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.


  1. I could immediately see what could make somebody disagree with Schulte's reading the way you did, but I still tend to side more with him. I think some relevant considerations here are that:


    Wittgenstein did not think of his sisters (or brother) as qualified to call (or to refuse to call) someone a great philosopher, as whatever talent each of them had was not philosophical in nature. So I think he was embarrassed by simply landing in a situation where he had to receive praise from his well-meaning sister and had to say something in response, but where practically anything he could think of saying would be as badly suited to the occasion as either "smugly agreeing" or "denying it with false modesty". I have exactly the same aftertaste of being ill at ease as Schulte does; in fact I already had it before even going from the quote to his gloss on it.

    (I may be influenced here by the fact that I myself have a sister whose talent is as exclusively at the practical, "Helene" end of the spectrum as my own is at the theoretical "Ludwig" end, and I know that were she to, say, praise my books to me, I would react this way. Agreeing with ironic exaggeration would not feel a way out.)

    Wittgenstein himself was alarmed by situations where he found himself wanting to say something which he realised he was not qualified to say. My favourite example is a remark in Culture and Value where he first calls Mahler's music totally worthless, but then recoils from having said so – because he admits to himself that Mahler wrote the way he did because he was living in an age where the 19th-century criteria by which he, Wittgenstein, would have liked to have lived by simply no longer applied, and this means that they didn't apply to himself any more as a putative Mahler-hater-on-good-grounds than they did to Mahler as a putative great composer: a package deal.

    So I read Wittgenstein here as recoiling from Helene's lack of qualifications to say what she said about him, which is analogous to his own lack of qualifications to say about Mahler what he said.


    In the Koder diaries, there are entires that express similar thoughts as the letter, to the extent that the letter almost seems like a rephrasing of these remarks from three years earlier:

    "There is a tendency in my life to base this life on the fact that I am much cleverer than the others. But when this assumption threatens to break down, when I see by how much less clever I am than other people, only then do I become aware how wrong this foundation is in general even if the assumption is or were right." (p. 65 of Alfred Nordmann's translation in Public and Private Occasions)

    "When I say I would like to discard vanity, it is questionable whether my wanting this isn't yet again only a sort of vanity. I am vain & insofar as I am vain, my wishes for improvement are vain, too. I would then like to be like such & such person who was not vain & whom I like, & in my mind I already estimate the benefit which I would have from 'discarding' vanity. As long as one is on stage, one is an actor after all, regardless of what one does." (p. 139)

    And these remarks cannot be ironic in the same sense as you suggest the letter is ironic, as they were meant for his own eyes only.

  2. 3)

    There are places in his letters where Wittgenstein does praise himself exaggeratedly in fun, but they are in a more or less totally different language game, or so to say. One example is the letter to Rudolf Koder (24 April 1925) where he describes thousands of people streaming in from miles around to celebrate his birthday, and himself responding to them by giving a speech on "the eight-hour working day, peace among peoples, and unemployment insurance". Another is the letter to Norman Malcolm (26 April 1940) where he says that he is sure the detective magazines he has just received are good "without having read them, because my critical eye is an X-ray eye & can penetrate from 2 to 4000 pages". He was fond of writing things like these to people he considered to be his intellectual peers, but not to any of his sisters.

    The German, by the way, goes: "Aber nun genug der Worte, wo doch Worte nur leer sind gegenüber der Fülle der Dinge." Winslow's translation is more word-for-word, but either of them will do.

  3. I agree that the part about not wanting to learn from his sister that he's a great philosopher might not be pure irony and fun. He might have at least half meant that. But I still think that either he goes from half-seriousness to pure fun (even though the fun, consisting partly of exaggeration, has some truth in it) or else the whole thing should be treated as pure fun. I don't know how to prove this though, or even make it more plausible. There are times reading Wittgenstein or Weininger or Loos when what they say is so funny (to me) that I cannot believe that laughter is not the correct response. Even if, arguably, perhaps, there is also something else going on too. But if others don't see the humor as I do, which often happens, then I don't know what to say. Especially when they have a sophisticated analysis to offer and all I have is laughter.

    1. Well, not finding the same things funny is of course itself a characteristically Wittgensteinian theme. Cf. Drury's conversation notes: "I remember reading in an old book how someone saw a man walking beside a river reading and bursting into fits of laughter. And he said, 'That man must be reading Don Quixote, only the Don could make a man laugh like that.' Now I don’t find Don Quixote funny at all."

      In Finnish, we have the idiom paraskin sanomaan, literally "[you're] the best one to say [it]", but actually meaning 'What you say is completely true, but you haven't earned the right to say it'. On its face this sounds like a straightforward accusation of hypocrisy, but it is in fact used in the spirit of "pure irony and fun" as you put it. Another way of putting my reading of the letter would be to say that Wittgenstein has a paraskin sanomaan reaction to the praise from his sister, and reacts to it by saying self-praising things which would themselves invite a paraskin sanomaan reaction from anyone with the exception of his sister. So my view is not really different from yours regarding the amount of irony involved, but in that in my view, what Wittgenstein is ironising is his sister's inability to see this.

      (Also, as a fellow-traveller of the Diamond-Conant interpretation of the Tractatus, I of course cannot view Wittgenstein's saying "words are but vacuity compared to the fullness of things" as anything except irony...)

  4. As I read the passage to Helene, I see it as perfect Wittgenstein. It needs no excuse or explanation. John King on p.70 of Recollections is good. "There was humility about him; and though he was aware of his own most unusual abilities -- he once said to Raymond Townsend that he knew he was a 'freak' -- he would have resented being put on any sort of pedestal." And Drury says on page 76: "Wittgenstein knew that he had an exceptional talent for philosophical discussion. He once said to me: 'It made an enormous difference to my life when I discovered that there really was a subject for which I had a special ability." (See also, my book, chapters 2-3).

    The reason he said to Helene that he didn't want to learn from her that he was "great" was because the same was simply adulation as a behavior (grammar), which, as such, was token, vain, awkward -- and by definition, if accepted, likely to corrupt the recipient. But because the one who offers this gesture can't herself be blamed, we have what he perceives as a social accident. And it can't be cured with deflection, because it is his sister, who requires a a kind but accurate reply. So he says what is true: he really doesn't need to hear that from her, and gives advice for how better to behold what she sees (aspect). This reminds me of when a Christian asked him whether he "believed," and he replied something to the effect that what he believed about the very same subject really couldn't be communicated well, even if both were receptive to the basic idea.

    And of course, Wittgenstein was merciless with his own turbulent self. And so in Tommi's quoted passages you get his radical aspect shift. This occurred all through his life. His philosophy was great; his philosophy was shit. He was aggressive and angry; he was sorry and passive. He was selfish; then he was kind. No ocean has had tides as great as these. Turbulence was part and parcel of the ride.

  5. Here's more from Drury, just a page or two after the bit Tommi quoted:

    "When we were out walking a few days later, Wittgenstein began to talk to me about Lessing. He quoted with great emphasis Lessing's remark: 'If God held closed in his right hand all truth, and in his left the single and untiring striving after truth, adding even that I always and forever make mistakes, and said to me: Choose! I should fall humbly before his left hand and say: Father grant me! the pure truth is for you alone'."

    All this is a reminder of the danger of saying something like, "I do not think that any attentive reader of these lines can come away from them without feeling ill at ease." You'd be surprised! Of course, I might not be as attentive as I think. More to the point, I need to remember that what seems obviously very funny to me might not even seem funny at all to others.