Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A glorious sun and a bad person

Anne-Marie Christensen has a paper forthcoming in Philosophia that is well worth reading.  Here's the abstract:
Most commentators working on Wittgenstein’s remarks on ethics note that he rejects the very possibility of traditional normative ethics, that is, a philosophically justified normative guide for right conduct. In this article, Wittgenstein’s view of ethical reflection as presented in his notebooks from 1936 to 1938 is investigated, and the question of whether it involves ethical guidance is addressed. In Wittgenstein’s remarks, we can identify three requirements inherent in ethical reflection. The first two is revealed in the realisation that ethical reflection presupposes both a clear understanding of oneself and a normative ideal of how one ought to live and reason. The third source of normativity springs from the fact that ethical reflection involves a relationship with the other, not as judge, but as example and addressee. In this way, ethical reflection is essentially relational. In the article, we unfold how these three normative sources figure in Wittgenstein’s remarks, especially how the third requirement, the relationship with the other, shows both a point of conversion and a difference between his view of ethics and religious faith. It will also be argued that even if Wittgenstein thus presents ethical reflection as a normatively guided activity, the content of the guidance is personal, springing solely from the reflecting individual.
Christensen draws on remarks found in Wittgenstein's diaries, some of them written in code. Her title, for instance, comes from a passage written in March 1937 in code. I think this passage has to be understood against the background of one from 19th February of that year, in which Wittgenstein begins by talking about getting rid of an old sweater but soon gets into much more difficult territory. It occurs to him that he ought to give away the sweater, which he has been meaning to give away for some time. But then it also occurs to him "as it were like an order" that he should also give away his new sweater, which he likes a lot. This is what sets him off. If orders can occur like this, then he might be ordered to do anything at all, including, for instance, burning his manuscripts. So if he obeys these 'demands' he might lose everything he cares about. If, on the other hand, he decides not to (since there is no reason to obey them), then he will feel that he is fleeing something and will be unhappy because of this.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I'm tempted to put his position like this: he has a strong intuition that he ought to do something that he does not want to do; this outrages him, not simply because he does not want to do it, but because it seems to put his sense that his life is meaningful at the mercy of intuitions that might demand anything at all of him; yet if he turns away from the intuition he will be turning away from the source of all sense of value in life. It is as if his only options are complete surrender of his will and a life of moral evasion. The latter disgusts him, but he cannot or will not do the former. He seems to think or feel that he must do it, but he rebels against doing it. Why? Perhaps he is sick:
Call it a sickness! What have you said by that?  Nothing.
Don't explain!--Describe! [Then in code:] Submit your heart & don't be angry that you must suffer so!  
Later that day he kneels and prays, and says, looking up above: "There is no one here." This occurs to him as a relief and a kind of enlightenment, although he is not sure what to make of it.

On March 22nd he describes the sun's rising, shining on the snow, and setting, as well as accusing himself of vanity. Then he writes: "There is no one here: But there is a glorious sun here, & a bad person.--" (Es ist niemand hier: Aber es ist eine herrliche Sonne hier, & ein schlechter Mensch.  There is a contrast between the lordly and the base which is hard to capture in normal English and doesn't really come out in Klagge's and Nordmann's idiomatic translation.)

From remarks like these Christensen concludes that,
For Wittgenstein to see and note that he (thinks he) is "a bad person", he must have someone to whom he can address this judgment, even if it is only "a glorious sun".
But I think it is pretty clear that he is expressing a kind of atheism here (albeit perhaps the kind that is compatible with a certain type of Christianity, as in Simone Weil's remark: "A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist.Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that nothing real can be anything like that which I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.").  I don't know that anything significant can follow from the fact that Wittgenstein writes his judgment down in a diary, thereby addressing a kind of other.  Which is not to say that what Christensen says is false.

The other passage that she focuses on is from Culture and Value (p. 27e in the old edition, 31e in the new), also from 1937:
The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life's mould. So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit the mould, what is problematic will disappear.
This shows, Christensen says, that ethics involves "an obligation to work towards a clear understanding of ourselves as well as our place in the world" and "a normative demand to attempt [to] live in a way that reduces ... the difference between this understanding and our ethical ideals." I think this is right as an account of Wittgenstein's idea of ethics. It also sounds rather Aristotelian (although Aristotle seems to be more one-size-fits-all than Wittgenstein, who favors a more personal kind of ethics, as Christensen points out). It follows, of course, that Wittgenstein would have rejected other ethical views. Utilitarianism comes to mind, for instance. But it does not follow that Wittgenstein would have denied that utilitarianism even counted as a kind of ethic. And it surely doesn't follow that philosophical followers of Wittgenstein ought to deny that utilitarianism is a kind of ethic. Which is why I think it's important, albeit sometimes difficult, to distinguish between Wittgenstein's personal beliefs (e.g. "the sweater I bought in Bergen is really nice") and properly Wittgensteinian beliefs (e.g. philosophy ought not to be about establishing the truth of controversial theories by way of a priori reasoning). To be clear, though, these last remarks of mine do not contradict anything that Christensen says in the paper.


  1. I was actually thinking about Weil right up to the point that you quoted her. I wonder about the "even if it is only 'a glorious sun'" remark. Or at least maybe another way to put this is that evaluation of one's own life means, to some extent, stepping outside of one's life, or somehow seeing one's own life from the outside, such that one's own standards, preferences, etc., aren't the only criteria by which to evaluate--or at least, stepping outside those concerns, one might find that other things trump them. (This seems, for me, connected to the thought that it might be required of him to burn his manuscripts, etc.)

    About sickness and fitting the mould: it seems to have something to do with the feeling that one should be doing something else (even if it's unclear what that is), or at least this is one way in which the "problems of life" might be manifest. And what AMC says here seems fine. Does any of this, for her, have to do with W's later remarks about being able to quit doing philosophy?

  2. I don't know about the idea of stepping outside of one's life in order to evaluate it. There seems to be a lot going on in Wittgenstein here--something like the voice of conscience, then an additional 'self' that reacts against this voice, and another that struggles to either bring the two into harmony or else decide which should win out. This last voice can't be either of the other two, so in that sense it has to be outside of them, but there doesn't seem to be anything like an ideal observer theory involved or question of what God would think about it all. That probably isn't what you mean, but it's the kind of thing that talk about seeing one's life from the outside suggests to me. I'd have to re-read these diaries to be sure, but he seems to want to use an internal criterion, namely being (feeling) happy. But this has to be achieved while being completely honest, without any evasion or flight from reality.

    I don't think Christensen makes any connection between this and Wittgenstein's remarks about being able to stop doing philosophy. Mostly she just analyzes, very carefully and well, some interesting comments in the diaries that haven't been discussed much, if at all, before. I get the impression that she (thinks she) sees something here that goes against what others have said about Wittgenstein and ethics, but she doesn't make any explicit criticisms of others that I remember.