A Brief Reflection on Wittgenstein

by Samuel Hux (July 2022)

The Poet and the Philosopher, Giorgio de Chirico, 1915



I thought I was done with Ludwig Wittgenstein after my essay “demoting” him in my book Neither Trumpets Nor Violins (the volume itself, not the essay, co-authored with Theodore Dalrymple and Kenneth Francis), but the Philosophy community’s celebration of sophisticated incoherence continues. Instead of continues one might say spreads: I’m quite sure The New Yorker, whatever its many virtues, has no particular reputation for metaphysical speculation.  I would like to understand what it is about this intellectual poseur that appeals to so many intelligent people who should know better. Nikhil Krishnan’s review-essay (in the May 16 New Yorker) occasioned by the newest edition from Private Notebooks: 1914-1916 is no help, although that is not Krishnan’s fault. The essay is titled “You’re Talking Nonsense”—not Krishnan’s judgment of Wittgenstein, but a characterization of Wittgenstein’s judgment of philosophers from the ancients to the moderns. It does capture my own judgment of Saint Ludwig, however.

I am not going to reread him again, looking for the possibility that I am wrong. I have suffered enough in life already. I have said this before, but there is no other philosopher I would more rather avoid unless it is Martin Heidegger. I have also said this: your average philosophy major at a respectable college has read more than Wittgenstein ever did as he dismissed with such hardly veiled contempt his philosophical betters. (As Iris Murdoch once said, “Wittgenstein had in fact not troubled to read some of his best-known predecessors.”)  And I will say this for the last time: Wittgenstein’s philosophy amounts to the avoidance of philosophizing. Having made that promise I know immediately I will have to break the promise later on.

But what ostensibly is “Wittgensteinism”? That’s hard to say, for multiple reasons. There are Wittgenstein I and Wittgenstein II, the first found in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the second a supposedly radical reformulation of his thought, Philosophical Investigations.  There is, however, no consensus as to what the gnomic utterances of the Tractatus or the Investigations really mean as collective statements even if an individual gnomic utterance may be an internally coherent statement. The most radical evidence of this is the fact that when Bertrand Russell, whose earned stature as a thinker is undeniable, wrote an introduction to the English version of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was furious, claiming that Russell understood the work not at all.  Bertrand Russell!? If Russell did not, I daresay it was because the work itself was not understandable. A semi-comical event occurs to me at this moment:

David Edmonds’ and John Eidinow’s book Wittgenstein’s Poker seems, I think, subject of an ironic revelation. At an intellectual meeting at Cambridge in 1946 Wittgenstein and Sir Karl Popper of the London School of Economics got immediately into a heated argument about whether there were real philosophical problems or only linguistic ones, Ludwig taking the latter position, and making his points with emphatic gestures with a fireside poker, and demanding that Sir Karl provide a clear example of a moral rule. When Popper answered, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers,” which should have, it seems to me, made all break into laughter. Instead, Wittgenstein threw the poker aside and stormed out of the meeting of which he was the host as chair. This strikes me as the action of a frustrated speechless bully. So: for all that he talked and talked and talked, it seems possible to me that Ludwig Wittgenstein was ultimately simply inarticulate; no wonder he was incomprehensible.

But if there are individual statements that are internally coherent perhaps the two most famous are the following. (1) If we will recognize that when we use the word “world” we only rarely mean the geologic physical creation, but rather all-that-is available to our experience as we live, as in “It’s a wonderful world,” or “It’s a lousy world,” or even “The world can go to hell as far as I’m concerned,” or so forth; then there is the gnomic utterance “The world is all that is the case.”  Who’s going to disagree? I recall being charmed when I read that. But how is that different from “the world is all that truly is” except that “is the case” sounds profounder than “truly is”? How about “the world is what it is.” Well, the latter has maybe inescapably a tone of disappointment and dismissal, a sense of that’s-all-there-is-to-itness. So while I still like “the world is all that is the case” what does this apparently coherent statement really mean?

About (2) I really get exercised: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen.”  Two popular English translations: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” or “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Understand first what Wittgenstein is not saying.  Were one to say, for instance, “Since I cannot speak about my father’s Mafia connections I must remain silent,” who but a prosecuting attorney would object to one’s silence? No, nothing of that nature is meant. Rather, since metaphysical statements are necessarily nonsense (so says Saint Ludwig), “The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e., propositions of natural science.” In other words, since there are philosophical problems which seem or are unsayable, ineffable, don’t try to talk about them. That’s why I characterize Wittgensteinism as the avoidance of philosophizing itself. In other words (if one is allowed to speak in words!), don’t do what was done by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, et al, et al, et al, on up to the present! Wittgenstein seems ignorant of the physical scientist’s need to challenge the ineffable as well. It was Niels Bohr who said that science has the responsibility to try to talk of its efforts in the language of common discourse, not relying on mathematics alone. Which Einstein surely knew. Wiuttgenstein was evidently an adequate soldier in World War One for Austria. But philosophically he had no courage.

Immanuel Kant, for but one example, had courage. Knowing the distinction between the phenomenal (that which appears to the human senses and intellect) and the noumenal (that which exists but is beyond sensual etc. availability), Kant in his metaphysics tried heroically to evoke the noumena although it is beyond coherent language, and the shape—so to speak—of the human mind is such that the noumena cannot conform to it and remains mostly unrevealed. Without Kant Western philosophy would be a lesser affair, but it must have been a bore to Wittgenstein (as it was mostly ignored by British philosophers of that time). Without Kant there would be no Schopenhauer. Without Schopenhauer, Nietzsche is hard to imagine. Without Wittgenstein, Western thought would be richer. What really is one to make of a “philosopher” who writes near the end of the Tractatus of his propositions, “he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless”? Why should one bother? But bother many do.

One who does is the prominent English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Which I find disappointing. Krishnan’s subtitle is How Queer Was Ludwig Wittgenstein?—referring both to his odd philosophy and his more or less confessed homosexuality. Anscombe is right to object to any emphasis on the latter issue, so one can hope that is what she is referring to when she writes, “I feel deeply suspicious of anyone’s claim to have understood Wittgenstein. That is perhaps because … I am very sure that I did not understand him.” But it’s a real stretch to assume she is talking about the man’s sexual inclinations; she is talking about his thought … so what an extraordinary confession.

In this context it is interesting to contemplate the reaction to Wittgenstein of the wonderful novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, who’s magnificent Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is real philosophy. Krishnan notes that Murdoch met Wittgenstein twice, finding him interesting as a person, but “failed to get much philosophy out of him.” Exactly!

So what for god’s sake is the appeal? I get no pleasure from the conclusions I come to about the academic discipline I practiced for decades, for I still think Philosophy the monarch of the arts and sciences (although the old term was queen)—which does not mean every academic practitioner is noble or aristocratic of course. And when we talk about the Wittgenstein craze we are talking about academics, not incidental philosophers.

John Crowe Ransom, commenting on the relative obscurity of literary criticism in his day, proposed that the critic wanted to show his depth by seeming as difficult as the physical scientist. It is surely significant that Wittgenstein thinks that whereof one can speak are “the propositions of natural science,” even if, one has to assume, such a proposition is so deep as to be obscure to the reader or hearer. Am I suggesting he was practicing bad faith? I suppose I am at least “suggesting” it. But there is a class of academic philo prof about whom I am more than merely suggesting …

He or she (usually he) doesn’t much care for the likes of Descartes or Hume or William James or John Dewey, given their depth and clarity at the same time. He doesn’t necessarily prefer Kant, who can make one feel stupid and look stupid. But a thinker on the order of Wittgenstein (or Heidegger for that matter) possesses the twin obscurity and incoherence that make his stuff look as deep as sub-atomic physics, requiring explication as deep as what the quantum physicist provides. This class of prof is cousin to the English prof who avoids, say, Robert Frost in his Intro to Lit, something like “The Road Not Taken” not needing much explication de texte, unless the explication is to show the students that Frost cannot really mean what he apparently means; he will prefer, say, T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which can be opened up only by a Lit prof who is just as smart as the physicist.

There’s another way of looking at this issue, which requires again an analogy between the English and the Philosophy departments. There is a certain class of English professor who is delighted to inform his students that most of the rules of English grammar that they learned in school back home have no bearing now. “Prescriptive” grammar is a dead issue, because grammar evolves over the years driven by the “usage” of actual speakers of the language. The second clause in the previous sentence is of course true; but the first clause is true only because prescription has been murdered. Professor Knowitall will tell his flock that the old rule that you cannot begin a sentence with a preposition or an infinitive or a whatnot no longer obtains … although such never was prescribed in the first place.  He will not tell his students that the basic structure of the English sentence requires a subject and a verb and often a direct or indirect object … because that is indeed what is prescribed by the universal “Cartesian” grammar that underlies language itself. He feels that emphasizing Usage at the cost of Prescription makes him seem a brave champion of freedom and linguistic democracy. Prescriptive Grammar he thinks means someone, with no right to do so, is telling somebody else how something should be said or written. Of course that “someone” is intelligent tradition, which knows that I, you, we, and they write, while he, she, or it writes. But Professor Knowitall would allow that dialects that allow, for instance, “he write” and “she write” are just as good as the prescribed subject-verb agreement even though it makes the speaker sound illiterate. However, of course, no surprise, the good professor him—or herself speaks and writes according to the prescriptive grammar bravely dismissed.

Philosophy profs are generally smarter than English profs (I have been both, so no boasting here), so they will avoid sounding so stupid.  But there is a similar dismissal of trusted tradition which embraced questions of the nature of being, of the soul, the limits of knowledge, choice, ethics, God or his absence, the meaning of beauty, and wonderfully so on, and, as I have put it elsewhere, “the necessity of talking about these matters.” To approve the dismissal of that tradition for the sake of not speaking of the ineffable can make one seem oh-so-brave, as if one were saying, “I don’t really like this myself, but some of us have to be strong and resolute enough to do what, maybe even tragically, has to be done for the sake of truth.” One can become inebriated on such pseudo-sacrificial self-congratulation.

If this sounds cynical of me, so be it.  My cynicism is inspired by that of another kind possessed by a garden-variety philo prof. But my explanation of Saint Ludwig’s reputation does not explain why a quality figure such as Elizabeth Anscombe could hear a profundity from him that a greater-quality figure—I think—could rarely hear: Iris Murdoch. In any case, I know of no other well-known to famous Western philosopher (aside from, for the moment, Martin Heidegger) about whom the most significant question about him or her has not to do with the substance of the work, but, rather, with the justice of his or her reputation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein in effect said to Philosophy, “Commit suicide!”  How dare the son of a bitch.


Table of Contents


Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others. His new book is Neither Trumpets nor Violins (with Theodore Dalrymple and Kenneth Francis)

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


10 Responses

  1. I’m in the middle of a book about the Wittgensteins, written by Alexander Waugh.

    There seems to have been a suicidal gene running through the family tree and as I get further into the history, a picture emerges of incredible but troubled talents, musical genius and indefatigable pursuit of the things they were good at. Helped and fostered by the fact that they had unlimited amounts of money to spend.

    Ludwig’s brother, Paul , had his arm amputated as a result of injury in the First World War.

    Did that stop him from playing the piano?

    No, he went on to become a famous performer and even had celebrated composers write pieces for “one handed” pianists .. and there can’t have been very many such requests in their mail.
    Ludwig himself comes across to me as an individual who danced on the edge of madness for most of his life.
    His story (and that of the entire family for that matter) shows us the fine line between genius and insanity. More importantly for society it shows how difficult it is for us to separate that insanity from the more reasonable aspects of their thought processes.
    It seems to me that once you’ve got your reputation established you can say anything and people will think it’s high art.
    I haven’t really dug deep enough to find out what Ludwig has done to earn accolades from the intelligentsia of his day (and from some of our day) but the one thing I can say with a good amount of certainty is this;
    Most of the philosophical claptrap that is tomed out is the mental equivalent of wiping your rear end with a hula hoop. Nothing’s ever proven and every theory can be usurped by a person with better debating skills.
    Bertrand Russell’s endorsement of Ludwig’s “genius” is a little bit suspicious and has him acting like a Beatles fan but, like I was saying, once you’ve got a certain standing, everybody believes every word you say.
    I’m not a fan of Russell by the way, he and his Bloomsbury group always danced on that fine line I mentioned earlier (and, of course, other fine lines that couldn’t be mentioned in respectable society at the time)

    1. It was indeed an interesting family. I’m sorry that Paul–the real genius–is not so widely known as Ludwig, about whom it could be said he was famous for being famous. I remain embarrassed that my profession, academic philosophy, still has so many damned fools who can find wisdom in incoherence. But I have said about all I can about this insanity. Thanks for the response.

    2. ” even had celebrated composers write pieces for “one handed” pianists” – he lost his right arm; there a numerous commissioned pieces – “for-the-left-hand” – by top-of-the-line composers written mostly in the 1920s – Strauss and Prokofiev – just two such (Pn Conc #4 – SProkofiev)

      It would be such a great idea for a book – the pianist, the war, the interactions with the composers.

      My impression is that he basically hated all the works that resulted – and played very few of them; the Pn Conc above was never performed in Prokofiev’s life time. DId he pay for them? – I’d love to know.

      Ludwig, by the way, also had harrowing WWI experiences – many months of front line combat. The sons of one of the wealthiest men in Austria – and they both marched off to war for the Empire.

  2. I still remember the exitement of my philosophy-major roomate and his cohorts when Wittgenstein was served up in their modern philosophy course. They were flashing their glossy covered high quality college paperback editions like shamans with their bones, stomping, claiming profundity. Luckily at the time I was reading Crime and Punishment so there was no free space in my brain. Hah! That is a good description of the great Russian novelists: They take up all the room you have. A few weeks pass and the symposium re-convenes. I ask” So what’s this Wittgenstein guy have to tell us about life?” Subdued snickering. Finally my roomate says: “I have absolutely no idea.” After the laughter subsided, I said: “A profound bullshitter is still a bullshitter.”

    1. Mr. Neor: I wonder if Wittgenstein has much of an Israeli following. Since I admire Israel so much, I hope not.

  3. Imagine Ludwig, arriving in the UK to meet Russell, with the exact same intellect but looking and talking like W.C. Fields and financially broke, do you think he’d have the same effect?
    Russell: “And who may I ask are you?”
    W.C.: “Someone who hates kids and loves ladders.”
    Russell: “Why the love of ladders?”
    W.C.: “Because you can kick them when You think you know too much.”
    Russell: “Wow…absolute genius, but I’m sorry, you don’t look the part.”

  4. Yes, Wittgenstein is infuriating, probably the most baffling of the great philosophers. I was a postgraduate philosophy student in Oxford in 1952 when a Memorial Meeting was held after his demise at Somerville College. All the big beasts of Oxford philosophy were there… behaving as if they were in church mourning the loss of a saint… showing sides of their usually irreverent, sceptical selves one would never have guessed they had. They were right to think that a great philosophical giant had passed away, but probably hardly one person in that large gathering had a clear, lucid understanding of why his main message was so important.
    Incidentally scoring points against his Tractatus is a waste of time because he himself disowned it afterwards. It was a youthful folly. It mirrored Russell’s philosophy of logical atomism, a blind alley which foolishly treated human knowledge as a great heap of precise atoms-of-information. By 1929 both Wittgenstein and Ramsey had also become aware that Russell’s so-called ‘Paradox’ was much more than a little local difficulty. It was, rather, a devastating reductio ad absurdum of neoplatonic mathematics (maths based on sets): a Contradiction which was logically necessary. It meant that Plato’s account of meaning would no longer do. Plato had “solved” the perennial problem about the meaning of mathematical terms via-a-vis ordinary words, by generalising the notion of meaning in mathematics, which, he thought, consisted of ideals. The orthocentre of a triangle scratched in the sand was a point, but the orthocentre studied in geometry was not this imperfect point, it was an ideal point —something this imperfect point might become if it were refined to the nth degree. Similarly, Plato claimed, a particular scruffy cat was not what the word ‘cat’ referred-to: rather it was an ideal cat —what a cat entirely free of defects would look like. This had been, in its day, a brilliant synthesis, because on the face of it mathematical meaning was hard to place. Treating ordinary language as if it were an imperfect kind of mathematical language had captured the imagination of the most far-sighted scholars throughout history.
    To give up the platonic notion of meaning, which is Wittgenstein’s great message, is about as difficult as giving up bread or breathing. It has been the subliminal assumption built-into more than 2,000 years of profound reflection, philosophical texts and humanistic genius. Most philosophers today, having lost patience with the byzantine style of Wittgenstein’s later writing —as vividly described by Samuel Hux— have relapsed and gone back to the now broken-backed, but still comfortable, Platonic assumption.
    So why did Wittgenstein fall down so badly in his later writing in presenting his insight —a failing he himself recognised? Well he was the victim of the attack dogs of the mathematic establishment, for rubbishing their fudged ‘Party Line’ which brazenly claimed that the Russell Contradiction could be “solved” by banning a set from meeting its own membership criterion. (If so, the Contradiction did not exist, and had never existed!) It was also a coincidence of history that Ludwig and Adolf Hitler had been pupils at the same school in Linz. But this became a dreadful implicit burden when Ludwig realised that h e
    was evidently the young Jewish rich boy demonised in Hitler’s Mein Kamph.

  5. I wonder why so much passionate dislike of good old LW? Maybe this article says more about you & your approach to thoughts & thinking than anything else; what is your motivation?
    I wonder also if it’s not a question of your needs being frustrated.
    As for LW’s contribution:
    An aged Italian contadino, on his deathbed, urged his three, slightly lazy & average minded sons, to search for the treasure he’d buried in the vineyard. They subsequently dug, weeded, cleared & tidied the vines as never before, resulting in a bumper crop and new found dedication to their fields. They found their treasure.
    Maybe LW was trying to get you to search but you seem to be insistent that the treasure should (by your understanding of conformity) be in the safe, in the house, under the bed……. is engaging so very wrong?

    1. “Good old LW”? You must be kidding. Both as a “thinker” whose message was stop thinking, and as a person, he was a nasty piece of work. But “cheers” to you anyway.

  6. Judging from some of the comments/replies, I would say that my hula hoop analogy has come full circle😉

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