You are not helpful!

Simon Blackburn

  • Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-51 edited by Brian McGuinness
    Blackwell, 498 pp, £75.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 4051 4701 9

Brian McGuinness has edited and compiled many collections of writings by Wittgenstein and about him, and his 1988 biography, reissued a few years ago as Young Ludwig, as well as being a fascinating account of Wittgenstein’s life up until 1921, also provides one of the best short introductions to the ideas and the style of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In Wittgenstein in Cambridge, a beautifully produced and immaculately edited volume, he collects together a rich mass of letters and other documents. Of particular interest are the letters to and from Piero Sraffa, the Italian economist whose influence Wittgenstein, unusually, was prepared to acknowledge in his later work. There have been previous volumes of this kind (Ludwig Wittgenstein: Cambridge Letters and Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore), and there is some repetition, but it is a tribute to McGuinness’s extraordinary industry and enthusiasm that he discovers interesting new material. He writes in his introduction:

Another major change and addition to the volume is that I have now included minutes of meetings and discussions that Wittgenstein attended or led and also documents concerning his official status from time to time. Will future generations know the joy of archives? It is touching to think of the young secretaries of the Trinity Mathematical Society writing their proceedings and Wittgenstein’s words into those leather-bound volumes, before going off to calculate the effect of tides off the invasion coast of France.

McGuinness is not alone in his fascinated quest. Wittgenstein was a celebrity as soon as he arrived in Cambridge, dazzling, puzzling and irritating people in about equal measure. Almost everyone who knew him felt the shock of his extraordinary personality, and many were moved to write memoirs and accounts of their experience. One exception was my own supervisor at Cambridge in the 1960s, Casimir Lewy, who had attended Wittgenstein’s legendary classes in the 1930s and 1940s but remained sceptical of the magic, and spent a good deal of energy warning his students against being seduced by it. Yet he once told me that when Wittgenstein died, ‘I, Lewy, had a dream. And the content of this dream was: Wittgenstein cannot possibly be dead!’ He waited for this to sink in, then continued with a mischievous cackle: ‘And you know, I thought this cast considerable light on the phenomenon of the resurrection.’ The comparison had been made before: when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, Keynes wrote to his wife: ‘Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.’

It is possible to take very different views about the relation between the biography of philosophers, or indeed authors in general, and their work. Thomas Nagel, for instance, has suggested that they have practically nothing to do with one another. Philosophical work is autonomous: it stands on its own feet, and interpretation of it should be based on what it contains. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, on the other hand, believed that ‘what kind of philosophy one chooses thus depends on what kind of man one is: for a philosophical system is not a dead stick of furniture that one can lay aside or select; rather it animates the very soul of the man who has it.’ And is animated by that soul, one might add. There is no easy resolution to this issue, for much depends on how the biography is done. It does not help with the interpretation of Kant’s first Critique to know that in his youth he hustled in billiard saloons, but it would be profligate to throw away what is known about Wittgenstein’s soul.

Thus G.H. von Wright, a friend and Wittgenstein’s successor at Cambridge, once said that the two most important facts to remember about him were, first, that he was Viennese, and second that he was an engineer. The Viennese background, brilliantly documented by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, alerts us to the linguistic and moral preoccupations that Wittgenstein shared with others of his generation before ever coming into the orbit of Frege and Russell. And the physics and engineering provide the key to the way his first work, the Tractatus, generalises Heinrich Hertz’s reconstruction of the language of classical mechanics into an account of all representational language. Hertz thought that when mechanics was formulated properly the puzzles and contradictions that plagued its notions of force and energy ‘will not have been answered; but our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask illegitimate questions.’ From first to last this was Wittgenstein’s general hope about the nature of his philosophy. It would, I believe, be almost impossible to understand the Tractatus without this clue, but with it puzzling doctrines such as the distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown, and the entire ‘ethical’ or ‘mystical’ end to the work, which Wittgenstein also conceived as its purpose, fall into place.

That said, the current volume is a little disappointing as an aid to understanding Wittgenstein, perhaps serving better as a portrait of an almost vanished Cambridge. It is hard not to sympathise with those kindly, civilised, forgiving, thoroughly English dons as Wittgenstein demanded their time, installed himself in their houses, made them listen to his confessions and told them how to conduct their lives, only to turn around moments later and reject them as stupid, boorish, bourgeois or worse. It must have been rather as if Ivan Karamazov had suddenly materialised in the close at Barchester. No doubt Wittgenstein’s father, Karl, an Austrian steel magnate, bore some responsibility for the relentless soul-searching, the sense of sin and the pervasive unhappiness that beset his youngest son – and indeed nearly all his sons, for three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide. More salient, however, was Wittgenstein’s obsessive, puritanical concern for integrity as a reaction against the ossified hypocrisies of late Habsburg Vienna, a reaction he shared with alienated writers such as Karl Kraus, and architects like Adolf Loos. From such a perspective, the ordinary courtesies of social life, let alone high-table life, seemed to Wittgenstein no better than the false ornamentations, the stifling social dishonesties of the censored, conformist, self-deceived world of the last of the Kaisers und Königs. The results were certainly disconcerting. F.R. Leavis recounted in his memoir a number of examples of what one might take to be Wittgenstein’s rudeness and arrogance, yet Leavis was careful to say that the words would be inappropriate. He eventually settled for ‘the disinterested regardlessness in which his genius manifested itself’ and an ‘element of childlike prime-sautier inconsiderateness’ – clumsy phrases, but gesturing at an awkward reality.

Many of these letters, plaintively concerned with money and support, health problems and requests for leave, suggest that the other side of his harshness was a deep-seated need to be needy. They make it hard not to suspect that his famous gesture of giving away all his inherited wealth helped him to remain ‘little Luki’, the darling youngest child who felt most loved when things were being done for him by parents and siblings. In coming to Cambridge, and especially to the munificent Trinity College, he found the shelter he required, enjoying constant nursing, first from Russell, then from a long succession of others including W.E. Johnson, Frank Ramsey, Keynes, Moore, Sraffa, Norman Malcolm and finally, literally, from Dr Bevan and his family, who took him into their home and cared for him during his final illness. It is amazing to think of those ornaments of the golden age of the don, seemingly happy to give unlimited time and hospitality to such a difficult guest. These days we would be more inclined to shrink away, fearing the disruption of RAE deadlines and unmet administrative demands, not to mention the rebellion of family members, unhappy at being told what to eat and how to cook it. Even to mention the RAE in the same paragraph as Wittgenstein provokes a bitter smile: he published almost nothing after the Tractatus in 1921, nothing in the years before ascending to the Cambridge chair, and nothing from then until his death. Yet, like Newton, he worked obsessively and his influence was incalculable.

Sraffa too was remembered by students as a critical, fastidious and aloof man, and clearly had something of the same force of character. One of the more amusing letters in this volume is from Wittgenstein to Sraffa, and ends:

I wish to say one more thing: I think that your fault in a discussion is this: you are not helpful! I am like a man inviting you to tea to my room; but my room is hardly furnished, one has to sit on boxes and the teacups stand on the floor and the cups have no handles, etc etc. I hustle about fetching anything I can think of to make it possible that we should have tea together. You stand about with a sulky face; say that you can’t sit down on a box and can’t hold a cup without a handle, and generally make things difficult. At least that’s how it seems to me.

It would be hard to find a better case of the pot calling the kettle black.

One of Wittgenstein’s most famous remarks is that philosophy is ‘a struggle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’. The correspondence with Sraffa included in the present volume shows one instance – a slightly disappointing one – of the kind of bewitchment that Wittgenstein felt he could remove. They talk about the idea that fashions change because tastes change. Wittgenstein says that this is a pseudo-explanation, for it suggests a preceding mentality, a ‘reservoir’ foreshadowing the actual change in what people wear or choose. And that is an illusion. Furthermore, Wittgenstein implies, it is a dangerous illusion, for if we think in this way of the mentality of a people, we will convince ourselves that it is fixed and a given – something that cannot change. Whereas the truth is that there is only a pattern of choices, and there is nothing unchanging or unchangeable there. If his point is simply that talk of taste is merely a shorthand summing up various actual habits and choices, not the invocation of an underlying reality that explains them, then it seems perfectly just. But it wouldn’t be at all original: he could have learned it from Fritz Mauthner, Russell or Hertz himself, many years before. Suspicion of the explanatory pretensions of such abstraction is as old as philosophy and was certainly par for the course in the Vienna of Ernst Mach.

The point could take on an unpleasantly puritanical tone. Norman Malcolm recorded that Wittgenstein was furious with him when he said that it was against the ‘British national character’ to try to countenance the assassination of a tyrant like Hitler. That outburst goes further and seems quite unwarranted, since whether or not such notions give us anything by way of explanation, it would be much harder to defend the idea that they should be banished altogether. True, Wittgenstein might have been especially sensitive to mention of the Volk or the Geist, two vehicles for the kind of cant that he especially loathed. But he himself frequently ruminated about the ‘spirit’ of books, people, music and epochs, and the notion of the character of a people is philosophically no more objectionable than that of the spirit of a symphony.

A salient example of the life helping with the interpretation may be provided by a faultline running through both the early masterpiece, the Tractatus, and the late classic, the Investigations. In each, problems are presented, and then what look like arguments, theses and explanations. But in both cases these expositions are surrounded or framed by the claim that philosophy does not and cannot issue in arguments, theses and explanations. The Tractatus tells us that if it is understood it is itself revealed as nonsense, while the later work is shot through with animadversions against the activity of philosophy – the activity of which it is itself an outstanding example.

Some commentators have taken these framing remarks very seriously, as if the bulk of the Tractatus in particular were simply some kind of Aunt Sally, written merely as something to be jeered at. But there is no reason to doubt that at the time of writing it Wittgenstein took the theory of language that is apparently expressed in the text seriously, and indeed he quite frequently wrestles with it in his later work. So what are we to make of the framing remarks decrying it as senseless? If Wittgenstein was, as he appears to be, offering an injunction to himself in the iconic final sentence of the Tractatus (‘whereof we cannot speak, thereon we must be silent’), then why didn’t he follow it and tear up the book? As the very English Ramsey tartly remarked in an early review of the work: ‘What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.’

But when one reads the biography, the framing remarks fall into place. Cynically, they might be seen as characteristical defensive and evasive manoeuvres, part of a noli me tangere obsession which was evident everywhere in his personality. But there is also a more charitable interpretation. The idea that there are things that can be shown but not said is an old religious trope, and one that Wittgenstein, with his deep sense of the importance of music and his admiration for Tolstoy and Kierkegaard, must have found entirely congenial. Fritz Mauthner had previously written that ‘as soon as we really have something to say, we are forced to be silent.’ Wittgenstein’s views of the limits of representation failed, like many philosophies, to make a place for their own scientific or factual credentials. But the biography does help us to understand the intensity with which he felt that philosophy aspires to the condition of music (so Ramsey’s jibe spectacularly backfires).

Wittgenstein’s declarations that he was doing something quite new and unique, different from anything in philosophy before him, and with a vanishingly small likelihood of being understood, invite a similar biographical understanding, for these declarations frame discussions which sometimes seem quite similar in direction to those of previous and contemporary philosophers (he was not always so intent on his own originality: in 1931 there is a notebook entry lamenting that he had never had an original thought). There are certainly striking similarities between some themes in the later Wittgenstein and those to be found independently in Collingwood, for example, just as there had been striking similarities between some doctrines of the Tractatus and work by Bolzano, Hertz and others. The idea that it is language that lets us down, and that philosophy should be seen as a kind of therapy, an activity to ‘show the fly the way out of the fly bottle’ is also familiar. Berkeley talked of the need to penetrate the mist and veil of words, while ancient sceptics liked the therapeutic trope of philosophy as a purgative that expelled itself along with whatever else it dislodged. In turn, Wittgenstein’s promise that he could produce a ‘perspicuous representation’ of how things stand, thus removing our perplexities, sounds not too far from the ambition of traditional philosophers. To find a ‘perspicuous representation’ of knowledge, or reason, or causation, or scientific method, clearly requires work, and it is exactly the kind of work that Wittgenstein’s predecessors undertook. If we think of Kant’s response to scepticism, for instance, then why should we not describe it as trying to gain a perspicuous representation of the field of knowledge, outlining where it is present and the boundaries beyond which it cannot be had? Then Wittgenstein’s repeated insistence that he was setting about something completely different from his predecessors begins to look more like a vainglorious delusion than the manifestation of genius.

When I began writing this review I checked the British Library catalogue. It listed 896 books having Wittgenstein as a subject, but now that I near the end it lists 901. Yet metaphysics and naive philosophies of mind now flourish as if his work had never been written, while philosophies of language centred on the idea of states of affairs as ‘truth makers’ bear a clear resemblance to the doctrines, or the nonsense, of the Tractatus. Even the philosophy of religion carries on as if we were still arguing about affirming or denying the existence of a three-decker universe run by an invisible creator, oblivious to Wittgenstein’s comparison of religion not with a failed attempt to provide a scientific explanation of the world, but with ritual, myth and poetry. Philosophy now also likes to ally itself with science, in its self-image at least, in a way that Wittgenstein would have found contemptible: he thought the worship of science one of the worst signs of the degeneration of his times. It is important to understand this hostility in the right perspective. Wittgenstein was trained as an engineer, admired the works of Hertz, Helmholtz and especially Boltzmann, and all his life showed a marked affinity with mechanical things; during the Second World War he worked on improving instruments in a physiology laboratory. He respected scientific work, but believed that ‘scientism’ – the belief that all human thought, including thought in religion, the humanities, ethics or aesthetics, should seek to provide their own scientific explanations of things – was a terrible mistake. One of his preoccupations, both in the earlier and the later periods of his life, was how to make room for the other kind of thought, how it works, and what its results might be.

For philosophers, there remain the works. And the many non-philosophers who are nonetheless intrigued by the man might well take a look at McGuinness’s book after reading the first-hand memoirs by people such as his Russian teacher Fania Pascal, or his student Norman Malcolm, who may deserve the last word. Wittgenstein’s own final words were: ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.’ Malcolm comments:

When I think of his profound pessimism, the intensity of his mental and moral suffering, the relentless way in which he drove his intellect, his need for love together with the harshness that repelled love, I am inclined to believe that his life was fiercely unhappy. Yet at the end he himself exclaimed that it had been ‘wonderful’! To me this seems a mysterious and strangely moving utterance.