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Animality: transcendence and acknowledgment

Notes on Alan Janik, “Weininger and the Two Wittgensteins” in Wittgenstein Reads Weininger

Janik discusses the sources of Wittgenstein’s and Weininger’s alleged self-hatred, citing Steven Beller’s study of the significance of self-criticism in the context of Viennese Jewish secularization. (See our notes on Beller, Vienna and the Jews: 1867-1938, Cambridge, 1989).

A difference between Weininger and Wittgenstein is that the former, and not the latter, sought transcendence from the perceived burden of his Jewishness. (See our notes on Rhees.) [Wittgenstein seemed more concerned to curb his vanity than to take sheer heterocosmic flight.]

Janik describes Weininger’s influence on Wittgenstein during the crucial years around 1916 when the Tractatus was composed. Particularly, the ethical turn in the seventh proposition—Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darĂ¼ber muss man schweigen—owes its imperative cast to Wittgenstein’s internalization of Weininger’s meditations, especially those in Über die letzten Dinge, on the criminal character and way of being in the world. Hertz, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, and James also played parts in the transition from staking out the limits of coherent linguistic expression to staking out the limits of human will, but of these Weininger’s role appears in many ways the most intense and direct.

Janik neatly summarizes Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of language with its emphasis on pragmatics, showing us how his philosophy can be seen as analytic while eschewing the tendencies to ossification and reduction of much analytical philosophy. Wittgenstein is placed in this regard squarely in the critical tradition of Kant, Habermas, and, of course, Weininger.


The most important presupposition of Weininger’s work is that we cannot trust conventional notions or values.

[Usually, this is the last thing that occurs to a typical Weininger commentator.]

More skeptical than Descartes, who failed to question the presuppositions of his language, Wittgenstein comes to stress the animality of our speech and gesture. How we come by our knowledge of words reveals their limits for use in abstract contexts. The impulse to return to functional descriptions of language in “rule-following animals” evident in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy owes much of its inspiration to passages on animality in Über die letzten Dinge.

But Wittgenstein, according to Janik, differs from Weininger in two ways: First, for Wittgenstein an understanding of the natural history of human language helps dissolve traditional problems of knowledge, and of mind and body, by showing them in a new light. Questions that previously plagued philosophers, burdened by the misapplication of words, can now show themselves as misguided. Weininger did not really address this family of problems.

Secondly [and more significantly for us, since Weininger bit off more than he had time chew, as it was], Weininger sought to transcend animality while Wittgenstein to acknowledge it.

[Transcendence implies acknowledgment but not the reverse. Wittgenstein sought to come to terms with the limits of our incarnation. To live philosophically within those limits was heroic enough for him. Weininger had more sky-scraping ambitions.

But their respective realms of philosophical exploration were, indeed, different. Weininger wanted, above all, to say something positive about ethics as he understood it to be. Wittgenstein more or less silently acknowledged the importance of what Weininger was trying to say about ethics but demurred on having explicit philosophical opinions that did not ultimately devolve to gestures. Instead, he focused on deflating pretensions in more gentlemanly areas of philosophy. Weininger’s ethics, cast as they were against an implicit moral dualism of sex, would need to wait another century, at least, for appreciation.

The edifice of human egalitarianism, at least as applied to sex, a last legacy of the Enlightenment and itself a perfect example of hardened misapplication of language (and, incidentally, evidence that vulnerability to bewitchment by language is scarcely confined to philosophers but extends to social and political theorists, historians, and other theorists), would need to crack to reveal a need for revision and refinement. Liberalism, and the universal moralism it implied, was still for most of the twentieth century too much in its youth to see this central flaw.

Weininger was, perhaps, as far ahead of his time as only someone not long for this world can afford to be. Wittgenstein fought to hold onto a proper lifetime. It suited him to be more cautious.]

Intro | I | II | III | IV | V | VI

Posted by luno in Wittgenstein, Weininger (Friday January 4, 2008 at 1:30 pm)

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