Wittgenstein’s Confessions

Norman Malcolm

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections edited by Rush Rhees
    Blackwell, 235 pp, £9.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 631 19600 5

Rush Rhees has put together a wonderful book. These Recollections are a rich portrayal of Wittgenstein’s extraordinary character and personality, moral force, stunning intelligence. The contributions are by Wittgenstein’s sister, Hermine; Fania Pascal, who taught him Russian in the 1930s; F.R. Leavis, the literary critic; John King, who attended Wittgenstein’s lectures and became a friend; M.O’C. Drury, a close friend over many years, who gives an unmatched account of Wittgenstein’s spiritual concerns; Rush Rhees, another close friend, who provides a thoughtful, restrained discussion of two topics that have provoked much speculation: Wittgenstein’s visit to Russia, and his ‘confessions’.

Hermine Wittgenstein tells of the bewilderment of the family over Ludwig’s determination, immediately upon his return home at the end of World War One, to rid himself unconditionally of his whole fortune; and of her own dismay at his decision to become a country schoolteacher. She protested to him that his teaching in an elementary school would be like ‘using a precision instrument to open crates’. She was silenced when he replied: ‘You remind me of someone who is looking through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He doesn’t know what kind of a storm is raging outside and that this person is perhaps only with great effort keeping himself on his feet.’ On several occasions Hermine observed Ludwig’s teaching in the boys’ school. He encouraged his pupils to invent a steam-engine and to create other constructions, steering them to correct solutions by means of questions. Tremendous interest was aroused: the boys ‘literally crawled over each other in their desire to be chosen for answers or demonstrations’. But he was impatient with untalented or lazy pupils, and his inability or refusal to soothe unsympathetic parents eventually led to his resignation.

There followed the surprising episode of Ludwig’s taking over as the architect for the new house of his sister Gretl. For two years he devoted himself to this project with characteristic intensity, originating and supervising every minute detail. His relentless demands on engineers sometimes provoked them to hysteria. When the house was supposed to be finally completed, he decided that the ceiling of one room had to be raised by three centimetres!

Hermine thought that Ludwig’s musical sensibility was enhanced when, as a school-teacher, he learned to play the clarinet which he carried about in an old stocking. She speaks of Ludwig’s ‘almost morbidly painful’ sensitivity which made it difficult for him to fit into some social surroundings. But he had ‘a big heart’; and ‘what vitality one received from every conversation one had with him!’

With the other authors of these Recollections the scene shifts to the 1930s and 40s, when Wittgenstein was a lecturer and later a professor at Cambridge. We hear of his unconventional and sometimes brutal directness. To Leavis, the distinguished literary critic, he said, without prelude: ‘Give up literary criticism!’ Fania Pascal, who was teaching Russian to Wittgenstein and his friend Francis Skinner, was delighted by being elected to the Cambridge Committee of the Friends of the Soviet Union, and imparted the good news to them. Wittgenstein told her firmly that political work would do her great harm: ‘What you should do is to be kind to others. Nothing else.’ Later on, longing to do something that would take her out of the house, she was happy to be asked to conduct a WEA course on current events. Wittgenstein wrote her a harsh letter from Norway, telling her that she must not give that course – it was wrong for her, it was evil and damaging. Thirty-five years later she still smarted from the severity of that letter. According to her, Wittgenstein was ‘remarkably unself-conscious’, unaware of his capacity to wound or of the fear that he inspired in people. He had no regard for status, class, worldly success. He made stern demands on himself as well as on others. During the seven years she knew him, he seemed to Mrs Pascal to be ‘the least neurotic of men. His single-mindedness, resoluteness and will-power make him stand out as a prophet ...’ ‘He was not intrigued or amused by human nature ... he was sure this nature was evil; and his attitude to it was one of despair.’ She saw him as a ‘free’ man, one who had given up wealth, community, close national ties, pretence, adaptation. ‘The awe in which he was held by those who knew him was due to this freedom of his.’ Yet he had to do his philosophical work unremittingly, and for this he depended on a small band of students. ‘This was the only tie that bound him.’ Anticipating the currently fashionable question of whether that tie was in any way a homosexual one, Mrs Pascal says that to her and her husband Wittgenstein always seemed to be ‘a person of unforced chastity’ (an observation with which I agree). When she asked her husband what he had learned from his conversations with Wittgenstein, his reply was that only those thoughts and opinions should be entertained to which you are entirely pledged. ‘It was this,’ says Mrs Pascal, ‘that made all Wittgenstein’s views and even occasional remarks memorable.’

Was Wittgenstein a good university teacher? Leavis did not think so. He never attended Wittgenstein’s lectures: but he knew some of the young men who did, and saw no evidence that Wittgenstein’s influence resulted in ‘fortified intellectual powers’. Leavis didn’t believe that any of the students, or even mature philosophers, who attended were able to be serious collaborators in the discussions. He thought that ‘the wonder and the profit for the lecture-audience lay in the opportunity to witness the sustained spontaneous effort of intellectual genius wrestling with its self-proposed problems.’ Perhaps this was true in many cases. But there was another kind of influence. John King, an under-graduate member of those classes and a friend, viewed Wittgenstein ‘as a man of high moral, intellectual and artistic integrity ... tolerant of those who had less ability than himself and never censorious except of what he considered humbug, hypocrisy, affectation’. King believed that Wittgenstein ‘saw a high seriousness and purpose in life’, and he quotes his words: ‘Of one thing I am certain – we are not here in order to have a good time.’

There are amusing incidents. Wittgenstein told Drury that when he went the first time to visit Gottlob Frege, the famous logician, he had a definite image of what Frege would look like. He rang the bell and a man opened the door. Wittgenstein said that he had come to see Professor Frege. ‘I am Professor Frege.’ ‘Impossible!’ said Wittgenstein. He told Drury that at this early time his ideas were so unclear that Frege ‘wiped the floor’ with him.

Drury gives many indications of Wittgenstein’s various attitudes towards his own philosophical work. He said that he wanted it to be ‘business-like’, ‘to get something settled’: ‘My father was a business man, and I am a business man too.’ ‘A bad philosopher is like a slum landlord. It is my job to put him out of business.’ But in 1949, when he was wondering what title to give to his book (the Philosophical Investigations), and Drury suggested calling it ‘Philosophy’, Wittgenstein replied angrily: ‘Don’t be such a complete ass – how could I use a word that has meant so much in the history of mankind? As if my work wasn’t only a small fragment of philosophy.’

In response to a comment about Hegel by Drury, Wittgenstein said: ‘Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things which look different are really the same. Whereas my interest is in showing that things which look the same are really different.’ He had thought of using a sentence from King Lear, ‘I’ll teach you differences,’ as a motto for his book. In 1944 he wrote to Drury that he was reading the Theaetetus: ‘Plato in this dialogue is occupied with the same problems that I am writing about.’ In 1948 Drury was reading the Parmenides and said he couldn’t make head or tail of it. Wittgenstein: ‘That dialogue seems to me among the most profound of Plato’s writings.’ In 1949 he said to Drury that his own kind of thinking was not wanted in the present age: ‘Perhaps in a hundred years people will really want what I am writing.’ In the same conversation he made this striking remark: ‘I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ Drury rightly observes that such a remark raises the question of whether there is not a dimension of Wittgenstein’s thought that has been largely ignored.

Drury provides a wealth of information about Wittgenstein’s musical and literary perceptions. Drury had been listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and remarked how impressed he was by the second movement. Wittgenstein: ‘The chord with which that slow movement opens is the colour of that sky’ (pointing). Drury: ‘The slow movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto is one of the greatest things in music’ Wittgenstein: ‘There Beethoven is writing not just for his own time or culture but for the whole human race.’ Of Augustine’s Confessions Wittgenstein remarked that it is possibly the ‘most serious book ever written’. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he considered a remarkable piece of writing. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy was one of his favourite books: he recalled the discussion of infant prodigies, where one of the company said that he knew an infant who produced a work on the day he was born, and Dr Slop replied that it should have been wiped up and nothing more said about it. Wittgenstein added: ‘Now that you could say about a lot that is written today.’ Cowper and Blake were two of his favourite English poets: he quoted some of Blake’s verses from memory. In 1936 he gave Drury a copy of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and told him that when he first read it he said to himself: ‘Here at last is a psychologist who has something to say.’ Twelve years later he remarked: ‘Freud’s work died with him. No one today can do psychoanalysis in ‘the way he did.’ He said to Drury that Kierkegaard was ‘by far the most profound thinker of the last century’, but some years later he remarked that Kierkegaard was ‘too long-winded’. In reading him he wanted to say: ‘Oh, alright I agree, I agree, but please get on with it.’ He told Drury that his favourite Gospel was St Matthew’s. But he couldn’t understand the Fourth Gospel: ‘When I read those long discourses, it seems to me as if a different person is speaking than in the synoptic Gospels.’ He had been reading Luther and said that Luther ‘is like an old gnarled oak, as strong as that.’ But he preferred the English Authorised Version of the Bible to Luther’s German translation: the English translators had such reverence for the text that when they couldn’t make sense of it they were content to leave it unintelligible, ‘but Luther sometimes twists the sense to suit his own ideas.’

Drury provides the best account there is of Wittgenstein’s thoughts and feelings about religion. In their first serious conversation Drury told Wittgenstein of his intention to become ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church. Wittgenstein said to him:

I don’t ridicule this. Anyone who ridicules these matters is a charlatan or worse. But I can’t approve, no I can’t approve ... Just imagine trying to preach a sermon every Sunday, you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t possibly do it. I would be afraid that you would try and elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion. The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words, but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.

In another conversation he said to Drury: ‘It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic. If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him.’ Drury once remarked how impressive were the ancient liturgical prayers of the Latin rite and their translation in the Anglican prayer-book. Wittgenstein responded:

Yes, those prayers read as if they had been soaked in centuries of worship. When I was a prisoner of war in Italy we were compelled to attend Mass on Sundays. I was very glad of that compulsion ... But remember that the Christian religion does not consist in saying a lot of prayers, in fact we are commanded just the opposite. If you and I are to live religious lives, it must not just be that we talk a lot about religion, but that in some way our lives are different.

Many years later Drury, who had become a psychiatrist, told Wittgenstein that he regretted not having lived a religious life. Wittgenstein: ‘It has troubled me that, in some way I never intended, your getting to know me has made you less religious than you would have been had you never met me.’

Wittgenstein had received a letter from an old friend in Austria, a priest, which expressed the hope that Wittgenstein’s work would go well, ‘if it should be God’s will’. Wittgenstein: ‘Now that is all I want: if it should be God’s will. Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, “To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby”. That is what I would have liked to say about my work.’ After Wittgenstein’s death in Cambridge the small group of his friends gathered there were in doubt about the funeral arrangements. Finally Drury said: ‘I remember that Wittgenstein once told me of an incident in Tolstoy’s life. When Tolstoy’s brother died, Tolstoy, who was then a stern critic of the Russian Orthodox Church, sent for the parish priest and had his brother interred according to the orthodox rite. “Now,” said Wittgenstein, “that is exactly what I should have done in a similar case.” ’ Whereupon those present agreed that the usual Roman Catholic prayers should be said by a priest at the graveside.

Despite Wittgenstein’s frequent harshness and explosive temper, these Recollections are witness to numerous acts of friendship and affection. Although Wittgenstein had a poor opinion of W.E. Johnson’s three-volume work on logic, and Johnson in turn thought that Wittgenstein was arrogant and a disastrous influence in Cambridge, yet when Johnson’s health began to deteriorate ‘no one,’ says Drury, ‘could have shown more sympathetic solicitude than Wittgenstein did.’ He went frequently to Johnson’s home to play chess with him, and often was the audience while Johnson played Bach on the piano, since Wittgenstein knew that Johnson would not play unless he had a listener. A friend of Drury’s had become mentally ill. Drury was deeply distressed by this and decided to be trained as a male nurse in a mental hospital, informing Wittgenstein of his decision by letter. Immediately there was a telegram: ‘Come to Cambridge at once.’ Wittgenstein and Skinner awaited him at the station and he had scarcely got out of the train when Wittgenstein said: ‘Now there is to be no more argument about this, it has all been settled already, you are to start work as a medical student at once. I have arranged with two wealthy friends of mine to help you financially, and I shall be able to help you myself.’ Drury was taken aback, but eventually said that he did not want to sponge on others. Wittgenstein:

You are not sponging on others. There is nothing I dislike so much as a sponger. But you never asked for this. It has been given you as a willing gift. To refuse it now would be nothing but obstinate pride.

When Drury was in his first period of hospital residence he was dismayed by his ignorance and clumsiness. He told Wittgenstein that perhaps it had been a mistake for him to become a doctor. The next day he received a letter:

You said in the Park yesterday that possibly you had made a mistake in having taken up medicine: you immediately added that probably it was wrong to think such a thing at all. I am sure it is. But not because being a doctor you may not go the wrong way, or go to the dogs, but because if you do, this has nothing to do with your choice of a profession being a mistake. For what human being can say what would have been the right thing if this is the wrong one? You didn’t make a mistake because there was nothing at the time you knew or ought to have known that you overlooked ... The thing now is to live in the world in which you are, not to think or dream about the world you would like to be in. Look at people’s sufferings, physical and mental, you have them close at hand, and this ought to be a good remedy for your troubles ... Look at your patients more closely as human beings in trouble and enjoy more the opportunity you have to say ‘good night’ to so many people. This alone is a gift from heaven which many people would envy you.

In 1941 Drury was posted to the Middle East. Wittgenstein came to Liverpool to say goodbye to him, and presented him with a silver drinking cup. Wittgenstein: ‘Water tastes so much nicer out of silver. There is only one condition attached to this gift: you are not to worry if it gets lost.’ Later in the war Drury was posted back to England to be a medical officer in a landing craft in the Normandy invasion. When he came to say goodbye one remark of Wittgenstein’s was: ‘If it ever happens that you get mixed up in hand to hand fighting, you must just stand aside and let yourself be massacred.’

Several times in the course of his life Wittgenstein expressed the wish to live in Russia. Those who knew him never had a clear idea of what his motives might be, Fania Pascal thought that possibly it was a desire to escape from Western civilisation. She surmised that ‘his feeling for Russia would have had at all times more to do with Tolstoy’s moral teachings, with Dostoevsky’s spiritual insights, than with any political or social matters.’ Also, the hardship of life in Russia in the 1930s ‘might have appealed to Wittgenstein’s ascetic nature’. Rush Rhees thinks that Wittgenstein might have wanted to practise medicine in the newly colonised areas on the periphery of the USSR, where life would be primitive. He also says that Wittgenstein was strongly sympathetic with the emphasis that the Russian regime at that time placed on ‘manual labour’. But in 1945 when Rhees told Wittgenstein of his feeling that he ought to join the Communist Party, Wittgenstein cautioned him against this step. The gist of his remarks was: when you are a member of the party you have to speak and act as the party has decided, whereas in doing philosophy you have to be ready constantly to change the direction in which you are moving.

Wittgenstein visited Russia in the summer of 1935, and then returned to teaching and writing in Cambridge. He did not speak to Rhees, or apparently to others, of the impressions he had received. And he was not a person to whom one would say, ‘Well, Wittgenstein, what did you think of Russia?’

In 1937 Wittgenstein came to see Fania Pascal, announcing abruptly: ‘I have come to make a confession.’ He had just been to Professor G.E. Moore for the same purpose. Also in 1931 he had written out a confession and insisted that Drury read it. The topics of the confessions were apparently two: first, that he had more Jewish ancestry than his friends realised, and that he had done nothing to remove this misapprehension; second, that when he was a schoolmaster in Austria in the 1920s he had struck one of his pupils in anger and then had later denied doing it.

Rhees’s discussion of these bizarre confessions gives them an unexpected depth. For Wittgenstein, the importance of a confession was that it should produce a change in one’s life. In 1931 he wrote in a notebook: ‘A confession must be a part of the new life.’ And in 1937 he wrote: ‘Last year with God’s help I pulled myself together and made a confession. This brought me into more settled waters, into a better relation with people, and to greater seriousness. But now it is as though I had spent all that, and I am not far from where I was before.’ During his service in the First World War, and frequently thereafter, Wittgenstein expressed the need to become a ‘different man’, to become ‘a decent human being’. Would this mean that he would no longer be the ‘unheroic’ and ‘cowardly’ person that he felt himself to be? Rhees suggests that instead for Wittgenstein it would mean coming to recognise his own nature, ceasing to disguise it from himself. A confession might help to achieve this. Only this kind of self-understanding would rid him of ‘falsity’, the falsity of self-deception.

This need to understand his own nature was connected for Wittgenstein, not only with his wanting to be a completely honest human being, but also with the quality of his philosophical work. If he wasn’t truthful about himself, then his writing would not be truthful. In a notebook of 1938 he wrote: ‘Whoever is unwilling to descend into himself, because it is too painful, will of course remain superficial in his writing.’ And in the following year he wrote: ‘The truth can be spoken only by one who rests in it; not by one who still rests in falsehood, and who reaches out from falsehood to truth just once.’