This is a condensed version of a much longer essay recently published here: Was Wittgenstein a Leftist?
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Indifference And Hostility From The Far-Left
In the opinion of many, Wittgenstein was the twentieth century’s most important and influential philosopher, at least in so far as Analytic Philosophy is concerned. However, this view of his significance has not been shared by large sections of the left. Herbert Marcuse probably summed up the opinion of many concerning Wittgenstein when he said:
“Wittgenstein’s assurance that philosophy ‘leaves everything as it is’ — such statements exhibit, to my mind, academic sado-masochism, self-humiliation, and self-denunciation of the intellectual whose labour does not issue in scientific, technical or like achievements.” [Marcuse (1968), p.141.]
The attitude of the ‘radical’ left was perhaps also echoed by Sean Sayers:
“Radical Philosophy was born in the aftermath of the student movement of the 1960s. At that time, philosophy in British universities was very conservative and traditional. Ordinary language philosophy, the analytical approach, and the empiricist tradition were absolutely dominant.” [Quoted from here.]
This widely held view of Wittgenstein — that he was a conservative philosopher far more concerned with defending the “banalities of commonsense” than he was with engaging in social criticism — hasn’t been helped by the belief that he was also a mystic.
However, my aim here isn’t to defend Wittgenstein’s ideas as such, but to argue that he has been seriously mis-characterised as a conservative mystic.
Wittgenstein And The Left
Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austria on the 26th of April 1889. He subsequently enrolled as a student at the Manchester College of Technology in 1908 [Sterrett (2005)]. As a result of his interest in the foundations of mathematics, he followed Frege‘s advice and went to study with Bertrand Russell at the University of Cambridge in 1911. It soon became apparent to Russell that Wittgenstein was a genius who would make the “next major advance in Philosophy”. Indeed, he was doing original research within a year, work that would later form part of his first book, the Tractatus. He gave away his massive inheritance, and when WW1 broke out, volunteered to fight in the Austro-Hungarian army. After the war, he became a teacher in Austria and worked as a gardener in a monastery for a short while.
W. W. Bartley, one of Wittgenstein’s first biographers, had this to say about his time there:
“The monastery no longer exists…; yet some of the old retainers still remain, and a few remember Wittgenstein as ‘a very good and industrious gardener — and as a left-winger’.” [Bartley (1988), p.116.]
So, the only two things that these “retainers” remembered about Wittgenstein almost fifty years later was that he was good at his job and that he was a “left-winger”. For these to be the only things they recalled he must have stood out as an individual who held forthright left-wing opinions. Indeed, a few years earlier, in 1922, Wittgenstein wrote to his friend, Paul Engelmann, expressing his desire to go and live in the USSR:
“The idea of a possible flight to Russia which we talked about keeps haunting me.” [Engelmann (1967), pp.52-53.]
This was written within a few years of the 1917 Revolution, as the Civil War was drawing to a close. A “left-winger” who wanted to go and live in revolutionary Russia in the throes of a Civil War — hardly the actions of a conservative.
After holding several meetings with members of the Vienna Circle (a group largely comprised of socialists and Marxists) in the late 1920s, he returned to Cambridge University in 1929, where the vast majority of his friends and many of his pupils turned out to be prominent Marxists (e.g., Piero Sraffa, Maurice Dobb, Nicholas Bakhtin (the older brother of Mikhail Bakhtin, colleague of Valentin Voloshinov), George Thomson, Maurice Cornforth, David Hayden-Guest, Alister Watson, Roy and Fania Pascal, Allen Cameron Jackson, John Cornford, George Paul, Douglas Gasking, and Rush Rhees). [Monk (1990), pp.343, 348; Cornish (1999), pp.40-87.] Hence, in the Cambridge of the 1930s, Wittgenstein was surrounded on every side by leading communists and other assorted “ultra-lefts”. Concerning the Cambridge philosopher, Frank Ramsey, Wittgenstein had this to say (in a note dated 01/11/1931):
“Ramsey was a bourgeois thinker. I.e., he thought with the aim of clearing up the affairs of some particular community. He did not reflect on the essence of the state — or at least he did not like doing so — but on how this state might reasonable [sic] be organized. The idea that this state might not be the only possible one partly disquieted him and partly bored him.” [Wittgenstein (1998), p.24e. Emphases in the original, as is the case with all the other passages quoted in this article.]
From this we may conclude that (1) Wittgenstein connected criticism of the state with whether or not an individual was a “bourgeois thinker” — again, hardly the opinion of a conservative –, and (2) He linked philosophical criticism with political criticism — in direct contradiction to the idea that he thought philosophy should ‘leave everything as it is’.
Wittgenstein’s View Of Russia And His Political Opinions
Rush Rhees, who was becoming a Trotskyist in the 1930s, and who later became one of his closest friends, had this to say about Wittgenstein’s attitude toward Marx and the USSR:
“If Wittgenstein felt sympathy with anything important in Marx, I think it was Marx’s faith in the proletariat: the importance of manual labour in the overthrow of capitalism and in the character of the ‘non-capitalist’ society…. Marx… writes of the ‘historical task’ of the proletariat and [that] science, which transforms the world, is working for them. But when he shows the degradation of the workers under capitalism…, he writes with the force of someone fighting against it. This sense of fighting may have seemed to Wittgenstein to show in the vitality of the Russian workers…. It may have been part of what ‘he believes the regime in Russia stands for’….
“When I said the ‘rule by bureaucracy’ in Russia was bringing in class distinctions there, he told me ‘If anything could destroy my sympathy with the Russian regime, it would be the growth of class distinctions.'” [Rhees (1984), pp.204-07.]
Back in the early 1970s, John Moran published a ground-breaking article, ‘Wittgenstein and Russia‘. Rush Rhees responded to several questions Moran sent him; here is part of Moran’s report of the answers he received:
“On Wittgenstein’s acquaintance with Marx he had evidence only that he had read part of the first volume of Capital, though he may also have read other works…. ‘Wittgenstein was familiar with the “tenets” of…Dialectical Materialism….’ Much of this familiarity may have come from frequent discussions of related ideas with Marxist friends rather than direct reading of Marx….
“Further, according to Rhees, Wittgenstein thought Marx’s conception of history and society were…scientific in attitude…. From conversations with him…, Rhees gathered that Wittgenstein had Marxist ideas in mind when he used the phrase ‘transition from quantity to quality’ with apparent approval (Investigations, §284).” [Moran (1972).]
And, here is the passage in question from the Investigations:
“And so, too, a corpse seems to us quite inaccessible to pain. — Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead is not the same. All our reactions are different. — If someone says, ‘That cannot simply come from the fact that living beings move in such-and-such ways and dead ones don’t’, then I want to suggest to him that this is a case of the transition ‘from quantity to quality’.” [Wittgenstein (2009), p.104e, §284.]
“He used sometimes to reflect on the well known phrase ‘transition from quantity to quality’.” [Quoted from here.]
Moreover, until recently Wittgenstein was almost unique among Analytic Philosophers in questioning the ‘Law of Non-contradiction’; here is just one of the many things he had to say about it:
“But you can’t allow a contradiction to stand! — Why not?…
“It might for example be said of an object in motion that it existed and did not exist in this place; change might be expressed by means of contradiction.” [Wittgenstein (1978), p.370.]
This could almost have come directly from Hegel, Lenin or Engels!
Wittgenstein’s unorthodox view of contradictions isn’t the only area of his work that echoes ideas we normally associate with Hegel and Dialectical Materialism; he also held non-standard views about the ‘Law of Identity’.
“Roughly speaking, to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all….
“The identity-sign, therefore, is not an essential constituent of conceptual notation.” [Wittgenstein (1972), 5.5303-5.533, pp.106-07.]
“‘A thing is identical with itself.’ — There is no finer example of a useless sentence….” [Wittgenstein (2009), §216, p.91e.]
I can think of very few Analytic Philosophers (who have not already been influenced by Hegel and/or Wittgenstein), if any, who would argue this way. But, this isn’t surprising given what we know of the opinions of his communist friends.
And here is another revealing passage, this time from Manuscript 213 (dating from the early 1930s, which is a direct or indirect allusion to Heraclitus):
“That everything is in flux must be inherent in the contact between language and reality. Or better: That everything is in flux must be inherent in language….” [Wittgenstein (2013), p.314e.]
Furthermore, we also learn that Wittgenstein had read Hegel:
“Hegel [Wittgenstein] said he had hardly read at all, but from what he had read he thought Hegel ‘had nose’ — he was struck, for instance, by Hegel’s denial of the so-called ‘law of contradiction’. That denial, indeed, could well have appealed to Wittgenstein’s love of paradox….” [Redpath (1999), pp.18-19.]
“Though dialetheism is not a new view, the word itself is. It was coined by Graham Priest and Richard Routley…in 1981 (see Priest, Routley and Norman, 1989, p.xx). The inspiration for the name was a passage in Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, where he describes the Liar sentence (‘This sentence is not true’) as a Janus-headed figure facing both truth and falsity (1978, IV.59). Hence a di-aletheia is a two(-way) truth.” [Priest and Berto (2013).]
The passage to which the above two authors refer is this:
“The proposition that contradicts itself would stand like a monument (with a Janus head) over the propositions of logic.” [Wittgenstein (1978), p.256.]
However, in later work, it is clear that Wittgenstein had abandoned this way of seeing things:
“There can be no debate about whether these or other rules are the right ones for the word ‘not’…. For without these rules, the word has as yet no meaning; and if we change the rules, it now has another meaning (or none), and in that case we may just as well change the word too.” [Wittgenstein (2009), §549, footnote, p.155e.]
Hence, if the negative particle typically maps a truth onto a falsehood, or vice versa, then a contradiction can’t be true, but must either be senseless or false. Any other interpretation must therefore be using the negative particle in a different way, which would in turn imply that any ‘contradiction’ so formed would also involve using that word with a new meaning.
There are many more direct and indirect allusions to Marxist ideas in Wittgenstein’s published and unpublished work, too many to quote here, but they can all be found in my essay, Was Wittgenstein a Leftist?
Wittgenstein briefly visited Russia in September 1935 with the intention of settling down there. Like many others at the time this was partly motivated by the false belief that under Stalin it was a Workers’ State. We can see this from the fact that he told Rush Rhees that he would lose sympathy with the regime there if class distinctions returned. In this regard, of course, his intentions are more significant than his mistaken views.
While he was there he met Sophia Yanovskaya, Professor of Mathematical Logic at Moscow University, who even went as far as recommend Wittgenstein for the Chair of Philosophy at Kazan University (Lenin’s old college) [Monk (1990), p.351]. In Stalin’s Russia of the mid-1930s these were hardly posts one would have offered to just aboutanyone, least of all to a German speaker supposedly unsympathetic toward Communism.
Wittgenstein and Sraffa
More importantly, Wittgenstein himself declared that his later philosophy had been inspired by his regular conversations with Piero Sraffa (Gramsci’s friend). The extent of Sraffa’s influence is still unclear (but, see below); even so Wittgenstein admitted to Rhees that it was from Sraffa that he had gained an “anthropological” view of philosophical problems. In the Preface to what is his most important and influential work, Wittgenstein had this to say:
“Even more than this…criticism, I am indebted to that which a teacher of this university, Mr P. Sraffa, for many years unceasingly applied to my thoughts. It is to this stimulus that I owe the most fruitful ideas of this book.” [Wittgenstein (2009), p.4e.]
This is quite remarkable! The author of what many believe to be the most original and innovative philosophical work of the 20th century — and one that, if correct, brings to an end 2500 years of traditional thought — claims that his most “fruitful” ideas were derived from a man who was an avowed Marxist!
The precise details of Sraffa’s — and indirectly Gramsci’s — influence on Wittgenstein have until recently been unclear, but over the last fifteen years or so hard evidence has begun to emerge from the Sraffa archives. I can’t go into the details here, so readers are directed to the essay of mine mentioned earlier, as well as the books and articles listed at the end of the Bibliography.
Wittgenstein And Voloshinov
In addition to this, there are very clear indications that Wittgenstein had probably read Voloshinov, or the latter’s ideas had filtered through to him via Sraffa or Nicholas Bakhtin. In the main these parallels relate to (1) The social nature of language, and (2) The meaning of words/’signs’. I have space here for only a handful of examples.
Concerning the second of these, we have the following words:
“Meaning is a function of the sign and is therefore inconceivable…outside the sign as some particular, independently existing thing. It would be just as absurd to maintain such a notion as to take the meaning of the word ‘horse’ to be this particular, live animal I am pointing to. Why if that were so, then I could claim, for instance, that having eaten an apple, I have consumed not an apple but the meaning of the word ‘apple’.” [Voloshinov (1973), p.28.]
Compare that with Wittgenstein’s comments:
“It is important to note that it is a solecism to use the word ‘meaning’ to signify the thing that ‘corresponds’ to a word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies, one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies.” [Wittgenstein (2009), §1, p.5e, and§40, p.24e.]
This parallel is quite striking — partly because, as far as I am aware, no one has noticed it before. The view of the meaning of words these two are keen to challenge has been (and in many cases still is) a core principle of traditional/atomistic theories of language; that is, that the meaning of a word is the object (or the ‘idea’/’image’/’concept’) to which it refers or with which it is associated. [Of course, these days we have “signifier” and “signified”.]
The approach advocated by Voloshinov and Wittgenstein thus broke entirely new ground.
Is it just a coincidence that within a few years of Voloshinov writing the above Wittgenstein also began to think along the same lines, using a similar argument to motivate the completely new direction he was taking, a direction that took him away from the rather simplified semantics of the Tractatus?
Moreover, concerning the first of the above points, there are these comments:
“In point of fact, the speech act, or more accurately, its product — the utterance, cannot under any circumstances be considered an individual phenomenon in the precise meaning of the word and cannot be explained in terms of the individual psychological or psychophysiological conditions of the speaker. The utterance is a social phenomenon.” [Voloshinov, op cit, p.82.]
“Idealism and psychologism alike overlook the fact that understanding itself can come about only with in some kind of semiotic material…that sign bears upon sign, that consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs…understanding is a response to a sign with signs.” [Ibid., p.11.]
“…The utterance ‘What time is it?’ has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation….” [Ibid.,p.99.]
Compare the above with what Wittgenstein was beginning to argue:
“‘A sign is always intended for a living being, so that must be something essential to a sign.’… A sign has a purpose only in human society….” [Wittgenstein (2013), p.146e.]
“An interpretation is a supplementation of the interpreted sign with another sign.
“If someone asks me ‘What time is it?’ then no work of interpretation goes on inside me. I react immediately to what I see and hear.” [Ibid., p.16e.]
Compare these, too:
“What I want to say is that to be a sign a thing must be dynamic not static.” [Wittgenstein (1974), p.55.]
“Theme is a complex, dynamic system of signs that attempts to be adequate to a given instant of generative process….” [Voloshinov, op cit, p.100.]
There is also a striking parallel between what Voloshinov had to say about “theme” and Wittgenstein’s comments about it, too.
‘Philosophy Leaves Everything As It Is’
As noted above, one of the cornerstones of the idea that Wittgenstein was a conservative philosopher is the allegation that he argued that philosophy “leaves everything as it is”, and that it has, therefore, no political, social or critical role to play, other than, perhaps, to rationalise (directly or indirectly) the status quo. According to this abiding myth, the sole job of the philosopher is to contemplate the minutiae of language use in splendid, ivory tower isolation. But, is there any truth in this clichéd allegation?
Here in fact is what Wittgenstein had to say:
“Philosophy must not interfere in any way with the actual use of language, so it can in the end only describe it.
“For it cannot justify it either.
“It leaves everything as it is.
“It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it.” [Wittgenstein (2009), §124, p.55e.]
From this it is quite clear that the word “everything” (in the third line) refers back to “the actual use of language” (in the first). This is plain from the fact that Wittgenstein went on to mention mathematics (“It also leaves mathematics as it is”), which he wouldn’t have added if “everything” were totally unqualified in the way that many suppose.
So, Philosophy leaves language and mathematics as they are, but nothing else. Whether or not one agrees with Wittgenstein, this particular passage offers no support to those who want to characterise Wittgenstein as aconservative.
Was Wittgenstein A Mystic?
Another of the charges often levelled against Wittgenstein is that he was a mystic. It is certainly true that he said things like this:
“There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” [Wittgenstein (1972), 6.44, 6.45, 6.522; pp.149-51.]
However, the ‘mystical’ and ethical sections of the Tractatus do not sit well with the stark criteria Wittgenstein laid down for an expression to count as a proposition (and hence for it to be capable not only of saying, but also of showing something). The ethical and mystical passages can’t do this (since they try to show what can only be shown by ordinary propositions). [On this, see White (2006), pp.114-15.
In a letter to Russell, Wittgenstein had this to say
“Now I’m afraid you haven’t really got hold of my contention, to which the whole business of logical propositions is only a corollary. The main point is the theory of what can be expressed by propositions — i.e., by language — (and, which comes to the same, what can be thought) and what can not be expressed by propositions, but can only be shown; which, I believe, is the cardinal problem of philosophy.” [Wittgenstein (2012), p.98.]
Since the whole point of the book concerns what can’t be expressed but only shown by ordinary propositions, these odd passages at the end can’t be integral to what it had to say. In which case, we must look to other reasons why these incongruous sections were included — reasons which I think nobody else has noticed before, but they are in fact staring us in the face.
These rather odd concerns only began to exercise an influence on Wittgenstein’s thought during his military service in the First World War; they appear in his Notebooks for the first time in 1915/1916, after most of the core ideas of the Tractatus had been settled upon. Thus, ‘God’ makes ‘his’ first appearance in a note dated 11th of June 1916 [Wittgenstein (1979), p.72e.]; the ‘mystical’ in a note written in May 1915 [Ibid., p.51e]; comments about the ‘will’ first appear in the same month, as do those about ‘the soul’. [Ibid., pp.49e-50e.] Up to that point, Wittgenstein’s interests had been almost exclusively concerned with logical syntax, the logical constants, names, sense, nonsense, the nature of facts, simples, and complexes, etc. — the core ideas of the Tractatus. After this, the meaning of life, happiness, death, suicide, and various assorted ethical concerns began to dominate his thinking.
To the consternation of those who knew him, he returned from the war a mystic. As Brian McGuinness notes in his biography of Wittgenstein:
“Russell was shocked by the mystical tendencies that he found in Wittgenstein after the war.” [McGuinness (1990), p.204.]
He was shocked since there was no hint of this before the war. Indeed, we know that he had abandoned belief in ‘god’ as a schoolboy [Monk (1990), p.18.
Neverthelss, this turn to the ‘mystical’ during his military service isn’t surprising given the effect we now know that modern warfare can have on human beings. This odd turn of events was a sign that Wittgenstein was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], which, as we also understand, can last for many years causing long-term psychiatric problems — such as clinical depression coupled with suicidal tendencies, both of which we know Wittgenstein suffered from for the rest of his life.
Given what Marx had to say about religious belief it shouldn’t surprise us that in times of extreme stress and emotional turmoil many turn to mysticism for consolation. The evidence suggests that the same can happen to soldiers during war, as well as after they have returned from service.
Indeed, Wittgenstein’s war diaries record the acute stress he was under; here is one entry from 29/07/16 (but there are many more):
“Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live…. From time to time I become an animal. Then I can think of nothing but eating, drinking and sleeping. Terrible! And then I suffer like an animal too, without the possibility of internal salvation. I am then at the mercy of my appetites and aversions. Then an authentic life is unthinkable.” [Quoted in Monk, op cit, p.146.]
It is quite clear from this that Wittgenstein was beginning to suffer from clinical depression:
“Hypersomnia is excessive sleepiness…. [P]eople who are suffering from clinical depression may suffer from hypersomnia…nearly every day.” [Quoted from here.]
Wittgenstein’s turn to the mystical is hardly surprising, therefore; these ruminations were plainly a coping mechanism. However, they are conspicuous by their absence in his ‘middle’ and ‘later’ periods. The ‘mystical’ is absent from the Notebooks of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as from the Investigations.
To be sure Wittgenstein did have religious ‘leanings’ of some sort (the word “god” crops up all over the place in his later Notebooks, but his use of this word is often equivocal), and he converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed — but that was, clearly, at the very end of his life. At other times, he wore his religious beliefs, if he had any, very lightly.
From the above it is now quite clear that Wittgenstein was indeed “a left-winger”, just as it is also clear he was a mystic for only a few years (i.e., during and after WW1). We have also seen that the idea that he was a conservative isn’t just misguided, it is the exact opposite of the truth. Indeed, if correct, his method brings to an end two-and-half millennia of empty philosophical speculation.
However, this isn’t just an academic exercise. It is important to challenge the above view of Wittgenstein, since it has served as an effective barrier to his ideas being appropriated by revolutionaries. There are now no good reasons to reject his work over and above those that would apply to any other philosopher — that is: whether or not his arguments are valid.
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