The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books
Born into a wealthy Viennese family, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was the glamour boy of English philosophy in the 20th century, and in the new millennium his influence continues to be potent. If there are still English philosophers who seem to prefer it when nothing is discussed except the means of discussion, their memories of Wittgenstein are probably the reason. Before World War I, there was a period when only Bertrand Russell knew who Wittgenstein was. After valuable false starts as a student of engineering in Berlin and Manchester, Wittgenstein had come to Cambridge to study mathematical logic under Russell, who had the humility (a virtue of Russell’s that offset many of his vices) to spot an intellect potentially superior to his own. During the Great War, Wittgenstein fought for Austria as an artillery officer. Captured by the Italians, in the prison camp at Monte Cassino he completed the work we now know as the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, a set of aphorisms based on the principle that language is a combination of propositions picturing the facts of which the world is composed. Under the impression that he had brought philosophy to an end, Wittgenstein gave away his money and took up the simple life in Austria as a schoolteacher, a gardener’s assistant, and an amateur architect.
He resembled T.E. Lawrence both in his homosexuality and in his recurring desire to retreat from a stage whose center he seemed born to occupy. Realizing, however, that philosophy was not over after all, he returned to Cambridge in 1929. First as a research fellow and then as a full professor, he developed a second philosophical phase, or emphasis, in which his original concept of language as a set of pictures was, if not repudiated, certainly elaborated into something more subtle—infinitely more subtle, because he now saw communication as a whole family of language games in which the meanings of words depended on their use. Usage, however, was not everything. A given line of argument could be outright wrong, especially if it sought obsessively for a unity that could not exist. Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it.
During World War II, he voluntarily served as a hospital porter in London and a lab assistant in Newcastle, but he never said anything in print about the Nazis. Apart from the Tractatus, all his books, collected from notes made from his lectures, were published posthumously. No student should miss the key work of his second phase, Philosophical Investigations (1953), but not even in that otherwise electrifying book is there any sense of current events. His silence might not have been an act of will. It could have been that words failed him. There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps, he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak and broke down in tears. But in the few years left to him before his death from cancer, he still resolutely declined to say anything specific about the era he had lived through. He had helped to shape it, but only by ignoring it.
Not that Wittgenstein believed there was anything peripheral about his subject. As we know from one of his letters to the linguist C.K. Ogden, he thought nothing could beat the thrill of philosophy. Clearly, for him, close, penetrating reasoning was an aesthetic experience on the level of the Schubert C Major Quintet, which he thought possessed “a fantastic kind of greatness.” But for Wittgenstein it was the thought that was seductive, not the language. A condition in which the thing said exceeded the thing talked about was not a condition he could admit, and especially not in poetry. He despised Bertrand Russell’s attempts to write plain-language philosophy on a high aesthetic level. Russell wanted to be Spinoza, and Wittgenstein devastated him by telling him he was wasting his time. Wittgenstein was undoubtedly being sincere. He would have thought the same sort of aim a waste of effort even if it came from himself. Yet he himself was in the first rank of German writers. As an aphorist he had no superior and only a few peers: Goethe, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Schnitzler, Kafka, Polgar—the list is quite short, and for his almost unearthly detachment he can be said to dominate it.
Wittgenstein’s requirement that we should not be seduced by language is understandable in the context of the rich second phase of his philosophy, whose aim we can find summed up for him on his brass plate in Trinity College chapel in Cambridge: “Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse.” (Reason must be released from the chains of speech.) The requirement that we should not be seduced by his language, however, is hard to meet. He had things to say that were as good as Hegel’s line about the owl of Minerva. He was the poet without a context, the poet in the wasteland. His chief fear was that philosophy would be dominated by science. David Pears—whose short book Wittgenstein (1971) remains valuable even in the flood of light cast by Ray Monk’s magnificent biography of 1990—assures us that the whole aim of Wittgenstein’s work was to prevent such a domination. But of course philosophy is dominated by science, if philosophy is thought of as a subject in itself. What Wittgenstein proved is that the dominance of science does not extend to language, and that philosophy, as a corollary, is present in all the considered language that is ever used. Far from it being hard to say something significant, to say something insignificant is almost impossible, even for a baby just old enough to know that babbling makes it popular.
Wittgenstein’s glamour was Garbo-esque. When Wittgenstein was in the room, even Isaiah Berlin was at a loss for words. He placed such an emphasis on precision of language that he made the merely eloquent feel slovenly. To get Wittgenstein in perspective, it required first of all his death, and then some unsentimental reflection on the breathtaking scope of what he had never talked about. He received credit for giving away the large amount of money he had inherited, and thus detaching himself from his social privileges and from the involvements and distractions of everyday life. But he also detached himself from everyday life by ignoring what was going on in Europe. The advantage to his philosophical position was that by not saying much, he never said anything ill-considered.
“We acted as though we had tried to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves,” he once wrote. This is the Wittgenstein that matters to a writer. There is a Wittgenstein that matters to professional philosophers, but they can prove it only to each other. In The Blue and Brown Books (Page 137), he proposes a “noticing, seeing, conceiving” process that happens before it can be described in words. That, indeed, is the only way of describing it. It sounds very like the kind of poetic talent that we are left to deal with after we abandon the notion—as we must—that poetic talent is mere verbal ability. “What we call ‘understanding a sentence’ has, in many cases, a much greater similarity to understanding a musical theme than we might be inclined to think.” But he doesn’t want us to think about music as a mechanism to convey a feeling; “Music conveys to us itself!” So, when we read a sentence as if it were a musical theme, the music doesn’t convey a separate sense that compounds with the written meaning. We get the feeling of a musical theme because the sentence means something.
I thought he was getting very close to the treasure chamber when he wrote this. In 1970, reading The Blue and Brown Books every day in the Copper Kettle in Cambridge, I made detailed transcriptions in my journal every few minutes. It didn’t occur to me at the time that his prose was doing to me exactly what he was in the process of analyzing.