Summary of Book Project

Playing on the Rough Ground: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Ordinary

Superficially, Wittgenstein and Heidegger seem worlds apart: they worked in different philosophical traditions, seemed mostly ignorant of one another’s work, and Wittgenstein’s terse aphorisms in plain language could not be farther stylistically from Heidegger’s difficult prose. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Heidegger’s Being and Time share a core methodological conviction: that descriptions of ordinary or everyday human practices can be philosophically significant. Other scholars have remarked on the importance of the ordinary in Wittgenstein’s or Heidegger’s work individually, but Playing on the Rough Ground is the first book-length study to examine both together. The book shows how this emphasis on the ordinary lies at the heart of these two philosophers’ attempts to re-imagine the aims and methods of philosophy – attempts that have more in common than initially appears. And unearthing Heideggerian themes in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy allows a distinctively Wittgensteinian conception of authenticity to emerge: a conception that is rooted in the idea of unregulated play.

The first two chapters treat Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s respective engagements with the ordinary, emphasizing three principal parallels. First, both reject the idea that philosophy is a cognitive discipline: their method of describing familiar aspects of ordinary human existence is an alternative to a philosophical method that seeks to uncover hitherto unknown truths. Wittgenstein sharply distinguishes between grammatical and empirical investigations, and Heidegger distinguishes between ontological and ontic levels of investigation. Both use these distinctions to argue that the philosophical enterprise is radically different in kind from the sciences – and that this distinction is frequently overlooked to the serious detriment of philosophy. Second, both seek to understand any given utterance or activity within a holistic network of human practices. Wittgenstein insists that ‘to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life’ and Heidegger examines what he calls the ‘worldliness’ of the human world, in which objects show up as equipment whose significance is indexed to its role in human life. And third, both emphasize that these practices are essentially shared: Wittgenstein emphasizes our ‘agreement . . . in form of life’ and Heidegger claims that human being-in-the-world is essentially a matter of being-with-one-another.

This last point, however, raises a challenge for Wittgenstein’s treatment of the ordinary. Where Wittgenstein seems happy to accept agreement as a constitutive feature of human existence, Heidegger finds it troubling. In particular, he characterizes as inauthentic the mode of existence that becomes absorbed in shared norms and practices, and his analysis of phenomena such as anxiety, death, and guilt envisage an authentic mode of existence that owns up to the fundamental groundlessness and incompleteness of our everyday practices. This challenge would seem to expose a philosophy oriented to the ordinary as problematically limited. The third chapter articulates this challenge and offers two responses. First, I argue that we can find something similar to Heidegger’s treatment of anxiety and authenticity in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Far from wanting us to accept our ordinary forms of life as fixed and settled, Wittgenstein’s language-games – in which he invites us to imagine strange mishaps, bizarre tribes, and alternative ‘natural histories’ – aim precisely to unsettle our complacency regarding our ordinary forms of life. Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein wants to force on us the recognition that our forms of life are ours – that they are responsive to us and we are responsible for them. And second, I argue that Heidegger’s conception of authentic existence is not an alternative to the everyday, but a way of inhabiting the everyday more fully. For both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, an authentic existence remains ensconced in the everyday, but does so with an awareness of its everydayness.

These philosophers’ efforts to prompt such an awareness of the ordinary suggests that their understanding of authenticity cannot be detached from their understanding of philosophical method – in effect, both seek a way of philosophizing authentically. The fourth chapter brings to the forefront questions of method that have been a constant background theme in the first three chapters. Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s methodological commitment to the ordinary means rejecting the idea that philosophy can inform us of anything we did not already know – which raises the pressing question of how it can nevertheless be illuminating. Both Wittgenstein and Heidegger face the challenge of providing words whose efficacy does not rest on being informative, and it is on this question of method that they most diverge. I consider a number of techniques these two authors deploy – coinages, scare quotes, and formal indication in Heidegger, and objects of comparison and the dialogue form in Wittgenstein – and examine the difference in these authors’ chosen terms of criticism. In particular, I note that, where Heidegger uses language of discovering or uncovering (entdecken) to talk about a deeper level of ontological disclosure, Wittgenstein uses the same language to talk about exposing nothing more substantial than nonsense. Ultimately, I argue, a greater sense of strain is apparent in Heidegger’s work, as if he wants both to tell us something and to tell us that there is no something to be told – a struggle more reminiscent of the Tractatus than of Wittgenstein’s later work. Wittgenstein avoids this strain by using contrasts to jog our preconceptions about the case before us without trying to tell us anything new about it. This methodological difference, I argue, manifests the more pronounced performative aspect of Wittgenstein’s investigations. Where Heidegger describes the experience of anxiety, for instance, Wittgenstein performs it in his language-games – and encourages his readers to perform it as well.

This point leads into a final chapter that fleshes out the performative aspect of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy by considering one of its pervasive thematic characteristics: play. Our shared forms of life are not underwritten by any external guarantee, but are maintained by our constant and active engagement in them. This engagement has the characteristic of free play. Play is itself an unregulated activity, and yet its repetitive structure gives rise to regularity – provided, of course, and only to the extent that, players find themselves able to play with one another. Wittgenstein’s deployment of language-games reveals both the active dynamic by which people keep their practices ‘in play’, and the potential fragility of these practices when play breaks down. What emerges is a distinct conception of human agency: people are not so much agents as players, where our capacity for thought and action rests on our responsiveness to the constantly changing dynamic of our ordinary circumstances.

Playing on the Rough Ground contributes to a small but growing field of comparative work on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, placing more emphasis than any of its predecessors on the crucial question of method in these philosophers’ work. It also opens a new avenue for investigating play as a central feature of Wittgenstein’s philosophy – and as a topic of independent philosophical interest.