Wittgenstein stood philosophy on its head and Anglo-American philosophy hated him for it. I recall this because I majored in philosophy (along with literature) in the seventies. My professors exhaled him as an icon of philosophy but never gave him more than two minutes of class time.

I devoured philosophy from 1974 until 1978. [1] Then my advisors persuaded me to switch my graduate studies to English because I’d never find a job in philosophy.

Guess what.

I still took philosophy classes and in grad school, mainly because even literature had to answer to Derrida and because philosophy had discovered the problems metaphor presented to language by the time I arrived. Not that Wittgenstein hadn’t warned them years before.

But my teachers never truly addressed Wittgenstein. They lumped him with “the Europeans.” Made vague references to “language games.” Even the deconstruction course I took was an attempt to erase Derrida forever from literary criticism.

Unfortunately, poetry infected me as an undergrad and I didn’t even know it. When my professors made cracks about non-scientific language as “poetry and nonsense,” I knew intuitively that not all poetry was nonsense. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and the complete works of Rod Kckuen without doubt, but metaphors themselves could be powerful little buggers.

Little did I know Max Black had already written the first work on metaphor agreeing with me. [2] Or that Wittgenstein had already laid the groundwork by undoing every enterprise with which my teachers tried to engage me. It just takes twenty or more years for seminal works of thought to penetrate undergraduate classrooms.

They almost succeeded in their campaign. Little did I understand that philosophers who preached the rigors of logic practiced the art of subterfuge. Turn a man into an icon, and you render his thought inert.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein card courtesy of The Unemployed Philosophers Guild

My professors did it with Wittgenstein, with Derrida, hell, they did it with an entire generation of feminist thinkers. Did they do so intentionally? I doubt it. I truly believe they simply believe that Wittgenstein (and Derrida, and especially women) produced “non-thought.” It didn’t fit their definition of a rigorous proposition, therefore, it had no value as a proposition at all.

In my late forties and fifties — having left entirely academics, except to teach college classes in the evening to young freshmen with no desire to learn only to earn credit toward a profitable degree — I finally picked up the books written by the non-thinkers of my graduate years [3] and discovered how much my own thinking reflected Wittgenstein’s.

And, as I read more of his books, how much in sympathy I had become to Derrida.

Had I only known.

Perhaps this was for the best. I was already known as something of a renegade thinker, but at least the sources behind my citations remained orthodox. Had I invoked sources from a heretical canon to support my views, I might have been even less employable.


[1] I graduated two years before that, but took two years off to work in a furniture factory and then tour the country with a rock tent ministry called Christ is the Answer. When I finally enrolled in classes, I was ready to devote myself to books and contemplation.

[2] Metaphors and Models: Studies in Language and Philosophy (New York: Cornell University Press, 1962).

[3] Including women such as Julia Kristeva, and, my personal favorite, Michèle le Doeuff.

Living metaphor. Follow me @stephens_pt.

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