For Wittgenstein, Philosophy Had to Be as Complicated as the Knots it Unties
Making Sense of Nonsense, From Bertrand Russell to the Existentialists
In Britain, the arrival of existentialism was celebrated mainly in small literary magazines, beginning in 1947 with a radical Catholic quarterly called The Changing World. The editor, Bernard Wall, described it as a response to “a cloud hanging over everything we do in this ‘post-war period’”—not only the atom bomb, and the encroachments of technology, but also the fact that, during the war, British thinkers became “cut off from fellow Europeans.” The intellectual focus would have to be “continental,” he explained, because “to disregard Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Bergson, was to disregard what really mattered in our age.” For the two years of its existence, Changing World promoted “continental” lines in everything from sociology to contemporary art and poetry (it also published new work by Auden); but its main topic was French existentialism, especially a “theist current” associated with Gabriel Marcel.
By the time Changing World ceased publication in 1949, existentialism had become a talking point throughout the English-speaking world, though it was often ridiculed rather than revered: The Spectator, for example, published a feature on “resistentialism,” whose doctrine that “things are against us” was all the rage in Paris. The satire was well-aimed: existentialism was being promoted in the periodical press less as an occasion for sustained self-examination than as a spectacle in which earnest foreigners said strange things with inexplicable passion; and when Wittgenstein saw the first issue of Changing World he dismissed it as “muck.”
He made one exception, however: an article by his friend Yorick Smythies on Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which had appeared in 1946. Russell still regarded himself as a fearless philosophical revolutionary, but in this work he adopted the same assumptions that had informed histories of philosophy for the past three centuries. Like his predecessors, he postulated what he called a “long development, from 600 BC to the present day”—a process in which philosophy had lurched from one metaphysical “system” to another until recent times, when it settled into enlightened equilibrium. He also followed convention in dividing the story into three periods: “ancient philosophy,” where the Greeks discovered logic and mathematics and got into a habit of denigrating empirical knowledge; the “middle ages,” when philosophy was deformed by Christianity; and finally “modern philosophy,” starting with the reassertion of human intellectual independence in the Renaissance.
Descartes had often been called “the founder of modern philosophy”—“rightly,” in Russell’s judgement—but his exaggerated rationalism generated a sequence of “insane forms of subjectivism” culminating in Kant and German idealism. In the meantime, however, the British empiricists had rediscovered “the world of everyday common sense,” and their patience was eventually rewarded by the total defeat of speculative metaphysics.
Russell had not abandoned an old tradition of sententious wisdom, however: he rhapsodized about “the moment of contemplative insight when, rising above the animal life, we become conscious of the greater ends that redeem man from the life of the brutes,” and he claimed that “love and knowledge and delight in beauty . . . are enough to fill the lives of the greatest men that have ever lived.”
On the other hand he also tried–—like G. H. Lewes, whose still-popular Biographical History had appeared exactly a century before—to enliven his survey with sallies of belittling wit. Pythagoras, for instance, was “a combination of Einstein and Mrs. Eddy,” and founded a religion based on “the sinfulness of eating beans,” and Plato, who was “hardly ever intellectually honest,” simply perpetuated his errors. Russell sustained his pert sense of humor for 800 pages, with Hegel “departing from logic in order to be free to advocate crimes,” while Nietzsche was a “megalomaniac” who was afraid of women and “soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.”
Russell was eccentric in some of his choices—he included a chapter on Byron, for example, and made no mention of Lessing, Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein. Like the other authors of histories that promised to tell a unified story of philosophy from its supposed “origin” to the present, however, he concluded with a chapter arguing that philosophy had recently overcome the problems that had beset it from the beginning. He disagreed, of course, with those who ended the story with eclecticism or Kant or German idealism, and did not go along with Lewes in making it culminate in Comte and Mill. Instead, he presented it as leading up to his own doctrine of “logical analysis,” which seems to have rescued philosophy from the “system builders,” endowing it with “the quality of science” and forcing it to “tackle its problems one at a time.” He commended his theory of descriptions for clearing up “two millennia of muddle-headedness about ‘existence,’” and claimed that his conception of mathematics as “merely verbal knowledge” had liberated philosophy from the “presumption against empiricism” that had hobbled it since Pythagoras and Plato.
History of Western Philosophy brought Russell great wealth and helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. When Isaiah Berlin reviewed it in Mind, he praised its “peculiar combination of moral conviction and inexhaustible intellectual fertility” and its “beautiful and luminous prose.” Professionals would value it as the intellectual self-portrait of the world’s most eminent philosopher, rather than a contribution to “historical or philosophical scholarship,” but it was not written for them: it was addressed to the “common reader,” who was indeed fortunate that a “great master,” had condescended to write a popular introduction to philosophy that was “not merely classically clear but scrupulously honest throughout.”
According to Smythies, however, the book embodied all the “worst features” of Russell’s journalism—“shoddiness of thought,” “sleek prose,” and “easy shortcuts to judgements on serious matters.” Russell had simplified his task by playing along with a common misconception about philosophy: that it deals in “theories” designed, as in the natural sciences, to reflect the facts of experience, and that it progresses towards truth by collecting facts and finding better ways of representing them. This assumption allowed Russell to adopt his “lofty manner,” looking down on the “great men” of the past and treating their ideas as “something left behind by ‘modern science.’” The impression he gave was that (thanks to him) all problems had now been solved, but that the solutions were “of too advanced a nature to be presented to the general reader,” who was therefore obliged to conclude that “it would all be quite clear to me if I knew as much about these things as Lord Russell.”“The older I grow the more I realize how terribly difficult it is for people to understand each other,” Wittgenstein wrote.
Sometimes Russell’s loftiness declined into “facetiousness.” He made fun of the biblical Jews, who were willing to die for the sake of a belief in “circumcision and the wickedness of eating pork”—but, as Smythies observed, he never asked himself the question, “what is it like to believe what a Jew of that time believed?” He also stated that the idea of “self” or “subject” had been “banished” by Hume—an “important advance,” apparently, because it meant “abolishing all supposed knowledge of the ‘soul,’” thus destroying one of the pillars of religion and metaphysics. But he could not explain what the “important advance” consisted in: what had “the idea of the self” meant before it was “banished,” Smythies asked, and in any case “how can one know what the idea of the self is which one can’t have, unless one has that idea?”
The main point was that Russell was incapable of giving weight, depth or color to ideas that differed from his own: his book was a massive monologue, without variety of voices or plurality of points of view. His summaries of the great philosophers made them all look “faintly absurd”—either ridiculous like Pythagoras, or dishonest like Plato, or insane like the German idealists and Nietzsche—and he made no attempt to explain what they might have meant to those who found them life-changingly significant. Philosophical differences were erased, and the resulting narrative was stale, flat, barren and uninteresting. “People’s lives and ideas, served up in this way, become unattractive and insipid,” as Smythies put it; and “the most positive taste one gets . . . is that of Lord Russell’s prose (which has a tinny, flat quality peculiar to itself).” Wittgenstein could not disagree: “have read your review,” he told Smythies, “and it isn’t bad.”
The review echoed a theme that Wittgenstein had been working with for almost 40 years: that philosophy “gives no pictures of reality” and should therefore be located—as he said to Russell in 1913—“over or under, but not beside, the natural sciences.” Philosophy as he saw it was “not a theory,” but the practice of clarifying thoughts that are otherwise “opaque and blurred.”
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus had been, amongst other things, a response to the problem of making sense of nonsense: its propositions were steps leading to a utopia where the clamor of senselessness would yield to perpetual peace. After a while, however, Wittgenstein had lost interest in a realm where “conditions are ideal,” and when he started teaching in Cambridge he decided to concentrate not on the “crystalline purity of logic” but on the obscurities and confusions of everyday life. “We need friction,” he said: “back to the rough ground!” He advised his students to “pay attention” to their nonsense, and attended to his own in his notebooks and in drafts of what he hoped would be his second book.
He was still impressed by the fact that, as he put it, “something can look like a sentence we understand, and yet yield no sense,” and he still thought of philosophy as “the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense.” But he realized that the task of clarification was complex: “philosophy unties knots in our thinking,” and “the philosophizing has to be as complicated as the knots it unties.” It was also riddled with paradox. “When a sentence is called senseless,” he said, “a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation,” and “it is not as it were its sense that is senseless.” But we cannot appreciate what we have achieved unless we find some way to commemorate our lost illusions and “get a clear view of the . . . state of affairs before the contradiction was resolved”—a task that called for imagination, tact and poetic skill rather than quick-witted cleverness.
Early in 1950, Norman Malcolm alerted the Rockefeller Foundation to the fact that Wittgenstein was ill, that he had masses of unpublished manuscripts, and that he was short of money. The official who took charge of the case, Chadbourne Gilpatric, was prepared to give him whatever he needed, but Wittgenstein was uneasy: he knew too many examples of people who, like Russell, did excellent work when young, but “very dull work indeed when they got old,” and he did not want to be one of them. Gilpatric would not be put off, however, and in January 1951 he came to Oxford to press his case. At one point he offered some “patter,” as Wittgenstein called it, about language and philosophy, but after that he “talked sense,” offering to pay for the printing of Wittgenstein’s papers, because “the world needed them badly.” Wittgenstein was not convinced: “but see,” as he said to Gilpatric, “I write one sentence, and then I write another—just the opposite . . . and which shall stand?”
A few days later, Wittgenstein drew up a simple will. He bequeathed a few things he loved (a clock, an edition of Lessing’s religious writings, and a volume of Grimm’s fairy tales) to various close friends, while the “Collection of Nonsense” was entrusted to Rhees. Another paragraph asked that the “unpublished writings” be given to Rhees and two other friends—Anscombe and von Wright—who were to “publish as many . . . as they think fit.” The archive proved to be far larger than they had imagined, and they embarked on a lengthy process of posthumous publication; but it was clear that the starting point had to be the typescript on language games that he had been toying with since before the war, and it appeared (with parallel English translation) as the first part of Philosophical Investigations in 1953.
Wittgenstein once told Con Drury that if the book needed a motto, he would use a quotation from King Lear: “I’ll teach you differences.” He was impressed, as he said to another friend, by the human capacity for incomprehension and dissent, and the improbability of any ultimate resolution.
The older I grow the more I realize how terribly difficult it is for people to understand each other, and I think that what misleads one is the fact that they all look so much like each other. If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn’t expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are.
In the event the Investigations was published without a motto, though Wittgenstein had another one in reserve, from a song by Irving Berlin: “you’d be surprised.” Alternatively he would resort to one of the oldest proverbs in the English language—“a very beautiful and kindly saying” as he called it—“it takes many sorts to make a world.”
Adapted from Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English, by Jonathan Rée. Copyright © 2019 Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission of YaleUniversity Press.