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Wittgenstein’s Bag of RaisinsNorman Malcolm

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Vol. 3 No. 3 · 19 February 1981

Wittgenstein’s Bag of Raisins

Norman Malcolm

Culture and Value 
by Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by G.H. von Wright, Heikki Nyman and Peter Winch.
Blackwell, 94 pp., £9.50, September 1980, 0 631 12752 6
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In the huge amount of writing left by Wittgenstein there often occur notes that do not belong directly to his treatment of particular philosophical problems. The notes pertain to a wide variety of topics, including music, art, architecture, poetry, dreams, humour, culture, civilisation, philosophy, faith, God, talent, originality, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner. It seemed to Georg Henrik Von Wright, one of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, that many of these reflections would be of interest to people who would not read Wittgenstein’s philosophical work, even though the best understanding of most of them requires the background of that work. Fifteen years ago Von Wright began selecting this material, the first result being several hundred pages of remarks. This was felt to be too bulky for publication and, regrettably, it was drastically reduced. This shortened version, first published in the original German as Vermischte Bermerkungen (Miscellaneous Remarks), now appears with facing English translation by Peter Winch. (The title Culture and Value will make Wittgenstein turn in his grave.)

For those who see Wittgenstein as the creator of a great new direction in philosophy it may come as a shock to learn that he did not regard himself as an original thinker. In 1931 he wrote:

I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking, I have always taken one over from someone else. I have simply straightaway seized on it with enthusiasm for my work of clarification. That is how Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me.

He has ‘taste’: but taste is not creative power. ‘The faculty of “taste” cannot create a new structure, it can only make adjustments to one that already exists. Taste loosens and tightens screws, it does not build a new piece of machinery.’ This was written in 1947, after he had composed Part I of Philosophical Investigations. He goes on to say:

I am not able to judge whether I have only taste, or also originality. The former I can see clearly but not the other, or only quite indistinctly. And perhaps this is how it has to be, and you can only see what you have, not what you are.

The following year he says of his own philosophical remarks: ‘Raisins may be the best part of a cake; but a bag of raisins is not better than a cake; and someone who is in a position to give us a bag full of raisins still can’t bake a cake with them, let alone do something better.’ He is harsh on himself. ‘I am too soft, too weak, and so too rotten [faul] to achieve anything significant. The industry of great men is, among other things, a sign of their strength, quite apart from their inner wealth.’

Wittgenstein linked the notions of genius, character, strength, courage. ‘The measure of genius is character, – even though character on its own does not amount to genius. Genius is not “talent plus character”, but character manifesting itself in the form of a special talent.’ ‘Genius is courage in talent.’ ‘Bach said that all his achievements were simply the fruit of industry. But industry like that requires humility and an enormous capacity for suffering, hence strength. And someone who, with all this, can express himself perfectly, speaks to us in the language of a great man.’ Wittgenstein was aware that he had a special talent but didn’t think of this as amounting to anything like greatness. It was only vanity that sometimes led him to imagine that he was an extraordinary person. He makes a comment about Mahler that is also about himself:

If it is true that Mahler’s music is worthless, as I believe, then the question is what I think he ought to have done with his talent. For quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music. Should he, say, have written his symphonies and then burned them? Or should he have done violence to himself and not written them? Should he have written them and realised that they were worthless? But how could he have realised that? I see it, because I can compare his music with what the greater composers wrote. But he could not, because though perhaps someone to whom such a comparison has occurred may have misgivings about the value of his work through seeing, as it were, that his nature is not that of the other great composers, – that still does not mean that he will recognise its worthlessness; for he can always tell himself that though he is certainly different from the rest (whom he nevertheless admires), his work has a different kind of value. Perhaps we might say: If nobody you admire is like you, then presumably you believe in your own value only because you are you. – Even someone who is struggling against vanity will, if his struggle is not completely successful, still deceive himself about the value of his own work.

Wittgenstein makes striking remarks about the music of other composers. For example:

In Beethoven’s music what may be called the expression of irony makes an appearance for the first time. E.g. in the first movement of the Ninth. With him, moreover, it’s a terrible irony, the irony of fate perhaps. – Irony reappears with Wagner, but in the civic mode. One could certainly say that both Wagner and Brahms, each in a different way, imitated Beethoven; but what in him was cosmic becomes earthly with them.

The following is an excerpt from a long passage in which he addresses the difficult question of what it is to understand music:

Understanding and explaining a musical phrase. – Sometimes the simplest explanation is a gesture; on another occasion it might be a dance step, or words describing a dance. – But isn’t understanding the phrase experiencing something while we hear it? In that case what part does the explanation play? Are we supposed to think of it as we hear the music? Are we supposed to imagine the dance, or whatever it may be, while we listen? And suppose we do this – why should that be called listening to the music with understanding? If seeing the dance is what is important, it would be better to perform that rather than the music. But that is all misunderstanding.

The misunderstanding is to suppose that the understanding of a musical passage is something that goes on in you when you hear the music – which would be like supposing that understanding a road sign is an event that occurs when you see the sign.

On the controverted issue of whether a work of art is supposed to convey a feeling:

There is a lot to be learned from Tolstoy’s bad theorising about how a work of art conveys ‘a feeling’. – You really could call it, not the expression of a feeling, but an expression of feeling, or a felt expression. And you could say too that in so far as people understand it, they ‘resonate’ in harmony with it, respond to it. You might say: the work of art does not aim to convey something else, but just itself. Just as, when I pay someone a visit, I don’t just want to produce in him such and such feelings; but what I mainly want is to visit him, though of course I should like to be well received too.

  And it does start to get quite absurd if you say that an artist wants the feelings he had when writing to be experienced by someone who reads his work. Presumably I can think I understand a poem (e.g.), understand it as its author would wish me to – but what he may have felt in writing it doesn’t concern me at all.

Wittgenstein’s work with a philosophical problem was distinguished by, among other things, extraordinary persistence. He would tackle the same problem again and again from different angles. This was not just a personal peculiarity. The complex entwinings of philosophical confusion thrust their roots in many directions. A sensitive treatment must search out all those ways: therefore one can’t be in a hurry! This idea is captured in the remark: ‘In philosophy the winner of the race is the one who can run most slowly. Or: the one who gets there last.’

A philosopher in a tangle will be tempted to say or think absurdities. Wittgenstein thought that one should not back away from this nonsense, or avoid it by clever manoeuvres. Instead, let it come out; but then, reflect on it, try to see how you got there. ‘Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.’ ‘It’s only by thinking even more crazily than philosophers do that you can solve their problems.’ ‘Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.’

The selection of remarks for Culture and Value contains what some people will think to be a surprising number of reflections on religious belief. Wittgenstein sharply distinguished it from superstition. ‘Religious faith and superstition are entirely different. One arises from fear and is a sort of false science. The other is a trusting.’ A stand is taken against any attempt to justify religious belief.

Religion says: Do this! – Think like that! – but it cannot justify this and once it even tries to, it becomes repellent; because for every reason it offers there is a valid counter-reason. It is more convincing to say: ‘Think like this! – however strangely it may strike you.’ Or: ‘Won’t you do this? – however repugnant you find it.’

His own struggles against vanity and coldness are reflected in these remarks:

Understanding oneself properly is difficult, because an action to which one might be prompted by good, generous motives is something one may also be doing out of cowardice or indifference. Certainly, one may be acting in such and such a way out of genuine love, but equally out of deceitfulness, or a cold heart. Just as not all gentleness is goodness. And only if I were able to submerge myself in religion could these doubts be stilled. Because only religion would have the power to destroy vanity and penetrate all the crevices.

Many of Wittgenstein’s thoughts are turned specifically on Christianity. This is often said to be a ‘historical’ religion: i.e. based on actual events in history. He gives a remarkable twist to this idea.

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, – but: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life. Here you have a narrative, – don’t take the same attitude to it as you do to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.

He thought that there did not have to be any logical confusion in both giving the historical narrative a central place and yet not applying to it the normal standards of historical verification.

The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this: not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’! Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief.

Christianity speaks to people who are in anguish, who feel lost. The important message it brings is, not a theology, but the command to live, think and feel differently.

I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life ... It says that all wisdom is cold; and that you can no more use it for setting your life to rights than you can forge iron when it is cold.

Sometimes he wrote in tones of despair. This was not evoked by his marked discontent with his philosophical thinking, but by what he felt to be his moral and spiritual wretchedness. He had a clear vision that rescue could lie only in a passionate faith that would bring with it a completely different life: yet he was of the conviction that he could not, or would not, turn in that new direction.

If I am to be really saved – what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.

His greatest need was for something that would cure the passions of his soul rather than for deeper philosophical insight, though he wanted that too. He believed that this greater need could be satisfied by Christian faith. In 1944 he wrote:

The Christian religion is only for one who needs infinite help, solely, that is, for one who feels infinite torment. The whole planet cannot be in greater torment than a single soul. The Christian faith – as I see it – is one’s refuge in this ultimate torment. One to whom it is given, in this torment, to open his heart, rather than to contract it, accepts the means of salvation in his heart.

Wittgenstein felt that the power to open his heart had not been given to him.

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