Christopher C. Robinson, Wittgenstein and Political Theory: the View from Somewhere (Edinburgh

Christopher C. Robinson, Wittgenstein and Political Theory: the View from Somewhere (Edinburgh


Christopher C. Robinson, Wittgenstein and Political Theory: The View from Somewhere (Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 2009), 195 pages.

In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that philosophical inquiry is like exploring an old city with an accretion of neighborhoods from different eras. The neighborhoods (social practices and language games) are diverse, and if you try to generalize about them, you will miss important differences. To really appreciate the unique characteristics of these neighborhoods, you must look at each one up close, at a leisurely pace, and for a long time. With Wittgenstein’s metaphorical suggestion in mind, Professor Robinson complains that “The Great Tradition of Western Political Thought” has neglected to examine political life at close range, preferring to contemplate the life of the city from the Olympian heights of the mountain top. In Robinson’s words, “traditionally, political and social theorists have argued for the necessity of critical distance to produce a theory of political society” (16). The trouble with this requirement, from Robinson’s perspective, is that contemporary politics is “a politics of resistance and dissent,” and in order to grasp the meaning of these activities, which arise “sporadically in the form of protest and imaginatively in the playfulness of street theatre,” the contemporary political theorist must embrace “the intimacy that the epic tradition eschewed” (178).

Much of Wittgenstein and Political Theory is devoted to a critique of this Olympian vantage point, a critical endeavor which Robinson sees as running parallel to Wittgenstein’s own critique of “metaphysics.” I leave it to the reader to decide whether the following claims advanced by the author may be interpreted in terms of this analogy: the language of universal human rights miscasts “suffering in abstract terms”; recourse to universals is “a form of dogmatism,” an unwillingness “to look and see”; the “perceptual distancing” characteristic of “the Great Tradition” is “dehumanizing”; “the further we stand from people, the less we care about them”; and, finally, justice not a matter of seeing justice, but “hearing the cries of people suffering from injustice.” It’s hard to know what to make of these claims. They read more like speculations about the psychology of the political theorists who belong to “The Great Tradition of Western Political Thought” than as philosophical elucidations of the concepts of rights, justice, and other putative subjects of political theory. But perhaps this is the author’s intention: to give us a jolt so that we will look and see what is really going on.

Robinson provides several instructive cases where the habit of holding onto rigid concepts forecloses the contemplation of interesting alternatives. For example, if political theorists tightly cling to an orthodox view of citizenship with its emphasis on voting and other conventional forms of political participation, they are not likely to appreciate, or perhaps even notice, the political act involved in “teaching Lolita in Tehran,” which is the title of a book that describes an act of great political courage. In a similar fashion, Robinson offers a critique of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s (arguably) constricted conception of the family – a husband and wife, period – which Robinson characterizes as an “essentialist idea” whose boundaries, in Scalia’s hide-bound view, are rigidly determined by the very nature of men and women, thereby making incomprehensible the extension of legally-recognized marriage to gay couples who wish to participate in this institution.

Wittgenstein stressed the importance, as well as the difficulty, of knowing when to stop in searching for a justification. But it does not follow from this admonition, or, perhaps I should say, I hope it does not follow that “political action and institutions are in no need of theoretical justification” (41). Indeed, Robinson goes further, claiming that “it is a matter of false intellectual chauvinism to think otherwise” (41). Now, it is one thing to say that the game of chess requires no justification; it is quite another to claim that a Member of Parliament is under no obligation to justify a vote in favor of one kind of tax rather than another, or that the institution of majority rule requires no justification. If we “look and see,” we will certainly find citizens asking for the justification of political actions, and we will even find that the oppressed subjects of tyrannical regimes sometimes muster the courage to claim that their oppression cannot be justified. Although Robinson does a commendable job of defending Wittgenstein’s philosophy against the charge that it is inherently conservative, the declaration quoted above suggests that, in Robinson’s view, the institutions of the status quo are, indeed, the bedrock beneath which we cannot go.

Perhaps the problem lies in the notion of a “theoretical justification.” John Rawls is one of the political theorists Robinson calls to account for trying to “burrow beneath politics,” and Rawls’s conception of an “original position,” wherein “parties” choose principles of justice from behind a “veil of ignorance,” seems to be a paradigm case of what Robinson criticizes as “perceptual distancing.” To be sure, Rawls is a very different kind of philosopher than Wittgenstein. And, yet, Rawls’s theoretical vehicle, which is an imaginary setting where people decide on the terms of cooperation without knowing where they stand in the distribution of social and natural advantages, is not unlike some of Wittgenstein’s own thought experiments. Rawls calls his conception “justice as fairness,” and his “veil of ignorance” is a vivid means of giving expression to the idea of impartiality because you cannot tailor the rules to your advantage if you do not know whether you are rich or poor, black or white, lazy or industrious. On the other hand, we could certainly ask, as Professor Robinson might, whether the principles chosen in this imaginary setting have, or should have, any relevance for beings like us, who are thick with traits and attributes, and who, to borrow Robinson’s subtitle, always have a “view from somewhere.”

Robinson seeks to pull Wittgenstein into a current of thought that includes Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and many post-modernist thinkers who regard the bureaucratic form of organization as the dominant feature of contemporary life. According to Robinson, politics as “the form of order” has been supplanted by bureaucracies, which “possess linguistic mechanisms that render occupants, even political theorists, blind to their pervasiveness and insensitive to their coercion” (107). Politics must now be seen as resistance against bureaucratic formalism, and theorizing should no longer be undertaken from “a fixed perceptual stance,” but must become “a travelling perceptual performance” (98). According to Robinson, the time has come to exercise “the horizontal freedom of the Wittgensteinian theorist.”

It may be ironical to point out that this understanding of modernity, which stresses the power and reach of bureaucracy, was given to us by Max Weber, who found something common amongst the apparent variety of institutional structures in the modern world. This, I want to say, is one of the benefits to be derived from the Olympian vantage point, where the city below can be surveyed in search of patterns that cannot be discerned from a street level view. This is the point of a theory, is it not? Sometimes we are interested in the general rather than the particular, in a classification of regime types rather than a detailed description of a specific regime, in the justification of democracy rather than the phenomenology of a town meeting. Although Robinson’s critique of “the view from nowhere” (to borrow Thomas Nagel’s phrase) is not compelling to this reviewer, his book does offer useful instruction in the art of seeing as political various activities and works of literature which, at first glance, appear to have nothing at all to do with politics.

Reviewed by Greg Hill