Thursday, February 7, 2013

Was Wittgenstein sexist? Part II

Another reason to get on Facebook if you aren't already is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. Today's entry tells us:
Friday 7th February, 1913: LW turns up at Pinsent’s rooms, and stays for tea until 5.30pm, at which point Pinsent goes to attend Russell’s lecture. At 6.30 Pinsent goes to LW’s rooms, and the two stay talking there until Hall at 7.45. They talk about Women’s suffrage ( ), and Pinsent reports that LW “is very much against it – for no particular reason except that ‘all the women he knows are such idiots’”. LW expresses his view that at Manchester University the female students spend all their time flirting with the professors, which disgusts him, since he dislikes half-measures of all sorts, and ‘disapproves of anything not deadly in earnest’. Pinsent comments: “Yet in these days, when marriage is not possible till the age of about 30 – no one is earning enough until then – and when illegitimate marriages are not approved of – what else is there to do but philander?” (Pinsent, pp.44-5).
I don't know what to make of this. If he opposes women's suffrage because all the women he knows are idiots then this would not be opposing it for no reason. It would be opposing it for a bad reason, of course, but not no reason at all. What Pinsent reports is open to interpretation, but I wonder whether Wittgenstein perhaps did oppose it, even "very much", for no particular reason. It seems very much in the same spirit as his remark to Russell that he would prefer a Society for War and Slavery to one for Peace and Freedom. And his suggestion (as I recall) that the atom bomb was likely to be good because the people who opposed it were so bad (although what he actually writes is that just because the opponents are bad it doesn't follow that the bomb must be good, suggesting to me that the contrary thought had occurred to him and needed to be corrected). In short, a certain kind of liberal progressivism seems to have irritated him so much that he opposed whatever it favored, even when he had no particular reason to do so. I don't mean that this is a good thing. I'm much more on Russell's side here than Wittgenstein's, which, at least as I am imagining it, is purely reactionary. This probably won't help, but his position seems vaguely like some things Nietzsche says, and which I also find hard to understand. Maybe there is a common thread, maybe there isn't. It's interesting though (Wittgenstein's apparent reactionary tendency, that is, not any possible similarity with Nietzsche in this regard, which may or may not turn out to be interesting if it exists at all).

His take on flirting is curious too. Pinsent's view is much more reasonable, but in a way it seems to be reasonableness itself that Wittgenstein is rejecting. (Again probably unhelpfully, in a way that reminds me of Chesterton's rejection of Aristotle's reasonableness.) Half-measures, half-heartedness, compromise do not seem to have been at all to his taste, at least when he was young. In which case he might not have supported anyone's having the vote, as people on Facebook have suggested.

I probably sound as though I'm twisting myself into knots to avoid accepting the fact that he was sexist. But I think he was sexist. What I'm not sure about is whether this was one facet of some larger anti-reasonableness. And then whether this is best understood as immaturity, romanticism, existentialism, religiousness without theism, aristocratic arrogance, or what. Not that a mere label will be much use on its own, of course. But I'm curious about the nature of his seemingly reactionary thinking.

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