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“…my God he was wrong.”

Notes on M. O’C. Drury, “Some Notes on Conversations” (with Wittgenstein)

Drury recalls what Wittgenstein said about Otto Weininger.

He alludes to von Wright’s remarks on Wittgenstein’s high regard for Weininger. Wittgenstein recommended Sex and Character to Drury as “a work of remarkable genius” and Drury remembers that Wittgenstein said that Weininger, at twenty-one and before anyone else, had recognized the significance of Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria. But here Drury is at pains to offer “a certain qualification”:

DRURY: Weininger seems to me to be full of prejudices, for instance his extreme adulation of Wagner.

WITTGENSTEIN: Yes, he is full of prejudices, only a young man would be so prejudiced.

Drury goes on to write,

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: Luno also comments elsewhere on this last remark.
** Editor’s note: In Latin, in English.

Finally, Drury recalls Wittgenstein asking him to read aloud the long, quoted, Latin passage** in Sex and Character from Pico della Mirandola. When Drury was done reading, Wittgenstein said:

That is so fine that I would wish to read more of Pico.

[Not surprisingly, the passage from Pico in Sex and Character has also inspired not a few others, notably Heimito von Dorderer. It is also prophetic and full of pathos in light of what happened to Weininger: “happy in the lot of no created thing.”†

Editor’s note: From the final line in the passage.

Drury seems concerned to dispel any notion that Wittgenstein condoned the prima facie misogyny in Weininger. Weininger was a precocious young man infused with “half-baked” opinions about a lot of things (as a feminist friend of Gertrude Stein once put it—an opinion, Stein herself, interestingly, did not share: her admiration for him was more direct). The trouble with this assessment is that, while a commonplace (applying, no doubt, to Drury, himself, at the time as well), it does nothing to help us understand exactly what was half-baked and what was profound insight in Weininger—since, clearly, Wittgenstein (along with an august band of others) was impressed.

The business about Weininger thinking women the root of all evil is ridiculous taken literally. (See our remarks elsewhere on why.) Weininger’s opinions about the feminine cannot and, we would argue, were not rejected out of hand by Wittgenstein. There is evidence that he shared Weininger’s conviction that there were fundamental and, one would have to say now, moral differences between women and men. Recalling a comment by David G. Stern in another (but not unrelated) context where he discusses Wittgenstein’s remarks on human judgments across species, the scale of assessment, the moral yardstick, we use in coming to conclusions of worth regarding women are men are different—the same, but utterly different! The highly charged and manipulable interplay between the “sameness” and the “differences” is what plays havoc on intersex judgment. Weininger clearly, it seems to us, perceived this.

So why does it seem Weininger spends a lot of time disparaging women and feminine capacity? Why did he appear to keep blaming women for not having the same obsessions as men? No minds, no souls, no morality, no compassion, no genius—the will to value and women seemed to him incompatible. Women had not even an existential grasp of the relation of identity (so necessary to judgment), viz, that a=a was a bazaar, near meaningless abstraction to them. (That a=b—now that might be useful information with material consequences! For it suggested a relationship that might be exploited, engendered, nurtured, or managed…)

Weininger, himself, warns us that he feared he would be misunderstood. It happened as he feared but the misunderstanding would go to prove his point. We go on at length in many places about why Weininger was moved to push his philosophical agenda in language that was prejudicial to women. Here again briefly: He was addressing men, not women, in his book. Men were the people who he expected would read and most needed to read his book. Theirs was the system at large and the one that needed purification and correction. It needed being reminded in no uncertain terms of what underwrites it: what its premises were and what they entailed. When fully laid out, those entailments were far more critical of men and masculinity than they were of women. (Allan Janik is to be credited with being among the few to have caught some glimpse of this.)

Men, it turns out, are by and large sorry excuses for the time and trouble it takes to create them. Perhaps the most devastating criticism of women is their complicity in the reproduction of men. Accommodation is a specifically feminine vice, but it is not criminal and instigative in the way male vice typically is. Accommodation in men turns particularly ugly. Not content to extrude skyscraping ideals they do not live by, they distort their environment to make it seem these ideals have changed or are not what they are or do not apply to them. It is a pleasant thought that men, even if only men, are capable of genius, but disturbing that so few men are. The numbers that divert their capability toward accommodating their weakness and innate viciousness is so great. Men, specifically, are a waste of resources. Women, by contrast, coming into the world with milder ambitions, whatever else one might say about them, are not as hell-bent on disappointing.

Again, we are not saying Weininger would have expressed it in quite those words. His life was too short for that. He was not a consequentialist. Radical feminism is also non-consequentialist but has used similar expressions. Weininger did his part by arguing a critical premise with consummate skill and courage and instantiated the conclusion.

We think a plain reading of Weininger, unburdened by preconceptions born of a century of extraneous developments, makes his message as unwelcome and as challenging: only it is more likely that men, less so than women, will not like what they see or will perceive the direction the finger is pointing. But a plain reading we almost never encounter. It would lance wounds we thought had healed centuries ago when we took up the conviction that moral differences between human beings do not exist (Mill), when the rhetoric of equality, born of expedience, began to harden into unassailable dogma and unthinking misapplication…

We are not sure that Wittgenstein fully understood Weininger. He perceived greatness in Weininger (and he was scarcely alone) and may have sensed implications that were fantastically unamenable in the climate in which Weininger wrote them—as likely to be understood correctly as any made by a philosopher in the century or so that even Wittgenstein thought good philosophical writing had to endure before it stood a chance of having justice done to it.

Things had both to get better and worse before that could happen. Feminism needed to mature, the Holocaust needed to entrain a perspective.

The literary moralism in Weininger is as old as Diogenes and, we fear, not likely to be embraced by those invested in the warp and woof of material culture.]

Posted by luno in misogyny, Wittgenstein, philosophy and sex, male criminality, Weininger (Tuesday February 5, 2008 at 12:53 pm)

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