directed against the norms of literacy, and ultimately against the recognition that his philosophical problems some how pertained to the technique of writing. If I maintain that, all the same, it was precisely this fundamental issue which confronted Wittgenstein, my reason for this is the central place which the notion of meaning as use occupies in his arguments. To think of meaning as use means to think of language as spoken; written words are, typically, used to represent spoken words, and in this sense written words are, typically, names. Under conditions of secondary orality spoken language once more gai ns a certain dominance, without however losing its ties with writing. It is appropriate that in Wittgenstein's arguments references to both spoken and written signs should figure; a source of confusion, however, is that Wittgenstein himself is not aware of the radically different roles played by spoken signs on the one hand, and written signs on the other; and hence of the radically different implications his arguments can have, depending upon the examples chosen.

 Let me just give three illustrations.

 In a crucially important passage from the 25th of August Wittgenstein writes:

 "If I were to resolve (in my thoughts) to say 'abracadabra' instead of 'red', how would it show itself that 'abracadabra' stood in place of 'red'? How is the position of a word determined? Supposing that I were to replace all the words of my language simultaneously by others, how could I know which word stood in place of which other word? Is it here the ideas [Vorstellungen] that remai n and hold fixed the positions of the words? As if there were a sort of hook attached to each idea, upon which I hang a word, which would indicate the position? This I can't believe. I cannot make myself think that ideas have a place in understanding different from that of words" (MS 109:45f.).

The proposition I am putting forward is that while in a language devoid of the underpinnings of writing it is indeed impossible to perform the permutation Wittgenstein here claims one cannot perform, to d o the same in writing is, though cumbersome, yet perfectly possible. Here, then, Wittgenstein must have had spoken language in mind.

 Late in 1931 Wittgenstein wrote: "The power language has to make everything look the same which is most glaringly evident in the dictionary" (MS 113:554, cf. CV:22e). This, clearly, refers to written language. It is the intuitions of written language which suggest that meaning equals naming; and it is this very equation which is responsible fo r our bewitchment by language.

 On p.488 of TS 211, compiled in 1932, one reads: "Die Worte sind diskontinuierlich; die Wortsprache eine Abbildung durch diskontinuierliche Zeichen. Das ist einer der wichtigsten Gesichtspunkte, von der man sie betrachten muss." Here again we might recall that spoken language is not a discontinuous string of words; rather, it is made up of speech acts inextricably bound up with the situations in which they play their role. Written language however i s discontinuous; and here one can say that words are pictures, in the sense that written words do indeed represent spoken words.

 Let me conclude by pointing out that although by 1931 practically all the main discoveries of the later Wittgenstein have made their appearance in his manuscripts, those discoveries were, well until 1934, again and again lost sight of by him. Wittgenstein's failure to make the distinctions I have referred to earlier, distinctions between language spoken and l anguage written, might serve, I suggest, as an explanation, at least in part, for this frustrating state of affairs; but also for Wittgenstein's ultimate inability to complete the "book" he always wanted to complete. Looking at Wittgenstein scholarship today, it would be difficult to deny that the profession is in a state of crisis. The point I was trying to make here is that coming to terms with the orality/literacy issue could be one of the preconditions for that crisis to be overcome.