Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wittgenstein, Public Discourse, and the Relational Self

The following two clips are from the 1989 Film Wittgenstein, directed by
Derek Jarman. The point of each is to articulate Wittgenstein's position that language and therefore thought and therefore the self is essentially relational and public, rather than private and isolated.

It seems to me that profound implications follow from the realization that the self is public, not private. If our language, thought, and sense of self is essentially embedded in our culture and our relations with others, the implications of that are truly far reaching.

An isolated Cartesian self, principally self-focused and inward looking is a very different creature from an essentially public self, embedded in a world and a culture, created and shaped by relationships. The political implications of this are enormous. Think about policies that assume a world of Cartesian egos as opposed to policies that assume fundamentally relational and public selves.

I think our relationships to others differ on each model just as significantly. If I am fundamentally a Cartesian atomistic self then my chief problem is self-discovery and I must do this by shutting the world "out there" off and looking within. But if I am a relational public self - the goal might still be self-discovery, but with and through discovering others. Relationships with others here are primary not secondary. This is critically important.

Bookmark and Share


  1. What I think is the most interesting is that despite the nebulous and constantly changing meanings of words there is still enough continuity for society to function and for people to adequately communicate with each other most of the time.

    For example, I can't remember the first time I heard the word "google"used as a verb (i.e. You should google Wittgenstein). However the meaning was immediately apparent. I didn't have to think about what the person was saying or why due to the context that the word was used. It was as much of a social, cultural and non-verbal exchange as it was me learning a new word. It seems like this kind of language metamorphosis would be impossible, or at least take more active reasoning skills if such a private language existed.

  2. Your use of Google is a peferct example! With your permission I'll use that in the future.

    I have to say Wittgenstein is one of my three favorite/most personally influential Philosophers (the other two are Spinoza, and Aristotle).

    I think it speaks volumes about language and selfhood that using a new word like "google" so easily can be done.

  3. I've never read him before, but his stuff seems very interesting. You are perfectly welcome to use my google reference to your liking.

  4. You should consider some Zen Buddhist reading. They, and the Buddha who asserted that we are beings that arise within a public sphere, held a similar view millennia before Wittgentstein. Zen holds that it is the public that determines the private and not the other way around, or the relationship determines the individual. But, this means that one cannot have a self that is unchanging and inviolate, thus this would seem to argue against a personal immortality since there is not inward independently existing being we call 'self'.

    Mr. C


Comments from many different points of view are welcome. But I will not publish any comments that are hateful, insulting, or filled with profanity. I welcome and encourage dialogue and disagreement but will not publish any hate speech.