The Philosophical and The Lunatic Wittgenstein


“For a century Wittgensteins had produced armaments and machines until finally they produced Ludwig and Paul, the famous epoch-making philosopher and the no less famous – at least in Vienna, and just there, even more famous – lunatic who, basically, was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig just as, the other way about, the philosophical Ludwig was just as crazy as his nephew Paul; the one, Ludwig, had made his philosophy the basis of his fame, the other Paul, his craziness. The one, Ludwig, was possibly more philosophical, while the other, was possibly crazier, but it may also be that we believed the one, the philosophical Wittgenstein, to be a philosopher only because he had put his philosophy down on paper and not his craziness, and the other, Paul, to be a lunatic merely because he had suppressed and not published his philosophy and only displayed his madness. Both were completely and utterly exceptional brains; the one who had published his brain and the other had not. I might even say that the one had published his brain while the other had practised his brain. And where is the difference between a brain published and continually publishing itself and one that is practised and continually being practised? But of course if Paul had published any writings he would have published writings totally different from Ludwig’s, just as Ludwig would of course have practised a totally different madness from Paul’s. In either case the Wittgenstein name is a guarantee of a high, indeed the highest standard. Paul, the lunatic undoubtedly attained the standard of Ludwig the philosopher; the one represents an absolute peak of philosophy and the history of thought, while the other represents a peak in the history of madness if we are to describe philosophy as philosophy, thought as thought and madness as what they are described as: as perverse historical concepts.”

Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (trans. Ewald Osers)

The Impersonal Within Us (Lyric Thought)

Scene from Orson Welles’s “Don Quixote”

There is still much I wish to share of Jan Zwicky’s reflections in Lyric Philosophy. Her highly compacted approach to questions of subjectivity and language are developed  with an acute elegance that owes much to Wittgenstein’s style. Her arguments and thoughts, presented through fragments and crystalline prose have none of the patient, and frankly dull linear narrative of claim and counter-claim that characterises much philosophy.

As Wittgenstein, there is little sense that Zwicky’s reflections add up to a philosophical system but they throw an illuminating light on the “I speak” of Foucault’s simple sentence, “It it therefore true, undeniably true, that I speak when I say that I am speaking. But things may not be so simple.”

In Book 1 of Lyric Philosophy Zwicky argues that emotions are an integral part of human nature and unjustly set in opposition to reason and logical thought. Emotions shape how we see our world, a necessary factor in how we acquire knowledge. Although emotions are profoundly interior they also reach outwards. On that note, let me share two of Zwicky’s propositions:

“It is in this way, then, that philosophy might assume lyric form: when thought whose eros is clarity is driven also by profound intuitions of coherence – when it is also an attempt to arrive at an integrated perception, a picture or understanding of how something might affect us as beings with bodies and emotions as well as the ability to think logically. Or when it is an investigation informed by or moving towards an appreciation of such a picture or understanding.

When philosophy attempts to give voice to an ecology of experience.” – § 68

“This is not lyric in a sense that emphasises the role of the individual ego: the ‘outpouring of subjective emotion’ connected with the rise of Romantic poetry. That sense is corrupt and is based on a subversion of the desire that fundamentally underlies lyric expression – relinquishment of the individual ego rather than celebration of it.

Lyric thought springs from love, love that attends to the most minutes details of difference; and in this attention experiences connection rather than isolation.” § 69

This seems important to the place of subjective emotion in written thought, whether expressed as fiction or non-fiction – to what extent these terms remain useful today – that it is rooted in emotion but directed outward towards things in the world, or as Zwicky writes, “It bespeaks an awareness that is vulnerable to the world.”

An Instrument’s Sound

From Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy:

“Dealers in fine musical instruments almost never play the instruments they appraise. Their assessments are based on externally measurable proportions, antique value, the visual appearance of the varnish, the reputation of the luthier, and so on. An understanding of the Tractatus’s arguments might be compared to a violin’s market value; an understanding of its thought, to a musician’s appreciation of the instrument’s sound.

Simone Weil [The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills]

Infinite difference between three hours spent at a machine on piece-work, and three hours spent in front of a fresco of Giotto’s. The relationship between time and me is the stuff of which my life is woven, and it is possible to establish an infinite difference therein. A Bach fugue is a model.”

Giotto’s Legend of St Francis – Renunciation of Wordly Goods

Schumann’s glorious sonata played on Isserlis’ Stradivarius, accompanied by pianist Dénes Várjon, for no other reason but that it accompanies the Giotto so exquisitely. This is the stuff of which my life is woven.

A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

Sometimes, one’s reading coalesces into silent flood . . .


‘Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.’ – Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig with a Memoir

‘Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.’ Beckett, Watt

‘I wanted to take a snapshot from the book but it feels that it demands such a private form of reading.’ Daniela Cascella, (my italics) ‘I feel like that with most books, this is why I hardly ever blog anymore’ flowerville_ii

‘Making yourself understood is impossible, there’s no such thing as doing that.’ Thomas Bernhard, Three Days (Douglas Robertson’s translation)

‘I cannot help these words as he can: / mute radiance, the empty shining valley. / I cannot keep them clean, they suffocate, / fall stillborn from my mouth. / Prod them for signs of life like poisoned mice.’ Jan Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies

Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

“I will say, posthumously, that Europe is the world’s sore affliction, that you in America who have taken the best that Europe has to offer while hoping to avoid the worst are, in your indigenously American phrase, ‘whistling Dixie.’ All your God-drenched thinking replicates the religious structures built out of the hallucinatory life of the ancient Near East by European clericalists, all your social frictions are the inheritance of colonialist slave-making economies of European businessmen, all your metaphysical conundrums were concocted for you by European intellectuals, and you have now come across the ocean in two world wars conceived by European politicians and so have installed in your republic just the militarist mind-state that has kept our cities burning during since the days of Hadrian.”

Christa Wolf, quoting Wittgenstein, from a preface in Doctorow’s City of God. I’m unable to find the source of this quotation. If you know, please let me know. I shall clearly have to read the Doctorow, which the NYT reviewed concluding, “The ideas are certainly there — the idea of New York, the idea of God, the idea of literature. But where is the novel?” If anything, that only increases its allure.

[Postscript: I’m reasonably sure that this is a fictional Wittgenstein quote.]

Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.

When it’s Nasty Then it’s Most Important

Yet another sighting of E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational in Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic. Coming across a mention of Dodd’s book has a talismanic aspect; though I’ve never read what Kaufmann refers to as a ‘splendid book’ its presence always implies a text that transcends traditional categories.

Kaufmann’s book is misleadingly titled. Rather than another contribution to that ocean of gibberish in which boorish windbags peddle atheism with all the charm of pavement charity chuggers, Kaufmann’s beautifully elegant, witty book is his very personal critique of philosophy and religion. As with any Kaufmann study, you follow as he discourses freely, peppering his work with anecdotes like this of Wittgenstein, a writer whose voluptuously textured philosophy I’ve failed to understand for three decades:

[..]in his very interesting and moving little book, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Norman Malcolm tells us how a casual remark he once made in a conversation in the fall of 1939 about the British “national character” vexed Wittgenstein; and he quotes a letter Wittgenstein wrote to him five years later: “Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious . . . . You see, I know that its difficult to think well about ‘certainty,’ ‘probability,’ ‘perception,’ etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people’s lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?