Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wittgenstein's Ethics

Here's a paper I'm working on. Comments welcome.

The first paragraph should give you some idea of what it's about:
The subject of this paper is not Wittgensteinian ethics but Wittgenstein’s own ethical beliefs, specifically as these are revealed in the so-called Koder diaries. The word ‘diaries’ might make one hesitate to read this material, let alone discuss it in public. But, as James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann note, “On first sight, this manuscript is not at all dissimilar from Wittgenstein’s other notebooks.”[i] While the Koder Diaries, also known as Manuscript 183, do contain the kind of thing that one would expect to find in a diary (e.g. accounts of travel and personal relationships), they also contain more obviously philosophical remarks too, sometimes as reflections on these personal remarks. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that, “As opposed to his other notebooks and the so-called secret diaries of 1914-1916, the Koder diaries are unique precisely in that they do not set off the private from the public at all.”[ii] Even the remarks written in code are not clearly more personal or less philosophical than the others.  It seems to me, therefore, that the Koder diaries are an especially interesting kind of document, and, as I hope we shall see, that Wittgenstein’s ethical reflections in them are unusually interesting, even if they resist being summarized in one or more ethical theses or points.

[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein Public and Private Occasions, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 2003, p. 3.
[ii] Ibid., p. 3.


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this. Your mention of the Koder diaries in one of our past discussions first alerted me to their existence (and in translation), but I have not yet had a chance to look at them.

  2. Thanks. I suppose it's always fun to read someone else's diaries, but these are especially good. Wittgenstein, you could say, philosophizes about his own life.

  3. I enjoyed this. There's a lot to think about, and your prose is very fluid, which perhaps led me to read this much more quickly than I should. (I can imagine one less acquainted with W reading this and wondering what had just happened. But this isn't a criticism. The answer to that wonder, I suppose, would be to read it again, slowly.)

    Some general thoughts:

    I think you sell short in the first paragraph the idea that there's a unity or point to the diaries--or that there's a point you're making with the example of the activity illustrated in the diaries--or at least to the picture and the particular struggles you focus on. What you say at the end of the paper might be indicative of what you might also say up front, beyond that W has some interesting things to say.

    This will probably be unclear, but by the end I was struck by something like what is the (or, a) fundamental struggle in these passages--between an understanding of ethical attitudes and thoughts as groundless in a sense which means that one may reject whichever thoughts one chooses (e.g. about giving away the favorite sweater) and the religious interpretation of groundlessness such that some attitudes or thoughts are groundless but not, as it were, objective or mandatory (etc.) because they are nevertheless what God has commanded. Nothing is settled, then, by the fact (as it were) that such attitudes and thoughts are ultimately groundless. Under the second (religious interpretation) even one's desire to "be oneself" might in some sense have to be rejected, since what is really necessary is to "die" to the self (and then, as it were, to be reborn in God). But if there's no clear way to decide between these, then what can W do except what he does, which is to be as attentive as possible to his various thoughts and attitudes (and inclinations, etc.) and, as it were, leaving everything open to the possibility of a(n) (ethical) critique. But at the same time, one can't subject everything to critique at the same time. But then it seems that in a certain way, even if it's true that at some point we must arrive at bedrock, W is actively searching for that bedrock. I really don't know what my point is here; I'm just trying to get some purchase on another way of describing one of the underlying struggles here. The point might be that this struggle isn't just a signal of hopeless confusion (or self-indulgence), but as you suggest at the end, the very sort of thing that is an important kind of ethical activity that gets completely neglected by "modern moral philosophy."

    More specific:

    p. 7: that the struggle is one about which words to use--I'm coming increasingly to agree with this, but it seems that you should also expect (and perhaps anticipate) some strong pushback from those who would say that the really important thing is what to believe. (That the issue is whether to believe in God or not, not simply whether to use the word God.)

    p. 8, fourth line: you refer to a "genuine demand" but it's unclear what this could be if "there is no one there" (this is related to my long inchoate remark about the tension between two different senses of groundlessness).

    p. 12, first paragraph: "without anyone else coming into the picture"--I'm inclined to say, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Robinson Crusoe can have a rich inner, and ethical, life, but no in the sense that language is social (and learned within a community), and so a "rich inner life" that is too disconnected from a community might just be a solipsistic delusion. I guess this is related to the private language issue (and I am sorry that I can't recall off the top of my head what you wrote about this in your Philosophical Topics paper...)

  4. PS: Also, the allusions to being oneself made me think of the scene in I (Heart) Huckabees in which Jude Law's character exclaims in frustration, "How am I not myself?" and then Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman (the existential detectives) just keep repeating this phrase with various inflections until the scene's a jokey (pseudo-profound) scene, but there's something to it that seems somehow relevant...not being at home with oneself is both potentially a sign of illness and a sign that one really is still oneself and, as it were, alive to the difference between being oneself and being (for lack of a better word) inauthentic.

  5. Thanks, Matt. This is extremely helpful. I don't have time to take this all in or to write much of a reply right now, but I will do when I can. Somehow I have a sense that Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country might be relevant to this (thinking especially of your comment re p. 12). (Or perhaps I'm just looking for an excuse to return to that book.)

  6. I haven't read that one. It also seemed that Weil's writings could be compared in various ways to things W says, but that would be a different kind of paper (or, a whole new can of worms...)

  7. Yes, I hadn't thought of Weil (although now it seems obvious that I should have). It's a short paper that could end up very long.