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Whose Doppelgänger?

Notes on Daniel Steuer, “Uncanny Differences: Wittgenstein and Weininger as Doppelgänger in Wittgenstein Reads Weininger

Steuer (who wrote the introduction to the Löb English translation of Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character) sets out to explain the famous negation Wittgenstein wanted to place in front of Weininger’s book in his letter to Moore. Wittgenstein at the same time insisted on the greatness of Weininger’s error. (Presumably, Wittgenstein meant “great” in the sense of “fantastic” and not—or not merely—in the sense of “big” as in “big mistake.”) Steuer’s explanation implicates a psychological and philosophical struggle that engaged Wittgenstein throughout his life. We find Steuer’s one of the more insightful and credible analyses of this puzzle. [Though, in the end, whatever Wittgenstein did mean by his cagey recommendation of Weininger, he should have meant, we suspect, something rather different, at least from a perspective less personal to Wittgenstein than the one Steuer will consider here. See, for example, our notes on Schulte.]

Why was one of the most progressive thinkers of recent times so moved by “a second-, some would say third-class, thinker?” Steuer responds this way:

Especially after his [Wittgenstein’s] so-called return to philosophy, Weininger served as a Doppelgänger, a double, that allowed him to turn around his philosophical perspective as well as to confront a part of himself with which he needed to come to terms. The term Doppelgänger is meant to emphasize that, uncannily, there must be something about Weininger that remained perfectly valid for Wittgenstein, while he must have rejected something else completely (something that was only too familiar to him). Weininger could only fulfill this role of the uncanny double because he shared Wittgenstein’s “essential interest”: to achieve clarity and peace of mind, to be awake and to be true to himself. But whereas this interest led to a fatal end in the case of Weininger (one he shared, we should remember, with three of Wittgenstein’s brothers), Wittgenstein survived it.

Weininger thus is both inspiration and nemesis. He set impossibly high standards that haunted Wittgenstein for life, yet, if one wanted to live, the standards would have to be defused, somehow deprived of their power to fatally captivate. [Consider the long shadow Socrates must have cast over Plato’s career. Socrates, the other philosopher/performance artist.]

The problem was that Weininger knew no moderation. The contrasts between extremes was starkly etched: default “individuation” with hard-won “individuality”, brute “recognition” with storied “memory”, “lust” and “value”, “sexual drive” and “love,” “narrowness of consciousness” and “attention”, “instinct” and “will” etc…

All a setup for tragedy. Wittgenstein came to see it as integral to his philosophy and his survival to dissolve the imperatives implied in Weininger’s dualisms, to achieve a perspective sub specie aeternitatis, freed of the tyranny of judgment.

Weininger had set up logic and ethics as the twin pillars of thought and life. The principle of identity “constitutes conceptuality” just as the imperative to autonomous individuality transforms heteronomous behavior into moral action.

Thus the criminal with his “impulse towards functionalism” seeks to scatter blame about him, defusing it. While the genius, a moral athlete, lives in conscious connection with the universe and does not shirk responsibility for each and every thing. [Cesare Pavese wrote something like this: “Every luxury must be paid for, and everything is a luxury, starting with being in the world.” Pavese killed himself at the height of his career as one of Italy’s greatest writers.]

Genius, like criminality [and unlike talent], is not given to us, it is an act of will.

The struggle this act of will implies is tragic because there are no detours or compromises. Judgment will come down hard on one side or the other and the mysterious provenance of the force of will offers little explanation or solace.

Weininger attacks Schiller’s fatalism in which chance determines destiny, but chance is completely “untragic,” writes Weininger. Schiller’s perspective fails to accommodate the drivenness or imperative of genius toward knowledge and with it tragedy: “the colossal tragedy of knowing.”

Wittgenstein will appropriate the courage to face this tragedy head on, but with a difference: whereas Weininger’s was the heroic courage of genius, Wittgenstein would emphasize the courage of the criminal, the openness to accept one’s “distance from genius,” as Steuer describes it. Wittgenstein would seek to show that in honest deference to human limitation there was courage also. [The catch is the “honest” part. How honest is honesty? What drives this value? What is its point when a pragmatic view of truth is adequate? Why strive for anything more than adequacy?… To his credit, Wittgenstein seemed always aware of the undercurrent in these questions and for this reason Weininger, with his uncompromising prejudice in favor of heterocosmic (what Steuer calls “hyper-empirical”) and categorical scruple, never ceased haunting him.]

Steuer describes Weininger’s polar scheme with “hyper-empirical ideals” at each end and an “empirical continuum” in the middle. The framework of polarities or recurring dualisms in Weininger—man/woman, etc—engender his hard, a priori categories and render them immune to question. Wittgenstein sought to examine closely how these a prioris crystallized in the first place and found them inevitable concretions of a culture. He acknowledges such founding conceptions, but they are “relative” and not “absolute,” as Weininger seemed to want to have it. Wittgenstein concluded this by examining the transitional cases in the formation of such hard and fast fulcrums of conceptualization.

Steuer writes, “the immunity of the structure also allows for the prejudice of the content, including the arbitrary evaluation of masculinity and femininity.”

[Steuer here is typical in seeming to accept without question that Weininger was arbitrary in his evaluation of women and men. His account of Weininger’s role in Wittgenstein’s thinking, in general, strikes us as quite plausible. But Weininger’s evaluation of masculinity and femininity was not arbitrary. Biased? Perhaps, but the suggestion that Weininger was being ironic (see Schulte) and that Wittgenstein could not have been innocent of the irony keeps our intuitions at bay even on that point. We have argued many times and in many ways that Weininger was onto something profound in calling our attention to distinct and radically incompatible feminine and masculine ways of thinking that permeate human culture from one end to the other. We have also addressed why this aspect of Weininger has garnered so little serious attention from philosophers since at least the middle of the 20th century… (I shall mention here only that the consequences these mostly male, “liberal thinking” philosophers have feared from engaging—as opposed to dismissing out of hand, Weininger on the subject of the gender of reality itself—are not what they may have assumed.)

The force of Weininger’s insight stems precisely from the fact that it is as nearly immune to quibbling as any human conception is likely ever to be. It relies on something so empirical—“hyper-empirical” in perhaps a slightly different, more in-your-face, sense than Steuer’s—it is evident in all empirical observation itself. Indeed, the empirical is conditioned by it in a way that recalls Kant’s modes of apperception but at a more fundamental level than any that Kant considered—though Kant’s view itself is implied by Weininger’s conception. Empirical reality or phenomenology is not the same across gender. In logic and ethics, because of their heightened normativity, the seam is more likely to reveal itself, but it pervades the discourse of all experience.

The metaphysics behind this, if we dare to appeal to ontology in the context of Wittgenstein, is that there are two natural kinds of people in the world: male and female. Many bad jokes, about to make specious distinctions, are wont to begin similarly. But we are not joking (whatever cosmic absurdity may attend the condition). Whether we want to get operatic about it or not, whether we see the consequences as comical or tragic, or in the end adopt a take-it-or-leave-it sub specie aeternitatis view, the difference is radical and a fact of biological existence, the only kind we know, no less. For that reason there is a price to be paid for pretending philosophical innocence of it.

But we needn’t get metaphysical. Facts of existence will operate to shape outcomes under any philosophical methodology pursued with courage and rigor. They create, at the very least, appearances that must be saved. That, or the “facts” do not deserve the appellation. It will be instructive when imaginative interpreters of Wittgenstein begin to see how his method was both limited and made fruitful in its limitation by the ghostly presence of Weininger, as expressed both in Wittgenstein’s life and at every turn of his thought… And, we should add, Weininger’s wake did not dissipate with Wittgenstein.]

Wittgenstein curiously found aspects of Weininger’s moral absolutism personally valuable in combating his own perceived vanity, but refused to make of them a basis for applying the same rigor in judging others. Respect for the differences of individual cases militates against forming and enforcing cross situational norms.

This is where Steuer locates Weininger’s error in the eyes of Wittgenstein. In the end, Wittgenstein could not accept the draconian absolutism in Weininger, even if Weininger was correct that some sort of hard and fast categories must operate to insure intellectual and moral integrity. Hence, the split or the double-sidedness, the ambivalence Wittgenstein expresses concerning Weininger: Weininger literally haunts Wittgenstein throughout his career as Steuer’s Doppelgänger interpretation suggests.

Weininger’s description of the development of a thought from fuzzy henid to perspicuous building block ready for logical construction seem to place great value on the end product of this process. Because women are more inclined to remain content at an intuitive henidical stage their value as logical and moral beings is compromised. The assumption that understanding relies or can even rely on such pure elements—incontrovertible truths, perennial and unsubject to cultural erosion, formation, and reformation—was a target of attack by Wittgenstein.

The attack took a form of what later came to be called a “coherence theory to truth” in which no single set of privileged propositions warranted the logical structures that shape thought. Instead, a system of mutually reinforcing propositions jointly create and sustain larger systems. Within such views no claims about what might lie entirely outside the system could or should be made. Incontrovertible propositions, like Moore’s assurance that he had two hands, are not made with knowledge that they are true, rather they become the basis, seldom explicitly acknowledged [indeed, absence of acknowledgment is a tell-tale sign of the role they play], for measuring the truth of other claims. Moore’s propositions are special not because we know them to be true but because of their logical behavior.

[Moore—ironically, one who probably got very little from reading Weininger (if indeed he read him at all despite Wittgenstein’s recommendation)—then himself acts out the Weiningerian need for absolutes that Wittgenstein struggles against. Perhaps this is why Wittgenstein recommended Moore read Weininger: to warn him that he was going down the same path as this philosopher whom Wittgenstein must have known Moore would find very foreign.]

So then Wittgenstein is portrayed as a champion of the Weiningerian criminal with no use for absolutes that would constrain his freedom to shirk responsibility for his every act, mental and moral. Laws of logic, the law of identity, in particular, no less than universal imperatives to act or not act, are the “I-have-two-hands” propositions of logic and ethics. We are deeply invested in these notions but that does not make them unshakable or immune to cultural erosion and reformation.

[We might sum this up by saying: Weininger had better be wrong because Wittgenstein wanted to survive.]

An appreciation of our facility for comparing ways of thinking and acting and forming functional norms as a result is where philosophy leads us, according to Wittgenstein. This nimbleness is criminal, said Weininger. Very well, we are criminals. That’s how it is.

[Where most of Weininger’s readers dismissed wholesale his characterization, Wittgenstein distinguishes himself by accepting it as a challenge. “How do we survive as criminals?” Not: “how do we corrupt the system so that it stops calling us ‘criminals’?”

Leaving aside Weininger’s “greatness,” Wittgenstein’s “greatness” consists for us largely in his not dismissing Weininger’s judgment. Instead, he dealt with it.

Yes, like a good, canny criminal, both aware and a little proud of his limitations, he scouted out circumventions, but the looming authority of what he sought to circumvent was never denied, at least in the private sphere. But, we think, if we take Steuer’s interpretation seriously and take Wittgenstein as suggesting the private sphere as the limit of the authority, implying that there is no major deontological force acting generally (or at least extending to the masculine reaches of human experience), then we will have to disagree with Wittgenstein.]

Tragedy, Steuer continues, as illustrated by Weininger’s apparent view and fate, the notion that we are up against impossible odds, is replaced by a non-judgmental “detachment” that accepts our lot as non-geniuses and the world as a place where judgment happens as a fact, not as an imperative. The “uncanny” part is how difficult and heroic in its own right the struggle to achieve this detachment was for Wittgenstein. Judgment oozed from him every step of the way.

Steuer discusses the personal earnestness that drove Wittgenstein’s religious impulses: how Weininger played into them but only filtered through Wittgenstein’s abiding aestheticism which did not permit of absolutes. Something in Weininger felt right to Wittgenstein, but not because of the reasons stated by Weininger. The feeling was so strong, so “straight from the heart,” that even when Weininger’s absolutes were beyond literal belief, the feeling illuminated the need for a personal imperative. This light has the side effect of forcing the attention of any serious person onto the fantastic in Weininger as though it were no ordinary error.

[It is only as error-prone as any revelation of the obvious.]

Steuer’s offers very illuminating comments in the epilogue on spirit and Doppelgänger.

The personal imperative Wittgenstein inherited from Weininger was an impulse to clarity and authenticity. This is what morality required of him. His need of other people, which he acknowledged as great and which perhaps kept him alive, was also at odds with this imperative. The compromise of character, the theatricality and the ever present temptation of groups to conspire to reshape truth to suit—together make social interaction morally problematic.

[Steuer is probably right about the role Weininger played in Wittgenstein and life and thought. He penetrates a little deeper than we are accustomed to see from most commentators. But we should be wary of thinking Weininger’s influence only personal to Wittgenstein. Some may think Weininger was merely Wittgenstein’s Doppelgänger, a foil, and not a thinker who had anything of great importance to say directly to us, or that if Wittgenstein had never existed, this “second or third rate” thinker would scarcely have warranted the attention we are giving him. But something rather important was altered when Weininger no longer existed…

The question arises for us why Wittgenstein did not quite see what we see in Weininger? Moved deeply by something in Weininger he certainly was—as were many other cultural figures of his time and since. But the central point Weininger wanted to make: that human experience is bifurcated, not on the basis of some metaphysical dogma after Plato (though the impulse to such dogmas might itself be illuminated by Weininger’s insight) and that, more specifically, human moral experience was also split, as Kant very nearly said (though without much apparent realization of what this implied), but because of one of the most salient facts about our species, even more evident than its pretensions to reason and intelligence: the fact that we are sexed and the fact that this systematically colors all perception and normativity in a way that cannot be said about any other difference between people.

The view is a biologism of sorts in its metaphysical implications. As such, it is very—one might say “hyper”—empirical. But the extent to which sex colors perception and aesthetics (hence logic and ethics) is culturally without parallel since it quite literally engenders philosophical reflection itself. Philosophy, too, is sexed, if we are to take this view seriously. Its categories, its standards of argument, its valid protocols—all are are more than nuanced by gender. And in a area where nuance can be everything, sex is immanent. There are genuine chasms of separation with vast public consequences. The extent to which something may be communicated across that dividing line is a proper object of wonder and study and should not be taken for granted. If there is a prospect for genuine progress in moral understanding it lies here. (Our focus is ethical but if we are understood correctly the implications extend to every corner of human reflection on experience.)

Wittgenstein didn’t seem quite to get this (even less so his followers, still less his critics). Perhaps because he had more pressing fish to fry, dogmas to disarm, or because the view deriving from Weininger was too radical even for him, the implications too many and too fraught to convince any among his contemporaries, the philosophical climate inopportune, he gingerly preserved a distance, a “respectful distance” in more than the usual sense of the expression. One revolution at a time in philosophy.

* Editor’s note: Here, as elsewhere, for Luno, “his” and “her” just as “she” and “he” are treated almost as technical terms. He means to use them as he imagines Weininger did, to speak of gendered principles suffusing human reality, not to refer to individuals or even classes of beings. Individuals are never purely one or the other, despite a cultural preoccupation with pressing the issue. (Indeed, Luno has characterized gender in quantum mechanical terms: the location of a given individual in the field between the two poles is always an approximation of an intrinsically variable entity across time. All the same, for moral purposes, this indeterminacy is unacceptable, hence the tension at the heart of ethics and everything founded upon it, in particular, social, legal, and political philosophy. Sex-blind ethics is a travesty.) He acknowledges this but remains militantly neutral with regard to the politics of gender that others see as implicit. There are political consequences to his view but they bear no easy affinity to common conservative reaction, nor, in a direct way, to what is often called progressive. Talk of political preservation or restoration, or progress or enlightenment, etc. is premature. Rather, Luno would have us rethink what kinds of human beings we address: who we would devise political arrangements for.

Or, an upheaval on this scale, it might occur to someone, would necessarily have to be spearheaded by forces then still peripheral to philosophy. A mature feminist perspective was still in the offing. And though, curiously enough, there was early, if isolated, appreciation of Weininger’s insights by contemporary “first wave” feminists (e.g., Rosa Mayreder, Dora Marsden, or Gertrude Stein), we would have to wait almost another century for the dust to settle and the “third wave” to feel secure enough in its rights to be at least prepared to draw the right conclusions from Weininger (e.g., Sylviane Agacinski: we are not implying that she does so explicitly but a close reading of her Parity of the Sexes in light of Weininger is instructive). In short, Weininger’s central point needed corroboration from the distaff side. Only then would we not only be able to appreciate differences, but get on with the particularly male business of morality—or lack thereof. Aesthetics, or lack thereof, would be her* burden.]

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

Posted by luno in Wittgenstein, Weininger (Wednesday January 2, 2008 at 1:13 pm)

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