Logical Positivism, Language Philosophy, Wittgenstein

Gathering: Logical Positivism, Language Philosophy, Wittgenstein

Vienna Now! Recent literary studies such as Mark Taylor’s Rewiring the Real (read Vanwesenbeeck’s review); Michael LeMahieu’s Fictions of Fact and Value; and the volume Wittgenstein and Modernism (edited by Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé and LeMahieu), have ushered in a return to logical positivism in literary studies, more than two decades after the perceived impasse between continental and analytical philosophy (as captured in the historical stand-off between Derrida and Searle) seemed to have been decisively settled in favor of the former (read Kellert’s essay and Michaels’ essay). Perhaps not coincidentally, this return to logical positivism is drawing renewed attention to the Vienna Circle and its towering central figure, Ludwig Wittgenstein whose advocacy of linguistic-philosophical hygiene (“whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”), to those of us not partisan-inclined, always seemed like another version of the de-sedimentation (or “bracketing”) urged by phenomenology. It is the latter method, articulated perhaps most famously, in Husserl’s “Vienna Lecture” of 1935, that in turn would pave the way for Derridean deconstruction and the postmodern French Connection of Lyotard, Foucault, Barthes, Bataille (read Berry’s essay).

These unacknowledged parallels between logical positivism and “postmodern theory” unfortunately do not beget much attention in Michael LeMahieu’s Fictions of Fact and Value. Yet this new study does reveal the extent to which, within the American post-WW II context, some of logical positivism’s more radical claims were “domesticated” in order to serve cold-war ideological ends. As Andy Lindquist’s probing review of Fictions of Facts and Value makes clear, LeMahieu “makes an important distinction between the philosophy [of logical positivism] as inscribed in postwar literary works and described by supposedly postmodernliterary works.” Yet Lindquist also takes LeMahieu to task for not integrating this critique within the broader historical transformation that, in this very same era, started to turn economics from a value-based discipline into a supposedly “hard science” of mathematics. As Lindquist’s review makes clear, that transformation, the negative consequences of which are only all too visible today (read Shackelford’s essay) similarly had a well-defined ideological agenda: “by reformatting capital flows into reproducible (and predictable) mathematical equations, economists developed an understanding of economic activity as not the results of specifically motivated agents but the natural behavior of the market itself.”

In this fashion Lindquist’s review continues a discussion of issues that have long occupied a central place within EBR. Consider, for instance, R.M. Berry’s 2004 essay on the fraudulent political rhetoric of the day (“Every time W stands up to make a speech, I think, ‘Where’s a Freudian slip when you really need one?’”) and its insistence that the lexical, not the personal, is the political; or Walter Benn Michaels’s reliance on Wittgenstein in order to analyze the mental derangements (and ethics) of the protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s film Insomnia. Already a decade earlier Steven Kellert questioned the validity of the “bad reputation” that logical positivism had acquired, asking contemporary critics to consider the progressive historical context out of which it emerged: “What no one told me when I studied the Philosophy of Science was that the Logical Positivists and their associates were, as Giere says, ‘overwhelmingly internationalist in outlook; liberal, socialist, or even communist in political orientation; and many were Jews.’ Put these facts in the context of central Europe in the early 1930’s, and we get a very different picture of this movement. Their manifestoes displayed the rhetoric of what we might call progressive or even radical secular humanism. This is all a far cry from the Logical Positivism that established a Philosophical Hegemony in the English-speaking world of the 50’s.” That such a rehabilitation of logical positivism continues to preoccupy contemporary thought may be gathered from recent EBR reviews by Vanwesenbeeck and Shackelford which draw attention, respectively, to the porous nature of the continental-analytical divide; and the resurfacing of that age-old nemesis, the performative, lurking beneath the subprime mortgage schemes of contemporary late capital.

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I Read Because it is Absurd


Vanwesenbeeck situates Mark Taylor’s recent Rewiring the Real, within a growing body of critical literature (which also includes John McClure’s Partial Faiths and Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief) that regards religion as key to a robust account of postmodern culture—and for Taylor, in particular, as key to appreciating the novels of William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo

Never Coming Home: Positivism, Ecology, and Rootless Cosmopolitanism


Steven Kellert on being “in favor of universals.”

The Death of a Beautiful Woman: Christopher Nolan's Idea of Form


In a reading of Christopher Nolan’s films (with and against texts by Poe, Wittgenstein, Searle, and Derrida), Walter Benn Michaels examines the autonomy of the work of art.

Is There a Language Problem?


R.M. Berry on the recuperation of politicized language, in (and through) the fiction of Marianne Hauser and Lidia Yuknavitch.

Reading Topographies of Post-Postmodernism: Review of Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism by Jeffrey T. Nealon


In this essay, Laura Shackelford reviews Jeffrey T. Nealon’s “Post-Postmodernism.” Not merely an historical supplement to Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism,” but an attempt to devise a new critical method appropriate to our “just-in-time” present, Shacklford discusses its implications for literary practice in the 21st Century.