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Wittgenstein and Political Theory

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WPolitical (Wittgenstein and Political Theory)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

WPolitical (Wittgenstein and Political Theory) is a Horizon 2020 Marie-Sklodowska Curie project funded by the European Commission and hosted by RIPPLE, Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven. The project investigates the political aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought and explores the relation between his philosophy and political theory. This theme has remained rather marginal in Wittgenstein scholarship, facing the key challenge of the sparsity of explicit discussions of political issues in his writings, while in those cases that political theory does engage with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, this is something done mostly through a methodological rather than a substantive employment of Wittgenstein’s key insights and concepts. The main objective of WPolitical is to provide a novel approach to the relation between Wittgenstein and the political, by focusing not only on Wittgenstein’s (philosophical) methods, but also on his positions as such.

The principal idea the project develops is that Wittgenstein’s philosophy may indeed provide a substantial contribution to political theory and especially to the analysis and critique of late capitalism. The project’s response to the challenges mentioned above comprises a three-part original research which: a) makes explicit the implicit political import of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, b) investigates Wittgenstein’s influence on contemporary political theory, the main case study being the works of (Hardt and) Negri, and c) enrich the discourse regarding the (self-)institution of society and the critique of capitalism by providing it a distinctive Wittgensteinian direction. 

In such a way, WPolitical aims, first, to contribute to the development of a different and more complete understanding of Wittgenstein and his work and, second, to advance a new and more sophisticated Wittgensteinian approach to some key issues and concepts with which contemporary political theory is occupied.
The research carried out as part of the Wittgenstein and Political Theory project revolves around three main themes.

The first theme comprises the political aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. By focusing on Wittgenstein’s later thought the project highlights how: i) Wittgenstein’s later approach to language may be viewed as a critique of the phenomenon of reification of language and meaning, ii) his later metaphilosophical remarks sketch an approach to (a new kind of) philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise aiming to treat certain philosophical, intellectual, and, in the end, social mystifications, iii) Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following may be approached as underlining human communities as the source of normativity and accentuating the self-instituting, self-signifying character of the human form(s) of life, iv) Wittgenstein’s arguments against the very idea of a private language may be read as an explication of the social relation of the common, with language emerging as the immaterial common par excellence, and v) his remarks on the philosophy of psychology do not just constitute a critique of the reification of the ‘inner’, but also bring to fore the relation of interpenetrability and mutual constitution between the symbolic and the corporeal, the cultural and the natural.

The second theme concerns Wittgenstein’s influence on contemporary political theory. Among the many traditions engaging with and influenced by Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the project focuses on the case of contemporary Italian theory, by, first, examining the political interpretation and employment of Wittgenstein’s ideas in the works of Cacciari, Agamben, and Virno, and, second, engaging closely with Wittgenstein’s influence on Negri, especially with regard to the issue of the common as a social relation antagonistic to that of property. Our relevant research stresses the original manner in which certain issues in Wittgenstein scholarship, such as the one of the continuity of Wittgenstein’s thought, are treated in contemporary Italian theory, the ways in which certain implicit political aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought are made explicit through that engagement, and the political potential of certain remarks of Wittgenstein that still have not received the proper attention, even within Italian theory.

The third theme relates to the question of how Wittgenstein’s thought may inform the discussions regarding contemporary political issues. The specific issue addressed by the project is that of the status and role of reification in late capitalism. Starting from Hardt and Negri’s analysis of the tendential hegemony of immaterial (i.e. cognitive/affective) labour as characteristic of late capitalism, the project highlights the intensification of reification, but also of the potentialities for its overcoming, in our times, and some ways in which Wittgenstein’s later philosophy may contribute to the discussion of the issue, especially considering how language (or the symbolic in general) and subjectivity have become directly productive of economic value.

The research carried out as part of the Wittgenstein and Political Theory project and its results have been presented at several academic (conferences, workshops, lectures) and non-strictly academic (open reading and cinema groups, seminars) events. Furthermore, a workshop on ‘Wittgenstein and the Political’ was organized as part of the project in July 2018 at the Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven, with plenary talks given by leading international scholars and the participation of a number of junior and senior scholars from various countries.
While the theme of the relation between Wittgenstein and the political sphere has remained rather marginal in Wittgenstein studies so far, there still is a small but interesting corpus of research on the topic conducted in the last decades. Nevertheless, the WPolitical project progresses beyond the state of the art as it investigates important aspects of the topic that have not attracted much (if any) attention so far (e.g. the reception and interpretation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in contemporary Italian political theory) and highlights how Wittgenstein’s later thought does not only offer valuable conceptual tools that can be employed in politically interesting and productive ways, but also deep insights about the human form(s) of life and the production of individual and collective subjectivity. From such a perspective, an innovative way of looking at Wittgenstein’s philosophy is developed, while, at the same time, contemporary (bio)political theory may find a wealth of relevant insights in Wittgenstein’s later thought as far as its analysis and critique of late capitalism is concerned.

This last point already gestures towards some aspects of the potential societal impact of the research carried out as part of the WPolitical project. To wit, the emergence of the political sides of Wittgenstein’s later thought may contribute significantly to the conceptualization and production of new – alternative to capitalism and its devastating ecological and financial crises – forms of life and thought. An endeavour that takes the shape of a quest for unified personal and social change and for which philosophical analysis may be of service, once philosophy is approached less as a technical/professional occupation and more, in a Wittgensteinian spirit, as a continuous work on ourselves and the ways we relate to our fellow human beings and the world.
Wittgenstein and Political Theory