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I think it’s fair to say that in my recent post on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, I got Wittgenstein wrong. (And one of the things I love about doing philosophy as a blogger is the ability to be wrong in writing, and then simply retract it. If one is seeking an academic career as a philosopher, that sort of thing could easily bring said career to an ignominious end. Here, I can simply offer my apologies and move on with a revised position.)

I characterized Wittgenstein there as having “an indifference to ethics and concerns about the good life…” Given the concerns that occupy the bulk of his writing, it’s very easy to get that impression; compared to his voluminous prose about epistemology and philosophy of language, the amount of published or unpublished writing that he devotes to ethics and the good life is almost negligible.

But as several respondents to the post pointed out – both in the comments and in private emails – it’s really not fair to characterize that lack of ink as indifference. (And though I am by no means well versed in Wittgenstein’s thought, I did know enough about him that I should have remembered that.) The things Wittgenstein said about ethics were certainly limited; but they did exist. And those relatively few remarks tell us in his own words why he said so little.

Thill quotes an important letter that Wittgenstein wrote to Norman Malcolm:

You see, I know that it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other peoples lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.-Let me stop preaching. (quoted from p.35 of Malcolm’s memoir)

This is hardly an expression of indifference. But it does raise the question: if it’s so important, why did Wittgenstein say so little about it? He points out that it’s very difficult, but he didn’t let that stop him on other matters. The key here, I suspect, is in the “if possible” – it seems likely to me that Wittgenstein thought it wasn’t really possible to think about the good life, at least in our usual discursive, linguistic sense of thinking.

Wittgenstein famously ends the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – at 75 pages the longest work published in his lifetime – with the German phrase Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. The book is divided into seven sections, and the last one consists solely of this phrase, which is also repeated near the preface to the book with one change (the word sprechen is replaced with reden, which both mean “speak” though the connotations may be different). The Sanskritic grammar of this phrase requires that any accurate English rendering will be at least somewhat awkward, but the meaning comes across: “What one cannot speak about, one must remain silent about.” As far as I can tell – and do correct me if I’m wrong again – in Wittgenstein’s view, ethics and the good life fall almost entirely under this category of wovon man nicht sprechen kann, and that is why Wittgenstein remained mostly silent about them.

If this is the case, some further implications follow. For my own part, if such an interpretation is correct I would become still less sympathetically predisposed to Wittgenstein. (I really am hoping one of these days to hear something from Wittgenstein that I actually find valuable or profound. I do think it’s there, but I haven’t found it yet.) If one claims, as Wittgenstein seems to, that ethics is ineffable, the inevitable conclusion seems to me a drastic conservatism. And by this I do not mean the political literal conservatism I have previously praised, which rests largely on pragmatic grounds about the observed harmful effects of revolution. Rather, the ineffability of ethics leads us to a deeper and more harmful conservatism, one that preserves everything intact in both individual lives and the larger social order.

For without language, there can be very little reasoning – only the rudimentary kind of reasoning engaged in by dogs who figure out how to climb up onto the kitchen counter, which some might argue isn’t reason at all. And without reasoning, there can be no criticism. Individual desires and passions are left just the way they are, as they are with dogs; you can use stimulus, reward and punishment to change a dog’s behaviour, but you can’t convince it that it should stop engaging in self-destructive acts. Without reasoning there is no room for the kind of searching reflection that changed my life in Thailand.

A Wittgensteinian might, I suppose, argue that such changes in belief are only apparent; that the changes don’t really occur at the level of reason and language. In his comment, Ethan Mills mentions Wittgensteinians of his acquaintance who, speaking of Ethan’s turn to atheism, “told me that if I had REALLY believed, this wouldn’t have happened. What happened to me is that I simply REALIZED that I never really believed in the first place. Upon reflection, this seems closer to my experience.” But at least two replies to this are in order. First, that’s not at all what happened to me; I passionately believed in a utilitarian political life for a long time, and did not abandon that view until serious reflection happened otherwise. The idea that “you wouldn’t have changed your beliefs if you really believed” does, of course, raise the idea of tautology. And I suspect that may not be a very Wittgensteinian reply in the first place; on my understanding, Wittgenstein sharply criticized the idea of implicit beliefs (“I don’t have a belief that the world will not end five minutes from now.”)

It is also easy to see how the idea of ineffable ethics could lead to the intellectual bullying that J.M. Keynes witnessed in Wittgenstein’s colleague G.E. Moore. Without reason, social hierarchies are maintained based on raw power and force, not justice; it is the world Plato rightly warns us against in the first book of the Republic, which makes no room for the criticisms of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. A world in which we cannot speak about the good is a bleak world indeed, one which might well not be worth living in.

An additional implication of such an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views: the symbiosis with early Chinese thought that I discussed at the end of the earlier post becomes less plausible. True, Confucians at least similarly tend to be conservative and preserve existing views about ethics; but that is something they make an explicit case for, in the way that Wittgenstein says we cannot do. I think the earlier post hinted at the possibility of a division of labour, in which Confucians could supply the reflection on ethics that Wittgenstein neglected but that was compatible with him. But on this interpretation, Wittgenstein would have actively ruled such reflection out – even in the aphoristic mode of Confucius, let alone the more detailed arguments of Mencius and Xunzi — or Mozi or Zhuangzi. (Heidegger might be a different story. Maybe.)

I got Wittgenstein wrong before, so I’m not going to put much stock on this interpretation of him. If he did not believe ethics was ineffable, I’d be happy to know that. If so, I’d still be happy to have said many of the things above, as a response to other people who do make that claim.

I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks. I expect new posts will begin again on 18 March.