My Intellectual Journey with Wittgenstein

My love affair with Wittgenstein began in the spring of 1975 in a seminar at the College of William and Mary by Jesse (at that time, Robert) Bohl. I loved the Tractatus but disliked the Investigations.

When I went off to graduate school at UCLA in 1976, my prime interest was philosophy of language along the lines of Donald Davidson and Saul Kripke. But I never lost my interest in Wittgenstein, and I started working right away on what I called an “Intellectual-Historical Introduction to the Tractatus” in my spare time. It had grown to about 100 pages when I discovered and read Janik and Toulmin’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna. This blew me away and I set my own project aside. (However, I am now working on it again: Tractatus in Context.) Though I took a few seminars on Wittgenstein from Rogers Albritton, Philippa Foot and visitor David Pears, I understood that research on Wittgenstein was not a way to get a job. My interest in philosophy of language morphed into a dissertation on moral realism, completed in 1983, under the direction of Warren Quinn.

During the two years of my first job, as a visiting assistant professor at UCSD, the Churchlands were hired into the department. I quickly learned about eliminativism and thought that Wittgenstein must have the key to resisting it. But as I tried to work that out, I came to think that in fact eliminativism was not necessarily opposed to Wittgenstein’s views, and that Wittgenstein’s views were more complicated and flexible than I had supposed. This led to my first publication on Wittgenstein, “Wittgenstein and Neuroscience,” which in turn led me in a direction of interpreting Wittgenstein inimical to Hacker and the received view. Also while I was at UCSD I met a grad student in history, Peter John, who was working on the historical-cultural background to the later Wittgenstein, a sort of follow-up to Janik and Toulmin’s book about the early Wittgenstein. This put me in touch with Spengler, and these two influences from UCSD eventually, some 25 years later, formed the basis for my 2011 book, Wittgenstein in Exile.

Once I came to Virginia Tech, in 1985, I focused on publishing on supervenience. In 1986–7 we had a visiting professor from Germany, Alfred Nordmann, as a colleague. Alfred and I became friends, partly over our shared interest in Wittgenstein, and this led to our editorial collaboration that produced Philosophical Occasions. This editing work on Wittgenstein required a great deal of communication with G.H. von Wright, whom I found to be a most generous and gracious scholar. I never met the man, but we exchanged dozens of faxes and dozens of letters which I cherish. My interest in the cultural and historical background to Wittgenstein made me an early fan of the biographies published around this time—McGuinness’s 1988 biography of Young Wittgenstein, and Monk’s 1990 full biography. I began to plan a big conference on Wittgenstein and Biography, hoping to get McGuinness and Monk to headline. McGuinness was unable to extricate himself from his duties in Italy, but Monk came, and Joachim Schulte was a suitable replacement for McGuinness. This conference, in March 1999, led to my collection Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy. I followed this up with a trip to Europe that summer to work in the Wittgenstein archive in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, and attend the annual Wittgenstein fest in Kirchberg, Austria. On that trip I got to know Jonathan Smith at the Wren, Alois Pichler from the Wittgenstein Archive at Bergen, and Wasfi Hijab—Wittgenstein’s last student.

I began to research Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1994, after completing Philosophical Occasions. It was a bit late in the game, since most of his students had died by then, but no one had tried to do anything systematic. In addition to talking with Hijab, I contacted some other living students and gathered what material and information I could. That became my contribution to Public and Private Occasions, which was published in 2003. I have continued to collect information on Wittgenstein’s lectures and I revisted this paper in December 2019.

During a semester teaching in Switzerland in 2004 at the Virginia Tech study-abroad center near Lugano, I was able to travel widely. I met Brian McGuinness for the first time at his home in Siena, and met with Allen Janik and Ilse Somavilla at the Brenner Archive in Innsbruck. But in the United States I had rather limited opportunities to meet with Wittgenstein enthusiasts. So in 2007 I decided to host a Wittgenstein workshop, inviting those scholars I could find who lived in Virginia or contiguous states. This loosely-defined group has continued to meet at various locations in the region roughly every 18 months, most recently in April 2018 for the eighth time. In 2012 I was invited to spend a month at the Wittgenstein Archive at Bergen and the von Wright and Wittgenstein Archive in Helsinki. Those residencies got me started on a new book project, Wittgenstein's Artillery.

James C. Klagge
June 12, 2018