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“Rough sex,” self-hate, and truth tables

Notes on:
Arthur Evans, “The Logic of Homophobia”

Evans presents a common and severe view of Weininger, and blithely extends it to Wittgenstein—certainly, a kindred spirit. He seems inclined to take Weininger’s misogyny at face value and links it to a certain excessive philologian tendency, finding both equally irredeemable. Though Evans charges Weininger, somewhat unimaginatively, with all the usual failings, he does intriguingly (to us) suggest that Wittgenstein’s truth tables—everywhere taught today in formal logic courses—were inspired by Weininger’s bivalent gender calculus.

We’ll shortly see how Weininger’s gender-tables inspired Ludwig Wittgenstein’s truth-tables, a keystone of modern formal logic.

Later he writes,

Wittgenstein and Weininger had much in common. Both were born and raised in Vienna. Both were closeted, self-hating homosexuals who were into rough sex.

“Rough sex”? This is new to me. Evans must be referring to Bartley’s revelations regarding Wittgenstein, but Weininger and rough sex?? There is nothing about this in Abrahamsen. Quite the opposite. The only reference to Weininger’s actual sex life was a dubious claim by his father—after Otto’s suicide—to the effect that his son was not unacquainted with women, though only a few. A strange comment: Leopold Weininger seemed caught between wanting to guard his son’s normality—present him as normal and healthy in his appetites, i.e., not gay—while at the same time not too much as a skirt-chaser in that “hot bed” of such activity at that time, Vienna. The comment was very probably a defensive attempt to disarm rumors that his son was homosexual—notwithstanding his sister Rosa’s account of her failed attempt to set up Otto with her girlfriend, a certain Miss Meyer. Miss Meyer, Rosa recounts, came out of an hour’s private audience with Otto accusing him of being “Jesus Christ.”

It is true that celibacy can be pretty rough but I don’t think this is what Evans meant.

Weininger was Jewish and anti-Semitic. Three of Wittgenstein’s grandparents were Jewish. Like Weininger, Wittgenstein expressed anti-Semitic views, some as rabid as those of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.

As did Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Simone Weil, Stanley Kubrick, Noam Chomsky and host of other important Jewish cultural figures of the last century. Well, whether they were as rabid as Hitler is open to debate… But we have to ask, can a Jew be self-critical without being that worst of Jews, according to Elie Wiesel, a “zar”? Apparently not. The Holocaust quite thoroughly ruined this otherwise holy stance for many Jews perhaps for centuries to come. More generally, the exclusion of prejudice against oneself as a positive moral strategy is the longest lasting curse for any victimized group. It is essential to the long term scheme of any oppressor: rob your victim of this moral luxury forever, if possible. As a member of such a group, Evans seems himself afflicted by it. But he is scarcely alone…

By coincidence, Wittgenstein and Hitler were born just six days apart, in April 1889. For a time, both were in the same grade in the same Austrian high school.

Wittgenstein’s gay life did not become widely known until after his death. His executors, led by Elizabeth Anscombe, a devout Catholic, did everything in their power to throw biographers off the trail. When biographer William Bartley first disclosed in his 1973 book Wittgenstein that the great philosopher had been gay, the executors, led by Anscombe, trashed him and tried to stop publication of his book.

True, and (though we have some admiration for Anscombe on other grounds) shame on them, but Bartley’s book reveals a depth about the man that leaves us with only greater admiration than before.

The Ghost of Otto Weininger

In 1922, thanks to efforts by Russell, Wittgenstein managed to get a dense little book on formal logic published, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logical-Philosophical Treatise). Russell (along with most readers then and since) understood very little of the book. Nonetheless, he praised it highly.

If true, one has to wonder about Russell that he would praise something he understood so little.

Alas, most of the book’s readers, beginning with Russell, misconstrued the thrust of Tractatus. The many passages that seemed incomprehensible (and, therefore, profound) were actually modeled after Otto Weininger’s mystical philosophy of logic in Sex and Character. Nothing could be farther from the views of Bertrand Russell and the Vienna Circle!

Wittgenstein often remarked that Weininger had influenced his thought. However, almost no one who read Wittgenstein bothered to read Weininger. Four factors contributed to this neglect: Weininger was a homosexual; he was anti-Semitic; his thought was saturated with mysticism; and he influenced the Nazis. Unknown to the fans of Tractatus, the first three factors also characterized the young Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Weininger’s Sex and Character share a common motif: ascent by the socially-isolated male ego up the ladder of formal logic to a mystical vision of silent Truth. In Sex and Character, Weininger calls the loner who reaches this peak “Kant’s solitary man” (alluding, inappropriately, to Immanuel Kant):

Kant’s solitary man laughs not, nor dances, shouts not, nor rejoices. For him, no need to make a noise, so deeply does the world-expanse its silence keep.

From Sex & Character, the Heinemann edition (1906): “Kant’s lonely man does not dance or laugh; he neither brawls nor makes merry; he feels no need to make a noise, because the universe is so silent around him. To acquiesce in his loneliness is the splendid supremacy of the Kantian.” (Part II, Chap 7, par. 424.)

And in Löb’s more precise translation (2005): “Kant’s loneliest human being does not laugh and does not dance, he does not roar and he does not cheer: he has no need to make a noise as if the silence of the universe were too deep for him.” And we quote a little more, “He does not derive his duty from the meaningless of an ‘accidental’ world, but his duty, to him, is the meaning of the universe. To say yes to this loneliness is the ‘Dionysian’ element in Kant; that, and nothing less, is morality.”

Weininger was not big on humor. Even Kant could write parodies such as Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766) which describes Swedenborg as rocked by “hypochondrial winds,” a veritable “farting mystic” (Schönfeld). (Speaking of selbsthass, it wasn’t just Swedenborg he was laughing at, Kant saw himself in Swedenborg.) Weininger took his being here quite seriously. Perhaps, too much so. The Nazis, too, were not very funny…damn it if such people shouldn’t all go the hell!

Although Frege and Russell influenced Wittgenstein, he derived his truth-tables from Weininger’s gender-tables in Sex and Character. As noted above, Weininger’s book contains tables and formulas using the two symbols M and W (for Mensch and Weib, that is, “man” and “woman”). By looking at a person’s M-W table, you can read off his or her overall character—an idea based on the pseudo-science of physiognomy. Wittgenstein created tables using the two symbols W and F (for Wahr and Falsch, that is, “true” or “false”). He said they represented the “polarity” of language, just as Weininger had spoken of the “polarity” of sex. In his private notes, Wittgenstein said his tables displayed the physiognomy of language, just as Weininger believed his tables displayed the physiognomy of the body.

Evans may be on to something. (I can just see most Wittgenstein specialists sneering at the thought, but here I must side with Evans.*) There are too many deep connections here on its face and in the offing to pass over. I am speaking as one who has for many years tutored college students in symbolic logic. I have always suspected there was some weightier significance lurking in all those matrices of T’s and F’s but I couldn’t really explain it to my students. Something in the function of truth tables seemed uncannily evocative. The tables were symbolic themselves—more than mere utensils for straining out valid arguments. Marian Walker, Gertrude Stein’s feminist correspondent, was on the right track when she remarked how much fun it was to do the Weiningerian calculus on one’s friends and acquaintances—figuring out where the Law of Sexual Attraction placed each in relation to others. People have sex tables, just as complex propositions have ones that serve up truth and point up validity. Recall Weininger said logic and ethics are one and the same, indeed this theme saturates Sex and Character. (Which, of course, Wittgenstein generalized slightly to “aesthetics and ethics are one,” Tractatus, 6.421.)

Weininger writes,

[Par 502] Shortly speaking the matter stands as follows: I have shown that logical and ethical phenomena come together in the conception of truth as the ultimate good, and posit the existence of an intelligible ego or a soul, as a form of being of the highest super-empirical reality. In such a being as the absolute female there are no logical and ethical phenomena, and, therefore, the ground for the assumption of a soul is absent. The absolute female knows neither the logical nor the moral imperative, and the words law and duty, duty towards herself, are words which are least familiar to her. The inference that she is wanting in super-sensual personality is fully justified. The absolute female has no ego.

[Par 503] In a certain sense this is an end of the investigation, a final conclusion to which all analysis of the female leads. And although this conclusion, put thus concisely, seems {p. 187} harsh and intolerant, paradoxical and too abrupt in its novelty, it must be remembered that the author is not the first who has taken such a view; he is more in the position of one who has discovered the philosophical grounds for an opinion of long standing.

Keep one thing very clearly in your mind as you read passages like this in Weininger’s book. The moral/logical realm Weininger alludes to is exclusively the masculine one. It is the one where assignations of clear law-of-excluded-middle-style values rule. Though perhaps well-formed in other ways, women are most definitely not wffs (well formed formulas) as men, the moral and rational ones, aspire to be. (Yes, the distillation of being into formula or rule-governed entity is not as far-fetched as you might think: think men now.) Readers almost invariably assume he is assigning truth/moral values, negative ones, to the feminine vis-à-vis the masculine. No, he is not. The feminine is outside all such judgment. Women are amoral and alogical, as Weininger repeatedly takes pains to point out. The prefix “a-” in English means “without” or even “beyond,” not “opposed to” as does “anti-” or “im-”. Isn’t it a bad thing to be excluded from moral judgment? From the exclusive club of rational beings? Isn’t it to be denied participation in a highly esteemed game?

It depends on whose game it is and the role of that game in the lives of those who are compelled to play it. Men require morality of the sort Weininger is constantly describing. Women, fortunately, have other resources that govern human interaction for them. (I wasn’t just joking when I said “well-formed”: I meant morally, too—whatever else you might have been thinking.) The man’s game, she may take or leave. He is not so privileged.

Wittgenstein’s tables had a mystical aspect. That’s because of something else he borrowed from Weininger, the notion that the truths of logic are empty tautologies. They don’t say anything about the world. Instead, they show unspeakable logical forms that point to higher visions. All this is vintage Weininger. Yet many still regard Wittgenstein’s notion of the emptiness of logical truths as an original contribution to modern formal logic.

This “emptiness” is an intimation of the limits of logic and perforce of ethics. It is the beginning of the realization that only half of the world is being delimited. Wittgenstein followed Weininger out to the perimeter of what was deducible on a certain set of assumptions. Only where Weininger attempted to cross the perimeter, Wittgenstein balked and made enigmatic gestures about Weininger’s mistake. Wittgenstein survived. [Editor’s note: Whatever the reader may think about “survival”, Luno is being coy here. “Survival” is not, in itself, for him a moral virtue.]

This kind of strategy—overcoming erotic impulses by redirecting them into allegedly higher paths—is an old chestnut for emotionally isolated closet-homosexuals with spiritual aspirations. Not surprisingly, those who take this tortured path are often drawn to authoritarian ideologies, while yet engaging in secretive, guilt-ridden sexual encounters on the sly. (The Catholic priesthood continues to be a magnet for such conflicted men.) In Wittgenstein’s case, maturing as he did in pre-war Vienna, the particular authoritarian ideology to which he turned was that of the protofascist Otto Weininger.

For a little political corrective here, we might consult Kimberly Cornish’s The Jew of Linz. Cornish tells an amazing story surrounding a titanic lifelong intellectual struggle between Wittgenstein and Hitler stemming from a boyhood squabble at the school in Linz they both attended contemporaneously. The story is not supposed to be a fiction based on tantalizing fact. But whatever its ultimate truth value (speaking of truth tables), it is at least as believable as Evans’ charged dismissal of Weininger and Wittgenstein on the grounds of their fascistic tendencies.

While we are at it—viz, in a fascist hunting mode—are we supposed to conclude that even Stalin was an idol of fascists? (I won’t do anything here but mention in passing Wittgenstein’s well known sympathies with at least the idea of Stalin’s Soviet Union.) There was a time when Stalin had a sycophantic confidant in star New York Times reporter Walter Duranty. Stalin’s chief American apologist was an approving Weininger reader, too (see this post). Up until at least the end of World War II and the first Stalinist revelations, Duranty was a darling of the left. Then, a result of his denial of the premeditated starvation of at least 7 million in the Ukraine at Stalin’s orders, his star began to lose its sheen.

The point here is not that reading Weininger was somehow also a pastime of some leftists no less than “protofascists”. Was Duranty a fascist because a fan of Weininger or a Stalinist because he all but lied to millions of readers in defending Stalin? Can one do both?… Duranty was petty, venal and scarcely a person of any kind of principle, left or right. We only adduce him here to hint at the breadth and depth of Weininger’s influence across the political spectrum.

Hans Kelsen, philosopher of law, considered by many, the “legal expert of the century” and a chief architect of the Nuremberg trials knew and befriended and was inspired by Weininger when they were students together at University of Vienna… The point is that ultimately Weininger’s significance was quintessentially apolitical. Or was sufficiently diffuse to neutralize any political effect.

Hitler’s lawyer did suggest Weininger’s book was bedside reading for the Fuhrer (see Hamann), but the Nazis banned Otto’s book anyway. They wanted the Aryan woman to shell out thoroughbred babies in short order and in healthy quantities to keep the Master Race well stocked, and Weininger’s talk of abstention would not do.

There are those, perhaps Evans among them, who would deny that it is possible to be apolitical, that anything that remotely smacks of the transcendental is a distraction from a material morality and is a fascism in the making (“if you are not with us you are against us,” to quote the motto of a well-known president), as though only abstract principles could be harnessed for the universal task of oppression. I think we do the human imagination for depravity an injustice to limit it so. Yes, Hitler and Mussolini did read and admire sundry passages in Sex and Character. But other passages (such as this one), we have to conclude, must have been missing from their copies. I’m sure Stalin even read Marx and dog-eared a few amenable pages. But I, for one, am still able to make out a distinction between Marx’s teaching and Stalin’s implementation. To be sure, we have to blame philosophers themselves for sometimes spreading rumors of their overweening influence on the course of history. If they want credit for the good, they should get it for the bad. But history will trash and rave at a whim without scruple. If philosophers think otherwise, I fear they are clowns.

When Weininger’s importance to Wittgenstein is taken into account, Tractatus comes clearly into view on the stage of history for what it really was—the spiritual self-portrait of a tormented, protofascist mind. The book was also an important contribution to the development of modern formal logic. And there’s the rub that brings us to a greater question—the nature of philosophy and formal logic.

The Logic of Homophobia

Weininger and the early Wittgenstein both combined two character traits. One was enthusiasm for philosophy, and especially for formal logic. The other was a flight from the body, sex, the feminine, and the world.

True, and it would behoove us to understand how the traits are related, not merely decry them.

And that’s exactly what we found in Weininger and the young Wittgenstein, the logic of homophobia taken to its most exalted metaphysical heights.

Patriarchal Reason

Western logic’s long alienation from the world and from the feminine has created a skewed ideal of thinking, what I call patriarchal reason. This skewed ideal rests on a number of myths. One is the myth of bivalence—the claim that a proposition must be either true or false, and nothing in-between. This is like saying a human being must be either masculine or feminine, and nothing in-between.

A curious statement in light of the fact that Weininger was celebrated by early gay sexologists such as Edward Carpenter and even treated with a certain amount of respect by feminist activists such as Dora Marsden precisely for his insight that actual men and women are never found as pure types. Gender intermediacy is general, Weininger was at pains to argue. Everyone is “in-between”. [See Iaia Gombrowicz’s discussion of Judy Greenway’s “It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Interpretations of Otto Weininger.”]

Whether expressed in gender-tables or truth-tables, the myth of bivalence has impeded our quest to understand the world. It’s time to throw it out.

And replace it with what? The myth of equality?… In my notes on Sylviane Agacinski, Sartre and elsewhere, I address the mixed legacy of that notion. Here I just want to add that the dynamic that leads to homophobia is different from that which leads to sexism, or racism, or anti-Semitism, or speciesism, etc. While it is understandable that “brothers and sisters in oppression” should want to link arms, we had better get more sophisticated in our discriminations, i.e., “see differences,” or we will be at this for so long that we may become inured to the condition.


* Independently of Wittgenstein (who completed the Tractatus in 1918, not published until 1921), the truth table method, fundamental to proof theory, was also deployed by Emil Post (1897-1954) in 1921. Indeed, several other mathematicians seemed to have also honed in on the idea long before. Quine writes in Methods of Logic, “The pattern of reasoning that the truth table tabulates was Frege’s, Peirce’s, and Schröder’s by 1880. The tables have been prominent in literature since 1920 (Lukasiewicz, Post, Wittgenstein).” (See also this discussion.)

But it was Wittgenstein’s presentation of the logic that seemed to cut the widest and deepest swath. I would attribute this to his moral intensity and this, I suspect, takes flight in large part from the Weiningerian inkling that the two, logic and ethics, are fundamentally related (as Russell learned to his chagrin). The claim is a claim about logic and ethics but itself neither a logical nor an ethical one. It is a claim about the structure of the world. One half of the structure of the world, as it turns out. Only half true, perhaps, but most philosophers do worse.

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