Wittgenstein and Literature

Brian McGuinness


Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s title Vivir para contarla almost fits Wittgenstein. After a life, extremely mouvementée certainly, but one would have thought sad, he said it had been a wonderful one. This is because it was lived at a high level of interiorization. Every element: war, love, exile, racial persecution, concern for his sins and salvation was wrestled with in search of the perfect – usually the most difficult – solution and this was usually a search for the right spontaneous reaction (a typical Wittgensteinian paradox or “double bind”). And this wrestling was not so much recorded as conducted in his Tagebücher. Reading of books so entitled – by Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Gottfried Keller – was part of the culture of his family, who tended to model and guide their lives by literature on the margins of religion, such as this. It is perhaps relevant that much of the most intimate part of Wittgenstein’s own diaries was written in a simple code understood in his family, as if it were addressed to them like one of the “confessions” (Geständnisse) he sometimes talked about and at least once made. The most confessional volume of his diary passed after his death to his most trusted sister until she confided it to his best friend. Only recently has it come to light. Keller inspired Wittgenstein with the idea that keeping a diary was the only road to integrity and constancy: a man should always be reflecting on his own character. (We are not far from Socrates’ ho anexetastos bios ou biôtos anthrôpôi.) Keller found in his diary occupation for an idle hour – for Wittgenstein it was a necessity. Sometimes he interrupts his philosophical notebooks to exclaim in code on his weaknesses, his vanity, his sins or his aspirations. His real life perhaps was there. But how did his philosophy enter into this and do we need to know this life or “Life” in order to understand or profit from that philosophy? At some times he thought his work was comparatively unimportant. It dealt with one form of the illusions of grandeur or profundity that beset us – but only some of us, the thinkers. Its methods though are the same in essence as those required in the moral sphere. A man has to realize that he is just a man (“Er ist, wie die Menschen sind.” was a typically dismissive judgement.) and to be aware of the temptations and idols that mislead him. Again and again in philosophy it is a problem of the will not of the understanding that is attacked. This accounts for the passion that sometimes invested Wittgenstein’s criticism of the mathematicians for example. We may compare G.E.Moore’s, though a kindly man, going red at the neck in discussion. For these two philosophy was not a game. Truth had to be sought seriously. But that brings us near to another temptation: vanity and the wish to win at all costs. (There was vanity too in the composition of the Tagebücher and the invention of similes – another Wittgensteinian “bind”.) I think it is arguable, however, that his method in philosophy was Wittgenstein’s nearest approach to the insight he wanted to convey generally, a help to see the world aright. Wittgenstein’s own example was that of the “hero” at the end of Wilhelm Busch’s Eduards Traum. Only a man of heart can see that he is worth nothing and then everything will turn out right. Das Weitere findet sich, says Wittgenstein too at the end of one of his most fervent Bekenntnisse and perhaps this was the kind of tranquillity he hoped his philosophy would lead to. He frequently quoted Heinrich Hertz’s ideal: der nicht mehr gequälte Geist, yet he himself seemed born for Qual, moral, intellectual, or both.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; confession; despair; racialism; redemption; vanity

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