Wittgenstein gave his first paper to the Club in Michaelmas 1912. He and Moore had persuaded the Club to appoint a Chairman to prevent futile discussions and to change the rules so as to limit the duration of talks to seven minutes. Wittgenstein's contribution came on 29 November (the Club's meetings had moved to Fridays to avoid clashing with the Apostles); the minutes are as follows:
Mr Wittgenstein read a paper entitled "What is Philosophy?" The paper lasted only about 4 minutes, thus cutting the previous record established by Mr Tye by nearly two minutes. Philosophy was defined as all those primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof by the various sciences. This defn. was much discussed, but there was no general disposition to adopt it. The discussion kept very much to the point, and the Chairman did not find it necessary to intervene much.This seems like an odd definition of philosophy, but I have nothing to say about this now.
Wittgenstein is said to have dominated the club from 1929 onward, and he chaired it starting in 1944. On October 26 1946 Karl Popper read a paper with a similar theme to Wittgenstein's 1912 address: "Are there Philosophical Problems?" According to Popper's account of the occasion:
I went on to say that I thought that if there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher. Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems. At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction? These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical. I then referred to the problem of whether potential or even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. ... I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules. At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!" I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers." Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him. ["Autobiography," p. 98]It would be convenient for me if Wittgenstein had denied that moral problems were philosophical problems, but he doesn't say that here. In Bouwsma's record of conversations with Wittgenstein between 1949 and 1951, Wittgenstein seems happy enough to discuss ethics, but he also seems to have doubts about the value of teaching ethics (or perhaps just about the way Bouwsma did this, but that seems unlikely to me). On p. 7 Wittgenstein (presumably) is quoted as asking "so what?" and "what next?" as well as exclaiming "how pointless!" in response to Bouwsma's account of what he does with his students in his ethics course. Bouwsma describes Wittgenstein as shaking his head over the teaching of ethics.
[By the way, in looking into this I came across the following. On January 5th 1930 at Schlick's house Wittgenstein said: "In ethics our expressions have a double meaning: a psychological one of which you can speak and a non-psychological one: 'good tennis-player,' 'good'." This sounds a little like what he told Ramsey about the sentences of the Tractatus: "Some of his sentences are intentionally ambiguous having an ordinary meaning and a more difficult meaning which he also believes."]
Other reasons to think that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as part of philosophy: his account of what philosophy is in the Investigations, the dissolving of pseudo-problems. But what I am to do is not a pseudo-problem. Also, the view of Cora Diamond and others that ethics covers too much for it to be a branch of anything, including philosophy. If Wittgenstein agreed with this view, he could hardly have thought of ethics as a branch of philosophy. I'll come back to this below.
My paper begins with this sentence:
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.I think this needs revision too, but what I mean is that the paper is about Wittgenstein's ethics, not any sort of theory based on or derived from Wittgenstein's work on, say, rule-following. This kind of distinction can be tricky. One reviewer of my paper on Wittgenstein's remarks on Heidegger ("Did Wittgenstein Disagree With Heidegger?") complained that the paper was wrongly titled because it is about what Wittgenstein himself thought of Heidegger and not whether his philosophical work 'disagrees' with Heidegger's. So I want to avoid that kind of problem. Maybe I should say that the subject of the paper is not a Wittgenstein-inspired theory of ethics but Wittgenstein's own ethics, as revealed in the Koder diaries.
I go on to say this:
Whether this is philosophy is a question I should address, but perhaps I can be forgiven if I avoid spending too long on a largely terminological matter. Wittgenstein does not appear to have thought of ethics as belonging to philosophy as he (re-)conceived it. This has to do with what he regarded as its groundlessness:
Schlick says that in theological ethics there used to be two conceptions of the essence of the good: according to the shallower interpretation the good is good because it is what God wants; according to the profounder interpretation God wants the good because it is good. I think that the first interpretation is the profounder one: what God commands, that is good. For it cuts off the way to any explanation ‘why’ it is good. [Friedrich Waismann Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1979, p. 115. This remark is dated 17 December 1930.]
Similarly, on 6 May 1930 he writes in MS 183 that “‘It is good because God commands it’ is the right expression for the groundlessness.” Without any ground or explanation of why some things are good or right, it is hard to see how one could philosophize about such matters. Unless, as I am inclined to do, one simply calls thinking about ethics philosophy. This will not be philosophy as Wittgenstein understood it, but it is what many people count as a major branch of philosophy. Whatever we call it, whether philosophy or something else, it—along with thoughts about Wittgenstein and his work—is what this paper is about.
I've had quite a few comments about this and I'm starting to think I am just wrong. If ethics is groundless then it cannot be explained, but Wittgensteinian philosophy is about description, not explanation. So why would this make ethics not part of philosophy for Wittgenstein? If philosophy is about clarification or working on oneself then this is surely possible in ethics. I wonder why I felt so certain that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as belonging to philosophy, and think it goes back to some of what I said in my old paper "Nothing to be Said." The idea of a Wittgensteinian theory of ethics still seems wrong to me, as does the idea that there is some identifiable domain called 'ethics.' If I wonder whether I should pray or not then I don't think Wittgenstein would ever believe that philosophy has the answer for me, but that doesn't mean we can't conduct a grammatical investigation of concepts like 'prayer', 'God', 'conscience', and so on. Nor that gaining clarity about language might help us live our lives more happily (or better). Actually, rather than talking about a grammatical investigation I would prefer just to say that one can ask oneself what one means, and try to clarify this. If there are no philosophical problems, as Wittgenstein seems to have insisted to Popper, then philosophy, if anything, can only be something like a method (or methods), and I don't see any a priori reason not to apply this method to problems about what to do, say, or believe.