Tag Archives: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein in Norwegen: Welcher Weg führt zum Genie?

Wer auf Wittgensteins Spuren wandert, kann nicht nur Logik lernen: In der Welt des Philosophen lag Österreich an einem Fjord.
Clemens Panagl, Salzburger Nachrichten, 22.5.2017

SKJOLDEN. Der Weg zur Erkenntnis ist steinig. Und er ist stellenweise ziemlich schmal. „Aber allzu leicht sollten es sich die Besucher ja auch gar nicht machen“, erläutert Harald Vatne. Der Lokalhistoriker führt eine Besuchergruppe durch ein Waldstück nahe dem Örtchen Skjolden. Mitten in Norwegen, am Endpunkt des längsten Fjordes von Europa, liegt die Gemeinde. Hinter den Häusern von Skjolden ruht ein kleiner See, begrenzt von steil abfallendem Wald. Und mitten im Wald weht eine österreichische Fahne.



by James Conant, University of Chicago

Lecture given at a symposium on “Philosophy and Biography,” on May 18, 1999, at the University of Athens, organized by Vasso Kindi. We thank James Conant for his permission to publish the text on our website.

This paper is indebted to conversations that took place in and around the symposium in Athens with Aristides Baltas, Vasso Kindi, Ray Monk and Lisa Van Alstyne, to comments by Jim Klagge, and to conversations over the years with Stanley Cavell and Arnold Davidson.

The biographies and autobiographies, ... lives of great men, ... that stand cheek by jowl with the novels and poems, are we to refuse to read them because they are not “art”? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim?... How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life – how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us – so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves.
 Virginia Woolf1

How about the biographies and autobiographies – in short, the lives – of great philosophers (those many books that stand in our libraries and bookstores cheek by jowl with the volumes of their philosophy), are we to read them or not; and, if so, how? Let’s call this “the first question”. It is a very general question.

And how about the possibility of a certain genre of biography (or autobiography) — which I will call philosophical biography – a mode of representation of the life of an individual philosopher which aspires to facilitate the understanding of that individual qua philosopher? A philosophical biography (or autobiography) aspires to confer through the genre of biography (or autobiography) — that is through the depiction of a life — a sort of understanding which itself has a claim to being termed philosophical. Is such a genre of biography so much as possible? Let’s call this “the second question”. It is a fairly specific question.

It is difficult to get a hearing for the second question. The possibility of its being heard, let alone addressed, tends to be drowned out by the din of controversy surrounding various specifications of the first question – such as the following: Are we to refuse to read biographies and autobiographies of philosophers because they are not “philosophy”? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim; and, if so, how different? Are we to read them with the aim of learning some “background” that will help us to a better understanding of the philosophical writings of the person whose writings they are? Or are we to read them with an interest in the person of the philosopher that is only permissible if kept clearly distinct from an interest in his or her philosophical work proper? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the philosopher himself or herself (as revealed, say, through biography or autobiography) rouses in us? To what extent do the sympathies and antipathies thus roused bear on an estimate (not only of the person, but) of the philosophical work itself? Can the words which comprise the philosophical work be expressive of the character of the author in a way that makes an assessment of that character integral to an assessment of that work? Or is an estimate of the person of the philosopher always irrelevant to an understanding of his or her philosophical work?

I take these to be important and difficult questions. In what follows I will have something to say about each of them. Like the first question, however, I do not think any of them admits of a general answer; and I will, accordingly, not attempt anything of the sort here. In so far as they do admit of answers, they are the sorts of questions we must each answer for ourselves and on a case by case basis. The trouble is that it is easy to fall into the confusion of thinking that questions such as these do admit of a general answer, thus obstructing our view of the second question.

The aim of this paper is to lend credence to two suggestions: (1) the suggestion that the answer to the second question should be affirmative, i.e., that philosophical biography (in sense of the term specified above) is possible – not: that it is always possible (i.e., possible for all philosophers, regardless of the character of their work), and not: that it is sometimes indispensable (i.e., that there are philosophers whose work cannot be understood without the aid of this genre) – but merely that is possible; and (2) the suggestion that, where it is possible, it can also sometimes be a good thing.

A Deadlock

There seem to be, nowadays, two standard ways to understand the relation between philosophy and biography: the first is that biography holds the secret to understanding the work of a philosopher, the second is that the understanding of a philosopher’s life is irrelevant to an understanding of his work. I will call these reductivism and compartmentalism. The reductivist and the compartmentalist have this much in common: each thinks that the first question admits of a general answer.

The reductivist thinks that if we learn enough about a philosopher’s life, we will see why he wrote what he did and thereby discover the real meaning of his work. There are many models for how to write a reductivist biography. There is (what we might call) the psychoanalytic model in which one looks for the real causes and hidden meanings latent in an author’s work by pointing to the symptoms of pathology in his work and then weaving them into a narrative of the aetiology of the broader pathological symptoms that marked his life as a whole. There is also (what we might call) the Marxist model in which one looks for the real causes and hidden meanings latent in an author’s work by pointing to the way in which his life is shaped by the ideological false consciousness of the class into which he is born and how that consciousness gradually evolves (and perhaps breaks up) as he struggles to come to terms with the contradictions inherent in a capitalist form of social organization. And there are many other such models of reductivist biography. (I do not mean to suggest that psychoanalytic theory, on the one hand, or Marxist theory, on the other, cannot shed a great deal of light on why an individual acts or thinks as he or she does; but only to suggest that, when such theories are employed reductively in the practice of writing biography, the resulting brew is inevitably a travesty of both biography and psychoanalysis or Marxism.)

The mark of such reductivist varieties of biography is that they seek to understand and evaluate an author’s work by locating his work in a broader set of causal forces acting upon the author. The work comes to be viewed as an effect of those forces; and evaluation of the work is grounded in features of the author’s life that are external to his work. Compartmentalism is best seen, I think, as arising out of a kind of recoil from these evils of reductivism. Part of the reason that compartmentalism is the dominant point of view in serious intellectual circles today is because we have so few good examples of the practice of intellectual biography. Most biographies, where they are not utterly superficial and without pretension to confer intellectual understanding, tend to slide, to some degree, into reductivism. The compartmentalist rightly senses (1) that there is something wrong with restricting one’s view of an author’s life to a causal analysis of how he came to think and act as he did (e.g., “Wittgenstein was obsessed with issues of purity because of his childhood toilet training”), and (2) that there is something wrong with evaluating an author’s work in terms of criteria drawn from wholly outside that work (e.g., “You only have to consider the way Russell treated his many wives and lovers to see that Principia Mathematica cannot be the work of a great mind”). This leads the compartmentalist to conclude that an understanding of the life is utterly irrelevant to an understanding of the work.

The compartmentalist therefore has (at least) two sound reasons for resisting reductivism: (1) we shouldn’t mistake a story about the external causes that might have led a philosopher to say certain things for an internal understanding of the work itself, and (2) we shouldn’t base our evaluation of a philosopher’s work simply on our evaluation of the man. I will call the conjunction of the two sound reasons for resisting reductivism “the truth in compartmentalism”. The question that I want to explore in a moment is the following: can we hold on to the truth in compartmentalism while rejecting the main thesis of compartmentalism?

The compartmentalist concludes that everything that is relevant to an understanding of a philosopher’s work is to be found in the pages he wrote. To look beyond the pages he wrote to anything of a more “personal” nature he said to a friend, or wrote in a diary or in private correspondence, or did during his life, is to look to something that is not part of the work, and thus has no bearing on the task of seeking insight into what is happening on the pages of the philosopher’s work. The compartmentalist can allow that we may have our reasons for being curious about the lives of great men and women, and that there is nothing wrong, in and of itself, with the practice of reading and writing about the lives of such men and women; and he can allow that there is much that we can seek to understand about why these lives come to assume the sorts of shapes that they do. But the compartmentalist thinks that we should not confuse the task of understanding these lives and what happens in them with the utterly distinct task of learning to understand the philosophical works written by the individuals who happened to live those lives. Each of these activities (biography and philosophy) is fine in its place, says the compartmentalist, but they should be kept wholly apart and should never be confused with one another. These two activities should take place in separate compartments of our intellectual lives and what goes on in each of these compartments should be kept from spilling over into the other.

Contemporary thinking about the topic of philosophical biography thus tends to find itself in the following deadlock: we are offered a forced choice between reductivism and compartmentalism – an understanding of an author’s work is to be found wholly outside his work (in the external events of his life) or an understanding of the work is to be sought by attending solely to what lies wholly within the work (and the life is held not to be part of the work).

An Example of an Ancient Philosopher: Socrates

With a view to easing this deadlock, it might help to consider Socrates. Precisely because he did not write anything, the example of Socrates forces us to clarify our thinking about the crudely drawn distinction between “life” and “work” that informs the debate between reductivists and compartmentalists. Socrates’s life is his work and his work is his life. He strived to live – and to provide an example of what it means to live – a certain kind of life: the life of one who loves wisdom, a practitioner of philo-sophia. There is no understanding of Socrates’s philosophy apart from an understanding of the sort of life he sought to live.

What the example of Socrates makes immediately evident is that at least in the case of this philosopher we need a non-reductive conception of philosophical biography. We need a way of understanding the relation between philosophy and life that preserves the truth in compartmentalism without its compartmentalization of philosophy and life. We need a way of understanding a philosopher’s life that allows us to see that life (not as an effect of forces wholly external to his philosophy, but rather) as something that is internally related to his philosophy — as an expression of his philosophy. When and how Socrates challenges the charge (of corrupting the youth of Athens) brought against him, when and how he accepts the verdict of the court against him, when and how he refuses the opportunity to flee from prison, when and how he behaves in his final moment when he drinks the hemlock and lies down to die – these are all expressions of his philosophy. No understanding of what Socrates thought philosophy was is possible apart from an appreciation of how philosophy is meant to find expression in a life such as this – that is, in a life such as the one that Socrates himself sought to live.

A compartmentalist might reply by protesting: “Yes, but Socrates is a very special case just because he did not write anything: there is no place to look for his philosophy but in his life; but other philosophers do write things and, in such cases, we must separate the task of understanding what they wrote from the task of understanding how they lived.”

What is odd about this reply might be put as follows: it seeks to marginalize the fountainhead of Western philosophy. When Aristotle asks his rhetorical question “What more accurate standard or measure of good things do we have than the Sage?”2 he is the first of a long line of philosophers to bear implicit witness to the way in which the figure of Socrates leaves its mark on the whole of ancient philosophy. If one turns to the great schools of Hellenistic philosophy – the Skeptics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Neo-Platonists – they all sought to practice (what we might call) a broadly “Socratic” conception of philosophy; that is, they all sought to encourage the pursuit of a kind of life – the life of the Sage — for which, for all their differences, they all took Socrates to offer a (more or less adequate) model. Philosophy was not something you simply learned – say, by reading certain books and taking an examination on them — it was something you practiced. Yes, of course, it consisted, among other things, of long stretches of argument; but those arguments were an integral part of a set of (what Pierre Hadot has called) “spiritual exercises” through the employment of which one sought to transform oneself. (This is perhaps particularly clear in the case of the ancient skeptics – you will have misunderstood the role of any particular argument, as deployed within the practice of the ancient skeptics, if you think the skeptic wants you, in the end, to prefer that argument over the equipollent argument for the opposite conclusion.) The spiritual disciplines internal to each of the Hellenistic schools of philosophy seek to promote a certain kind of existential telos – for the Skeptics, the telos is ataraxia; for the Neo-Platonists, it is ecstatic union with the cosmos; etc. – and the telos in question is not a merely theoretical (as opposed to practical) matter: it is a matter of successfully giving a certain sort of shape to one’s self and this is achieved in part by giving a certain sort of shape to one’s life.

A nostalgia for this aspect of ancient philosophy, along with the correlative contrast between ancient and modern philosophy, is a theme common to the writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. A contemporary scholar of ancient philosophy who has picked up their theme, and laid particular emphasis on its importance for a proper understanding of the ancients’ conception of philosophy, is the French historian Pierre Hadot. During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, philosophy was, Hadot tells us, “a way of life”:

This is not only to say that it was a specific type of moral conduct.... Rather it means that philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the world, which had to be practised at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life. For the ancients, the mere word philo-sophia – the love of wisdom – was enough to express this conception of philosophy.... Philosophy was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of being.... Thus, philosophy was a way of life, both in its exercise and effort to achieve wisdom and in its goal, wisdom itself. For real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us “be” in a different way.3

On this conception of philosophy, a philosopher’s life just is the definitive expression of his philosophy. For such a philosopher, his writings (i.e., that which we are tempted to identify as his “work”) are a mere means to facilitate the achievement of that work on the self which is (properly identified as) a philosopher’s work. This has implications for the sorts of role that writings which aim to depict the life of the philosopher are able to assume in ground-level philosophical practice. It also helps to explain the frequent deployment of anecdotes regarding the lives of philosophers in ancient Greek and Roman texts. Anecdotes about philosophers wedded to this or that philosophical teaching often seem to be adduced by the ancients as an instrument not only for describing but also for evaluating the teaching in question.4 Arnoldo Momigliano, in The Development of Greek Biography, writes:

Anecdotes served to characterize modes of life, of thought, of style. If Phanias of Eresus in his book on the Socratics said that Aristippus was the first of the Socratics to pay for tuition and to make money by teaching, the story must have been meant to characterize, or perhaps to discredit, the hedonistic inclinations of Aristippus. Books of this type on philosophic schools, though probably first written in the Peripatos, soon became the common patrimony of Hellenistic culture.5 

Momigliano distinguishes, quite properly, this ancient practice of liberally deploying anecdotes from the ancient practice of biography proper (i.e., the practice of constructing a narrative of an individual’s life from birth to death). Nevertheless, he argues that the two practices had this much in common: both were “used by philosophers at large as a weapon against hostile schools”.6 Arnold Davidson (commenting on the implications of Hadot’s thesis that philosophy for the ancients was a way of life) develops the point:

The significance of philosophy as a way of life can be seen in the importance given to biographies in ancient philosophical work.... [A] philosophical biography was not predominantly a narrative intended to allow one to understand an author and his doctrines; it was not just a report of what the author said and believed. Rather, “it was, in the first place, a tool of philosophical battle”, since one could defend or condemn a philosophy by way of the characteristics of the mode of life of those who supported it.7

The role of biography in the practice of ancient philosophy was not limited to this purely negative polemical function. It served an important positive function as well: to provide a representation of the philosophical life. The tradition of philosophical biography, so conceived, was initiated by Plato’s and Xenophon’s respective accounts of the life of Socrates. The influence of this mode of representing a life was not confined to the representation of the lives of philosophers. In ancient Greek and Roman times, all biography contained an element of philosophical biography. That life which the ancient art of biography seeks to depict, whatever else it may be, will be the embodiment of a conception of philosophy. Biography, so conceived, is an account of the life of the individual — whether it be the life of a poet, statesman, general or saint — qua hero. That which such an account aims to highlight is that which is exemplary in such a life.8 What such an account seeks to highlight, for the ancients, is not — and could not be — independent of what philosophy is. (Thus, e.g., Plutarch’s depiction of the life of, say, a statesman will aim to show how philosophia finds expression in that life).

If historians such as Hadot and Momigliano are right about the role that depictions of the lives of philosophers play in the ancients’ understanding of the practice of philosophy, then the problem that the compartmentalist so evidently faces in the case of Socrates (whose writing cannot be understood apart from his life because he wrote nothing) confronts him no less pointedly in the shape of the whole of ancient philosophy. For, if they are right, then, at least for much of the corpus of ancient philosophy, the only understanding of those writings available independently of an understanding of the lives its authors aspired to lead is an anachronistic one.9

To this a compartmentalist might reply: “O.K. Perhaps you have a point about ancient philosophy. Perhaps philosophy was once about living a certain sort of life – and you are right that there is, in such a case, perhaps no separating an understanding of the life which a particular philosophy enjoins its practitioners to lead from an understanding of the philosophy itself. But my objection is to biographies of modern philosophers. The relation between one’s life and one’s philosophy is no longer for us what it was for the ancients. We, contemporary philosophers, no longer look to the Sage for an accurate standard or measure of anything. Nowadays, we look only to the well-reasoned philosophical theory; and one does not need to be a sage to put forward exemplary instances of such theory: all one needs to be is a good philosopher.”

The compartmentalist has a point here. His point does not secure his thesis; but it forces one to reflect on what has become of the ancient conception of philosophy in the course of the development of philosophy in the modern era. To put the point simply, there is certainly this much of a difference between ancient and modern philosophy: what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche claim was generally true of ancient philosophy is by no means generally true of modern philosophy. Hence the possibility of their interest in the difference between ancient and modern philosophy. (But why were these two philosophers so interested in this difference? Their interest was not confined to the scholarly ambitions of the historian of ideas but was itself philosophically motivated. This interest was premised precisely on a refusal to accept the difference in question as a difference in kind with regard to the possibilities for philosophy in the modern era.)

What is sound in the compartmentalist’s “point” above is perhaps best formulated as two separate points: (1) the relation between philosophy and life is no longer as perspicuous as it once was, and (2) there is no longer, in contemporary philosophy, any such thing as the relation between philosophy and life – there are as many species of this relation as there are conceptions of philosophy, and, across these conceptions, widely varying degrees and kinds of intimacy obtain among the relata.

An example of a Modern Philosopher: Wittgenstein

A useful example of a modern philosopher who shows that the separation that the compartmentalist seeks to effect between ancient and modern philosophy has, at the very least, its exceptions is Wittgenstein. In a manner strikingly reminiscent of ancient accounts of a philosopher’s thought, many recent accounts of Wittgenstein’s philosophy adduce a wealth of anecdotes and biographical details regarding Wittgenstein’s life. Wittgenstein, like Socrates or Pythagoras, seems to many of his expositors to call for this sort of treatment. This is surely not merely because Wittgenstein lived in a manner which caused anecdotes about him to proliferate, but because the authors of such accounts take the anecdotes and details in question to illuminate something about Wittgenstein qua philosopher. Yes, he was an odd fellow who lived an unconventional life; and, yes, of course, this provides colorful material for the occasional entertaining digression. But the authors of the accounts of Wittgenstein’s philosophy at issue here do not take themselves to be digressing when adducing the material in question; they tend to see an intimate if elusive connection between the extraordinariness of Wittgenstein’s life and the difficulty of his thought.10 And it is doubtful that most of them would imagine that they are able to see such a connection if they did not take themselves to be encouraged to look for one by something in Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings. By what?

Consider the following five passages from Wittgenstein:

  1. You cannot write anything about yourself that is more truthful than you yourself are.11
  2. Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.12
  3. If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself ... he will remain superficial in his writing.13
  4. Working in philosophy ... is really more a working on oneself.14
  5. That man will be revolutionary who can revolutionize himself.15

Numerous remarks similar to these can be found scattered throughout Wittgenstein’s writings.16 Such a remark — when one comes upon it, in the middle of an extended Wittgensteinian philosophical investigation (on, e.g., whether it is possible for me to give myself a private ostensive definition, or for another person to have my pains, or for there to be only one occasion on which someone obeys a rule, etc.) — is apt to strike one as a non-sequitur. Why do such remarks crop up in the midst of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations, apparently changing the topic and interrupting the course of the investigation?

There are various ways one might answer this question. The reductivist and compartmentalist will each favor a certain direction of answer to this question. A certain stripe of reductivist might want to insist that the real sources of Wittgenstein’s philosophical preoccupations come to the surface in remarks such as these: it is through a prior and independent understanding of what prompts Wittgenstein to break out into remarks such as these that one finds the wellsprings of his philosophy. The reductivist thereby seeks an understanding of such remarks in a prior understanding of his life. He thus takes himself to be able to arrive at a key to understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophy via a route which enables him to understand such remarks prior to understanding the rest of Wittgenstein’s corpus. This inevitably prompts a certain stripe of compartmentalist to insist that these remarks (not only do not provide a key to understanding Wittgenstein, but) do not really belong to Wittgenstein’s philosophical corpus at all: he used his notebooks to record all sorts of observations and a good editor of his philosophical manuscripts would have sound grounds for culling such remarks from a final published edition of his (properly) philosophical writings. (Such a compartmentalist would concede that it is, of course, still fine to collect and publish such jottings separately, as long as one does not fall into the confusion of thinking they are part and parcel of the philosophy proper.17) Thus this stripe of compartmentalist seeks to understand Wittgenstein’s philosophy independently of any understanding of such remarks.18

In a previous paper, I had occasion to quote these same five remarks from Wittgenstein19; and D. Z. Phillips, in a reply to my paper, observed that Wittgenstein, in each of these five passages, should be understood as “referring to difficulties in doing philosophy, difficulties in giving the problems the kind of attention philosophy asks of us”.20 I agree with this.21 And if this is right, it helps to explain why these remarks are not non-sequiturs, and how it is that they touch on a dimension of difficulty which is pervasively, if often only tacitly, in play in Wittgenstein’s investigations.22 We can put Phillips’s point this way: when such a remark occurs in the midst of one of Wittgenstein’s investigations, it does not introduce an abrupt change of topic; it interrupts the investigation in order to step back for a moment and comment on a difficulty in doing philosophy which one runs up against in such investigations. Thus one will not understand what such remarks are about, unless one understands why they occur in the sorts of contexts in Wittgenstein’s work in which they characteristically do.23

Phillips goes on to remark that the sort of difficulties that are at issue in the five passages from Wittgenstein quoted above will be “missed if one equates the difficulties with personal difficulties”.24 This is surely right if by “personal difficulties” Phillips means merely personal (as opposed to philosophical) difficulties. But it is equally wrong if by this Phillips means “philosophical, and therefore in no way personal, difficulties”.25 Erecting an opposition here between mutually exclusive categories of “the personal” and “the philosophical” will block the way to understanding why Wittgenstein thinks that work in philosophy (properly conducted) is a kind of working on oneself, and why he thinks that one cannot be any more honest in one’s philosophical thinking than one can be with oneself, and why he thinks that the greatness of a philosophical work is expressive of the greatness of the particular human being that is its author. Phillips is certainly right that the wrong sort of insistence on the (idea that the sorts of difficulty with which Wittgenstein, in his philosophical work, is concerned are) “personal” can lead to disastrous misinterpretations of Wittgenstein’s work.26 But too sharp a recoil from such misinterpretations – with its complimentary insistence upon too sharp a separation between (merely) personal and (properly) philosophical difficulty – is equally obstructive of an understanding of Wittgenstein’s conception of the nature of the difficulty of philosophy.

Wittgenstein’s remark “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” is neither more nor less a remark about a particular difficulty which arises in philosophy than it is a remark about a general ethical difficulty. For Wittgenstein’s thought here is that one’s ability to avoid self-deception in philosophy can be neither more nor less than one’s ability to avoid it outside philosophy. (Wittgenstein concludes a meditation on the effects which the all but inevitable tendency to “lie to oneself” has on one’s writing with the remark: “If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit.”27) If you are unwilling to descend into yourself, then you will remain superficial in your thinking and writing generally, and a fortiori you will remain superficial in your efforts to write philosophy. Hence Wittgenstein writes Malcolm: “You can’t think decently if you don’t want to hurt yourself.”28 The issue here — as in each of the five remarks from Wittgenstein quoted above — is at once personal and philosophical.

“If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself … he will remain superficial in his writing.” Wittgenstein is equally committed to the converse of this remark: if someone remains superficial in his thinking or writing this can (where it is not a function of immaturity or ineptitude) be a reflection of the character of the person whose thinking and writing it is. It is, for Wittgenstein, not only possible to discern aspects of a person’s character in the character of their philosophizing, but essential to the formation of any true estimate of their philosophy that one be able to do so. The exercise of such discernment is never far below the surface in the judgments Wittgenstein himself offers of the philosophical work of others.29 But this means that the line between “the personal” and “the philosophical” cannot be as sharp, for Wittgenstein, as Phillips imagines it to be. To put the point more positively and in a more Wittgensteinian idiom: the spirit of a person shows itself in the spirit of his philosophy, which in turn shows itself in the way he philosophizes.

The numerous remarks about other thinkers sprinkled throughout Wittgenstein’s notebooks and recorded conversations furnish vivid documentation of the manifold sorts of ways in which Wittgenstein himself exercises such discernment. When Wittgenstein says about Frank Ramsey: “Ramsey’s incapacity for genuine enthusiasm or (what is really the same thing) reverence came to disgust me more and more”30, he is commenting on something about Ramsey’s sensibility that reflects itself in, but certainly not only in, the character of his response to philosophical ideas. What is at issue here is a kind of limitation of sensibility that is neither merely personal nor merely philosophical, but rather equally – and, in Wittgenstein’s eyes, equally fatefully – both. When Maurice Drury tells Wittgenstein: “I always enjoy reading William James. He is such a human person.”, Wittgenstein responds: “Yes, that is what makes him a good philosopher; he was a real human being.”31 That James is “a real human being” is something Wittgenstein takes himself to be able to discern as a reader of James’s philosophical writings. And the estimate he forms in this regard of James qua person is not – and, for Wittgenstein, cannot be – utterly independent of his estimate of James qua philosopher. When Wittgenstein remarks about A. J. Ayer: “He has something to say but he is incredibly shallow”32, this is, in the first instance, of course, a remark about the shallowness of Ayer’s philosophizing. But it is not merely a remark about the quality of Ayer’s efforts at philosophizing, and as such wholly without bearing on an estimate of the shallowness or depth of the sensibility of the person whose philosophizing it is.33

Similarly, when Wittgenstein says about the anthropologist James Frazer: “Frazer is much more savage than most of this savages”34; this is a comment on both the man and his thought. It is a comment on something that shows itself in Frazer’s writing about the forms of life he studies — where part of what shows itself is something about what sorts of possibilities of thought and life are (and are not) closed to Frazer himself.

“You cannot write anything about yourself that is more truthful than you yourself are.” That is simultaneously a remark about a personal and a philosophical difficulty. (If you cannot write anything that is more truthful than you yourself are, then you cannot write anything in philosophy that is more truthful than you yourself are.) For Wittgenstein, the two difficulties are inseparable — they are aspects of a single difficulty.35 One can, if one will, take the words “perspicuity” and “clarity” to stand for things Wittgenstein struggles to attain in philosophy. And one can, with equal justification, take the words “honesty” and “Anständigkeit” to stand for things Wittgenstein thinks everyone should struggle to attain in life. If you do not think of yourself as ever practicing philosophy, then you may take yourself only to have reason to think of yourself as caught up in the second of these two kinds of struggle.36 If you evidently do practice philosophy, but most decidedly not in the spirit of Wittgenstein, then these two struggles may strike you as utterly independent of one another. (Though, it is worth remembering, they did not seem so to philosophers as different from one another as Socrates, Augustine and Nietzsche.) But if you wish to think of yourself as practicing philosophy in anything like the spirit of Wittgenstein, then these two struggles must become for you – as they did for Wittgenstein – twin aspects of a single struggle, each partially constitutive of the other.

Ray Monk puts it well when he says: “‘Nothing is hidden’ is, for Wittgenstein, an ethical as well as a logical remark.37 Thus when Wittgenstein writes his sister “Call me a truth-seeker and I will be satisfied”, he specifies the character of his striving in terms of something which is for him equally a philosophical and an ethical ideal. 38 All philosophical thinking and writing accordingly has, for Wittgenstein, its ethical aspect. Wittgenstein thought that what (and more importantly how) we think is revelatory of

who we are (and how we live), and that learning to think better (and, above all, to change the ways in which one thinks) is an important means to becoming a better – i.e., to becoming (what Wittgenstein calls ) “a real” – “human being”.39 So, even though Wittgenstein, in one sense, “has no ethics” (if “ethics” names a branch of philosophy with its own proprietary subject matter40), in another sense, his thinking and writing – on every page of his work – takes place under the pressure of an ethical demand. And if qua biographer (or reader of biography) one turns to examine his life, if one has the eyes to see (which requires that one have some understanding of his philosophy), one will discover the pressure of such a demand equally pervasively manifest in the conduct of his life and in his understanding of the relation between his philosophy and his life.

Such a philosopher will naturally attract biographers. If those biographers have reductivist proclivities, their biographical narratives will necessarily give a distorted picture not only of the life but also of the thought. They will give a distorted picture of the life of a philosopher such as Wittgenstein because there is no understanding the life of such a man apart from an understanding of his thought.41 They will give a distorted picture of his thought because there is no understanding the thought of any interesting philosopher — and certainly not this one — as a straightforward function of his life, especially when the requisite understanding of the life is taken to be unproblematically available independently of an understanding of the thought.42

All of this naturally feeds the compartmentalist’s anxieties and leads to his overreaction. I take it to be an overreaction because the compartmentalist’s thesis goes well beyond the perfectly sensible claim that (pace reductivist biographers of Wittgenstein) it is both possible and important to attain an understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy independently of making a study of his life. The compartmentalist insists that attention to a thinker’s life cannot possibly shed any light on his thought. Thus the compartmentalist ends up attempting to enforce a veto on that genre of biography — (which I have been calling) philosophical autobiography — in which the biographer seeks to illuminate aspects of a philosopher’s thought through an attention to his life. And, in the case of a philosopher such as Wittgenstein, whose thought embodies an understanding of what it is to lead the philosophical life which is in turn reflected in how he lived, such a veto deprives us of a non-negligible resource for better understanding (that unity comprising both) the philosopher and his philosophy.

In the case of a philosopher such as Wittgenstein, the compartmentalist deprives us of a genre of writing about the philosopher which, if it is done well, can be a good thing. The problem is that it almost never is done well, thus fuelling the suspicion that there is no possible thing of the relevant sort to do well.

Two Examples of Philosophical Biography

One time-honored way of demonstrating the possibility of something is to demonstrate its actuality. It is in this spirit that I conclude by gesturing at two actual examples of philosophical biography: Ray Monk’s biographies of Wittgenstein43 and Russell44.

Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein not only shows that Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is broadly “Socratic” (in the sense elucidated above), but it shows it in a way that only (that genre of writing known as) biography can – that is, by literally showing it: by presenting us with a picture of Wittgenstein’s life. As anyone who reads Monk’s biography is put in a position to see: Wittgenstein neither wanted to, nor thought he could, separate the task of becoming the sort of human being he wanted to be from the task of becoming the sort of philosopher he wanted to be. Indeed, it would be missing the point of Monk’s biography to think that the point of that book could be summarized as follows: there were two different things Wittgenstein wanted to do – become a certain kind of person and become a certain kind of philosopher – but he thought that these two pursuits somehow presupposed one another or were in some way entangled in one another. These were not “two different things Wittgenstein wanted to do”. There is only one “thing” here – the kind of living that is here in question and the kind of thinking that is here in question were, for Wittgenstein, two different aspects of a single unitary pursuit – which Wittgenstein called, as did the ancients, “philosophy”.45

The compartmentalist might now try the following reply: “O.K. I see that there are certain modern philosophers who should be exempted from my veto on trying to understand the work of a philosopher in tandem with trying to seek an understanding of how and why they lived as they did. There are philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, whose conception of philosophy and whose conception of how one should live are so deeply integrated that biography becomes a useful tool for illuminating the spirit in which such individuals seek to do philosophy and thus attaining a proper view of what philosophy is for philosophers of this funny sort. But, among modern philosophers, these philosophers are the exception. For most modern philosophers – for a typical analytic philosopher like Bertrand Russell – philosophy is one thing and life is another.”

The example conveniently adduced here by the compartmentalist allows me to move straight to the following observation: Ray Monk’s recent biography of Russell shows not only that this reply works almost as poorly in the case of Russell as it does in that of Wittgenstein, but also that the line that the compartmentalist seeks here to draw (between two kinds of philosophers) is in fact very difficult to draw – it is a difference in degree and not in kind. It is the rare person whose motivations to philosophy are completely out of touch with the original ancient – we might call them “Socratic” — motivations to philosophy. And it is even more rarely the case that such motivations are wholly absent from the work or life of a truly great philosopher (that is, a philosopher whose biography we might have some interest in reading).46 There is certainly something right about the thought that among modern – unlike among ancient – philosophers there is a great deal of variety in the ways in which, and the degrees to which, such a Socratic moment is legible in the life and the work, and in the ways in which, and in the degrees to which, life and work do or do not form a genuine unity. Monk’s two very different biographies illustrate two very different ways in which such a Socratic moment can be legible in the life and work of a twentieth-century philosopher, as well as two very different ways in which and degrees to which life and work may cohere with one another.

Monk’s biography of Russell shows how deeply divided a person Russell is and how those divisions shape and are given shape by the movement of his philosophical thought. Russell is, of course, famous for being a philosopher who changed his mind a lot. But what Monk’s biography makes almost painfully vivid is that Russell not only changed his mind with alarming frequency when it came to his first-order philosophical convictions about topics such as the existence of abstract entities, the nature of perception, the structure of judgment, or the analysis of matter, but that he was equally fickle in his second-order convictions about the nature, purpose and value of philosophy as such. This shows itself, above all, in the breathtaking fluctuations in Russell’s understanding of his own motivations to philosophy. Is this irrelevant to an understanding of his philosophy? Before addressing that question, perhaps a brief sample of the evidence is in order.

At times, Russell looks upon his work in mathematical logic as possibly the most exalted form of human occupation:

Pure mathematics is one of the highest forms of art; it has a sublimity quite special to itself, an immense dignity derived from the fact that its world is exempt from change and time.... [M]athematics is the only thing we know of that is capable of perfection; in thinking about it we become God. This alone is enough to put it on a pinnacle above all other studies.47

Russell’s conception, however, of what it is that confers supreme value on this activity fluctuates between two poles — a quaintly contemplative, vaguely neoplatonist one and a highly modern, defiantly disenchanted one. These might be termed the warm conception and the cold conception respectively of the significance of mathematics. On the warm conception (which finds eloquent expression in the above quotation), the ennobling aspect of mathematics lies in the eternal character of its objects (a “world exempt from change and time”). Contemplation of such objects liberates the soul, allowing it to ascend to the heights. Other forms of knowledge accordingly pale in comparison with the sort of knowledge afforded by mathematics and those branches of philosophy properly associated with it:

I hold all knowledge that is concerned with things that actually exist – all that is commonly called Science – to be of very slight value compared to that knowledge which, like philosophy and mathematics, is concerned with ideal and eternal objects, and is freed from this miserable world which God has made.48

On the warm conception, (what Russell calls) “technical philosophy” represents the purest and noblest strain of philosophy because it, above all other disciplines, seeks to cut mathematical reality at its joints, revealing its true structure and nature. This contemplative conception of the importance of mathematics is, in turn, tied to a further yearning – a yearning for a world which will not disappoint:

The contemplation of what is non-human, the discovery that our minds are capable of dealing with material not created by them; above all, the realization that beauty belongs to the outer world as to the inner, are the chief means of overcoming the terrible sense of impotence, of weakness, of exile amid hostile powers, which is too apt to result from acknowledging the all-but omnipotence of alien forces…. [M]athematics takes us still further from what is human, into the realm of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual world, but every possible world, must conform; and even here it builds a habitation eternally standing, where our ideals are fully satisfied and our best hopes are not thwarted.49

But, at other times, nothing strikes Russell as more deluded than such thoughts (thoughts such as that we could be “freed from this miserable world” or that our ideals could be “fully satisfied” and our best hopes remain “unthwarted”); and this triggers the recoil to the cold conception of the value of philosophy. In this mood, the thoughts expressed in the above passage are apt to strike Russell as of a piece with the illusions of the traditional religions — indeed, such thoughts are themselves species of religious illusion – and the goal of philosophy should be to free us from all such illusion: to enable us to look things hard in the face and see them as they really are.

On the cold conception, technical philosophy is, again, taken to represent the purest strain of philosophy; only now it is because, in the quest to see things as they really are, mathematics is the helpmeet of philosophy precisely because it is so “cold and passionless”50. Russell’s eulogies to coldness are no less fervent or picturesque than his odes to warmth (to “the immense dignity” of a world “exempt from time and change”); with the paradoxical result that in these eulogies the spirit of dispassionateness often appears in the guise of a passion: “Philosophy is a cold mistress — one can only reach her heart with cold steel in the hand of passion.”51 Thus the aim remains one of seeking to avoid disappointment, but the strategy changes (from seeking a safe haven for one’s hopes) to seeking to free oneself of illusion through the practice of dispassionate analysis.52 At yet still other times, Russell declares himself able, in turn, to see through the pretensions of the cold conception of the value of mathematics, unmasking it too as only a more subtle and rarified species of romanticism, one still in search of that “shiver of feeling” which a more thoroughgoing gospel of coldness would renounce but at the cost of losing all its appeal. For the cold conception, too, seeks to ennoble the study of mathematics by subliming the object of its study, thereby elevating the Self who studies. As Russell astutely observes: “[T]he reflection that such beauty is cold and inhuman is already romanticism – it gives a shiver of feeling in which Self has its share.”53 This observation also contains a clue to understanding the possibility of the sorts of syntheses of features of the cold and the warm conceptions one also finds in Russell’s writings — such as the following: although the world of time and change in which all human endeavor must transpire is squalid and bleak and to be acknowledged as such, Man is at least vouchsafed the small consolation of being able to contemplate the beauty of a better and higher realm – a realm in which Man cannot live, but upon which he may at least gaze. On this hybrid conception, technical philosophy acquires its value by providing a (very temporary) refuge from the world in which we live.

These fluctuations within Russell’s view of what confers value on technical philosophy are reenacted in an even sharper register in the fluctuations in his view of whether technical philosophy as such really has value at all and, if not, what does. One source of the occasional ambivalence in Russell’s attitudes toward technical philosophy is a fear of the dehumanizing effect of such philosophy on the philosopher:

Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity; one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.54

This passage still leaves room for the view that such self-destruction is itself a form of heroism: one sacrifices oneself but in the service of a greater good – the Truth. But the tone sometimes turns bitter; and the fear of disillusionment takes on additional bite in the form of a fear of retrospective disappointment: “I feel as if one would only discover on one’s deathbed what one ought to have lived for, and realize too late that one’s life has been wasted.”55

This occasional horror of the dehumanizing barrenness of technical work has its opposite pole in an intermittent attraction to alluringly momentous moral and political causes and, most strikingly, to religious modes of thought. Russell is famous for his fierce attacks on Christianity; but what is less well known is that he is also the author of passages such as the following:

Religion is the passionate determination that human life is to be capable of importance.... To assert religion is to believe that virtue is momentous, that human greatness is truly great, and that it is possible for man to achieve an existence which shall have significance.56

Here the very possibility of believing that one is able to achieve an existence which has even a modicum of significance is tied to a sort of hope that it is the special office of religion to confer. Rather than mathematics, here it is religion which holds out the means of conferring value on this sordid and miserable world, of satisfying our deepest desires and not leaving our best hopes thwarted: “[T]he things that make religion are the great things; they are what make life infinite and not petty.”57 What religion, in numerous remarks such as these, is represented as able to confer is strikingly reminiscent of the solace which mathematics (on the warm conception) is represented as able to afford; only now a new wrinkle is added — the solace comes not by fleeing the world of “human sordidness”58 (as mathematics enables us to) for a timeless inhuman world, but by escaping the sordidness and petty selfishness of everyday existence via a route towards humanity, with the aim not only of coming closer to others but of bringing humanity as a whole together:

What we know is that things come into our lives sometimes which are so immeasurably better than the things of every day, that it seems as though they were sent from another world, and could not come out of ourselves.... Religion, it seems to me, ought to make us know and remember these immeasurably better things, and live habitually in the thought of them.... I have hitherto only seen the greatest things at rare times of stress or exultation.... When [that vision] ... is strong, the kind of philosophical work I do seems not worth doing, and so when I have to do this work that vision fades.... What the vision seems to show me is that we can live in a deeper region than the region of little every-day cares and desires – where beauty is a revelation of something beyond, where it becomes possible to love all men.59

This is not a mood Russell is ever able to sustain for long — at least not in this otherworldly key. Yet there is an underlying attitude — we might call it one of utopianism — to which Russell recurs throughout his life, which fuels his enthusiasm for various (sometimes astonishingly harebrained) political schemes, and which cyclically both eclipses and is alternately eclipsed by his enthusiasm for technical philosophy. But, whether it be in connection with his relatively enduring stretches of enthusiasm for technical philosophy or his comparatively ephemeral fits of enthusiasm for (some watered-down form of) religion or some other project of utopian renewal, Russell never fails at some point to succumb to the feeling “that some element of delusion is involved in giving so much passion to any humanly attainable object”.60 The effect of such recurrent disillusionment is that “irony creeps into the very springs of one’s being”.61

Consequently, “the revelation of something beyond, where it becomes possible to love all men” finds its counterpoint in another vision:

[I]n this vision, sorrow is the ultimate truth of life, everything else is oblivion or delusion. Then even love seems to me merely an opiate – it makes us forget that we draw our breath in pain and that thought is the gateway to despair.62

The defense against the pain such disillusionment brings is a ruthlessly disenchanted view of the cosmos and one’s place in it. Thus the pair of complementary conceptions which form the poles of Russell’s thought about the significance of technical philosophy are paralleled by similar poles in Russell’s conceptions of the value of philosophy as such. We might term these Russell’s utopian conception and disenchanted conception of philosophy (and of the character of the reality it discloses) respectively. Here, too, we come upon striking hybrids at certain phases in Russell’s thought. Even in his ultra-disenchanted mode, Russell’s tone is able to take on, if not a utopian, at least an edifying aspect. He accomplishes this by first assuming the mantle of the staunch defender of the scientific outlook and then characterizing the requirements of a strictly scientific attitude in ways that appear to have straightforward ethical implications. Paradoxically, on a first look, however, the nature of reality as disclosed by science appears to be merely ethically neutral:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires and tastes and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world.... The scientific mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know.... Until we have learnt to think of ... [the universe] in ethically neutral terms, we have not arrived at a scientific attitude in philosophy.63

But this apparently ethically colorless view of the nature of things is sometimes able to take on an astonishingly vibrant aspect. In certain writings, Russell manages to convert a description of the universe as consisting of nothing more than mere clouds of particles in motion into a prelude for an edifying discourse – one that climaxes in the rousing tones of a gospel of salvation. This tendency is already manifest in as early an essay as “A Free Man’s Worship” (written in 1902).64 The essay starts with observations such as that “the world which Science presents for our belief” is “purposeless” and “void of meaning” — observations which Science has allegedly established to such a degree that today “no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand”.65 We must acknowledge the truth of these observations not only for reasons of intellectual honesty, but in order to protect ourselves from false hope and crushing disappointment: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation be safely built.”66 The essay rapidly moves from thus insinuating that what Science reveals is (not just ethically neutral, but) ethically dismal to apparently asserting it: the world as revealed by Science is positively “inhospitable” to human hopes and values; Science reveals an “opposition of fact and ideal”.67 This sets up the question “How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished?”68 In its answer to this question, the voice of sober-minded, scientifically-informed common sense rapidly gives way to that of someone who has looked deep into the abyss, lived to tell about it, and now returns to show the rest of us how to become skeptical heroes undaunted by the task of living in a meaningless cosmos.69 Though, when he enters this post-scientific sermonizing vein, his cadences are sometimes dishearteningly hard to distinguish from those of as comparatively inconsequential a philosopher as, say, Albert Camus — of all Russell’s many personae, this is probably the one which remains best known outside professional philosophical circles.

The preceding brief summary of Russell’s intellectual pendulum-swings should suffice to make the following question urgent: How do all these attitudes (expressed in the quotations from Russell which figure in the preceding summary) fit into a single philosophical trajectory? One way of answering this question is by trying to understand the following: how do these attitudes all fit into a single life? One can imagine different directions of answer to the former question (how do they fit into a single philosophical trajectory?) that might emerge through a consideration of the latter (how do they all fit into a single life?). To these different directions of answer correspond different sorts of intelligibility that philosophical biography can confer. At one extreme, one might come to see more clearly how a single overarching philosophical conception does indeed run through the apparently discordant attitudes, harmonizing them into a single coherent unity: when one sees how the attitudes all fit together within the life, one sees better how they fit together philosophically. At the other extreme, one might come to see more clearly how there is no underlying unity in philosophical conception which brings this variety of attitudes into concord, yet may still be brought to appreciate how this particular constellation of tensions and oscillations in philosophical conception fits into a single humanly (as opposed to logically) intelligible pattern: when one sees how the attitudes all fit into a life, one sees better how (although they do not form a coherent philosophical whole) they nonetheless represent an intelligible set of human responses to a certain set of intellectual needs and pressures. Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein aims to confer the first of these two sorts of intelligibility on the material it lays before its reader; and his biography of Russell aims to confer the second of these two sorts of intelligibility on the material it lays before its reader.

With the aid of the narrative Monk painstakingly pieces together, we not only follow Russell through his convulsive changes of heart, but we witness how these changes are coordinated with, how they both trigger and are triggered by, such things as the fluctuations in his relationship with figures such as G. E. Moore, Joseph Conrad, and Wittgenstein, his falling into and out of the grip of the conviction that he has found the love of his life, his contributions as a pamphleteer for diverse social and moral causes, his sojourns in the Soviet Union, the United States, and China, his grueling soapbox tours on behalf of a variety of political movements, his work as a founder of a school and an agitator for educational reform, his efforts to co-author treatises with collaborators as different from one another in sensibility and outlook as A. N Whitehead, D. H. Lawrence and Dora Black, etc., etc. Once Russell’s contributions to philosophy are woven together by Monk into a single continuous biographical narrative — a narrative in which each of the elements of this whirl of seemingly disjointed pursuits finds its place — it becomes possible to see the whirl not merely as a frenzy of activity most of which is extracurricular to Russell’s work as a philosopher. Many elements of the whirl become legible as themselves expressions of Russell’s fluctuating philosophical aspirations, and of the restless oscillation between the poles of yearning and disenchantment which characterize both Russell’s philosophy and his life as a whole.

What emerges vividly in Monk’s pair of attempts to write philosophical biography is that the sort of illumination (of the work of an individual philosopher) that the genre of philosophical biography most naturally finds itself struggling to confer pertains, for the most part, not to particular details of philosophical doctrine or method, but rather to the character – what Wittgenstein calls the spirit – of a philosopher’s work as a whole. Thus the most significant change of aspect (in our view of a philosopher’s work) effected by a successful philosophical biography is unlikely to be local in character. That is, it is unlikely to be such that we will be able to exhibit our understanding of that which we have been helped by means of philosophical biography better to understand (about a given philosopher’s work) by adducing detachable bits of (the philosopher’s) philosophy that we are (now better) able to expound. If there is an important relationship between what philosophical biography shows and how it shows it, then we should not be surprised to learn that the sorts of change of aspect that philosophical biography permits to dawn in our perception of a philosopher’s work are not ones easily brought into view by an alternative genre of writing. In particular, the sort of change of aspect in question will not admit expression via a mode of exposition of a philosopher’s thought proper to the exposition of features of his thought graspable independently of their relation to the character of his thought as a whole. The proper expression of such changes of aspect in our perception of a philosopher’s work will possess the same paradoxical combination of features that Wittgenstein observes are characteristic of the sorts of change of aspect investigated in Philosophical Investigations, Part II, section xi: the expression of the change of aspect in question must be “the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged”; and, as Wittgenstein seeks to show, this is connected to its being the sort of change in view which requires either that “light dawns gradually over the whole” or not at all.70 Thus our estimate of a particular philosopher who forms the subject of a given biography may be augmented or diminished by reading the biography in question; but, if the biography in question is a (successful instance of the genre) philosophical biography, it is likely that the resulting change of aspect will be such that the philosopher’s work will appear, as it were, to wax or wane as a whole.

Contrary to what the compartmentalist urged above, what strikes one as one reads first Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein and then his biography of Russell, is not how Wittgenstein’s life is relevant to an understanding of his work whereas Russell’s life is not relevant to an understanding of his work, but rather how differently relevant the life is to an understanding of the work in each case. In Wittgenstein’s case, seeing the philosophy in the light cast by Monk’s biography helps us to see the rigor and depth and purity that characterizes Wittgenstein’s work as a whole and, more importantly, perhaps to see more clearly what sort of rigor and depth and purity it is that Wittgenstein strove for in his thinking and living. In Russell’s case, seeing the philosophy in the light cast by Monk’s biography help tragic failure – the ways in which and the reasons why Russell was unable to think his projects through to a satisfactory conclusion, so that his entire intellectual life was marked by his restlessly moving from one project of great promise to the next, often failing to carry through on them. Thus, in Wittgenstein’s case, we can be led to be able to see better the resolute single-mindedness of purpose which runs throughout his work – what it means to say and why it is right to say that “Nothing is hidden” is, for Wittgenstein, an ethical as well as a logical remark, and how it comes to pass that Wittgenstein finds himself addressing remarks such as the following to his friends: “I am not a religious person, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”71 In Russell’s case, we are led to see the awkward furtiveness in the ways in which Russell struggles to integrate — or at least to rationalize the connection between — his theoretical and practical (his logical and ethical) motivations to philosophy, and how the shape of these struggles correlates with the cyclical pattern in the fluctuations in Russell’s second-order views about the value of philosophy, and how it comes to pass that Russell finds himself addressing remarks such as the following to his friends: “I have developed a certain nausea for the subtleties and distinctions that make up good philosophy; I should like to write things of human interest, like bad philosophers, only without being bad. But perhaps it is the badness that is interesting.”72 One is helped by Monk to see the extraordinary resoluteness of Wittgenstein’s philosophical thinking by seeing how various aspects of Wittgenstein’s life are themselves expressions of that same insistence to achieve a sort of honesty with himself that he took to be a necessary condition of his being able to think things through philosophically. And one is helped by Monk to see the irresoluteness that characterizes Russell’s broader philosophical trajectory – the way he shirks the problems that most haunt his central intellectual projects – by seeing the ways in which Russell’s entire life both in and out of philosophy, his tremendous individual accomplishments notwithstanding, is marked by ambivalence and irresoluteness.

Though there is much to admire in the Russell who comes to light in the pages of Monk’s biography of him and much not to admire in the Wittgenstein who comes to light in the pages of Monk’s biography of him, the following generalization is surely sound: most readers will find the resulting changes of aspect induced in their respective perceptions of Wittgenstein’s and Russell’s philosophical work to be such that the former will appear as a consequence to wax as a whole while the latter will appear to wane. This difference in character in what Monk’s biographies appear to disclose of Wittgenstein and Russell respectively has the inevitable consequence that Wittgenstein’s admirers will, on the whole, tend to admire Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein more than most of Wittgenstein’s detractors will, and that roughly the opposite will tend to be the case with regard to the reception of Monk’s biography of Russell amongst admirers and detractors of Russell. This inevitably leaves Monk open to the charge of a certain bias of sympathy in the one case and antipathy in the other.73

If Monk succeeds in his quest to write the sort of biography he claims to aspire to write, then neither of these charges should be upheld. He aspires to confine himself to showing us the life through a well-documented narrative of the thoughts and actions of the individuals themselves. If he is faithful to this aspiration, then all this pair of biographies could be said to be doing is simply confronting members of these respective circles of admirers and detractors with what there is to notice about the reciprocal interaction of the life and work of each of these two philosophers. The reader would thus find himself or herself confronted with each of these two individuals themselves – confronted with the ways in which each of their respective philosophical sensibilities emerges and finds expression in the course of shaping and being shaped by these interactions. Whether Monk does remain faithful to this aspiration (in each of his two very different efforts to write philosophical biography) is at best a delicate question, and no doubt one which different readers will decide differently (and perhaps differently with regard to each of his two efforts).74

Even if one judges Monk to have remained faithful to this aspiration (in either of his two efforts), this still leaves it undecided whether one should judge the result to be of philosophical interest. Whether one thinks being thus confronted with the entwinement of a philosopher’s life in his thought and vice versa is of philosophical interest will depend in part upon whether one thinks (the genre I have been calling) philosophical biography has any useful role to play in deepening our understanding of the work of particular philosophers. This is a question each of us must answer for him- or herself on a case by case basis. How we answer this question will, of course, depend on our view, in each case, of the biography in question (on how successful we take it to be qua philosophical biography) and the philosopher in question (that is, on what sort of philosopher we take him or her to be); but, more significantly, it will depend on our conception of philosophy – on what we think philosophy now is and what we think it ought to be – and on the ways in which that conception may be either confirmed or challenged by a philosophical biography. These are not matters that someone else can decide for us.

Whatever one thinks of Monk’s work – whether one thinks that it succeeds as philosophical biography or not – one ought to concede that it shows that one can at least aspire to write a philosophically illuminating biography of a philosopher without lapsing into reductivism. The reductivist biographer tries to show us the secret of a philosopher’s work by locating the key to understanding his work outside his work – in his life rather than his work. This is not what Monk does. Monk’s mode of biography, in helping us to see the rigor and depth and purity that characterizes Wittgenstein’s struggles generally, aims to help us to see Wittgenstein’s work afresh: to see the rigor and depth and purity that are there in the work. What we are supposed to be thus helped to see is accordingly there to be seen in the work without the help of Monk’s biography. But it can be hard to see.75

Similarly, the ways in which and the reasons why Russell’s work are tragically flawed in the respects in which Monk’s biography aims to reveal are ways and reasons that are internal to Russell’s work itself. What Monk aims to do is allow us to see that work as a whole more clearly and perspicuously than we were previously able to. Philosophical biography, if it succeeds, can play a role in enabling us to see in the work of a philosopher what we might otherwise miss in the work. Though philosophical biography attempts a depiction of philosophy in vivo (rather than, as it were, in vitro), it is still the philosophy (and not just the philosopher) that it seeks to bring into view. Monk, unlike the reductivist biographer, does not take “the real meaning” of Wittgenstein’s or Russell’s texts to be of a sort that must remain hidden to us as long as we fail to situate those texts in the wider contexts of their respective biographies. He does not seek to explain or evaluate the work of either of these philosophers by privileging what is legible in their lives over what is legible in their work – offering a reading of the texts of their lives that, in effect, pretends that it can serve as a substitute for the hard work of reading the texts that they wrote. He seeks rather to show how an attention to Wittgenstein’s life or Russell’s life can furnish a background against which one can more clearly discern what is already written – and there to be read — in the texts that Wittgenstein and Russell each wrote.

In the previous paragraph, when I speak of what Monk “aims” and “seeks” to do, I am crediting Monk with aiming to write philosophical biography (in the sense defined at the outset of this paper). But it is one thing to claim that Monk’s work aspires to belong to this particular genre of writing, it is another thing to claim that it is a successful instance of the genre to which it thereby aspires to belong. By any discriminating person’s lights, most attempts at philosophical biography must be judged failures. Many people who set out to do something like what Monk aspires to do – to write a biography that illuminates the work of a philosopher — wind up, I think, more or less inadvertently, sliding into writing some more reductivist form of biography; because in order to construct a narrative that offers the appearance of illuminating the work through attention to the life, they slide into trafficking in the forms of pseudo-illumination that reductivist narratives confer. If one judges Monk to have succeeded in his aim then one will have judged him to have succeeded in doing something difficult. There is an art to writing such biographies; and, like any art worth practicing, it is hard to excel at. As with all such arts, people will differ widely in their assessments of whether the efforts of a given practitioner of the art are to be judged a success and, if so, how much of a success. My aim here is not to settle an argument concerning the degree of success of Monk’s particular pair of attempts to practice the art of philosophical biography, but only to show that this argument itself is a sensible one and its outcome is not be decided on a priori grounds. My aim in this paper has been to exhibit the coherence of taking sides in such arguments by showing that the attempt itself – the genre of philosophical biography as such – is in no way incoherent.

Other Honorable Trades: Shoemaking, for Example

Monk has himself written illuminatingly about his own conception of philosophical biography and, in particular, about the role played within that conception of the sort of understanding which consists in being able to see (and allow others to see) connections. In the course of explicating what it means to have the eye to notice such connections, he finds occasion to quote an anecdote from Stanley Cavell. The anecdote is from Cavell’s days as a student at Berkeley when he attended Ernst Bloch’s music theory class. Cavell’s original reason for adducing the anecdote, in his book A Pitch of Philosophy, is as a parable of philosophical instruction. The parable occurs as part of an extended exploration of the twin themes of having an ear for music and cultivating one’s voice qua singer – an exploration within which these twin themes function as figures respectively for what is to have an ear for philosophy and for what it is to find one’s voice qua philosopher. Here’s the anecdote:

He [Bloch] would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half step from Bach’s rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: “You hear that? You hear the difference?” ... He went on: “My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But.” The head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously: “If you do not hear it, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoemaking, for example.”76

Monk himself adduces this anecdote in the service of exploring the analogy between understanding a person and understanding a piece of music. He is not so immodest as to indicate the respect in which the anecdote might have served equally aptly as a parable for the entire enterprise of philosophical biography itself. For in order to write a biography of the sort to which Monk aspires, you need a finely tuned sense of when and how a philosopher’s personality expresses itself in his work and when and how his philosophy comes to expression in his life. Not everyone has the ear to catch each of these manifestations of a philosopher’s vision as it expresses itself in the other. And when the practitioners of philosophical biography are tone-deaf to what they need to hear, the sounds they produce are no less hard on the ears than those produced by tone-deaf musicians. What the widespread availability of bad biographies of philosophers shows is that to write philosophical biography you need to have (not only considerable knowledge of both a philosopher’s work and his life, but also) the ability to notice connections and hear resonances that not everyone will have the eye or the ear to pick up. Not everyone presently writing biographies of philosophers should obviously be doing what they are doing. To quote Ray Monk quoting Stanley Cavell quoting Ernest Bloch: there are many other honorable trades – shoemaking, for example.

Taking my lead from my epigraph from Virginia Woolf, I have indicated that the question “Should one allow a (philosophical) biography to assist one in understanding a philosopher?” is a question each person must answer on his or her own when faced with a concrete pair of examples – that is, when faced with both a philosopher and a (philosophical?) biography of that philosopher. An additional, relatively straightforward reason why this must be so is to be found in the fact that the sort of understanding that philosophical biography aspires to confer is not a sort that everyone necessarily seeks of a philosopher’s work and especially not necessarily when reaching for a biography. The quest for this sort of understanding may seem to defeat the pleasure of reading biography. What many people want most out of a biography is not to have light shed on elusive aspects of the work of a difficult philosopher; most readers, when they pick up a biography, just want to read an entertaining and edifying story about the life of a great man. Moreover, even if one takes oneself to have a use for the sort of understanding that philosophical biography (as I have here sought to define it) aims to confer, regardless of how successful an instance of the genre one takes up – as with all forms of understanding properly termed “philosophical” — such understanding can only come if earned. Thus, even if one deems a philosophical biography successful, not everyone who reads such a book will come away with the variety of understanding it aspires to confer merely as a consequence of having attentively turned its pages — especially if the reader turns the pages eager to see how it will all turn out, consuming it like an adventure story, without looking for connections that are left to the reader to draw himself. For it is a hallmark of good philosophical biography that a great deal of work be left to the reader. (Wittgenstein’s remark about how philosophy ought to be written applies equally here: “Anything your reader can do for himself leave to him.”77) Hence a reader may come away without any sense of gratitude; he may well feel, with justification, after reading even an exemplary philosophical biography of, say, Wittgenstein, that he is in no better position than before to see who Wittgenstein was and why he wrote what he did – let alone why he wrote as he did. That is only to say that philosophical biography is not for everyone: the sorts of connection that this genre of prose-writing seeks to bring to the fore, even when brought to light, will not seem salient to certain readers; and, in such cases, the sorts of change of aspect in our perception of a philosopher’s work which philosophical biography seeks to bring about will fail to dawn. But there are many worthwhile ways to spend your time other than reading philosophical biography.



  1. From “How Should One Read a Book?”, in The Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume II (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967); pp. 3, 5.
  1. Aristotle, Protrepticus, fragment 5; in Aristotelis Fragmenta Selecta; ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955); p. 33.
  1. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life; ed. Arnold Davidson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); p. 265.
  1. The question of exactly what role such anecdotes are meant to play in ancient philosophical writings is a complex and delicate one. This much seems clear: if one thinks that a consideration of the manner in which a philosopher lives can contribute in some way to an assessment of the cogency of his philosophical doctrines then this will have implications for what one takes the role and standing of (what we would tend to consider merely) ad hominem forms of argument to be. Nonetheless, it is difficult for a modern reader not to be struck by the abundance of (what is apt to strike one as) apparently irrelevant biographical detail in ancient philosophers’ discussions of each others’ views. As an amusing yet representative sample, consider the manner in which Aristotle introduces his discussion of the political doctrines of Hippodamus: Hippodamus the son of Euryphon, a citizen of Miletus, was the first man without practical experience of politics who attempted to handle the theme of the best form of constitution. He was a man who invented the planning of towns in separate quarters, and laid out the Peiraeus with regular roads. In his general life, too, [apart from these innovations] he was led into some eccentricity by a desire to attract attention; and this made a number of people feel that he lived in too studied and artificial a manner. He wore his hair long and expensively adorned: he had flowing robes, expensively decorated, made from a cheap but warm material, which he wore in summer time as well as in winter. (Politics, 2.1267b22; tr. E. Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946; p. 68). Can the observation that a philosopher lives “in too studied and artificial a manner” shed light on the character of his philosophy?
  1. Arnoldo Momigliano, The Development of Greek Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 71.
  1. Ibid., p. 84.
  1. Arnold Davidson, “Editor’s Introduction”, ibid., p. 30. The embedded quotation is from Giuseppe Cambiano.
  1. Momigliano argues that, precisely because the model of how to live furnished by such representations embodies an ideal, the practice of philosophical biography among the ancients must be distinguished from that of history: The Socratics were infuriating in their own time. They are still infuriating in our time. They are never so infuriating as when approached from the point of view of biography. We like biography to be true or false, honest or dishonest. Who can use such terminology for Plato’s Phaedo or Apology, or even for Xenophon’s Memorabilia?… [T]he fact we have to face is that biography acquired a new meaning when the Socratics moved to the zone between truth and fiction which is so bewildering to the professional historian. We shall not understand what biography was in the fourth century if we do no recognize that it came to occupy an ambiguous position between fact and imagination. Let us be in no doubt. With a man like Plato, and even with a smaller but by no means simpler man like Xenophon, this is a consciously chosen ambiguity. The Socratics experimented in biography, and the experiments were directed towards capturing the potentialities rather than the realities of individual lives. Socrates, the main subject of their considerations …, was not so much the real Socrates as the potential Socrates. He was not a dead man whose life could be recounted. He was the guide to territories as yet unexplored… The Greeks and the Romans realized that writing about the life of a fellow man is not quite the same as writing history…. By keeping biography separate from history the Greeks and the Romans were able to appreciate what constitutes a poet, a philosopher, a martyr, a saint. (Op. cit., pp. 46-7, 104)
  1. I do not mean to be claiming here (or anywhere, for that matter) that one cannot understand ancient philosophy (or any other kind of philosophy, for that matter) without recourse to philosophical biography, but only that one has not understood what philosophy is for the ancients if one fails to understand that there is a distinctively philosophical role for the practice of biography to play in the practice of ancient philosophy. Hence the point here is not that one must be familiar (through biographical accounts or other forms of documentary evidence) with the concrete details of some particular individual ancient Skeptic’s or Stoic’s, or Epicurean’s life in order to understand what ancient Skepticism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism is. The point is simply that one must have some general understanding of the way of life of the Skeptic, the way of life of the Stoic, or the way of life of the Epicurean in order to understand what ancient Skepticism, Stoicism, or Epicureanism is. Hence I say: one must have some understanding of the lives that the authors of Skeptical, Stoic or Epicurean texts aspired to lead in order to understand these texts. One way of acquiring such an understanding is, of course, simply through, while reading such texts, imaginatively entering into the conception of how one ought to live which the texts themselves presuppose.
  1. The case of Saul Kripke can serve as a useful contrast here. There are many anecdotes about Kripke circulating in contemporary philosophical circles. But no one is tempted to adduce any of them in the context of explicating Kripke’s philosophical writings.
  1. Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, tr. Peter Winch, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980/revised edition Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998); p. 33/38.
  1. Ibid, p. 34/39.
  1. Rush Rhees, ed., Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, p. 193.
  1. Culture and Value, p. 16/24.
  1. Ibid., p. 45/51.
  1. “But these passages”, someone might complain, “are mostly taken from a single work: Culture and Value — the work which Wittgenstein devotes exclusively to topics in ethics, aesthetics and religion!” This is not true. Wittgenstein never wrote (nor ever planned to write) such a work. The passages in Culture and Value are drawn from all over Wittgenstein’s Nachlass. (See the Revised Edition of Culture and Value, with annotations by Alois Pichler, indicating the manuscript sources of the remarks.) The passages from Culture and Value which are quoted here (like many such passages) occur, in their original home in Wittgenstein’s manuscripts, in the midst of investigations of questions such as what is it to follow a rule?, or name an object?, or understand the meaning of a word?, etc.
  1. In the opening sentence of his editor’s preface to the volume, G. H. von Wright appears to be prepared to claim that the remarks he has chosen to bring together in Culture and Value are remarks of Wittgenstein’s “which do not belong directly with his philosophical works although they are scattered amongst the philosophical texts” [my emphasis] (ibid., p. i/ix). A subsidiary aim of the present essay is to cast doubt on (the italicized portion of) this description of these remarks.
  1. Some of the paragraphs which follow overlap paragraphs in my “On Going the Bloody Hard Way in Philosophy” (in The Possibilities of Sense, ed. John Whittaker (Macmillan, forthcoming)) where the topic is treated at greater length.
  1. “On Putting Two and Two Together”, in The Grammar of Religious Belief; ed. D. Z. Phillips (New York: St. Martins Press, 1995); pp. 248-331.
  1. D. Z. Phillips, Philosophy’s Cool Place (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); p. 46.
  1. Phillips seems to assume that I would disagree with this. (I presume this is because he –mostly rightly — takes himself to disagree with so much of what I say elsewhere in my paper.)
  1. Having read thus far, the reader may have formed the impression that the topic of this section of the paper is one which could be summarized under the heading “Wittgenstein’s remarks about ethics”. Is that my topic? Are these remarks about ethics? It depends upon what you think “ethics” is. Stanley Cavell remarks upon the “pervasiveness of something that may express itself as a moral or religious demand in the Investigations“, and goes on to observe that “the demand is not the subject of a separate study within it, call it Ethics” (This New Yet Unapproachable America (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1989); p. 40). I take the five remarks from Wittgenstein quoted above to be attempts to articulate (aspects of) that demand.
  1. To put a somewhat more polemical edge on the point: one cannot understand many of the remarks that occur in a text such as Culture and Value by engaging in a close reading of that “work” alone and neglecting Wittgenstein’s investigations of the sorts of questions with which the bulk of his work is concerned (questions such as is it possible for me to give myself a private ostensive definition?, or for another person to have my pains?, or for there to be only one occasion on which someone obeys a rule?, etc.) — neglecting, that is, what he thought philosophy is.
  1. Phillips, Philosophy’s Cool Place , p. 46.
  1. And this does appear to be what Phillips means. The most he seems to be prepared to concede by way of a connection between “the personal” and “the philosophical” is an analogy “between working on philosophical problems and working on moral problems” (ibid., p. 46). Phillips is unwilling to allow for any connection more intimate than this because it seems important to him to be able to maintain that “Wittgenstein … is not saying, as Conant thinks, that a shoddiness in how we speak is, at the same time, a shoddiness in how we live” (ibid.).
  1. Many of these misinterpretations have been occasioned by picking up Wittgenstein’s oft-repeated analogy between philosophy and therapy from the wrong end.
  1. Quoted by Rush Rhees in Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 174. See also, in this connection, the remark about the relation between cheating others and cheating oneself in “Notes for the Philosophical Lecture,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951; eds. J. Klagge and A. Nordman (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 450.
  1. Letter to Norman Malcolm, November 16th, 1944; quoted in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
  1. Such discernment is essential to the capacity for distinguishing (genuine) philosophy from, what Wittgenstein was fond of calling, (mere) cleverness — a distinction which underlies a great many of Wittgenstein’s judgments of the work of other “philosophers”.
  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Denkbewegungen, Tagebücher 1930-1932/1936-1937; edited by Ilse Sommavilla (Innsbruck: Haymon-Verlag, 1997); p. 21.
  1. “Conversations with Drury”, in Recollections of Wittgenstein; p. 106.
  1. Ibid., p. 159.
  1. See, in this regard, Ray Monk’s review of Ben Rogers’s A.J. Ayer: A Life; in The Sunday Times, June 13, 1999, Book Section, p. 12.
  1. Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, ed. Rush Rhees; reprinted in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951, p. 131.
  1. A related double-faced “difficulty” that surfaces repeatedly in Wittgenstein’s notebooks as an urgent topic for him is the danger of pride (or vanity). Consider the following remark: “The edifice of your pride has to be dismantled. And that is terribly hard work” (Culture and Value, p. 26). Phillips’s mutually exclusive opposition between the personal and the philosophical gets in the way of an understanding of this remark. The question “Is ‘dismantling the edifice of one’s pride’ a personal or a philosophical difficulty?” is, by Wittgenstein’s lights, misconceived from the start. In one of the possible prefaces he drafts for a possible book, Wittgenstein writes: I would like to say “This book is written to the glory of God”, but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood. It means the book is written in good will, and in so far as it is not so written, but out of vanity, etc., the author would wish to see it condemned. He cannot free it of these impurities further than he himself is free of them. [my emphasis] (Philosophical Remarks (ed. R. Rhees, trs. R. Hargreaves and R. White; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975), Preface)
  1. Though it is a mistake to assume, as some commentators do, that Wittgenstein thinks that there can be a kind of person — call him an “ordinary” person or a “nonphilosopher” — who is in full possession of his intellectual faculties and yet utterly free from philosophical perplexity and hence the need for philosophy and the forms of perspicuity and clarity which it aims to confer.
  1. Ray Monk, “Philosophical Biography – The Very Idea”.
  1. The remark occurs in a letter to his sister; Letter to Helene Salzer (née Wittgenstein), quoted in M. Nedo and M. Ranchetti, eds., Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983; p.292.
  1. Wittgenstein therefore does not only think that the limitations of a person qua person limit his possibilities of imagination and reflection qua philosopher; he also thinks that the activity of philosophy itself represents a possible means of overcoming such limitation in oneself. Hence both the promise and the danger of philosophy. Throughout Wittgenstein’s life, an important ground of his motivation to philosophy (to, that is, what he hopes philosophy, at its best, can be) – and of his fear of philosophy (of, that is, what he knows philosophy, at its worst, can do to a person) – is the thought that in developing her philosophical sensibility a person is thereby (for better or worse) profoundly shaping herself as a person.
  1. I take it that the term “ethics” in Wittgenstein’s vocabulary no more names an independent subject matter or separable area of philosophy than does the term “logic” (or “grammar”). For Wittgenstein, logic and ethics are each, and each differently, concerned with a pervasive dimension of human thought and action.
  1. In his review of W. W. Bartley’s biography of Wittgenstein, Rush Rhees puts it well: “Unless you know what his [Wittgenstein’s] work means to him and what he tries hardest to bring into his work – and unless you know what other features of his living and his relations to other people he counts important – you cannot say whether some … desire or ‘practice’ is significant or rather insignificant in his character and his life” (The Human World, no. 14, February 1974, p. 73).
  1. Those who imagine, for example, that Wittgenstein’s homoeroticism (“the love that dare not speak its name”) is the key to understanding everything else in his life including his philosophical preoccupations (“no wonder he’s interested in what cannot be said but only shown!”) invariably end up offering a shallow and skewed representation of his philosophical thought. I discuss how this happens in the biographical representations of the relation between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and his sexuality offered by W. W. Bartley and Bruce Duffy in my “Throwing Away The Top of the Ladder”, The Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 328-364.
  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990).
  1. Of which so far only the first volume has appeared: Bertrand Russell: The Spirit ofSolitude (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996).
  1. Wittgenstein, both early and late, employs the words “philosopher”, “philosophy” and “philosophical” in (among others) the following two distinct senses: to denote that which he seeks to combat through his practice (e.g., “the philosopher is someone who is prone to …”, “the crucial trick in the philosophical conjuring game is the one which…”, etc.) and to denote that practice itself (e.g., “philosophy is the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence…. ”, “there is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies”, “my aim in philosophy is to …”, etc. ); and, for Wittgenstein, each of these two opposed senses of the word “philosophy” has equal claim to inherit the ancient sense of the word. I mean here to be referring only to his use of “philosophy” in the second of these two senses.
  1. This is not to say that the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is entirely unoccupied. Quine is perhaps the clearest example of an important contemporary analytic philosopher who resolutely eschews any (what I am here calling) “Socratic” motivation to philosophy. (See, for example, his essay “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?” in (Theories and Things; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), passim but especially p. 193.) It is a not uninteresting fact, though, that when such a philosopher undertakes to write an autobiography, the result is likely to be not only a singularly boring book but one that is, in any conventional sense, a remarkably unilluminating autobiography. Or more precisely: if it is illuminating it will be so mainly in ways utterly independent of the author’s design and mainly through the character of the void it discloses – that is, through the enormity of that which is absent from its pages and the pervasiveness of its absence. Both Quine’s and A. J. Ayer’s autobiographies are examples of books that possess this sort of unintended sublimity: even at those moments where one expects to catch a glimmer of involuntarily disclosed human depth one glimpses only surfaces all the way down. Does that mean that, with regard to philosophers who occupy this opposite end of the spectrum, there is nothing about their work for (the genre I am here calling) philosophical biography to illuminate? Can one only write (as it were, mere) biographies (as opposed to philosophical biographies) of such philosophers? That depends upon whether there is an interesting relation between that which is necessarily absent from the representation of the lives of such philosophers and that which is present (if only elusively so) in their philosophical thought, and, if so, whether the following two conditions are additionally satisfied by this relation: (1) it illuminates something important about the character of the philosophical thought as such, and (2) what is thus illuminated can be brought to light with particular clarity or poignancy by means of the genre of philosophical biography. Or to put the point less delicately: it depends upon whether there is a philosophically interesting reciprocal relation between the poverty of the life (the magnitude of its accomplishments notwithstanding) and the poverty of the thought (its significance as a contribution to philosophy notwithstanding). I am inclined to think that there is indeed something here for philosophical biography to disclose, but that it takes tremendous talent and tact (not to mention courage) to do it well. Lest this be taken as an invitation, I ought also to add that I take this particular species of philosophical biography to belong to that category of activities (like shooting an apple off your son’s head) which — however spectacular if successful — are far better left unattempted by those of us who possess a merely average prospect of success. The topic of an internal relation between the poverty of the life of a philosopher and the poverty of his philosophy is arguably the central topic of J. S. Mill’s Autobiography (as well as other of his writings, such as his essay on Bentham). It is a matter of some interest, in the light of the topic of this paper, that Mill should at some point have felt the need to resort to the genre of autobiography in order to do justice to the grounds of his most profound dissatisfactions with Benthamism. The point of the conclusion of the preceding paragraph might be put as follows: it takes a different order of delicacy and tact to do by means of biography what Mill there attempts (by means of autobiography).
  1. Quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 142.
  1. Quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 147.
  1. From “The Study of Mathematics”, in The Collected Paper of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 6; ed. by John G. Slater (London: Routledge, 1983); p. 88.
  1. Quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 142.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, May 24th, 1912; quoted by Monk in ibid., p. 262.
  1. There come to be, later on, of course, additional reasons for the demise of the warm conception of mathematics — ones that are strictly internal to the development of Russell’s first-order views in technical philosophy – most of which are connected, in one way or another, with Russell’s eventual conversion to Wittgenstein’s conception of logical truth (as mere tautology). That conversion spells the demise in Russell’s thinking of the idea that philosophy of logic constitutes an inquiry into fundamental features of reality. From this point on, Russell becomes able to look for warmth only outside technical philosophy.
  1. Letter to Helen Thomas, June 10th, 1902; in The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, Vol. I , ed. N. Griffin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).
  1. Letter to Lucy Donnelly, May 23rd, 1902; quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p.150.
  1. Letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickenson, February 13th, 1913; quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 292.
  1. From “Pilgrimage of Life”, in The Collected Paper of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985); pp. 53-4.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 1st, 1912; quoted by Monk in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 244.
  1. Quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 142.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 3rd, 1912; quoted by Monk in ibid., pp. 244-5.
  1. Letter to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickenson, February 13th, 1913; quoted by Monk, ibid., p. 292.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Letter to Ottoline Morrell, January 3rd, 1912; quoted by Monk in ibid., p. 245.
  1. “Science as an Element in Culture”, in The Collected Paper of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985); pp. 395-6.
  1. Originally published in the Independent Review, 1903; first collected in Philosophical Essays; reprinted in Mysticism and Logic (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), pp. 46-57 (all references to this essay will be to this edition).
  1. Ibid., pp. 47-8.
  1. Ibid., p. 48.
  1. Ibid., p. 51.
  1. Ibid., p. 48.
  1. Here is a taste of what the answer sounds like: Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve his mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power. (Ibid., pp. 56-7).In “A Free Man’s Worship”, in the task of facing up to the coldness of the physical universe (the omnipotence of matter, the imperiousness of chance, etc.), Man’s capacity “to burn for eternal things” is adduced as a crucial support — “this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship” (ibid., p. 55). As Russell’s attachment to a warm conception of mathematical reality cools and his ontology accordingly dwindles — so that the reality that Science discloses increasingly coincides with the whole of reality — the contemplation of beauty that was to be a free man’s worship gradually yields to a gospel of a resolutely disenchanted prometheanism. The only posture which remains open to an intellectually honest free man is “to defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe” (ibid., p. 51).
  1. Philosophical Investigations; eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Rhees, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953); p. 196.
  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, p. 94.
  1. Letter to Lucy Donnelly, January 21st, 1912; quoted in Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, p. 296.
  1. I would argue that it is constitutive of the enterprise of philosophical biography that a successful philosophical biography must remain open to (at least) one of these two charges. If, in the light of the biography, the philosopher’s work appears neither to wax nor wane as a whole, then the biography will have failed as philosophical biography.
  1. If one suspects a bias (whether it be one of sympathy or antipathy), one may imagine one detects its influence not only in the manner of the presentation of facts, but in themanner of their selection as well. Since no biographer worth his salt fails to exercise considerable restraint in the selection of detail as well as considerable discrimination in the arrangement of detail, the charge of having misjudged the salience of particular details (through their manner of either inclusion or omission) will inevitably remain a live one among unsympathetic readers.
  1. One, of course, might not need such help; and, as I will suggest in a moment, even if one does need it, one might not be able to receive it.
  1. Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); pp. 49-50. The anecdote is quoted by Monk in his contribution to this volume.
  1. Culture and Value, p. 77/88.


von Ray Monk

"Die Menschen heute glauben, die Wissenschaftler seien da, sie zu belehren, die Dichter & Musiker etc., sie zu erfreuen. Daß diese sie etwas zu lehren haben; kommt ihnen nicht in den Sinn."
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen

Auch wenn Wittgenstein weithin als der bedeutendste und einflussreichste Philosoph des 20. Jahrhunderts gilt, gibt es einen Bereich innerhalb seines Denkens, der trotz dessen zentralen Bedeutung für alles, was Wittgenstein gemacht hat, in den zahlreichen, über ihn verfassten und von ihm inspirierten Arbeiten überwiegend ignoriert wurde. Dies ist seine ablehnende Haltung zum Szientismus, der Auffassung, nach der echte Erkenntnisse nur in wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen, echtes Wissen nur in wissenschaftlichem Wissen bestehen sollen.
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On 16 November 2015 we had the pleasure to present WiTTFind at the Grillparzerhaus in Vienna – one of the most exciting and innovative Wittgenstein scholarship projects, that have emerged in the last years.

The project is a cooperation between the Centrum für Informations- und Sprachverarbeitung (CIS) at the Ludwig Maximilians Universität München  and the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB), directed by Maximilian Hadersbeck and Alois Pichler. The task of the project is to develop a FinderApp containing several computational tools which make Wittgenstein’s Nachlass better researchable. read more

Tutorial of WiTTFind (Version 2014)

The current WiTTFind – CIS/WAB 2015 Website


Liebe Mitglieder und Freunde der Wittgenstein Initiative!

Wir starten in unsere zweite Saison und können auf gute Fortschritte und wunderbare Abende im letzten Jahr zurückblicken. Nicht nur begannen wir die Auseinandersetzung mit Themen wie “Wittgenstein und Musik” oder “Wittgensteins Erbe und Österreich” – es entstanden neue Projekte auf hohem internationalem Niveau.

Unser Hauptziel – Ludwig Wittgenstein zurück nach Wien zu holen oder um ein berühmtes Buch zu paraphrasieren: Wiens Wittgenstein zu zeigen – findet bereits Anerkennung auch in Wien. Die ersten positiven Reaktionen auf die Initiative kamen aus dem Ausland. Heute erkennen viele in Wien, dass Ludwig Wittgenstein nicht nur der bedeutendste Philosoph des 20. Jahrhunderts war, sondern auch einer der Visionäre der Wiener Moderne, geprägt von den Kulturwerten seiner Zeitgenossen und seiner Familie. In Wien haben wir die einmalige Chance das menschliche Gesicht Ludwig Wittgensteins zu zeigen.

Die Saison 2015/16 eröffnen wir am Montag, 16. November, um 18:30 Uhr im Grillparzerhaus. Es werden interessante neue Quellen zu Ludwig Wittgenstein präsentiert: die Ersterscheinung von Hermine Wittgensteins “Familienerinnerungen” in Buchform, sowie Wittgenstein Source – der kostenlose Internet-Zugang zu Wittgensteins Nachlass, erarbeitet an der Universität Bergen. Wir hoffen und freuen uns auf Ihr Kommen!

Wir haben das Glück und Ehre, in unserem International Advisory Board entscheidende Figuren der Wittgenstein Forschung aus den USA, Großbritannien und Norwegen zu haben. Einige davon sind unsere Gäste in 2015/16: Steven Beller, James Conant, Allan Janik, Ray Monk, Marjorie Perloff, Alois Pichler u.a. Dank ihnen und durch unser Netzwerk mit Institutionen weltweit entstehen Projekte mit der Stiftung Fritt Ord in Oslo, der British Wittgenstein Society, dem Literaturmuseum der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Bloomsbury Publishing London, dem Wiener MAK, dem Bulgarischen Kulturinstitut “Haus Wittgenstein” und der Friedrich-Kiesler-Stiftung u.a.

Ein Höhepunkt findet im April 2016 statt: “Wittgenstein: Philosoph, Dichter und Mäzen” wird ein 2-tägiges Diskussionstreffen im Literaturmuseum sein, das unter dem Ehrenschutz der Botschaft von Königreich Norwegen steht.

Wir danken Ihnen, unseren Mitgliedern und Freunden, für Ihre Treue und hoffen auf Ihre Unterstützung auch im neuen Vereinsjahr. Die Wittgenstein Initiative ist eine private und unabhängige Organisation. Durch Ihre Mitgliedschaft und Spenden wird unsere Arbeit ermöglicht – die Wiederbelebung des kritischen Geistes und der sozialen Verantwortung durch Bildung, im Sinne Wittgensteins.

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by Marjorie Perloff, Stanford

From Will the Modernist: Shakespeare and the European Historical Avant-Gardes, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Caroline Patey (London: Peter Lang, 2014), 107-24.


People look at [Shakespeare] in amazement almost as a spectacle of nature. They do not have the feeling that this brings them into contact with a great human being. Rather with a phenomenon.
It seems to me that [Shakespeare’s] plays are like enormous sketches, not paintings; they are dashed off by one who could, so to speak, permit himself everything. And I understand how one can admire this & call it the highest art, but I don’t like it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value1

Abstract: Wittgenstein’s oddly negative assessment of Shakespeare has caused consternation among literary critics. From F. R. Leavis to the present, English critics have often assumed that Wittgenstein was simply a bad judge of poetry and that he knew little about the literature of his adopted country. Or again, Wittgenstein stands accused, by critics like George Steiner, of demanding clear ethical values from literature – values Shakespeare, who never quite took sides with particular characters, did not proclaim. This essay argues that such criticisms fail to understand Wittgenstein’s own context as an Austrian writer, brought up on the German classics of the 18th C and 19th C centuries. It s true that this “classical” literature, coming two centuries later than Shakespeare, was much more subjective, more personal than Elizabethan literature, and that Wittgenstein was accustomed to a psychology not characteristic of Shakespeare. It is the demand for realism, for characters with whom the reader can identify that makes Shakespeare unsatisfactory to Wittgenstein. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein’s fugitive remarks about Shakespeare show great acumen and insight; he understood the Tragedies – for example, King Lear, much better than one might conclude from some of his strictures. Despite the gulf between the two writers, Shakespeare’s “dreamwork,” as Wittgenstein calls it, became a model for the philosopher’s own writing.

In the annals of Shakespeare criticism, Wittgenstein’s curiously negative assessment of the Bard has long been notorious2. How could this great philosopher be so blind to the genius of the greatest of poets? Was it that, as F. R. Leavis, Wittgenstein’s Cambridge colleague, remarked dismissively, “Cultivated as he was, his interest in literature had remained rudimentary”?3 Or was it, as so many commentators have posited, that Wittgenstein was troubled by Shakespeare’s seeming indifference to ethical values? For Wittgenstein, George Steiner explains, the great poet is one who is “not only a matchless artificer and imaginer [like Shakespeare], but, the … communicator to his fellow-men of a high, articulate religious-moral-philosophical vision and criticism of life” (Steiner 1996: 126). The resultant “misreadings” of Shakespeare’s dramatic discourse, writes Steiner, shows that “a great logician and epistemologist can be a blind reader of literature” (Steiner 1996: 127). And in a recent radio dialogue, the Stanford professors Robert Harrison and Stephen Orgel agree that Wittgenstein failed to comprehend Shakespeare’s openness to contradiction. “You really can’t pin [Shakespeare] down,” Orgel explains. “There isn’t some grand scheme behind the work. … It can’t be reduced to a philosophical position.”⁴

True, but can Wittgenstein be pinned down? When he was a young soldier on the Eastern Front in World War I, he discovered Tolstoy, specifically the late book Gospel in Brief, which, so he later told friends, “kept him alive” at this difficult time (Monk 1990: 115–16). Yet the submission to Tolstoyan Christianity was short-lived; Wittgenstein was soon reading, with great interest, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. (Monk 1990: 121). As for the notion that philosophy takes a particular position, “by the early 1930s, Wittgenstein was insisting that philosophy was itself really a form of poetry,5 that indeed, ‘Philosophical analysis does not tell us anything new about ‘thought’; on the contrary, ‘Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. … It leaves everything as it is.”⁶

‘Grand schemes’? ‘Higher spiritual aspirations’? It was Wittgenstein, sounding for all the world like an avant-garde poet, who admonished his readers, “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”⁷ As for the theatre, here is a telling passage from a 1930 notebook:

Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone engaged in some simple everyday activity, when he thinks he is not being watched. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that we are suddenly seeing someone from the outside in a way we can never see ourselves; as if we, so to speak, witnessed a chapter from a biography with our own eyes, – surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could produce to be performed or spoken onstage. We would be seeing life itself. – But then we do see this every day & it doesn’t make the slightest impression on us! True, but we don’t see it in perspective. … Only the artist can represent the individual thing so that it appears to us as a work of art. … The work of art forces us – so to speak – to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is only an object like any other.⁸

This is one of the clearest statements of the Conceptualist notion that the poetic construct – in this case a play – is distinguished, not, as most Modernist critics from I. A. Richards to the Russian Formalists believed, by its use of special language, whether imagery, metaphor, pun, or rhetorical figure, but by its “perspective” or framing, a framing that makes us spectators feel that we are witnessing “life itself,” as it is actually lived but which we normally fail to “see.” “Ordinary language,” as Wittgenstein put it, “is alright” (BB 1965: 28). Indeed, the great poet or artist is one who can take the most pedestrian object or event – the man crossing the room to open the door – and make it entirely new. The artist who immediately comes to mind is, ironically, one whom Wittgenstein did not know and whose work he would surely have dismissed as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘worthless,’ had he been exposed to it. I am thinking of Wittgenstein’s exact contemporary Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades – the urinal called Fountain or the snow shovel suspended in a glass case and titled In Advance of the Broken Arm – were precisely ordinary objects, made new by the subtle use of framing, captioning, and displacement.⁹

But where does Shakespeare fit into this scheme of things? To answer this difficult question we must begin with Wittgenstein’s own context – the culture within which he operated. When Leavis remarks that the Wittgenstein he knew at Cambridge seemed to have little interest in literature, he means, of course, English literature.10 But then Wittgenstein was not English: he grew up in Vienna on the German classics – specifically Goethe and Schiller, followed by the nineteenth-century lyric poets from Heinrich Heine to Eduard Mörike and fiction writers from Heinrich von Kleist to Gottfried Keller. More important, for a Viennese of Wittgenstein’s generation, the word drama signified first and foremost the prolific Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer, whose now classical romantic dramas, like the trilogy The Golden Fleece (1821), are still produced regularly at Vienna’s Burgtheater, along with the plays of Johann Nestroy and Ferdinand Raimund.

When my own family emigrated to New York from Nazi Austria in 1938, among the few books we managed to bring with us were little paperback volumes of Raimund – for example, Der Bauer als Millionär (1830) and Der Verschwender (The Wastrel 1832); I still know these Zaubermärchen plays by heart.

Wittgenstein was also quite familiar with such of his Viennese contemporaries as Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus (he frequently refers to the latter, often with asperity),11 Rainer Marie Rilke, and especially the Expressionist poète maudit Georg Trakl. The latter’s suicide on the Eastern Front in 1914 hit Wittgenstein, who had never met him but had endorsed his poetry, especially hard. “Wie traurig. Wie traurig!!!”, he wrote in his Notebook.12 These are hardly the words of a logician who doesn’t trust the poetic imagination, as Steiner and others imply.

At the same time – and here is where things get complicated – it is important to understand that Wittgenstein’s education was not the typical one of the Austrian or German intellectual either. Although, like his siblings, he had received extensive musical training, he was sent, at fourteen, not to the Gymnasium in Vienna, but to the more technical and less academic Realschule in Linz, where, as is well known, Hitler was briefly his contemporary. Thus he was not exposed to the Greek and Latin classics; on the contrary, after leaving Linz in 1906, he studied mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, Berlin and two years later moved on to Manchester to further his studies in aeronautics. It was here in 1908 that Wittgenstein first read Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica and decided to go to Cambridge to study philosophy with Russell. The latter regularly referred to his new pupil as “my German engineer” (Monk 1990: 39), while Lytton Strachey, considering Wittgenstein for possible membership in the exclusive Apostles (a membership Wittgenstein later refused), sarcastically dubbed him “Herr Sinckel-Winckel” (Monk 1990: 48–49).Wittgenstein was to have numerous close friends, lovers, and disciples at Cambridge, both in the pre-War years, and after 1930, when he returned as a university don. But he remained always an outsider, aloof from Cambridge concerns and especially hostile to Bloomsbury, whose ethical and aesthetic values he found wholly alien. (Monk 1990: 255–57).

Then, too, Wittgenstein’s evolving aesthetic, in the Cambridge years, is difficult to expound because his highly eccentric personal tastes were by no means in accord with his aesthetic principles. The philosopher who regularly insisted that the beautiful could not be defined and that to call aesthetics a science was “ridiculous” – like being able “to tell us what sort of coffee tastes good!” (LA 1966: 11) – was quite ready, in his letters, notebooks, and conversations, to pronounce on a given work with strong conviction. The words großartig and herrlich appear again and again with reference to a Mozart symphony, a Mörike poem, or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Schubert’s Quintet in C Sharp is von phantastischer Großartigkeit (‘exhibits fantastic brilliance’), the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is unglaublich (‘unbelievable’), Mahler’s music, by contrast is nichts wert (‘worthless’), and Alfred Ehrenstein’s poetry ein Hundedreck (‘dog shit’).13

The excessive vehemence of these pronouncements is no doubt, at least in part, a function of class and nationality: as a member of one of the wealthiest, most elegant families of Vienna – a family inhabiting what was justly designated a palace – Wittgenstein no doubt felt entitled to an opinion, especially when it came to the performance of music. But he also knew that such personal and emotional opinions had no place in philosophical discourse, where, as Wittgenstein makes especially clear in his Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, in assessing a ‘primitive’ culture, a religious ritual, or an art form, one cannot explain a given practice (Gebrauch); “one can only describe and say this is what human life is like” (GB 1993: 121).

Wittgenstein’s critique of Shakespeare, fragmentary and diaristic as it was, belongs, at least at first glance, to his personal commentary: surely, he would not have published these sweeping and off-the-cuff remarks. At the same time, his malaise vis-à-vis Shakespeare was not merely idiosyncratic, as were so many of his literary judgments. Rather, I would posit, Wittgenstein’s mistrust was a function of his peculiar Germanic modernity, his lack of understanding for anything as remote as the English Renaissance, which had taken place four centuries earlier. Indeed, the history of English literature, as it evolved from Chaucer and Spenser to the twentieth century has no counterpart in the Viennese world. For whereas the English Renaissance from Shakespeare to Milton, including the great lyric poets and writers of devotional prose of the seventeenth century, is agreed to be an age of brilliant accomplishment, the Germany of the Renaissance, a mosaic of independent states, could boast of no internationally known author aside from Martin Luther. Indeed, to speak of the German ‘Classics’ as opposed to the British ones is to speak of the great figures of the later eighteenth century: Goethe and Schiller, to a lesser extent G. E. Lessing and J.G. von Herder. If the Golden Age of English Literature was understood by the British reading public to be the ‘Renaissance,’ for a German contemporary of Wittgenstein’s it would no doubt have been the Age of Goethe.14

It is difficult to believe that the term Classics can be so differently defined, but whereas for an English primary and secondary school student, the national classic is Shakespeare, for the German-speaking equivalent, as I can attest, the classics came into being a full two centuries later. Indeed, it was not till the 1830s, when August Schlegel began his great translation of the tragedies, that Shakespeare was introduced into the German-speaking world: the belatedness of this entry into the canon had the effect of producing a wave of bardolatry that was to know no bounds: Shakespeare was made over as the great Germanic Romantic hero. Even Adolf Hitler, a recent study of the Führer’s library has revealed, adored Shakespeare, preferring him to Goethe and Schiller (Ryback 2010: xi-xiii).

Perhaps it was the nineteenth-century German cult of Shakespeare as natural genius, a mysterious and anonymous creator, above and beyond the characters he had invented, that alienated Wittgenstein. “I think,” he wrote in 1950, “that in order to enjoy a poet one must also be fond of the culture to which he belongs. If it leaves you feeling indifferent or contrary, your admiration cools” (CV 1994: 96). Goethe, in contrast to Shakespeare, belonged to a modern age Wittgenstein could understand: in his historical or myth-based tragedies, from Götz von Berlichingen to Iphigenie to Faust, as in his novels from Werther to Die Wahlverwandschaften (Elective Affinities), and even in his botanical study The Metamorphosis of Plants (which Wittgenstein especially admired) – Goethe had an essentially lyric sensibility. However complex, ironic, or multivoiced a given Goethe text, the poet is always present in the work. When, for example, Wittgenstein cites Faust’s recognition (I, 3, l. 63) that “Am Anfang war die Tat” (‘In the beginning was the deed’), the implication is that the epiphany is not only Faust’s but that of Goethe himself, at his most resistant to Christianity. For Wittgenstein, poetry is understood as the expression of an individual and unique sensibility. From Goethe and Schiller to Trakl and Kraus, poets were seen as specially endowed individuals. The same holds true, for that matter, for German philosophers from Kant to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

It is in this German Romantic-Modernist context that we must understand Wittgenstein’s response to Shakespeare. The famous aphorism from the Tractatus “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (5.6), is, after all, a two-edged sword: on the one hand, it pinpoints Wittgenstein’s central conviction that there are no thoughts prior to their embodiment in language, that “language is not contiguous to anything else” (LWL 1980: 112). On the other, the reference is to ‘my’ world, to the personal reference of even the most commonly played and seemingly ubiquitous language game. And ‘my’ world, as Wittgenstein would have been the first to admit, was one of profound exile. Having made the decision to teach philosophy at Cambridge in 1929 when he was forty, Wittgenstein could never quite reconcile himself to English habits and customs and was soon finding ways of distancing himself from Cambridge life: the failed plan to become a worker in the Soviet Union (1935–36) was followed by less ambitious escapes to Norway, Wales, and, in his last years, to Ireland. “If you ever live amongst foreign people for any length of time,” he wrote his friend Frank Ramsay shortly after arriving in Cambridge in 1929, “& be dependent on them you will understand my difficulty” (CC 1995: 228). “In my room,” he wrote in his diary of 1930, “I feel not only alone but exiled [exiliert]” (Klagge 2011: 56). In April 1947, “Cambridge grows more hateful to me. The disintegrating and putrefying English civilization.” And a few months later, “I feel myself to be an alien [fremd / Fremdling] in the world” (Monk 1990: 516).

Such histrionic statements may be taken with a grain of salt: mercurial as Wittgenstein was, there were other moments when he felt great warmth for his Cambridge students and local friends. It was Wittgenstein, after all, who remarked in his 1916 diary, written during World War I, “that we cannot defeat England seems certain. The English – the best race in the world – cannot lose!” (Perloff 1996: 26). In 1940, at the height of the Blitzkrieg, Wittgenstein confided to his friend Drury that “despite my dislike of many features of English life, now that England is in real danger, I realize how fond I am of her” (Drury 1984: 159). And in 1951, having come back to Cambridge to spend his dying days at the home of his physician Dr. Edward Bevan, his last words to Mrs. Bevan, with whom he had struck up a great friendship, were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life” (Monk 1990: 579).

Teaching the ‘Differences’

It was towards the end of that ‘wonderful life’ that Wittgenstein came to Shakespeare. He had been familiar with the major plays from childhood on – they were staged by his siblings, especially Gretl and Rudi, at family theatricals at the Palais Wittgenstein (McGuinness 1988: 36) – but the first note on Shakespeare in the Nachlass coincides with the outbreak of World War II in 1939:

Shakespeare, one might say, shows the dance of human passions.
He must therefore be objective, otherwise he would not, after all, be showing the dance of human passions – but just talking about it. But he shows them [the passions] as a dance, not naturalistically. (CV 1994: 42)

This is a curious and seemingly contradictory statement. The phrase ‘dance of the human passions’ connotes formal structure and ritual – one thinks of W.B. Yeats’s repeated use of dance as an analogy for poetic structure. A dance play, moreover, would certainly be the antithesis of a ‘naturalistic’ drama – say, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which Yeats, for one, despised. But – and here’s the catch – naturalism is by definition the depiction of everyday reality, particularly the seamy side of life, recorded objectively – as it were, scientifically. As such, Naturalism as a late nineteenth-century literary movement was a reaction against Romantic idealization – against, for example, the intense subjectivity of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Naturalism went hand in hand with objectivity.

For Wittgenstein, however, the naturalistic or realistic is, curiously enough, related to the subjective, the personal. His own way of writing philosophy was, as he tells us in the Preface to the Philosophical Investigations, to produce “a series of remarks (Bemerkungen), short paragraphs, sometimes in longer chains dealing with the same subject, sometimes jumping, in quick change, from one area to another.” The pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ are ubiquitous in these ‘remarks,’ giving Wittgenstein’s questions and answers an intimate tone: the reader is, so to speak, overhearing a highly personal debate. And the “very nature of the investigation” … is “to force us to travel over a wide range of thoughts, criss-cross [kreuz und quer] in all directions,” producing no more than “a number of sketches,” arranged in what is, in the end, “just an album” (PI 2009: 3–4). In the words of Ezra Pound (Canto 116), Wittgenstein felt that he ‘couldn’t make it cohere.’

Such ‘subjective naturalism,’ arranged in paratactic units, may have be alien to the turn-of-the century novel, but it could be said to characterize most Modernist poetry from Pound and William Carlos Williams to Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, to Brecht and Trakl. In all these instances, the poet is very much in the poem, but the detail is realistic, even documentary in its particulars. Wittgenstein may have thought of himself as being on the side of the great ‘classical’ (read, Romantic) composers like Beethoven and Brahms (as opposed to the ‘worthless’ Mahler or the Schoenberg he simply ignored), but, consciously or not, he was himself a Modernist poet – an introspective realist. As such, Hamlet or Othello or Lear, with their larger-than-life characters presented without authorial intrusion by a creator who stands above and beyond the picture frame, must have seemed too remote to Wittgenstein. “I do not understand [Shakespeare],” he writes in 1946 (CV 1994: 56), and four years later, “I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.” Indeed, “in western culture at least, he stands alone, & so, one can only place him by placing him wrongly” (CV 1994: 95).

It is evidently the scale, both temporal and spatial, of Shakespearean drama that confounds Wittgenstein. Renaissance rhetoric, with its dense figuration (metaphor, conceit, hyperbole, catachresis, oxymoron, simile, and pun), and its repeated invocation of universals – ‘Hear, nature, hear!’ (Lear); ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly’ (Othello) – challenges Wittgenstein to play a language game he doesn’t quite comprehend. Consequently, he complains again and again that

It is not as though S. portrayed types of people well and were in that respect telling the truth. He is not true to life. But he has such a skilled hand & such an individual brushstroke, that each of his characters looks significant, worth looking at (CV 1994: 96).

Shakespeare is not true to life. Here again is the demand for realism coupled with the conviction that the poet should be present in his work, however indirectly or ironically. “Beethoven’s great heart –” remarks Wittgenstein, “no one could say ‚Shakespeare’s great heart.’” (CV 1994: 96). From the perspective of a Modernist writer, this makes good sense. Shakespeare’s plays transcend the personality of their maker, about whom we know almost nothing, and whose greatness is precisely the ability to get inside an astonishingly varied cast of characters, male and female, young and old, princes and clowns – Shylock and Portia, Romeo and Mercutio, Ariel and Caliban. Beethoven, on the other hand, was a figure of human dimensions: his biography was known in great detail and could be related step by step to his string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies. His deafness – so terrible a condition for a composer – his various illnesses, his romantic attachments, his response to the events of the day, all these have been closely studied, and Beethoven’s own conversation books reveal his daily life. As in the case of Goethe, life and art seem fully intertwined.

Shakespeare the poet, on the other hand, remains wholly elusive. When Wittgenstein declared “I don’t think that Shakespeare can be compared to any other poet” (1950; CV 1994: 95), he meant that in their range and depth, the plays far exceed the conceivable parameters of authorship: rather the poet “sings as a bird sings” (CV 1994: 96). In fact, of course, Shakespeare can and has been compared to his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries from Thomas Kyd to Thomas Middleton, but since Wittgenstein had no knowledge of these dramatists, he could only think in terms of his own tradition and here he found no parallels.

And yet in these, the last years of his life – the years of preparing for publication the Philosophical Investigations and producing the remarks collected posthumously in Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology and On Certainty – Wittgenstein also revealed a different side. In a conversation with his former student and close friend M. O’C. Drury, for example, he responded to a query about Hegel:

Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things which look different are really the same. Whereas my interest is showing that things which look the same are really different.’ I was thinking of using as a motto for my book a quotation from King Lear: ‘I’ll teach you differences”.’15

The line in question is found in Act I, 4 of Lear, when the disguised Kent comes to his former king’s aid by sending Goneril’s insolent steward Oswald packing (ll. 99–102):

‘Come, sir, arise, away! I’ll teach you differences: away, away! If you will measure your lubber’s length again, tarry: but away! Go to; have you wisdom? So. [Pushes Oswald out.]

The differences to which Kent refers are of course ones of rank: Oswald has willfully ignored the unbridgeable difference between his own ‘lubber’s [grasshopper’s] length’ and the ‘authority’ of the king. Such social stratification is not the issue in the Investigations, but it is also the case that it is difference (between Lear and his daughters, between Cordelia and her sisters, between Lear and Gloucester, Edmund and Edward, Kent and the Fool) that sets the tragedy in motion, beginning with the very first line of the play, in which Kent says to Gloucester, ‘I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ In assessing his own sons-in-law, Lear displays a failure in discrimination that, with respect to language, is a major theme of the Investigations.

Would Kent’s speech then have served as an appropriate epigraph? Yes, because the Investigations is, on its own terms, devoted to the ‘teach[ing] of differences.’16 “But isn’t the same at least the same?” Wittgenstein asks rhetorically in the Investigations, § 215. The answer is no: repeat the phrase just once and it is already part of a different language game. ‘I will teach you differences,’ also serves as a caution to avoid generalization. Leavis, we recall, was convinced that Wittgenstein, being a philosopher and a foreign one at that, could not know anything about poetry. But Leavis himself tells a remarkable tale about his and Wittgenstein’s mutual colleague, the young poet-critic William Empson. It seems that Wittgenstein once asked Leavis to explain the Empson poem ‘Legal Fictions.’ Leavis was reluctant to do so, remarking that Wittgenstein, who was not familiar with Empson’s master John Donne, could not possibly understand it. But when Leavis made a few preliminary remarks, Wittgenstein evidently interrupted him:

’It’s perfectly plain that you don’t understand the poem in the least,’ he said. ‘Give me the book.’ I complied and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me. (Leavis 1983: 145)

A similar case can be made with regard to Wittgenstein’s reading of Shakespeare. “Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?” asks Wittgenstein in a 1950 note that has often been cited by Wittgenstein’s critics as an example of his obtuseness. But what does the distinction really mean? Consider Wittgenstein’s rumination about the structure of dream in Shakespeare:

Shakespeare & the dream. A dream is quite false, absurd, cobbled together from different sources, & yet completely true: it makes, in its unique assemblage, a distinct impression. Why? I don’t know. If Shakespeare is as great as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it’s all false, it makes no sense – & yet it’s all true according to its own laws. 
One could also say: if Shakespeare is great, he can only be so in the entire corpus of his dramas, which create their own language and their own world. For he is entirely unrealistic (like a dream). (CV 1994: 89)

This profound comment, recorded in 1949, can be glossed by one made just a year earlier (also reproduced in Culture and Value) on the Freudian analysis of dreams. We know that, although Wittgenstein admired Freud and had read The Interpretation of Dreams carefully, he came to object to Freud’s translation of the dream-work into a coherent narrative, an explanatory narrative that makes sense of all the particulars:17

In Freudian analysis the dream is so to speak dismantled. It loses its original meaning completely. You might think of it as a play performed in the theatre, with a plot that is sometimes fairly incomprehensible, or at least apparently so, & as though this plot were then torn into pieces & each part given a completely different meaning. You could also think of it like this: a picture is drawn on a big sheet of paper & the sheet is then folded in such a way that pieces which do not belong together at all in the original picture collide in appearance & a new picture, which may or may not make sense, is created (this would be the manifest dream, the first picture the ‘latent dream thought.’) (CV 1994: 78)

Such rationalization, Wittgenstein posits, is always reductive. Indeed, “What is intriguing about a dream is not its causal connection with events in my life, etc., but rather the impression it gives of being a fragment of a story – a very vivid fragment to be sure – the rest of which remains obscure. … the dream story has a charm of its own, like a painting that attracts and inspires us.”18

Now let us reconsider what Wittgenstein says about Shakespeare and dream. A dream is a “unique combination; it makes an impression,” but we don’t know why. Indeed, it may be “quite false, absurd, assembled from various sources,” but it is, in Wittgenstein’s words, “true according to its own laws.” (CV 1994: 78). Just so, Shakespeare’s dramas ‘create’ their own language and their own world; they are true according to their own laws. The demand for realism, which Wittgenstein took very seriously can, in the case of someone as great as Shakespeare, be set aside in favor of the invention of a language.

In a passage from the Conversations on Freud, recorded by Rush Rhees between 1942–46, Wittgenstein spells out what he means by such invention:

Suppose we were to regard dream as a kind of game. … There might be a game in which paper figures were put together to form a story, or at any rate were somehow assembled. The materials might be collected and sorted in a scrapbook full of pictures and anecdotes. The child might then take various bits from the scrapbook to put into the construction; and he might take a considerable picture because it had something in it which he wanted and he might include the rest because it was there. (LA 1966: 49–50).

This description of the dreamwork as language game immediately recalls Wittgenstein’s account of his own book, the Philosophical Investigations as a kind of scrapbook or ‘album’ – a chain of remarks “travelling criss-cross in every direction over a wide field of thought” (PI 2009: 3). He further refers to his remarks as “a number of sketches of landscapes,” recalling the very phrasing he uses with reference to Shakespeare in the last entry of 1950: “It seems to me that his plays are like enormous sketches, not paintings; they are dashed off by one who could, so to speak, permit himself everything” (1950, CV 1994: 98).

Critics have assumed that this comment denigrates Shakespeare – that Wittgenstein takes the Bard to be not quite a Poet, only an “inventor of language.” And indeed, no sooner has Wittgenstein declared that Shakespeare’s plays “are like enormous sketches,” than he feels compelled to add, “I understand how one can admire this & call it the highest art, but I don’t like it” (CV 1994: 98).

But then, Wittgenstein didn’t much like his own writing either. The Preface to the Investigations denigrates his own “sketches” as “unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into … a whole” (PI 2009: 3). “The best that I could write,” he notes apologetically “would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon paralyzed when I tried to force them in one direction against their natural inclination.” Wittgenstein’s self-criticism here echoes his criticism of Shakespeare. But why should that surprise us? It was Wittgenstein, after all, who held that philosophy should really be written only as a form of poetry. And poetry by definition avoids logical linear structure.

Shakespeare, let us conclude, was not a congenial poet for Wittgenstein in the sense that the great German lyric poets and playwrights were congenial. Both geography (the distance between England and the German-speaking world) and history (the distance between the Renaissance and the German “classical” age) mitigated against such congeniality. The irony is that despite this gulf, the “asymmetries” of Shakespeare’s “dreamwork” (CV 1994: 98) became a model for Wittgenstein’s own writing, showing him the way to conduct his own practice of “teach[ing] us differences.” Wittgenstein may not have ‘liked’ Shakespeare, but, in the end, he had come to regard the master’s great plays as inextricable from his own dreams.

Marjorie Perloff teaches courses and writes on twentieth and now twenty-first century poetry and poetics, both Anglo-American and from a Comparatist perspective, as well as on intermedia and the visual arts. She is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University and Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California.  She is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.


Bloom, Harold: Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, New York 1998.
Bouveresse, Jacques: Wittgenstein Reads Freud: the Myth of the Unconscious, trans. Carol Cosman, Princeton 1995.
Drury, M. O’C: Conversations with Wittgenstein (1984), in: Rhees 1984.
Harrison, Robert / Orgel, Stephen, On Shakespeare, in: Entitled Opinions, KZSU, Stanford, January 19, 2010 (‘entitled opinions’).
Klagge, James C.: Wittgenstein in Exile, Cambridge/London 2011.
Leavis, Frank Raymond: Memories of Wittgenstein, in: The Critic as Anti-Philosopher: Essays & Papers, ed. G. Singh, Athens, Georgia 1983.
McGuiness, Brian: Wittgenstein: A Life. Young Ludwig (1889–1921), Berkeley 1988.
Monk, Ray: Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius, New York 1990.
Perloff, Marjorie: Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, Chicago 1996.
–: But isn’t the same at least the same?’, in: The Literary Wittgenstein, ed. John Gibson and Wolfgang Huemer, London/New York 2004.
–: Writing Philosophy as Poetry: Literary Form in Wittgenstein, in: The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein, ed. Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn, Oxford 2011.
–: The Madness of the Unexpected: Contextualizing Duchamp’s Readymades, ‘Perloff’; 2012
–: Towards Conceptualism: The Aesthetic of Kringelbuch #52, in: Kulturen & Werte, ed. Josef Rothhaupt, Berlin/Boston 2013.
Rhees, Rush: Recollections of Wittgenstein, Oxford 1984.
Ryback, Timothy: Hitler’s Private Library, New York 2010.
Steiner, George: A Reading Against Shakespeare, in: Steiner, George: No Passion Spent: Essays 1978–1996, London 1996.
Stewart, Stanley: Shakespeare and Philosophy, New York 2010.

1 CV 1994: 96, 98. All references are to second bilingual edition, 1994, with facing pages of the German and English (e) text. But because Peter Winch’s 1977 translation is, to my mind, quite problematic, I have found it necessary sometimes to retranslate the German. Therefore, although the page references throughout this essay are those of CV, the wording may be somewhat different.

2 Altogether, there are seven manuscript entries on Shakespeare collected in CV 1994, all of them composed relatively late in Wittgenstein’s career. The first dates from 1939, two from 1946, the remainder, including the two above, from 1949–50. The notes range in length from a short paragraph to two pages; further scattered remarks are found in Wittgenstein’s letters or published conversations, but the total corpus is quite small.

3 Leavis 1983: 144. Cf. Harold Bloom’s suggestion that, if Wittgenstein had been better informed about Shakespeare, he wouldn’t have made his ill-advised and ‘annoyed’ comments on the transcendent ‘inventor of the human’ (Bloom 1998: 12).

4 Harrison/Orgel 2010.

5 Wittgenstein, CV 1994: 28; “Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten,” and cf. Perloff 1996, 51–80; 2004: 37–38; 2011, chapter 31, passim.

6 See LW 1980: 35; PI 2009: 123, my italics.

7 Z 1967: 160.

8 CV 1994: 6. The passage in question is a key item in the soon-to-be published Wittgenstein’s Kringel-Buch, the compendium presented and edited by Josef Rothhaupt, collecting and annotating those notebook entries marked by Wittgenstein with a marginal Kringel (crossed circle), and that may, so Rothhaupt believes, constitute a book of literary/cultural remarks Wittgenstein intended to publish. See Perloff 2011, passim.

9 I treat this issue at greater length in Perloff 2012 and Perloff 2013.

10 “It may of course be,” Leavis admits, “that in German the range and quality of his literary culture was more impressive, but I can’t give any great weight to that possibility” (Leavis 1983: 144). But Leavis was wrong about Wittgenstein’s ignorance of English literature as well: in his Conversations with Wittgenstein, for example, M. O’C. Drury, for example, Wittgenstein cites Tristam Shandy (Drury 1984: 148), Samuel Johnson (Drury 1984: 109, 129), William Blake and William Cowper (Drury 1984: 164–65), James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Drury 1984: 144).

11 In a 1948 notebook entry, for example, Wittgenstein writes, “Genius is talent in which character makes itself heard. For that reason, I would like to say, Kraus has talent, an extraordinary talent, but not genius” (CV 1994: 75).

12 For an account of this failed meeting, see Monk 1990: 119–20.

13 See Wittgenstein, CB 1980: 222, 22, 47, 48, 78 and CV 1994: 76. Cf. Perloff 2004: 38–39.

14 Goethe’s dates are 1749–1832. In Italy, the great literary period dates from the fourteenth century (Dante and Petrarch) through Renaissance Humanism, with marked decline setting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The situation of France, on the other hand, resembles England’s. There is continuity from the Roman de la Rose of the early thirteenth century to the present, with the proviso that France’s so-called ‘classics’ date from the seventeenth rather than the sixteenth century.

15 Drury 1984: 157. Lear seems, in any case, to be the exception to Wittgenstein’s dismissal of Shakespeare. In 1930, he attended a performance of Lear by the Cambridge University amateur dramatic society. He told Drury, “You should not have missed seeing this; it was a most moving experience. You need young players to perform this play: they can put the necessary passion in it. Coming away from the theatre I was so absorbed by what I had heard that in crossing over the street I was nearly run over by a taxi” (Drury 1984: 133).

16 For a somewhat different reading, see Stewart 2010: 174: “My guess would be that Wittgenstein understood Kent’s meaning very well but chose to ignore the significance of the remark. Wittgenstein brushed aside the cultural importance of social rank that functions so powerfully in King Lear.”

17 See Bouveresse 1995, chapter 3 passim.

18 CV 1994: 78–79. My translation here is a composite of Peter Winch’s and Carol Cosman’s excellent translation of the passage in Bouveresse 1995: 119–20.

Schubert manuscripts and ‘acts of piety’: sourcing a Wittgenstein anecdote

by Sebastian Smallshaw

Music didn’t dominate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thinking to the extent it did Theodor Adorno’s, but it was a significant preoccupation, and music appears persistently in Wittgenstein’s writings and correspondence as the subject of observations, aphorisms and analogies. One such musical reference, which Wittgenstein parenthesizes in his Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough , alludes to an obscure episode in the ownership history of Schubert’s manuscript fragments:

‘Recall that after Schubert’s death his brother cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favourite pupils. This act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable to us as keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert’s brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as an act of piety.’

The Wittgenstein biographer Ray Monk asked me via Radmila Schweitzer, the General Secretary of the Wittgenstein Initiative, if this story was true, and where Wittgenstein might have heard it. A few recent studies have addressed Wittgenstein and matters of music – James K. Wright’s Schoenberg, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle and Katrin Eggers’ Ludwig Wittgenstein als Musikphilosoph are two book-length examples – but nowhere does it seem that a source for this Schubert remark, minor footnote that it might be, has been proposed. As it happens, a trail that plausibly led Wittgenstein to this story can be pieced together without much difficulty.

The image above shows an autograph fragment of the song ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (D 531), one of Schubert’s most recognized Lieder, cut up exactly how Wittgenstein describes. The revised German edition of O. E. Deutsch’s catalogue of Schubert’s works offers the following information: ‘According to a note by E. Mandyczewski dated 15/6/1917, the autograph page had been cut up by Schubert’s half-brother Pater Hermann Schubert, whose initials appear on the original recto side, in order to give [the pieces] to some of his students as awards.’1)  Hermann was the ordained name of Anton Eduard Schubert (1826-1892), a popular Benedictine priest.

Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929) came to Vienna aged 18 from the eastern periphery of the Austro-Hungarian empire, studied music history at the Vienna Conservatory with illustrious names including Eduard Hanslick and Martin Gustav Nottebohm, and made his mark as a musician and scholar before being appointed archivist of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1887, a post he held until his death. D 531 was not the only fragment which came his way via Schubert’s relatives: in 1907 he prepared (for first publication) two song settings of Goethe, ‘Jägers Abendlied’ (D 215) and ‘Meeres Stille’ (D 216), for which autographs were presented to him by Anna Siegmund, the daughter of another half-brother of the composer, Andreas Schubert (1823-1893).

As the curator of Johannes Brahms’s estate, which remains to this day in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde archive, Mandyczewski was close to Brahms and is named in Max Kalbeck’s biography as one of the guests Brahms brought along to musical evenings at the palatial Wittgenstein residence on Vienna’s Alleegasse 2).  Mandyczewski must have established some rapport with the family on such occasions, and so much is suggested in a Wittgenstein-related letter written in 1913, some years after Brahms’s death, by the music theorist Heinrich Schenker 3).  At this time Schenker was in the middle of editing the last five piano sonatas of Beethoven, and due to his methodical working style (this Beethoven edition would become a major event in music editing) required multiple visits to the Wittgenstein house, which housed the autograph manuscript to one of the sonatas. In this 1913 letter to his publisher, Schenker writes vividly about his Alleegasse visits, getting rather grouchy in characteristic Viennese style about how fiercely the manuscript was guarded. Implied is that the Wittgenstein matriarch Leopoldine (fn. 11) would only allow supervised access, and on one of Schenker’s return visits he was overseen by Paul Wittgenstein. But on Schenker’s first visit the supervisor had been Mandyczewski, supplying not only specific manuscript-related business Mandyczewski had in the Alleegasse but also indicating he had the Wittgensteins’ presumably hard-earned trust in these matters.

Besides placing Mandyczewski among the Wittgensteins, sources also reveal that he mentioned his dealings with Schubert’s family and their keepsakes when in social company. That Mandyczewski actually told the story of the Schubert fragments to Brahms himself is documented quite satisfactorily in the foreword to the published correspondence between Brahms and the eminent surgeon Theodor Billroth 4).  Here, Otto Gottlieb-Billroth (Billroth’s son-in-law) addresses the key incidents which put strain on the close friendship between the two men, one of which was what Billroth did to honour Brahms’s dedication and gifting of the manuscript to the A minor string quartet (op. 52/II), which involved cutting out a fragment of handwriting from the title page and affixing it to a Brahms portrait which hung in his study. To Brahms, who cherished manuscript scores, it was vandalism, a viewpoint not shared by Billroth, who dismissed autograph collecting as ‘fetishism’. Gottlieb-Billroth proceeds: ‘Much later (in conversation about a Schubert manuscript, which Schubert’s brother had cut into pieces and distributed to various people as souvenirs) Brahms commented quite heatedly to Mandyczewski: “Now just think, Billroth also cut up my quartet, can you imagine! And yet must have known that I’m so fond of him that I’d copy out the entire quartet again if he so wished! And snip a piece out of that!”

Wittgenstein’s version of the story has taken on a life of its own and become far more discussed by philosophers than the source has been by Schubert scholars, and of course what Wittgenstein reads into it, with his observation about the instinctive intelligibility of ritual acts, is a different kind of insight to the textual commentary which goes into critical editions. The most interesting thing about tracing Wittgenstein’s source in this way is perhaps for the example it provides of the privileged social and cultural context – what Allan Janik writes of in these pages as Vienna’s ‘second society’ – from where his patchwork musical knowledge came.

Sebastian Smallshaw studied music at Cambridge University and lives and works in Vienna.

1)In the original German: ‘Das autographe Blatt hat nach einer Notiz E. Mandyczewskis vom 15.6.1917 bereits Schuberts Halbbruder Pater Hermann Schubert, dessen Initialen auf der ursprünglichen Vorderseiten stehen, zerschnitten, um sie einzelnen seiner Schüler als Auszeichnung zu schenken‘. Deutsch, O. E. (1978). Franz Schubert. Thematisches Verzeichnis seiner Werke in chronologischer Folge. Kassel: Bärenreiter, p.310.

2)Kalbeck, M. (1915). Johannes Brahms. Band 4. Berlin: Deutsche Brahms-Gesellschaft, p.507.

3)Handwritten letter from Heinrich Schenker to Emil Hertzka, dated 19th July 1913. Transcribed by Ian Bent on the Schenker Correspondence Project website, 2008: http://mt.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/schenker/correspondence/letter/wslb_167_7-19-13.html.

4)In the original German: ‘Noch viel später (im Gespräch über ein Schubert-Manuskript, das der Bruder Schuberts in Zettelchen zerschnitten und so an verschiedene Leute als Andenken verteilt hatte) äußerte sich Brahms ganz aufgeregt zu Mandyczewski: „Nu, denken Sie nur, auch Billroth hat mein Quartett zerschnitten, denken Sie! Und mußte doch wissen, daß ich ihn so lieb habe, daß ich ihm, wenn ich ihm damit einen Wunsch erfülle, auch das ganze Quartett noch einmal abschreibe! Und schneidet da ein Stück heraus!“’ Gottlieb-Billroth, O. ed. (1935). Billroth und Brahms im Briefwechsel. Berlin: Urban & Schwarzenberg, p.28.

a bit of pitch on the Wittgenstein Initiative

by Peter Winslow

The Wittgenstein Initiative is a Vienna-based independent non-profit with a mission as ambitious as it is important. The Wittgenstein Initiative aims to harness the originality of quintessentially Viennese thinkers whose visions were proffered in the hope of effecting real change in the world. One of these thinkers is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the namesake of the Initiative. Others include Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich von Hayek, and Arnold Schönberg. And it is in the spirit of these thinkers and cultural change-makers that the Wittgenstein Initiative is seeking to move us towards re-conceptualizing and re-experiencing our engagement with the world through art and thought (see its Vision & Mission).

read more

About Friedrich August von Hayek: 5. März 2015

A short account of his key ideas, their origin and development
Kurt R. Leube (Hoover Institution, Stanford University)

in deutscher Sprache / in German
Thursday, 5 March 2015, 19:00-20:30
Bulgarian Cultural Institute Haus Wittgenstein

Parkgasse 18, 1030 Vienna

Entrance donation: € 12 normal / € 10 students and members of the Wittgenstein Initiative

“It is one of the peculiar ironies of history that there are no limits to the misunderstanding and distortion of theories, even in an age when there is unlimited access to the sources.”
Erich Fromm (1961)

It seems that especially social philosophy and economics, more than other fields in the social sciences, are subject to recurrent superstitions, popular fads and very powerful suspicions. The frequent misreading and just as cyclical, the thinly veiled opportunistic appreciation of Friedrich A. von Hayek’s work is a case in point. However, Hayek’s path breaking theories are neither suspicious nor dangerous, let alone anti-social. They are only complex and decisive and his methodological approach is unique and fundamental.
An adequate treatment of his theories within the given time constraints will unavoidably remain superficial and could easily sound like a pretension. And yet, an attempt will be made to shed some light on a few momentous events that played a role in Hayek’s intellectual development and shaped his methodology and theories.

Kurt R. Leube is Professor Emeritus and Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University (USA); Academic Director, ECAEF, Vaduz (Principality of Liechtenstein).

Infos and Tickets Reservation:
Tel: +43 1 952 12 17

An Exercise in Enlightenment: Why is the Wittgenstein Family of Interest to Us?

by Allan Janik

Answering this question involves reflecting upon the broader goals of the Initiative’s project. Our central interests involve casting light upon the crises and conflicts that are typical of the hugely complex nature of the problems in a globalized world. We seek to develop holistic perspectives on the issues that in one way or another tend to overwhelm citizens in democratic societies today. Ours is thus an exercise in enlightenment.

Vienna 1900, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, is particularly important to this project because the critical approach to modernity that developed around figures like Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil, to name just a few, has lost none of its relevance over the last hundred years. Indeed, the concept of reflective, self-critical Bildung that they advocated has become more important (and, if anything, rarer) in the meanwhile.

The culture of enlightenment that was part and parcel of Wittgenstein’s Vienna had a social and material basis that is an essential part of the story. This is where the family enters the picture. Focus on the Wittgenstein family should help us to get hold of a presupposition of cultural growth on the basis of Besitz und Bildung. This often cited but scarcely understood phrase refers the idea that self-realization through the accumulation of wealth carried social responsibility with it.

The Wittgensteins were, for all their uniqueness, typical representatives of Vienna’s “second society”, the elite, moneyed haute bourgeoisie, that formed a highly self-conscious oligarchy in Habsburg Vienna. This group was made up of some 200 financially interlocked and to a great extent socially intermarried families. Indeed, our modern conception of the nuclear family: father, mother, children and the immediate small circle of related siblings is misleading as a basis of comparison. We have to make an effort to understand the Family as the Viennese “second society” once did.

The upper middle class family, then, was a broadly related group of frequently multiply interrelated families, a family of families as it were. Thus the Wittgensteins were connected with the Franz family (leaders of the Protestant community) through more than one marriage. The same is true of their relationships with the Salzer family (one Salzer much concerned with his family was surprised earlier this year to realize that there was more than one Salzer connection in the Wittgenstein family). In referring to the Anglo-Jewish gentry this large scale agglomeration of relationships is sometimes referred to as a “cousinhood” (we also need to say something about the peculiarities of its Jewishness below). The term is appropriate here. It is the cousinhood that is interesting to the Wittgenstein Initiative in the plurality of its cultural achievements and not merely its individual members.

Surely Ludwig, Paul, and Gretl are extraordinary figures pure and simple but as we look to the cousinhood such figures seem to be everywhere. In order to see that we have to go back in time two generations to Jewish emancipation (such as it was in 1848).

Granddad Hermann Christian Wittgenstein was anything but a parvenu. He was born into the European Jewish elite, the so-called Hofjuden, who had financed Christian monarchs from time immemorial, in the way that the more famous Rothschilds and Montefiores had done. When he came to Vienna shortly after freedom of movement was permitted in the monarchy in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions, his circle of friends was positively extraordinary – far beyond anything his son Karl would achieve. It included the dramatist, Friedrich Hebbel, the astronomer Carl Ludwig von Littrow, the physiologist Ernst von Brücke and the philosopher-philologist, Hermann Bonitz. Little wonder that he would marry Fanny Figdor, daughter of one of Central Europe’s biggest bankers. She would befriend her cousin Joseph Joachim and his colleague Johannes Brahms would practically become part of the family too. One of Fanny’ sisters, Emelie, would marry Michael Hainisch, later president of Austria. Two other Figdors would also place their unmistakable stamp on Viennese culture: Albert, who was one of the most monumental and systematic art collectors who ever lived and Wilhelm, who would found the Vienna Vivarium, one of the first centers for biological research worldwide. When Karl Wittgenstein ceased playing the Prodigal Son, he married Leopoldine Kalmus, whose accomplishments as a pianist and deep concern for musical culture made her salon into the center of Viennese musical life. Leopoldine’s “cousins” Edwin and Alfred Kalmus became among the most prominent music publishers of their generation. The examples could be multiplied again and again.

The question of the Jewishness of the Wittgensteins – and the other families of the grand bourgeoisie – is one which inevitably comes up in discussion today (see Steven Beller’s classical study Vienna and the Jews 1867-1938). It is not easy to answer and many people are unhappy at the lack of clarity in this complex issue. Most people in this social strata had long ceased to practice Judaism by the turn of the century, if not long earlier. Many had become Protestants; some Catholic. One of the most prominent “assimilated” Jews Lazar Auspitz summed up their attitude as well as it can be: Judaism was “un pieux souvenir de famille.” These people were descendants of the followers of Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, for which science and culture came to replace religion. They did not see themselves as Jews and were even occasionally capable of producing hostile critique of traditional encrusted “unenlightened” Jews. Little wonder that the first reaction of Hermine Wittgenstein and Helene Wittgenstein-Salzer at being told that they were subject to the Nuremberg Laws was dismay.

Be that as it may, what is important for the Wittgenstein Initiative is how the values of the Enlightenment came to pervade this cousinhood and in doing so helped to form our culture.

Prof. Dr. Allan Janik is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History and Philosophy at the universities of Vienna and Innsbruck and the Royal Instituten of Technology in Stockholm. He specializes in the cultural history of modern Austria and in philosophy. Together with Stephen Toulmin, he wrote Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973).

Allusions and Quotes in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Writings


Kuppitsch Logo

Dr. Knut Olav Åmås (Fritt Ord Foundation Oslo)
Dr. Hans Biesenbach (Author, Münster im Oberhessen)
Prof. Dr. Allan Janik (Brenner Archive Innsbruck)
Tsonka Kazakova (St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia)
Prof. Dr. Alois Pichler (Wittgenstein Archives, University of Bergen)
Doz. Dr. Todor Polimenov (St. Kliment Ohridski University Sofia)

27 November 2014
BKI Haus Wittgenstein Vienna

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Great War and the Unsayable

Ludwig Wittgenstein enlisted into the Austrian army in 1914, hoping that the experience of facing death would have a profound effect on his character. His hopes were realised. The Wittgenstein that returned home in 1919 was a different man to the one who had enlisted in 1914.

The change extended also to his philosophy. He had, as Bertrand Russell put it, transformed into a ‘complete mystic’. This mysticism appears in his book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the last few pages, in which he emphasises the importance of ‘the unsayable’.

This talk explored Wittgenstein’s notion of the unsayable and tried to place it in context, both in terms of the rest of his philosophical thinking and in terms of his life and its historical and cultural background.
Ray Monk
Ray Monk is a British philosopher and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, where he has taught since 1992. He won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the 1991 Duff Cooper Prize for Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Monk is also author of Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude & The Ghost of Madness. His interests lie in the philosophy of mathematics, the history of analytic philosophy, and philosophical aspects of biographical writing. His biography of Robert Oppenheimer was published in 2012.
Bethany Bell
Bethany Bell has worked as a BBC Foreign Correspondent since 2001. Based in Vienna, she has reported for the BBC in over 25 countries, in Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

Date: Tuesday, 11 November 2014
Start: 19:00
Ending appr.: 20:30
Location: Theatersaal, Austrian Academy of Sciences, 1010 Vienna