Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

Readers generally encounter Wittgenstein within the very intimidating context of modern analytical and linguistic philosophy. As represented and practiced by academics, this branch of philosophy demands a thorough grounding in modern mathematical logic as well as a good acquaintance with the extremely complex and highly technical subtleties of language analysis. Consequently, the uninitiated reader is virtually precluded from access to his views. In Culture and Value, however, Wittgenstein can be encountered within the far more congenial and readily accessible context of cultural criticism.

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Nevertheless, even this work, as is frequently the case with Wittgenstein, does not quite conform to the standard genre. It is markedly different, for example, from the works of historians such as Otto Spengler (Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte, 1918; The Decline of the West, 1922) and Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History, 1934-1961) or the investigations of sociologists such as P. A. Sorokin (Social and Cultural Dynamics, 1937-1941). These critics postulate a certain age of a particular culture as constituting its high point and judge all former and subsequent periods accordingly. They also focus upon a dominant feature of a given civilization and seek to trace its long-term implications. In other words, they do comparative analyses and speculative prediction. Wittgenstein, in contrast, does neither. Instead, he approaches and assesses a culture from the standpoint of the universal human need for ultimate meaning. Accordingly, he probes the very foundations of Western civilization. His critique is therefore genuinely radical in the original sense of the term (radix, pertaining to the roots). In this respect, he is also similar to Blaise Pascal and Sren Kierkegaard as critics of their respective ages. Pascal’s Pensees (1670; English translation, 1688) and Kierkegaard’s “Das gegenwartige Zeitalter” (1846; “The Present Age,” 1940), as well as his Papirer (1909-1948; partially translated as Sren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, 1967-1978), expose the weaknesses and pretentiousness of the prevailing views of their times and raise serious questions concerning meaning.

Wittgenstein’s preoccupation with this fundamental issue is an intrinsic part of his more formal and systematic philosophical activity. Hence, Culture and Value— deliberately edited to avoid any structured presentation of a particular view or position—has a unique place in Wittgenstein’s corpus. “A book of this sort,” the editors wisely observe, will surely “reach the hands of readers to whom otherwise Wittgenstein’s philosophical work is, and will remain, unknown. This need not necessarily be harmful or useless.” Indeed, granted that a complete understanding of Culture and Value requires a thorough grounding in his formal work, it nevertheless provides an important and very valuable introduction to that work.

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