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Male solipsism

Notes on Steven Burns, “Sex and Solipsism: Weininger’s On Last Things” in Wittgenstein Reads Weininger

Burns cites an intriguing reference to a religious interpretation of Weininger by Waltraud Hirsch, (1997), Eine unbescheidene Charakterologie: Geistige Differenz von Judentum und Christentum; Otto Weininger Lehre vom bestimmten Charakter.

He attempts to tease out what Wittgenstein found so engaging about Weininger’s On Last Things (Über die letzten Dinge). The implication is that this is not obvious, given many of Weininger’s seemingly outlandish associations, such as that between father, teacher and self-lover or between sonhood and self-hatred. Wittgenstein can scarcely have been taken in by such bald-faced essentialism. “We should not, however, think (as Weininger seems to) that it could not be otherwise, that these ideas [the associations just listed] must always coincide.” Burns suggests that what Wittgenstein took from Weininger here was a new way of seeing things that by its very looseness invited anti-essentialist analysis. Wittgenstein derived the notion of family resemblances from the same insights that Weininger took more literally. From Weininger Wittgenstein gleaned “fruitful figures of speech” rather than logical or empirical equivalences. The flat negation Wittgenstein suggested in the letter to Moore should be placed before Weininger’s work was a “no” to literalness or essentialism, Burns suggests. (Though Wittgenstein was referring to Sex and Character, not On Last Things, the point might still be made.)

[But was Weininger an essentialist? And even if it might be correct to say that he was, in some sense, what is so bad about essentialism? Or right about whatever one might oppose to it?

There is plenty in Weininger to suggest that he was in no simple sense an essentializing dualist. Take his infamous sexual dichotomy of principles: the feminine and the masculine. Perhaps his boiling them down to W and M and fitting them into a formula, as he did, wittingly or not, led many readers to think he claimed a simplicity or precision to his pronouncements that is not there. It seems to have availed him little to have followed with the caveat that no single individual in the universe instantiated either principle, that all historical and extant individuals manifested degrees of both, that even every microscopic unit of life manifested this mixture, etc. In practical terms, he felt, for example, that the education of children would ideally be customized to the accommodate the mix as it might be discoverable in each child regardless of sex: an ideal as far from naive essentialism as we can imagine (his “orthopedic” approach.).

That said, was Weininger not entitled to acknowledge the reality that, as Gertrude Stein liked to repeat, when led to water, most horses drink? (Which is not to say that horses drink essentially.) Indeed the reference to Stein is apt here for she, too, like Wittgenstein, could react with skepticism, not just at essentialism but at its opposing vice, that of fetishizing variegation and exception to the point of blindness. A principle reason for her abandoning her medical studies when near completion was the then (and probably still) current obsession with deviance from health and not health itself. It was the normal state that interested her. The study of things and people as they are seemed to her the prerequisite to progress in understanding deviance. The study of deviance, is often supposed a heuristic for understanding normality, but, we fear, too commonly it develops into a distraction (unless, of course, it really is deviance we seek to learn about).

The fact is most men are a certain way and most women are another. The values we attached to those conditions and proclivities are proper targets for revision, but not to the point of distorting the relatively stable factual underpinnings. The liberal assumption that these conditions are contingent and hence malleable is obviously true and obviously false at the same time. To grasp this you need to be steeped in something that is neither essentialism nor in whatever we might oppose to it. Stein and Wittgenstein, near contemporaries (who, incidentally, almost met, sharing as they did some of the same contacts at around the same time, including Russell, Moore, Whitehead, etc.) shared this perspective (among other things). So it should not surprise us to learn that both greatly admired Weininger.

There is another problem with couching a defense of Wittgenstein’s consort with Weininger in terms of a debate about essentialism. Are we not in danger here of essentializing the difference between literalness and figuration? (And if we can be excused for doing that because are motives are pure, what else might we be excused for?) Is there no middle ground, no spectrum between meaning something literally and offering the disclaimer that it was only a figure of speech? Isn’t it the mark if its power, that a myth can straddle a respectable swath in this spectrum?

The term “myth” is sometimes used less derisively to describe a formidable lie: one that we may behave perfectly rationally in believing, but up to a point, of course. But what is it to “believe in something up to a point”?

Isn’t it to believe in something principally because unbelief in it has consequences we are not willing to accept? The belief is not a take-it-or-leave-it fantasy. It is usually an offer we can’t refuse: not for lack of consistency or coherence or a dearth of evidence, but from far more utilitarian concerns: painful ones, from the fact that we are embodied and with that comes pain.

Skepticism, to the extent it is healthy, trains itself with exercises in bearing this pain. To what end? It is clear that end, whatever you may choose to call it, must be transcendental, quintessentially unconcerned with utility and embodiment.

To return to Weininger, much of his richness and the widespread fascination with him on the part of many of the most critical minds of the early part of the 20th century,* and the fact that now—after a period of submersion, after a period in which his particular truth was unconducive to our recovery from historical trauma or inexpedient at a certain stage in an ancient struggle for justice**—the fascination is resurfacing stems from the fact that Weininger, as all “great” thinkers, is sufficiently in tune with myths as evocative of truths as any have ever been.]

* Editor’s note: Luno never seems to tire of reminding us of this.
** Editor’s note: The Holocaust and feminism, respectively.

The usual image of Weininger as quintessential “Jewish self-hater” is challenged by Waltraud Hirsch. Burns quotes her: “Anti-feminism and anti-Semitism in Weininger can only be understood within his system. In that system they lose their conventional meaning. That is to say, that almost all that is written about Weininger’s hatred of women and Jews indicated a misunderstanding of his fundamental idea.” (See op. cit., pp. 17, 75-89, and 203-9.) [We will have to investigate to what extent Hirsch’s views parallels ours.]

Burns summarizes in these pages the chapters in Über die letzten Dinge on sadism and masochism, characterology, the moral unidirectionality of time, and a metaphysics of animal symbolization. The common thread is always ultimately moral: morality constrains and shapes us but it must contend with diverse susceptibilities that contribute to the formation and distortion of character. Weininger addresses how character may choose from its available symbols, often animal, as frames to inhabit. The various ruses resistance to moral imperative takes include a descent into mineral or vegetable cyclicity (the swamp, the dance), or to embodiment of animal avatars of criminality and cowardice (the dog) or madness and distraction (the horse). The negative resistance to moral demands may turn inward in masochism or outward in sadism, or escape into vacillation or temporal development from one to the other. Character squirms this way and that under the moral foot.

[This suggests Wittgenstein was moved on two levels by his reading of On Last Things: Weininger’s evocative method was instructive while at the same time his moral undercurrent struck a deep chord. The latter no doubt gave weight and respect to the symbolic license of the former. Weininger’s moral compass was perceived as so true that however strained his examples may appear they demanded hermeneutic effort. Anyone less grounded in such a lucid perception of the human moral condition would not deserve half as much attention.

Weininger’s dramatic suicide is the greatest evidence of his earnestness. He was the quintessential philosophical performance artist par excellence (in the same league with Socrates and Peregrinus). So it is not hard to understand why this act is pathologized by those who would have us dismiss his case as clinical and not profoundly semantic. If there is no moral lesson to be learned from Weininger, there is no lesson at all. He becomes a mere case in point.]

Near the end of this section Burns quotes Weininger: “Suicide is not a sign of courage, but of cowardice, even if it is the least of the cowardly acts” (157). Burns comments:

Wittgenstein seems to have feared his own cowardice during much of his life. And while that thought did not save Weininger from his fate, it may well have helped Wittgenstein through some dark periods.

[Burns seems not to have considered here that Weininger’s comment, especially the last clause, may imply that continuing to live might rank still higher among cowardly acts.]

Burns addresses Weininger’s Kantian interpretation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. He quotes Weininger’s significant passage from On Last Things on the will to value:

All humans, man and woman, are constituted as such by the will to value. If someone cannot create value of and for himself—and this is always the case with women—then he tries to get it from somewhere else and for someone else; one always acts for the audience that makes the value judgement.

[Note that Weininger stresses that both women and men are so constituted. But each comes by value through different means and with a different intermediate (at least) object. Woman does not create value itself. Rather she creates the conditions for its attainment, that is, life itself. In so doing she both receives the value that results and is entitled to it, yet she does not desire it for herself but in order to bind others and nurture the conditions for its proliferation. She is its audience, its user, its consumer, and judge, its final earthly arbiter. He creates value but she gives him reason to. Thus, her role is critical at the beginning of the production of value, by creating its conditions, and at the end, through her appreciation, her setting its material price.*]

Burns explains Weininger’s interpretation of Peer Gynt.

* Editor’s note: Notice the italics here, she neither perceives nor can even truly imagine any heterocosmic or transcendental value.

[Here Burns is at his most insightful as he points up the central moral tragedy in which Peer must use Solveig to realize his own redemption while yet this use is (or ought to be, for Weininger’s neo-Kantianism) morally unconscionable. The unconscionability is such from the perspective of having accomplished the salvation. Even if she, Solveig, should willingly have sacrificed herself for this purpose, the damage was done in his realization of what she had sacrificed: her very humanity in his eyes. While still under the sway of the empirical ego the feminine could have been counted a force to contend with, however low this contest might drag him. But the price for getting past seeing her as object of conquest and possession is that he learns he may only salvage her humanity by dying himself. The world that he might have called empirical to contrast it with some heterocosmic fascination is not empirical to her: it is simply the world. His dualisms, the unidirectionality of time for him, the fact that morality for him is all about self-purification and transcendence, are less than nothing to her personally. She may with the purest heart both wonder at and pity him. This is the best she can do. And in this world no one could do better. But this is not enough, he realizes, with his masculine heterocosmic allegiances…

Entrained by the feminine and masculine principles inhering them, the most authentic relation between women and men is one of mutual pity.]

Sex, when it really is intercourse with another, is either the opposite of solipsism or is made bad by it; bad sex happens when the Male/Female relation is in practical terms one in which “there is no other mind there.” Solipsistic sex, if we may put it this way, is conducted in a logically private language; there is no verifiable communication with another person in the sex act, no intercourse.

[Post coitum triste becomes just coitum triste.

Solipsism is both epistemologically and morally endemic to masculinity. His moral mission is inscribed in the imperative, if not to transcend, at least to compensate for the burden he places on the world and the feminine, in particular.]

In the last section of his paper Burns quite nimbly ties together Weininger’s concern with the near identity of logic and ethics and the irrefutability, yet unprovability, of solipsism with Wittgenstein’s position, centrally apparent throughout his career, on skepticism. At different times and by different people, Wittgenstein has been seen as a radical skeptic and as offering a final refutation of solipsism in his attack on the possibility of a private language.

Burns takes the view, we think correct, that Wittgenstein never attempted to refute solipsism as much as divert us from seeing it as an intelligible problem. Wittgenstein agreed with Weininger that real philosophical problems lay elsewhere in the fact that both logic and ethics were at bottom more challenges to our will than to our understanding. Burns shows that Weininger was aware of their differences—one concerned meaningful states of the world not bounded by the duration of our lives, while the other created—ex nihilio, as it were, from the radical agency of human beings—life-sustaining meaning. Nevertheless, what logic and ethics have in common, vis-a-vis their instantiation in humans, is that they must be taken up in an act of will. Nothing forces logic upon us any more than morality. Logical failure, indifference to defensible thought, and moral failure, indifference to the integrity of others, are related in that both may sit happily with solipsism. The corresponding virtues are willfully acquired tastes, impossible tastes, if never quite habits.

Thus, Burns explains Wittgenstein’s reaction to Russell’s query about whether it was logic or his sins that so exercised him. Sharing Weininger’s focus on the critical resemblance, Wittgenstein answered, “Both.”

Having enlisted Wittgenstein, Burns concludes in sympathy with the efforts of others at diversion from the problem of solipsism in place of attempts to refute it.

[Perceptive as he is on Wittgenstein and Weininger, Burns fails to see, along with many others—including (perhaps) Wittgenstein himself, the moral infrastructure back of the logical and moral solipsism that Weininger grappled with. Burns writes,

It was to his discredit, and to some extent to our confusion, that he [Weininger] called these two extremes—the tendency to strive for a self, and the tendency not to want one—Male and Female. This is, of course, an indefensible sexism, but it can be separated from the moral metaphysics that Weininger was also concerned with.

We think the sexism quite defensible and critical to Weininger’s moral metaphysics. Burns seems, as so many others, motivated by a naive conception of liberalism akin to Mill’s. If sexism can be defined as gross partiality to the aims and values of one’s own sex at the expense of those of the other, then to suggest that women are demeaned by asserting that, as a class, having a self is not a top moral priority for them is sexism. For it assumes that having a clearly conceived self, a repository for moral merit and demerit, is a value for humans irrespective of their sex. There is no doubt that Weininger believed that such a self was central to male moral character. To assume that it is so for women is to presume in such a way that can only be seen as unconscious condescension at best, but more often, we fear, the correct assessment is one of moral culpability because of the lack of self- and sex-scrutiny it implies. Such scrutiny is a moral imperative, a specifically male moral imperative.

The presumption is that there is one kind of morality (never mind what kind it is) because it applies to the one kind of human that exists, the kind we speak of when we assert claims of equality.

There are two things wrong with this presumption. The first stems from what is implicit in Weininger and explicit in many difference feminisms, that there are at least two natural kinds of human beings: male and female, and that, whatever they may share, their perspectives are strikingly different and determine the masculine and feminine cultures that overlay—or better, underpin—all other human cultural difference.

We have argued further, that there are only two natural kinds. Racial, ethnic, etc.—any other cultural groupings pale in comparison to the depth of and ineradicably and biologically determinateness of sex difference. But this is no naive or primitive Manichian essentialism. Like Weininger, we assert these difference are, whatever biology may reveal to us, ultimately metaphysical principles and thus not bound by any empirical generalizations that are not patent—and if they are patent, only to the degree they are. Specifically, the masculine principle is not coextensive with males as a class nor the feminine with women as a class. But wherever and to what degree they inhere, and Weininger tells us both principles inhere in each human being, the principles are clearly distinguishable.

Moral judgment cannot span these moral worlds without injustice—an injustice based upon the most abstract of moral principles: the fact that beings and their interests, which must include their ultimate values, can be harmed requires consideration, but an understanding of what counts as interest in one of these worlds does not exhaust the other.

The centrality of self to moral character is one such moral judgment. Positing liberty at or near the top of universal human values is another. What about the value of connection and security, or relationship and development? (These, it should be clear, are value terms laden with sexual overtones.)

Or perhaps self and autonomy may be placed at or near the top for all concerned, but only by redefining those conceptions to the point that we strain to call them univocal across sex lines. Recognition of this strain is what is lacking.

Moral abstractions can cross sex lines only at grave risk of a transformation into concepts with utterly different entailments.

Whether we seek to downplay or emphasize sex difference our motives need questioning. It is precisely this imperative to scrutiny that has the best claim to status as a sex-blind moral principle, a very exclusive subset of what has hitherto been so classed.

The impetus to suppress radical difference is no doubt born of a history of its abuse, but we are wrong to think abuse has not found itself a comfortable home in its denial.]

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

Posted by luno in Wittgenstein, Weininger (Friday January 4, 2008 at 1:20 pm)

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