Wittgenstein Reads Weininger

by John Holbo on February 17, 2005

I’m rather proud of a piece I’ve written about a new anthology of essays, Wittgenstein Reads Weininger, for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. (A nice online journal that just does short reviews. They just underwent a redesign. Now smoothly searchable.) I think I did a pretty solid job of covering this modest quadrant of scholarly specialization – this suburb of Wittgenstein’s Vienna, if you will; while also providing some clear views of the city; and some sense of the strange bird who roosts and rules there – this fierce Austrian double-eagle, gripping Frege and Russell in one sharp beak! Schopenhauer, Kraus … and Otto Weininger in the other! Who understands how such an ornithologico-philosophical thing could be? (As Wittgenstein once paraphrased Plato to one of his over-awed followers: ‘I study not these things – e.g. logic – but myself, to learn whether I am a Typhon-like monster, or a simpler sort of creature.’) And so I managed to turn a book review into a modestly original short essay. The editor very kindly let me ramble on twice as long as I was supposed to. But it’s still quite short [UPDATE: I think the word I was reaching for was ‘long’.] The Kraus quote I stuck on at the end is one of my favorites.



John Emerson 02.17.05 at 4:51 pm

There also exists a Buddhist Wittgenstein (Gudmunsen’s “Wittgenstein and Buddhism” and Henry LeRoy Finch’s 2-vol. study.) Given Wittgenstein’s occasional mentions of mysticism and silence, this interpretation strikes me as quite plausible, especially because it’s an analytic Buddhism rather than a Buddhism of faith.

The Anglo-American Wittgenstein was censored. Literally so, in the case of a short letter from which Max Black excised a very brief sympathetic reference to Heidegger.

Von Wright described a different Wittgenstein than the one you learn in school. Toulmin and Janik’s book helps make up part of the difference.

There are long passages in the TLP and PI which are simply ignored by almost all commentators — something like 5% of the total, by my guess.

At the end or beginning of PI, W. says something like “It’s possible that this book will shed some light into one brain or another. But of course, not likely”. He could only have been referring to his students, who then proceeded to provide us with the orthodox Wittgensteinian party line.


Matt 02.17.05 at 5:25 pm


It’s a nice review, which I enjoyed reading, but if you take the context to be reviews, as they are normally done in philosophy now, and not articles or critical notices, there is no way it can count as “quite short”. I mean really. I hope that was a joke! ;) Have you considered an editor? It’s a good review, but really does ramble around quite a bit!


Matt Weiner 02.17.05 at 5:29 pm

Well, was that US ‘quite’ or UK ‘quite’?

(sorry, sorry)


jholbo 02.17.05 at 5:38 pm

Matt, I was taking the context to be: I’m a guy who writes 7000 word blog posts from time to time, for the sweet love of blabber. I’ve got a problem. Ergo, anything I squeeze out that’s less than 4500 words is short, Holbometrically speaking. (In other words, point taken.)


dasmoment 02.17.05 at 6:01 pm

A distant relative of Weininger’s used to work with my wife at a bookstore here. That always seemed interesting.

the wittgenstein—weininger tincture is alchemically enriched by a dash of stirner: the sex and character of the ego and his own is a philosophical investigation worthy of the infinitely silent onrush of words. crush in some worringer and vaihinger for good measure (-ingers should always be mixed 3-1 with -irners), and the cultural petri dish of fringe vienna seems fit to burst.

The more interesting question then becomes: was ‘wittgenstein’ inevitable? Nordau chimes in, ‘yes, obviously. and preventable’. The collectors gather wittgensteinia as versions of Max’s ‘lean saints [that] kneel in virtue’, proving degeneration, but the man beyond the mould still walks some sun cut wooded hill and watches westerns.

translation: nice review.


Mrs Tilton 02.17.05 at 6:34 pm

John, you like film as well as filosophie, if I recall. Have you seen Weiningers Nacht?


Matt 02.17.05 at 8:30 pm

I hope no one will take my ribbing of Jon to imply that the review isn’t good- it is. I both enjoyed it learned something from it, which puts it well above most reviews. It also does suffer from the usually sort of silliness people put in reviews about how this is sure to be a major advance that will last for years or the like. So, do read the review, all of it.


joel turnipseed 02.17.05 at 9:00 pm

Nice piece of work… coming from Minnesota (where the spirit of Herbert Feigl lives on — and where I had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Anscombe when she lectured there), I have a tendency to favor the “serious” Wittgenstein over the “wacky” one, but it did always strike me that the Viennese got short shrift. Kraus, more so than Weininger — even though nothing (or nearly nothing) of his is in print in English, he’s must-reading for Wittgenstein fans (tho’ bloggers may want to stay away from his “Die neue Kunst Des Schimpfens” and “Harakiri und Feuilleton”).

The problem, of course, as your essay points up, John, is that so many of those who would bring us the Viennese Wittgenstein (Toulmin and, for what he did with it, Monk) tend to do so… wackily?


John Emerson 02.17.05 at 9:23 pm

I really think that people have been sold an ersatz, processed Wittgenstein, as W. expected, and that that accounts for what he said.


joel turnipseed 02.17.05 at 9:32 pm

errata: Should have typed “except for” at lead of parenthetical on Toulmin/Monk.


Rob 02.18.05 at 12:29 am


what is the orthodox wittgensteinian line? I’m just intrigued – without, I admit, actually having read wittgenstein – because I though it was something like, don’t try to exit the language game, work with the concepts you have (in a vaguely holistic manner). I’m struggling to see the difference between your view and this one, so I’d appreciate it if you could explain it. Email me if it’s too long and boring.


John Emerson 02.18.05 at 1:04 am

I’m just thinking of the stuff I heard from the first and second generation of Wittgenstein people around 1963-1970. It was all very cut and dried with none of the so-called “weirdness” (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Kraus, ethics, mysticism, despair, etc., etc.) The “ordinary-language” people seem to have picked up a very British snuffy conventionality from Moore and Austen and grafted it onto Wittgenstein.

I am far from a Wittgenstein expert, but when I finally ended up reading W. and the books I mentioned above, I found that he was quite different than the man I had been told about. I had the same experience with James Joyce.

There were significant passages in both his major books which just seemed to have been ignored.


john c. halasz 02.18.05 at 1:55 am

Needless to say, I’ve never gone back to read Weininger myself. (I suspect it would strike me as having something of the unpleasnatness of pornography.) But I’ve always wondered why Wittgenstein, odd though he was, nevertheless valued him so highly. I’ve suspected that the key was Weininger’s opaque dictum that “logic and ethics are one.”

I didn’t agree with your apparent take on Wittgenstein in the review. Just to pick on one thing, he does not argue. The distinction he makes between what can be said and what can only be shown in the “Tractatus” is carried over into P.I. Hence the line, which has scandalized some in the professional guild, that if he were attempt to raise what he says as a philosophical thesis,- (and this presumably refers to his “grammatical” remarks),- then there would be no argument, since everybody would agree with him. P.I seeks to “show” things, taking issue with argument as the sole philosophical means, as per the discussion of “aspect-blindness” toward the end. Likewise, his purely descriptive approach to philosophy was always indicated as an ethical means. It is understandable that philosophy, with its proneness to the elaboration of conceptual error, should be accorded no prescriptive authority, but the ethical, beyond the armchair spinning of concepts, remains the main thing. I think Wittgenstein,- (and this in the continental angle,)- needs to be understood in relation to Kant, with the appeal to “grammar” as being a transformation and “theory replacement” for Kantian transcendental critique, with the complication that there is no longer any theory here and that the upshot amounts to a critical dissolution of the whole epistemological project in philosophy that Kant initiated, especially with respect to the way it tied the ethical together with the cognitive and claims for the certification of knowledge. (Compare to Levinas.) So it’s somewhat understandable that the professional guild with its cognitive assurance is perplexed by all this,- so intersticial to their arguments-, since it renders them rather like the Etruscan soothesayers, of whom Cato the Elder remarked that he did not understand how they could look at each other without smiling. So what then would remain of philosophy? Perhaps just the effort to understand what it means to understand, as an existential exercise, with no guarantee of its autonomy, come what may and take it as you will.

One last bone to pick. I don’t think Wittgenstein can be characterized as simply an “anti-essentialist” any more than he was a purveyor of ineffable essences. The “Bilder”,- and Wittgenstein seems to take language as organized around semantic cores that tend to carry such paradigmatic idealizations of meaning with them, though not reducible to that aspect,- are often apt, which is why their usage gains currency, but equally their reification can lead astray, which is why careful attention to language usage, together with its accompanying contexts and practices, unravels philosophical “problems” and their displacement of our understanding of what is needful into the armoring of the quest for theoretical certitude. But equally, of course, our language usage does not inhere in and reflect a pregiven order of the world, but rather simply delimits, as a first approximation, the phenomenology of our world, in which the distinction between inner and outer is no longer paramount. That is why philosophy, in contrast to, say, science or politics, leaves everything as it is.


McGruff 02.18.05 at 3:52 am

Delightful, as always, John. I know jack about Wittgenstein, I’m embarrassed to say, but by your description of him it certainly sounds plausible that he would have liked Weininger for his essentialism rather than his anti-essentialism. I toiled through a translation of Sex and Character once (much duller, and even thinner, than porn, I’d say) in an attempt to figure out why he mattered to Gertrude Stein, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone read him seriously as an anti-essentialist. The appeal seemed to me to have a lot to do with the way Weininger created a kind of stern self-help problem out of the difference between appearance and essence. Stein liked him, I think, because he licensed her claim that she looked like a woman but was essentially, as a genius, masculine and for the way he legitimated her impression that being dedicated to that essence was somehow a willful triumph over mediocrity.

If I remember right, btw, Gilman’s praise for Weinginger was distinctly backhand–as a dangerous hack who raised threatening challenges to her lamarckian reformism. Kind of cheat by the editors to use her as evidence for Weininger’s stature.


Matt 02.18.05 at 2:16 pm

Let me publicly appologize for getting your name wrong (Twice!). Too many varieties of Johns around here, but still… Sorry about that.


pierre 02.18.05 at 6:01 pm

Oh, come now. Surely too much is made of all this.

Wittgenstein was an introverted boy in a dysfunctional household, who happened to read Weininger’s books at just the right moment in his life. Weininger’s contribution was to paint a tangible picture of a world in which philosophy has real consequences. Never mind that his actual philosophy was gibberish: he was a powerful enough prose stylist, and charismatic enough celebrity suicide, that lots of normal-seeming people such as G.E. Moore spoke favorably of his books — it can only have been the flavor of philosophical committment he communicated that they were thinking of.

L.W. would have remembered and revered, for the rest of his life, not the content of the books, but the experience of intellectual awakening occasioned by the books. That some of Weininger’s characteristic phrases recurred in L.W.’s journals is no surprise, but it does not imply L.W.’s ideas were particularly connected to Weininger, even though he probably thought they were.


pierre 02.18.05 at 9:50 pm

From John H’s review:

He surely falls victim to misplaced interpretive charity– which seems a public misfortune — because he is the sort of philosopher to say things like, “It is impossible for me to say in my book [Philosophical Investigations] one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?”

Do you believe in rock n roll
can music save your mortal soul
eight miles high and falling fast?

I agree with John Emerson. Wittgenstein is much more opaque in the secondary sources than in his actual writing. (Especially if you believe him when he repudiates the Tractatus as something primarily of historical interest to Russell scholars.)


jholbo 02.19.05 at 4:32 am

Just a quick response to pierre.

Your brisk dismissal of this stuff is reasonable but, I think, just mistaken. That is, it makes sense in the abstract to hypothesize that lots of scholarly knickers are in a twist about not much. But your dismissal just doesn’t survive contact with Wittgenstein’s actual writings, I think. (It can survive contact with lots of secondary literature that hypothesizes, e.g. that the Tractatus is basically sloughed off Russellian stuff. But as you say, the secondary literature is not to be trusted. Wittgenstein himself never said that the Tractatus was only of interest to Russell scholars. Correct me if I’m wrong.) When you read all the stuff his intellectual biographers are always working away at, it becomes simply impossible to deny that the Schopenhauer-Kraus-Weininger stuff (the Wittgenstein’s Vienna stuff, we might thumbnail it) is much more active behind the scenes than you might reasonably have supposed. That doesn’t mean that those who are interested in the issues raised in TLP and PI are now obliged to turn intellectual biographer. But it does mean that when you ask questions like ‘why would he say this, here?’ Or: ‘why pick this example to illustrate that?’ Or: ‘why compose in such a damn strange way?’ If the answers you give assume that the man wasn’t still grappling with the likes of Weininger, they will often be just false. Obviously the fact that he said weird stuff about music doesn’t prove it. But the number of weird things he said about music, plus the number of other weird things he said, does basically just falsify your – very reasonable, I hasten to repeat – dismissive view.

No, really. ‘This looks screwy, therefore I’ll assume it’s false’ is a reasonable heuristic but not an infallible inference form.


seth edenbaum 02.19.05 at 3:34 pm

I’m still looking for the name of the British philosopher[?] who argued that W’s whole line of reasoning was ‘autistic.’ I’ve always thought of his work that way, as a formalism of desperation, followed as he got older by an attempt to escape ‘into’ the world.

You can’t separate the logic from the sin; I don’t know why anyone even tries.


pierre 02.21.05 at 8:47 pm

John H — thank you for calling my bluff!

Wittgenstein himself never said that the Tractatus was only of interest to Russell scholars. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Yes: to my knowledge he nowhere said that explicitly. However he did say the Tractatus was fatally flawed for being based on the “picture theory of language”. (In a passage somewhere in which St. Augustine’s description of his own intellection is invoked as an example of this “picture theory”. Is it in the Blue and Brown books? My library is in cartons …) If the Tractatus is based — according to the testimony of its author — on a flawed premise it may be dismissed for its stated purpose. But then there is the matter of all the work it contains related to Russell’s theories that make it if nothing else a profound historical document. I’d like to believe if LW were here today I could get him to agree that all this follows, but, I’m aware this sort of speculation is necessarily tongue-in-cheek.

When you read all the stuff his intellectual biographers are always working away at, it becomes simply impossible to deny that the Schopenhauer-Kraus-Weininger stuff … is much more active behind the scenes than you might reasonably have supposed. … If the answers you give assume that the man wasn’t still grappling with the likes of Weininger, they will often be just false.

It’s only Weininger whom I do not take seriously. He had a gift for slogans, which naturally outlived him as a form of mental shorthand. My position is that any real idea which can be found in Weininger can also be found in Schopenhauer. (And I know, my definition of “real” is polemical, against Weininger.) But, I regard the Krausian dimension as of greatest importance for L.W.

Obviously the fact that he said weird stuff about music …

Was it really so weird? Compared to G.E. Moore and the rest of the “philosophers” of his time, yes, but taking the long view they were the ones who were out of step, not L.W. (c.f. Don MacLean quote above.)

Much of the secondary literature — of “acolytes” — was written by persons close to L.W. who were trying to understand why he was so unlike other philosophers, and so they looked in the wrong place: his philosophy. It’s true that his philosophy was different, but what his contemporaries found personally troubling about him need not trouble us, with the benefit of time and experience. Consequently, being untroubled by his personality, we have an opportunity to engage his philosophy more directly on its own terms.

The rest of the secondary literature it seems to me was written by folks like the Vienna Circle who had a vested interest in the Tractatus, for or against, and tried to carry this on through the later work. Again, a blind alley for the contemporary student.

I liked very much the idea of a

Schopenhauer, Russell, Frege” class, the point being to qualify students to read and understand the Tractatus; the joke being that such a class sounds odd.

Doesn’t sound odd to me! But I’d throw Nagarjuna in there as well. Maybe that’s why you’re the philosophy professor and I’m not. :-)


pierre 02.22.05 at 1:19 am

One more thing:

That is, it makes sense in the abstract to hypothesize that lots of scholarly knickers are in a twist about not much. But your dismissal just doesn’t survive contact with Wittgenstein’s actual writings, I think.

One of the things that draws me to L.W., and I presume I am not alone in this, is his aim of discovering that the history of philosophy is largely a history of false problems.

‘This looks screwy, therefore I’ll assume it’s false’ is a reasonable heuristic but not an infallible inference form.

It’s more than that. Anyone who understands the philosophy of L.W. should be able to demonstrate their understanding by showing that the history of Wittgenstein scholarship — a subfield of philosophy — is largely a history of false problems.

Doing so of course will not be sufficient to *prove* that they understand L.W., but if their alleged understanding cannot even be presented in such a form, it’s clear that they have not really made contact with the man. We can get a false positive here, but not a false negative.


john c. halasz 02.22.05 at 1:35 am

A passage from St. Augustine is cited at the very beginning of PI. And the opening paragraphs of PI are clearly squarely aimed at Russell’s notion that “knowledge by acquaintance” is the primary form of knowledge, showing that to be nothing but an epistemological fantasy. No doubt there are other versions of the same sort of discussion citing Augustine in previous notebooks, which are still more explicit, since that is the case for virtually all the paragraphs of Part 1, which, by the time they were polished for final publication, had been ground down and refined into a quasi-illegible implicitness. (The method of indirection, if nothing else, owes something to Kierkegaard.) But the conflict with Russell goes back to the beginning. There is that story during his student days at Cambridge before WW1 of Russell in a class citing as an example the proposition that “there is not a rhinoceros in this room now”, and Wittgenstein objecting and going barking after Russell all the way to Russell’s office, until Russell, who could not understand what the objection was, was reduced to going about the room, looking for a rhinoceros. But there was a Fregean cast to what Wittgenstein wanted that Russell didn’t understand, and clearly his point, however inchoate, was that Russell had substituted an empirical proposition, where a purely logical one was required. The “Tractatus” amounted to an attempt to radically synthesize and integrate Fregean logic, so as to delimit the place of all possible true propositions a priori, with a quasi-Kantian transcendental cast. A Kantian influence was there in Frege to begin with, as with Heinrich Hertz, who W. always cited as his first major influence.

The British cult of personality surrounding Wittgenstein has always been a hinderance to understanding him, since it amounts to a reductio ad hominem, and a way of almost deliberately misunderstanding that strange, excentric foreigner, whose preoccupations were so different from those reigning among the British, even as he availed himself of the means afforded by his British educational environment.


pierre 02.22.05 at 3:51 pm

Oh dear. There are not only multiple Johns, but two John H’s. I had been directing my comments to John Holbo. John Halasz, thanks for mentioning Kierkegaard! (Speaking of “weirdness” …)

Before this post scrolls away to no-more-comments-land I want to make sure I have stated simply, in case it’s not obvious by now, that I found jholbo’s original review/essay thoroughly stimulating (as you can see) and enjoyable!


jholbo 02.22.05 at 4:09 pm

And thank you all for the lively thread.

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