WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Knut Erik Tranøy: "Wittgenstein and the relation between life and philosophy", 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. 65-73. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.3.8).

Knut Erik Tranøy: Wittgenstein and the relation between life and philosophy

Two questions

Two not very clear questions about the relation between human life and philosophy in a more general sense are basic to my paper. They may be particularly pressing for moral philosophers.

Q1. What does or can philosophy do to or for the philosopher whose philosophy we are talking about?

Q2. What can – or cannot – a philosopher’s philosophy do for others?

Concerning Q1, when in 1993 professor von Wright published “a fragment of an intellectual autobiography” under the title Philosophy is my life,1 he was in fact making use of a statement Wittgenstein made while he lived in von Wright’s house in Cambridge not long before he died. It seems to me that that – to be my life – would be the most any philosophy could do or be for any philosopher. But still it is not quite clear what this amounts to. If I were to say that about me and my life my wife would ask me how many lives I have.

In The Myth of Progress as in his recent autobiography My Life as I Remember It2 von Wright tells us that, at the age of 13, it became “clear to me that philosophy was my calling” (von Wright 1993, p. 153). Both books are in Swedish; one of the many advantages of being a Norwegian is that you can also read Swedish. I do not know what to make of this; is this the road to philosophy all philosophers travel? Personally I would sooner have to say that at the age of 35, when I had gained my PhD, I discovered that I had become a philosopher and that, at the age of 83, I still am.

Let me turn back to the impact of my encounters with Wittgenstein. Although I was very much a newcomer to philosophy, Wittgenstein – as I said above – made a powerful impression on me although we never talked about philosophy and only occasionally about philosophers. One consequence of that impact was that even after his death I did not trust myself to read Wittgenstein. When some ten years later I did read the Tractatus, I could not help reading it against the background of my own picture of Wittgenstein. What puzzled me then was the apparent fact that many of those who at that time were reading and writing about the Tractatus, apparently did not seem to take seriously what the author said about ethics and other such topics that were neither logic nor philosophy of logic. Or perhaps I should say, what the Tractatus says about ethics and the world3 – but not the world in the sense of “alles, was der Fall ist”. That was, one might perhaps say, my first experience of “Wittgenstein research revisited”. I found it next to impossible to believe that Wittgenstein did not really mean what he had said in the book and its Preface. To do that one had to take seriously his statements about seeing the world rightly and about ethics not being in the world – which might seem to clash with proposition 1 in the Tractatus, that the world is everything that is the case. Wittgenstein had two worlds if not two lives.

The remainder of my paper is made up of reflections and comments on four points taken – subjectively – from the philosophy and life of Wittgenstein, presented in their order of appearance in his life. As I see them, all four points have links to the two questions Q1 and Q2 introduced above.




1In Swedish, in the volume Myten om framsteget (“The Myth of Progress”). Albert Bonniers Förlag 1993.
2In Swedish, Mitt liv som jag minns det. Albert Bonniers Förlag 2001.
3To my knowledge, the first to take Wittgenstein seriously in this sense was Stephen Toulmin with his “Ludwig Wittgenstein” in Encounter (January 1969, pp. 58–71). My first publication along such lines is “Ethics as a Condition of the World – a Topic from Wittgenstein” (Norsk filosofisk tidsskrift, 1973, pp. 117–132), a somewhat revised version of a paper I read in May 1966 to the philosophy departments of the University of Newcastle and the University of Durham.



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