Ludwig Wittgenstein Criticism - Essay

George Pitcher (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wittgenstein, Nonsense, and Lewis Carroll," in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy, edited by K. T. Fann, 1967. Reprint by Humanities Press, 1978, pp. 315-35.

[Pitcher is an American author and educator. In the following essay, originally published in 1965, he relates Wittgenstein's writings on linguistic nonsense to Lewis Carroll's use of nonsense language.]

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was always concerned, one way or another, about nonsense; and much more so in his later writings than in the early ones. Nonsense is construed in the Tractatus in a narrow technical way: a combination of words is nonsensical when it cannot possibly be understood, because no sense is or can (except trivially) be accorded it. As an example of a nonsensical question, Wittgenstein gives that of "whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful." He thinks that "most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical," not even excepting, sadly, those found in the Tractatus itself. One of his main objectives is to devise and justify a method for distinguishing sense from nonsense, so that the latter may be consigned, as it should be, to silence. Nonsense is thus viewed as the major target for the philosopher's destructive weapons.

In the later Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein still finds that philosophers—including the author of the Tractatus—are professionally given to uttering nonsense. Not obvious nonsense, but hidden nonsense: and he conceives the job of good philosophy to be that of revealing it for what it is. "My aim," he wrote, "is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense." Disguised nonsense has a surface air of plausibility and naturalness about it, so that it can take in even a sensible man. It has the semblance of sense. But when one examines it carefully and follows out its consequences, its inherent absurdity becomes manifest. Wittgenstein is still as concerned as ever to exorcise nonsense from philosophy; he wants to cure us of the puzzlement, the deep disquietude, it engenders in our soul. But now he also uses it like a vaccine that cures us of itself He may, for instance, describe some state of affairs that, according to a certain harmless-looking view or picture which he is criticizing, ought to be perfectly unexceptionable: but in fact the alleged state of affairs is radically odd, inherently absurd. The hidden nonsense is thus uncovered.

It is through the bond of nonsense that Wittgenstein is closely linked with Lewis Carroll. What I shall seek in general to demonstrate is the remarkable extent and depth of the affinity between these two great writers with respect to nonsense. Since I do not want to embroil myself in controversies about matters that would be excessively difficult to establish with anything approaching certainty, I shall not draw the further conclusion that Carroll exerted a profound influence on the later Wittgenstein. That he did, is one of my firm convictions; but I shall content myself with pointing out what I believe to be the extraordinary and illuminating parallels between their treatments of nonsense.

What I aim to show in particular is, first, that some of the important general kinds of nonsense that the later Wittgenstein finds in the doctrines of philosophers are found also in the writings of Lewis Carroll. By "kinds of nonsense," I mean nonsense that has its source in certain fundamental confusions and errors. I shall try to show that the very same confusions with which Wittgenstein charges philosophers were deliberately employed by Carroll for comic effect. Second, I want to show that some quite specific philosophical doctrines that the later Wittgenstein attacks are ridiculed also by Carroll. (Certain of these specific doctrines will embody, naturally, some of the general types of nonsense just mentioned.) Third, I shall cite several examples used by Wittgenstein to illustrate his points that resemble, in varying degrees, examples that are found in the works of Carroll.

Does it seem paradoxical, or even perverse, to assert that philosophy and humor—especially nonsense humor—are intimately related? If so, I hasten to add that Wittgenstein himself was keenly aware of the connection:

Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)

And [biographer Norman] Malcolm reports that

… Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).

Wittgenstein undoubtedly had the works of Lewis Carroll in mind when he made those remarks.

Nor is it really very surprising to find some affinity between the nonsense of Carroll and that which bothered Wittgenstein: for both men were professional logicians and much of their nonsense, as we shall see, is grounded in just those matters connected with language that a logician must concern himself with—such matters, for example, as the meanings of terms and sentences, as the logical differences that exist amongst various sort of terms, as the fact that sentences having the same (or at least apparently the same) grammatical form sometimes express propositions of radically different logical forms, and so on.

I shall present my case by starting with items of less importance and proceeding in the rough direction of those of more importance.

  1. Wittgenstein makes the point that one must not be seduced into thinking that one understands a certain sentence simply because it is grammatically well-formed and consists entirely of familiar words: the sentence may, in fact, make no sense whatever, or be at least "fishy" in some important respect.

    "These deaf-mutes have learned only a gesture-language, but each of them talks to himself inwardly in a vocal language."—Now, don't you understand that?—… I do not know whether I am to say I understand it or don't understand it. I might answer, "It's an English sentence; apparently quite in order—that is, until one wants to do something with it; it has a connection with other sentences which makes it difficult for us to say that nobody really knows what it tells us; but everyone who has not become calloused by doing philosophy notices that there is something wrong here."

    The same point is made in The Blue and Brown Books: there, instead of saying, "It's an English sentence; apparently quite in order," he says, "It sounds English, or German, etc., all right." This point and even the forms of words in which it is expressed are reminiscent of Carroll. After the Hatter had said something (viz., "Which is just the case with mine") that he seemed to have thought answered Alice's criticism of his watch,

    Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. "I don't quite understand you," she said, as politely as she could.

    A similar scene occurs in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. The Professor said:

    "I hope you'll enjoy the dinner—such as it is; and that you won't mind the heat—such as it isn't."

    The sentence sounded well, but somehow I couldn't quite understand it.…

  2. Just as there are remarks that are nonsense, or nearly so, because one can "do nothing" with them, so there are acts which make little or no sense because nothing of the right sort follows from them; they do not have the consequences or connections that are needed to make them into the kinds of acts they purport to be. Two examples that Wittgenstein gives of such acts find parallels in Carroll:

    (a) Why can't my right hand give my left hand money?—My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt.—But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift.…

    When Alice, after having eaten a piece of magical cake, grew so tall that she could hardly see her feet, she contemplated the possibility of having to send presents to them.

    And she went on planning to herself how she would manage it. "They must go by the carrier," she thought, "and how funny it'll seem, sending presents to one's own feet! And how odd the directions will look!"

    Alice's Right Foot, Esq.
    near the Fender
    (with Alice's love).

    Oh dear, what nonsense I'm talking!"

    (b) Imagine someone saying: "But I know how tall I am!" and laying his hand on top of his head to prove it.

    Putting your hand on top of your head does not demonstrate that you know how tall you are, because it has no conceptual connections with anything beyond itself—for example, with acts of measuring with foot rules, or of standing back to back with another person of known height. The same (vacuous) act could be performed by anyone, no matter how tall he was and whether or not he knew how tall he was. Similarly, if you should ever have occasion, like Alice, to wonder whether you are rapidly growing or shrinking, it will avail you nothing to put your hand on top of your head to find out: the same results will be achieved in either case—namely, none.

    She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself "Which way? Which way?", holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing; and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size.

    Alice's procedure would not be fruitless, of course, if she had reason to think that only her head and/or neck were stretching or shrinking while the rest of her body was remaining the same size. But she had no such reason, nor, as far as I can tell, did she think she had. Her surprise, therefore, is entirely unwarranted.

  3. I can detect no intimate connection between Carroll and the early Wittgenstein, and so virtually all my examples are drawn from the later Wittgenstein. Still, there is one point in the Tractatus with which Carroll would presumably agree. Wittgenstein maintains that tautologies, including the Law of Excluded Middle, say nothing.

    (For example, I know nothing about the weather when I know that it is either raining or not raining.)

    Carroll relies on this truth for his laughs when he has the White Knight describe the song he intends to sing.

    "It's long," said the Knight, "but it's very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it—either it brings tears into their eyes, or else—"

    "Or else what?" said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

    "Or else it doesn't, you know."

  4. In both the Tractatus and the Investigations, Wittgenstein heaps scorn on the (alleged) proposition that "A thing is identical with itself."

    Roughly speaking, to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all.

    "A thing is identical with itself."—There is no finer example of a useless proposition, which yet is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted.

    Carroll, too, saw that there is something very peculiar about such propositions:

    "I'm sorry you don't like lessons," I said. "You should copy Sylvie. She's always as busy as the day is long!"

    "Well, so am I!" said Bruno.

    "No, no!" Sylvie corrected him. " You 're as busy as the day is short!"

    "Well, what's the difference?" Bruno asked.

    "Mister Sir, isn't the day as short as it's long? I mean, isn't it the same length?"

  5. One of the points that Wittgenstein makes over and over again in his later writings is that certain words which seem to denote something momentary and fleeting—usually, a feeling or thought or sensation-—actually signify something quite different—perhaps a disposition or ability, or at least a longer-range pattern of events. At one point, he uses the example of "grief": one is tempted to think that this word simply denotes an inner feeling which, although it usually endures for some time, may happen on occasion to last for only a few seconds or even for only one. To cast doubt on this whole idea, Wittgenstein asks:

    Why does it sound queer to say: "For a second he felt deep grief?" Only because it so seldom happens?

    But don't you feel grief now? ("But aren't you playing chess now?") The answer may be affirmative, but that does not make the concept of grief any more like the concept of a sensation.

    Carroll, too, appreciates the absurdity of supposing that someone could feel deep grief for only a second. In Knot VIII of A Tangled Tale, we read:

    "But oh, agony! Here is the outer gate, and we must part!" He sobbed as he shook hands with them, and the next moment was briskly walking away.

    "He might have waited to see us off!" said the old man piteously.

    "And he needn't have begun whistling the very moment he left us!" said the young one severely.

  6. Two points that are constantly stressed in the later writings of Wittgenstein are the following: (a) that "an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case," and (b) that from the fact that a person knows what a word W denotes in one linguistic construction, it does not follow that he knows what W denotes in a different construction. (This latter point is, of course, intimately related to point 1, above.) To illustrate point (b), Wittgenstein uses the example of "measuring": one may know very well what it is to measure distance or length, but from this it does not follow that he knows what it is to measure time. In Carroll, there are passages in which these two points seem to play an essential part. During the trial of the Knave of Hearts,

    one of the guinea-pigs cheered, and was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court. (As that is rather a hard word, I will just explain to you how it was done. They had a large canvas bag, which tied up at the mouth with strings: into this they slipped the guinea-pig, head first, and then sat upon it.)

    "I'm glad I've seen that done," thought Alice. "I've so often read in the newspapers, at the end of trials, 'There was some attempt at applause, which was immediately suppressed by the officers of the court,' and I never understood what it meant till now."

    This was not, to be sure, a paradigm case of an ostensive definition, since no one pointed to the proceedings and said to Alice "That is what is known as 'suppressing a guinea-pig' "; but it was just like one, since Alice guessed, from her previous reading of the newspapers, that it was in fact a case of suppressing a guinea-pig. Although not explicitly stated, it seems clear enough that Alice thought the phrase "suppressing a guinea-pig" refers to the beast's being put head first into a large canvas bag and being then sat upon, rather than to its being restrained and its cheering quelled, by whatever means. She thus misinterpreted the "ostensive definition" (point (a)). It is not so clear what is to be made of the second paragraph. Did Alice think she understood what the phrase "suppressing the the people" (i.e. those who attempt to applaud at the end of trials) means? If so, she was wrong—for such people are not generally put head first into large canvas bags and sat upon—and then the point of passage would be to show just how drastic her misinterpretation of the ostensive definition was. Or, to read the passage more literally, did Alice rather think she understood what "suppressing an attempt" (e.g., at applause) means? If so, she was wrong again: for even if she knew what suppressing a guinea-pig was, it would not follow that she knew what suppressing an attempt at applause was (point (b)). Indeed, on her understanding of the phrase "suppressing a guinea-pig," the phrase "suppressing an attempt at applause" is nonsensical, for attempts cannot be put into bags and be sat upon.

    The following passage from Sylvie and Bruno Concluded is, however, more clearly relevant to point (b):

    "You seem to enjoy that cake?" the Professor remarked.

    "Doos that mean 'munch'?" Bruno whispered to Sylvie.

    Sylvie nodded. "It means 'to munch' and 'to like to munch.'"

    Bruno smiled at the Professor. "I doos enjoy it," he said.

    The Other Professor caught the word. "And I hope you're enjoying yourself little Man?" he enquired.

    Bruno's look of horror quite startled him. "No, indeed I aren't!" he said.

    Sylvie's analysis of "enjoy cake" seems to me to be masterful; at any rate, Bruno may be assumed to know what it is to enjoy cake. But he mistakenly thought this knowledge entailed a knowledge of what it is to enjoy himself Hence the Other Professor's...

(The entire section is 7824 words.)

Richard Rorty (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keeping Philosophy Pure: An Essay on Wittgenstein," in Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980), University of Minnesota Press, 1982, pp. 19-36.

[Rorty is a noted American philosopher. In the following essay, originally published in 1976, he provides an overview of Wittgenstein's influence on later philosophical movements.]

Ever since philosophy became a self-conscious and professionalized discipline, around the time of Kant, philosophers have enjoyed explaining how different their subject is from such merely "first-intentional" matters as science, art, and religion. Philosophers are forever claiming to have discovered methods which are...

(The entire section is 7813 words.)

Charles Hartshorne (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reflections on Wittgenstein," in Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy, State University of New York Press, 1983, pp. 293-305.

[An American philosopher and writer, Hartshorne is the author of numerous books about philosophy and metaphysics. In the following essay, he discusses Wittgensteinian metaphysics.]

With all famous philosophers, but especially with some of them, what they say or think is one thing and what they somehow cause many others to say or think that they think is another. Some have taken Ludwig Wittgenstein to be an extreme or (in B. F. Skinner's sense) "radical" behaviorist, reducing the mental to the...

(The entire section is 5052 words.)

Allen Thiher (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ludwig Wittgenstein," in Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction, The University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 8-34.

[Thiher is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, he suggests that Wittgenstein's intellectual development between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations represents the "transition from modernism to a postmodern style of thought. "]

Wittgenstein's Tractatus, apparently written at least in part while its young Austrian author was in the trenches during World War I, has been one of the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century. This influence was...

(The entire section is 14029 words.)

Dallas M. High (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Thinking More Crazily Than Philosophers: Wittgenstein, Knowledge and Religious Beliefs," in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1986, pp. 161-75.

[High is an American writer and educator. In the following essay, he comments on issues of certainty and religious belief in the writings of Wittgenstein.]

In what has been posthumously published as Culture and Value Ludwig Wittgenstein provides us with the following aphoristic remark: "It's only by thinking even more crazily than philosophers do that you can solve their problems." I think we can say, in retrospect, that much of the thought of Wittgenstein did just that—think...

(The entire section is 7120 words.)

Austin E. Quigley (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wittgenstein's Philosophizing and Literary Theorizing," in New Literary History, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter 1988, pp. 209-37.

[Quigley is an English-born writer and educator. In the following essay, he questions whether, given Wittgenstein's personal aversion to systems of philosophical analysis, it is possible for literary theorists to employ a truly "Wittgensteinian" method of analysis.]

Among the well-known thinkers whose ideas have achieved prominence in modern literary theory, Wittgenstein strikes many as the most problematic. It is often difficult to get any precise sense of what the fuss is about. Literary theorists with a Wittgensteinian turn of mind seem...

(The entire section is 11535 words.)

Peter C. John (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wittgenstein's 'Wonderful Life,'" in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, 1988, pp. 495-510.

[In the following essay, John discusses the importance of "wonder" in the life and writings of Wittgenstein.]

In The Illusion of Technique William Barrett asserts that the experience referred to in the well-known passage at 6.44 in the Tractatus, "Not how the world is, but that it is is the Mystical," was of life-long significance for Wittgenstein. Its importance for him at the time it was composed is clearly seen in his letter to the publisher Ludwig von Ficker. Barrett claims, however, that the experience to which the words at 6.44 refer...

(The entire section is 7022 words.)

Donald Peterson (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mystical," in Wittgenstein's Early Philosophy: Three Sides of the Mirror, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990, pp. 151-61.

[Peterson is a Scottish educator and author. In the following essay, he examines Wittgenstein's notion of the mystical within his Tractarian philosophy.]

In venturing behind the great mirror, the Tractatus acquires a breadth of vision uncommon in the philosophy of language. The first sections of the book concern the reflection of the world in the mirror, the middle sections address the inside of the mirror, and now at the end we find remarks on the 'mystical' domain of what lies behind the mirror and cannot be reflected in it. To this...

(The entire section is 3794 words.)

Renford Bambrough (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fools and Heretics," in Wittgenstein Centenary Essays, edited by A. Phillips Griffiths, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 239-50.

[In the following essay, which is a revised version of the J R. Jones Memorial Lecture given at the University of Swansea in 1979, Bambrough addresses issues of belief certainty, and adherence to dogma in the works of Wittgenstein.]

'Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic.' This sentence from Wittgenstein's On Certainty is the source of my title. A passage in George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant might have prompted the...

(The entire section is 5423 words.)

J. Bouveresse (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Darkness of This Time': Wittgenstein and the Modern World," in Wittgenstein Centenary Essays, edited by A. Phillips Griffiths, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 11-39.

[In the following essay, Bouveresse discusses Wittgenstein's philosophy in the context of twentieth-century history and culture, particularly that of Germany.]

In the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, written in 1945, Wittgenstein remarks that: 'It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely'. There was quite obviously no...

(The entire section is 13261 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Toward a Wittgensteinian Poetics," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 191-213.

[Perloff is an Austrian-born American critic and educator. In the following essay, she applies Wittgensteinian poetics to the works of several contemporary writers and poets.]

Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.

The limit of language is shown by its being impossible to describe the fact which corresponds to (is the translation of) a sentence, without simply repeating the sentence.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value


(The entire section is 7332 words.)

Joseph Margolis (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "vs. (Wittgenstein, Derrida)," in Wittgenstein and Contemporary Philosophy, edited by Souren Teghrarian and Anthony Serafini, Longwood Academic, 1992, pp. 134-53.

[Margolis is an American author and educator. In the following essay, he discusses Wittgenstein's works in relation to those of the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida.]

I have for a long time wanted to look at Wittgenstein and Derrida together; but beginnings are difficult. Derrida, of course, solves the problem of how to begin by explaining the sly function of prefaces, that cannot seriously be supposed to introduce innocently what follows and is intact without them [in "Outwork, prefacing,"...

(The entire section is 5918 words.)

Joachim Schulte (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Connecting Links," in Wittgenstein: An Introduction, translated by William H. Brenner and John F. Holley, State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 69-95.

[In the following essay, Schulte examines the relationship between the Tractatus and Wittgenstein's later works.]

Much of what cannot be said but only shown, according to the doctrine of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein attempts to express indirectly. Although meant to cancel themselves in their entirety, the "propositions" of the Tractatus are still supposed to convey a message, if only a negative one. In the years of silence after the publication of his book, little at first seems to...

(The entire section is 8167 words.)

James Guetti (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Wittgenstein and the Grammar of Literary Experience, The University of Georgia Press, 1993, pp. 1-28.

[In the following essay, Guetti attempts to determine how Wittgenstein's philosophical principles relating to the nature and function of language may be used in the analysis of "literary experience.']

"When we look into ourselves as we do in philosophy," Wittgenstein says, "we often get to see just such a picture. A full-blown pictorial representation of our grammar. Not facts; but as it were illustrated turns of speech." He was not speaking at that moment, of course, of our "introspections" in literary studies, nor were literary or...

(The entire section is 7566 words.)