How Queer Was Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Once, he had hoped to X-ray language and expose the concealed solidities of meaning and logic; now he’s after the significance of surfaces—he wants to explore how ordinary language is used in ordinary settings. The results of his inquiries don’t lend themselves to a slim volume, and he does not manage to finish another book in his lifetime. He dies in 1951, at the age of sixty-two, of prostate cancer, leaving behind dozens of reverent students and many thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts.

Those, at any rate, are the basic facts of Wittgenstein’s life. For a sense of what he was like, one must turn to the anecdotes. These provide a sense of the man’s presence, with his flannel shirts, leather jackets, and tweed caps, his ringing tenor voice. They also provide a sense of the surrounds—the spartan rooms with their canvas chairs and iron stove—where he put on his terrifying performances of thought.

The American philosopher Norman Malcolm, who was a student of Wittgenstein’s, writes of the “frequent and prolonged periods of silence” in his classes, of how sometimes, “when he was trying to draw a thought out of himself, he would prohibit, with a peremptory motion of the hand, any questions or remarks.” Malcolm goes on, “His gaze was concentrated; his face was alive; his hands made arresting movements; his expression was stern. One knew that one was in the presence of extreme seriousness, absorption, and force of intellect. . . . Wittgenstein was a frightening person at these classes. He was very impatient and easily angered.”

Many things angered him: someone failing to tend to one of his houseplants, a student unable to formulate a thought. (“I might as well talk to this stove!”) But he could sustain the intensity for only so long. A couple of hours of that, and he would be ready for an excursion to the “flicks.”

He loathed British films and generally insisted on American ones, being a particular fan of Carmen Miranda. (He was also a devotee of the pulpy murder mysteries served up in the magazine Detective Story.) He would sit in the front row so that he could see nothing but the screen—perhaps fearing memories of the draining lecture. Woe betide any companion who tried to talk to him. There was only the movie on the screen, and Wittgenstein, rapt in his seat, munching on a cold pork pie.

Of the students who still turn up every year for introductory courses on Wittgenstein, some of them are there for the genius logician, the inspiration behind both something called “logical positivism” and something opposed to it, called “ordinary-language philosophy.” But other students are there for Wittgenstein the sage, the magus, the riddler—the man who left Russell bewildered by a turn to mysticism at the end of a book that was supposed to be about logic.

The book in question, the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” carries the impress of both Wittgensteins. The work was composed during a period of military leave in the summer of 1918, out of those notebooks. It was published in 1921 in German, and in English the following year. Whether anyone at the time or since has understood it fully remains an open question.

One of the few things it’s safe to say about the “Tractatus” is that it is concerned with the line between the effable and the ineffable. What, if anything, lies beyond language? Some of Wittgenstein’s early readers—the so-called logical positivists of interwar Vienna—saw in him a kindred spirit, someone drawing the “limits of sense,” as they did, around the propositions of natural science. Almost everybody rejects that interpretation of the “Tractatus” now, but without agreeing on another.

It’s hard to know what to make of a book that begins with “The world is everything that is the case” and ends with “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The numbering of propositions (from 1 to 7, with innumerable nested propositions—5.251 and so forth), the use of symbols and of a special idiolect, all suggest the kind of work one must be a mathematician to understand. But then we come up against lines—allusive, enigmatic—that would not be out of place in a piece of modernist poetry. A queer book, then, by a queer man.

The queerest thing of all about the “Tractatus” is its notorious proposition 6.54, near the end of the text, which states, of his propositions, “he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.” The reader must “surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” The lines have inspired a lively debate on how Wittgenstein wanted his book to be read, and on how seriously this remark itself is to be taken. But it has been recognized as significant that Wittgenstein referred to “understanding me,” rather than to “understanding my propositions.”

Clever students can eventually make sense of the logic and turn out elegant little essays about the “picture theory of meaning,” “logical atomism,” and “the saying/showing distinction.” But cleverness seems the wrong virtue to employ for understanding a man who tells us, mysteriously, that the “world of the happy man is quite another than that of the unhappy man” (6.43). Or that “he lives eternally who lives in the present” (6.4311). Taken out of context, the seeming mysticism comes perilously close to kitsch. Some clever people (starting with Russell) have concluded that we’d do well not to bother with it.

But others see in those remarks a call to a virtue rarer than cleverness. A virtue that could be described as depth. Wittgenstein, Malcolm recalled, likened philosophical thinking to swimming: “Just as one’s body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom—so it is with thinking.” Whatever depth is, Wittgenstein is one of a small number of philosophers of the twentieth-century canon to have some claim to it. That is the real basis for his place in the canon, and it manifests itself in the voice of the “Tractatus,” which can lurch without warning from the technical to the confessional. That unprecedented mixing of registers is another aspect of the text’s queerness. The challenge of understanding the “Tractatus” is not, then, easily severable from the challenge of understanding the man who wrote it.

The interpretative industry around Wittgenstein has not been short of material. The bootlegs (samizdat copies of lecture notes, coded notebooks, correspondence) would fill the shelves of a small library. Even now, after his hold over his discipline has loosened—few people walk around calling themselves Wittgensteinians—his life and personality continue to provide fertile ground for speculation.

Yet the surfeit of material makes the task, if anything, harder. Wittgenstein appears to have written, and lived, in a manner booby-trapped against interpreters. Elizabeth Anscombe, a translator of much of his later work and the most brilliant of his devoted followers, maintained that what made Wittgenstein’s thought so hard to interpret was that “he was constantly enquiring.” His philosophy was never “a finished thing.”

The formidable challenge of making sense of the things that Wittgenstein said has not been made any easier by the periodic announcement of the discovery of yet another trove of previously little-known materials. The newest volume, from what seems like a growing Nachlass, is an edition of Wittgenstein’s surviving notebooks from the first half of the First World War, “Private Notebooks: 1914-1916” (Liveright). The pages on the right (recto) contained remarks that are clearly an embryonic form of the “Tractatus.” Those pages have been widely available, with Anscombe’s English translation, since 1961, and scholars of the “Tractatus” have made extensive use of them. The pages on the left (verso) were written in a cipher.

Committed Wittgensteinians have had access to the full notebooks for some time now. German readers have known them under the somewhat tendentious title “Geheime Tagebücher” (“Secret Diaries”), since the embattled publication of that volume, in 1991. Marjorie Perloff, the editor and translator of this new edition, the first to contain a facing-page English translation, points out that the verso text was not especially secret. After all, the cipher that Wittgenstein employed was both basic and known to his siblings, who used it as children (z is a, y is b, etc.).

Why has it taken so long for there to be a widely available edition? Answering this question involves delving into the motivations of a large and colorful cast of characters, and Perloff’s afterword provides a helpfully succinct summary of the deliberations. The “Tractatus” and one short paper were just about all that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. But he wrote copiously, and he shared his thinking, from the early nineteen-thirties onward, in lectures or discussion groups with select gatherings of awed students. At his death, there were some twenty thousand pages of manuscript and typescript left to his executors (Anscombe, Rush Rhees, and Georg Henrik von Wright); the material was, his will stated, theirs to “dispose of as they think best.”

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