On Übersichtlichkeit. Wittgenstein’s Perspicuous Representation and its Historical Genealogy

September 8, 2022 - September 9, 2022

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University of East Anglia
University of Bergen
University of Reading



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Wittgenstein’s later methodology is frequently associated to a well-known concept, that of ‘perspicuous representation’ – übersichtliche Darstellung – of the grammar of language, whose nature, despite its declared ‘fundamental importance’ (PI 122), is however still disputed. Its general description in PI 122 is vague too. It is said to be the way we look at, or represent, things, that induces a kind of understanding describable in the terms of ‘seeing connections.’ Notably, this understanding is interwoven with the finding and invention of ‘intermediate links’.

As it stands, PI 122 raises more questions than it answers. In fact, we might wonder what a perspicuous representation is supposed to be. It is usually interpreted as an arrangement of grammatical rules, able to give us a synopsis of the use of certain words or expressions. However, as argued by Gordon Baker, there might be different kinds of perspicuous representations, as they can be interpreted as any logical device we can design to clear away misunderstandings in grammar. In the latter case, language-games can be seen as those ‘intermediate links’ that help seeing connections between different word uses and are thus seen as part of a certain perspicuous representation. Not so in the former case, where on the contrary language games are just, at best, devices to clear away misunderstandings before grammar can be grasped in a surveyable account.

The same kind of indeterminacy involves perspicuity, or surveyability, as it is sometimes translated. Either it is an attribute of the representation itself, or any representation is perspicuous insofar as it renders perspicuous what it describes. In the former case, as argued in Baker and Hacker’s commentary, philosophy acquires a rigid task, that is, to make up representations that have to follow specific formal requirements to be perspicuous – for instance, representing the rules of language in a glance - whereas, in the latter case, perspicuity is bound to the effect that a representation might conjure, that is, dissolving specific misunderstandings. Finally, we can take perspicuity as an inner attribute of Wittgenstein’s methodology of philosophical clarification, so that it acquires a technical sense, or rather, perspicuity is only a general aspect of human understanding as such, as suggested by Joachim Schulte.

Besides and beyond these legitimate methodological questions, PI 122 is interesting also for its direct references to Wittgenstein’s broader cultural influences. The very same German term Darstellung is a philosophical term belonging to the vocabulary of Viennese philosophical and scientific culture, as largely demonstrated by Janik and Toulmin seminal book, Wittgenstein’s Vienna. In particular, the very notion of Darstellung builds a bridge towards Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Boltzmann’s philosophy of science, whose influence was explicitly recognized by Wittgenstein throughout his work. Both physicists insist to conceive of scientific theories as predictive Darstellungen, translatable as models, to describe facts, that should be bound to specific formal requirements – ‘logical permissibility’ (that is, consistency), ‘correctness’ (empirical adequacy), ‘appropriateness’ (distinctness and simplicity), and, only in Boltzmann, perspicuity too (even though its meaning is left unclear). A change of model, or notation, is required, then, to solve those problems that are rooted in our model once it no longer satisfies said criteria. Now, it is plain that Hertz and Boltzmann’s conception of problem-solving influenced Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophical problems, yet we might wonder whether their influence was stronger, and able to give us the key to understand the nature of a perspicuous representation, especially considering that scientific models are depictions of possibilities, not dissimilarly to the majority of language-games Wittgenstein designs throughout his work.

The most obvious reference for PI 122 is however Spengler, mentioned in brackets in the original remark in the Nachlass after Wittgenstein asks whether perspicuous representation is a Weltanschaaung. It is known that Spengler influenced Wittgenstein through his employment of Goethean morphology, it is still unclear how morphology can help us clarify perspicuity. Possibly, the connection with Spengler in PI 122 might help us understand what Wittgenstein believed to be the role of his own philosophy in his time. Everything depends on how we interpret that reference to perspicuous representation as being a Weltanschaaung: whom is this image of the world of? Of Wittgenstein and Wittgensteinian philosophers, or of Wittgenstein as a member of his culture? Is Wittgenstein implicitly proposing his own method as a fitting expression of his civilisation as a form of decadent and minor culture (along the famous yet controversial distinction between Kultur and Zivilisation that Wittgenstein inherits from Spengler)? Can we find in Spengler an answer to this question?

This conference will be held with the explicit intention to investigate the theoretical role of perspicuous representations in Wittgenstein’s late philosophy through a thorough exploration of those cultural influences that might help focus and better analyse said role in the first place. The aim is thus to revitalize the debate concerning Wittgenstein as an Austrian thinker by showing how and in what terms his philosophical methodology is an heir and together an update of the cultural and philosophical urges of his own troubled time.

We look forward to proposals addressing the following areas of interest:

1.      General features of Wittgenstein’s later methodology: language games, rules, facts of nature

2.      Boltzmann and Hertz’s philosophy of science in relation to Wittgenstein’s late philosophy

3.      Wittgenstein and Spengler: on philosophy, Zivilisation and Weltanschaaungen

4.      Goethe’s morphology and language games

5.      Wittgenstein’s method and Paul Ernst’s Anthropology

6.      Further relevant connections with Vienna’s cultural milieu

Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be submitted until June 15th, 2022, to the following email address: [email protected]. Acceptance will have been notified by July 15th. Submissions are accepted in English. This conference will be available via Zoom webinars.

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