“Once you have taken possession of your name,
the alphabet will be yours. But soon you will be
the slave of your riches.” –Reb Teris
-Edmond Jabès


In my thesis, I would like to examine the practice of language as it bears on our conceptions of the self and the world. I will propose that the way in which we use language produces the false impression of unities being captured in words. By this I mean that when we name a person, an object, an event, a practice, a state of affairs, and so on, we believe that the name of the thing represents the thing to which it has been attached. This presumed attachment is more than a simple point of reference that we use to identify something in discourse; we believe there is something meaningful about it. For instance, a person’s name can bring them to mind in a flash: we think of our conception of that person.

Similarly, if we think of a genre of music, a political stance, or a philosophical school of thought, the same thing can happen. A concept comes to mind by way of a name. In this way, naming (as it fits into the larger framework of language-use) gives the impression of representing unified objects that can be perceived and known. Of course, I am not suggesting that objects (not simply physical objects, but objects of inquiry) cannot be perceived and known in some way; however, I am suggesting that language is not sufficient to contain them. Is this because there is a gap between things as they appear and things as they really are, as Kant argued? I would suggest that it is rather because people, events, states of affairs, practices, and so on, are not unities at all. Of course, I mean “unity” in a metaphysical sense: the idea that there is some sort of center (such as a soul) to a person, for instance. If this is true, then the inability of language to contain its objects lies in the fact that there are more attributes to objects than can be expressed at once in a statement or proposition. This holds for all of the things that I mentioned above.

I would like to suggest that the phenomenon I am trying to describe creates problems first and foremost (as far as this thesis is concerned) in the way that the self is thought about. The way in which other people appear to us, and the way that we appear to ourselves, can be determined by language in such a way that we feel bound by or committed to a rigid and unified identity. This applies not only to the names that we are given by our parents –our primary signifiers in language– but also to the various terms we use to describe our beliefs, affiliations, inclinations, and so on. Multiple signifiers proliferate and surround us in a constellation over the course of our lives: at one point we may believe in certain things and orient ourselves in certain ways, and at another point we may have changed almost entirely. Furthermore, changes occur constantly as we acquire knowledge and consider the world in different ways. We still, however, continue to refer to ourselves in largely the same ways, even though we may be strikingly different at one point than we may have been a few years previous. I would like to examine what sort of effect this has on us. I would suggest that by viewing ourselves as unified subjects through the various linguistic markers we attach to ourselves (and to which we find ourselves attached) can create psychological anxiety; the words in which we clothe ourselves cannot account for the fact that we change over time and in different situations. By becoming used to describing ourselves to ourselves and others in a certain way, we may feel as though there is some final truth about us in those descriptions – a truth that cannot be violated. Thus, when we find ourselves beginning to change over time, be it in terms of political beliefs, certain ideological commitments we have made, or any other sort of self-description, we feel as though we are betraying ourselves. This kind of effect also impinges on our view of the world and relations with others, as well.

Ultimately, the thrust of my thesis is that conceptions of the self as well as intersubjective or social relations are directed and limited by a misleading conception of language and power relations. The misleading conception of language to which I am referring is that language represents the world and reveals metaphysical truths about it. The metaphysical truths that it supposedly reveals are confined not only to objects in the world, but also to us as subjects. Power relations are not just the kinds of coercive and repressive forms of social pressure coming from State apparatuses and other institutions such as the Church; they are found in social relations that actually produce certain conceptions of the self and of the “proper” way to live in relation to others. To put it another way, power relations are productive of modes of thought and action that ensure the reproduction and perpetuation of certain social structures, as well as structures of the self. Certainly, the kinds of power structures created by the State sustain and propagate ideological formations, but this phenomenon can also be found in almost every segment of society. It is not dependent upon “official” conduits of social relation. I would like to go further and suggest that power relations and misconceptions of language are intertwined in ways that have not been as elaborated upon as they perhaps could be. My thought here is that if the way in which language causes metaphysical categories and commitments to “settle” in our consciousnesses makes possible the kind of power relations that I have described. I do not want to argue that one is prior to the other, of course; they are bound up in a way that cannot be fully taken apart. It could also be argued, for instance, that power relations support and perpetuate linguistic misconceptions by enforcing structures of the self and of social relations. In any event, pursuing the question of which came first does not do anything in the way of addressing the problem that concerns me. Elucidating and examining the functional relationship between the two is the important task. By doing so, I believe that new possibilities of conceiving the self and intersubjective relations may be opened up.

Wittgenstein and the philosophy of language

In tackling the language problem that I am trying to bring out, I can think of no better resource for my purposes than the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his work, he questions the view of language as representational; indeed, from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein works on the notion that language does not have any a priori or metaphysical purchase on reality. Language is a system composed of many different systems that can overlap, but it never really “touches ground” in terms of being representative of reality in a meaningful way. As he writes in the Investigations, “One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it” {PI §114}. As I have suggested, however, that frame is always missing something; something is always escaping it. The words we use and the way we practice language can direct our attention in such a way that we are effectively “trapped” in it: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” {Ibid. §115}. This thought seems to be echoed in Deleuze and Guattari’s assertion that language is “not the communication of information but something quite different: the transmission of order-words , either from one statement to another or within each statement, insofar as each statement accomplishes an act and the act is accomplished in the statement” {TP 79}. Here the notion is not that language is the handmaiden of intentional attitudes and statements (or at least, it is not nothing but that), but that it carries with it the implicit presuppositions upon which we must operate in order to make use of it. Deleuze and Guattari seem more concerned with this phenomenon as it pertains to power relations, but I would suggest that by reading Wittgenstein, we can get a similar view that is much broader in scope. “Order-words” are not just limited to speech acts (and the praxis surrounding them), but also to terms of description and frames of reference through which we identify things in the world. Terms of description and frames of reference are “order-words” insofar as they presuppose a certain ontological status – at least as far as they are received in every day practice.

I will not be relying as heavily on Deleuze and Guattari in my thesis as I will be on Wittgenstein, but I may employ some of their ideas in A Thousand Plateaus from time to time in order to help propel my argument further. Wittgenstein’s work has the clarity of thought and intricate scrutiny necessary to examine the problems I would like to discuss. The investigation will take the form of asking how we can look at the presuppositions that we work with in language use and see in what ways those presuppositions can “hold us captive”. I would like to use this meditation on the philosophy of language as a starting point for discussing the ethical and political implications of a metaphysically rigid conception of the self and the world brought about by the way in which we use language, not only in every day life, but also in the spheres of philosophy and science.

Foucault: politics after the critique of language

Wittgenstein’s analysis of language provides the groundwork and thematic for an examination of how our conceptual schemata are formed and maintained through language-use. As a way of unraveling the philosophical labyrinth into which we have been led, his work is immensely useful. He exposes the way in which our beliefs really are groundless {OC §166}, and not rooted in any metaphysical foundations. For the purposes of my thesis, the following proposition seems to capture the problem most clearly: “‘A thing is identical with itself.’––There is no finer example of a useless proposition, which yet is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted” {PI §216}. This proposition is, I believe, just as applicable to conceptions of the self as it is to concepts of things in the world.

I would like to bring the work of Michel Foucault into my thesis in order to examine possible ways of re-evaluating the self politically and ethically after our Wittgensteinian analysis of language. More specifically, I would like to focus on the later Foucault, because it brings out the ways in which power relations and conceptions of the self are bound up with one another. In essence, I would like to ask the question: given our new view of language-use, how can we reconstitute the self, and how can we reconstitute political as well as ethical practices? I would suggest that Foucault is useful here because while Wittgenstein tends to stick most closely to language “in itself”, Foucault goes further and evaluates social practices as they develop over time in history. Of course, Foucault’s view of historical events and developments is as complicated as Wittgenstein’s view of language. In the essay “What Is Enlightenment?” Foucault argues that to escape from being “held captive”, we must examine the limits imposed on our consciousness not only by utterances and statements, but also by a much more complex array of practices that is interwoven with our language use . Like Wittgenstein, he advocates a critical approach that is “not, certainly, a theory, a doctrine, nor even … a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” {FR 50}. Foucault follows in the Nietzschean line of genealogical analysis, which also includes Martin Heidegger; I feel that his work presents the most useful crystallization of this type of thought, which attempts to expose the confusion that arises in modes of thought over the course of time and through social interaction.

Both Wittgenstein and Foucault want to shake off a type of forgetfulness. I would suggest that this forgetfulness consists in the obfuscation of ideas at the hands of the kind of limits mentioned so far in this proposal. For this reason, I will focus mostly on Foucault’s work, even though I may make reference to both Nietzsche and Heidegger throughout the thesis.

I will attempt to use Foucault’s ideas about adopting a critical attitude toward the limits of our thought in order to propose new ways of thinking about political and ethical thought. I believe that the “critical ontology of ourselves” {Ibid.} can have social applications (although I am not trying to construct a global theory) if we conceive of social interaction in terms of dialogue: the dialogue of questioning, problematization, and complication. By beginning to practice the proliferation of multiple ways of thinking and talking, we may be able to avoid the problems of false identity and psychological (and perhaps ideological) inflexibility. If, as I have suggested, the commitment to a metaphysics of unity is at the root of many conflicts not only between parties in society but also within human beings at the individual level, opening up a more complicated view of things may have some therapeutic effects. Certainly, in other works like Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality, Foucault has shaken up many of our common notions about the self and social norms that give us rise to question our commitment to them. By opening up new possibilities of ways of being, Foucault not only provides a way out of ideological entrapment, but also opens the door for asking what we can do to make life better for ourselves and for others. By showing how concepts change even as the terms of reference applied to them remain at least relatively the same, he exposes their contingency, which disrupts the common view that language is representational and tied to its objects in a meaningful way.

Other authors may be brought into the thesis in order to support my case. Most notably, I will likely mention the work of Richard Rorty, who offers ways of thinking about social engagement that do not rely upon rigid political theories or any commitment to metaphysical categories. I do not, of course, want to make a radical break and say that social norms are without value or basis in good reasons; indeed, I am inclined to say that neither Wittgenstein nor Foucault would propose such a thing. The difference lies in adopting a critical attitude towards the norms that we develop and adopt rather than assuming that the structures and limits of the self and of society are a priori and ahistorical. I am trying to think through ways of avoiding dogmatism and unnecessary limitations rather than present a radical and totally destructive critique of our modes of thought. I will also argue that there are other ways of conveying valuable ethical and political ideas that do not rely on philosophical theorizing. Here I am thinking of forms of expression such as literature, poetry, and art; thinkers such as Rorty as well as Deleuze and Guattari and Maurice Blanchot all espouse views of this sort, and I am inclined to agree that more aesthetic practices and vocabularies can be put to good use in relation to these problems.


To sum up, my thesis will try to approach a particular problem through a particular angle; namely, I will try to examine the problem of false metaphysics and its effects on self- and social consciousness through the philosophy of language. Certainly there are many other ways to go about it, but in the interests of focus and clarity, there needs to be an anchor. Other approaches may be discussed briefly throughout, but the central theme will be maintained. After the transition from Wittgenstein to Foucault, I will still attempt to speak as consistently as possible in terms of philosophy of language and analyzing language-use. Of course, other crucial ideas will come into play, but it is important that a consistent framework is maintained. Hopefully, there will be a smooth transition from the analysis of language-use to the rethinking of the subject and political/ethical practices. I believe that there are many strong and fruitful connections waiting to be made between Wittgensteinian and Foucauldian thought; aside from my main project, which is the rethinking of concepts mentioned throughout this proposal, I would also like to see what connections and alliances can be generated between the two, so that further work in that area may be undertaken.

Chapter Division

Chapter 1: Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language

In this chapter, I will lay out Wittgenstein’s work in the philosophy of language, and show how it can be put to use in the complication of accepted modes of thought. I will be drawing on his work not only from the Investigations but also the Tractatus and everything in between. I believe that there is a very strong continuity in Wittgenstein’s thought. Despite the transformation of his philosophy of language, there is a very strong ethical thrust in his thought. Furthermore, his concerns remain the same over the course of his work’s development: that we elucidate the problems of language in order to identify the ways in which we are trapped and misdirected in our use of it. For this reason, I think that he is appropriate for this thesis: the ethical undertones of his work will lead quite nicely into Foucault’s thought. I will point out directly how his philosophy of language implies a certain way of thinking about ethics, and this will set the stage for showing its compatibility with Foucauldian thought later on in the thesis.

Chapter 2: Foucault’s critical ontology and conceptions of the self

Here I will turn to Foucault’s thought. I will try to not start off “cold”, as it were; rather, I will try to lead into this chapter by making a transition from Chapter 1. I will refer back to Wittgenstein repeatedly, and gradually shift the focus from his thought to Foucault’s. I will then try to bring out Foucauldian themes while not losing sight of Wittgensteinian ones, which should remain in the background. Foucault’s thoughts about Enlightenment, the genealogical approach to history, and power relations in social practices will be discussed in order to focus on the historical and temporal aspects of the problems I am trying to bring out in my thesis. The works Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality will also be included, as they are concrete examples of Foucault’s methodology at work. As I have said, Nietzsche and Heidegger may be mentioned, as they can help shore up certain ideas and themes in Foucault. Essentially, and most importantly, the social aspect of the problems I am dealing with will be brought out here; again, as I said, the philosophy of language will remain in the background. This will be in support of my suggestion that dialogical forms of expression will be an important part of reconstituting the self and political and ethical practices.

Chapter 3: Rethinking the self, politics, and ethics

This will be the turn to proposing new ways of thinking about the concepts being discussed in the thesis. While maintaining the critical attitude espoused by both Wittgenstein and Foucault, I will try to examine and propose alternative ways in which we can move on with the business of social interaction and self-relation. I do not propose to construct a detailed politics; my inquiry will mainly fall outside the sphere of political procedures and institutions, although such ideas may be mentioned throughout. Instead, I will focus on the types of practices and ways of thinking that go on in every day life: interpersonal relations such as the family, various social elements (religious ways of thinking and ethical stances, for instance), loving relationships, and so on. I will suggest that rethinking the concepts discussed in the thesis is necessary for any possibility of changing political institutions and procedures. Political thinkers such as Iris Marion Young may be mentioned in order to support this section of the thesis.

Chapter 4: Different modes of expression

I will suggest here that revising and reconstituting the self and social relations can involve the minimizing of requiring philosophical or “rational” discourse, and that (as I have said) forms of expression such as literature and poetry can be used to effectively circulate ideas about the self and the world. Again, I will be referring to both Wittgenstein and Foucault to support this claim; however, I will also refer to thinkers such as Blanchot, Deleuze and Guattari, and Rorty in this section in order to put this theme into greater relief. Also, I may include excerpts from literary works such as those of Milan Kundera so that I can illustrate the possibilities available to us in the aesthetic. Of course, the philosophy of language will still remain as a framework of analysis: I will attempt to show the contrast between the literary and philosophical forms of language, and show what kinds of expression are possible in each. I will then suggest that the ways of thinking that I am concerned with can be made possible, or at least more easy to engage in, by refusing the primacy of one language-game over any other. In the end, I will try to show a much more complicated and opened-up way of viewing the self and the world that will hopefully present an open door to resolving the problems with which I am concerned. I will not, however, propose a final or lasting solution: indeed, that seems to be at the roots of the problems in the first place. I will frame the whole investigation and possibility of solution (as do Wittgenstein and Foucault) in terms of a constant task of critical evaluation; I will suggest that philosophical activity lies largely in never accepting a final answer, and constantly questioning the limits imposed upon us. This is part and parcel of the therapeutic approach to philosophical thought that I am seeking.

Tentative Bibliography

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  • ––––––––––. The Space of Literature, trans. A. Smock, 1955; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  • Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus {TP}, trans. B. Massumi, 1980; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
  • Edwards, J. Ethics Without Philosophy, Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1982.
  • Falzon, C. Foucault and Social Dialogue, New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan, 1977; New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
  • ––––––––––. The Foucault Reader, ed. P. Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
  • ––––––––––. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, trans. R. Hurley, 1978; New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
  • ––––––––––. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, trans. R. Hurley, 1984; New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
  • ––––––––––. Madness and Civilization, trans. R. Howard, 1965; New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
  • Heidegger, M. Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, 1926; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1962.
  • Jabès, E. The Book of Questions, Vol. 1, trans. R. Waldrop, 1964; London: Wesleyan University Press, 1991.
  • Kundera, M. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. M.H. Heim, 1984; New York: Perennial Classics, 1999.
  • Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
  • ––––––––––. Human, All Too Human, trans. M. Faber & S. Lehmann, 1984; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
  • Rorty, R. Contingency, irony, and solidarity, 1989; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • –––––––. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
  • Wittgenstein, L. Culture and Value, trans. P. Winch, ed. G.H. von Wright, 1977; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
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  • –––––––––––. Philosophical Grammar, trans. A. Kenny, ed. R. Rhees, 1974; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
  • –––––––––––. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe; no further information given for this edition.
  • –––––––––––. Philosophical Occasions, ed. J. Klagge & A. Nordmann, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
  • –––––––––––. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears & B. McGuinness, 1921; New York: Routledge Classics, 2002.
  • Young, I.M. “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy”, in Political Theory 29: 5, 2001.