This post is actually not about Wittgenstein, but I’m using that to illustrate a point. Wittgenstein was a famous philosophy prof. at Cambridge. Years ago, commentators on Wittgenstein used to discuss him as if he was a British philosopher, like J. L. Austin. But, of course, he wasn’t. That treatment changed when this book was published:
Allan Janik & Stephen Toulmin: Wittgenstein’s Vienna
For more, see:
The point the authors were making is that you couldn’t really interpret Wittgenstein in a cultural vacuum. To understand him, you had to understand his formative influences.
The book also benefited from the fact that Toulmin was one of Wittgenstein’s star students. So he had firsthand knowledge of Wittgenstein.
If you want to understand Wittgenstein, it’s not enough to read Wittgenstein. You also need to study the life and times of Wittgenstein. It also helps to read expositions of his philosophy by distinguished students of his, who had the opportunity to question him, viz. Elizabeth Anscombe, Norman Malcolm, Stephen Toulmin.
Now, I say all that to say this. I’m struck by how often evangelical converts to Rome imagine that they can jump feet first into the church fathers without any basic background information. They imagine that if they just read the church fathers in some English translation, they understand what they are reading. Yet that’s terribly naïve.
Wittgenstein is far closer to our own time and civilization than the church fathers. Yet you can’t expect to understand his philosophy by simply reading his works.
To understand the church fathers, you have to do some serious reading in the secondary literature. You have to know things about their parents, education, social class. About the political and socioeconomic circumstances that conditioned their outlook. About their philosophical mentors and foils.
Some Clarkian Scripturalits like Drake Shelton also suffer from Catholic convert syndrome when it comes to the church fathers.