Do we really need Wittgenstein? It depends. I think that literary scholars today really ought to have a workable understanding of Wittgenstein’s vision of language, for it provides a vital and distinctive alternative to other views on the same matters, views that are widely taught. For the same reason, I think literary scholars really ought to understand Wittgenstein’s critique of theory (or, if one prefers, of certain standard notions of what philosophy is). For a literary theorist it ought to be as unthinkable to know nothing about Wittgenstein as it has been to know nothing about Saussure, or Derrida, or Lacan, or Foucault, and so on through the pantheon of more recent theorists. I wrote Revolution of the Ordinary to make this possible.
But the question is deeper: whether an illusion, on the order of some post-Cartesian misdirected agenda in epistemology, is a proper matrix for understanding the sort of suffering chronicled in the modern literature of loss, absurdity, alienation, meaninglessness and simple heartlessness. (For that matter, the larger question here: could McDowell be right that the Cartesian agenda is simply an illusion, to be recovered from, to be exorcised? Is not that image itself telling, as if it is something like possession, witchcraft? Could that be right?)
Do literary conditions have their own forms of entitlement? Would such conditions—say, Wittgenstein’s particular scene-setting, thought experiments, aphorisms, and dialogues—amount to an alternative form of justification? Could a tactful or artful (or beguiling or captivating or worrisome) ordering of words—what we might simply call a style—itself generate the criteria for claiming? How exactly can, as Cavell puts it, “an ordering of words [be] its own bottom line, [and] see to its own ground?”
The dominant question that has troubled readers of both Wordsworth and Wittgenstein on the topic of common language, its forms of expression, and its situatedness in the world consequently has been similar: Whose language shall count as the “real” or “everyday” one, and with what authority or under which criteria do I assert the commonality and commonness of this language? Put differently: Which words are to act as representative of real or everyday language, what is supposed to be, as Wordsworth has it, the very (the “empirical,” let’s say) or what J. L. Austin might have called the actual language of men?
There is, so to speak, an internal relation between our theories of psychological expression and our theories of aesthetic expression. If we therefore want to hold on to the thought that art is, in fact, expressive, a great deal will depend on how we understand the expressiveness of the human figure. Yet at the same time, if we are convinced that art is not expressive (for whatever theoretical reasons), then that may, in turn, influence the way we see the human body itself: perhaps draining not only works of art, but the human body too, of their expressive powers.