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The Totalitarianism of Therapeutic Philosophy: Reading Wittgenstein Through Critical Theory

1 January 2007


are many ways of speaking and thinking, many forms of language, with no common essential feature uniting them all—therefore no common set of rules to be applied unexceptionally to the totality, consequently no single standard for judging validity. It is quite natural, then, to suppose that Wittgenstein decisively counters totalitarian forms of thought. It is this point that this paper challenges.

This paper criticises Wittgenstein—especially his “therapeutic philosophy”— through the writings of Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, specifically the writings of Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer. In particular, it disputes the claim that Wittgenstein’s therapeutic philosophy is, as one commentator puts it, “the critical, negative part” of his philosophy (Baker, 1980, p. 486). The aim, however, is not merely to criticise but to better understand Wittgenstein. His position is studied carefully; pains are taken to dispel misinterpretations that end in quick and easy dismissals of his work. There is no wholesale rejection of his philosophy, but instead a pressing on certain key issues. This paper argues, first, that Wittgenstein’s analysis of the concept of “meaning”—while not wrong—is incomplete; and, second, that his views on the role of philosophy in combination with his conceptualisation of meaning cultivate a philosophy that confines itself to working within the boundaries of established discourses. A philosophy that adheres to the restrictions set by Wittgenstein commits itself to speaking in terms set by the world as it currently is and thus limits the potential to think beyond current realities, let alone move beyond them.

Perhaps most importantly, this critique places Wittgenstein’s thought in the context of broader intellectual trends in the English speaking industrialised world. It shows how Wittgenstein’s philosophy, together with broader intellectual trends, reflects and contributes to totalitarian currents in the social, political and economic fabric of advanced industrialised society.


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