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In Search of Meaning

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Ulrich Arnswald

“There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.”

(TLP 6.522) Wittgenstein’s Ethics of Showing

Dieter Mersch
Traduction de Suzanne Kirkbright

Texte intégral

Es gibt nichts Gutes, außer man tut es.
Erich Kästner

I.

  • 1 Cf. McGuinness’s answers in Mersch 1991, 85f.

1Bertrand Russell is attributed with an anecdote that originates from the time, before World War One, of his friendship with Wittgenstein. In a state of extreme agitation, Wittgenstein was said to have come to Russell one night and paced up and down the room in silence. Russell asked him: “Wittgenstein, do you think about logic, or about your sins?” “About both!” was his reply (cf. McGuinness 1989a, 48). Evidently, the problems of logic and ethics meant the same to him. As with two sides of the same coin, when every attempt to influence one side also brings about a change of the other, Wittgenstein promised himself just as much an answer from the solution of logical questions as ethical ones.1 Two puzzling remarks from the Tractatus make the connection clear: “Logic is transcendental.” (TLP 6.13) And: “Ethics is transcendental.” (TLP 6.421) The first remark is preceded by: “Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world.” (TLP 6.13); the second by: “The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists — and if it did exist, it would have no value.” (TLP 6.41) The latter remark, in turn, implies the conclusion: “So too it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics. Propositions can express nothing that is higher.” (TLP 6.42) Furthermore, a no less erratic diary entry from the time of the production of the Tractatus records: “Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic.” (NB, 24.7.16) And one week later, like an exclamation follows: “But this is really in some sense deeply mysterious!” (NB, 30.7.16)

II.

2Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the quintessence of the puzzle is mainly a book about logic, about the relationship of sentence, thought and fact, as well as about basic propositions and the isomorphology of language and world. Nevertheless, the slim volume of discontinuous propositions is challenging; and Wittgenstein claimed that the truth of these propositions was “unassailable and definitive” and “to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems” — though admittedly adding: “And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.” (TLP Preface) Even if insights into ethics only emerge sporadically and in a few dark passages at the end, the Tractatus is indeed a perfect mirror of both sides of the coin. In a letter to friend and publisher Ludwig von Ficker, Wittgenstein had written that the meaning of his book was actually an ethical one:

I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I’ll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I’m convinced that, strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited in this way. (LvF, 94-95)

3That means: the work cannot be interpreted by its explicit content. In proportion as it contains what can be said by logical analysis, it also implies the inexpressible. It refers it to the place of a silence. It already belongs as a gesture to what it remains silent about: on silence, its basis, only silence remains. For that reason, the second part does not contain an unwritten “secret doctrine”; rather, it is simultaneously evident in what is written: it marks what, according to the final sentence, “we cannot speak about” (TLP 7), that is, it compels an ascetic of speech. Wittgenstein calls it “the mystical” (TLP 6.522). The ethical belongs to it.

4The thought is as striking as it is strange: the essential factor withdraws itself; the ethical begins at the point where language falls silent. The restriction of speech by logical analysis of language encloses what cannot be said like an inner space, lending it its shape; everything else, like ethics, but also metaphysics and aesthetics, is excluded, not submitting to the structure of science. They are not discursive, not propositional, therefore, they also contain no knowledge, no statements, no definitions to be decided upon. In this sense, it is claimed that the Tractatus sets a limit of thought, or rather: a limit of the linguistic “expression of thoughts”. The limit is drawn inside language, as a boundary for whatever makes sense by the predicative proposition, whilst everything else belongs to the field of nonsense (TLP 4.113, 4.116, 5.61). And Wittgenstein says about the predicative proposition, which he understands as an image, as an injective function (TLP 3.318) that he has the facts as argument that, in turn, can be judged by yes-no-standpoints: “A proposition is a picture of reality.” (TLP 4.01) “A proposition must restrict reality to two alternatives: yes or no.” (TLP 4.023) “To understand a proposition means to know what is the case if it is true.” (TLP 4.024) Thus, what can be sensibly expressed coincides with whatever can be expressed in true and false propositions: “The general form of a proposition is: This is how things stand.” (TLP 4.5) Accordingly, Wittgenstein only allows scientific speech to be valid (cf. TLP 6.53). It is isomorphic to the possible world order. Therefore, language is encircled by what is logical as the possible, just as the world is encircled by the logical: “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.” (TLP 5.61)

5By contrast, the nonsensical refers to whatever cannot exist in truefalse disjunctions, whatever does not attribute meaning to the signs within a proposition, whatever consequently has no object that it refers to. If the meaning of two propositions lies in its “agreement and disagreement with possibilities of existence and non-existence of states of affairs” (TLP 4.2), then the nonsensical or aporetic speech does not permit such a decision; it stays in the realm of the systematically undecidable. It is not a question of forbidding such talk, but certainly of identifying its undecidability and hence its “valuelessness”. Not only metaphysical statements fall into that category, insofar as they do not refer to states of affairs, but also all totalizing discourses, like speaking about logic, about language — or the propositions of the Tractatus itself. Hence, it is also stated: “Logic is transcendental” (TLP 6.13) as equally “Ethics is transcendental” (TLP 6.421), or “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical […]” (TLP 6.54). For the transcendental nature of logic lies in the fact that it is “prior to every experience — that something is so” (TLP 5.552), as with the transcendental nature of ethics that the significance of anything existing at all must lie beyond the world. Logic must assume existence as a precondition that admittedly withdraws from experience; ethics must assume the sense of existence that, in turn, cannot be expressed: “It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.” (TLP 6.421) Ultimately, the nonsensical nature of such statements is described as a vehicle, in order that “when he has used them — as steps” it is possible to climb beyond them. The individual “must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.” (TLP 6.54)

  • 2 Cf. TLP 3.33, 4.0312, 4.461–4.462, 6.1, 6.11, 6.2.

6Nevertheless, as the “Logico-Philosophical Treatise” itself hardly leads in this way ad absurdum, the nonsensical per se proves equally less excluded. Rather, it fulfils its function in showing. That does not mean that the nonsensical shows itself in every case: there are infringements of syntax or semantics that have no reference or indicative character whatsoever; and yet, there is something that can be expressed as equally as shown (cf. Mersch 1999). It might be said that the region of the nonsensical — not of the senselessness that is exclusively reserved for logical syntax, tautology and contradiction2 — is further to be subdivided into areas of the merely confused and: of outlawing whatever is shown. The latter refers to the “whole” of logic, language and world. These aspects — such as language and world — cannot be spoken about in meaningful propositions, at best, by way of them, by betraying something that remains removed from their propositional content:

Propositions can represent the whole of reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it — logical form.
In order to be able to represent logical form, we should have to be able to station ourselves with propositions somewhere outside logic, that is to say outside the world. […] What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it. (TLP 4.12f.)

7In other words, language exposes its structure, as equally as its reaction to the world in speaking and every attempt to say this as well inevitably becomes entangled in a paradox. Hence, “what can be shown, cannot be said.” (TLP 4.1212)

  • 3 The expression “event” or “happening” (Ereignis) implies that the distinction between what can be s (...)

8At the same time, there is a characteristic difference between the showing of language through speech and the showing of the world in it. By virtue of speaking, language reveals how it is: it reveals as a practice its form; whilst from the fact of the world in which language is spoken about, it emerges that language is: it discloses its existence. Hence, it is said of logic that it “is prior to the question ‘How?’, not prior to the question ‘What?’” (TLP 5.552), whilst the existence of the world precedes its question “what”: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” (TLP 6.44) Since language only deals with the states of affairs in the world in true-false oppositions, a statement about its existence would not be a sensible proposition; it would refuse the expressible, insofar as the question “that” names no possible fact: “Does it make sense to ask what there must be in order that something can be the case?” (TLP 5.5542). Instead, the facticity of “that” signifies the inexpressible: it shows itself at the point where language does not reach: it lights up in silence as happening (Ereignis ). For that reason, Wittgenstein also speaks of “wonder”: the expression is also in the 1914 – 1916 diaries, as later in the Lecture on Ethics that was held between 1929 and 1930 (NB, 20.10.16; LE, 8). In the Tractatus, it is connected as such with the mystical (cf. TLP 6.44, 6.522). What is not meant is: the inexpressible exists as a transcendent or inexplicable entity beyond language; rather, it happens first and foremost from the opposition between what can be said and shown. The mystical represents the place where every definition of the question of “what” or “how” ceases and only the pure presence in relation to absence manifests itself. That means: the world, as the self-revealing entity, “is” only in the event.3

  • 4 In his 1975 dialogue with a Japanese, Heidegger calls, with good reason, his dialogue “Aus einem Ge (...)
  • 5 PG, 40. That the difference between saying and showing is a sign of the continuity of the early and (...)

9Nevertheless, in view of the showing of language and world, it is still necessary to distinguish between positive and negative mystics. The former refers to the indefinite nature of logical form, the latter to the mystery of existence. Positive mysticism includes the Tractatus in terms of content and its impossible undertaking to speak about something on which silence is the only possibility. In every sense, the perspective of the expressible is, in that case, a prior condition. That is determined by the postulate of the isomorphology of thought, speech and world that, in turn, gives preference to an ontology of logic, in order, ultimately, to progress to the inexpressibility of its structure. Accordingly, at the close of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein again returns, in mirror-like fashion, to the beginning: since the proposition “shows how things stand if it is true”, but it “says that they do so stand”; whereas in the proposition that the world is, by the act of speaking about it, it is shown how it is (cf. TLP 4.022, 6.44). The proposition therefore speaks about something, yet not “about its own speaking”. A later insight corresponds to that proposition, insofar as language blocks its reflection as much as its totalizing.4 “What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.” That is the gist of an analogous remark from Philosophical Grammar that anticipates Wittgenstein’s late philosophy: “Language must speak for itself.”5 According to that idea, there is no exhaustible philosophy of language that might not essentially reduce it — a consequence that Wittgenstein ultimately drew in his merely “exemplary” proceedings of the Philosophical Investigations by the fact that he no longer speculated “about” the question of the “what” and the “that” of language and nor “about” the difference of saying and showing. Rather, he allowed these aspects to flow into the method of description itself, by only demonstrating partial language-games as “critical models of comparison” that explain themselves by example (PI § 23; PG, 61-63.) It can therefore be said: the Investigations no longer proceed logically, but in an explanatory fashion; language, or to be more exact: a plurality of language-games shows itself by its use; it fulfils itself in the act of performance. By contrast, the “that” of reality can only appear where language falls silent: “I am only describing language, not explaining anything.” (PG, 66)

  • 6 “How things are in the world is God”, is the context of an unnumbered remark form the time of writi (...)

10On the other hand, negative mystics already reaches into that sphere of the inexpressible that for Wittgenstein coincides in the same measure with the exclusion of metaphysics, as with the ethical and the aesthetic dimension. In the Tractatus, no corresponding mention is made of them anywhere, not even in the form of speech, of the absence of speech. However, their essential indifference is not only a symptom of their inexpressibility, but above all, of that sound, with which they themselves touch the secret of existence. Admittedly, only a vague “feeling” announces that “experience par excellence” (cf. TLP 6.45; LE, 8). It is shielded from silence like a taboo: “God does not reveal himself in the world.” (TLP 6.432)6

III.

  • 7 Cf. NB; LE; WVC; MT. In the war years, above all, the confrontation with death is decisive, just as (...)

11Meanwhile, the 1914 – 1916 diaries as well as the 1932 – 37 Lecture on Ethics and parallel notes from 1929 – 30 by Waismann of the Vienna Circle contain a series of references that give a deeper insight into what is meant.7 The reflections contain a loose collection of thoughts on the will, death, as well as the “meaning of life” and “the whole of the world” that extend beyond the cryptic propositions in the Tractatus and allow them to be deciphered. The consistent link of ethics, aesthetics and religion is especially noteworthy. The Tractatus already postulates their connection with the brief remark: “It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. […] (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)” (TLP 6.421) The suggested connection endures at least until the 1930s and probably forms one of the basic positions of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Thus, almost fifteen years later, it is stated in the Lecture on Ethics: “Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics.” (LE, 4) Moreover, the following entry is noted in the diaries: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connexion between art and ethics.” (NB, 7.10.16)

  • 8 Spinoza 1996, (Ethics, V/P29 & P30) particularly highlights that to observe things according to the (...)
  • 9 “Aboutness” in this sense is not a definition of art, as Arthur Danto states in The Transfiguration (...)
  • 10 In the 1930 – 32 and 1936 – 37 diaries, it is stated in this sense: “Believing begins with belief. (...)
  • 11 Note: Heidegger’s usage rests on a word play on the ambiguity of the German “Satz” and “Sprung” tha (...)

12Spinoza’s doctrine echoes in the formulation. The view sub specie aeternis is a step out of reality; the viewpoint of eternity warns of departure from the world.8 That also means: the ethical as well as aesthetics do not refer to the existence or non-existence of facts, that is, to objects of science. Therefore, they are also not capable of being articulated in sentence form;9 moreover, it is neither a case of establishing “laws” nor of justifying criteria or norms. Rather, the ethical and aesthetic dimensions require a change of attitude. Time and again, Wittgenstein outlines the point that there is no transition from the logic of language to ethics or aesthetics, because they owe their existence to the break with discourse. They literally occupy the place — like religion10 — of the Other of the discourse. Hence, it is disputed in the Lecture on Ethics whether a factual statement can “ever be, or imply, a judgement of absolute value”: even a book including all possible descriptions would still contain “nothing that we would call an ethical judgement or anything that would logically imply such a judgment.” (LE, 6) That also means: there can be no scientific ethics: “Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural […]”. (LE, 7) In this way, Wittgenstein not only says that the ethical falls out of the domain of the factual, hence leaving no conclusion from being to duty, but he refers the ethical principally into another context. In other words, there is no “translation” between the expressible and the inexpressible of the ethical or aesthetics, but only a “leap”— just as Heidegger said in Identity and Difference that the sentence makes a “sentence” in the sense of a “leap”.11 However, we only leap in an abyss, as is further stated, as long as the logos, that is, the predicative speech and therefore the perspective of the world are posited in the absolute sense, yet not, where “we leap and release ourselves” (Heidegger 1978, 20).

  • 12 The diary contains the following remark about this: “The usual way of looking at things sees object (...)

13One way of such a release, for Wittgenstein, lies in the proposition “[t] o view the world sub specie aeterni […] as a whole — a limited whole.” (TLP 6.45) To keep something as “whole” demands an outside view, as especially characteristic for aesthetic experience. This is impossible as view, because it would presume taking the “whole” into view from a position that is already vacated, that is, remaining beyond the limit first conditioning its possibility. However, it is decisive that such a guarantee transforms the view,12 pointing to whatever presently conceals itself within the whole: the uniqueness of its existence. The following remark was entered in the diary under the date, 11 June 1916:

I know that this world exists.
That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field.
That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.
That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it.
That life is the world. (NB, 11.6.16)

14In that entry, the connection between ethics and aesthetics is also expressed: the view sub specie aeternis draws attention to the sudden nature of the “that”. It is the experience of the moment (Augen-blick). The perspective of eternity and timelessness of the moment mean the same thing:

  • 13 Similar remarks are also in NB, 8.7.16 and MT 15.2.[37].

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. (TLP 6.4311)13

  • 14 McGuinness suggests as one feature of mystics the turn to the moment, cf. 1989b, 167, 180f.

15The distinction of the moment is, then, not a typical characteristic for mysticism;14 rather, conversely, it springs forth from the moment of the “turn”, which secures the existence of the world as ekstasis, as presence. That is to say it coincides with the experience of the ekstatic present itself, the moment that “leaps forward” that again does not describe a point in time, but out of time. Its experience implies abstaining from the world — and therefore from the whole. The unity of aesthetics with the ethical emerges from the interconnection of contemplation and abstinence. The mystical forms its bridge: “Feeling the world as a limited whole — it is this that is mystical.” (TLP 6.45)

  • 15 Schopenhauer I, 178ff. (§ 34). Similar ideas are in Kierkegaard (1952, 49).
  • 16 Heidegger speaks especially of a fundamental question of metaphysics, cf. 1965, 42.
  • 17 Schelling 1977, 167; TLP 6.522.

16The thought is Schopenhauerian in kind,15 since after all, Schopenhauer’s philosophy left manifold traces in the diaries. At the same time, Wittgenstein gives it a different emphasis. The Otherness of the discourse, the dimension of inexpressibility that is adopted in the ethical is founded in the extraordinary experience of existence as presence: Wittgenstein introduces in his Lecture on Ethics the fact “that […] I wonder at the existence of the world” alongside feelings of being “absolutely safe” and “guilt” as “the first and foremost example” for what he understands by “absolute value” (LE, 8). “That” something “is” this “only frightful” in Heidegger’s words (Heidegger 1984, 2) forms, in this sense, the basis of ethical feeling. It classically coincides with the beginning of meta-physics itself. That something is and not nothing — therein lies proof, for Leibniz, of that original trouble that Schopenhauer also described as the “balance wheel” and as “the watch of metaphysics that never runs down”. (Schopenhauer, II, 171). Together with the Platonic-Aristotelian “wonder” (thaumazein) that forms the “basic attitude” (Heidegger) of thinking as such.16 For Schelling, that attitude stands at the beginning of all philosophy: appearance of that transcendence that points to the “unpremeditated” and “the inexpressible” that, as in Wittgenstein’s work, is similarly claimed only to “show” itself.17

  • 18 Cf. Kant 1957, 328ff. (A 73ff.).
  • 19 The word “look” includes the reciprocal effect of looking and being looked upon. Benjamin refers in (...)

17Aesthetically, the experiences of aura and the sublime correspond to that attitude. Both are related. Whilst the world is guaranteed in its entirety, the view also emerges as more alien. Becoming estranged by destroying every measure in intuition is, for Kant, one feature of the sublime that also confronts the present with the aspect of presence itself.18 In precisely this way, Benjamin exemplified the phenomenon of aura in the paradigm of the answering look: “deriving the concept of aura as a projection of a social experience amongst humans in nature: the look is requited.” (Benjamin 1974a, 670). The passage illuminates the non-intentional character of the aura-like entity; what plays a role is not the seeing that sees something, but the reciprocal experience of a “look” as “moment” (Augen-blick).19 That something looks back emphasizes its ulterior nature and therefore opens the play of near and far that, for Benjamin, belongs to the constituent features of the concept of aura:

  • 20 Benjamin, 1982, 560. In a letter to Adorno of 9.12.38, the opposition of trace and aura is expressl (...)

The trace is the appearance of nearness, as far away as might be what is left behind. The aura is the appearance of a distance, as near as might be what it calls to mind. We grasp the matter in the trace; in the aura it overcomes us.20

18In that sense, the implication is the inaccessibility of existence as the uniqueness of a presence, which affords distance, as blindingly and self-effacingly in proportion as it captivates the look. It enables us, too, to draw nearer to the “face” of reality, its irreducible otherness that first and foremost lies in the fact that it “is”. Wittgenstein means nothing else when he speaks of a view sub specie aeternis: “Aesthetically, the miracle is that the world exists. That what exists does exist.” (NB, 20.10.16)

  • 21 Religious uncertainties almost exclusively dominate in the 1930 – 32 and 1936 – 37 diaries. Cf. als (...)

19When Wittgenstein therefore speaks of ethics, he rises to something that moves him, aura-like, as the “wonder of existence.” The function of aesthetics in that process is as a point of entry and metaphor, just as the religious dimension increasingly functions later.21

  • 22 Benjamin 1982, 588; Mosès 1994, 92, also emphasizes that the mystical or theological motif is the “ (...)
  • 23 In the Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Wittgenstein also (...)

20Both correspond to each other, describing related experiences. They find their most intense roots in the uncanny nature of the “that”. Brecht already objected to Benjamin that a mystical aspect is implied in accordance with the aura (cf. Brecht 1974, 14). The theological element is certainly the most consistent motif in Benjamin’s thought, as a fragment of the Passagenwerk underlines: “My thought relates to theology as blotting paper to ink. It is completely absorbed by it.”22 However, Wittgenstein, who felt himself moved by a similar sentiment, tries not to articulate it in the first place: existence itself, as well as the “whole”, cannot be put into words. At best, what can be shown is the “that” and, specifically, in the form of an indirect indication, as a reference to the riddle. To put it into a word anyway, to express it, as stated in the Lecture on Ethics, is to approach “misusing language”. (LE, 8) Wittgenstein repeatedly emphasizes that religion, as previously ethics and aesthetics, reaches a “quite different level” that can neither be affirmed nor negated; rather, it proves to be “significant nonsense”, that ultimately requires no words.23 The expression “significant nonsense” evokes, by its paradoxically unfathomable nature, the whole ambiguity between impossible speech and necessary transgression. What counts is not to reject it per se, but certainly to support it with asceticism. Wherever it still speaks, its function lies in the allusion.

  • 24 MT 15.2.[37]; cf. also LE, 9.
  • 25 LC, 58; likewise, it is stated in the Conversations with the Vienna Circle: “Is talking essential t (...)
  • 26 The 1930 – 32 and 1936 – 37 diaries contain the following reference: “A sentence can appear absurd (...)

21Nevertheless, Wittgenstein rejects its status as a simile, as similes would still stand “for something”, they would project a picture in place of the missing concept and, in that way, they would emphasize its omission: “And yet I am reluctant to use these images & expressions. Above all these are not similes, of course. For what can be said by way of a simile, that can also be said without a simile.”24 It is therefore not a question of rhyming or poetry; and yet, this qualification does not automatically exclude any metaphorical meaning. Rather, the word “misuse” refers to a “catechrestic process”. Mystical speech is always accomplished in catachreses; its function lies in the expression of otherness. By causing a break in language, or by opening a gap, they turn around at the limit of what can be put into words and in this way they open themselves to the inexpressible. In the list of rhetorical tropes, it is a case of figures of “deconstruction”: they find their fulfilment in breaking the discourse. That explains their incomprehensibility, absurdity, or systematically nonsensical character. In one of Wittgenstein’s lectures on religion from around 1938, it is noted: “Anyone who reads the Epistles will find it said: not only that it is not reasonable, but that it is folly. Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn’t pretend to be.”25 The religious catachresis crosses the zone of “falling silent”, yet in such a way that what is actually said no longer matters. Rather, something has to occur at its limits, which is no longer saying, but which allows experience to happen.26

22In this respect, on several occasions, Wittgenstein returns in the Conversations with the Vienna Circle to the Kierkegaardian motif of a futile “running against the paradox” (cf. Kierkegaard 1952, 42f.):

  • 27 Note: suggested translation.
  • 28 Cf. further WVC, 69: “In ethics, we are always making the attempt to say something that cannot be s (...)

Astonishment about the fact of the world. Every attempt at expression leads to nonsense. Man has the tendency to thrust against the limits of language. This thrust points to ethics (cf. WVC, 6827).28

23Nevertheless, this failure does not seal their inferiority, but on the contrary, the Lecture on Ethics concludes with a special tribute:

I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it. (LE, 12)

IV.

24Wittgenstein’s ethics is rooted in the experience of the “that” of existence as existence. It includes the emptiest thing qua language because no proposition leads to it and no proposition results from it; and yet, it contains qua experience the utmost sense of being shattered, the confrontation with the ultimate riddle. The discord is revealing: the ethical feeling emerges from this sense of being shattered; it means being moved by the puzzling nature of the “that”, yet without saying anything sensible about it and that also means without the ability to instruct. For that reason, for Wittgenstein, ethics emerges from a turn to the mystery that is to be achieved in each individual case. That seems little, if anything at all. The conclusion of the Tractatus seems to imply a similar message:

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are no questions left, and this itself is the answer. (TLP 6.52)

25And he adds:

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?) (TLP 6.521)

26In a curious way, nonetheless, the fragmentary remarks coincide in the concepts of the “mystical”, the “world as a whole”, as well as “life”, “sense” and “will”. Their relation that is yet to be deciphered relates to the ethical. Direct, ethical doctrines are to be distinguished from that dimension, or normative morals with their registers of directives for action, maxims and rules, or what Hegel called ‘ethical life’. Rather, Wittgenstein’s primary concern is the search for the basis and foundations of another form of reference. It is to be described by the unity of mystics, wholeness of the world and sense of life. Again, the way that their connection is created and takes effect as a unified link confirms their specific “relation”— their religio. It might be said: Wittgenstein’s ethics is mystical, his mystics an ethical one.

27(i) Wholeness of the world: once again, the starting and key point is represented by reference to the elementary experience of “that”, through which the world as a whole is placed in question. The whole identifies no order, no structure of things; rather, it permits the questionable nature of existence to emerge. Hence, what appears relevant for the ethical is not the whole “as” a whole entity, as a kind of “care” about the world, not even what it “is” or “might be”, neither its poverty nor vulnerability, as conversely, its hopes, a utopian perspective, but merely the fact “that” there is a world and that in it, as stated in the Tractatus, “everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen” (TLP 6.41). In this respect, the puzzle of its existence does not pose a question that could be answered with a proposition, a plan or a task, but rather it touches the “intangible” itself. By exposing the uncanny aspect of the “that”, Wittgenstein thinks from intangibility. In particular, he explains its ethical significance by the example of Christianity. In the Conversations with the Vienna Circle, he answers Waismann’s question whether the being of the world is connected with the ethical:

Men have felt a connection here and have expressed it in this way: God the Father created the world, while God the Son […] is the ethical. That men have first divided the Godhead and then united it, points to there being a connection here. (WVC, 118)

  • 29 In this sense, a diary entry of 15.3.37 reads: “But formerly you saw God perhaps in the creation, t (...)
  • 30 Here, “gift” is not to be understood as though “something” would be that would “give” it — that wou (...)

28The passage explains the connection in religious metaphors. The intangibility of existence is associated with the name of “God”, where the metaphor “God the Father” stands for the creation itself,29 the “Son” for humility in view of the contingence of what cannot be done — the simple fact that it is not within man’s powers to determine the “that” in the sense of being (ex-sistere). It names what is given in the sense of absolute gift.30 Wittgenstein dresses it up with a theological meaning; yet this meaning contains an ethical dimension, because the ethical first emerges from the relationship in the sense of a relation to the gift.

29(ii) Sense of life: the meaning of “sense” is also elucidated from this standpoint. The expression that seems to include a totality raises the suspicion of an objectification. However, the guarantee of intangibility implies looking back to the individual life. Wherever the “that” is placed in question, the issue of “sense” also arises — not as an issue of expression or interpretation, but as the puzzle-like figure of that experience of contingency from which the groundlessness and instability of the whole becomes evident. To put the matter differently: it is the abyss of reality that again succeeds in opening a perspective on the sense of life as an “absolute value”. For that reason, in the early diaries, “world” and “life” are identified with one another in the first place: “The meaning of life, i. e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.” (NB, 11.6.16) Whilst the connection appears implausible, in so far as the guarantee of groundlessness of “that” should also evoke a parallel experience of “absolute value”, thus, implying the “most nihilistic” as the “highest”; and nonetheless, the implication warns of the insight that we hold in our hand the “world as a whole” as little as we ourselves. Rather, together with the world, we are given up to the realm of intangibility. From that position alone is life to succeed in winning sensitivity for the “sense”.

30As a result, what “sense” means is shown by the turn to the intangible realm: “To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.” (NB, 8.7.16) In that case, “sense” would be a category that can be interpreted first and foremost from the perspective of the puzzle of the whole. That is to say it refuses an intentional construction. Sense is neither produced as discourse, nor guaranteed by acts of symbolizing or understanding; rather, we must commit ourselves in each case with our entire life. You could say: the intangibility of the “that” denotes that outrage that we can neither overcome nor answer, because we always answered it with our life. Life is finite from the location of its mystery: it draws its special value, its meaning from that location. In that case, sense would be an event that is awakened by the puzzle of “that” and passes through it, responding to it. Then ethics refers to the way of responsiveness as the form of a practice. It is rooted in the absolute difference that conditions the unavoidable character of answering. The sense of the ethical emerges from this unavoidability. To think and act from the intangible, that is, from that location that we cannot reach, from what we cannot even name or distinguish — ultimately that represents Wittgenstein’s self-imposed burden, which he was never to overcome in a lifetime.

  • 31 We approach a point that ought to be more closely investigated. The propositions of the Tractatus s (...)

31In this way, the connection of logic and ethics, as noted in the introduction, can be more deeply appreciated. All thought emerges as ethical, and wherever that is not so, there would be no thought worthy of respect. For that reason, philosophy means for Wittgenstein a self-imposed restriction. To him, it meant to work at himself. That holds true both for the initial silence accompanying the discontinuity of the Tractatus,31 as well as for the later quietist phase, the feeling of the inviolability, the singularity of phenomena, whose inexpressible dignity could only be “felt”. These elements embody a respect towards the world and towards being that resembles the attitude of “serenity”: “[Philosophy] leaves everything as it is.” (PI § 124)

  • 32 Here lies the meaning of such cryptic references as: “Propositions can express nothing that is high (...)

32(iii) Life as will: to give life a sense means, as follows, to connect it with the experience of the intangible, or it means to answer a basic feeling of “powerlessness”. The intangible is confronted with what is not made, what cannot be made; correspondingly, an entry in the diaries reads as follows: “I cannot bend the happenings of the world to my will: I am completely powerless.” (NB, 11.6.16) And further: “The world is given me, i. e. my will enters into the world completely from outside as into something that is already there. […] That is why we have the feeling of being dependent on an alien will.” (NB, 8.7.16). That is matched by the proposition from the Tractatus: “The world is independent of my will.” (TLP 6.373) However, precisely in this idea lies an original responsibility (Ver-Antwortung). This does not refer to whatever can be taken on board in each case; it does not mean accepting the consequences of a particular action, rather the actual sense of responsibility lies in the necessity of the responsiveness. I cannot avoid answering the state (Ge-Gebenheit) of the whole; rather, with the “gift” of being a sphere of human power is appealed to that is absolutely withdrawn. Wittgenstein also describes this as “the higher”.32 Ethics finds its relation from this behaviour to the withdrawal. It means the way of being as a whole and of behaving towards the whole. It therefore does not tolerate any instruction; it reaches fulfilment in doing. It is a practice: it shows itself.

  • 33 Schopenhauer, I, 275 (§ 54) and I, 149 (§ 27).

33On that basis, the ethical has its function in the performative. Here, performance means fulfilment in life. During the phase of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein characterizes this under the direct influence of Schopenhauer as “will”. The Schopenhauerian will is, however, not subjectively weighted; it refers to the act as such, beyond all categories of the subject. It corresponds in that sense to the ekstasis of the “that” (quod) in Schelling’s work, which is one reason why Schopenhauer — and later also Nietzsche — interprets will in an ekstatic sense. He discovers it as an absolute entity that posits a hypothetical principle beyond the sphere of mere subjectivity that is also effective in nature: as “blind, irresistible urge” or “blind impulse, an obscure, dull urge, remote from all direct knowableness”.33 By that token, it is a striving that wants nothing other than its own life. It is the “will to life” that wills nothing other than to will, that is, “will to will”. Hence, it also does not know what it wants, but still only wills itself and by willing also brings forth itself. “The will alone is; it is the thing-in-itself, the source of all those phenomena. Its self-knowledge and its affirmation or denial that is then decided on, is the only event in-itself.” (Schopenhauer I, 184). Every special expression of the will of the subject finds its relation from that context: as “law” of a groundless, aimless and senseless desire that permeates all being.

  • 34 The connection is an immediate one in the diaries: “The act of will is not the cause of the action (...)
  • 35 Here, he borrows a similar figure that was also leading for Heidegger: the whole of life emerges in (...)

34Wittgenstein adopts this conception, yet in such a way as “will” names the whole of the act of completion. He no longer characterizes a metaphysical principle, but the “attitude of the subject to the world.” (NB, 4.11.16) Will thus becomes a position that first brings life qua practice into relation with the questionable nature of being. In this respect, the ethical can neither be represented nor confirmed by a theory nor by thinking; it is solely in acting.34 For that reason, it is stated in the preface to the Tractatus, as previously mentioned, that this shows how “little is achieved when these problems are solved”: the emphasis of the formulation lies, in this instance, not on an intended response to philosophical questions, but in doing as the other, unspoken side of the treatise. The practice that is thus in parenthesis is not absorbed in the sum of single references; they are not determined by the individual actions of a subject, but they emerge from the “whole of life” as an indefinite entity.35 In other words, it is constituted in relation to the intangible, to the absolute “gift” and to the location that this assumes in the individual’s action (and thought). This gift can never be excluded, because even the act of non-relating would be a form of relationship. Hence, it is also stated: “Things acquire ‘significance’ only through their relation to my will.” (NB, 15.10.16). Only by that means do the world and things achieve “sense”. That means: the manner in which the puzzle of existence appears or conceals itself, how it is accepted or rejected, worshipped or rejected, enjoyed or annihilated, is first and foremost an anchor for what is called the ethical. It is also influenced by the way in which the secret appears in our life and finds a place. Everything depends on how the intangible affects us, how we invite it into our doing, whether we try to give it dignity, or to refuse it to ourselves. In this sense, the modesty, reserve or unwillingness, which Wittgenstein prefers from the beginning, can also be viewed as a gesture of answering.

35Now it is also clear why Wittgenstein, as already suggested at the outset, calls the ethical as well as the logical “transcendental”, that is, a “condition of the world” (NB, 24.7.16) The structure of facts, the grammar of language and the form of answering, as well as acting, correspond to each other. That is the essential insight of his late philosophy: as we see the world, so too, we live, we view things and speak of them:

I mean: mustn’t it then have implications for your life, commit you to something? […] After all, another life shifts completely different images into the foreground, necessitates completely different images. […] That does not mean that through the other life one will necessarily change one’s opinions. But if one lives differently, one speaks differently. With a new life, one learns new language games. (MT 15.3.[37], 4.2.[37])
Thus, a correspondence of language, life and being is professed. The ethical contains nothing else: the practice of answering the withdrawal of the world is reflected in the “interweaving” of life forms with language--games and produces that unified “band” (religio) that, in a real sense, amounts to its religious nature and ethics of silence. This continues until the late philosophy and is a further proof of the continuity of Wittgenstein’s style of thinking.

V.

36Wittgenstein’s notes on ethics are of a very personal and private nature. They carefully avoid every hint of preaching or pathos. It is notable that no general value judgment is made anywhere, no instruction emerges, not even any general recommendations are expressed. At the most, subjective standpoints are defended, partly construed in secret code or supported by reprimands and the rigour of self-imposed accusations in the style of a confession. Wittgenstein possesses no ethics in an actual sense, no practical philosophy, no moral message. He neither formulates obligations nor does he assert duties, virtues or universal commands. Also, Wittgenstein does not demand anything of others, yet he demands all the more of himself. In that respect, his rhapsodic reflections develop their relevance only in self-reference to his own life. With respect to his Lecture on Ethics held at the same time, he expressly notes in the Conversations with the Vienna Circle:

  • 36 It is further stated: “[…] And here it is essential […] that I am speaking for myself.” (WVC, 118)

At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the first person: I think that this is something very essential. Here there is nothing to be stated any more; all I can do is to step forth as an individual and speak in the first person. (WVC, 117)36

37To what extent is that so? In the first instance it is the case because the ethical in Wittgenstein’s work has nothing to do with general concepts or justifications, but solely with subjective life forms; and further, because these aspects derive from how, in each case, they unmistakably relate to the puzzle of existence, to the experience of the “that”. The restriction to the first person perspective therefore indicates that we are alone with our answer in the ethical sphere — and that this answer must always turn out to be different, unique.

  • 37 MT 8.10.[30]. On the context of the history of ideas cf. also Janik and Toulmin 1987; as well as my (...)

38That does not mean: the structure of answering is a matter of individual choice. If Wittgenstein occasionally allows himself an inspiration from Schopenhauer or Kierkegaard, it is neither a philosophy of life nor existentialism. Rather, the special tone of his writing is an indication of the concrete, historical crisis, the historical collapse and the dissolution of traditional ethics as well as traditional value systems in the inter-war period. Neither Christian faith nor the rational ethics of responsibility from the Enlightenment hold true — Wittgenstein is also at point zero of the ethical. In the groundlessness of devalued time, he strives to win back a root, a new sense of stability. He does this with his own radical approach. At the same time, he feels intensively the “ash of culture”37, the decline of the epoch and the loss of selfanchorage like a rod through the centre of his personality. He suffers that process as an inner torment of the soul and a torturous feeling of guilt. At times, they carry the indelible face of despair: “Our age is really an age of the transvaluation of all values. (The procession of humankind turns a corner & what used to be the way up is now the way down etc.)”, he noted in October 1930 in his diary (MT 22.[10.30]). And in 1945, shortly before the end of the war, he spoke of a new “darkness” (PI Preface): a catastrophe without healing.

39The only thing that then remains is to throw the weight of the individual person in the balance of time, to withstand its lack of healing power. In that case, Wittgenstein found solace during the 1914 – 1916 war years, above all, in works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but also in Augustine and mystics like Angelus Silesius and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They ultimately helped him to what he felt was his own, very personal answer to the riddle of life, which he in no way intended to recommend as exemplary: the attempt to bring himself and his own life “into the clear”, that is, into an equilibrium. For that reason, it could be said that Wittgenstein’s own project lies in the persistent striving for an identity as equilibrium. In the diaries, however, this balance is described as an agreement with aspects that suggest a conception of the whole (NB, 8.7.16). Such agreement appreciates the “dependence”; it avoids intervention, it lets “be”. The ethical position that Wittgenstein therefore achieved for himself then consisted of an attitude of balancing, of measure. However, just as there is lastly no criterion for the right balance, which is rather consistently under threat of falling to one side or the other, there is also no measure for the measure: this is shown.

40At the same time, a new paradox emerges in that respect, which Wittgenstein again preferred not to see in his entire approach and tendency: it excludes reading into his ethics more than merely a very private striving for integrity. Turning away from the world, refusal, which first permits the attitude of non-intervention, is lastly rooted in the negation of the other. Therefore, in his solution lies a reversal and betrayal of what is precisely a constituent part of the ethical problem. Ethics beyond the question of alteriority remains blind; it forfeits, to think radically, its status as ethics. Ultimately, Wittgenstein was in default of an answer to this problem: his ethics of showing was solely restricted to the individual; it resigned to personal deed; for that reason, an answer to the individual “puzzles of life” also conditioned not answering the puzzle of others.

Bibliographie

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Notes

1 Cf. McGuinness’s answers in Mersch 1991, 85f.

2 Cf. TLP 3.33, 4.0312, 4.461–4.462, 6.1, 6.11, 6.2.

3 The expression “event” or “happening” (Ereignis) implies that the distinction between what can be said and not said is not accessible: it is not a constructive effect of a discourse: it happens. It is therefore also not, as Derrida and J. Butler meanwhile seem to infer, marked arbitrarily and, by that, not transferable.

4 In his 1975 dialogue with a Japanese, Heidegger calls, with good reason, his dialogue “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache” — a conversation of (von), not “about” (über) language.

5 PG, 40. That the difference between saying and showing is a sign of the continuity of the early and late philosophy, so that it is plausible to take this sign as pointing to the unity of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is also studied by Watzka 2000, 23f.

6 “How things are in the world is God”, is the context of an unnumbered remark form the time of writing the Tractatus; [cf. TLP Critical Edition, 255]. In this respect, an affinity is also shown with Schelling’s idea of God.

7 Cf. NB; LE; WVC; MT. In the war years, above all, the confrontation with death is decisive, just as the diary entries end with the definitive view that suicide is the original sin (NB, 10.1.17). See especially McGuinness 1988, 331ff., 349ff., who cites above all Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief, but also Lichtenberg and Schopenhauer, as references for Wittgenstein’s ethics.

8 Spinoza 1996, (Ethics, V/P29 & P30) particularly highlights that to observe things according to the species of eternity means to see them, insofar as the Being of God incorporates their existence.

9 “Aboutness” in this sense is not a definition of art, as Arthur Danto states in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.

10 In the 1930 – 32 and 1936 – 37 diaries, it is stated in this sense: “Believing begins with belief. One must begin with belief; from words no belief follows.” (MT 27.1.37)

11 Note: Heidegger’s usage rests on a word play on the ambiguity of the German “Satz” and “Sprung” that can mean ‘sentence’ or the initiation of a ‘leap’ or ‘jump’. This word play is difficult to render in English.

12 The diary contains the following remark about this: “The usual way of looking at things sees objects as it were from the midst of them, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside. In such a way that they have the whole world as background.” (NB, 7.10.16)

13 Similar remarks are also in NB, 8.7.16 and MT 15.2.[37].

14 McGuinness suggests as one feature of mystics the turn to the moment, cf. 1989b, 167, 180f.

15 Schopenhauer I, 178ff. (§ 34). Similar ideas are in Kierkegaard (1952, 49).

16 Heidegger speaks especially of a fundamental question of metaphysics, cf. 1965, 42.

17 Schelling 1977, 167; TLP 6.522.

18 Cf. Kant 1957, 328ff. (A 73ff.).

19 The word “look” includes the reciprocal effect of looking and being looked upon. Benjamin refers in this context to Paul Valéry: “The things which I see also see me just as I see them.” Cf. Benjamin, “Analecta”, 193, 194, quoted after Benjamin 1974a, 647. A note from the context of the Lehre vom Ähnlichen also underlines: “Are there earthly beings as well as things looking down from the stars? Are they actually first beginning to look from the sky above? Are the celestial bodies with their faraway look the primeval phenomenon of aura?” (Benjamin, 1977, 958)

20 Benjamin, 1982, 560. In a letter to Adorno of 9.12.38, the opposition of trace and aura is expressly developed as the key to comprehending the concept of aura. Cf. Benjamin 1974b, 1102.

21 Religious uncertainties almost exclusively dominate in the 1930 – 32 and 1936 – 37 diaries. Cf. also Watzka 2000, 82ff. However, from the start, the reflections on the Tractatus accompany religious — and not just aesthetic — metaphors. Moreover, the reconstruction of the aesthetic from the dimension of aura already reveals its genuinely religious meaning.

22 Benjamin 1982, 588; Mosès 1994, 92, also emphasizes that the mystical or theological motif is the “most constant” in Benjamin’s work.

23 In the Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Wittgenstein also professes on religious faith: “I can’t say. I can’t contradict that person.” (LC, 55) That statement is no evidence of his own faith, even if its depth and intensity is reliably documented in the diaries. Rather, it shows its indecision.

24 MT 15.2.[37]; cf. also LE, 9.

25 LC, 58; likewise, it is stated in the Conversations with the Vienna Circle: “Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking. […] Thus it also does not matter at all if the words used are true or false or nonsense.” (WVC, 117) The triplet of true, false or nonsensical even emerges from a logic of triple value, the failure to acknowledge the tertium non datur.

26 The 1930 – 32 and 1936 – 37 diaries contain the following reference: “A sentence can appear absurd & the absurdity at its surface be engulfed by the depth which as it were lies behind it. This can be applied to the thought concerning the resurrection of the dead & to other thoughts linked to it.” (MT 1.12.[36])

27 Note: suggested translation.

28 Cf. further WVC, 69: “In ethics, we are always making the attempt to say something that cannot be said, something that does not never will touch the essence of the matter. […] But the inclination, the running up against something, indicates something.”

29 In this sense, a diary entry of 15.3.37 reads: “But formerly you saw God perhaps in the creation, that is, in the world.” (MT 15.3.[37]).

30 Here, “gift” is not to be understood as though “something” would be that would “give” it — that would be theology. In this regard, it is illuminating that, from the outset, Heidegger connected the “ontological difference” between Being and being (Seiendes) to the difference between “It is […]” and “There is […]”, where “There is Being” and “There is being” (Seiendes) are used with a different meaning; cf. Heidegger 1962, 212, 214, 226ff., 230, 316.

31 We approach a point that ought to be more closely investigated. The propositions of the Tractatus stand monolithically next to one another, like additions that are placed; they reject both a discursive structure as well as a nexus of causality. That means that the textual ordering of the Tractatus consists of discontinuous sections; it operates itself according to the difference of saying and showing: amongst them is a gaping silence that the conclusion expressly commands.

32 Here lies the meaning of such cryptic references as: “Propositions can express nothing that is higher.” (TLP 6.42)

33 Schopenhauer, I, 275 (§ 54) and I, 149 (§ 27).

34 The connection is an immediate one in the diaries: “The act of will is not the cause of the action but is the action itself. One cannot will without acting. […] willing is acting.” (NB, 4.11.16); and likewise further, MT 6.5.[31]: “But an ethical proposition is a personal act. Not a statement of fact.”

35 Here, he borrows a similar figure that was also leading for Heidegger: the whole of life emerges in this case from the ‘anticipation of death’ (Vorlauf zum Tod), cf. Heidegger 1962, 255ff. (§§ 52, 53). What is meant is no fatalistic turn towards death, but rather the opposite, thinking from the “approach” of the future of death as an intangible entity, which only life and its understanding refers to its necessary “finitude”. That death is the future of every “mortal” implies that its undeniable approach originally provokes a standpoint on morality and therefore on the whole of life. The relation between “striving for the absolute” and departing “to battle through life toward death” is also to be found in Wittgenstein’s later diaries, MT 20.2.[37].

36 It is further stated: “[…] And here it is essential […] that I am speaking for myself.” (WVC, 118)

37 MT 8.10.[30]. On the context of the history of ideas cf. also Janik and Toulmin 1987; as well as my introduction, Mersch 1991, 24ff.

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Suzanne Kirkbright (Traducteur)

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