Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wittgenstein's irony

Here's a letter from Wittgenstein to one of his sisters, followed by commentary by Joachim Schulte:
Dear Helene! In your last letter you write that I am a great philosopher. Certainly, that’s what I am, and yet I do not wish to learn this from you. Call me a striver for truth, and I shall rest contented. Certainly you are right in saying that every form of vanity is alien to me, and even the idolatrous veneration of my disciples is powerless against the relentlessness of my self-criticism. To be sure, often I myself am amazed at the extent of my greatness, and in spite of the enormous greatness of my capacity I feel incapable of grasping it. But that’s enough now – words after all are empty vis-a`-vis the richness of things. [Peter Winslow translates the last lines here as "But enough words for now, when words are but vacuity compared to the fullness of things. May you in all eternity... Your Ludwig" I prefer this, but I haven't seen the German so I can't say it's a better translation. Also, Schulte's German is a bit better than mine anyway.]
Quite obviously, this is an ambiguous and ambivalent letter (which probably dates from 1934). On the one hand, Wittgenstein is being ironic about the allusion to his greatness as a philosopher, while on the other his precise statement that he does not wish to hear his greatness affirmed by his sister seems to imply that he would not mind hearing this sort of thing from a different quarter. Moreover, wishing to be called a striver for truth could easily be regarded as a kind of false modesty, and it is by no means clear how much irony there is to be found in this expression of the wish. The remark about his lack of vanity, too, is at one and the same time a correct statement of fact and an admission of weakness, for Wittgenstein certainly wants to suggest that his self-criticism is by far not relentless enough. Even though the last two sentences about greatness and the emptiness of words appear, because of their play with cliche´s and their exaggerations, to be pure irony and fun, one still receives the impression that he who is talking here is not only a striver for truth but also a striver for greatness – an extremely ambitious man who regards most, or all, forms of ambition as bad form. At any rate, I do not think that any attentive reader of these lines can come away from them without feeling ill at ease. 
I have to say I disagree. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think Schulte is overcomplicating this. The whole thing reads like pure irony and fun to me, in a way that is somewhat remarkable given Wittgenstein's actual greatness, striving for truth, self-criticism, etc. (That is, it seems worth remarking on, but isn't necessarily surprising.) This kind of thing isn't all that unusual, surely. What else could he say, after all? If you are a great philosopher and someone says so you won't smugly agree or deny it with false modesty. The only thing is to turn the whole thing into a joke by agreeing with ironic exaggeration.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Wittgenstein's Philosophy in Times of Crisis

A series of online talks has just been announced here. There are some big name people (Oskari Kuusela, Hans Sluga, Paul Horwich, and others) and some good topics (ethics, religion, liberation, and more). Not all the talks are at convenient times for people in the US, but some are. It's worth checking out the schedule.