Friday, September 1, 2017

War and Peace and Wittgenstein

These are all just coincidences, I suppose, but there are some striking similarities between some of Wittgenstein's acts and ideas and elements of War and Peace. Here are three.

The Tractatus contains seven main propositions, which are to be overcome in order to see the world right. On his journey towards enlightenment, Pierre passes through Freemasonry, which makes  much of the number seven:
our talk turned to the interpretation of the seven pillars and steps of the Temple, the seven sciences, the seven virtues, the seven vices, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Wanting to test his fear of death, Wittgenstein volunteered to serve at the front-line during World War I, where he made observations to help the artillery hit the enemy forces. In War and Peace, as Wikipedia puts it, Pierre "decides to leave Moscow and go to watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. In the midst of the turmoil he experiences first-hand the death and destruction of war."

Here is Tolstoy on a proclamation made by Napoleon regarding the occupation of Moscow:
But strange to say, all these measures, efforts, and plans—which were not at all worse than others issued in similar circumstances—did not affect the essence of the matter but, like the hands of a clock detached from the mechanism, swung about in an arbitrary and aimless way without engaging the cogwheels. (Book Thirteen, Chapter X)
And here is Wittgenstein on private sensation and nonsense: "Here I should like to say: a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism." (PI 271)

None of this is hugely significant, but I wonder whether Wittgenstein thought of Pierre when he was an artillery spotter. Even if not, both were involved in a Schopenhauerian project. 


  1. certainly some desire for reflectionless absorption in the doing of things

  2. I think it more reasonable to think not whether he thought of Pierre, but of Tolstoy. He would have seen through the vehicle of Pierre and into "the idea" anyway. By the time Wittgenstein was at the Front, Tolstoy already had his attention. The Gospel in Brief had already changed him. When only a Freshman (sophmore?), he mentioned Haclii Murat to Russell. He even assigned something of Tolstoy to his elementary school pupils. And there is Drury's recollection of how Wittgenstein reacted to Tolstoy's use of a Catholic church ceremony to bury Tolstoy's brother. Wittgenstein commented that he would have done the same thing. And so what is the point? Pierre can't be the issue. It is Tolstoy who provided the food for thought.

    1. Certainly Tolstoy is more important than his creation Pierre. I think of Wittgenstein as being more interested in Tolstoy's lesser known works, though, so it gets my attention when things from War and Peace seem Wittgensteinian in one way or another.