Ethics: A Valuable form of Nonsense
57 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 7.1 have removed underlining.
58 See, for example, page 3 of Wittgenstein’s ‘Preface’ to the Tractatus, and also page 330 of Janaway’s reading of Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer in Self and World in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy.
Agamben has suggested, the question becomes: how can we bear witness to the very existence of language!™
I will return explicitly to this question at the end of the chapter, but for the moment I want to make a few comments to summarise Wittgenstein’s notion of the happy life. If we read the Tractatus and Notebooks in conjunction with Wittgenstein’s 1930 ‘Lecture on Ethics,’ it could be said that the happy life entails two aspects: a feeling of wonder towards life as a whole, and a feeling of safety no matter what happens. Indeed in his lecture Wittgenstein singles out ‘wonder at the existence of the world’ and the feeling of being ‘absolutely safe’ as his ethical experiences ‘par excellence.’61 In a way that is not yet fully clear, these early remarks on the happy life seem to pre-empt the redemptive outcome of therapy, which entails both an intransitive wonder,62 and a sense of peacefulness in the face of metaphysical incertitude.
Are ‘will as action’ and ‘will as attitude’ incompatible?
The close relation between Wittgenstein’s early ethical reflections and his later therapeutic reorientation, has often been overlooked because the standard reading of Wittgenstein insists that the ‘will as attitude’ described in the Tractatus is incompatible with the account of the will advocated in the Investigations. Peter Winch, for example, argues that the claim that the will is external to the world and affects only its limits, is in direct conflict with Wittgenstein’s later characterisation of willing as acting or doing things in the world.63 In the Investigations Wittgenstein abandons his early notion of a ‘metaphysical subject’ of the will and replaces it with an account of our actual uses of the word ‘will.’ In such an account, willing is not a mysterious force but ‘the action itself.’
Willing, if it is not to be a sort of wishing, must be the action itself. It cannot be allowed to stop anywhere short of the action.’ If it is the action, then it is so in the ordinary sense of the word; so it is speaking, writing, walking, lifting a thing,
Wl See Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. & trans. Daniel Heller-
Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). In the context of Wittgenstein’s later work I believe that to adopt this mode of relation to language, is to open oneself to its aspectival dimension.
61 Wittgenstein, ‘Lecture on Ethics,’ 8.
62 The idea that the outcome of therapy amounts to an ‘intransitive vision’ is argued by Antonia Soulez in
‘Conversion in Philosophy: Wittgenstein’s “Saving Word,”’ trans. Melissa McMahon, Hypatia, 15:4
63 Peter Winch. ‘Wittgenstein’s Treatment of the Will,’ Ethics and Action (London: Routledge & Kegan
65 imagining something. But it is also trying, attempting, making an effort, - to speak, to write, to lift a thing, to imagine something etc.64
Indeed as we saw in the previous discussion of the Investigations, pictures impose themselves on us, like an external will, but we can always exercise our own will to ‘struggle against them.’ This counter will is not a ‘mechanism’ or a ‘wish,’ but the practical activity of therapy which includes recalling what we do with words, imagining what we might do and trying to imagine or find contexts for philosophical pictures. Given the therapeutic reading of the will that I am developing, how can Wittgenstein's earlier pronouncements on the independence of will and world but collapse into the rejection of change brought about through action?
In the Notebooks Wittgenstein is certainly conscious of the possibility of such a collapse, for although he never commits to the claim that we are determined, he speaks of the feeling of being determined.
In order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world. And that is what ‘being happy’ means.
I am then, so to speak, in agreement with that alien will on which I appear dependent That is to say: ‘I am doing the will of God. ’65
So one might argue that the feeling of being utterly determined by an external will is something Wittgenstein resists in the Investigations, whereas in his early work it seems to be this same feeling that he wants us to accept. In section 426 of the Investigations, for example, Wittgenstein describes our struggle with the feeling of being determined:
A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense unambiguously. The actual use, compared with that suggested by the picture, seems like something muddied. Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.
64 Wittgenstein, Investigations, 615.
In the actual use o f expressions we m ake detours, we go by side roads. W e see the straight highw ay before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is perm anently
However to take the later Wittgenstein to be rejecting the religious feeling of being determined by God, is to miss the ongoing significance he gives to the contrast between the scientific will, with its appetite for answers, and the will of God, which defies explanation.67Although in the Investigations Wittgenstein rejects the idea that certain
‘forms of expression’ seem to be ‘designed for a God,’ here he is objecting to the notion that God ‘himself’ must follow universal laws. For throughout his life, Wittgenstein maintains that the will of God has no moral or rational justification.6* Hence to follow God’s will is to be compelled by an authority in the absence of any meaningful explanation.
I will address the way that fantasy-pictures also entail force or validity in excess of their meaning later in chapter 5, but for the moment I want to stress that although a certain analogy can be drawn between the will of God and the imposition of powerful fantasy-pictures, it is also true that by abandoning all demand for final justification, Wittgenstein’s hope is to ultimately bring about an intransitive vision of wonder, and opening to the miracle of life. In his early work, for example, Wittgenstein equates the feeling of being determined by God’s will to an opening to the miracle of ‘the existence of language itself’ rather than to the demand that this or that fact occur. So in this sense Wittgenstein’s conception of the will of God is quite unlike his portrayal of the god-like will of science.
We might conclude that the recognition of the independence of the world and will does not amount to a conservative acceptance of the status quo, in so far as it entails a refusal of a fantasy (scientism) that had become the status quo of Wittgenstein’s culture. Still one might ask whether the cost of a critique of our illusions about the power of science must be, as the Tractatus suggests, the separation of will and world? The ‘happy’ life seems to amount to no more than a renouncement of the will, whereas Wittgenstein’s later work does not separate world and will in this final way but rather replaces the notion of willing as wishing with willing as acting, thereby posing a positive counter will.
66 Wittgenstein’s emphasis.
67 See Wittgenstein’s: ‘Lectures on Religious Belief’ in Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on
Aesthetics, Psychology & Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), for an example of the continuity of Wittgenstein’s thought on this question.
67 This idea certainly fits with Christopher Janaway’s reading of Wittgenstein in Self and World in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy. He argues that the choice between good and bad willing described in Wittgenstein’s early work corresponds to the contrast Schopenhauer draws between the exercise of the will and its renouncement. According to Schopenhauer the ‘experience of our own agency’ gives us a glimpse of reality beyond the phenomenal world. 69 This knowledge is not the product of intellectual inquiry or scientific investigation, but ‘a direct, intuitive inside knowledge of our own strivings’ and desires.70 However, for Schopenhauer the will that underpins reality is ultimately something we must overcome: ‘Schopenhauer fights through to the conception of the pure, will-less, timeless subject that mirrors the world only after explaining that as subjects we are material embodiments of the will. ’ 71 Although Wittgenstein makes no mention of ‘will as action’ in the Tractatus, Janaway points out that in his Notebooks Wittgenstein describes the will as both a limit to the world and as an action.72 Janaway argues that although it is unclear whether Wittgenstein came to the idea that will is acting through reading Schopenhauer, he experiences a strain in his Notebooks between will as limit to the world, and will as action which is, ‘analogous to the central tension we found in Schopenhauer. ’72 According to Janaway:
Wittgenstein has decided in his notebooks that through expression of my will my body has a privileged status for me as a subject, which must threaten the notion of a pure, non-worldly T.’ If he had admitted this into the Tractatus, his final position there would have been openly even more Schopenhaurian than it already appears. For it would have been that it is solely by denying our status as embodied subjects of willing that we attain the perspective of the metaphysical subject from which the world is ‘seen alright,’ and in adopting which we find happiness. The alternative is to retain either the pure metaphysical subject or the bodily nature of willing suppressing or abandoning the other. W ittgenstein appears to have resolved this highly Schopenhaurian dilemma in one way in the T ractatus, and the other in his later works.74
64 David Pears, The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 5.
7(1 Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1,5.
71 Chirstopher Janaway, Self and World in Schopenhauer’s Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 341.
77 On page 87 of the Notebooks Wittgenstein writes: ‘The act of will is not the cause of the action, but is the action itself. One cannot will without doing’
77 Janaway, Self and World, 341. 74 Janaway, Self and World, 341-42.
Janaway argues that Wittgenstein does not resolve the tension between will and world as Schopenhauer does by staging the overcoming of the acting will. Rather he takes Wittgenstein to believe that ‘will as attitude’ to the world and ‘will as action’ are incompatible with each other, pursuing the former in the Tractatus and the latter in the Investigations. ‘The notion that the will is manifest in action is wholly suppressed from the published Tractatus, and the reason seems to be precisely its conflict with the view that the will is external to the world and can affect only its limits. ’ 73
There is, however, an alternative way of understanding the relation between the Tractatus and Notebooks which I now want to put forward. In the N otebooks Wittgenstein makes a distinction between willing as acting (wollen) and willing as wishing that something be the case (wüschen) .1(" It is the word, wüschen that Wittgenstein uses in the Tractatus when he speaks of the ‘unhappy’ life and our desire to make the world correspond to our demands.77 But when, ‘[ tjhe act of the will is not the cause of the action but is the action itself,’ the will (wollen) is not, according to the Notebooks, a force applied to the world by a subject, as in the case of wishing.78 So it is possible that although the Tractatus renounces willing in the sense of wüschen or wishing it may not renounce willing in the sense of wollen or acting. That there is consistency in Wittgenstein’s conception of the will, early and late, is reinforced by the fact that the later Wittgenstein, for all his focus on therapy as an imaginative act of the will, still does not believe that the action of the will can effect the facts of the world, but only our image of the world or our attitude to it. ‘It is just because imagining is subject to the will that it does not instruct us about the external world. In this way - but in no other - it is related to an activity such as drawing. ’74
One might speculate that the practical activities in the Investigations are intended not only to dissolve particular confusions but also to shift our orientation to life and language as a whole. The idea that the practical activities of therapy amount to a kind of ‘showing’ in the Investigations is pursued by Pears in his book Wittgenstein.80 The notion of ‘therapeutic showing’ might be one way of accounting for the non-theoretical vision of language and life which theorists as diverse as Hacker, Pears and Mulhall each associate, in their own ways, with Wittgenstein’s later work. For if therapy is ultimately
77 Janaway, Self and World, 337. This view is drawn from Peter Winch. ‘Wittgenstein’s Treatment of the
76 See Notebooks, 87-88.
77 For example see Tractatus §6.347.
78 Wittgenstein, Notebooks, 87.
79 Wittgenstein, The Wittgenstein Reader, 176.
69 a form of ‘showing’ then this might help us envisage the leap from individual descriptions of language use, and imaginative engagements with fantasy-pictures, to an overview of the possibilities of life and language.
However, my argument differs from Pears’ in two important ways. Although Pears believes that ‘showing’ and ‘doing’ are linked in Wittgenstein’s later work, he does not take Wittgenstein to associate them in the Tractatus. Indeed, as I pointed out in chapter 1, although Pears recognises certain continuities in Wittgenstein’s thought, early and late, he still believes that the primary aim of the Tractatus is to put forward an ineffable metaphysical thesis - a thesis which the Investigations later critiques. However if, as I have stressed during the first half of this chapter, we focus on Wittgenstein’s early ethical remarks as well as his logical claims, then the vision of the world Wittgenstein describes in his early work- a sense of absolute safety coupled with a wonder at the existence of language - clearly pre-empts Wittgenstein’s later hope that a capacity to wonder at possibilities of our everyday lives might save us.
Secondly, I want to focus on a possibility that Pears does not consider. If Wittgenstein unites acting and ‘showing’ in a dimension distinct from ‘saying’ from his Notebooks onwards, then the Tractatus might also effect a transformation at the level of practice, which is to say it must be, in some way, therapeutic. Drawing on the work of Diamond, I will discuss this proposal in detail in the second part of this chapter. But looking back over my previous account of Wittgenstein’s early work, I believe that the tie between an attitude to life as a whole and the domain of practice is already suggested when I described Wittgenstein’s notion of ethics as a mood that pervades words and actions, but that cannot be pinned down to any determinate physical or psychological event. In the following chapters, I hope to show that Wittgenstein continues to be concerned with the ways that feelings and attitudes take expression in life, independently of the presence of determinate subjective states. For the moment, I will briefly review the argument so far, before turning to the second part of my argument.
In the first half of this chapter I argued that there are significant continuities between Wittgenstein’s early and late work regarding the operation of fantasy and his vision of language. In particular, I argued that throughout his career Wittgenstein envisages wonder freed from need for final explanation, and a sense of safety that does not demand foundation. In the second half of this chapter, I will turn in detail to Wittgenstein’s discussion of what is at stake in the attempt to articulate an attitude to language and life as a whole. To do so I will question conventional understanding of the relation between Wittgenstein’s late and early work. To begin with I posit that in
Wittgenstein’s later work nonsense and the sublime do not merely function as ‘terms of criticism, ’ but rather something of the ethical sensibility of his earlier work is maintained. Then I will shift my focus back to Wittgenstein’s early work. Drawing on Diamond’s work, I suggest that the Tractatus, like the Investigations, is therapeutic in the sense that it imaginatively engages with the metaphysical or ethical speaker in order to reveal the nonsensicality of what they say. Unlike Pears, Diamond emphasises that once the speaker recognises the nonsensicality of what they say, they need not necessarily give their words up as empty, for some ethical expressions withstand the realisation that they do not make sense. So I will end with some reflections on the value of nonsense.
I have argued that Wittgenstein’s early ethical vision is tied to the obtainment of a happy life, a life where we feel safe and can wonder at the existence of language without demanding an ultimate explanation. In the ‘happy’ life we are in ‘in harmony’ with the world because we do not falsely impose our will upon it. I have also suggested that the ethical feelings described in Wittgenstein’s early work pre-empts his later therapeutic procedure, and that furthermore the dimension of ‘showing’ outlined in his early work may be closely tied to the dimension of doing emphasised by the Investigations. However the fundamental difficulty with all these remarks, is that from the point of view of the Tractatus, nothing can be ‘said’ on the topic of ethics. Speaking about the feeling “‘how extraordinary that anything should exist”’ and the ‘experience of feeling absolutely safe’ Wittgenstein insists that ‘the verbal expression which we