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The publication of this book is an
important event for Wittgenstein scholarship and a wonderful opportunity for
anyone who knows a little about either Wittgenstein's life or his work to learn
more. It is not for beginners. Nor is it for anyone not interested in
Wittgenstein (as, say, the Philosophical
Investigations might be considered essential reading for anyone interested
in the philosophies of mind or language, whether or not they agree with its
contents). It is probably best for a
review of the book therefore to focus on what it includes rather than whether
what Wittgenstein says in it is right or wrong.
Most of the book consists of one of
Wittgenstein's diaries, this one written during 1930-1932 (in Cambridge,
England) and 1936-1937 (in Norway). An
(American) English translation is given alongside the German, which was first
published in 1997 edited by Ilsa Somavilla, whose helpful footnotes are
included here. The diary shows
Wittgenstein's spiritual and moral struggles as he tries to do something
worthwhile with his intellect without getting vain about it, and as he worries
about his relations with others, such as Marguerite Respinger, whom he came
close to marrying. Again and again he
addresses his thoughts to a God that, apparently, he does not think is really
there (see pp. 193, 215 and 229). This
will appeal to anyone who liked Ray Monk's biography or Wittgenstein's own Culture and Value, as will the
correspondence with his friend Ludwig Hänsel, which is also presented here for
the first time in English. These are
the "private occasions" of which the title speaks.
The "public occasions"
are notes on, and recollections of, various lectures and discussions that
Wittgenstein led between 1930 and 1947 (plus one from 1912). These show two significant things. The first is that many people who were there
express frank incomprehension of what Wittgenstein was trying to get at. The others tend to have understood him in
mutually contradictory ways. So such
secondhand reports, though interesting and potentially useful, must be handled
with care. That said, the second
significant thing shown here is various ways in which Wittgenstein tried to
explain his ideas to his friends and students (who were often the same
people). There is probably not enough
in these notes to replace the explanations given in works such as the Investigations, but certainly students
of that work might benefit from supplementing it with, for instance, the
records of discussions with Robert Thouless and C. H. Waddington. In just sixteen pages these discussions shed
new light on what Wittgenstein thought about meaning and use, about grammatical
propositions and the autonomy of grammar, about rules, and about inner
Also of note throughout the book
are various remarks Wittgenstein makes about Kierkegaard and his own Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. These topics are linked since there is a
school of thought according to which Wittgenstein employed Kierkegaardian irony
in the Tractatus, so that it should
not be taken at face value. With this
in mind it is fascinating to see Wittgenstein's ambivalence toward Kierkegaard. At times he seems suspicious of his irony
and (as Wittgenstein sees it) self-satisfaction. Elsewhere he speaks of Kierkegaard's greatness (p. 219) and
purity (p. 213), comparing him favorably in the latter regard even with
Dostoevsky, Wittgenstein's favorite novelist.
The Tractatus is judged to be
"fishy" (p. 396) rather than false or nonsensical, perhaps suggesting
that it was not meant straightforwardly.
On the other hand a diary entry on p. 39 refers to some of it as
"good and genuine," which implies an absence of irony, but also to
"kitsch" that fills in "the gaps," with Wittgenstein
reporting that he cannot tell how much of the book is like this. Some Wittgensteinians will take this as evidence
that the views put forward in the Tractatus
are not Wittgenstein's own but a combination of Bertrand Russell's, Gottlob
Frege's, Arthur Schopenahuer's, and appropriate-sounding kitsch or guff that
the reader is meant to discard by the end of the book. This interpretation is bolstered by another
ambiguous remark on p. 387 that can be read as saying that the Tractatus was intended as a roadmap
showing the way out of a wood. Those who prize the trees through which this
road passes would then be missing the point.
What is wrong with the Tractatus,
Wittgenstein seems to be saying, is that it is written as if there is only one
way out, when in fact there are others too.
The ambiguity though is tantalizing.
In short, there is valuable
material here for scholars, students, and non-philosophers simply interested in
the mental life of a troubled genius.
The absence from this book of a complete account of either his life or
his philosophy makes this unsuitable as an introduction to either, but those
with some familiarity with them will relish these extra scraps.
© 2003 Duncan Richter
Duncan Richter is
an Associate Professor at the Virginia Military Institute in the Department of
Psychology and Philosophy. He is the author of Ethics
After Anscombe: Post "Modern Moral Philosophy" (Kluwer,
2000) and several papers on ethics and Wittgenstein.
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