Additional Remarks on the Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Consider Wittgenstein´s chief philosophical problem was how logical sentences can be translated into ethical sentences (and the impossibility of that). The Tractatus was an undertaking to reveal the structure of the world which ended with the conclusion that a logical analysis cannot account for the „mystical“ aspects of our existence, i.e. the truly interesting ones. The philosophy of the elderly Wittgenstein was then to undermine and deeply question the foundations of the supposed logical structure of the world (i.e. whereas the Tractatus and related philosophy would imply an ideal language and ideal logic, the Philosophical Investigations shatter such a notion and imply that there is no deep structure of language but that language evolves via practice and is prone to produce misunderstandings, etc.). In between there was Wittgenstein´s Lecture about Ethics (held when he came back to Cambridge in 1930) where he stressed that stuff like „the supreme good“ are not logical expressions but metaphors and, within a logical language, „unreasonable“ – that´s their nature. – Colin Wilson remarked that Wittgenstein was an odd fellow who was keenly aware of the problem of ethics in philosophy and that it cannot be resolved by logical „talking“, only to evade it and spend the rest of his life (logically) „talking“. Wittgenstein´s „nephew“, Paul, remarked that the two elder brothers of Ludwig, who (apparently) commited suicide, would have been even greater geniuses than Ludwig, for instance more poetically talented etc. – Remember, however, that, according to the Tractatus, the meaning of a sentence cannot be said, the meaning of something can only „reveal“ itself. And so, while Wittgenstein was silent as a moral philosopher, it was the way he lived his life with which he gave example and illustration of the ethical that is of objective importance (same can be said of Kafka and Beckett). Intentionally or not, this illustrates the great man. Talking about ethics or moral systems sooner or later leads to dead ends or contradictions, but Wittgenstein´s ethical conduct of life was (largely) free of contradictions.

Ethics and logics: There are things I am responsible for. If I take care for the things I am responsible for, I am ethical. If I deny it, I am unethical. If I take care for things I am not responsible for, my ethical conduct is superior. If I take this notion of ethical supremacy to its logical consequence, I will always be a failure, since the limits within which I can operate are narrow (which often produces crises within ethically supreme individuals). Maybe the categorical imperative of the supreme good is to treat the other better than he treats you.

Whether the universe is ethical: I think Einstein said our most basic choice is whether we think we live in a benevolent or a malevolent cosmos. The concept of Shakespeare´s/Verdi´s Jago or of the sadistic raisonneurs in the novels of Marquis de Sade of a malevolent, malicious God who creates things only to destroy them cannot be ruled out logically – however, they´re the cosmology of sociopaths. The philosopher and metaphysicist will be very interested and likely to get immersed into the stuff he investigates and he will develop high empathy for them (as a common characteristic of the exceptionally gifted). Therefore the philosopher will be a kind of ethical enthusiast. Let us generalise the ethical into „constructiveness“. It is, maybe, a transcendental principle, or a Transzendentalpragmatik, to think of a deep ground of the ontological as well as of the epistemological as something that is based on constructiveness. Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas comes up with the idea that the ethical is primary to anything else. To him, the ethical is respect for the other and the face of the other which is (as it is not identical to my face) the infinite. That we confront the other in this world, respectively our worldview and any knowledge of the world can only (effectively) constituted via the confrontation with the other, is something primary, and that we have to get along with the other is something primary. However, if the other is full of shite, my patience will sooner or later come to an end; apart from that some others are more proximate to me than other others, and great hostilities and wars are not caused by human hatred or disrespect for the other´s face but by natural interest conflicts. Friedrich Nietzsche, probably the most intelligent of philosophers, remarked (in the subsequent introduction to Morgenröte) that all philosophers have tried to make ethics the foundation of their work and their systems – and every time, it collapsed! Hence, he began to question ethics and moral themselves. Otto Weininger, who was probably even more intelligent than Nietzsche, wrote the probably greatest work on Individualethik which is, however, remembered as fiercely antisemitic and misogynist today and shot himself dead at an early age for obscure reasons: one of his final conclusions was that the supreme good cannot be achieved by the individual, what remains is the idea of the supreme good, as a guiding light. Wittgenstein was very fond of Weininger, but for obscure reasons considered his work as a colossal though grandiose mistake later in life.

Not long ago they had a Henry Fonda retrospective at the Filmmuseum Wien. There I saw The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The Grapes of Wrath is about uprooted and impoverished farmers who fall prey to obscene capitalism in the depression years. The film opens as Tom (Henry Fonda) is released from prison and tries to go back to his family´s farm (only to find it sold to capitalists). On the way he meets former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), who once baptised him but now has ceased to be a preacher as he had „lost his faith“, and refrains to make ethical judgements anymore since, as he found out, people are just doing what they are doing (and there is probably neither sin nor virtue). Unassuming and friendly, and somehow carrying silent wisdom, he joins the family as they move to California to find work. Shocked by the conditions impoverished farmers/proletarians fall prey to, he courageously helps a person that is persecuted by the law and finally dies as he tries to organise a strike against inhuman conditions (something that Tom opposed in the first place but later finds out that Jim was right to do – Tom´s history somehow repeats itself as he unintentionally kills the person that deadly hits Jim, and although the government becomes protective of the workers, Tom has to flee and leave his family again in the end). Jim Casy is a Christ-like figure, he has ceased to preach, he has ceased to judge, he just helps and supports and he does the right thing even if it means self-sacrifice. He has a calming presence. Occassionally there are people with such a calming presence, like Wolfgang, or Erich. At any rate, I want to dedicate this note to the memory of ex-preacher Jim. And as I can see on Wikipedia, the real-life inspiration for the character of Jim Casy was Ed Ricketts. So I also want to include Ed Ricketts in that.