Feb 022015

WittgensteinandMusilRobert Musil (1880-1942) was an Austrian novelist, philosopher, student of mathematics, physics, behavioral psychology and engineering with mystical tendencies, and the author of the great unfinished experimental novel, The Man without Qualities. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian philosopher whose thoughts on logic, mathematics, language and ethics have been extremely influential in both philosophical and artistic circles. He is the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and many unfinished works, including Philosophical Investigations.

Disclaimers: 1. I do not pretend to be an expert on Wittgenstein. These, my observations, come from a mere few years of study of a philosopher who deemed that even his closest peers did not understand him. By comparing my interpretation of his ideas to those of Robert Musil, I am merely suggesting connecting strands, and possible shared concerns, and generally avoiding here (in the interest of space and time) the very real and complex differences between their world views. 2. Since I have spent decades studying and writing about Musil, I have concentrated mostly on Wittgenstein in this essay, assuming a general knowledge of Musil which is probably quixotic at this point in his ill-fated English-language reception. Hopefully the hints and references to his ideas and works will lead the reader back to the primary sources and also to my more thorough treatment of things Musil in my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s &c.,&c. . 3. This essay could only be “completed” if I allowed it to be just that—an essay, or “essai,” a trial, and not at all a finished work of writing. It is an attempt to pull together many, many related but still insufficiently synthesized ideas. It will take a lifetime to get all of this into some truly presentable shape.

— Genese Grill


“Necessity is nothing but Existence, which is given through the Possibility itself.” — Immanuel Kant,
The Critique of Pure Reason

“It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than to deny it. Even so, it will always be the same possibilities, in sum or on the average, that go on repeating themselves until a man comes along who does not value the actuality above the idea. It is he who first gives the new possibilities their meaning, their direction, and he awakens them.” — Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

“It is clear that however different from the real one an imagined world may be, it must have something—a form—in common with the real world.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“Thought is surrounded by a halo—Its essence, logic, represents an order, in fact the a priori order of the world: that is, the order of possibilities, which must be common to both world and thought…prior to all experience [this order] must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty can be allowed to effect it—it must rather be of the purest crystal…” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

One of the most troubling challenges of living in what is nowadays assumed to be a relativized subjective universe is never knowing for sure whether what one sees, understands, or experiences is the same as what someone else sees, understands or experiences. What once was conceived to be solid shared reality, describable with definable words and measurable by standardized tools, has, since Kant (and, over the next century, in the wake of Einstein, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud), been deemed increasingly fragmented, uncertain, and relative. After philosophers spent centuries wrestling with the question of what could be known about the world and the related question of what, in fact, reality is, with or without the intervention of the subjective experiencer, the so-called “linguistic turn” in twentieth century philosophy took this question a step further by concentrating on the role played by language in describing, creating, delimiting, or expanding our experience and knowledge of the real. Modernist art and literature wrestled with these problems of knowing and communicating and earnestly strove to find ways to build bridges between the individual alienated person and the shared world of nature and culture. To put it simply, Kant was looking at the limits of thought; Wittgenstein at the limits of language. But both were concerned with the way philosophy had hitherto claimed to know or say certain things (of a metaphysical sort) that in their opinion could not be known or spoken of with certainty. Despite these reservations about the possibility of knowing or speaking certain things, neither Kant nor Wittgenstein rejected the realms of ethics or metaphysics as valuable aspects of experience.[1] And Musil made it even more clear than Kant and Wittgenstein (through his experimental fiction; through showing, not theorizing or merely saying) that aesthetics was the realm wherein one could begin to know, experience, and articulate those things which could not be grasped otherwise. He called this realm the realm of essay, of the ethical, of the aesthetic, of the other condition, and, despite his training as a mathematician and scientist, despite his tendency toward philosophical precision, he valued this realm above all others, choosing to write a novel rather than a scientific treatise for reasons with which Wittgenstein would probably have concurred. But the philosophical question of what could or could not be known of the shared world of phenomenon, and, thus, expressed in language (what kind of language became a heated question in Modernist poetics) haunted writers in the early twentieth century.[2]

Another philosophical conundrum discussed by Kant and then revisited by Modernist thinkers was the related question of ethics and the nature of the willing, determining self. For Kantians, as Anthony J. Volpa notes in his biography of Fichte, “At issue was whether selfhood as autonomous agency was an illusion and indeed whether the very notion of an integral self dissolved if the individual was merely one more object in a web of causes” (46). A hundred years later neo-empiricists like Ernst Mach (whom Musil critiqued and praised in his doctoral dissertation) were definitively denying the nature of the integral self and casting doubt on the individual’s ability to determine his or her shared reality—for quite other reasons and with quite other consequences than earlier thinkers. While in Kant’s time the debate was one between a divine determinism and the free will of the ethical individual, in contemporary philosophy the debate is between a random chaos or a mechanistic universe and a treacherous social construction wherein the individual plays no meaningful role. What exercised Musil and Wittgenstein was the quest for some direction for individual ethical behavior; and the search for some conduit to meaning amid the increasing fragmentation and uncertainty. In contrast to the abstract philosophizing of many logicians, Musil and Wittgenstein were, like the transcendentalists before them and the existentialists to follow, engaged in exploring philosophical questions that could help human beings figure out how to live.

320px-Klagenfurt_-_Musilhaus_-_Robert_MusilDepiction of Musil at the Musilhaus in Klagenfurt

According to Allen Tiher, in his Understanding Robert Musil, “Musil saw no place for human concerns in Mach’s limited positivism…in critiquing Mach he was already thinking of science’s uses for humanity…[Musil was] troubled by Mach’s idea of truths as mere fictions…” (34). Tiher goes on to say that Musil’s critique of Mach in many ways works as a critique of Wittgenstein’s belief that language could only depict the substance (not the core) of reality (“propositions mirror the exact part of facts, though nobody could ever point to exactly what they might be…all that can be meaningfully said is what can be mirrored in propositions in language”) (Tiher 42). Musil wanted to at least consider the possibility of knowing the thing in itself, whereas Wittgenstein may have been more skeptical about such certainty. Yet Tiher also points to commonalities between Musil and Wittgenstein, noting that both “yearned for a reality beyond the limits of positivist propositions and functional relations” (42). Both Wittgenstein and Musil “reacted to Mach’s limitation of knowledge to the realm of functional relations” (42). Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus, 6.52 “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all”. Tiher concluded that “Both conceive of aesthetics as a ‘showing’ of ethics, and of ethics as the realm where values are as real as any other aspect of reality” (43).

Early twentieth century Machian positivism inspired a new set of concerns for contemporary artists, writers, and philosophers, who were struggling with what they called a crisis of language (like the Kantkrise of an earlier generation of artists) amid a greater crisis of values. Did the breakdown of some certainties mean that anything was possible? Or rather nothing? Or were there natural parameters or boundaries, some sort of a priori order to things?[3] In the wake begun so long ago, today many heirs of two generations of skeptical inquiry err on the side of a radical openness and relativity of values to which Kant, Wittgenstein, and Musil would not have subscribed.

Many 20th century thinkers and artists, following the spirit if not the law of Kant’s ethical aesthetic imperative, believed earnestly in the possibility of redemption through art and an ethical conduct of life born of the friction between experimental empirical assessment and some sense of essential but shifting truths, between personal and shared reality, between repeating patterns and new arrangements, and between established archetypes or forms and new metaphors and synthesis—in short, in a kind of proto-aesthetic existentialism, whereby the artist and thinker expands the possibilities of the real (through seeing for the first time what was always there)without denying reality’s concrete parameters. These thinkers and artists were dealing with a struggle between necessity and arbitrariness, a priori truth and creative agency, asking such question as: What do we have agency over, what not? And how do language and art function in this interchange between what is necessary and what is possible or even merely constructed? How does the word or image “make” the world (as Musil and Wittgenstein suggest repeatedly), how does language respond to the world, answer the world? Is it like a call and response? A mirror, a warp, a description or re-creation? A betrayal, a social construction, a deception? Are certain facets of reality best described by showing, not naming, as Wittgenstein suggested and Musil modelled? Or is it impossible to know, and then impossible to describe or communicate at all?

While it has been the fashion for the last half century at least among sophisticated theorists and artists to maintain that nothing whatsoever can be determined, communicated, named, or delimited, past masters of precision and soul were capable of carefully examining what in fact still remained in the shared universe that could be established to be repeatable, certain enough, objectively measurable, and to what extent language could in fact be used to communicate not only what was solid, but even those more tenuous shifting internal subjective states that made up so much of the content of the art and literature of the psychologizing 20th century. The distinction between a world where nothing at all can be determined and one in which only certain things can be has been too often slurred over. The difference between a world wherein language means nothing and one in which language can approximate and approach meaning is considerable; and it takes patience and daring to dwell in this uneasy borderland, exemplified by Robert Musil and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

ludwig-wittgenstein-nacido-en-viena-austria-1889-fallecido-en-cambridge-reino-unido-1951-125700_w1000Ludwig Wittgenstein

These two thinkers lived almost side-by-side on Rasmofskygasse in Vienna for about a year sometime between 1920 and 1921, possibly without ever making each other’s acquaintance. They were both snobs who craved discourse; both were scientists who had more faith in art than in philosophical logic; both were individualists who were suspicious of collectivism and resisted joining groups or being categorized into positions or ideologies[4]. They both rejected externally-imposed morals and social judgments in favor of a personal rigorous ethics and conduct of life. They both had ambivalent relationships with the scientific positivists of the Vienna Circle. In contrast to the members of this circle, both wanted to connect philosophy and science with aesthetics and ethics and make it meaningful for human life[5]. Both resisted theory in favor of experimental empiricism. Both had mystical experiences as soldiers in World War One, leading to puzzling relationships with something they both sometimes called “God”; both were mathematicians suspicious of mathematics; both were engineers and inventors; empiricists and idealists; pragmatists and utopians. Both looked to anthropology to present alternative possible ways to live; both loved Dostoevsky; both worked and wrote in a non-linear,[6] inter-disciplinary fashion; both liked to go to the movies. Both of them were obsessed with using language precisely; but both rejected language skepticism, while acknowledging the limits of language and knowledge; and both saw metaphor as the best possible mode of expressing certain experiences and truths. Both were so committed to the experimental method and a resistance to closure or final solutions that they were almost pathologically unable to finish their works. They are exemplars of a special breed of idealist-realists—a group of people who throughout history have simultaneously hugged the surface of the real “what is” while reaching for the ideal “what could be”; thinkers who have labored to establish what can and cannot be known or spoken, thinkers who have eschewed what Musil called “Schleudermystik” (wishy-washy mysticism) and Wittgenstein called “transcendental twaddle,” and, at the same time, kept at bay a nihilistic relativism or void of all values. (Other thinkers in this cadre include Thoreau, Blake, Novalis, and Nietzsche).

(c) Bridgeman; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe Rasumovsky Palace, Vienna, Corner of Rasumofskygasse and Geusaugasse, by Carel Victor Morlais Weight

To harbor some belief in a repeatable recognizable shared reality and a language that serves well enough to communicate what we think, want, and care about is to fundamentally take responsibility for our place and agency in the world. The opposite tends toward an adolescent “whateverism” wherein everything cancels itself out and wallows in bankrupt cynicism. In contrast to this hollow sophistication, Wittgenstein and Musil are related to the transcendentalist age of self-improvement and both earnestly struggled with determining what was the right way to live. Their “sense of possibility” (Musil’s phrase) and skepticism about social conventions and abstract propositions about right and wrong was not the same as absolute license, total openness, or self-indulgence. Looking back to Wittgenstein and Musil, we find an alternative to the total relativity of values and vacuum of meaning—a veritable model of existential responsibility and an ethics grounded in a complex analysis of what can and cannot be known, expressed, or experienced—an ethics, in short, grounded in aesthetics. Ironically, the refusal to accept any shared reality today in some philosophical circles has led to a situation similar to the age of faith. While in the latter the realm of truth was found in scripture or metaphysics, in both cases truth is not recognized in the real exigencies or material experience of life. In both cases truth is an abstraction, although in one this abstraction is to be mistrusted while in the other it is to be uncritically believed. High Modernism marked out a middle zone between skepticism and non-critical acceptance of abstract generalities and ideals. This middle zone is difficult to navigate, but it is imperative that we abide here in uncertainty to catch the shirt tails of agency as reality flies past our subjective indifferent gaze.

We have come so far from that comfortable pre-Kantian world of shared beliefs, and we have heard so much skepticism about shared reality that we have almost become blind to the palpable real that is right in front of us, to the facts of our shared existence—birth, death, seasons, dusk, bodies, beauty, the night sky. Many contemporary theorists would have us scoff at the possibility of experiencing anything real at all, or at the possibility of using words to describe what we feel or see. But they must be blind themselves, and lacking fundamental sense organs, to arrive at such a bankrupt state of existence wherein nothing at all is real and no combination of words can resonate with an external or internal event. I have a young friend, so steeped in the allurements of this “philosophy” (it should be called love of no-truth, not love of truth, since, according to its basic tenets there is no truth to love) that he feels the need to create a new mythology, a trumped-up mythological meaning, since there is, he fears, no real one anymore. But wait! There is still meaning, there is still a real world, and words can still be used to celebrate and lament it! And this meaning will come from our sensual, aesthetic, experiential contact with the real, mediated through the mind, the senses, language, and images, the only tools that we have. Herein we may have some glimpse of the meaning behind the pronouncement (which we find in both Musil and Wittgenstein) that “ethics and aesthetics are one”. For aesthetics does not merely connote fantasy and fiction but sense experience, a living palpable conduit between the abstracted mind or pen and the real breathing, smelling, scintillating, churning world. How we see and experience and the way in which we formulate what we see and experience depends on sensations, formal arrangements, and the process and poetics of space, time, and shifting perspectives. And these perceptions determine our actions and judgments about how to live.

Wittgenstein is thought to have changed his ideas on the relationship between language and reality in between his writing of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, maintaining later that language is not necessarily a picture of the world, but, rather, that language determines what we see and, in effect, makes our world. But neither position is based on a radical separation between the mind as language-maker and the reality that it attempts to describe. Instead, it is a matter of interpreting, and expanding or limiting (waxing and waning, to use Wittgenstein’s terminology), our perspectives. According to David Pears, Wittgenstein, “abandoned the idea that the structure of reality determines the structure of language, and suggested that it is really the other way around: our language determines our view of reality, because we see things through it” (13). As my friend Dharman Rice put it, Kant’s theories suggest that the mind is not a camera simply recording what is out there, but rather has something to do with choosing, selecting, and arranging the phenomena it encounters. According to Kant, phenomena are transmitted or filtered through transcendental schema or structures of the mind (space, time, etc.); according to Wittgenstein, this arranging occurs through the process of language use. I scoured Kant in vain to find an answer to the question of whether this means that what the mind sees is an illusion, I could find no definitive answer (probably because it is the wrong question. Kant is not concerned with what is or is not there, but rather to what extent we can determine it). It seems to me that he does not assume that the filtered view is false. It is merely filtered. The same seems to be true for Wittgenstein. What changes in between the Tractatus and The Philosophical Investigations then is not Wittgenstein’s conclusion about a priori reality, but his process of arriving at a conclusion at all. In fact, one could say that there are really no conclusions, only a process. While in the Tractatus he relied heavily on what he came to see as a priori givens or logical abstractions, in the Investigations he is modelling a process of experimental empiricism, a method quite close to Musil’s aesthetic of experimental essayism, one which resists theory and final conclusions in favor of what Musil would call “partial solutions” or the “utopia of the next step”.

According to Ashok Vohra in his Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mind, this process is not a refutation of realist philosophy, although a realist might consider it to be. Wittgenstein,

[M]aintains that acceptance of any proof is an act of ratification which is independent of any previous acts of ratification. Nothing that we have done in the past forces us to ratify, or to withhold ratification from the proof which we are now being offered. This sounds absurd, because we naturally assume that the meanings of the terms used in the proof of the would-be theorem or equation must have been fixed in advance. But what Wittgenstein is suggesting is that their meanings were not completely fixed in advance, and that their full meanings accrue to them bit by bit when the later ratifications are made or withheld. (136)

In other words, the human mind continually participates in making and acknowledging a shifting changing world. This is an alternative to the chicken and egg question of whether the mind makes the world or the world the mind. The answer to the riddle is that the mind and the world constantly work together to fashion a meaningful approximation of reality. Further, of course, the mind is a part of the world, a part of nature, and thus should not be so very different from what it sees and records as to prohibit correspondence!

Immanuel_Kant_3Immanuel Kant

C. N. Wilson explains in his book, God’s Funeral, that Kant “was trying to marry the twin truths: namely, that by the very process of perceiving and knowing, we invent our world; and also that this world has a reality of its own.” In a note, Musil summarizes the paradox: “Kant: Concepts without observation are empty. Observation without concepts is blind” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1820). In another formulation he explores the question of how the phenomenological world interacts with the human mind: “In truth, the relationship between the outer and the inner world is not that of a stamp that presses into a receptive material, but that of an embosser that deforms itself in the process so that its design can be changed into remarkably different pictures without destroying its general coherence” (Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1435). In a conversation about ideality and reality with some high school students from The Walden Project here in Vermont, two of them came up with a marvelously helpful image: the ideal is like a light shining on the real, but it has to be plugged in to the real to shed light in the first place. The real, without imagination, ideas, dreams, or light, is nothing but a mechanical mass; the ideal, without the real, would have nothing to shine on.

In answering the related questions of what is determined and what determinable, or what is essence and what existence, what transcendental and what existential, or how much do our perceptions contribute to shared reality (beyond doubts about knowing the thing in itself), both Musil and Wittgenstein were pragmatists of sorts, who believed that we know the world well enough to avoid burns, bumping into tables, walking into walls, and well enough to understand basically the words others use. They also, as scientists, must have seen that the mind was not separate from Nature in some Cartesian sense and that such a natural structure or lens would probably see in a fashion more or less consistent with the reality of nature. As David Pears writes, describing Wittgenstein’s general perspective, “When the field [of observation] is extended to the limit, there does not seem to be any possibility of discovering that thought and reality might fail to fit one another[…]. [T]he fact is that in certain general ways thought and reality must fit one another”.[7]

Prop 5.6—5.641 of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus states: “The world is my world’, ‘I am my world. (The microcosm)” and “The subject does not belong to the world; rather it is the limit of the world’. But this need not contradict his emphasis on what Thoreau would call “fronting the real”. This is, in effect, the same paradox of Emersonian Self-reliance and the Kantian categorical Imperative and its subsequent iteration in existentialism: what is true for me is true for all men; what I do determines what others do; existence precedes essence. Our actions change the world; our perceptions expand and contract it; reality waxes and wanes depending upon the words we use to describe it; but that doesn’t mean that we change the basic coordinates of nature. Proposition 3.032 states: “One can depict something that contradicts logic in language just as little as one can present a figure in geometry whose coordinates contradict the laws of space; or give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.” And, again, in proposition 3.033, we read: “One used to say that God could create anything except something that contradicted logical laws— in other words, we couldn’t say what an illogical world would look like.” And yet, certain strictures, like grammar and some mathematical rules, are arbitrarily limiting. And there are socially-constructed morals and prejudgments that inhibit a fresh experience of the real. These must be resisted and continually tested. Musil wrote: “The period and the semicolon are symptoms of stasis. We don’t make them because we learned to, but because that is how we think. And that is the danger in them. As long as one thinks in sentences with end stops, certain things cannot be said; at most they can be vaguely felt. Infinite perspectives (moving inward) would have to be expressed like infinite rows” (Notebooks II, 822). As such, the way we use language to talk about our world can limit or open up what possibilities we see in it.

Perhaps the answer to the alleged problem (Wittgenstein would probably say that there is not even a problem to begin with!) is that knowledge of reality does not comes solely from empirical experience (as opposed to a priori essence), but that it comes from a process of synthesis and the constant creation of fresh, repeating—not rigid and unexamined—metaphor. A metaphor which, chez Wittgenstein, always points outside itself by virtue of its very nature as metaphor. Both Wittgenstein and Musil repeatedly make the distinction between living language and dead cliché, and this distinction is linked to their common cause of experimental empirical ontology and the processes called, respectively, the utopia of the next step (Musil) and re-ratification (Wittgenstein), whereby nothing is certain until one takes into consideration what comes next, or, until one re-tests it within new circumstances. Musil writes: “Living word full of meaning and correspondence in the moment, bathed in will and feeling. An hour later it says nothing although it says everything that a concept contains.” And Wittgenstein writes in his Philosophical Investigation, “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?–In use it is alive. Is life breathed into there?—Or is the use its life?” (432e).

Instead of adhering to one polarization of the empiricist/Platonist spectrum, Wittgenstein (like Musil and Nietzsche too) posits another kind of process of world-making (one that acknowledges a reality outside of abstraction, language, and theory), one which involves a conscious awareness of our use of language and image to create a good deal of what we consider reality and truth. The trick, as Nietzsche explains in his “On Truth and Lying in a Supra-Moral Sense,” is to never forget that the metaphors which we invent to describe and see the world are not rigid absolutes in themselves, but rather living, self-generating, shifting approximations or, to use Wittgenstein’s term, “family resemblances” rather than exact representations— likenesses, overlapping commonalities.

Although there are multifold possibilities of how language may be used to describe reality, there are not infinite possibilities. There are limits; and these limits are the limits of logic, reality, nature, experience and shared human and social life. And these limits have very important consequences in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s world views for determining a conduct of life. In fact, both of these individualistic—one might even say anti-social—thinkers, were deeply concerned with questions of society and the problem of solipsism. Wittgenstein’s rejection of the idea of a private language is one answer to the Modernist question of artistic solipsism, and touches on a central problem never solved by Musil: how might the mystical experience of “the other condition” depicted in his unfinished novel expand from the private specialized realm of two people to become a social utopia for the many? And how do his insane characters (Clarisse and Moosbrugger) serve to both destroy and invigorate common language with their private idiolects (Clarisse, in one very Wittgensteinian scene in the Nachlass chapters of the novel, tries to remove the meanings from words by taking them out of their natural order, by repeating them, by underlining them). One of Wittgenstein’s answers to the problem of solipsism is his conclusion that, as Vohra writes, “the real relationship between words and physical phenomena is not contingent but essential, and that language is not the product of one person, but has evolved with human life” (6). Although we do have private (i.e., nontransferable) sensations, they are stimulated by public, shared phenomena (the objects of observation) (Vohra 16-17). The necessity of communicating with others is served by a union of aesthetics and ethics, requiring an awareness of reality taking the special case into consideration rather than an abstract impersonal morality. Individual responsibility is born in each new moment— in concert with others. As opposed to an alienated despair or nihilism about the ability to ever share values, ideas, goals with others, Kantian, Wittgensteinian, Musilian individualism breeds ethical consciousness when it includes other-directed awareness. Anti-individualistic collectivism, on the other hand, can be the seedbed of a lack of self-responsibility. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that the problem with the idea of private language is its lack of practical social consequences. A private language is like one’s right hand giving one’s left hand money (80) or the absurdity of a person giving “himself a private definition of a word” (80). What would understanding be, what consistency? It would be, Wittgenstein writes, like “… a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism” (81). “Imagine,” he continues,” someone saying: ‘But I know how tall I am!’ and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it” (82).

There is a real world outside of or in correspondence with the mind, and its parameters do limit and guide what can and cannot be correctly said. Wittgenstein “holds the view that one who attempts to use a private language not only fails to communicate his meaning to others, but also does not have a meaning to communicate even to himself; in other words, he does not succeed in saying anything at all” (Vohra 38). Sensations, while they can be kept private, are communicable (Vohra 52). A private language is category mistake, according to Wittgenstein, that ignores the social nature of language. Language is a set of activities, and practices, defined by certain rules, and uses, “a form of life” (Vohra 66). As such, the individual has a social and ethical responsibility to use language in a way that corresponds to a shared social reality. While today some theorists might see this as a treacherous crime, or a sort of social coercion applied to the idiosyncratic non-contingent mind, Wittgenstein and Musil probably saw it as a pragmatic and workable means to attempt to communicate ideas and feelings. People who imagine Wittgenstein as the patron saint of silence and the impossibility of communication may be surprised to read this rather characteristic statement from the Philosophical Investigations: “The sign post is in order—if, under normal circumstances, it fulfils its purpose” (35 e). Inexact, he suggests, does not mean unusable.

And while Musil too (following Nietzsche’s metaphor theory in On Truth and Lying) is clear about the fact that metaphors are inexact, that, in fact, every time we make a metaphor we are perpetrating a sort of crime against the true differentiation of each entity or idea, he is equally clear that this process of inexactitude and imprecision is just what humans must do in order to bring “beauty and excitement” into the world. Making metaphors is a form of human-generated, reality-generated meaning-making which continually resists ossification, cliché, and fixed ideas. It is an ethical and aesthetic process of existential engagement in expanding (without denying) the boundaries of the real, of nature, of truths in their varied, shifting relativity. And this expansion of boundaries—what Wittgenstein called waxing—works in tension with the constriction of the already known and accepted, the already established conventions (a waning), as well as with the eternally reverberating archetypal and naturally recurring realities of shared human life (trembling aliveness of ancient energies). In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes: “6.43 If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language…. In brief, the world must thereby become quite another. It must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.”

All philosophical theories are rooted in pictures (metaphors); and every already-known picture must be continually uprooted by the introduction of a new picture, a new metaphor: once a simile or metaphor has been accepted, it is too often taken for granted, no longer seen as a picture but taken as a reality or an exact representation. The creation of new metaphors is necessary not only for the successful creation of new meaningful art objects, but, moreover, for the enlivening and generation of ethical life through living language and living forms. Wittgenstein writes: “The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy” (qtd. in Monk, 302). Monk glosses: “In understanding ethics, aesthetics, religion, mathematics and philosophy, theories were of no use” (304). In lieu of theories then: art, the realm of the individual case.

Each poetic pronouncement or artistic expression is at once a free act, individual voice, new note, an addition to and a conversation with, response to, answer to what has already been. And it can only be understood within such a linked context of history, cultural discourse, and shared experience of the world and its cultural products. Rampant skepticism, anti-intellectualism, and obfuscation lead only to careless, speechless, inarticulate grunts and irresponsible confused beings. Art, again, is often the best medium for communicating what cannot be shared otherwise and it models a process of generative re-visioning and a creative tension between what is and what can be, between the abstracted whole and the individual unique non-repeatable experience. Wittgenstein writes: “We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by another. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.) In one case the thought in the sentence is something that is expressed only by the words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.)” The use of poetic language, the ongoing conversation of form and image is a fruitful correspondence between particular individualized once-in-a-world empirical experience and a store of family resemblances, likenesses, and shared cultural and natural reverberations.

While sometimes the most valuable aspects of these human experiences (shared or alienating as the case may be) cannot be easily imparted, what can be shown but not said (in art rather than logic) is nevertheless sometimes stammered (one tries to say it, denotes it, suggests it, points to it) before it disappears. As Kafka wrote, “Truth is the light on the shrinking grimacing face”. We try to bring the wordless phantoms up from the depths or catch the rush of a flying experience of nature with words that are all too clunky, all too general. But they serve. They have to serve. And sometimes they serve brilliantly.

Wittgenstein apparently saw himself as “a disciple of Freud because of Freud’s use of similes: ‘It’s all excellent similes’, he said in a lecture on Freud’s work; and of his own contribution to philosophy: ‘What I invent are new similes’” (Monk 357). And Wittgenstein’s late philosophical technique even seems a bit like the technique of modernist fiction. The playing of “language games,” according to Monk, was a “method of inventing imaginary situations in which language is used for some tightly defined practical purpose. It may be a few words or phrases from our own language or an entirely fictitious language, but what is essential is that, in picturing the situation, the language cannot be described without mentioning the use to which it is put. The technique is a kind of therapy, the purpose of which is to free ourselves from the philosophical confusions that result from considering language in isolation from its place in the ‘stream of life’”(330). Wittgenstein’s anthropological approach has a good deal in common with the process by which fiction helps us to think about ourselves and our social assumptions by presenting alternative or slightly oblique visions of reality. This is, of course, a technique which Musil utilized expertly. Monk’s description of Wittgenstein could be a description of Musil the possibilitarian whose protagonist Ulrich was always imagining how things could be different; who was working on a utopian novel imagining all sorts of different ways to live; and whose short prose piece “Cannibals” describes a society of flesh eaters in a way that mirrors our own moral justifications for things that might be seen as aberrations: “By imagining tribes with conventions or ways of reasoning different to our own, and by constructing metaphors different to ones commonly employed, [Wittgenstein] tries to weaken the hold of certain analogies, certain ‘similes that have been absorbed into the forms of our language.’ He attacks, for example, the Platonism that regards logical propositions as analogous to factual propositions. ‘Isn’t there a truth corresponding to logical inference?’ he makes his interlocutor ask. ‘Isn’t it true that this follows from that?’ Well, replies Wittgenstein, what would happen if we made a different inference? How would we get into conflict with the truth? […]The point here is that the criteria for correct or incorrect reasoning are not provided by some external realm of Platonic truths, but, rather, by ourselves, by ‘a convention, or a use, and perhaps our practical requirements’” (Monk 381).

Wittgenstein’s new method in Philosophical Investigations rejected the earlier essentialist method of the Tractatus as metaphysical. His theories, he deemed, did not match real language or real experience (Pears 105-7). The generalizations arrived at intuitively were not results of empirical investigations…and, “he had wrongly assumed that the multifarious uses of language must have a high common factor [a generalized abstraction]. The truth was more complex: each resembled each other in many ways [family resemblances]” [and thus, he] “turned his investigation onto the multifarious differences” (107). Wittgenstein’s new method mirrors Musil’s:  “[I]t is empirical…it shows great respect for the particular case and …it is more like art than science, because the nuances of particular cases are not caught in any theory, but are presented in careful descriptions of actual linguistic practices…”(105).

Such an experimental method is actually a conduct of life—one requiring an open-endedness resistant to closure or absolute solutions. Demanding, in fact, a constant new re-visioning of fresh circumstances and combinations and a radical skepticism about received ideas and established categories. Wittgenstein’s work method was quite a lot like Musil’s, whose Nachlass is thousands of pages of versions, alterations, notes, sketches, and cross-references. Wittgenstein, according to Monk, would begin by writing remarks in a notebook; then he would select the best of these, write them out, “perhaps in a different order, into large manuscript volumes. From these he made a further selection, which he dictated to a typist. The resultant typescript was then used as the basis for a further selection, sometimes by cutting it up and rearranging it—and then the whole process was started again. Though this process continued for more than twenty years, it never culminated in an arrangement with which Wittgenstein was fully satisfied, and so his literary executors have had to publish either what they consider to be the most satisfactory of the various manuscripts and typescripts…” (Monk 319).

The work of philosophy, the work of the artist, in Musil’s and Wittgenstein’s sense, is a job with no end. One can never arrive at a conclusion. Monk explains: “This conception of philosophy, which sees itself as a task of clarification that has no end, and only an arbitrary beginning, makes it almost impossible to imagine how a satisfactory book on philosophy can be written. It is no wonder that Wittgenstein used to quote with approval Schopenhauer’s dictum that a book on philosophy, with a beginning and an end, is a sort of contradiction” (326). Musil, who never finished his magnum opus, would have concurred. In fact, as long as one lives, the work of being a human being is likewise an open experiment. We can never rest, but must always strive for the utopia of the next step, ever re-ratifying what we thought we once knew. “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”

— Genese Grill

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, writer, German scholar, and translator living in Burlington, Vermont. Her first book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012), explores the aesthetic-ethical imperative of word and world-making in Musil’s metaphoric theory and practice and celebrates the extra-temporal moment of Musil’s “Other Condition” as a transformative aesthetic and mystical experience informing a utopian conduct of life.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Wittgenstein speaks of a certain kind of experience, similar to Musil’s mystical “other condition,” in which “I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’…another experience…the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens’”. Monk writes that Wittgenstein “went on to show that the things one is inclined to say after such experiences are a misuse of language—they mean nothing. And yet the experiences themselves ‘seem to those who have had them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value’. They cannot be captured by factual language precisely because their value lies beyond the world of facts” (qtd. 277).
  2. In my book, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities,” I wrote:

    Hofmannsthal’s “Lord Chandos Brief” gave voice to the modernist skepticism about the ability of logical or literal language to express subjective experience; but Wittgenstein provided a theoretical framework for articulating individual emotional and ethical experiences through the poetic image (that is, metaphor) rather than through dialectical rational language. What philosophy and science could not describe or explain might be approximated through the realm of art. The work of art, alongside its associated realm of ethical thinking, is marked out as a realm especially conducive to the expression of particulars, and thus escapes the inherent inaccuracy and generalization of rational and scientific conceptualization or logical abstraction. On the other hand, the selection process necessary for art makes it a form of abstraction as well, and as such it is capable of presenting illusions of completion and harmony. Marjorie Perloff, in her book Wittgenstein’s Ladder, wrote: “Wittgenstein would have had no answers to these and related questions. On the contrary, his writing of ‘philosophy’ as if it were ‘poetry’ dramatizes the process of working through particular questions so as to test what can and cannot be said about literary forms (e.g., poetry), concepts (e.g., barbarism), and facts of life (e.g., death)” (i)

  3. In The World as Metaphor, I wrote: “Wittgenstein wrote that the central question that exercised his entire life’s work was: “Is there, a priori, an order in the world, and if so, of what does it consist?” What, in other words, is the nature of the order of the world and what is the role of the human subject in maintaining, producing, destroying, or rebuilding our shared reality? And while the easy answer is that Wittgenstein negated the possibility of an a priori reality, declaring instead that humans construct their shared reality out of language and perception, the fact remains that in many pronouncements he suggests that there might actually be such an “essence of the world,” one that we simply cannot access or express. “What belongs to the essence of the world,” he writes, for example, “cannot be expressed by language” (31). Making meaning of the world, whether through discovery of, or invention of, patterns and recurring forms, seems to be a requirement for survival, an aesthetic operation conducted upon possible random chaos to make life bearable. Gunter Gebauer explains, quoting Wittgenstein: “Only if we see the world in the proper perspective are we filled with ‘enthusiasm . . . (But without art, the object is a piece of nature like any other’); this occurs through a particular method of description. With the help of the art of description, the wonderful side of the world can be grasped” (35). Conversely, Gebauer continues, “Wittgenstein also knows the moments in which he loses this vision of the world,” when he has, “‘done with the world,’ he has created an amorphous (transparent) mass, and the world in all its variety is abandoned like an uninteresting junk closet” (34–35). This description is eerily reminiscent of many of Musil’s descriptions of a world miraculously flooded with, and just as suddenly drained of, meaning. In keeping with Musil’s constant allegorical comparison of world and word, this process of meaning and meaninglessness is most often described by him as the difference between living and dead words. The living word, like the living world, does not mean anything definite or fixed, but is imbued with meaning by the creative subject. The dead word, or “concept,” like the petrified world of received ideas and unexamined “facts,” is always the same word/world, no matter what one brings to it”.
  4. “The search for essences is, Wittgenstein states, an example of ‘the craving for generality’ that springs from our preoccupation with the method of science…’The tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness”…”Wittgenstein’s avoidance of this tendency—his complete refusal to announce any general conclusions—is perhaps the main feature that makes his work difficult to understand, for without having the moral pointed out, so to speak, it is often difficult to see the point of his remarks”. Ray Monk. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 338.
  5. Wittgenstein gave this explanation of the anti-positivist intentions of his Tractatus in a popular lecture to the “Heretics” club: “My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk on 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 meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. 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…” (qtd. in Monk, 277).
  6. Philosophical Investigations. Foreword: “My thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination—and this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought crisscross in every direction…The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new sketches made…” (ix).
  7. David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Viking Press, 1970, 31.

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