Wittgenstein, explained.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
April 12 2007 12:53 PM

Ludwig Wittgenstein

In search of the real artichoke.

(Continued from Page 1)

Not that Wittgenstein believed there was anything peripheral about his subject. As we know from one of his letters to the linguist C.K. Ogden, he thought nothing could beat the thrill of philosophy. Clearly, for him, close, penetrating reasoning was an aesthetic experience on the level of the Schubert C Major Quintet, which he thought possessed "a fantastic kind of greatness." But for Wittgenstein it was the thought that was seductive, not the language. A condition in which the thing said exceeded the thing talked about was not a condition he could admit, and especially not in poetry. He despised Bertrand Russell's attempts to write ­plain-­language philosophy on a high aesthetic level. Russell wanted to be Spinoza, and Wittgenstein devastated him by telling him he was wasting his time. Wittgenstein was undoubtedly being sincere. He would have thought the same sort of aim a waste of effort even if it came from himself. Yet he himself was in the first rank of German writers. As an aphorist he had no superior and only a few peers: Goethe, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Schnitz­ler, Kafka, Polgar—the list is quite short, and for his almost unearthly detachment he can be said to dominate it.

Wittgenstein's requirement that we should not be seduced by language is understandable in the context of the rich second phase of his philosophy, whose aim we can find summed up for him on his brass plate in Trinity College chapel in Cambridge: "Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse." (Reason must be released from the chains of speech.) The requirement that we should not be seduced by his language, however, is hard to meet. He had things to say that were as good as Hegel's line about the owl of Minerva. He was the poet without a context, the poet in the wasteland. His chief fear was that philosophy would be dominated by science. David Pears—whose short book Wittgenstein (1971) remains valuable even in the flood of light cast by Ray Monk's magnificent biography of 1990—assures us that the whole aim of Wittgenstein's work was to prevent such a domination. But of course philosophy is dominated by science, if philosophy is thought of as a subject in itself. What Wittgenstein proved is that the dominance of science does not extend to language, and that philosophy, as a corollary, is present in all the considered language that is ever used. Far from it being hard to say something significant, to say something insignificant is almost impossible, even for a baby just old enough to know that babbling makes it popular.


Wittgenstein's glamour was Garbo-esque. When Wittgenstein was in the room, even Isaiah Berlin was at a loss for words. He placed such an emphasis on precision of language that he made the merely eloquent feel slovenly. To get Wittgenstein in perspective, it required first of all his death, and then some unsentimental reflection on the breathtaking scope of what he had never talked about. He received credit for giving away the large amount of money he had inherited, and thus detaching himself from his social privileges and from the involvements and distractions of everyday life. But he also detached himself from everyday life by ignoring what was going on in Europe. The advantage to his philosophical position was that by not saying much, he never said anything ill-considered.

"We acted as though we had tried to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves," he once wrote. This is the Wittgenstein that matters to a writer. There is a Wittgenstein that matters to professional philosophers, but they can prove it only to each other. In The Blue and Brown Books (Page 137), he proposes a "noticing, seeing, conceiving" process that happens before it can be described in words. That, indeed, is the only way of describing it. It sounds very like the kind of poetic talent that we are left to deal with after we abandon the notion—as we must—that poetic talent is mere verbal ability. "What we call 'understanding a sentence' has, in many cases, a much greater similarity to understanding a musical theme than we might be inclined to think." But he doesn't want us to think about music as a mechanism to convey a feeling; "Music conveys to us itself!" So, when we read a sentence as if it were a musical theme, the music doesn't convey a separate sense that compounds with the written meaning. We get the feeling of a musical theme because the sentence means something.

I thought he was getting very close to the treasure chamber when he wrote this. In 1970, reading The Blue and Brown Books every day in the Copper Kettle in Cambridge, I made detailed transcriptions in my journal every few minutes. It didn't occur to me at the time that his prose was doing to me exactly what he was in the process of analyzing.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.


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