Wittgenstein in Exile

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Book Review

Wittgenstein in Exile, James C. Klagge (MIT Press)

Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Lee Braver (MIT Press)


LWFor James Klagge in his study of Wittgenstein and his philosophy, exile becomes a metaphor that help identify the enigmatic nature of his subject. Wittgenstein’s rootless, itinerant life was a crisscross of journeys across western Europe, from his home in Austria  to England, to Norway, to Ireland – returning to Austria to teach children in a rural location, returning to England in 1929 (‘God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train’, announced Maynard Keynes to his wife), returning to Norway to live. Always he travelled, as he lived, alone. He exiled himself from family, friends and academia and, given the strangeness of his temperament, exile serves as a description for his state of mind. Everyone feels alienated to some degree of other – those who don’t are spooky or just plain numpties – but Wittgenstein’s estrangement from the society and culture of his age was profound and the author’s understanding of this underlies what he writes about the man.

Wittgenstein in Exile is enjoyable to read because it does not indulge in abstruse, intricate arguments and is mercifully free of the mind-numbing prose that results when the author of a book about philosophy solely addresses a professional audience of people assumed to share his interests. Klagge’s comfortable style of writing, reaching out to a wider readership, succeeds in presenting the peculiarity of a man who could not separate his philosophical work from the way he conducted his own life. Unable to avoid remorseless self-examination, Wittgenstein was an artist of the intellect not just in his writings but in his  relationship with the world and to demonstrate this Klagge draws considerably on reminiscences of those who knew Wittgenstein and who experienced in conversation aspects of his austere genius.

In order to connect the unusual nature of Wittgenstein’s persona with his philosophical views, attention is drawn to the iconoclastic nature of his thought. His understanding of causality was – and still is in many respects — at odds with a demand for scientific, mechanistic accounts of why things happen in the way they do and, in particular, with the sense that there must be a correlation between mental causation and physiological processes. Our culture gives a hegemony to the notion of ‘cause’ and a primacy to ‘meaning’ that Wittgenstein took to be unwarranted:

Let us imagine a god creating a country instantaneously in the middle of the wilderness, which exists for two minutes and is an exact reproduction of a part of England, with everything that is going on there in two minutes. Just like those in England, the people are pursuing a variety of occupations. Children are in school. Some people are doing mathematics. Now let us contemplate the activity of some human beings during those two minutes. One of these people is doing exactly what a mathematician in England is doing, who is just doing a calculation.—Ought we to say that this two-minute man is calculating? Could we for example not imagine a past and a continuation of these two minutes, which would make us call the processes something quite different?

This was written in the early 1940s, though not published until an edition of Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics was publishedin 1978, and similar questions pointing to the importance of culture and context can be found in Philosophical Investigations. There, for example, he asks: ‘Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for the space of one second—no matter what preceded or followed this second?’ The later Wittgenstein concluded that it was not Cartesian mapping but a contextual cartography that would allow us to find our way through a discourse. The same stage prop used in a scene in one play could have its meaning transformed when used in a different scene from another play.

pl_LW2In Culture and Value Wittgenstein remarks: ‘People who are constantly asking “why” are like tourists, who stand in front of a building reading Baedeker, & through reading about the building’s construction etc etc are prevented from seeing it.’ Klagge draws out the implications of observations like these and relates them to Wittgenstein’s early and late philosophy. He also turns to works like The Book of Job and Dostoevsky for a trajectory where Wittgenstein  can be placed, a point somewhere between mysticism and acquiescence in the inexplicable, a place that accepts uncomfortable experiences of loss and mystery without feeling the need for an explanation or a meaning.

Wittgenstein loved Westerns but I think he would also have enjoyed watching the wonderful I Wish  by the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. At one stage in the movie, the father of the two boys says to one of them: ‘There’s room in this world for wasteful things. Imagine if everything had meaning. You’d choke.’ Wittgenstein would have appreciated the tone and temperament of the film, its breath of clean air in a world at risk from suffocation by reductive clouds of thinking besotted with a need for explanation, ground, definition.

Wittgenstein’s thinking is never reductive but in the Tractatus he did believe that names in elementary propositions combined in a way that was isomorphic with possible arrangements of objects in what he called ‘states of affairs’ in the world.  Meaning arose because a possible state of affairs could be represented in a proposition although it remains impossible to say exactly how this synchrony occurs because we cannot position ourselves outside of language’s pictorial form and therefore cannot describe it. Anything of metaphysical value about the world and our place in it lay on the other side of silence.

Comparing and contrasting the Tractatus with the later Philosophical Investigations has long been the bread and butter of commentaries on  Wittgenstein but the more perceptive ones have traced similarities and abiding concerns accompanying the philosophical metastasis. Lee Braver, in Goundless Grounds, is well aware of this and brings his awareness to bear on an impressive comparative study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, stressing what their philosophies have in common. It is a denser and far more systematic study than Klagge’s but remains throughout admirably lucid in its expositions. The early and late Wittgenstein are alike in asking how we succeed in meaning anything, with the focus shifting from the logical clockwork of the Tractatus to a more messy landscape where timekeeping capably manages multiple shifts between different time zones. The ground may be messy but it is not the quicksand of semantic nihilism because, for both Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein, communal agreement undergrids our social existence. It is only in retrospect, when disengaged reason tries to ground our thinking in mental acts, that intellectual problems arise. Heidegger’s famous example of how we use a hammer makes the same point. We are involved in our world, using tools that withdraw from our attention: ‘Inherent in the being of the world is that its existence needs no guarantee in regard to the subject’ and Wittgenstein says something very similar: ‘the language-game … is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there – like our life.’


Incidentally, Wittgenstein made four short trips to Ireland before he gave up his professorship in Cambridge and went there to live. In all he stayed in Ireland about two years, living in Redcross in Wicklow, at Rosroe in Connemara and in Ross’s Hotel (now the Ashling) on Parkgate Street in Dublin. There is an informative account of his visits in Wittgenstein in Ireland, published by Reaktion in 2000.

Credits: Photo of Ludwig Wittgenstein from a post in Come Here to Me about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Dublin memorials. The plaque in Botanical Garden’s Dublin taken from a Dublin Opinion post, Wittgenstein, Dublin and Mysticism. The sketch of Roscoe cottage at Killary Harbour, Connamara made by Richard Wall in 1975 and taken from his book Wittgenstein in Ireland.

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