Had he written nothing, had his influence not been enormous over four decades of philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein would still have been one of the extraordinary personalities of our century. The degree of his influence, indeed, is not altogether separable from the powerful impression he made upon pupils and disciples, who carried the words of his doctrine through the long years when he chose to remain unpublished. What must have been the attraction of this personality that years later, after the turbulence of their friendship and its final break had long since subsided, Bertrand Russell could write: “Getting to know Wittgenstein was one of the most exciting intellectual adventures of my life.” These are remarkable words for a man as cool and worldly as Russell to have uttered about anyone. They are positively amazing if we stop to reflect that when they first met, Wittgenstein was a youth of twenty-two and unknown, while Russell himself was a mature man of forty and already famous.
Wittgenstein was extraordinary too in the number of his gifts. He showed precocity in engineering and technical matters; at the age of ten, we learn from his sister, he constructed out of bits of wood lying around the house a sewing machine that actually worked. Trained as an engineer, he first went to England in 1911 to work in aeronautics at Manchester. He even took out some patents that, we are told, anticipated later inventions in this field. Combining engineering and art, he spent two years (1926-28) building a house in Vienna for his oldest sister, which was at its time a remarkable contribution to modern architecture. Sensitive to music and literature, he also wrote very well. Thus it would seem that a career as engineer, artist, or literary man might have been open to him. That he happened to become a philosopher might look then like a mere matter of chance, but in retrospect it is hard to think that he could have become anything else.
The profusion of gifts suggests a Renaissance figure, lavish and outgoing in its energies. The direction of his thinking is exactly the opposite. He restricts himself, narrows his horizons, absorbs himself in what appear as small and commonplace questions. He remarks ironically of himself that he philosophizes somewhat like an old woman who has misplaced her keys or spectacles and is rummaging for them. Several times in his life he tried to escape from philosophy and turn himself to some less reflective and uncertain a profession. In vain; he was pulled back into the ceaseless questioning that claimed him as a philosopher. A homeless being, he could find a home here, for philosophy is that area where man seeks himself out as homeless. No matter what casual item he touches, Wittgenstein philosophizes with a peculiar intensity that we can only call religious.
The family he was born into in 1889 was wealthy and influential—his father was an important industrialist and a minister of state. The familial origins were mixed Jewish and Christian, but predominantly the former. Intermarriages between Jews and Christians had long been commonplace in Austria, and the attempt to separate racial lines was not undertaken until Hitler. Wittgenstein’s mother was Catholic; he was baptized as a Catholic, and listed that officially as his religion. There is no indication that he ever thought of himself particularly as a Jew. A rather remarkable fact: a Jew who never thinks of himself as a Jew—homelessness compounded.
The family was also very cultivated, and from the earliest age, Wittgenstein was exposed to the various currents of the cultural life of Vienna. (It was also a family haunted by tragedy: all of Wittgenstein’s brothers ended their lives in suicide.) The attempt has been made—not always convincingly, I believe—to establish detailed influences from this environment upon the formation of Wittgenstein’s thought. Nevertheless, the general intent of such studies seems to me sound, whether or not they hold up on particular details, for there does seem to be some very deep sense in which Wittgenstein belongs to the spiritual milieu from which he sprang.
What was the atmosphere of the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early years of this century? We have one unforgettable and powerful portrait of it in Robert Musil’s great novel, The Man Without Qualities. Musil calls the place Kakania—a name that speaks its own derision—and he depicts it as frivolous and empty, alternately yearning and despairing, pretentious and nihilistic. But Musil’s pen was dipped in acid, and we get only a negative, if searching, vision of this Viennese world. On its positive side, out of this same spiritual milieu, Vienna produced two of the most powerful and symptomatic movements of modern culture—psychoanalysis and atonal music—both voices that speak of the homelessness of modern man. Perhaps Wittgenstein’s in philosophy is a third voice to set beside these two. On its social side, Vienna was the glittering and elegant capital of the empire. But if this gaudy part of its life was ever encountered by Wittgenstein, it left no traces. The religious earnestness of his own temperament seems to have passed it by unnoticed.
His sister records that these marks of seriousness and intensity appeared quite early, and caused the family to worry about him. She took consolation, however, from Dostoevsky’s words about his saintly character Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha appeared unworldly and helpless, yet people would always come forward to help him, and he would land on his feet. Some benign angel hovered over Wittgenstein through the events of his life; and though it did not spare him torments, it enabled him to survive.
Wittgenstein did not enter philosophy in the creeping and tedious fashion of the usual graduate student; he leaped almost as if without preparation in medias res. He found in Bertrand Russell and mathematical logic both the man and the subject to focus his questions. Russell was generous in this relationship; he said that he learned more from Wittgenstein than he taught him, and quite early on announced that it would be this young man, as yet unpublished, who would make the next decisive step in philosophy.
Varying and conflicting things have been said about the relationship of the two, usually spurred on by the philosophic animus of the particular commentator. The simple human truth of the matter is expressed in a letter that Wittgenstein wrote Russell in the first year of their friendship. They cannot be friends, he says; he will always revere Russell, and be very grateful to him for his help and kindness; but friends they cannot be, for their values are too different to permit it. Now, Wittgenstein was a difficult person in many ways; he set a high value upon friendship, and in turn was likely to be an exacting friend. But there is no petulance in this letter. What is amazing is the singular maturity in a young man who had just turned twenty-three. On this particular occasion, Russell seems to have quickly smoothed matters over, and their friendship continued as it had been. But the letter was prophetic: when the final rift came, in 1922, the occasion was relatively unimportant; they were simply too different to remain permanently close friends.
The difference is shown in their response to the outbreak of war in 1914. Russell, opposing the war, was imprisoned for a while as a dissenter. Wittgenstein promptly returned to Austria and volunteered for service in the army. Radical as he was to prove in his thinking, in life he felt a deep and spontaneous loyalty toward any authority that he considered legitimate. His religious sense of life moved him to seek out some kind of service and self-sacrifice. Stationed away from the front, he made repeated efforts to be sent closer to the fighting. It is part of the comedy with which the world looks at really serious personalities that these efforts were regarded by the authorities as an attempt to evade service. Eventually, though, he did get to the front and ended as a lieutenant in the artillery.
The intensity of his inner life continued during all the outward turmoil of the war. In the little town of Tarnev, near the front, he picked up a copy of Tolstoy’s version of the New Testament, was deeply impressed by it, and kept it by his side. His troops knew him as “the man of the book,” because he carried it everywhere with him. He was the man of the book in another sense too; he was also carrying around with him the manuscript of what was to be his first work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, while laboring to complete it. That a work so concentrated and compact in form should have been conceived and largely brought to completion amid the life of the trenches cannot but fill us with awe at the intensity of concentration of the thinker himself. Shortly before the Armistice of 1918, Wittgenstein was captured by Italian troops, and it was in an Italian prison camp that the book was finally completed.
Russell had no word of Wittgenstein during the war, and, in fact, did not know if he were still alive. The two did not see each other again until the end of 1919, when they met in Holland. Russell has left us, in a letter, a record of that meeting that is of the utmost importance in understanding Wittgenstein’s state of mind at the time. Without it, we might not grasp the depth of religious feeling that lies behind the Tractatus, and therefore miss the intent of the work itself. Writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell on December 20, 1919, Russell says: “I had felt in his book a flavor of mysticism, but was astonished when I found he had become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk.” We note Russell’s surprise that what he had taken to be only “a flavor of mysticism” turns out to be a matter on which Wittgenstein is really dead serious—and which he intended, in fact, to be the central message of the work. Russell further observes that Wittgenstein is passionately attached to the novels of the Russians Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, particularly the latter. It all started, Russell goes on to say, from Wittgenstein’s reading of William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience back in Cambridge before the war. Much as one admires James’s book (which, by the way, remained a lifelong favorite of Wittgenstein), one cannot quite believe it all started with that reading. James does not have that evangelical fervor or power to have effected a conversion where no previous disposition existed. From the start, Wittgenstein seems to have been that rare phenomenon among human beings—a genuinely religious personality.
Finally, there is one remark in Russell’s letter that is more revealing than he is aware of: “He [Wittgenstein] has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking. . . .” To stop thinking, to be free for a while from the devouring jaws of the intellect!—that is a cry of thinkers like Pascal and Kierkegaard, with whom in his own peculiar way Wittgenstein has a kinship. In that book he had picked up near the front, Wittgenstein would have read and understood Tolstoy’s magisterial sentence in the essay that accompanies his Gospel translation: “The more we live by our intellect, the less we understand the meaning of life.” Wittgenstein probably would not have disagreed with Russell’s remark about the need to stop thinking. Certain parts of experience are only grasped if we stop thinking and let be. But all of this would have been foreign country for Russell.
Back in Austria, Wittgenstein made efforts to get a publisher for his manuscript. After running into difficulties, he was at one point ready to drop the whole matter. The questions the book dealt with, after all, lay behind him; he was engaged in the attempt to escape from philosophy and its questions, finding work as a gardener in a monastery and then as a country schoolteacher. It was through Russell’s intervention that publication was finally secured. The English edition, with facing German text, appeared in 1922, together with an introduction by Russell. Wittgenstein objected to the introduction, and thereafter the friendship between the two men was never quite restored. The subsequent fortunes of the book are now part of the philosophic history of this century.
Now that the controversies and misunderstandings it originally provoked have faded, the Tractatus is at once a simpler and richer work to read. Subsequent developments in logic have moved beyond the book, and show us that while on some points Wittgenstein made a few prophetic hints, on others he was groping in the dark. No matter; the author continues to interest us as a philosopher, not as a technician. The book was strange and mystifying to its readers when it appeared. For us it has long since become familiar; and yet, when we come back to it after his later writings, we find it stranger in another sense because it strikes us as more extreme and arbitrary in its assumptions and conclusions. Yet it has the peculiar stamp, the intensity, of Wittgenstein’s genius about it; it continues to live as the unique and thoroughgoing expression of a particular philosophic vision that haunts the modern mind more deeply than it is aware of or often cares to acknowledge.
What is this vision? The position may be labeled as “Logical Atomism,” a phrase previously introduced and put to use by Russell. But Russell advanced this new style in philosophy merely as a mode of procedure, as a kind of philosophical analysis that proceeds by the piecemeal decomposition of any complex subject into its logically ultimate components. Wittgenstein cannot abide in this halfway house of method; with his usual abruptness, he pushes the matter of procedures to its root. What must the world be like if one’s only reliable mode of analyzing it is to take this logical form? And he wastes no words in telling us what his vision of this world is at the very beginning of his book. The world is the totality of all facts, and these facts have a peculiar relation, or nonrelation, to one another: “Any one fact can either be the case, or not be the case, and everything else remains the same.”
We have to catch our breath at the audacity of this last statement. We have slowly to let sink in how austere and bleak a picture of the world Wittgenstein is painting for us. The facts that constitute the world are utterly disconnected and lie external to each other within logical space. There is no internal, necessary, or organic bond between them. We may be prepared for this position a little, but only very little, by some other expressions of fragmentation in modern culture. The modern imagination indeed has been haunted by the image of a fragmented world, and in the arts has sought from time to time to give some expression to this feeling. In the novel, particularly, there have been certain bold attempts, and even the elaboration of special fictional techniques, to convey this aspect of experience as the brute flow of random detail. But nowhere has this picture of an ultimately fragmented world been given intellectual expression so starkly and tersely as in the single proposition of Wittgenstein: “Any one fact can either be the case, or not be the case, and everything else remains the same”
This is an astounding statement to fling in the face of our ordinary experience. To be sure, our everyday world has its gaps, discontinuities, irregularities, and non sequiturs; and we ourselves, if we took notice, are far more fragmented beings than we care to admit. Still, connectedness is more generally the case than not. One fact does make a difference to others; and if certain facts did disappear, it seems to us that everything else would surely not remain the same. In our dealings with others we like to think that our personal existence does make a difference to some people, just as we feel that our own lives have been different because of a few people here and there whom we have come to know and love. But these feelings of ours, if we follow Wittgenstein’s doctrine, would only hold for the superficial appearance of things; the reality of the world that underlies them would be totally different and alien from them.
What leads Wittgenstein to this peculiar view? The Tractatus is written in an aphoristic and oracular style; it does not give the reasons that lead its author to the conclusions he expresses. Yet it is not difficult to reconstruct those reasons from his text. And, indeed, his reasoning here is not a piece of personal idiosyncrasy, but has about it a massive simplicity that expresses a whole ideological epoch.
We have to grasp, first, what it is that the book seeks to do. Wittgenstein’s aim is to tell us what the world is ultimately like insofar, and only insofar, as it can be expressed in a logical language. The attempt has, prima facie at least, as much justification as Kant’s effort to describe the world from the structures of human consciousness. If the world in itself should be different from those structures, then—so Kant tells us—we would not be able to think it. Analogously, with Wittgenstein, if the world were altogether differently structured from the forms of our logic, we could not express it in language—at least not in any kind of logically exact language. “We could not say of a nonlogical world what it would be like.”
Two things, however, have to be noted specifically in this attempted inference from language to the world. Everything turns (1) on the particular form of language one chooses; and (2) on the particular relation one takes to hold between language and the world. Our view of the world could be quite different depending on what choice we made on either of these matters.
1. For Wittgenstein, at this stage—he was later to reverse himself dramatically—the pivotal choice is the language of mathematical logic, and, specifically, the logic of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. It has been remarked that he seems to be describing the world as if God had created it after the image of Russell and Whitehead’s great book, Principia Mathematica. The joke is not inaccurate. To be sure, he has serious quarrels in matters of detail with this logic; but on the whole he takes it as the model or paradigmatic language that provides the framework within which to see the world. What justifies his choice of this particular language, and for this particular purpose? He does not tell us. But the reasoning behind the choice would seem to be clear: if we are to construe the nature of the world from language, it would be best to start from the logically most exact form of language that is available.
2. Between this model language and the world there must be a definite relation if we are to infer from the former to the latter. And for Wittgenstein, at this stage, the relation is very simple and clear-cut: language is a mirror that reflects the world, and, accordingly, we may infer from the image in the mirror to the thing or things it mirrors.
Wittgenstein is captured by the metaphor of a mirror, and by the simple line of reasoning that leads him to it. Suppose we take it as fundamental that the business of language—for Wittgenstein, at this stage, it is the sole business—is to state facts. In order to state its fact, the statement must be in some way a representation of that fact. But it can represent its fact only if the constituents of the statement correspond one-to-one to the constituents of the fact—as the details in the mirror correspond to the details they reflect. “The statement is a picture of the fact.”
Now we have to take only one tiny step further in order to arrive at the logical atoms that make up the world. Logic analyzes statements into two kinds: complex or molecular statements, on the one hand, and, on the other, the atomic statements into which these are resolved. But what holds for the items in the mirror must also hold for the realities the mirror pictures. Hence, in line with our picture theory of language, the world must ultimately be made up of atomic facts that correspond to the atomic statements with which logical analysis terminates. And the various groupings of these atomic facts make up the complex facts that constitute our experience.
But what of philosophy? In Wittgenstein’s world, where the facts stand external to each other, and logic deals only with the identities within a formal language, what is there left for philosophy to do? Very little, indeed, when we think of the traditional aims of philosophers. If we wish to make statements about the world, these fall within the province of the empirical sciences, and are to be tested by the methods of those disciplines. On the other hand, there are the tautological statements of logic, which have a formal interest and may be manipulated for practical use, but tell us nothing about the world. All our human questions must fall into one or the other camp; and philosophy, accordingly, divides dichotomously into questions of fact or questions of logic.
In that division, it virtually disappears. The traditional parts of philosophy—metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics—fall by the way, since they emerge, according to this perspective, as a confused mixture of questions of fact or questions of logic, which it is the business of logical analysis to sort out. So far as ethics, for example, deals with human desires, values, and choices, these are facts within the world, to be explored by psychology and the behavioral sciences. The philosopher must content himself merely with analyzing the logical syntax of value statements. Where philosophers make metaphysical speculations about the cosmos, if these have any factual content, they pass over into possibly suggestive hypotheses to be dealt with more efficiently by the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, or biology, as the case may be. Any statements philosophy might try to make beyond these would be, strictly speaking, nonsense. Henceforth, there will be left to philosophy no doctrine at all, but only the logical activity of clarification, which consists chiefly in sorting out statements into their factual and logical components.
So the young Wittgenstein, not yet thirty, drew up the complete blueprint for Logical Positivism before even the name of this philosophical school had been coined. This movement, begun in Vienna in the 1920’s, proceeded to make great headway in the Anglo-American world of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Though not now so prevalent, at least in its originally more aggressive form, it has left its deep mark upon the current philosophic mind. And much of the philosophy that succeeded it in the Anglo-American world, though it would disclaim the name, has been and remains thoroughly positivist in spirit. The vocabulary has changed, but the fundamental pattern of thought remains.
It was, in one way, a very strange movement for an individual like Wittgenstein to have fathered. In the matter of temperament and personality, he stands alone and at a great distance from other prominent positivists. They were men (as I knew them personally) for whom the sense of mystery simply did not exist. For Wittgenstein, it was very real indeed, but he wished to keep it out of philosophy. In the same spirit he could cheerfully consign ethics to psychology because his own ultimate values were not facts within the world: “The meaning of the world lies outside the world.” He was a divided man, and the positivists took half of his mind. Some ardent followers of the later Wittgenstein have inveighed against positivism as a total misunderstanding of him. The charge is excessive; there is in fact a strong positivistic streak in Wittgenstein that continued throughout his thinking to the end, though it is not the only component. The positivists were not false to his thinking, but they did take over only a part of it, and that part indeed—as we shall see—which he thought relatively unimportant.
The first part of the Tractatus, so far as substantive contributions to logic are concerned, is largely of historical interest. The subsequent progress of logic, as well as Wittgenstein’s own development, were to absorb some of his questions, displace others, and generally transform the nature of all of them. But it is the last part of the work—and, strictly speaking, not so much a part as a few pages tacked on almost as an afterthought, so it might seem to the careless reader—that gives us the real sense of Wittgenstein’s thinking in this book. They are likely to prove the more enduring pages, for they tell us of the ideas—the mystical ideas—that kept the man Wittgenstein alive.
The place of “the mystical” is identified quite simply and tersely: “That the world is, is the mystical.” Science tells us how the world is; it describes the myriad kinds of phenomena, their behavior, and their mutual interactions one with another. But before the sheer fact of the world’s existence, that there is a world at all, that anything at all exists, in Leibniz’s telling phrase, we can only stand in silent awe. Before this primal mystery of Being our human chatter falters. Here language can only point, and then pass into silence. “Of that whereof we cannot speak we must be silent.”
Yet it is just this domain of what cannot be spoken that Wittgenstein personally valued most and that he believed to be the most important part of human life. Only if we enter that zone of silence are we truly human. And here he is at the uttermost remove, personally and existentially speaking, from the great body of his positivistic followers. Silence would put the academic philosopher out of business; where nothing is to be said, one cannot hope to write a paper on logic.
The importance Wittgenstein attached to the mystical is shown most forcefully and unmistakably in a very revealing letter he wrote about the Tractatus to his German publisher Ficker:
The book’s point is an ethical one. I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here, because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you. What I meant to write, then, is this: my work consists of two parts—including the part I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside, as it were, and I am convinced that this is the only rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it.
This letter is of crucial importance for the student of Wittgenstein. In the first place, it gives us a quite unambiguous declaration of his own meaning in writing the book; and second, it gives us another description of—or more exactly another pointer toward—the domain of what cannot be uttered. The mystical is also the ethical, or the source of what is truly ethical in life.
How can this be so? How can the awareness of the mystery of existence have ethical substance for us—indeed, if we are to follow this letter to Ficker, be the decisive factor, ethically speaking, in human life? To speak at all, for Wittgenstein at this stage of his development, is to speak clearly; and if we cannot speak of the mystery, beyond the mere verbal gesture that points toward it, how can we draw any definite ethical prescriptions from its acknowledgment?
Wittgenstein does not have anything like a system of ethics. One has to construct what his ethics would be like from a few skimpy remarks that he has left us. On one side—and it is the negative side—his view is tolerably clear, and it is thoroughly positivistic. So far as our will and our ethical behavior are facts within the world, they fall under the empirical sciences of behavior. Our moral statements, under logical analysis, turn out to be expressions of our own emotions—of desire or aversion, as the case may be. Such was the general position that the positivists, allegedly following him, used to discredit traditional ethics.
But this is only one side of Wittgenstein’s thought, and he has something more and very different to say on the subject. The meaning of the world, he tells us, lies outside the world. Consequently, the striving of the will, so far as it is engaged with this meaning, is pointed beyond the world. (The world here, remember, is simply the totality of all the facts.) Thus, whatever Wittgenstein’s positive ethical views may be, we know at least what they are not: they are not those of a strictly naturalistic or utilitarian ethics. The ultimate good could not be defined finally and completely as happiness or the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. These are states of human being that, if they occurred, would be facts within the world; their meaning—like the meaning of the world itself—would point beyond them. The happiness of mankind, for example, if it ever should come to pass, would still leave men asking: Why? What point to it? To what end?
Suppose we gather together the various hints that the last pages of the Tractatus give us about this region beyond language. They fall under three headings:
- “The mystical” is the sheer fact that the world exists, that there is anything at all rather than nothing. This is the cosmological awe at the mystery of existence.
- This region of the unutterable, that of which we cannot speak, is also of supreme value to man. It is the whole “ethical” point of the book, as Wittgenstein says in his letter. In our ethical striving we reach toward it as the domain in which our actions and we ourselves would find their “meaning.”
- When we speak of something we call “the meaning of life,” we are but speaking in another mode of the ethical. At times, in our worst moments, we feel that life is without meaning; at other times, it seems to us to have meaning. But we may be hard put to state in any concrete, factual way the difference between the two conditions. We are driven by a desperate need that our life should have meaning. Yet this “meaning” that we seek is inexpressible—at least by the strict standards that the Tractatus would impose. We cannot state it as a simple fact or any of the combinations of facts that logic permits. “Is this not why men to whom the meaning of life, after long doubting, became clear, could not say wherein this meaning consisted?”
Suppose we now put these three kinds of hints together; we take them as so many indications coming from somewhat different directions but all pointing toward one and the same region of experience that our life touches from time to time. Wittgenstein’s mysticism would embrace all three. Intellect and will here meet: the mystery of the cosmos before which our mind stands in awe becomes one with the mystery within us by which we ethically strive, and both come together in the sense that somehow, in a way inexpressible to us, it is all meaningful. Our point here is reinforced if we consider further what Wittgenstein says about immortality. If we had eternal life, he tells us, that would not solve the question life puts to us. We could go on endlessly burdened with the sense that existence generally, and our own particularly, is meaningless. What can redeem life, if it is to be redeemed at all, are only those moments of “eternity in the present”—when the mystery of the world and we ourselves as ethical beings belong together in some unfathomable feeling that all is well.
Sketchy and brief as the hints he gives us are, there is nevertheless the value of a certain logical austerity in the way Wittgenstein exhibits his mysticism. It does not come at us as the deliverance of any special state of mind, special revelation, or sublimely hysterical vision. In its very terseness of expression it is presented as binding on all of us and not merely on the mystic as a peculiar kind of temperament. The mystery that the world is, engulfs us all. We do not reach it by any peculiar hallucinatory or paranormal experience; we have only to push our reasoning about language and facts far enough, and it is there waiting for us. No doubt, for the great bulk of mankind the awareness of this mystery occurs, if at all, only on the margins of consciousness. But were it to fade altogether from those margins, we would become a race of narrow technicians.
Yet it is precisely here that the tactic of silence becomes a debatable one. No doubt, Wittgenstein’s exploitation of this silence has its own dramatic effectiveness. On our first encounter with his text, this silence seems positively thunderous; thereafter, however, it begins to diminish a bit in its power over us; we would really like a little more to be said. No doubt, too, most of those who venture into this region are “gassing,” as Wittgenstein calls it. Few indeed, amid all the varieties of religious writers, are humanly convincing; and those who succeed must often use all those devices which Kierkegaard calls “indirect communication.” Silence before the incommunicable at least retains its own peculiar dignity. Yet there is a danger in such silence adopted as a deliberate tactic. The positivists, for example, who professed to follow Wittgenstein, took this silence to be a sign that there was nothing there at all to talk about. For them, indeed, there was nothing there; the part of life Wittgenstein valued most did not exist for them. They are not unusual and strange in this. Indeed, they are representative of one powerful tendency of our culture today, which in its sheer thirst for information becomes ever more positivistic in spirit. It insists on facts, but the facts must be tailored to the means of communication. We come to accept as real only what can be communicated in some tidy and precise bulletin conveyed by television or radio. Whatever eludes such neat capsulation goes unnoticed or forgotten. Silence, permanent silence, in the face of this drift can only assist in making the mystery vanish altogether.
Most of all, though, to pursue the tactic of silence is perhaps to bow a little too obsequiously to the formalist restrictions upon language. What is suggested is that the mystery is merely a flaw in language, as if we merely happened to have hold of an instrument deficient in this respect. The mystery that the world exists is not, first and foremost, a peculiar fact about the limits of language. In stressing those limits, in locating the mystery on the other side of language, we tend to place it at a distance from ourselves. But the mystery, in fact, encompasses us; we and our language exist within it.
Wittgenstein could not abide within the stark limits of the Tractatus forever. The logic of Russell began to appear as a much too rigid framework in which to cast reality. The attempt to understand language itself through the model of a single paradigmatic language—and that, mind you, a formal language that is artificially constructed—is fruitless. It does not show us the multiple uses that language serves in the actual flow of life. And as for attempting to construe the world from a logic like the Principia, that is like looking at a landscape through a grid and then carving out its parts in geometrical form without following the natural contours of the terrain.
In the next and mature stage of his thought, Wittgenstein embarks on a course of seeking out the living contours within language as we use it.
While his book had become the topic of philosophic conversation at Cambridge, Wittgenstein remained in Austria, a lonely figure searching for a vocation. For a while he found employment as a gardener’s assistant in a seminary. Perhaps at this time the idea was still strong to enter a monastery and become a monk. A little later he took the job of country schoolteacher in some of the poorer Austrian villages. The desire for service or sacrifice of some kind was still with him.
His sister Hermine, who visited his classes on several occasions, tells us how passionately Wittgenstein flung himself into teaching his country schoolchildren. He made models, taught the children to build simple engines and to create their own visual pictures for what he was trying to teach them. Wittgenstein had a genius here that he was to carry over into his later writings, which exhibit a tireless capacity for inventing models and examples—a quality that makes at once for the unusual richness of his thought and the despair of anyone seeking an easy summary of it. It is a gift that also places him in an ambiguous relation to the philosophic school that is too loosely and easily labeled “analytic philosophy.” He is not an “analytic” philosopher in any sense comparable to those who earn this title by grinding away at the consequences of this or that particular proposition, as if filing a legal brief. On the contrary, his procedure is synthetic and imaginative throughout—constantly projecting new pictures, models, and points of view from which to look at the most ordinary states of affairs. Wittgenstein’s invention in the matter of examples was a gift of nature and not something learned. But nothing prevents us from seeing the episode of schoolteacher as a stage on his life’s way. It can sometimes be a more enlightening experience to instruct elementary pupils than advanced scholars. In teaching the young, you have to satisfy the schoolchild in yourself and enter the region where all meanings start.
All the same, his sister felt his teaching school was a waste of his great talents. It was, she said, like using a precision instrument to open crates. She was voicing the family’s anxiety for what appeared to be Ludwig’s drifting and uncertain state of mind. On the whole we know little of his life during this period of the 1920’s and particularly the conflicts in which his homosexuality involved him. Wittgenstein’s answer to her reveals under what deep tensions he was passing: “You are like someone who, looking through a closed window, can’t explain the strange movements of a passerby. He doesn’t know what kind of a storm is raging outside and that this person is perhaps only with great effort keeping himself on his feet.”
These words bring up inevitably the morbid aspects of Wittgenstein’s temperament. His student and friend G.H. Von Wright declares: “It is probably true that he lived on the border of mental illness. A fear of being driven across it followed him throughout this life.” A hostile critic could easily distort these words. It is a mark of one kind of religious personality, as William James has pointed out, to be infected with a certain degree of morbidity. The religious man lives at the farther edge of existence, from which most of us keep clear, and he is therefore likely to show traits that will seem morbid to us. But what really counts here—again following James—is whether the so-called morbid disposition is ultimately destructive of the personality and the life, in which case it is genuinely pathological, or whether it somehow brings the life and work into some more concentrated unity. And by this criterion there can be no doubt of the health of Wittgenstein’s later writings. They are in their own way a celebration of the ordinary world and of the everyday vision of things.
In 1929 he was recalled to Cambridge and the teaching of philosophy. Here his external biography falls into line. The rest of his life, with some brief interruptions, was spent in Cambridge teaching and writing.
It was an austere existence, the more austere by Wittgenstein’s own choosing. He slept on a simple cot. His rooms were almost bare of furniture. He preferred to eat alone in his chambers rather than dine in the Commons with the other dons. The conversation there, he told his colleague and friend John Wisdom, was “neither of the heart nor of the head,” and he preferred not to join it. There was nothing of the theatrical gesture here; Wittgenstein wanted to simplify his life, and he followed the simplest course that many of us might like, but would not have courage enough, to take. In the same spirit he had simultaneously renounced his fortune and given up wearing a tie in the 1920’s. These were not acts of bohemian defiance; he wanted simply to rid his life of as many encumbrances as possible. In his bare chambers there were few books. He read detective stories for diverson, needing the simplest pulp fiction to turn his mind off. As for more serious authors, he maintained his attachment to William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, a book that—as Russell notes—had been a powerful influence years earlier. And Wittgenstein delivered himself of the judgment that Kierkegaard was “the greatest writer of the 19th century.”
In a sense, then, Wittgenstein did fulfill the plan of becoming a monk and entering a monastery that he had spoken of to Russell at their 1919 meeting. Only the monastery was a monastery of one, and was located within Cambridge. Otherwise, Wittgenstein’s life shows all the marks of a religious dedication. For us, who are so naturalistically inclined by our culture, the inevitable question is: was it a happy life? His pupil Norman Malcolm reports—in the same vein as Von Wright—that Wittgenstein lived for the most part in perpetual torment. Yet Malcolm also notes that at the end Wittgenstein declared his life had been “wonderful.” Malcolm in turn finds it wonderful and mysterious that he should have said this. It would not have been puzzling to Dostoevsky, who gives to his tormented character Kirillov the redeeming vision that all of us, if we but knew it, are happy. In the end, the religious man declares that all is well.
Yet, as a religious life, this was one of strange self-denial. The traditional ascetics denied the flesh in order to luxuriate in the spirit. Wittgenstein, in effect, denies the spirit by remaining silent about that part of his life he held most valuable. Now, denied speech, and without ritual expression through attachment to a church, religious longings are likely to grow thin and anemic. There is a story by Franz Kafka, “The Hunger Artist,” one of his most compelling and frightening, that we feel has a particular application to the author himself. The art of the hunger artist is fasting, and he carries on his protracted fasts before the public, which finally grows bored with them. Eventually, all skin and bones, he starves himself to death. Physical fasting here can be taken as a parable of spiritual denial. The religious impulses, when not nourished, grow into a starved specter of themselves. Kafka had a deeply religious temperament, but a curiously ironical and dialectical rationalism stood in the way of his spiritual fulfillment. “A spike grew out of his forehead,” he observes of himself in one brutal and telling image; and elsewhere he sums up his life by saying that his head had conspired against him. Wittgenstein, like Kafka, is a hunger artist of the spirit. In this respect they are kindred souls, both thoroughly representative figures of the “modernist” spirit in its simultaneous longing and self-denial. The religious note sounds throughout Wittgenstein’s life as it does through Kafka’s, but with a curiously self-frustrated, muffled tone—like a strangled prayer.
Picasso once remarked about the painting of Cézanne: “If there were not anxiety behind those apples, Cézanne would not interest me any more than Bouguereau.” The word “anxiety” here may not be the right one; it suggests nervous flutterings that are alien to Cézanne as a painter. The father of modern painting was not a modernist. He stands as solidly within nature as any painter in the tradition and as no painter has stood since him, while the essence of modernism lies in its break with nature. Yet Picasso’s intent was clear enough, and his judgment profound: he meant to refer to the intensity of inner life that, in the right hands, can make even an apparently trivial subject matter of absorbing significance. And so understood, his remark may be fittingly transcribed to apply to Wittgenstein’s Philosophic Investigations.
If a philosophic reader of the 19th century were brought back to life, handed this book, and told it was one of the major works of our period, he might find himself very startled at that claim. A major work that talks only of such small and trivial occasions of ordinary speech! That goes on without beginning, middle, or end from one isolated paragraph to another! It would be in vain for us to cite Nietzsche’s occasional aphoristic style in comparison. The aphorisms in Nietzsche break the expository flow, or they themselves add up to some sweeping generalization about the universe and man. In Wittgenstein, there is never the eruption of any generalization beyond the matters that our ordinary language talks about. The philosopher does not step outside the everyday to intimate any comprehensive world-view. Yet this book, like the apples of Cézanne, acquires a certain monumental life of its own in our mind.
The Investigations rings us around from that encompassing zone of silence toward which the Tractatus had pointed. In that earlier work, this final silence had been thundered at us, but here it is not even announced; it is present, if at all, only through its absence. The Tractatus had spoken of the world as seen from above—even though Wittgenstein had announced that everything he said in it was to be regarded merely as a ladder, to be thrown away after we have used it to climb to the height of his vision. In this later stage of his thought, there is no height and no ladder; we are totally immersed in the world of ordinary language as we go from one particular example to another. Critics have spoken of the world of Franz Kafka’s fiction as one of “baffled transcendence.” The characters are always haunted by some transcendent world beyond the banal one they inhabit, yet they are perpetually defeated in their attempt to make contact with this other sphere, and they always return to the flat contours of the everyday. But Wittgenstein does not appear to be haunted by even this kind of transcendence. The renunciation of that other and higher world must be so complete—at least for philosophical discourse—that we must even forgo any nostalgia for it. “Philosophy leaves the world as it is.”
A work of such ambitious renunciation brings with it its own peculiar difficulties. Wittgenstein’s delay in publication is a symptom of the unusual enterprise that its writing was. The book was substantially completed in 1945; yet he held onto it, still adding and correcting; and it remained unpublished at his death in 1951. It finally appeared posthumously, in 1956. Had he lived longer, he could have held onto it indefinitely. One could always add more. The form of the work did not indicate when one had arrived at completion. In this respect the Investigations resembles some works of contemporary art that seek to break with the traditional concepts of form. In a piece of atonal music, there may be no development toward a climax, no resolution, and no coda. The piece begins abruptly and breaks off abruptly. It is completed when enough has been given to draw us so fully into the work that its reality has become valid and convincing to us. So Wittgenstein’s book, organized more or less around two basic themes, gives us enough to draw us completely into the point of view from which it is written.
This is obviously a dangerous form to imitate, and Wittgenstein’s followers have not always been as lucky as the master. The preoccupation with ordinary language can degenerate into triviality. Even in Wittgenstein himself one chafes at a certain fragmentary quality, the indisposition at times to push an insight toward more systematic and coherent shape. Bertrand Russell remarked about the ordinary-language movement in philosophy that it showed an unseemly preoccupation by philosophers with “the silly things that silly people say.” Russell’s wit was catty, as usual, but there were times when some of the more derivative practitioners seem to have earned his barb. What is the difference in Wittgenstein? We have to go back to Picasso’s remark about Cézanne. What makes Wittgenstein different is the intensity of mind at work through the apparently trivial subject matter, so that as often as we may turn away from his text, frustrated at not finding the answers we seek there, just as often do we come back to find our thinking quickened by it.
The monumental change from the Tractatus to the later Wittgenstein lies in the shift from the formal language of logic to our ordinary language as the chosen subject and medium for philosophy. This choice has far-reaching consequences. Our ordinary language is not a single monolithic structure. We speak differently at different times and as we address ourselves to different subjects. The logician considers language only as the vehicle of statements or propositions. But in fact we use language for a great many other vital purposes. At the end of a long and informal catalogue of these, Wittgenstein concludes by asking us to reflect on how we use language when we go about “asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.” Thanking, cursing, praying—these are a far cry from the province of logic, yet they are very significant parts of life, and therefore the philosopher ought not to exclude them.
Our common language, far from being a single homogeneous whole, is in fact a family of overlapping languages. Here Wittgenstein introduces his now famous notion of “language games.” The term “language game” is apt for two very good reasons: A game is a form of vital activity, an exuberant and adventurous display of life. And a game is played in accordance with rules, although these rules have been set up by human beings, and are subject to change.
Consider the latter point first. Our American games of baseball and football have been played year in year out, generation after generation, and yet the rules are still undergoing changes. Sometimes a rule is changed to eliminate indeterminate situations; the infield-fly rule in baseball is such a case. Sometimes the change is to make the game more interesting: some changes presently proposed for baseball are aimed at speeding it up. The game, it is said, originated in a more leisurely period; our present lives have speeded up and demand a more rapid rhythm in the games we play. Here the total context of our life comes into play as a force to change the rules.
But are not such strict disciplines as logic and mathematics outside of this vital context? Not at all. The history of mathematics exhibits changes in the same fashion as other games. When the Greeks discovered irrational quantities, they might have chosen—as some ardent Pythagoreans would have wished—to exclude them from mathematics altogether. Arithmetic would have been confined to counting and mathematics otherwise would have become less powerful and interesting. Newton and Leibniz violated old rules when they introduced infinitesimals in the 17th century, but this new calculus enabled them to develop the science of mechanics for the mastery of nature. The paradoxes so introduced were not removed until the 19th century, when Cauchy and Weierstrass adjusted the rules to accommodate this invention. And so it goes.
We are now in a position to understand the reason for Wittgenstein’s shift from the Tractatus to his later immersion in everyday language. As usual, he condenses the point into a vivid image, leaving it to us to piece it together with the whole. To deal exclusively with a formal logical language is like walking on ice. “There is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: So we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” The more abstract and ideal the language, the more remote it is from the concrete conditions of life.
His general position thus is one of a very radical and thoroughgoing pragmatism—as thoroughgoing, indeed, as anything William James and John Dewey could wish. If Wittgenstein had developed his book in anything like a demonstrative form, its fundamental axiom would have been a sentence that we come upon only far into the text, as if he had worked to his true starting point only near the end: “What has to be accepted, the given, is forms of life.”
This is the fact, the given, from which all thinking must start; and thinking, which starts from this fact, is in turn itself but another form of life. Primum vivere deinde philosophari, says the old adage; and it is right to emphasize the primacy of living, but wrong to suggest that philosophy is an adjunct added onto life, when in fact it should be a vital activity we carry on to clarify our ways among the tangled affairs of the everyday. Formal logic is not a framework that encloses this life, but a deliberately restricted language that we use for our own purposes, and so it falls within the total context of this life. If Wittgenstein is no longer absorbed within that narrower formal language, but chooses instead to immerse himself in everyday language, that is because here we are engaged with the more enveloping and concrete conditions of our life.
Logic no longer dictates an ultimate structure of the world. There is no ultimate reality lying behind or beneath or beyond ordinary experience to which we turn intellectually as the court of last appeal. All meanings are born out of the human world of the everyday, and have to return there to be tested.
Granted this radical move, that our colloquial speech is to be the medium within which we philosophize, what then does Wittgenstein have to say? What is his doctrine?
The paradoxical answer is that he does not have a doctrine at all to communicate. There is a definite emphasis and orientation, but no body of propositions that could conceivably be taken as a philosophic system. This seeming paradox, however, is quite in line with his purpose. The activity of philosophy is for the sake of clarification; and if it has done its job, it should return us to what is plainly and obviously there in the first place, if we had but the eyes to see it. “Philosophy leaves the world as it is.” It can alter nothing in the world; nor can it, like science, advance into territory unknown to our ordinary perceptions and powers; it can only bring us back to what must be our perpetual starting point.
The emphasis and orientation, however, are sufficiently distinct that we may quarrel with them—and to that extent, at least, they will do for a doctrine. Wittgenstein’s subject is restricted enough. The lively motley of remarks, asides, illustrations, and queries that make up the Investigations center on two principal themes:
- Language and the problem of meaning; what used to be called the meaning of meaning.
- The problem of mind and body; how mental experiences are to be spoken of correctly in relation to overt bodily behavior.
The two themes are not unrelated, and Wittgenstein’s treatment of them is to bring them together as closely as possible. In both cases his intent is the same: to get rid of a Cartesian model of the mind as some distinct container, or closet, in which peculiarly “mental” experiences, ideas, or meanings are harbored. We are not to think, for example, of meaning as a kind of halo that surrounds a word; or to change the figure, as Wittgenstein so often does, as a kind of mental nugget that we keep in the treasury of consciousness. The meaning of a word has to do with the way we use it within the total web of our discourse. The force of Wittgenstein’s emphasis upon the intrinsic connection of meaning and use is to turn us away from the fictitious inner cabinet of the mind into the open and public world, where people talk and behave toward each other in the ordinary situations of life. The emphasis is thus plainly behaviorist throughout. The question remains: how far does this behaviorist tendency in Wittgenstein go? Indeed, how far can it rightly go if ordinary language is taken as an arbiter?
What does the behaviorist seek? In one sense or another he wishes to reduce our mental life to overt bodily behavior. The reduction can take place by denying outright that there are any distinct kinds of things as mental processes or states at all; or the behaviorist may claim that our expressions about such processes or states, wherever meaningful, can be translated into equivalent expressions about bodily behavior. Wittgenstein claims that he is not seeking to eliminate the fact of consciousness as such. “Why should I deny there are mental processes?” he asks at one point; and he goes on to explain that he doesn’t want to deny them, he merely wishes to show how we can talk about them correctly. Yet the bulk of his text, the sheer accumulated weight of his examples, all tend in the other direction. They nearly always serve to indicate how a statement referring to consciousness is to be replaced by one that refers to overt behavior.
It is the simplicity, or even simple-mindedness, of the examples that is most troubling. Our heaviest grievance against the behaviorist, after all, may be over his impoverishment of our psychological life itself. Since he deals with overt behavior, he restricts himself to the more elementary kinds because it seems that these can be described without injecting “inner states” into the data. Hence the psychic life that emerges is one without depth, complexity, or inwardness. The world of the behaviorist has been well described by Iris Murdoch as a world
in which people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood, and go to the circus; not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers, or join the Communist party.
Nor, she might have added, a world in which anyone would write a novel—at least an interesting novel. Miss Murdoch is both a philosopher and a novelist, and she would not want to forget as a philosopher what she knows as a novelist. Reading the great novelists—Dostoevsky, Proust, Henry James, or Jane Austen, for that matter, who in her own way is as complex and subtle as any—we move constantly and easily within the minds of their characters, and at the same time within the world they inhabit. We understand what goes on in the character without having always to pin this understanding on some small twitch of behavior. We do the same in real life, with the people who are our intimates, though not with the radiant clarity that it is the power of art to bring us. Indeed, as soon as we invoke this comparison with the novel, how meager and paltry the behaviorist’s world looks.
What leads the philosopher to this poverty is an admirable intention: to get rid of the Cartesian dualism between mind and matter. Indeed, the struggle against Cartesianism seems to be the common bond amid all the diversities of schools and sects of philosophy in our century. The result has been a great enrichment in the exactness of our philosophic talk about consciousness, but Miss Murdoch’s observation leaves us with a nagging doubt. Perhaps it is the fact that she is also a novelist that suggests another perspective; for as soon as we think of the novel—of the prodigious breadth and depth of acquaintance with the inner lives, indeed the souls, of its characters, that it leads us into—we have to find that the human soul stands very poorly with modern philosophy, in whose eyes we have become behaving organisms rather than conscious subjects.
In his sudden and abrupt fashion Wittgenstein lets fall the observation:
My attitude toward him is an attitude toward a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.
The statement dangles there in the text, and is not given the further exploration it cries out for. I do not think my friend has a soul, in the sense of some Cartesian substance hidden inside his head or diffused throughout his body. Nevertheless, my attitude toward him is still that toward a soul. It would be more correct to say that he is a soul, rather than that he has one—just as, by the way, it is more correct to say that he is a body rather than that he has a body. Is the attitude merely fanciful, fictitious, cute, or is it real and earnest? Wittgenstein has written elsewhere at length to show that belief is not an isolated mental state: to believe something is to hold fast to and act upon it. If I act, talk, and think in relation to my friend as toward a soul, then I do earnestly believe that he is a soul. It is true that I know of no philosophic analysis of the soul that is quite satisfying to me. But must I wait upon such an analysis before I have the attitudes that I do toward those I love? And even were there an analysis that dispensed with the soul, my attitude would remain what it is—unless love and devotion were to vanish altogether.
Wittgenstein’s observation about the soul leaps out at us like a sudden thrust of lightning, but as quickly fades away. Had he pursued examples of this sort, his text would wear a different aspect. He himself gives one of the best warnings against some of the more simple-minded and monolithic types of behaviorism:
A main cause of philosophical disease—a onesided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.
At a certain point, we feel, he might have sought out more complex and subtle instances for his material. The fact is that the streak of positivism, the simple-mindedness of the engineer, runs deep in Wittgenstein, and he was never quite free from it. And the characteristic of the positivist is above all that he must ban the meaningless from discourse, the result of which is often that the more complex and voluminous matters at issue are also shut off from our vision. Thus the data of introspection, the inner life itself, have become suspect to our analytic philosophers. But Wittgenstein should have had more trust in the powers and richness of his chosen medium, ordinary language. Our common speech may be in good part geared to our transactions with things, but it is also saturated with human inwardness and subjectivity. How could it not be, since it is the medium within which human souls have communicated with each other over the generations?
And, finally, if this behaviorism of his were to be thoroughgoing and consistent, what would Wittgenstein have to tell us on the crucial question of human freedom? This is the question on which we are likely to feel the behaviorist to be most doctrinaire and unsatisfactory. And it is an even more troubling question for a behaviorism that claims to draw its vision from our common language, which happens to be saturated through and through with the moods, tenses, and varied expressions that invoke freedom.
His earlier view had been both explicit and negative—and also entirely consistent with the closed world of the Tractatus. Human freedom, in the world of atomic facts, is only another name for our ignorance of the future: “The freedom of the will consists in the fact that future actions cannot be known now.” This is the only kind of freedom possible for Us in a world so fragmented that there can be no effective bond between the present and future. The future is open to us only in the sense that we enter it blindly. We are like blindfolded children seeking to pin the tail on the donkey and free only to stumble over any odd piece of furniture that happens to come in our path. This is a freedom of pure negativity—a freedom of ignorance and impotence.
The later Wittgenstein, in the Investigations, offers us nothing explicit to replace this earlier doctrine. He does not discuss the question of free will as such, and his observations about the will itself are very brief and compressed into a barrage of remarks about intending and doing. As usual, these observations are stimulating, but also, as usual, fragmentary. Wittgenstein helps us to think, but he does not give us a philosophy; we have to form our own from the stimulus he gives. Yet if we do not rest content merely with his fragments, but instead push further the whole movement of thought that he has initiated but only very imperfectly embodied in the Investigations, then I believe we can come up with a more satisfactory understanding of human freedom.
The tenor of what Wittgenstein actually does say is that we are not to’ regard the will as a substantial entity in its own right, whose acts parallel or trigger the body’s actions. The will is not an independent agent operating within us, nor is it an instrument that we make use of to perform an action. When I raise my arm “voluntarily,” I do not make use of my will as an additional lever, so to speak, between me and the movement.
All this is quite obvious. The will is a high-level abstraction that serves to single out one aspect of that seamless web of becoming that we call a voluntary action. This abstraction, however, does designate something real; and Wittgenstein is so intent upon expelling the Cartesian ghost from the machine, that he does not do justice to the will as an inner and motivating power in our life. Thus he asks us to consider the case where our body may be incapacitated for one reason or another and does not respond as we would like:
We can say “I will, but my body does not obey me,” but not “My will does not obey me” (Augustine).
Yet St. Augustine had experience enough in the discipline of the will that we should perhaps listen to him here. To be sure, the will is not an independent creature, like a dog, whom we teach to obey us; but still there are many matters in life on which we try to change our will. “I do not wish to wish these things,” sings T. S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday; and if we dislike enough the kinds of things we wish, we may actually set about changing our wants. Of course, this usually involves changing the kinds of things we do—our habits of behavior; but the latter in turn overflow into and change the kinds of things we want.
Imagine a doctor who tells his patient: “Cigarette smoking has become very dangerous to you in your condition. You must contrive some way to give it up.” If the prospect of life without cigarettes seems so grim and cheerless that it is not worth the effort, the patient will have no motivation to forsake his habit. (Motivation and will I take here to be equivalent.) But if he treasures his life, he may be moved to initiate a strategy of behavior that will enable him finally to quit smoking. This is freedom, and it is a fact that some people achieve it. The motivation, or will, is here the central source of the change—the manuals on how to stop smoking always insist on this: you have really to want to stop smoking in order to give it up. But it is also the case that the change in behavior aims at altering the will. Thus it would hardly be a satisfactory solution if the man gave up smoking but lived in the perpetual itch and uneasiness to light up. A satisfactory cure must deliver us from the desire. This too sometimes happens with people who have changed their behavior about smoking; they may have come so to dislike the smell of smoke that they find it unpleasant even coming from others. I know of such cases.
Might we not venture to say, indeed, pushing past such reformations of our external behavior, that the change we often most ardently desire for ourselves is a transformation of the “inner person”—a change in our feelings, desires, and will, in our fundamental attitude toward ourselves and the world? The route we may have to travel may be a change in behavior, but the goal that we seek is a change of heart.
As soon as we shift our gaze from some isolated fragment of behavior, like raising an arm, to the larger question of motivation, a new perspective on human freedom opens before us. The question of this freedom enters another dimension. Where Wittgenstein may help us in this problem does not lie in his brief remarks on the will but in the whole drift of his book itself—in the sense and import of the philosophic reversal from the Tractatus to the Investigations.
In the earlier work he had taken formal logic as his model. He believed, like others at the time, that this language was closed—that it provided a mechanism for determining automatically the truth or falsity of any proposition uttered in it. The change to ordinary language is thus a shift from closed to open language. The rules of the latter are indeterminate and flexible; we have to improvise, create, and choose as we go along. But this change from closed to open language is also a passage from a closed to an open world, for our world—the concrete world in which we live—does not come to us as something independent of language; we do not construct a language independently and then add it on to experience; our world transpires within language. Consequently, the essential openness of the language that we have to use for the purpose of life means that the world of our experience is correspondingly open. And that the world should lie open to us is the real and concrete meaning of freedom to which we aspire. For what is the depressing sense of unfreedom that steals over us at times but the feeling that the world has closed in upon us, that we are in a prison all the doors of which have been locked, and that we are trapped in a routine that never opens out upon any fresh possibilities?
We must guard ourselves, however, against too sensational a misunderstanding of this open world. Here the demon of Sartre’s freedom winks and beckons. This Sartrean freedom is absolute and dizzying; at any moment it holds before me the possibility of some radical and gratuitous act into which I may plunge my future totally. If I have the money, I can take a plane to Tahiti and start life anew. Alas, I have not fled from myself; I carry with me the same flesh and blood, the same psyche, and I have now to recreate their fortunes under other conditions. The sense of an open world does not lie in these glittering possibilities of a leap into another mode of existence, but in something much more mundane and humble; in fact, that sense of the world’s being open may be assisted, not hindered, by some sustaining routine.
Philosophers, dealing with the question of freedom, have thrown too much emphasis upon the question of the single act. In this they have been captured by the language game of the law. In a criminal trial we have to debate whether the defendant was in control of himself at the time of a particular action. Was he in his right mind or temporarily deranged by passion at that unique moment when he committed the act? We ask such questions as part of the fabric of our social and legal life, where it is necessary to establish degrees of guilt. The prisoner must wait in the dock for our judgment. But the question of freedom itself is not to be so confined. That question cannot be contracted within such horizons. It is perhaps time that all those examples of isolated fragments of action, like the raising of an arm, be retired to the philosophical oblivion they deserve. We should ask, instead, whether an individual is free or not in his concrete “form of life.” We need, in short, to remind ourselves of Wittgenstein’s axiom: “What has to be accepted, the given, is forms of life.” In the light of this principle, the question of freedom is to be raised, not for an isolated act like lifting one’s arm, but for the given individual in his total and actual form of life. Is that particular life a free one or not?
Consider the case of Immanuel Kant, who took his daily walk so regularly and precisely at the same time each day that the townspeople of Koenigsberg set their clocks by it. Was Kant nothing but a robot in this? Not at all; he was acting voluntarily. He had set up the arrangement himself as part of the discipline of his life. Suppose, however, that the habit had become so ingrained that he could not change it. Suppose—to borrow the lingo of psychiatry—a repetition compulsion had taken such a deep hold on him that, even had he tried, he could not have pried himself loose from it. He would still have been a free man. The openness of his life lay elsewhere; for on that daily walk, so regularly timed, he was nourishing thoughts that were to transform the intellectual history of Europe.
Kant, of course, is one of the very great figures in the history of culture. It is given to very few of us to be open in our life toward momentous intellectual or artistic creation. Yet, humanly speaking, none of us need lock ourselves in the prison of a closed world. We need not be creative geniuses to find the world open before us. It may require little, very little, for the doors of our prison to spring apart—perhaps only some simple change in our inner attitude. For, contrary to any behaviorism—even so flexible a one as Wittgenstein’s—this inner attitude is not a peripheral and dangling accompaniment to our actions, but the other way around. It is doing that is subordinate here to being, our actions to the consciousness that can irradiate them and give them meaning.