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Weininger, Wittgenstein, and the honor of dogs

Notes on David G. Stern, “Weininger and Wittgenstein on ‘Animal Psychology,’” in Wittgenstein Reads Weininger

Stern quotes Weininger’s On Last Things:

The vegetarians are just as wrong as their opponents. Anyone who does not wish to contribute to the killing of living things may only drink milk, for anyone who eats fruits or eggs still kills embryos. That is perhaps why milk is the healthiest food, because it is the most ethical. [p. 53 in Burns’ translation]

…by way of tying a remark of Wittgenstein’s sister to Weininger’s book: In a letter to Ludwig, Hermine seemed to treasure the book because it reminded her of her brother at that time serving in the Austro-Hungarian army. She comments lightly on Weininger’s belief that “milk is the only innocent food, because it destroys no seed…”

Stern rehearses the other evidence and testimony that suggests the importance to Wittgenstein of Weininger’s discussion of animal psychology in On Last Things. The rest of the article closely examines the similarities and differences in their respective understandings of the mental and moral significance of animals.

[A main theme of Stern’s is that Wittgenstein brought Weininger’s impossibly high—even “morbid”—standards to earth by situating the authority of our judgment outside the privileged place Weininger, following a venerable tradition, had brought into high relief. The new place would be one from where we, as one species among others, may appreciate both what we share with other species as well as what separates us from them. The final suggestion is that the opacity of “what it is like to be” (to recall Thomas Nagel’s question about bats) another kind of being should leave us open to respect the possibility (but only the possibility—there is never an imperative) of seeing the other as an end and not merely as means to our own self-awareness as Weininger, according to Stern, seemed to be doing.* Weininger, Stern seems to assume, saw animals, or at least our awareness of them, in this last way, i.e., only instrumentally, as in fact Kant did. While Wittgenstein helped to free us from this conceit by opening the door to extending Kant’s notion of a community of ends to beings whose mentalities—as we understand mentality, connecting it, as we do, to linguistic capacity—fall short.

* But, curiously, opacity plays a role in Kant’s veneration of the locus of rationality wherever we find it. Precisely because it is opaque and not everywhere transparent is why a recognizably rational, though alien, will must be respected. Your opaqueness to me warrants your existence to me as an individual candidate for respect. Your complete transparency would result in a solipsistic regress. You would devolve into an extension of me. The community of rational beings would collapse. There would not even be respect for self: there is this only when I am one among others. Respect for autonomy, in other words, requires distance and uncertainty. An apparently self-legislating entity is not simply in virtue of its capacity for generating its rules and conforming with them a fitting target of awe. Kant was only willing to allow veneration where a modicum of reason could be detected but also only where an indeterminate non-rational element required overcoming. This non-rational element is essentially opaque. Rational capacity was a necessary, we might say, but insufficient condition for candidacy in the Kingdom of Ends. Whatever we might say about God, because there could be no indeterminate non-rational element in him, he cannot be a proper object of respect for this reason… But Wittgenstein, Stern reminds us, was always an enemy of “necessary and sufficient” forms of analysis—and so, in this context, Kant’s way of dealing with moral solipsism is probably beside the point.

If other types of creatures can be ends in themselves, this puts limits on cross-species moral presumption and judgment. Who are we to judge an animal for taking the life of another? A cat’s “cruelty” to a mouse? But the question very easily now becomes a more disturbing one: who are we to judge another human being, or even ourselves, for taking the life of another—now that the rigid wall separating us from them (or ourselves), permitting judgment, has been toppled? We will tolerate such behavior or we won’t, but whichever way it goes, the point is that there are no hard and fast criteria (such as mentality or linguistic ability or capacity for pain) for deciding this or that kind of being is always worthy of our high regard. Merely because of the kind of being they are is no longer available as a reason. In de-centering normative judgment Wittgenstein disarms the fierce imperatives that seem to flow from Weininger’s philosophical histrionics. This seems to be where Stern is going.

Stern will make various remarks in his paper that seem to suggest that he finds Weininger’s view, vis-à-vis Wittgenstein’s, somehow less humane. Stern seems to spend a fair amount of time defending, in particular, the honor of dogs: as though Weininger had cast too many unjust aspersions in their direction. It is true Weininger had a few bad dreams about them or maybe they kept him up at night with their barking…

If his friend, Artur Gerber, is to be believed, Weininger was painfully sensitive to harm done to animals—to the point of carrying worms and insects to the side of the road. Maybe Gerber was exaggerating a little. But assuming he wasn’t, no doubt, this, too—this instinctive squeamishness with the collateral damage of mere existence, no less than a presumed hatred of dogs—is interpreted as pathology by many, even as a morbid sign of impending suicide.

An irony in Stern’s introductory allusion to Wittgenstein’s situation (especially when he could be so identified with Weininger that his sister remarks on it) is that the young, morally scrupulous, Wittgenstein was dutifully serving in an army, an entity whose business it is to kill living things and place oneself in a position to be killed by them, in the service of a calling, presumably, higher than any injunction not to kill.

The quoted remark above suggests that milk is perhaps the healthiest food. It is the most ethical because mother’s milk is intended for no other purpose than to sustain life. This cannot be said for nearly all other food we consume, including vegetable matter. (The fact that no seed is destroyed is beside the point—although, given that it is a woman writing, perhaps it is not.) Actually, considering how most dairy products arrive to us today, specifically, the engineered life and death of dairy cows, Weininger, were he alive now, would scarcely say any such thing. Weininger was quite keen on the principle that morality, unlike legality, is less concerned with salvaging the letter than the spirit of the rule: the more rigorous standard. It is a spurious stretch to think dairy products are any more intended for our consumption than slaughtered flesh. Indeed, given the “morbid” penchant for purity in his logic, he might have revised his opinion: only human mother’s milk is intended to sustain our lives.*

* Editor’s note: Guilt in the mother is misplaced, given Weininger’s adiaphorous treatment of women. In her role as mother, a woman performs a service for nature as immune from judgment as, perhaps, a soldier’s is in defending a familiar way of life from others less local to him. This is not to say a mother or a soldier cannot be judged in their performance from within the defining constraints of their roles; but these cease to be, as it were, moral imperatives. No one has to be a mother or a soldier on pain of being a moral failure. See Luno on Kant’s moral dispensation when it comes to the honor of mothers and soldiers.

This would mean that only for about the first three months of life do we stand a chance of being guiltless. Immorality begins forthwith. (Guilt-ridden, Weininger lasted 23 years…)

We find neither Weininger, nor Wittgenstein’s positions to be particularly inhumane. All-too-human, perhaps, in the way we are prone to find excuses for living (or dying), but not quite inhumane.

We will have more to say shortly about Wittgenstein’s way out.]

Lichtenberg’s quasi-relativist psychologism is cited as a springboard for both Weininger and Wittgenstein. We impose upon the world a place from which to judge it. What keeps Lichtenberg’s view apart from less philosophically interesting forms of relativism is that—more than mere psychological transference—a logical structure is also imposed. Such a grid, whose contents can be parsed according to rules is necessary for rational appropriation, all these philosophers seem to agree. Stern points out this is no simple idealism where all is human projection. Not our valuations but the structure that permits them is relative. Lichtenberg notes that we are aware that some of the contents of consciousness does not seem to originate from anyplace inside us. The question becomes where we draw the line between what does and doesn’t.

Weininger and Wittgenstein, Stern contends, react differently to Lichtenberg’s proposal. Weininger concludes that “all ideas depend on us,” in effect, eliminating any significant role for the empirical. Wittgenstein, characteristically, is unwilling to make such a priori claims but does concede that “expectations” shape our appropriation of reality, in particular, how we view animals and the macrocosm we cannot help seeing that they represent—as Weininger believes.

In the fifth chapter of On Last Things, Weininger begins an ambitious explication of how empirical reality is shot through with imposed characterization and evaluation. Everything from iron to swamps to ants to the Chinese to dogs… is laden with meaning and Weininger will seek to uncover it. The dog, especially, gets the most extended treatment. The dog’s slavishness lends it the status of, in Weininger’s special sense, “symbol” of criminality. To those inclined to pathologize, the rather harsh picture Weininger paints of the dog comports with his treatment of women and Jews. It is seen as symptomatic of disease. Stern quotes Freud from a “Little Hans” footnote (one of the few places where Freud mentions Weininger by name) on this point. Sander Gilman more recently echoes Freud on the self-hating debility of Jews. David Abrahamsen pathologized Weininger to no end. [Abrahamsen was a criminal psychologist at Columbia who wrote popular psychobiographies of various serial killers and Richard M. Nixon. He is, as well, Weininger’s only biographer to date.] Stern mentions these views as one way of passing off Weininger’s implausible claims: they render Weininger a symptom of larger social forces, a textbook case for clinicians, and scarcely worthy of serious philosophical enquiry.

[We say much more elsewhere on the issue of Weininger’s alleged psychopathology and the general role pathologization of the dead plays in our psychic economy.]

Allan Janik’s interpretation of Weininger’s symbolism as a form of probing literary criticism and thus far from ravings of a diseased mind is mentioned. (Burns, the translator of On Last Things, also takes a similar tact.) Put Weininger in a philosophical and literary context and Ibsen, Kant, autonomy, empirical dissipation, the heteronomy of the criminal mind, the quest for redemption, and even the tail-wagging of dogs, etc. all can be made to hang together rather well. Cut Weininger a little slack and he becomes a great humanist…

[While we are sympathetic to viewing Weininger as literary moralist, this scarcely begins to do justice to the philosophical import we discern in Weininger’s quixoticism.]

Stern acknowledges Janik’s praise of Weininger for his rejection of “modernist narcissism in favor of rigorous moral ideals,” but reminds us that since Weininger’s ideas seem to derive more from a “theory of the human being as microcosm” (On Last Things, p. 96)—a theory which, Wittgenstein, in particular, in the end, rejects—and not from any more hallowed source such as Kant’s Reason. Weininger verges on what Foucault calls “transcendental narcissism.”

[The consciousness of microcosm, even of itself, let alone of the macrocosm (the complex of enveloping social forces) has been revealed as “flawed” and “unstable” again and again by thinkers from Dewey to Wittgenstein and Foucault to Derrida.]

The suggestion is that Weininger’s service to philosophy may be no more than to have dramatized the “solipsistic grandiosity” of one possible reaction to Lichtenberg’s question. Stern sums up Weininger’s animal psychology:

The animal symbolizes not only our moral failings, but also the limitations of the transcendental perspective itself.

[It appears we are compelled to water down the imperative that drove Weininger to an end that we can’t seem to characterize in any other way than as “absurd.” His was a moral reductio and, as such, something no intellectual expense should be spared to avoid. His conclusion must be incorrect. The moral universe cannot be so cruel. And if ethics and logic, as Weininger suggested, are of a piece, logic, too, must bend. This is life’s imperative… This more or less is the lesson of Stern’s paper. Wittgenstein is enlisted to show us a way out along these lines: he offers an example of existential accommodation.

Wittgenstein’s moral quietism, tortured on the inside, non-judgmental on the outside, is supposed to stand as a more humane alternative. Survival, whatever it takes, makes for compelling philosophical drama on its own—one to rival Weininger’s more operatic one.

But to lend an “instinct for survival” such a high place in the normative structure of consciousness—is a little odd. First, this seems to serve best precisely those teetering spirits where such a natural imperative might just tip the balance. Wouldn’t these be precisely the types at least tempted by Weininger’s logic? Surely, life has much hardier allies at every turn. If you need Wittgenstein’s cure, you have Weininger’s disease. As anyone with a rare condition knows, you must take care of your own, and not expect great resources expended on your behalf from a hale plurality.

But more philosophically telling is the logical (and moral) status of an “instinct”? (Naturally, this is only a question for those for whom the logical status of anything matters.) Whence does Wittgenstein’s survival strategy gather the force of plausibility so appealing to Stern among others? (“Plausibility” is clearly a normative term here. “Viability” may be more accurate.)

It doesn’t seem that “survival” can be anything other than an axiom of ethics, its normativity sui generis. So anything that serves it is at least a viable option. It has prima facie authority written all over it.

A long tradition in philosophy from Socrates on has, however, sometimes appeared to question this status. The tradition includes Kant, of course, and also Weininger, but the latter in a very curious way.

We believe Weininger is the culmination of that tradition, in many ways its highest genuine achievement. We think of Weininger as doing for ethics and normativity, in general, what Kierkegaard did for Christendom. He ran it up a tree to see what happened.

We are not certain that Weininger, himself, “survived” long enough to fully realize what fell out of that tree, but something did of no small moment. He sketched, as perhaps no one before him, a moral reductio that clarifies the nature of normativity.

A principle of interpretive charity (an expression we owe Donald Davidson) requires we assume Weininger did know what he was doing to some extent. As much or less for the sake of his memory than for our own interest it behooves us to acknowledge this.

Normativity, as it has been treated, in the Western tradition at least (but probably not at most), until quite recently, has always been a largely masculine matter. Its concepts, its impetus and its development have served a specifically male need for enforcing order in thought and in action.

We want to say that Wittgenstein further distilled the essence of Weininger, removing the privileged perspective of hypostatized reason. Kant was the path Weininger took to get to where he ended but Kant was not necessary to Weininger’s conclusion. Indeed, Kant himself is best understood from the perspective Weininger arrived at. Kantian ethics is the clearest manifestation of one of Weininger’s principles. Weininger puts Kant in perspective. The other principle—the one barely limned in Weininger’s writing, perhaps noticeable more by its absence in the space he, nevertheless, created for it, is the feminine, which has only, comparatively speaking, begun its development. If the analytic virtue of clarity positively contributes to understanding, then the logical space Weininger created for the feminine by so vividly delineating the masculine is not to be underestimated. (We express this as a hypothetical because it is not a foregone conclusion that clarity does not have to compete with other philosophical virtues attached to quite distinct agendas: feminine accommodation, for instance.)

By exemplifying the cardinality of this virtue, Weininger stands at a major crease in the history of philosophy. We suggest that he, like Kierkegaard in another context, subverted the institution he appeared to represent so well (“patriarchy,” as feminists would put it). There are enough hints in his writing to suggest that he was not unaware of what he was doing, if he did not in fact intend it. It is also clear that his long overdue exposure of a masculine principle, thinly veiled as universal, was logically inevitable. Feminist critique offers necessary corroboration, but the argument had also to be made internally from within a purely masculine set of premises.

* Editor’s note: This last comment strikes us as almost contradictory. Is Luno saying that logic is or is not sex-dependent? In places, as here, he seems to be saying it is not. But the thrust of his argument almost everywhere else seems to be that Weininger was telling us it was. Perhaps the best explanation is that it is in the sense that it is not sex-neutral, but not in the sense that it does not exist to serve the narrow interest of a sex. As a normative force it exists to curb degrading impulse in whatever sex it inheres. Thus, Luno, following Weininger, insists that though classical logic and ethics are not as existentially normative for women, there are clearly normative principles that perform a related function for women. But the dynamic of these alternative principles, of course, must seem almost unrecognizable from a masculine perspective. So much so that Weininger could understandably, even justifiably, deny women an interest in morality (as known and knowable to “man”) altogether. Luno touches on aspects of this in his notes on abortion, capital punishment, pornography, etc., and the character and sex-distribution of criminality in general.

The point is not that Weininger was a feminist in drag. He was merely doing what the greatest thinkers have always done: subvert by reminding us that logic, no less than nature, takes care of itself—not us.*]

In his concluding comments, Stern appears to imply that in their remarks on animals Weininger and Wittgenstein were attempting to solve the same problem: what we may or may not infer about the psychology of animals. The philosophical lessons each drew were different and revealing of how one philosopher may build upon and supersede another: an illustration of philosophical progress. Wittgenstein’s is made to look to be the more expansive, progressive, humane view.

[First, to suggest they were out to solve the same problem is more than a bit presumptuous. I don’t think Wittgenstein, himself, would have thought he was quite barking up the same tree as Weininger. Wittgenstein was undermining an epistemology. Weininger was obsessed with normativity, logic and ethics, in particular. It is less clear whether he was trying to undermine them as much as clarifying their nature. Though we would argue that clarification is one very potent form subversion takes. Wittgenstein was not describing the dynamics of ethical imperatives—their construction and deformation of the cosmos, micro and macro. He was taking down dogmas current in the philosophical practice of his milieu: in this case, the notion of that we need to infer mentality to understand animals or other people, as Stern correctly explains.

Second, Wittgenstein gives every indication that he “got” the moral thrust of Weininger work, that every Weiningerian pronouncement, whether about dogs, women, Jews, prostitutes, criminals, or Kant, was single-mindedly related to his elaboration of what maleness insisted the world must look like. Weininger was not addressing the problem of other minds, human or otherwise, in the disembodied, gender-neutral manner in which the subject is usually discussed. Indeed, following masculine logic, there are no other minds to speak of; there is just the other, which certainly is one grand problem—namely “the woman problem,” but not one involving mentality, in particular. Put another way, mentality is a problem where we know it to exist, not where he have no notion of it. The moral challenge lies where awareness is driven into being, in the mentality we do know, our own.

Wittgenstein seems only to have made ambiguous, glancing remarks when confronted with the apparent misogyny and bigotry in Weininger. (I discuss elsewhere on how one might interpret Wittgenstein’s reaction to Drury’s qualms.) Szabados (in a paper not in this collection) recounts an incident involving Elizabeth Anscombe where Wittgenstein approaches her to discuss philosophy, commenting with relief, that all the women had now left the room. Either he felt comfortable enough around Anscombe to joke in a way some at least nowadays might find appalling, or he was absentminded (rather unlikely) or he meant to be Weiningerian: typical women have a hard time taking philosophy as seriously as Wittgenstein wanted to take it—and Anscombe, if she was not typical, was in this sense not a woman. There is little reason to think Wittgenstein intended to insult her by implying this. He and she must have had some understanding: she was, after all, one of his most trusted colleagues, his translator and executor. It’s quite possible that Anscombe would have agreed that some non-negligible element in the feminine militated against the abstracted mentality usually called for in philosophical discussion and that this element and an instinctive heterosexual reaction to women having it negatively affected the atmosphere in mixed company. So perhaps he was not joking, nor insensitive, and merely remarked on the obvious (though these are scarcely incompatible stories). His sisterly affinity with Anscombe was not sexual but also not tainted with masculine rivalry. He could see her as a pure collaborator—a disinterested but sharp mind he could work with and thus deeply valued.

But the story comes down to us a bit marinated by our sentimental education. The feeling remains it was a risqué joke. Anscombe should have been offended whether she really was or not. Yet we can’t help but be guiltily amused to hear about it now.

The story is funny because it reveals that this great thinker was not above pettiness. That, or because pettiness which infuses our own day-to-day reality is so very powerful a force that not even this paragon of intellectual discipline escapes being snared by it. That, or, as I prefer to think, Wittgenstein was well aware of all this and intended to show that pettiness is as revealing of truth as anything about us. Not just ordinary language but the ordinary forms of life in which the language is embedded are as expressive of what we know as we ever get. In other words, Weininger was right. Not just about women and men, but about these two being the ultimate “forms of life.” All judgment comes about as a consequence.

We are not saying we have reason to be convinced this pattern of thought ever actually crossed Wittgenstein’s mind. It is just the most interesting story one might tell. This, we are saying, is what should matter to us.]

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

Posted by luno in Wittgenstein, animals, Weininger (Tuesday January 1, 2008 at 1:15 pm)

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