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On being criminal, Jewish, a woman, Woolf, Weininger, Wittgenstein, Rhees and Russia

Notes on Rush Rhees, “Postscript” (on Wittgenstein)

Editor’s note: Luno comments on Rush Rhees’ published recollections, a chief source for biographical understanding of certain perceived peculiarities of Wittgenstein’s makeup, specifically, his relationship to his Jewishness, to Otto Weininger, women, and politics. In the course of these notes, Luno offers one of his more remarkable summations of Weininger and his alleged anti-Semitism and misogyny.

Wittgenstein made various “confessions” of his personal failings to his friends in writing and in person. At one time he seemed to have seriously considered moving to Russia. Others, besides Rhees, in this anthology mention these two things. Eyebrows were raised enough to prompt Rhees to try to place them in context as far as he could.

Apparently, Otto Weininger played a prominent role in the background of Wittgenstein’s urge to confess.

The philosopher as criminal…

Rhees’ quotes from Wittgenstein’s notebooks of the 1930s reveal Wittgenstein to be obsessed with his own lack of integrity, his tendency to self-deception, and a general failure of moral nerve. As an example of what bothered Wittgenstein, Rhees offers this:

He told Mrs. Pascal [Fania Pascal, his Russian teacher] that when he was teaching school in an Austrian village he struck a small girl for some misbehaviour in class, and that when she complained and the headmaster asked him, he denied that he had done so. This was a shameful thing to do. From a remark of Drury’s once, I think Wittgenstein told it in his 1931 confession as well; (as we’d expect). Mrs. Pascal speaks especially of his having been so burdened by the memory of it.

Editor’s note: Ray Monk also tells us Wittgenstein was apt to get violent in his classes. And he didn’t just go after children, even at Cambridge, others have suggested (Edmonds and Eidinow), he gestured threateningly at Karl Popper with a poker. Learning is to be taken seriously.

Rhees links this incident with his own first hand experience of Wittgenstein’s sometimes angry and unjust dismissal of something he might later acknowledge as correct.

There was a newspaper account in 1945 of a physician in Paris who had murdered twenty of his patients without apparent motive.

Wittgenstein spoke to me of the despair which the man must have known in order to do this. He said he could well imagine such a despair in himself—and doing what that doctor did. He said something in the sense that it was through luck and circumstance that he had not gone through with it as that man did.

Rhees follows with a comment to the effect that while Wittgenstein certainly knew despair it was always “a despair that was nothing else.” Rhees recounts inviting Wittgenstein to agree with him that though Wittgenstein sometimes felt himself capable of monstrous acts, he would likely collapse into a “wreck” after the first. Wittgenstein goes on to imagine the enormity of the physician’s act. Rhees permits himself the observation:

The inclination (or however we call it) to think of oneself as a “monster” can be obsessive and a delusion, even if it isn’t always so.

[I suppose, for purposes of analysis, we should distinguish between the personal and the philosophical. But at the risk of seeming old fashioned, I suggest there can be a connection. It seems Wittgenstein, for one, often felt it deeply. It goes a long way toward explaining his greatness. It was never merely his philosophical acumen. Rhees doesn’t mention it in this connection (as others have), but Weininger imagined the genius as quite capable of a great criminality: it must be a real possibility for him. It is his capacity for internalizing the gamut of human types that gives Weininger’s genius the insight into human possibility, the resource from which he consciously extracts the subset of possibilities that he will make himself responsible for.

Rhees, no doubt with the kindest intentions, paints a human Wittgenstein, teetering at times on the edge of self-doubt. He may be right that Wittgenstein, the man, would never have been psychologically capable of criminal enormity, but Wittgenstein, the philosopher, with the set of internalized standards he absorbed in large part from Weininger, could not have taken much lasting solace from this. A fierce will to self-knowledge, to clarity regarding what was and was not the case as well as what might have been and might yet be—all the necessary province and duty of Weiningerian genius, would temper the effect of words meant to soften the impact on the personal of the philosophical.

To the extent Wittgenstein took comfort from Rhees’s extenuations, he was indeed human. But the philosopher in him must also have been disturbed by the thought that one could shirk responsibility for what one might do as easily as for what one didn’t. This is because what one might do is as much a part of one’s identity as what one in fact does. Though, this fact, is rarely of more than marginal interest to others, concerned, as they are, more with the history of what you have done. A convenient species of moral induction.]

Wittgenstein made various remarks about not being clear with himself and others about the Jewish aspect of his character. His odd comments on Jewish talent, originality, intellect, and spirit seemed to some confessional and rather too apologetic. Rhees, however, thinks they were just part and parcel of Wittgenstein’s general program of self-clarity. Any element that shaped his character and thought he was under a felt obligation to lay out for review. There is no implied judgment on anything so revealed, in contrast to Weininger, who made being Jewish a liability to be overcome—according to Rhees and many others.

Weininger, of course, never meant Jewishness as a matter of “race or consanguinity,” as Rhees correctly notes. Being a Jew in his sense was a possibility for anyone and some non-Jews in the narrower sense could be fine exemplars of Weininger’s notion. The problem was that Weininger made “being a Jew” sound like a bad thing (as he did “being a woman”).

…as a Jew with low self-esteem

[Weininger, himself a Jew in the narrower sense, in spirit and practice struggled against being a Jew in the sense which he circumscribed. Such a “Jew” places cosmic accommodation above all things. His or her vision is hooded from the transcendent, “ecstatic truth” (a phrase I borrow from Werner Herzog). It was a philosophical act. Such a Jew was a moral Philistine, concerned to cash out all goodness in material and immanent results. His or her creativity, however comparable in other ways, was derivative of, even parasitic on, the genius of others less blinkered by material and historical contingency. Weininger wrote about this kind of Jew as a bad thing to be. Or at least as a bad place in which to be content. Again, one inhabits this kind of Jew, no one is born this kind of Jew. Or perhaps all are born this kind of Jew and it becomes our moral business to do something about it.

What kind of person would not want to do something about it? To start with: someone who had not the cosmic and material sureties of others rooted in a tradition that was heterocosmic (however many and great are the other liabilities of such “fortunates” we discuss elsewhere), who had not raised their standards of measuring reality to the empyrean, who had still their nose to the ground in search of belonging and identity. The oppressed, deprived, and outcast are not in a good position to appreciate the subtleties of high-sounding mysteries such as “ecstatic truth” without devolving such gestures to mundane and political ruse: “The gestures play on our superstition to distract us from the injustice done to us.”

Bad conditions are apt to make one common kind of person at least prone to such suspicion. The Holocaust ruined for several generations the possibility of seeing Weininger’s conception of Jewishness as anything but self-hatred. Weininger’s wake as moral purgative was, in effect, almost obliterated by historical events in the few decades after his death. What started out as high-minded Jewish self-criticism of a sort that reverberated in such Jews as (besides Wittgenstein) Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus and Gertrude Stein, even Issac Bashevis Singer (to keep the list short), became, in the eyes of succeeding generations of intellectuals, pathology.

Steven Beller in the penultimate chapter of his book on Jews in Vienna presents Weininger as a leading light in a very old succession of Jewish reforming prophets—far from a diseased aberration, as Theodor Lessing and Sander Gilman would have it. But Elie Wiesel still classes Weininger among the “zar,” a kind benighted Jew, worse even than any gentile anti-Semite, the lowest of the low. George Steiner does the same for similar reasons with Simone Weil. (Others have cast the same aspersions at Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Philip Roth, and a host of more recent Jewish writers, artists and thinkers.) In so doing, Wiesel and Steiner reveal themselves as surviving scars, leaving us unsure of where to direct our outrage…

Understandably, cultural self-esteem remains fragile for a long time after monumental injury. If only this fragility did not institutionalize itself and corrupt perception and thereby lay the seeds for its own propagation.

The wider point, of course, is that this motif recurs in any number of histories of oppression. It is scarcely a Jewish problem. But the role of the Jew in western history is singular and suggest that long after we will have obliterated all scannable and palpable differences between people in the normal course of miscegenation (nature’s own way of combating racism and zenophobia), we will tease out the slightest differences, real or imagined, on which to pin our need for accomplices in our reach for depravity. Since, almost by definition, criminals are loners, it is a crime to be alone. Groups of people quickly lose the ability to commit crimes. There is legality in numbers…

But if Weininger was a reformer, even a “liberal” as Beller suggests, a voice in the wilderness, why did he choose Jewishness as his whipping boy? Why not approach his target more directly, whether it was the moral decay of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy or a masculinity gone to seed—not so much their excesses as their confused, even willful, perversion? Why pick on a perennially harried fringe group instead? Why risk stirring up further the latent resentment that coheres masses out of mere crowds? If you have to blame someone, couldn’t it have been someone other than a victim?

Here’s one horn of the dilemma: there are some enemies you don’t attack head on. Less because they are so much stronger than you and would crush you, than because you do not warrant notice and will be buried in silence, the climate having been engineered to make you seem gauche at best, ill at worst.

Short of violence, (in our time, “terror”), human complacency is best undermined from within. It takes someone who knows him- or herself and kind so well that he or she can play its strings with the authority of one who knows what makes this sort of person tick. If you can do this very well you will more than touch a nerve, indeed because you can touch a nerve, you will soon learn that this nerve is found universally. But where the touch sends a spasm of pain in some, it tickles others. Nevertheless, it will get their attention. Here’s where it gets tricky, what do you do next, now that you have got them wincing or smiling?

You take them for a ride. It’s important that you not blow your cover until the right moment and in the right way. When you slip your knife between their ribs it must be in mid-guffaw. Moreover, it must be their knife and handled with a grace taught in their manuals.

Weininger chose the Jew because it is important to know one’s instrument well in this kind of surgery…

The other horn is that a few, marginally innocent, will die of fright at the enormity of your plan. You will be misunderstood. Your treachery beyond fathoming, your cleverness too cute, success so improbable. More will find your subtlety irrelevant, if not dishonest. You will be harnessed, as Weininger was, by the very forces he sought to subvert, and your effort deemed horribly misguided, pathetic, and disgusting.

…as a woman

But why woman? What did she ever do to Weininger? If one takes him seriously, he had the good fortune of not being born one. You can’t really use the same excuse here. What a story he might have told had he been a woman?! A self-hating woman!

No, here the choice of prima facie target is motivated by other—yet still ultimately related—things. His theory of universal sexual indeterminacy aside, Weininger was not a woman. He did not pretend to be—something few men do well, however fashionable it may be. There is a side to this story that only a woman can tell and Weininger did not pretend to tell it. (We have written again and again about Weininger’s apparent misogyny elsewhere. Here we just allude to those remarks, since the question arises naturally in this context.)

Instead of touching a nerve in a community he knew inside out, woman and the feminine become the boundary of the intelligible universe for Weininger. Here there was no real question of touching a feminine nerve. He might disturb the peace of some confused masculine element in the transmuted form it takes residing in woman but he never came close to endangering any essence of the truly feminine. Indeed, his antics brought out the motherly instincts in some feminists—Germaine Greer, for instance—who could barely contain an exclamation of “mere boy.” But even where this appears to happen, when some feminist is outraged (usually not having read him as, to her credit, Greer did), where Weiningerian masculinity inheres in women, competing with other impulses, it is so transformed, becomes so foreign from the recognizably “same” element in men, that the opportunity for mistranslation becomes keen.

A “self-hating” woman, for example: The term means something incomparable across sex lines. Neither the “self” nor “hate” mean the same. If a woman had a “self” like a man she wouldn’t hate it, she wouldn’t recognize it as such, it might even fill her with the same disgust as a slimy creature on her skin. If a man “hated” like a woman, he might not be so destructive in his hatred. He certainly wouldn’t lash out at everything alive because of it. He might be more discriminating in his aim. “A woman is never so stupid as a man can be,” said Weininger, almost in the same breath as he said genius does not exist in women. (If you think there is contradiction here, you are not getting it.) When a woman uses the language of self-hatred it refers to something alien that has crawled onto her: she could never accept that it was a necessary liability of being alive in the world in the way it is for a man with a fully realized consciousness.

What Weininger did spend a lot of time denigrating is the masculine perception of the feminine. This he did know something about. He described it to such a tee that waggish men in cafes around the globe nodded their heads in glib agreement at Weininger’s repetition of piquant clichés about women. And important feminist readers of Weininger agreed that he was not aberrant or incorrect or deceptive on his part: what Weininger describes was—more importantly is—how men see women (the fashionable thought that we have gotten past that now, notwithstanding). Germaine Greer said as much. Weininger’s near contemporary, Dora Marsden, considered Weininger one of a scarce few honest men when it came to expressing what men really think about women, and some of her feminist friends lamented that no Englishman they knew had half the balls to say it so plainly (pace J. S. Mill). Gloria Steinem still implies something similar when she entreats us not to demonize men but to blame the fouled social amniotic fluid in which boys and men swim. Blame for what? Certainly not because men have gotten more sensitive, more respectful of the integrity of the specifically feminine, more expressive through their actions of their own weakness, vulnerability and fault? We disagree that the social environment is the root cause of what—there is no disagreement—the problem is. Male irresponsibility is endemic to the kind and it should be combated on all fronts especially from within—and that means moral redress is called for. Precisely, because, as Weininger implied, men and only men can be moral, in that same sense of what it means to be moral, men and only men need to be moral.

Until we get that straight what hope is there for understanding across sex lines? Or at least effort at imagining it?

Weininger targeted the feminine because it was the only credible ploy to get his intended audience, men, to sit still long enough for his poison have effect. A century on, is has taken longer than he might have anticipated.]

Rhees quotes Weininger on the feeling of piety the man of character must express. Rhees translates,

Putting together a complete autobiography, when the need to do this originates in the man himself, is always the sign of a superior human being. For in the really faithful memory the root of piety lies. A man of real character, faced with the proposal or demand that he abandon his past for some material advantage or some internal advantage to his health, would reject it, even if the prospect were of the greatest treasures in the world or of happiness itself.

[Out of this flows the autobiographical project that is his legacy, if he is to have any. It is not progeny: that is a gross distortion of male purpose—moral purpose, obviously, not biological. (The necessary tension between the human and the biological, even as the biological sets the stage and is largely responsible for the script, if not quite the denouement, is central to Weininger.) The contrast is extreme with any feminine sense of dignity or purpose. The point is not that there is something deficient in the feminine—though where maleness surreptitiously, disingenuously, takes cover in a feminine excuse under some high-sounding notion of moral equality or universal holism, while still asserting male identity and privilege, there is deficiency: not with the tactic, which is adiaphorously survivalist, but with the agent, for whom survival is or ought to be but a side effect of the moral work he has cut out for him (something not even Kant seems to have seen as clearly).

None of this has to do with woman and the feminine. What normativity hovers over her life and its meaning has roots elsewhere and is not to be measured in these terms.

It is always difficult to discuss feminine and masculine forms of life (Wittgenstein) or patterns of existence or principles (Weininger) clearly without making it sound as though the situation in real life with actual individual human beings was as stark and simple. If Weininger spent the better part of his book describing things in this way, it had to be done, to get the structure right. Nevertheless there are plenty of hints and qualifications scattered throughout Sex and Character. He must have hoped that somehow his readers would discern the nuances: that every actual human is sexually intermediate, that while the feminine is almost doomed to be judged harshly by a masculine imperative (and vice versa) because complements cannot also help being mutual anathemas, still these cross gender judgments were in an important sense empty because of the criteria legitimizing them are not portable (an idea Rhees later attributes to Wittgenstein as though it were not already there in Weininger).

Still, there is pathos in the fact that “[i]n spite of all the forms intermediate between one sex and the other, a human being is in the end one of the two, either a man or a woman…” (Weininger quoted in Rhees, p. 206) An appreciation of the fatefulness of situation and respect for its consequences may have been asking for too much, but I believe it is what Weininger was asking for.]

Rhees wants to show both consonance [perhaps out of reverence for Wittgenstein’s judgment] and difference [in the spirit of apology] between Wittgenstein and Weininger. To illustrate the latter, he cites a passage where Wittgenstein evokes the Platonic myth of a being choosing its character and place in the world before being thrown into it [anticipating Rawls]. Regarding such a chosen point of view, Wittgenstein writes,

We might say “every view has its charm,” but this would be wrong. What is true is every view is significant for him who sees it so (but that does not mean “sees it as something other than it is”). And in this sense every view is equally significant. [Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough] [Recalls of what Christine Korsgaard will later say in The Sources of Normativity on the absence of normativity from a third-person perspective.]

Wittgenstein is saying in essence that normativity is not even conceivable in these circumstances. Projecting value this far back does not cohere with the assumption that perspective and character has not already been chosen: the creation of meaning, perhaps, may be explained from here but not its evaluation. “Charm” in so far as its attribution is supposed to be a vote of approval is misplaced.

Now Rhees compares this with Weininger:

These “brute” differences which would be there with their consequences for the soul that could choose, are not important for Weininger. If this human being is born a soul or character whose feeling for his life is different from mine, Weininger sees in this only a difference between “more complete” and “less complete”, “more serious (greater intensity of consciousness)” and “less serious”, “more creative of one’s own life” and “less creative”. If he had spoken in the myth of the soul’s choice before birth, he might have said that choosing a body that would grow to a woman must show poverty of character: No soul would ever choose this position from which to view the world, no soul would choose this way of living vis-à-vis other people, unless the soul were inferior to start with.

[This passage reveals a misunderstanding of Weininger. It is certainly true that Weininger expends great effort in Sex and Character demeaning what he identifies as the feminine perspective and glorifying the masculine one. Or rather he brings out into the open what men by and large must be thinking about women to behave the way do; he all but impersonates immanent maleness. For a philosopher to address “stereotypes”—a category of description more local than what typically garners philosophical attention—he or she must raise the stakes, as it were, suggest that what is really in play here is something deeper, more basic, less contingent, than any cultural trope or set of fashionable mores. The suggestion has to be that the very conditions of existence set the parameters of this way of seeing the world.

Wittgenstein would hardly have taken up the task of showing up how words come to mean as they do and what patterns of behavior this tends to cause in speculative thinkers, if he had imagined he was only doing anthropology or ethnology. The philosopher is characterized by a different ambition. In the parlance of Wittgenstein’s immediate tradition, he might say he was in the business of clarifying the very language in which we think about and construct theories about the world, including those of anthropology, mathematics, ethics, etc. even linguistics.

Was Weininger merely about describing and justifying one way of seeing the world over another? Rhees here and, of course, many others appear to think so…

If Weininger is wrong, he is wrong about some or all of these things: that human experience is bifurcated along sex lines, that the effect of this bifurcation is not trivial for how the world is experienced, that “the feeling we have for our life” (to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) and per force for everything else is not the same for beings with internal and external reproductive organs, most importantly the relative value or the quality each attaches to every parsed moment of life is different for each sex, that this difference is self-evident (in precisely the same way Wittgenstein tried to show how meaning came to attach itself to words: he invited us “to look and see”), that it is conceptually impossible to bridge this gap: each side is bound to its own perspective by forces mutable only at the expense of identity and orientation, and finally, and most importantly, that we are morally bound to try, nevertheless, to transcend these perspectives, viz, to imagine the view from the other side. This last imperative requires a level of perspicuity regarding the situation. It requires coming to terms with what drives, what moves, what pushes and pulls each sex to see and value the world and its parsable pieces in the way they do.

How do we deal with the contradiction that we must attempt what we cannot do?

That is what Weininger is about.]

Rhees continues,

Weininger says often that in a woman there are not even the possibilities of a higher nature. But he has stacked the cards at the outset by speaking as though the differences between one soul or character and another were always a difference of degree (not of nature), a difference of higher and lower on the same scale.

[But, as we have argued, there are only two scales in existence: a man is precluded from using one of them by his very nature and the other, his own—his only hammer with which to hit every nail—is not up to the task of making judgments about women in any other way. She, and all that she stands for, must fare badly on this, his only, scale. (This is not to condone or excuse these judgments for that judgment would be incoherent. What scale would we be using?) Rhees is being too facile in thinking that there is this neutral way in which we can understand women and men that does not prejudge them. The day we stop reproducing sexually there might be such a perspective.*

* Editor’s note: But compare Luno on Korsgaard. While he is sympathetic with her defense of the best of Enlightenment thinking on morality, he considers universal normativity more of an imaginative stretch than is commonly appreciated. He argues we have greatly exaggerated our success at it, and at considerable cost.

What we do have now are these two perspectives. Clearly understood, their limitations on the table, we might get a sense for what each cannot do—that is more progress than I fear we have made and that may be the extent of our possible wisdom on the matter.]

Rhees seems aware of some textual dissonance with the simplistic view he saddles Weininger with—even to the point of saying, “Much that he says is wonderful.” Then he offers this interesting remark:

But when he calls thinking about one’s life this way or that “the mark of a higher human being”, he thinks of higher and lower always on the same scale, the standard by which we distinguish greatness and mediocrity in men. It is as though the idea that in admiring this or that woman we express a different standard, with different sorts of methods and evidence of her excellence or mediocrity, than those by which we estimate character in men, had never occurred to him or had been brushed aside.

[First, note that many equality feminists would take issue with this “separate but equal” ploy. That move has been, they would argue, discredited often enough. It opens the door for all manner of abuse and manipulation… But even for many difference feminists as well as Weininger there is something not quite right about the idea that we can admit radical difference and in the same breath appeal to “equality.” What exactly is “equality” supposed to mean in such a split universe? That though our talents may differ this is no reason to value one over another in absolute terms? But we forget that the univocal expression of value itself is in question: what absolute terms? In the eyes of asexual Martians? If it should turn out that apples and oranges are not the same in any sense other than the uninformative one that they are both fruits, in what sense are they interchangeable, representative of each other, or to be valued equally? Either our notion of difference is not so radical as all that or the equality we speak of is one amenable to customization at the whim of the powers that happen to prevail over matters of interpretation. Fundamental sex difference, if it is going to be admitted to moral discourse, must seriously question the coherence of concepts that seek to play fast and loose with the boundaries of difference.

Well, what if we water down the radicalness? Women and men, after all, both bleed, breathe, etc… That strategy can be tweaked to justify any, even a liberal, complacency. Then we have come down to saying we are all animals and all animals are equal (at least those with pretensions to “rationality”) and, commensurate with that equality, deserve an equal chance at survival. (Never mind what, taken literally, this implies about our treatment of other species. For the sake of argument, we will limit the field of our hypocrisy.) In this sense, at least, it is often assumed, we are equal: the interests we have in common suffice for one of us to stand in lieu, in significant representation, of another. Thus we can assert the possibility of a just “representative” government constituted overwhelmingly of one sex…

Abuse and oppression begin so innocently.

Such enormity aside, to return to Rhees, why is he so sure that it “never occurred” to Weininger that there might be two scales at work? Rhees, as so many others, seems not to have come to terms with the implication of Weininger’s grand pronouncement: that from the perspective that he so “wonderfully” elaborated, the masculine one, women are not moral, that is to say, they are amoral—not to be confused, especially by a philosopher, with immoral. This was supposed to show the outer limits of the masculine perspective. If he had lived long enough, Sex and Character might have served as the prolegomena to a future metaphysics of morals. It was a book that had to be written to get on with a critique of ethics at the first light of a feminist dawn.]

…as Woolf in disguise

Rhees reports that during a walk he broached the subject of Virginia Woolf. It was not long after her death. Wittgenstein responded with a comment on the atmosphere in her household. Her father Sir Leslie Stephen was a Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, a writer on art, music, science and politics—a looming cultural figure who set great store by such accomplishment.

“I always want to ask,” said Wittgenstein, “Why should we think that only these things are important? That nobody is really to be admired unless he has achieved something in one of these fields?”

Rhees goes on,

Wittgenstein spoke of Virginia Woolf’s idea that the reason there had been no women among the great composers etc., is that a woman has not had a room of her own. Wittgenstein said that this is obviously not the reason. But Virginia Woolf could not throw off her father’s conception that the only real measure was there, without asking whether there might not be other “achievements” (if we use the word).

“If at some time there should be great musical compositions and great poetry, and if there should be a high proportion of women among the great composers—this would not make me think more highly of women. What I’d admire in any woman would be just what I have found in those women whom I have deeply admired in the course of my life. Something I could not find in a man. Something I’d never expect or look for in a man.”

[Given the loaded nature of these comments—to us, especially, it might have been helpful to know what opinion Rhees, himself, had voiced that drew these remarks from Wittgenstein.

We can speculate that Woolf’s suicide and family situation reverberated for Wittgenstein. The suicide of two of his brothers, the shadow cast by the immense worldly success of his father, the demanding cultural standards of the family, and most importantly his own internalized sense of duty and mission, haunted by the impossible and shining example of Weininger, all placed him in a particularly sensitive position to appreciate Woolf’s tragedy.* Needless, to say, thoughts of suicide, his own or of those near him, were never remote. His philosophy has been cast as a struggle against them, against transcendental forces that seemed bent on terrorizing and laying waste to the clarity of ordinary, “working” forms of life. It was a passionate struggle and not the dismissive one of certain other philosophers superficially about doing similar things, e.g. the logical positivists, Russell, Ryle, etc. For Wittgenstein, these literally “unspeakable” forces are real, they are powerful and needed to be put into a context that domesticated their fury. They needed to be shown for what they are sub specie aeternitatis. But they were something that for all our inability to speak of them intelligibly could never be ignored with a good conscience, or while claiming a modicum of personal lucidity, for they were evident in our every gesture whether we attended to them or not.

* Editor’s note: See the discussion of Woolf and Weininger.

A woman not having a room of her own—why did Wittgenstein think that was not the reason for her cultural limitations? We don’t think Woolf, herself, could have meant it quite so literally. She meant by “room” much more than four private walls. The dearth of four walls of one’s own and the handicap this placed on her cultural achievement were real enough but only the beginning of what stood in the way. It was not just an outer “room” she needed, there was this inner “room” that confined her. She had to come to terms with what exactly a woman as a woman had to say to the world. Could she step back to the perspective of some abstract “human being”? Do sexless beings have anything to say to us who are sexed? But how petty had been the sexed sphere of much of woman’s cultural creation in the past. How domestic and circumscribed and supportive of some pre-existing order not native to her.

Was the room that was her own one she could break out of? Was that even possible? There was indeed a struggle in Woolf with her intellectual inheritance and its values, but it was not simply about rejecting one world for a brave new one. It was not a matter of asserting a woman’s right to everything a man has, though that is a necessary start, but of deciding or discovering what rights mattered to her as a woman. Men clearly have “rights” in the abstract that they have shown through their behavior they care not a whit for.* It was about room enough to place accommodation before assertion of right. But the language she inherited and in which we speak is still all about right and privilege and opportunity—as though by leveling the field here we do all that we can and should.

* Editor’s note: Luno takes a dim view of the capacity of men to instantiate their own high-flown morality. The view seems to stem partly from his study of history and literature and partly from his reading of certain feminists—though unlike them, he doesn’t pretend that the problem lies with the character of the morality of—so much as something endemic to and intractable in—maleness. It is a starting point for his cultural critique. The right to make peace, for example. To place a premium on the preservation of life and a chance for happiness, that is, to place this above the urge for material or intellectual power and conquest. (Cf. Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas.)

Not having a room of her own, indeed, was in the end not the reason that held her back. The room needed a view. Woolf struggled, along with many other feminists in her century, to get clear about that view: to what extent it related to a generic, sexless, justice vaunted by well-meaning men (e.g., J. S. Mill) and to what extent, its springs, its vision and its sensibility, yet to be described in language, differed from anything created by and for men.

What was Woolf’s struggle against? The whole of our time and culture shaped by a patriarchy whose desire for and abuse of power was so entrenched that even its conventionally well-meaning critics showed little insight into the depth of their involvement in its preservation. Yes, but that was not the end of it. The struggle was not going to be advanced by merely asserting there should be equal this and equal that. Nothing less than the whole axis of human experience needed tilting. And the offset would have to come from women themselves. Woolf was writing when this feminine perspective was just beginning to come into its own. She had her work cut out for her. She and Weininger…

Paradoxically, “the world’s greatest misogynist” as Weininger has been called, was doing his part from his side of the gender line to undermine conventional patriarchy from within. Every now and then we catch a glimpse of recognition of this fact among the feminists who actually took the time to read him.

Wittgenstein it seems could personally relate to something in Woolf, and despite the appearance of a double-standard—historically a vehicle for abuse—of suggesting that he did not measure women as he did men, at least we can say he understood the deep significance of difference—something he no doubt found support for in Weininger. For the Millian idea—ironically coming from a philosopher known for his aversion to paternalism—that what is good for us must be good for them has also been abused, perhaps more today than ever before.]

Rhees goes on to suggest that for both Weininger and Wittgenstein “the dread of … a Lebenslüge [loosely, “a lie that makes life bearable”]” was a major sin.

[For Weininger accepting another’s judgment of one’s life was unpardonable. A criminal becomes truly a criminal not when he violates the law but when he embraces the conditions that drove him to crime, whether material or social, as defining his character. Throughout his intention, his act, the apprehension, conviction, punishment, and release—at no point during his life does he stop being a criminal until he, and he alone, comes to terms with who he—it is almost always a “he”—is and how that person failed. Society may or may not extract its due but that does not touch his worthiness or lack thereof. There is no expiation from outside. Perhaps no expiation at all. This is how it is for a man of character. And a man without character is scarcely a man at all. He is a proper object of pity, a sick or wounded animal. The criminal act needn’t even have occurred in real time. It is enough that it occupied his thought. This is is the sort of thinking that has attracted charges of Foucauldian “transcendental narcissism” (see our discussion of Stern): the gall to think you as an individual soul have that kind of intellectual and moral independence from social and environmental contingency.

Gall perhaps it is, but it is.

And Rhees thinks that Wittgenstein almost could not help having contracted a heavy case of it from Weininger. Contrast this with Stern who thinks Wittgenstein was out to pillory the idea. Wittgenstein’s whole thrust, so this alternative reading goes, was toward achieving a kind of stasis of non-judgmentalism, a moral quietism, in reaction to Weininger. Thus, Weininger’s “great and fantastic mistake.”

We do not feel it necessary to takes sides in this debate about what was really going on in Wittgenstein. We like to think that Wittgenstein would have been above it, but only because it piques our imagination to have it that way. It is enough that Weininger loomed very large in Wittgenstein’s thinking as stimulation, consolation, and obstacle.

But since Rhees brings this up right after the mention of Woolf’s troubles in Wittgenstein’s eyes, presumably to explain why living a lie, that is to say, a vision of what is important imposed from the outside—from one’s father, for example, is so terrible, we have to ask does this really apply to Woolf? Is Wittgenstein projecting his and Weininger’s very masculine conception of the awful significance of living a lie on a case that is fundamentally alien to that system of judgment? How may a Lebenslüge load sufficient gravitas to tip the scales for a being for whom its opposite does not weigh in its priorities? Or perhaps better, for a being for whom there simply is no opposite concept? Or for whom the opposite, however that translates, is not the ideal? We are inclined to think that Woolf was exercised less about failing to meet the demands of a way of being in the world that emphasized authenticity and autonomy and more about the fact that one’s being and perspective, not as project or as matter of educating one’s sentiment, but as a given with a presupposed value had not garnered comparable respect. It was not that women had not been as culturally creative as men but that they have, and always have, brought into the world has not been as appreciated. One need not deny value in what men do to face the fact that very much of it—much more than is commonly taken into account, a fact around which society is structured—is not creative, but destructive on such a grand scale as to be criminal, as to gravely compromise any positive overall assessment of the value of the masculine. Not that men have not been creative but that they have been so very, very destructive. Is their account’s bottom line still positive?*

* Editor’s note: see, for example, June Stephenson’s Men are Not Cost-Effective.

To put it another way, women needed to realize that sexual justice demanded a tearing down of masculine pretension—an impulse naturally and fatefully foreign to them. Men needed cutting down to size even more than women needed their esteem enhanced. (I am only using the past tense here because I am focused on the historical Woolf, Weininger and Wittgenstein, not because of a momentary fit of optimism about our time.) But it was painfully out of character for a woman to take on the role of leveler. The masculine edifice needed undermining from within. Self-destruction may be the most salutary form of destruction, and a particularly masculine expertise.

Enter Weininger and his subversive generalities: only men might be geniuses, only men are capable of moral courage, but only men are commonly criminals… because typically they are not the first two. It is a nice thought what men are capable of, if only it were typical of what they are

Nevertheless, the positive elaboration of feminine value can only come from women. This is what the best feminism is about. It is her specific challenge.

Woolf, like Weininger after his, was doomed not to be understood for a long time after her suicide.]

But Rhees notes that Wittgenstein, unlike, it seems, Weininger, did not believe there was one nature that all men need to instantiate. “A convenient lie,” just as its opposite, needn’t be the same for all people.

[Perhaps, then, a criminal, realizing his true nature as a criminal, might incur no violation of authenticity or diminish his character as a self-knowing man. The most we could say about him is that he was an undesirable character, but not that he was devoid of character. Some men are just “unheroic” and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise. Thus Wittgenstein might get around Weininger’s monolithic moral imperative, even, as he had to acknowledge, that he, himself, was to a major extent undeniably in its thrall. Thus he could demand of himself what he could not, on reflection demand of others—however much it leaked out anyway (smacking school girls* upside the head, brandishing a poker at a defender of the open society…). And it is probably true he labored to learn to treat himself as an other

* Editor’s note: Boys, too, as recounted in Monk (pp. 232-3). One was knocked unconscious. The incident ended Wittgenstein’s days as a school teacher.

(We think it a tribute to Weininger’s far-reaching wake that much of modern culture has had to react to it, knowingly or not.)

Wittgenstein’s comment about Woolf barely skimmed the surface of what could have gone wrong for her. Yes, her father may have had something to do with it, but not in the same way or according to the same moral protocol in which his, Wittgenstein’s, father had to do with his burden, assuming it is correct to speak that way at all.]

Wittgenstein on relativism and Russia

In the mid 1930s Wittgenstein spoke of his plans to live and work in Russia. He confessed he didn’t fully understand what moved him. Some of it, he admits may have been childish but he also felt there were deep and good reasons. Rhees explores what he remembers of this and the known record to try to get a feel for what was going on in Wittgenstein at the time.

There are his remarks about how little we, marinated as we are in a Western view of the world, can understand a non-Western view without living its forms of life—perhaps not even then. Rhees translates a passage from Vermischte Bemerkungen from 1931:

In western civilisation a Jew is constantly judged by the wrong measures, measures which don’t fit. That the Greek thinkers were not philosophers in the western sense, nor in the western sense scientists either; that the competitors in the Olympic games were not sportsmen and don’t fit in any western profession—many people see this. But it is the same with the Jews. For us the words of our language seem like absolute measures or standards, and we misjudge them again and again. They are now overrated, now underrated….

[“the words of our language seem like absolute measures”: Substitute for “Jews” in this passage “women” and the passage rings even more true. The language of abstract thought—perhaps even still, but—certainly until the early part of the 20th century was a masculine one. Kind sentiments aside, what hope did J. S. Mill have of doing justice by women when he could write in The Subjection of Women that, as far as he could tell, there were no discernible moral differences between women and men?

Weininger, of course, infamously faced our conceptions or, rather, the conceptions we have of the Jew and of woman head-on in such a provocative way that to the thoughtful reader they must explode in all their absurdity. Mill wrote too soon—without the benefit of Weininger.

We say Wittgenstein’s remark would ring “more” true applied to women than to any cultural grouping because the implied relativism in Wittgenstein is not ultimately moral. There is no such thing as absolute relativism within the recognizably human, and we don’t take Wittgenstein to mean that there is. Cultural relativists have often mistakenly assumed that morality, the foundational norms that govern valuation, are part of culture and hence relative. (Though there is no sign that Wittgenstein was among these.) Moral absolutists are correct to point out the incoherence of this view. Merely to assert relativism is to engage in the absolute. (See most recently Korsgaard.)

Wittgenstein was conspicuously silent about ethical theory. Yet, there is relativism of a sort at a normative level which includes aesthetics and ethics. But it is not infinitely variegated and cultural. It is binary and biological. It is not a doctrine or practice but a force. It is not even strictly speaking controversial in the way theory inherently is. Perhaps that is why it has escaped explicit avowal by the philosophical community this long.

This should not be mistaken for a scientistic biologism as though biology were the ultimate arbiter of the fill of our lives. Biology, we concede, has some say in the vessel and, through that, its contents. It shapes the contents in critical ways. There is no cultural act that a man can perform that a woman might not and vice versa, but there is a vast difference between women and men in what any given one would be inclined to do and the way in which they would go about it. This is biologically contingent. And culture is created not by abstract capability but by human results.]

Rhees recounts the story of Professor Farrington’s 1943 lecture on how despite setbacks there has been such a thing as “human progress.” To illustrate, he cites the mining history of the Swansea valley (where the lecture was given) with its devastated landscapes and littered mining equipment and how succeeding generations learned, as a result, new and better methods, etc. Wittgenstein was in the audience and responded by saying that when there is a shift in culture new opportunities open up but many also close. What constitutes progress? More or different opportunities? And if different ones are what matter, who makes the evaluation?

Farrington is supposed to have said, “With all the ugly sides of our civilisation, I am sure I would rather live as we do now than to live as the cave man did.”

Wittgenstein replied, “Yes of course you would. But would the cave man?”

“You accommodate yourself to your conditions, the cave man to his. How is that progress?” Wittgenstein might have put it.

[The idea of human progress is more than a little like that of gender equality. One presumes the legitimacy of judgment across time as though we could have a simultaneous presence in different historical eras or even different periods of our own lives. The other notion does the same for sex. It presumes a shared intimacy with the other half of the human world. That, in the moment at least, we are capable of being intimate with our world, as much as we will ever be, is clear enough. Beyond that, there appear to be others with whom we share something evident, even when distant in space and time, and still others with whom we share less than our physical intimacy with them might belie. Paradoxically, we may share the least with those with whom our physical intimacy is greatest. Post coitum triste. Maybe the logic of expectation is particularly vulnerable to frustration here, magnifying an otherwise unremarkable background solipsism or unmasking a literal metaphysical loneliness.]

Wittgenstein criticizes the movement within Marxism to scientization: “In fact, there is nothing more conservative than science. Science lays down railway tracks. And for scientists it is important that their work should move along those tracks.” He was more inclined toward the “metaphysical socialism” of Marx.

At least, Wittgenstein remarked, “Marx described the kind of society he would like to see; that is all.” That was saying something. The implication being that most “gassing” about politics barely rises to that level.

[We also must confess that Marx did describe a way humans might live that is deeply appealing. Our criticism of the left is actually no different from our criticism of the right. Both imagine methods of living impractical for the humans we are familiar with. One believes we can always be motivated by community to do the right thing, the other that self-regard will necessarily result in the same. Right now—at this place and time in history in the early years of the 21st century in the most self-satisfied nation in history—Marx’s is the better ideal precisely because it appears so distant from realization. But this could all change tomorrow. Would that be a good thing?]

But Wittgenstein could not join a communist party or any other party for that matter. That would mean that you had stopped being a philosopher.

[The line of thought that goes “one who is not part of the solution is part of the problem,” that offers no quarter to neutrality, to a supposed non-partisanship, that denies that as even a possibility, that argues “if you are not with us you are against us,” that sees this position as craven at best, a ruse of evil proportion—may be correct. If human depravity takes cover in the hemming and hawing of the over-scrupulous, the “transcendental narcissists,” these become its instruments, like it or not.

They are indeed an indulgence. They are so few though. I don’t think that human society will collapse when it does because of them. Like wild flowers, like women, like the landscape in war… they will be the first to go.]

As Rhees goes on to suggest, what most attracted Wittgenstein to the professed culture of the Soviet Union was the ethical significance of labor, especially manual labor.

* Editor’s note: the reference is to the fateful passage from Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, and the longest quote in Sex and Character. According to Drury, Wittgenstein deeply admired the passage and once asked him to read it aloud. See note on Drury.

[Manual labor implies, not a rational being, not one with a metaphysical soul or transcendental consciousness, etc. but one with two hands (of the sort Moore raised up for all to see and affirm), a being with a biological form. This, too, is a reaction to Weininger. If you are going to excuse your persistence in consuming resources, in expending moral capital, you might as well do something constructive with the only two unambiguously effective instruments at your disposal. Thus you might stand a chance of drowning your “unhappiness at being a created thing.”*]

Posted by luno in Woolf, misogyny, Marx, political philosophy, anti-Semitism, feminism, suicide, Wittgenstein, Weininger (Friday January 11, 2008 at 7:51 pm)

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