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No Easy Answers

Sean Sheehan

Wittgenstein, Lectures, Cambridge 1930-1933 From the Notes of G.E. Moore, edited by David G Stern, Brian Rogers, and Gabriel Citron, Cambridge University Press, 482 pp, £74.99, ISBN: 978-110704116542

Wittgenstein’s Whewell’s Court Lectures Cambridge, 1938-1941 From the Notes by Yorick Smythies, edited by Volker A Munz and Bernhard Ritter, Wiley Blackwell, 392 pp, £96, ISBN: 978-1119166337

Given the burgeoning amount of secondary literature on Wittgenstein it is incongruous that he only ever published one book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, during his lifetime. He did intend to publish a book arising from ideas developed in lectures delivered at Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s but at a late stage withdrew the final manuscript from publication and authorised only its posthumous appearance in print. This renders problematic the idea of a Collected Works, although the 20,000 pages of writing that he left behind on his death in 1951 – a philosophical Nachlass – is available in an electronic edition. It includes all of his unpublished manuscripts, typescripts, dictations, and most of his notebooks – but while this has proved invaluable for scholars preparing print editions of his work it also presents them and readers with challenges.

Wittgenstein thought he had done with philosophy after the Tractatus, but on returning to Cambridge in 1929 he began writing again, in large hard-bound manuscript volumes and, for the first drafts of his thinking, smaller notebooks. Philosophical Remarks, The Big Typescript and Philosophical Grammar are publications based on these writings, sculpted into shape by editors who selected and revised material from the manuscripts; but they remain dense and knotty, not reader-friendly. There are eighteen manuscript volumes in all, filled with remarks as short as a single sentence or as long as paragraphs stretching over a number of pages. Later on, he selected some remarks for dictation to a typist, leading to carbon copies of a chronologically arranged typescript. The motive was not a wish to publish (though the typescript became Philosophical Remarks) but the need for evidence of work in order to secure another grant from Trinity College.

Wittgenstein had stencilled copies made of his 1933-34 lectures – what became the “Blue Book” – and dictated the “Brown Book” during 1934-35 to two of his students (Francis Skinner and Alice Ambrose), later revised as a draft of something he thought might see the light of day. Eventually they became The Blue and Brown Books and were first published in 1958, seven years after his death. Selections from notebooks and manuscripts from the years 1937-44 have also been published as Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics in 1956 and, eleven years later, Cora Diamond’s edition of Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge 1939 appeared.

Now we have the meticulously prepared Wittgenstein: Lectures, Cambridge 1930-1933:  From the Notes of G.E. Moore and they constitute the best account available of what Wittgenstein said in his classes of the early 1930s. Notes by two other attendees have been previously published but these are reconstructions based on student notes whereas this new volume presents Moore’s notes in their original form with a minimum of editorial mediation. Their order has not been changed nor any text added: what we read is as close to a verbatim record as is possible. Moore added some impromptu reactions of his own to what he heard and where these are of philosophical interest they are reproduced as footnotes on the page. No young student, Moore was already a distinguished philosopher when he first met the earnest undergraduate from Austria who first arrived in Cambridge in 1912. Hugely impressed by Wittgenstein – “much cleverer at philosophy than I was” – they became friends and their close relationship was rekindled when – Moore having never left Cambridge – they met again in the 1930s. Moore played a vital role in keeping Wittgenstein’s unorthodox lectures going because, after an opening exposition, a question would be asked and someone was expected to give an answer that could stimulate another line of thought and another question. Desmond Lee, a student attendee, recalled that Moore was relied on to provide a question and “by making the comment that would set or keep the ball rolling”.

There is another challenge, epistemological when posed as a question but ontological in its answer, about how to read the writings that have been put together by editors, scholars and those who attended and took notes during his Cambridge lectures. One of his observations in Culture and Value (a collection of notes made by Wittgenstein, fist published in 1977) is that philosophy should really be written “only as one writes a poem”. Indeed, Wittgenstein’s style in communicating his philosophy is not dissimilar to that of any art form in that a clear-cut distinction between cause and effect tends to dissolve in the recognition that the work is caused by its own effects. Wittgenstein wrote in prose, he was not a poet, but the analogy is worth pursuing and especially so in light of the literary quality of his work that has long been recognised. The critic I A Richards, writing of Donne, observed that “there is a prodigious activity between the words as we read them. Following, exploring, realizing, becoming that activity is, I suggest, the essential thing in reading the poem. It is itself the poem.” Wittgenstein’s talks in Cambridge, to judge by those who were there, were creative acts – works of art one might say – that came into existence in the process of their delivery. He did not prepare his talks in the way lecturers usually do; he had no notes, let alone a script, and as GH von Wright recalled: “He thought before the class. The impression was of a tremendous concentration.” Another attendee, Karl Britton, recalls that Wittgenstein “talked often standing up and walking excitedly about – writing on the blackboard, pointing, hiding his face in his hands”. Britton remembered his “very quiet, very intense stare” and, such was the complexity of the topics under discussion. “all this struggle did not seem to us to be in the least excessive”.

Moore’s notes, then, are invaluable in following the tortuous development of Wittgenstein’s thoughts as he begins to question the oracular authority of the Tractatus. The faith he had placed in logic’s sublime power to picture reality and the crystalline purity with which he had given expression to this idea are subjected to doubt. In his third lecture (February 3rd, 1930), Moore writes what he hears him say: “Part of [the] picture is supplied by words, part by imagination; propositions presuppose memory & imagination.” He begins to speak of grammar as being like the rules of chess and asks himself if thought is instantaneous “or like a toothache”; the game of chess and toothache being two prime tropes he would dwell on in his arguments that different language games have different grammars and that the word “pain” cannot refer to a private something to which only the “I” has privileged access.

In May 1933 the language of ethics is dwelt on and Wittgenstein asks if – in the way that the meaning of “game” can be probed by asking what all games have in common – the meaning of “good” can be ascertained by looking at what is common to all things we use that term for. This is “far too simple”, Moore notes him saying, before Wittgenstein qualifies his own remark: “it doesn’t follow that the right thing to say is that it has several different meanings: for there may be a connection though not that of having anything in common”. For Wittgenstein, there are no easy answers and in the same lecture he points out that the beauty of a face is different from the beauty of a chair – “though of course there are similarities, e.g. that both are agreeable”. What comes across in Moore’s notes is the way Wittgenstein is working his way through problems, often leaving open issues that matter to him: the nature of the “connection” between different examples of goodness is left unresolved and so too is the question of what constitutes beauty.

Aged eighteen, Yorick Smythies attended Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1935-36 and made notes from early 1938 through to 1941. He developed his own kind of stenographic system which allowed him to write extremely quickly and, in his own words, make “the words Wittgenstein was uttering and the notes being taken down, nearly simultaneous with one another”. His notes look undecipherable but he went on to make tape recordings of them based on a clean handwritten version; Wittgenstein’s Whewell’s Court Lectures Cambridge, 1938-1941 are based on these sources and on a later typescript made in the 1970s. Only a select few were allowed to make notes during the lectures and it seems that when the handwritten version of those Smythies made were shown to Wittgenstein he said he would like to have them published. The story of how and why this has (only now) happened is told by the editors of the publication that finally sees the light of day. Other notes by Smythies provided the basis for Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (1966), two Lectures on Freedom of the Will and the lectures on mathematics mentioned above.

Whewell’s Court Lectures makes an important addition to the corpus of material available to interested readers, not least because they are divided into topics – knowledge, similarity, belief and others – and are presented in more continuous prose than Moore’s notes. Helpful also are the seventy or so illustrations, mostly redrawn from Smythies’s notes, testimony to Wittgenstein’s use of a blackboard during his lectures. What emerges clearly is the way Wittgenstein probes into and questions the logical grammar set forth in the Tractatus and the difficulties caused by not taking on board the importance of different linguistic forms. It is, he says, like looking at two copies of the same newspaper to be sure of the news or asking what the earth rests on. He had thought elementary propositions mirror the nature of reality but couldn’t themselves be dismantled – “what can be shown, cannot be said” – but he came to discern vagueness blurring any strict boundaries between sense and nonsense. The DNA of language, he saw, is beyond any paternity tests.

Maurice O’Connor Drury was a student of Moore’s and he also attended the lectures in Cambridge, establishing a friendship with Wittgenstein which would last until the philosopher’s death in 1951. Drury’s brother owned a cottage, later an An Óige hostel for many years, at Killary Harbour and in 1934 Wittgenstein stayed there with Drury and another student for a fortnight’s holiday. In the summer of 1948, when the philosopher needed undisturbed time to work on what would become Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953), Wittgenstein lived there alone for four months. There is a good account of his time there in Richard Wall’s Wittgenstein in Ireland and a briefer survey in Tim Robinson’s Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness.

Wittgenstein’s influence on Drury was permanent and testimony to this influence can finally be fully appreciated with the publication of The Selected Writings of Maurice O’Connor Drury (reviewed in the drb last month by Luke Gibbons http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-other-side-of-the-sky). Drury’s religious temperament opened a window into his friendship with the sui generis philosopher, revealing an important aspect of Wittgenstein’s view of the world when they discussed matters of a broadly spiritual kind. When he tells Drury that “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view” he is not being theological: “It would make no difference,” he also told him, “if there had been an historical person as Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels.” What matters here is not a matter of beliefs and faith, or truth and falsity.

Wittgenstein did not subscribe to the theology of any church because his religious feeling had nothing to do with a particular God or set of dogmas. What was vitally important to him was the conviction, first stated in the concluding remark in the Tractatus, that there are limits to human knowledge. Science cannot explain everything because there is a mystery – not a puzzle, for that would allow for an eventual solution – at the heart of existence; and it is this sense of the mysterious that Wittgenstein understood by the term religious.

Drury understood this but acted otherwise when he arrived at Wittgenstein’s deathbed. He prompted the recital of prayers by a priest, recalling the dying man saying that he hoped his Catholic friends (Elizabeth Anscombe and Yorick Smythies) would pray for him, and arranged for a priest to officiate at the graveside. Elizabeth Anscombe later objected to the impression given by Drury that graveside prayers by a priest was something agreed on by Wittgenstein’s friends arranging his funeral.

The lecture notes by Moore and Smythies in addition to some of Drury’s writing tend to blur any absolute distinction between primary and secondary sources for the study of Wittgenstein. Such fuzziness, of course, is itself very much in harmony with the late Wittgenstein’s criticism of the demand for strict definitions, a critique that is the concern of one of the essays in A Companion to Wittgenstein. Sense need not be determinate; his famous example being the fact that while all games share certain affinities and resemblances we do not see them all as necessarily having something in common. Concepts can be vague: live with it and move on.

Any collection of essays has to be compendious if it is to satisfy the many branches of philosophy that find matters of significance in Wittgenstein and A Companion to Wittgenstein meets this requirement admirably. A difficulty faced by commentaries on Wittgenstein is his liking for aphorisms: “Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me,” he admitted, and the editors of the Bloomsbury collection are well aware of this. What they offer are navigation points – logic, language, epistemology, ethics, religion – and points of contact with the thought of other philosophers – Schopenhauer, Frege, Kant –and different traditions of philosophy.

Wittgenstein’s Whewell’s Court Lectures Cambridge includes an up-to-date list (except for the Cambridge edition of Moore’s notes) of all the published writings by Wittgenstein: lectures and conversations, correspondence and secondary written sources. Collecting Wittgenstein is a formidable task: there are well over fifty separate publications and another one – Family Letters – will appear later this year. All or any of the four books mentioned here are contenders for inclusion in a shorter list of essential books


Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).