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Was Weininger as devious as Kierkegaard?

Notes on Joachim Schulte, “Wittgenstein and Weininger: Time, Life and World” in Wittgenstein Reads Weininger

Schulte begins his piece by warning us against attributing current understandings of anti-Semitism or anti-feminism to an earlier though recent period. It was a time which we are inclined to see as formative of our current state of “relative enlightenment” on such sensitive subjects. He rightly points out that in our post-genocide, post-patriarchal maturity—in the hundred years since Weininger’s day—our awareness of the enormity of these problems has grown. Yet for all the ostensible progress, we are still often strangely unaware of our situation as one of development: not just that it has a debt to history (a common enough oversight) but that not all periods have had this specific debt. We are at an awkward distance in time from the early decades of the last century: too close and too faraway. Since then the connotative environment of language has transformed what once might have been treated as reasonable criticism or self-criticism into hate-filled diatribe or pathological self-flagellation.

[This is not to say that Weininger was thoroughly understood even in his own time, far from it, but in his time what he said could have been disagreed with as opposed to summarily dismissed as unworthy of a hearing as has been typical since the Holocaust and the period of de Beauvoir and the Second Wave of feminism. Indeed, many in the First Wave, which included Rosa Mayreder, Dora Marsden, Vita Sackville-West, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, those who actually read Weininger (the last three albeit in a poor translation) were able to achieve more nuanced reactions than has been common since. And at least one feminist light of that time, Gertrude Stein, got it to such extent almost unmatched by anyone, man or woman.]

Hence, many scholars have labored to somehow mitigate (most typically) or ignore outright (Schorske) or explain away (Monk) Weininger’s extraordinary influence on so many of the formative cultural figures of our time. Either it was a “moral defect” on the part of these extraordinary people (excuse to humanize them or bring them down a notch) to have paid any attention whatsoever to Weininger’s patent absurdities or there was something complicated and mixed and just perhaps valuable in Weininger that needed salvaging from the mire, a task for the more sympathetic and mincing among them.

[Schulte starts out, it seems, on the right track. Yet, we fear, before he concludes his paper he also will escape facing the central thrust of Weininger. Schulte’s contextualism can only go so far to make Weininger presentable. At best, he makes Weininger an interesting stimulus for ideas that are still with us and for that alone he is a valuable object of study. It is never quite suggested that we—not just Wittgenstein and company—might still have lessons to learn directly from Weininger. Dare we suggest that someday it may be Wittgenstein who is studied for indications of the wake of the genius who immediately preceded him?]

Schulte discusses the passage in Culture and Value where Weininger is listed among Wittgenstein’s ten big influences. Weininger’s appearance there “may be the most puzzling case of all.”

Schulte has interesting things to say about Wittgenstein’s Weininger-was-full-of-prejudices comment to his young student, Drury.*

* Editor’s note: See below and notes on Rhees and Szabados for more on this episode.

Wittgenstein added to the comment, “only a young man would be so prejudiced.” The irony was delicious. Which young man was Wittgenstein thinking of most? The one the subject of the discussion and whose book he had so ardently recommended or the one he was addressing now who could not help revealing that he didn’t get it—a response that Wittgenstein must have been ready for. As Schulte points out, this was the same year he made the same recommendation to Moore, a world-class philosopher (and not exactly a young man) with pretty much the same reaction. [Youth has eo ipso an excuse for its prejudices but there must be other potent excuses to account for the prevalence of prejudices.]

[Quoting Rush Rhees’ account of the Wittgenstein-Drury conversation:

And then with regard to Weininger’s theme that women and the female element in men was the source of all evil he [Wittgenstein] exclaimed: “How wrong he was, my God he was wrong.”*

* Editor’s note: See also Luno on Drury.

Schulte seems to assume—and, no doubt, most Wittgenstein readers today do as well—that Wittgenstein was being liberal-minded in condemning Weininger’s prima facie slights of women.

Let’s assume Wittgenstein understood the irony and morally subversive aspect of Weininger, let’s suppose that he picked up on the irony that Schulte, himself, will soon suggest imbues Weininger’s writing. In what sense can someone who is being ironic be wrong?

Two ways come to mind: either the conceit underpinning and fueling the irony is misguided or the wrongness lies in the ironist’s apparent assumption that his irony will be detected (by an intended audience) and not taken at face value.


The conceit would have to be that, no, women and the feminine element in men are not the source of evil. Evil is a moral attribute. It applies, as good does, to the action and character of moral agents. Women, Weininger takes great pains to show, are not moral agents. It seems to follow that women—neither their actions nor character—are subject to moral attributes, evil (or good). They are, as he says explicitly, not immoral but amoral, adiaphorous in the same way children, fauna and flora are usually thought to be. Women, whatever else they might be, are not the source of evil. So whence evil? (You are supposed to guess the answer.)

And if one wants to say it is bad thing that women qua women are amoral—something Weininger, if you read carefully, nowhere is so inconsistent as to say—then one has to ask how can that be? Given that morality, as we (men) know it, does not apply to women? We must be assuming there is a generic, unsexed, human morality. Again, Weininger, unlike is commonplace today, does not assume any such thing. None such is given, that is. Whether there might not be an imperative to such is a different matter.

And if one wants to say that because women are not the source of evil they must then be the source of good, one has not understood what what these terms meant within Weininger’s moral script. A woman who properly understood what “good” meant for Weininger would have as little use for the concept as for its complement—except, perhaps, as a tool for understanding men. A cursory glance at feminist theory confirms this…

Well, was Wittgenstein saying Weininger was wrong about this—that the implication that the feminine is not the source of evil is false?… If so, that would not make Wittgenstein a very sympathetic character to us.


The other way an ironist can be wrong is not to harbor a false conceit but to choose an incorrect strategy to express a true one: in other words, recklessly risk misunderstanding by saying almost the opposite of what is intended. “Almost” because if breadcrumbs were not dropped to alert the discerning, it would not be irony. Weininger certainly dropped enough hints that at least a German-speaking reader should be less likely to be led by the nose into some patent stupidity. But the irony ought to come through sufficiently clear even in the “beastly” 1906 translation to one already primed in the ironic tradition. Wittgenstein, if not Weininger (though Janik entertains the possibility that Weininger also) knew his Kierkegaard. Wittgenstein’s most famous claim about the fact that some things can only be shown not said applies perfectly here. When combating an entrenched vision of the way things are irony may not merely be in the arsenal, it may be the weapon of choice. I may need to befriend you in order to get into the best position to stab you in the back.

So, was Wittgenstein saying that Weininger was wrong in the approach he took to express a conceit that he, Wittgenstein, did not otherwise quarrel with? Should Weininger have written like J. S. Mill about women?—paradoxically Mill claimed he knew what was good for women (i.e., the same as what worked for men) while confessing he knew little of the acknowledged moral differences between the sexes, or worse, seems to deny there were any to be found? This from the great enemy of paternalism.

Given the history of Weininger’s reception and how little of his message got through despite the early phenomenal popularity of Sex and Character, one might conclude that Weininger failed in a big way. His approach only succeeded in wetting the appetite of the literate public for books on sexual psychology (to the benefit of Freud and company), and in reinforcing masculine crudity and common forms of cultural and racial xenophobia. Maybe this is what Wittgenstein meant by “my God he was wrong.”

There is another possibility, a more local one. Wittgenstein was not known for suffering fools gladly. The response to Drury might have been an acknowledgment that he, Wittgenstein, knew where this conversation was going. Of course, Weininger, taken at face value, was wrong! Woman was an absolute nothing. She was devoid of compassion. She had neither mind, soul or capacity for genius… (“Face value” here means the values of his intended audience which was not a choir—Weininger did not believe, rightly so, he had much of a choir, rather he was preaching to the odd one on the fringes of the unwashed. Instead, as it turned out, the masses merely soiled themselves further with his writing.)

Why do right-thinking people like Drury (or even Moore) really crave so much affirmation of their right-thinkingness? How insecure they must be in their convictions? When shall we ever get past those insecurities? When shall we learn to see the intellectual trade in such blandishments as hindrance to clarity and truth?

I interpret Wittgenstein’s remark as more a sigh than any judgment on Weininger. Weininger painted himself into a pretty corner. Those few who have seen the merit in his performance have their work cut out explaining how he escapes.

Schulte is certainly to be credited for suggesting, as few others have, that there was a serious measure of irony in Weininger.

He points out that Weininger intended to be “playing” with principles not engaging in scientific investigation (or implying a call for the suppression or quarantine of women).

But irony on these subjects is dead serious play. Indeed, it is the fierce courage to play with this most dangerous of fires that has earned him the admiration of so much genius. It is dead serious because Weininger believed as earnestly as possible that human moral progress depended on what we might learn from this play. I think he was correct about this.

Schulte gets the irony right and that it is an important step to understanding Weininger but he stills seems to shy away from a main point of the irony: the radical moral bifurcation of the species and all that this implies.]

Weininger, it is suggested, is devious in his linking unliberal “commonplaces and clich├ęs” with our cultural heroes (Dante, Goethe, Kant, et al.) so that one feels forced either to permit their “besmirching” or reject them wholesale or—his real hope—get us to think harder than we are used to when hero-worshiping and perhaps end up seeing past the notion of hero to an uncomfortable truth—not about them, but about us.

On to the letter to Moore and Wittgenstein’s negation of the whole of Sex and Character: Schulte suggests that Wittgenstein’s admiration was of the internal coherence and moral courage evinced in Weininger’s book, not that Wittgenstein agreed with its conclusions as a whole or needed to agree with them to admire the book and recommend it to Moore.

[Wittgenstein writes, “It is his enormous mistake which is great.” What mistake?, everyone keeps asking.

We will dare say what Wittgenstein should have meant, whether, in fact he did or not. It would enhance our admiration of Wittgenstein, if he did, but if he didn’t, if he meant merely that Weininger’s whole methodology was antique and naive, as Schulte and other commentators on Wittgenstein believe, well, there would be a host of questions to be answered such as why admire Weininger so much when there were any number of merely antique thinkers to choose from whose works as a whole might be negated, while still in some sense appreciated, in light of where Wittgenstein has taken us.

But we have already said what Wittgenstein should have meant (and in our more generous moments believe he did mean): he should have meant that Weininger grossly miscalculated the capacity for irony and nuance of the mass of his readers. This might be forgiven an unjaded young man.]

Schulte concludes by discussing certain Gedankenbewegung or turns of thought found in Weininger that seem to find echoes in Wittgenstein: the unidirectionality of time and its defeat.

[The first turn of thought is a massive adjustment to the world as we find it. It collapses past and future into the moment and commands living with its limits. It strives for a view sub specie aeternitatis or a kind of fatalism. Time moves irretrievably in only one direction. Weininger means moral time, the kind we experience as responsibility. It is linear, not cyclic, and hence there is no going back to correct or amend. Attempts to deny this, to take refuge in some notion of the past as malleable or dispensable or insignificant is immoral. In the limited amount of time allotted us we build character in each act. For good or ill each act is undoable and marks forever its agent. The first turn apprises us of the truth of our condition.

But likewise the future, never mind its determination by the past, is our responsibility. It is equally immoral to fall into the trap that we are dispensed from a duty to pull it from the teeth of fate. The second turn calls for engagement with fate: it is the creation of individuality through moral engagement with that determination that presents itself in the first idea.

I am fundamentally limited. I must come to see this. This realization comes through seeing the past and the future in each present act. However, I am morally compelled to elaborate the potential for autonomous individuality within this eternal framework. Genius is the realization of this moral imperative. I have a job to do: fate or no fate, the world as it is or not. It is through this moral performance that I can hope for, in some sense, fulfillment or happiness. It is the only undeceiving meaning of those terms. In this way, time or fate, what is given me, is defeated and I become worthy of having existed…

A woman may admire this ethic from a respectable distance, but it is not native to her—Weininger saw this very clearly. She may, as easily and with equal reason, fixate on the darker side of such skyscraping principle: its entailment of endemic and pervasive criminality, an inexorable effect of principle on flesh. Weininger did talk about this, but, apparently, too allusively for many to notice. (Though he may have acted on it in the grandest style, philosophical performance artist that he was.) But it is implicit in what he said. It is the nasty realization the irony was supposed to tease out of the reader.

Or, more commonly, her reasons for admiration and disgust may just neutralize each other in cosmic indifference to his heterocosmic ends and his scruples become, for her, a take it or leave it affair.]

Schulte writes that something like this understanding of Weininger must have in the end deeply affected Wittgenstein at key points in his philosophy and outlook.

He notes in passing that Wittgenstein could easily reject Weininger’s “dualist riddle” (as others have argued Wittgenstein could disregard Weininger’s essentialism) while preserving respect for the moral integrity of Weininger’s project. Thus, Wittgenstein’s apparent simultaneous rejection and admiration for Weininger is explained.

[We can accept Schulte and company’s assessment of the moral shadow Weininger cast over Wittgenstein, but the dualist riddle and the sense in which Weininger was an essentialist have been addressed with little understanding.

A key to unpacking these aspects of Weininger lies in noticing that the notions of the unidirectionality of time and the imperative to defeat it (never mind its impossibility) are part of a quintessentially male moral metaphysic.

Not recognizing this is still hobbling attempts at progress in contemporary moral theory. The reason Wittgenstein was moved by these Gedankenbewegung was because they are profoundly true or rich with insight into at least one half of the human moral condition. Wittgenstein could not reject them because he was a morally obsessed man.]

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

Posted by luno in Wittgenstein, Weininger (Thursday January 3, 2008 at 1:52 pm)

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