Friday, May 23, 2014

Wittgenstein: Thinker, Saint, and Self

Many young people with introverted and bookish tendencies have probably nourished a Wittgenstein fantasy before -- or will do so when confronted with an outline of his life (I very much include myself here).  Wittgenstein led the ideal type of the life of the intellectual saint, after all.  Born into an exceedingly wealthy Austrian family, he renounced his entire inheritance and spent much of his adult career fleeing from the work that seemed laid out for him to do as a professional academic, in the pursuit of perfect solitude.  This pursuit led him to such romantic settings as the fjords of Norway and to a village in rural Austria where he worked as a schoolmaster, in every case seeming to end up against his own inclinations back at Cambridge, as if pulled by elastic.

For those who are not of a certain age and disposition, it may be hard to understand the romance of such a life.  Such people have forgotten, or never learned, how pleasing it is to renounce in imagination what one has never accumulated in reality.  For those of us who have not yet found love or a definite professional identity, it is an incredibly bewitching thought that we might not “need” either one—and more, that we do not lack such things due to youth or inadequacy on our part, but because we have chosen to nobly abjure them.  We were made for higher things anyways, we say: “just like Wittgenstein.”

It was to indulge these fantasies that I first purchased Ray Monk’s 1990 biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, and such indulgence is indeed part of the satisfaction I derived from this extraordinary book (Monk gives due credit to the undeniably romantic aspects of his subject’s life.)  The book has also provided me with some leaden, and probably much needed, doses of reality, however.  The Wittgenstein of its pages ultimately suffers for precisely the characteristics that seem to render him a philosophical renunciate-- his failure to establish warm and stable relationships with other people, for instance, and his mercurial approach to his career.  Nor was his genius a solace to him in the face of these failures.  As he wrote, “What good does all my talent do me, if, at heart, I am unhappy?” (Quoted in Monk, 506).

The romance sours.  For sham-saints like us, we do not renounce the world in order to forgo happiness, but to find it.  As the fantasy is supposed to proceed, the “true philosopher” departs from the world and its temptations precisely because they cannot compare with the consolations of pure truth-seeking.  “The desert,” exudes Nietzsche in full fantasist mode, “[…] where spirits of strong and independent constitution withdraw in isolation” (Smith trans., 88).  In this imagined desert, there is no need for the ordinary approbation of others that feeds the human ego.  “One to me are shame and fame,” as Emerson boasted.

Is it enough to disabuse us of this fantasy to recall that Nietzsche lost his mind and that Emerson in real life was quite famous -- and thoroughly enjoyed that fact?  That Montaigne retired into his chateau because he thought that solitude would help him distill his intellect—and promptly fell into a catatonic depression as soon as he had done so?  If not, Wittgenstein’s life provides yet another salutary reminder.  Its bitter legend reads that there really is no replacement in life for sustained human contact with people one cares about. This is the one great truth of life that the introverted specimen (like yours truly) would find it simpler to deny.  Wittgenstein’s life, while seeming at first to give grist to the mills of denial, ends by tragically reaffirming this truth.


It seems upon reading Monk’s biography that the root of Wittgenstein’s failure to establish warm relationships was essentially the same force that accounts for his charm as a philosopher: his tremendous personal arrogance.  Two-thirds or more of any reputation for genius stems from a gift for self-mythologization, after all. Wittgenstein was always the first and truest convert to the legend of Wittgenstein.  His prefaces, for instance, do not attempt to prepare the reader for understanding, but to deepen our feeling of bafflement in the face of his superior intellect.  As the daunting opening lines of the Tractatus declare: “This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it [… I]ts object would be attained if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it afforded pleasure.” (Ogden Transl.)

Such arrogance is a delightful trait in a philosopher, if a poor one in to find in a friend.  There is a great deal of excellent work in philosophy that has proceeded from the conviction that most other philosophy is bunk—a set of deliberate obfuscations and elaborate non-problems – and it takes arrogance to develop such a conviction.  One gets the sense that Wittgenstein, like many great philosophers, in fact found philosophizing very painful and tiresome.  “[W]hen [philosophy] is most important,” he remarks in a letter, “it’s just disagreeable, that is when it threatens to rob one of one’s pet notions & leave one all bewildered & with a feeling of worthlessness.” (Quoted in Monk, 474).  The motive to Wittgenstein’s work throughout his career therefore was to find a way to stop philosophizing -- but an intellectually honest way, and not one that simply constituted a retreat into a cherished “pet notion.”  Wittgenstein’s task as he saw it was to use the tools of philosophy to abolish the discipline’s own traditional questions, to show these up as mere linguistic confusions, and to give himself thereby some peace of mind.  Hence what has become his most famous metaphor for doing philosophical work: “What is your aim in philosophy?” Wittgenstein imagines someone asking.  “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,” he answers. (Quoted in Monk, 428).

The earnestness of Wittgenstein’s endeavors in this regard account, I think, for his continued appeal. The fact that Wittgenstein so resented his own discipline is, strangely enough, what made him a better philosopher than so many others have been.  Like Wittgenstein, they were flies too, but unlike him, they buzzed quite contentedly around their bottle.  Even had they been shown a way out of it, one suspects, they would have found an excuse to stay inside.

Wittgenstein’s conviction that philosophy is essentially bunk and confusion was, interestingly, a more persistent and stable one throughout his career than any of his specific philosophical positions.  Monk quotes the amused assessment of one of Wittgenstein’s friends from the early stages of his education in the discipline: “[Witt.] is reading philosophy, but has only just started systematic reading: and he expresses the most naïve surprise that all the philosophers he once worshipped in ignorance are after all stupid and dishonest and make disgusting mistakes!” (Quoted in Monk, 50) Later on in his career, Wittgenstein took great pride in the fact that he had read few of his contemporaries and knew very little of the philosophical classics.  According to Monk, in the final years of his life he “claimed proudly never to have read a word of Aristotle” (496).

Of course, Wittgenstein was not alone in his generation in finding a great deal of traditional philosophy to be superfluous or misguided.  The logical positivists were engaged in a battle against metaphysics that was similarly iconoclastic, and for a time they adopted Wittgenstein as their most mysterious and recondite spokesman.  This, of course, was not to Wittgenstein’s liking. Here as elsewhere, his arrogance was too capacious to allow any friendly collaborators.  He also despised philosophical movements and turned on logical positivism as soon as it had hardened into a definite school.

We see a similar tendency in his relations with Bloomsbury.  Despite their early and formative friendship, for instance, Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell completely alienated one another in mature life.  Russell indeed was a sort of anti-Wittgenstein.  Where the latter was notoriously precise and reserved in his writing, allowing only a single one of his works (the Tractatus) to be published in his lifetime, Russell turned out potboilers by the week on politics, morals, religion, and much else.  Where Wittgenstein was a fideistic theist, Russell was bombastically agnostic.  The projects that the mature Russell adopted and the insouciant tone with which he did so could not have been better calculated to strike Wittgenstein as irredeemably vulgar.

The hallmark of Russell’s writing style, as of much of Bloomsbury, was his use of humor and irony—often as a vehicle for the mixture of moral indignation and warm human sympathies that informed his work.  Wittgenstein, by contrast, had little warmth and less humor.  Not only was his sense of humor weak, it was also poorly integrated with the rest of his personality.  The few jokes he did make reveal none of the sophistication he brought to his intellectual life as a whole, in Monk's telling (See Monk, 265-267).  The only other indicator Wittgenstein gave of a sense of humor was in his proclivity for making cruel and sardonic judgments of others, which one can imagine bringing a wicked smile to the lips of connoisseurs of academic gossip. (G.E. Moore, another “friend” of Wittgenstein’s, was valuable in his view mostly for showing “how far a man can go who has absolutely no intelligence whatever.” (Quoted in Monk, 262).)

Wittgenstein was aware of his own arrogance, especially where his philosophical work was concerned, and made some attempts to mitigate it.  The latter half of his life, for instance, features the bizarre episode of his “confessions,” in which he tracked down people from various periods of his life and apologized for such apparently innocuous “sins” as showing a moment’s hesitation during the war when he was asked to carry bombs across an unsteady plank, and pretending on one occasion that the news of someone’s death was fresh to him when in fact he had already known about it for some time (See Monk, 369).

It is difficult, however, not to see in such actions simply a further refinement of Wittgenstein’s arrogance, rather than an attempt to make up for it.  In certain hands, after all, abjectness and humility themselves can become the ultimate source of pride.  One can show off humility as well as one can a sports car.  That this was happening in Wittgenstein’s case is indicated most clearly by what he chose to apologize for—a set of mild breaches of etiquette that fell short of his own, hyper-scrupulous standards.  He did not, by contrast, apologize to the people whom he had harmed according to their own standards.  He never made a confession to Francis Skinner, for instance, one of his disciples and lovers, whom Wittgenstein successfully advised to abandon a promising academic career as a mathematician to take a manual job in a factory– one which Skinner came to regard as sheer drudgery, and which may have contributed to his early death. (Monk, 428).

For all that Wittgenstein viewed his own pride as a “sin,” he does not seem to have thought of his contempt for others in similar terms, or to have suspected that the two might be related.  Long after making his “confessions” in an attempt, ostensibly, to break down his pride, he continued to despise those he deemed “stupid” -- which included nearly everyone he knew, including the people closest to him.  This attitude on his part seems to have cost him his friendships with G.E. Moore, Piero Sraffa, and others, who were drawn to him early on for his extraordinary intellect, but who were ultimately repelled by the evidences of his contempt.

Finally, Wittgenstein’s pursuit of absolution, as expressed through his “confessions,” did not lead him to adopt a more merciful attitude toward the human failings that other people (such as Russell) displayed.  To the contrary, the pursuit appears to have held out to Wittgenstein the hope that it would elevate him still further above such ordinary limitations. Small wonder that some of those who received his confessions, such as Fania Pascal, were far more upset by hearing them than they had been by the supposed “sins” that provoked them.  “What is it? You want to be perfect?” she is quoted as retorting in anger.  “Of course I want to be perfect,” was Wittgenstein’s reply (Quoted in Monk 369).  Wittgenstein’s greatest act of “humility,” it would seem, in fact displayed his most divine pretensions.

Wittgenstein’s arrogance was, paradoxically, a result of his failure to establish a solid basis of genuine pride in himself.  Similarly, his failure to maintain warm relationships with other people was related to his lack of a clear personal identity.  Wittgenstein seems never to have been able to accept who he really was; he was irresistibly drawn throughout his life to certain activities, yet he refused to grant them a place in the destiny he envisioned for himself.  Despite being an unrelenting philosophizer, for instance – engaging in this activity wherever he found himself—he nonetheless constantly maintained that he wished to escape from philosophy, perhaps into manual labor or a monastery.  It was in accordance with this fantasy—which Wittgenstein was not himself willing to act upon—that he sent Francis Skinner into the factory.

It is characteristic of adolescents to persistently do certain things, while continuing vehemently to deny that these behaviors are a feature of who they “really are.”  Wittgenstein continued to practice this sort of evasion throughout his whole life.  Like his arrogance, this tendency can make him a charming philosopher.  The intensity of Wittgenstein’s distaste for his own vocation, coupled with the fact that he was nonetheless compelled by his inner logic to pursue it compulsively, spurred him to make incredible efforts at disentangling ideas and setting language right (which are fundamentally philosophical activities, even -- or perhaps especially -- when they are pursued with the goal of abolishing philosophy), all in the hope of eventually finding a means of egress from the fly bottle.  What Wittgenstein did not realize is that he would not have liked it outside the bottle, even if he could have gotten out.  He was hopelessly philosophical by nature.

Wittgenstein’s sexuality posed for him a similar problem, though Monk persuasively argues that Wittgenstein’s neurosis did not proceed from a refusal to accept his homosexuality -- rather, it was his status as a sexual creature of any sort that Wittgenstein resented. (Monk, 584) In his relationships with both men and women, Wittgenstein attempted to separate love and romance from anything related to his sexual feelings. (See Monk, 585). One woman who nearly married him eventually fled the relationship on realizing that he would never agree to have children (See Monk, 318) (or, one suspects, to consummate the marriage at all).  Francis Skinner, who was deeply in love with Wittgenstein, became increasingly distasteful in the latter’s eyes after the few occasions they slept together. (See Monk, 376). Yet Wittgenstein did of course have sexual feelings, and denying them did not lessen their potency.

Much as he was able to recognize his own arrogance for what it was, Wittgenstein likewise saw that his identity was deeply at odds with itself.  “The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life’s mould,” he wrote (Quoted in Monk, 375).  The realization, however, does not seem to have affected how he actually led his life, so it became simply one more expression of his tendency to say one thing and do another.


Wittgenstein’s life is a young person’s fantasy, but it is also a fantasy of perpetual youth.  And Monk’s biography shows, among many other things, that perpetual youth, like many of our more fantastic desires, is ultimately not so desirable after all.  Wittgenstein's life suggests that there is no way to circumvent the process of growing up, nor is there any amount of introverted speculation that can replace the formation of inter-human ties.  Not only are there definite limits to the consolation that one’s isolated self can provide—more crucially (and evidenced, I think, by the details of Wittgenstein’s life), the self can only exist at all in relation to others.  There can be no “I” that is not also a “you” in the eyes of someone else, and a rather significant “you” at that.  The point is demonstrated by the violence that solitary confinement does to the human mind in prison.  It is demonstrated less horribly, but no less clearly, by the toll that a more ordinary type of loneliness can exact in the course of a life like Wittgenstein’s.

I remember reading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage in the summer between high school and college.  I often feel that this novel contained insights into life which I didn’t fully understand or appreciate at the time, but which were stored away in my subconscious, to reemerge when I was ready to hear them.  One such insight is contained in passage that seemed to me entirely wrong when I first read it, mostly because it violates all the tenets of the Wittgenstein fantasy.  It runs against all the principles by which Wittgenstein lived his life – those principles that exercise such fascination over the mind of the introverted and bookish. Yet the passage now seems to me to be basically right.  It suggests that the achievement of a strong sense of self will strengthen one’s capacity to be in relation with others.  Even more importantly, it suggests that to conquer the temptation of ordinariness, and of the sorts of relationships which make a person ordinary rather than a “genius” or a saint, is perhaps no conquest at all.  As the protagonist of the novel reflects in the third person:
“It seemed to him that all his life he had followed the ideal that other people, by their words or their writings, had instilled into him, and never the desires of his own heart.  Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do.  […] His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect?  It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories."

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