Whereof one cannot speak

George Steiner

  • Wittgenstein. A Life: Young Ludwig 1889-1921 by Brian McGuinness
    Duckworth, 322 pp, £15.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7156 0959 9

Why should there be biographies of philosophers? Nietzsche held every philosophical-metaphysical doctrine to be the confession of its begetter. Husserl, on the contrary, believed that a philosophical argument was worth considering only if it aspired to the universality, to the truth-conditions of the anonymous. On neither count is there any need for biographical treatment. In the nature of the case, ‘lives’ of philosophers will either consist of more or less systematic accounts of their teachings, or of gossip. The originator of the genre, Diogenes Laertius, plainly exemplifies the dilemmas and superfluities of the enterprise.

In respect of Wittgenstein – and the primary sense of ‘in respect’ seems to me of the essence – the case is particularly awkward. There were three possibilities. The first is that of simple abstention from biography for, say, a century or so. We do not have a proper edition of Wittgenstein’s writings (the in-fighting now going on between rival claimants to the Nachlass and to authorised versions of the published texts would have filled Wittgenstein with bitter loathing). Until the work is accessible in a thorough and responsible form, central problems of intentionality and of meaning remain insoluble. But even when Wittgenstein’s notebooks, dictations, teaching-texts and (very few) finished statements are available for complete study, extreme difficulties will persist. Wittgenstein’s philosophy – and he would never have accepted the connotations of rounded assurance and finish in that designation – is resistant to understanding and explication. Much in its development, self-rebuke, heuristic methodology and findings may never be altogether cleared up. And in so far as it is a critique of all metaphysical pretentions, and a series of exercises which the reader is meant to reject after having striven with the utmost honesty to repeat them, it is by no means evident that such terminal, historical clarification is pertinent.

In short, what is badly needed are scrupulous commentaries on the Tractatus, on the Investigations, on the writings about the foundations of mathematics and the late, often profoundly enigmatic ‘journals of thought’ which bear on the problem of the perception of colours or on the concept of certitude. The number, if not the quality, of such commentaries is now increasing steadily. Jacques Bouveresse’s minutely analytic examinations of Wittgenstein on mathematics and on formal logic are an encouraging instance.

The second possibility was that of an entirely frank biography, of a ‘life of Ludwig von Wittgenstein’ which would deal with the privacies, with the pain, with the cruelties which he himself sought, so fiercely, to guard. Elements of such a treatment, though strident and (inevitably, perhaps) rhetorical and journalistic in their presentation, can be found in a study by W.W. Bartley which caused much resentment some years back. Wittgenstein’s sexuality would appear to have been homoerotic. It is just possible that this direction led to certain sombre areas of more or less clandestine behaviour. There are attested episodes in Wittgenstein’s life – the breakdown of his relations with the rural community in which he taught young children, his wildly self-chastising but riddling confession to Pia Pascal – which suggest needs and losses of control of a peculiarly ambiguous, hurtful kind. Three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide and he himself very nearly did on repeated occasions. The coalescence, in Wittgenstein’s sensibility, of Jewish self-hatred and of remorse in the face of his outward divorcement from his Jewish descent was, at times, explosive. The politics of the man, be it in regard to Hitler (about whom he recorded a number of most curious, myopic propositions) or in regard to Soviet society (which he very actively, at one point, sought to join), suggest radical instabilities of insight.

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