Searching for an epigraph to his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein considered using a quotation from King Lear: ‘I’ll teach you differences’. ‘Hegel’, he once told a friend, ‘always seems to me to be wanting to say that things which look different are really the same. Whereas my interest is in shewing that things which look the same are really different’.footnote1 Perhaps one should not invest too much in this remark. One way in which Wittgenstein kept his distance from classical philosophy was by not reading it: as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge he had not read a word of Aristotle; and as far as Hegel goes, he was once told by a professor in Russia that he ought to read more of him.footnote2 Yet it is surely remarkable that Wittgenstein should consider choosing as a way of summarizing the project of the Investigations the term which more than any has become hallmark and totem of contemporary post-structuralism. Remarkable in one way, maybe, but not in another: the influence of Wittgenstein’s work on Anglo-Saxon linguistic philosophy has served partly to obscure its deep-seated affinities with a body of thought which has also shaped post-structuralism, that of Martin Heidegger.footnote3 The Wittgenstein of Geach and Strawson seems largely to have lost that distinctively European timbre, that dimension of sheer strangeness and intractability, as one might claim that the Derrida of some Anglo-American deconstructionists has forfeited a certain rigorous circumspection and political resonance notable in the work of the master.

Meeting his friend F. R. Leavis one day in Cambridge, Wittgenstein stepped up and commanded him unceremoniously to give up literary criticism. We have Leavis’s reaction in an ambiguous, posthumously published memoir.footnote4 Perhaps Wittgenstein thought that Leavis should give up literary criticism because, like philosophy, it changed nothing. Wittgenstein’s well-known claim that philosophy leaves everything exactly as it is has often been quoted as an index of social and intellectual reaction, a complacent consecration of existing ‘language games’, and there is surely some truth in this. The friend who once took him aback by telling him to his face that Marxism was nothing like so discredited as his own antiquated political opinions was as shrewd as she was bold.footnote5 But Wittgenstein’s attitude to philosophy is not after all very different from that of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, not that that formulation is impervious to criticism. How absurd to imagine that philosophy could change anything! If deep-seated conceptual change is to be possible, it can only be the result of transformations in ‘forms of life’. Wittgenstein was thus presumably quite serious in urging his acolytes to abandon philosophy altogether. Philosophy might have a certain therapeutic value for the badly mystified, but it hardly seemed to warrant a lifetime’s labour. Wittgenstein had a fine knack for philosophy but little respect for it, like someone who finds himself embarrassingly adept at juggling or playing the Jew’s harp.

‘Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm, infinite harm’, Wittgenstein complained to a friend.footnote6 The metaphysical, as for Jacques Derrida, is the main enemy: that hunt for the crystalline structure of all speech which obsesses the early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: ‘The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement). The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.—We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground! . . . A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’ (107, 115)footnote7

The structure of our grammar holds out illusory representations to us, tempts us to assimilate kinds of discourse which have quite different uses. This is not some kind of knockabout anti-metaphysical iconoclasm, any more than it is for Jacques Derrida, who has constantly emphasized the inescapability of the metaphysical, ‘Don’t think I despise metaphysics’, Wittgenstein warned. ‘I regard some of the great philosophical systems of the past as among the noblest productions of the human kind. For some people it would require an heroic effort to give up this sort of writing’.footnote8 For some people, indeed! It can’t have been much less than heroic for Ludwig Wittgenstein to abandon the icily metaphysical Tractatus, the very bible of such thought for a whole coterie of philosophers, even though as a man he was adept at abandoning, often with casual brutality, any friend, belief or habit which seemed to him to block the path to personal purity. The personal fanaticism of this intensely repressed emigré patrician contrasts curiously with the generous pluralism of the Investigations.

Wittgenstein and Derrida are alike in suspecting all philosophy of immediacy, all grounding of discourse in the experience of a subject.footnote9 The sign for Wittgenstein is not the mark of an inward sensation (intending, for example, is not an experience); meaning is an effect of the signifier, which must always already be in play, traced through with its history of heterogeneous uses, for the meaning of the subject to emerge at all. For Wittgenstein, as for post-structuralism, the subject is ‘written’ from the outset, an effect of the play of the signifier; any ‘fullness’ he or she may experience over and above this is no more than a rhetorical emphasis: ‘I have seen a person in a discussion on this subject strike himself on the breast and say: ‘But surely another person can’t have THIS pain!—The answer to this is that one does not define a criterion of identity by emphatic stressing of the word “this”.’ (253)

The ‘private’ sign, leashed by a supposedly internal bond to a pure sensation, is a metaphysical chimera, an instance of that philosophy of phenomenological self-presence which both Wittgenstein and Derrida are out to fracture by the disseminating force of language. Nor for either thinker can this force be recuperated or evaded by some unassailable notion of identity. Difference and identity are equally effects of discourse: how do I know that this is the ‘same’ sensation as I was having last Wednesday unless I have learnt to deploy words in a particular rule-governed way? Perhaps I can privately invent names for my experiences and use the ‘same’ name each time the ‘same’ one comes up, as A. J. Ayer once arguedfootnote10—a ceremony which for Wittgenstein would be precisely equivalent to my left hand giving my right hand money (268); or to someone exclaiming ‘But I know how tall I am!’ and placing his hand on top of his head (279); or to a man buying himself several copies of the daily newspaper to assure himself that what the first copy said was true (265).

How can I invent names for my experiences unless I am already inscribed in a discourse which includes the practice of naming experiences? How could I get somebody to understand the name of an object by pointing to it, unless he or she already grasped the social institution of pointing, looked away from my fingertip to the object rather than up my arm? If only I know whether I use a word to identify the ‘same’ experience then the ceremony is empty, as nothing here would count as going wrong (and thus of going right). The man who buys several copies of the newspaper fails to see that the first text was a copy too—that there was no ‘original’ text, that there is no privileged originary sign which grounds all the others. Wittgenstein as much as Derrida is ‘opposed to the idea that certain forms of language are specially privileged, meaningful in some unique, fundamental way’.footnote11 The person who uses the same privately invented sign each time an experience comes up has grasped the point that signs, to be signs at all, must be in Derrida’s term ‘iterable’, but not the point that it is just this iterability which fissures their self-identityfootnote12—that since there is no ‘pure’ repetition, the question of what counts as difference or identity is a social question to be contended over within discourse and forms of life, not a problem resolvable by ‘experience’.