WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Brian McGuinness: "Wittgenstein: Philosophy and literature", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 326-340. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.3.8).

Brian McGuinness: Wittgenstein: Philosophy and literature

The relation between form and content

It is essential to grasp when we read Wittgenstein, as when we read Otto Weininger,1 whom he esteemed so much, that the important thing is not the facts but the way facts are regarded or presented. In philosophy or in all forms of thinking that have a claim to generality we are in the realm of the three normative sciences, as Weininger’s editor Rapoport terms them. Logic, ethics and aesthetics (thought, will, and feeling, as he also says) all depend upon seeing or treating their object in the right manner. Wittgenstein praised Rilke and Trakl by saying that their tone was right; there was nobility in their attitudes. His later remark to Moore about the book of Weininger’s that he recommended is of the same cast:

It is true that he is fantastic [here clearly in the sense of “extravagantly fanciful”, “fantaisiste”] but he is great and fantastic. It isn’t necessary or rather not possible to agree with him but the greatness lies in that with which we disagree. It is his enormous mistake which is great. I.e. roughly speaking if you just add a “~” to the whole book it says an important truth.2
This formulation is of later date than the Tractatus, though not incompatible with it, indeed it could even have been said by Wittgenstein about his own book – with hindsight: but when he was writing it, or at any rate when he was writing the first part, he was trying to show in a positive way what logic was. Namely that it was a condition of the world. All facts present themselves within its limits, for these limits are not one of a set of alternatives but are inevitable: we see them when we recognize the self-cancelling character of contradiction. But the same is true with ethics and aesthetics: it is not that there are sets of rules that we use to determine value: we know from the act or product itself whether it misses the mark, just as every logical proposition is its own proof, every contradiction its own refutation. Rules are simply gestures in the right direction, which is, actually, self-imposing.

It is this what is behind Wittgenstein’s insistence in the Tractatus that no accidental feature of anything can confer value on it. It must have that value in itself and necessarily. In the end this means, for example, that the description of the action from the point of view of the actor shows of itself that the action is a good or bad one. In later life Wittgenstein would say, It doesn’t matter so much what you do but how you would talk about it. If this seems shocking it may help us to reflect that it is only the final analysis of the saying, actus non est reus nisi mens sit rea. It is the intention that makes the action praiseworthy or the reverse and the intention must be something (Wittgenstein is here saying) that speaks for itself, in the sense that in grasping it one sees that the action must be the or a right one (or of course the reverse). A curious but for him typical reported conversation was one with his friend Piccoli (the professor of Italian – a rough contemporary of his who died younger even than he) on the meaning of the motto “Fais bien, Crains rien” inscribed on a college chimneypiece. One saying that the second clause followed from the first, If you do right, you need fear nothing. That is indeed the natural reading, but I have no doubt that the friend who took the opposite reading was Wittgenstein – To fear nothing is to do right.

Writing about these matters may be a way of showing how much (and how little) can be written about them. Thus while the Abhandlung may show by its very arguments that those arguments are circular and that there is no way of describing the relation between language and the world, still this is something very important for one who is considering the relation between language and the world; and indeed his own relation to the world. So too Weininger’s Sex and Character may show by its bewildering variety of mixed scholarship and exhortation and literature and science, that it is of no importance whatsoever whether the characterization of Jews or women is correct (and how could this particular characterization be true?), and yet that there is in the area discussed something supremely important. It is a book to be lived as a whole, not just criticized in its particulars (though discussion of those particulars may be one way of digesting it).

This raises questions akin to those discussed in Julius Stenzel’s “Form and Content in the Platonic Dialogues”, where the translator (my old tutor Donald Allan) says:

We must make a joint study of form and content. What does this mean? Not simply that Plato is at once a supreme writer and a great philosopher. This statement would be true, but could make no pretence to novelty. The suggestion is that it suits Plato’s temperament to insinuate part of his meaning by artistic, or formal, devices. His whole meaning is not always conveyed in plain words as it is with a thinker who regards expression as a secondary matter.3
Toute proportion gardée I should like to compare Wittgenstein with Plato in this respect. I note that one of the last of Waismann’s papers4 (the last echo of Wittgenstein so to speak) is an attack on Ramsey’s idea that we can easily distinguish between what is expressed and the way it is expressed'.




1Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, William Heinemann, London 1906.
2Letter to Moore 23.8.1931, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Cambridge Letters, (eds. B. McGuinness and G.H. von Wright), Blackwell, Oxford and New York 1995.
3Julius Stenzel, “Form and Content in Plato’s Dialogues”, in Plato’s Method of Dialectic, (transl. by D.J. Allan), Clarendon Press, Oxford 1940, p. viii.
4“How I see philosophy”, in Friedrich Waismann, How I see Philosophy, (ed. R. Harré), Macmillan and St. Martin’s press, London and New York 1968.



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