I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Beyond Chatter

Sean Sheehan

Private Notebooks 1914-1916, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited and translated by Marjorie Pereloff, WW Norton & Co, 240 pp, £16, ISBN: ‎ 978-1324090809
A Different Order of Difficulty: Literature After Wittgenstein, by Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé, University of Chicago Press, 342 pp, £26, ISBN: 978-0226677156
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: A Student’s Edition, by Duncan Richter, Lexington Books, 153 pp, £33, ISBN: 978-1793632883
Tractatus In Context: The Essential Background for Appreciating Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by James C Klagge, Routledge, 408 pp, £39, ISBN: 978 0367465568
Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, by Alain Badiou, Verso, 186 pp, £13, ISBN: 978-1844676941

Has it ever been more difficult to respect those who voluntarily become combatants in an armed conflict and put their lives on the line? The times of Tom Barry, Spitfire pilots or Che Guevara are over and it is problematic to imagine in what form they could return. We know Extinction Rebellion are right but they are not looking for armed recruits; we sympathise with Ukrainians but suspect Jeremy Corbyn is right when he calls for the West to cease supplying them with weapons. Most wars do not justify their wholesale wasting of lives and for world conflicts that we have some inkling about, like World War 1, realpolitik and self-interest lurk obscenely behind public rationales given at the time.

Cynicism about the causes and conduct of World War I is not new; witness Lenin’s denunciations at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915 and his earlier despair and disgust at socialist parties’ support for the war. Jingoism was rife and it helped lead millions of men to slaughter but this cannot even begin to explain Wittgenstein’s decision to enlist in the Austrian army on August 7th, 1914. An Austrian citizen, appearing as indifferent to politics as to patriotism, he had been studying logic with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in England, the country that within a week would declare war on Austria-Hungary. The previous year had been spent working alone on philosophy in Norway and he had begun planning the building of an isolated cabin in which to live.

Despite having a medical deferment, he enlisted as an ordinary soldier and not, as would have been readily open to him, an officer. A highly cultured man and heir to a vast fortune that he would give away, Wittgenstein was socially out of his depth in his new environs – describing his fellow soldiers as “a bunch of swine! No enthusiasm for anything, unbelievable crudity, stupidity and malice!”. He was reminded of his schooldays, when he had also felt out of joint. He tells himself to “maintain one’s distance from everything that happens; to collect oneself!” (his underlining).

Looking to know why he offered himself as a combatant and why he remained one is what glues the reader to the three extant private notebooks that Wittgenstein started filling after being assigned to an artillery unit serving behind the lines. For the entries of any single day, he wrote on the right-hand page his philosophical work that would become the penultimate draft of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). These pages were published as Notebooks 1914-1916 (1961). On the left-hand page appeared his personal remarks, written in an easily decipherable code that he had learned and used as a child. It is these that have now been translated into English and published.

The causes of the war, its politics or military course are barely mentioned, confirming his lack of interest in defending an imperial entity for which he felt no allegiance, and this makes his existential commitment extraordinarily intriguing. A clue to what was going on comes in an early entry, September 2nd, 1914: “Yesterday I began to read Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief.” The small book had been purchased by chance when the boat whose searchlight he was operating on a Polish river made a short stop. It did not make him a Christian but repeated readings convinced him that trying to grasp a sense or meaning of the world is not expressible using the procedures and propositions of logic. A sense of the world, as opposed to sense in the world, had to be mystical and God was as good a name for this as any other: “The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God,” he wrote. It is not immediately clear what kind of meaning there may be, for Tolstoy’s Jesus does not speak of being with God in an afterlife: “be not downcast, but always live in the present by the spirit. For the life of the spirit there is no time … The time of salvation, like a web, is cast over all; it is there always. And therefore always live the life of the Son of Man … in serving him one must live without time, in the present alone.”

The private notebooks reveal Wittgenstein coaching himself to live “in the present”. He came to realise that it was a category mistake to think the meaning of life was utterable in the way the meaning of a word is. It proved a humbling but ennobling realisation and it saved him from thoughts of suicide. He would attend to his selfhood: not a self as some precious me-ness, some inner being that lies within us (a fiction celebrated in New Age mantras and a certain kind of middle class novel), but as a particular orientation towards factuality and bodily finitude. The miracles of Jesus were metaphors for Tolstoy; what emerged from them, Wittgenstein gathered, was the importance of how one conducted one’s life.

In March 1916, he was granted his oft-repeated wish to become a soldier fighting on the front line and was stationed, perilously but again at his own request, at an observation post facing the enemy. As if existential intensity was a necessary catalyst, that summer he began to fuse his philosophical and personal cogitations and on July 4th he writes a litany that begins

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

The world, he notes the following day, “is independent of my will” and language has its limits when trying to express the strange predicament of human existence. The puzzle that he grapples with is of the kind tabulated in the question-and-answer form of the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses. When Bloom steps into the garden of 6 Eccles St with Stephen and is greeted by the “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit”, enrapture at the universe’s actuality looks to scientific vocabulary for some kind of explanation. But astronomical data, however empirically exact, only draw attention to the “different order of difficulty” posed by metaphysical questions. The phrase provides Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé with the title for her book, A Different Order of Difficulty, about the literary modernism of Wittgenstein (and Kafka, Woolf, Joyce and Coetzee). She stresses the importance that Tolstoy’s book about the Gospels had for Wittgenstein. The Russian writer was not preaching on behalf of Christianity but pointing to the importance of adopting an appropriate attitude towards life. It was an ethical concern that nagged at Wittgenstein and which he felt might be assuaged by exposing himself to danger and forcing a confrontation with his demons.

The first English translation of the private notebooks validates its editor’s description of the Tractatus, in her earlier Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1999), as a war book. What began as a strict treatise of logic under the influence of Frege and Russell was transformed by the crucible of war into a sui generis text that has a bearing on Wittgenstein’s later remark that “philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry” (Culture and Value). The inability of language to give a proper response to the question of how we should face life exposed the limits of any scientifically-minded logic and Zumhagen-Yekplé’s  reading of Joyce’s Ithaca chapter echoes what Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.”

The only answer to the question of what meaning life might have is the recognition that scientifically minded questions cannot deal with it. The negative import finds expression in the concluding remarks of the Tractatus, most famously in its final one: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Duncan Richter’s Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: A Student’s Edition is a new annotated translation that offers considerable assistance for readers. It is aimed primarily at philosophy undergraduates but anyone wishing to get to grips with Wittgenstein’s hugely influential text will be nourished by its commentary. Apropos the memorable final aphorism, the reader is informed that speaking (sprechen), not saying (sagen), is used in the original German; what is ruled out is empty talk about ethical concerns when what matters – and this, paradoxically, is his “ethical” point – is facing up to the challenge and responsibility of doing the right thing. This is what preoccupies him during his military service and he seeks to link this fixation with the philosophical work on logic that he had been pursuing with Russell in Cambridge. As Richter observes, there is a split in interpretations of the Tractatus between those who see the different parts of the work, the philosophical and the ethical, as not forming a coherent whole and those who find a unity.

For those who find consistency in the work, reference is often made to the distinction Wittgenstein draws between saying and showing:

The proposition can present the whole of reality, but it cannot present that which it must have in common with reality in order to present it – logical form. In order to present logical form, we would have to be able to put ourselves, along with propositions, outside logic, that is to say outside the world.
What can be shown cannot be said.

There is a need to demarcate and represent reality in meaningful ways (“present the whole of reality”) but to pursue this to an ultimate degree (“present what it must have in common with reality in order to present it”) would drive us “outside logic”. It would rely on the ability to attain an (illusionary) frame of reference that could characterise and compare the world and our propositions about it. What is beyond us is a metalanguage that would allow correlation, isomorphism, to be assessed. In a similar kind of way, we can engage in ethical discussion but there is no transcendental position (“outside logic”) that allows us to categorically state how we should lead our lives. At some point, we choose our ethical principles and act accordingly; no further justification is possible. Wittgenstein would later demand that we “put an end to all the claptrap about ethics ‑ whether intuitive knowledge exists, whether values exist, whether the good is definable.” Such talk is fetishised babble; what can be shown, silently, is how we live and deal with others.

James C. Klagge’s Tractatus in Context is also structured around a set of annotations that follow the decimal order of the original text and like Richter’s it intentionally avoids taking sides when interpretative issues are at stake. What it succeeds in doing is presenting a wealth of information that helps unpack what Wittgenstein was working on before he enlisted in the army and how this eventually finds expression in the rarefied statements that make up the Tractatus. It is especially good at showing how Frege and  Russell charted a course that the Austrian soldier continued to follow during his years of military service. When it comes to the gnomic remarks about ethics and the limits of language, Klagge points to a comment by Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human: “One should speak only when one may not stay silent; and then only of that which one has overcome – everything else is chatter”; the private notebooks, if nothing else, bear testimony to Wittgenstein’s journey towards the overcoming of chatter.

There is a Wittgenstein industry ‑ as endlessly productive as the one devoted to Joyce ‑ and Klagge, a specialist in this field, has written a knowledgeable and approachable guide and overview to the Tractatus. But being on the factory floor of an industry may close off access to thinkers whose avenues of thought are peripheral to it. Klagge makes no mention of Badiou’s Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy (2011), a tidy exposition that also refers to Nietzsche as a forerunner in the deposing of the category of truth and philosophy’s theoretical pretensions. The Austrian and the German are seen to share more than a culture and language in their dismissal of philosophy’s pretence at staging what it cannot enact within a theoretical but fallacious register of the sayable. What lies beyond science must needs resort to metaphor, as in poetry and other art forms, to show what no true proposition can say. Non-empirical thoughts are ultimately like the propositions of logic and in so far as they, as Badiou puts it, “have no counterpart in the real” they say nothing, echoing the Tractatus. But what cannot be said can be shown and Badiou concludes by referencing “the semantic constellation organized by the word God, which is the absence of words”. This is what, with the help of Tolstoy, Wittgenstein risked his life to cognise and he did so with an authenticity and resoluteness that leaves most of us looking shabby in comparison.


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)



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