Austrian-born English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) is considered as one of the most influential—although controversial—thinkers of the 20th century. His work touched on topics such as ethics, logic, and language.
Allan Janik was Senior Research Fellow of the Brenner Archives at the University of Innsbruck until his retirement in 2013. He remains Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna. He is the co-author with Stephen Toulmin of Wittgenstein’s Vienna and author of Wittgenstein’s Vienna Revisited.
Simply Charly: In 1973, you co-authored a book with the late philosopher Stephen Toulmin called Wittgenstein’s Vienna, which, judging by its title, sounded more like a cultural study than a philosophical one. What was the genesis of the book?
Allan Janik: First off, the book is both a cultural study and a philosophical one that originated as my dissertation in the sadly defunct History of Ideas Department at Brandeis University, where it was possible to specialize in the history of philosophy. The book’s point of departure is that what is really important in philosophy cannot be detached from the cultural context from which it emerges.
I never liked the title, but it was short and sweet, alliterative, and appealing to publishers and buyers. A more precise title, bringing Wittgenstein, ethics, and Vienna together in a single phrase, would have produced something unwieldy and awkward. So we went with the snappy but somewhat misleading title that remains on the book 40 years later.
By the way, what is misleading about the title (and deeply affected my career in ways that were not always to my professional advantage) is that Vienna is too much in the forefront. The book is first and foremost about Wittgenstein’s early views on ethics as they relate to those on logic and knowledge and only secondarily about Vienna, but that was—and is—not how it has been perceived. It made lots of the Old Viennese people such as writer Arthur Koestler, historian Ernst Gombrich, and the like, furious. The regrettable mistakes in translations and facts (mostly mine) that were easily corrected in the second edition fueled their flames. Koestler, whom I highly esteemed as a young man, ended up saying that people should not read my part of the book, calling me an “abominable stylist.” The first point hurt a lot. I can understand the second better as I re-read the book today. In short, this book has been both a blessing and a curse to me: personally, a blessing because it made me famous; professionally, a curse because it saddled me with a reputation that I neither wanted nor, for the most part, deserved. The proof of that is that despite hefty criticisms on the part of the above and others like George Steiner, none of my critics made the least effort to set the record straight; nobody tried to do it better.
A big part of the book’s success comes from the enormous enthusiasm that grew by leaps and bounds almost daily as Stephen and I came to be increasingly aware of the intense network of cross-connections between figures that were just being discovered in the USA. Our enthusiasm spilled over into our writing, which “rolls” from it, as one reader said. Working on the book, even on the more tedious aspects associated with writing were simply fun. That kept us delving ever more deeply into Vienna until our deadline forced us to stop and make a book out of it all. If Vienna ended up being overemphasized, it was because we were so fascinated with the fin de siècle culture, above all the convergence of so many seemingly divergent streams of thought bearing upon language and values, culture, and society. But there was a price to be paid for delving so deeply into culture in a philosophical book in the USA in the mid-1970s.
The book’s success in non-philosophical circles left me with a wobbly identity as a philosopher in the American context, and I might not have had a subsequent career were it not for my European connections in Austria, Norway, and Sweden. Despite lots of enthusiasm from many colleagues, many philosophers, some critical historians and Germanists with a certain justification (that Stephen Toulmin never suspected) looked askance at the “cultural smörgäsbord” that we offered (as snide critics put it). I was acutely aware of that and felt I had to write another book, later on, to deepen and complement it.
It was especially annoying to me that the title prompted people to imitate it and a series of superficial cultural overviews with alliterative titles beginning with “Brecht’s Berlin” followed. The deep point, namely that philosophers can learn from history, that history can have a philosophical dimension, was largely lost in the US and the UK—except in Bergen, Norway, where I was called back to life philosophically in the mid-1980s.
Returning to the title for a moment, it was only during my stay in Sweden in 1986 that I found a title that would really have been appropriate. In the course of re-discovering the profundity in Shakespeare, I thought of Cordelia’s Silence. I refer to Cordelia’s refusal to answer her father’s question about how much she loves him. “Love and be silent,” she says in an aside to the audience. King Lear is, among other things, a play about the limits of language—what happens when we ignore them—and that is the central theme of our book. Besides, the title is more than appropriate given writer Karl Kraus’ veneration for The Bard. “Shakespeare knew it all,” was one of his mottos.
SC: One of the main arguments advanced in the book was to show that, up until then, most readings of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus were fundamentally wrong. How so?
AJ: “Then” was, of course, 1971, when our book was written. We virtually had no sources beyond the recently published letters Wittgenstein wrote to a friend, architect Paul Engelmann, as well as the crucial letters to editor Ludwig von Ficker, which I read in galleys in 1969 before they were published. Nobody except a few very savvy Germanists like Erich Heller and George Steiner had the slightest idea that the kind of mystical silence with which the Tractatus ends could have a profound significance. Philosophers were simply perplexed in the way that Bertrand Russell was, simply (and honestly) admitting that he did not have a clue about what Wittgenstein was getting at in the last pages of the book. One of the first book-length studies of Wittgenstein’s thought spoke of The Mystical in the Tractatus as a sort of jungle noise heard from the orderly city. The two parts of the book, the logical and the ethical, simply did not seem to fit together—as they still do not to the advocates of the “resolute” reading of the book, the so-called “New Wittgenstein,” claim. Having just finished a major seminar paper on the thought of philosopher Karl Jaspers when I had my first encounter with the text of Tractatus in 1964, I was aware that what analytical philosophers—the only people interested in Wittgenstein then—either distorted or did not even treat, i.e., all the stuff about the meaning of life, was central to a tradition in German thought coming from Arthur Schopenhauer via Friedrich Nietzsche. Wittgenstein’s relationship to Schopenhauer was the subject of my first researches into his thought and my Master’s thesis. What has been subsequently published from his papers largely bore out where we, following Engelmann, wanted to go with Wittgenstein.
SC: If your interpretation of Wittgenstein is correct, then it represents, as one reviewer put it, a major blow “to nearly a century-long tradition that has presented and adopted a fairly well-known view of Wittgenstein.” How do you explain so many clever people getting him so wrong?
AJ: Half a century would be more accurate. After all, our book is merely 40 years old. For the rest, I have to answer biographically. By the time Wittgenstein’s Vienna was published in 1973, I had already been working on Wittgenstein for some nine years. I began at age 23 with a seminar paper on philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s influence on the “picture theory” (a total misnomer) in the Tractatus. But to the surprise and delight of my professor, Mike Slattery, I ended up reading the whole of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, i.e., Tractatus and Notebooks against a Schopenhauerian background that only a few people like Erich Heller and George Steiner had ever suspected existed.
At that point in life, in the middle of my studies for a Master’s degree, I was ready to throw in the philosophical towel. As an undergraduate student, I had been introduced to philosophy by two moral giants: Joe McDonald, from the first generation of the Catholic Worker, who practiced voluntary poverty and swept floors at the college between his difficult lectures on the works of Aristotle; and Dick Cassily, who, at 18, had been at Buchenwald concentration camp the day after it was liberated and never forgot this experience—not simply the horror, but also the deep confusion that led many freed prisoners to return to their barracks after the gates had been opened simply because they no longer knew anything else. My first philosophy professors were genuine moral heroes. They set a standard that that was tough to meet and made me impatient with “professional philosophers.” Briefly, I was deeply frustrated with “professional philosophy” and delighted that I could show that Wittgenstein was not one of them. I was 23 at the time! I had a new interpretation of one of the most influential thinkers of the century which nobody—well, almost nobody—even suspected. But how could I be right and two generations of Wittgenstein’s colleagues and followers be wrong? The question that you posed to me pressed itself confusingly upon me continually then. Somebody had to be crazy here.
To my good fortune, Mike Slattery, the professor with whom I was studying at Villanova University, was entirely open to my radical re-reading of the Tractatus (as Stephen Toulmin, to my great surprise, would be a few years later). Mike immediately recognized that I had a tiger by the tail, providing me with enormous encouragement and enthusiasm, as well as moral support in the face of philistine “professional philosophy,” which was no less appealing to him than to me, despite his own deep commitments to the highest professional standards. We became fast friends. Countless private discussions with him and his cultivated wife Lisa, Lisa, the daughter of the distinguished Belgian writer Franz Hellens about all aspects of philosophy—and especially culture of the relationship between philosophy and culture—lay the foundations for the kind of approach to Wittgenstein that Stephen, who shared Mike’s attitude to philosophy (he was always proud of being an amateur), and I would begin to develop five years later.
Back to the question about how so many clever people could be wrong. Well, there is a lot more to the story, but the fact is that, despite our work and other people’s as well, the positivist Wittgenstein survives under the guise of a “new” Wittgenstein. That is not entirely accidental because the facts of the case are so strange. It is highly implausible that “The Rigorous Philosopher” could contradict himself massively, as Wittgenstein seems to do. But he does! And there is no doubt that the reasons why lead us back to Old Vienna, to writer Karl Kraus, architect Adolf Loos, and philosopher Otto Weininger. They get ignored, even though Wittgenstein himself insisted that they influenced his very concept of philosophy.
But I see that I have still not really answered your question. The simplest way to put the matter is as follows: clever people are not necessarily informed. You have to know something to be a philosopher. Cleverness is not enough. How pathetic is the great Peter Strawson’s remark to another of my esteemed teachers, Alasdair MacIntyre: “The problem with you, MacIntyre, is that you know too much!” As if knowledge of something other than philosophy and its techniques of analysis were a failing in a philosopher.
SC: In response to your critique of his review, A Special Supplement: The Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy in the pages of The New York Review of Books, David Pears said that “It is difficult to see how anyone could persuade himself that the task which Wittgenstein undertook in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was not an investigation of the foundations of logic.” Might you not be overstating your position a bit even though Wittgenstein had explicitly stated that “The book’s point is an ethical one?” In the least, couldn’t both of you be correct, as Pears suggested in his reply?
AJ: Certainly. David and I had a good laugh over that altercation 20 years later when we first met. I wrote that as a cocky kid with a chip on my shoulder. David knocked it off. More seriously, my work has subsequently been increasingly focused on just that point: how could Wittgenstein offer that same superhuman concentration to both problems of logic and his sins. David’s brilliant The False Prison, centering on Wittgenstein philosophical—and personal—solipsism is one of the central studies in approaching this ticklish problem.
SC: Wittgenstein’s Vienna cites a number of early influences on Wittgenstein’s thinking including Karl Kraus, Otto Weininger, Oswald Spengler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Was there a common thread that these writers all shared?
AJ: I have written another book about this, Assembling Reminders, which develops that theme further from my earlier Wittgenstein’s Vienna Revisited. How disappointing that the success of the earlier book doesn’t rub off! The short answer is that anyone concerned with language and values could find lots of food for thought in their works. Hofmannsthal, of course, does not count as an “influence” (Wittgenstein’s own expression) as the others but is a case of a sort of parallel preoccupation with the problem of the limits of language, which was Wittgenstein’s central concern in philosophy.
SC: In an interview for The Vienna Review, you state that you “radically rejected the notion that there was such a thing as ‘philosophical truth to which only people termed philosophers by virtue of some professional training had access. No one has a corner on that kind of truth.” What did you mean by this?
AJ: Contrary to popular opinion, philosophers do not have deep insights into the solution to human problems. There is no “deeper” truth than science and common sense. The insight that philosophy offers us comes from a deeper understanding of the nature of conceptual problems, which are very different from empirical problems that are solved by getting facts straight, but are more like annoying riddles that force you to rethink something that you have never bothered to question. Situations like unexpected divorces, stock market crashes, or wars force us into that position. The people who give us insight into why the ensuing anomie or alienation occurs are being philosophers, regardless of what they are called or call themselves. So Stephen Toulmin practiced philosophy with physicists whose main problem was that, paradoxically, they could not understand the result of their own experiments; whereas Alasdair MacIntyre has spent his whole life explaining why philosophical ethics, as conventionally conceived (i.e., as moral theory), cannot possibly provide answers to our most pressing moral problems.
SC: More recently, you published a follow-up book entitled Wittgenstein’s Vienna Revisited. Was this work produced as a corrective to your earlier effort in light of recent scholarship? If so, what changed?
AJ: I did not write that book because things had changed (apart from the fact that more sources had emerged) but because I was aware from the start (as Stephen Toulmin really was not) of how much more there was to say. For example, there should have been chapters on Otto Weininger and poet Georg Trakl in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, but as a young whippersnapper, I was not up to it in the time available. The fact is that we signed a contract for a book before I even had my dissertation in my hand. That’s how we supported my Vienna stay in 1969, which made everything possible. The rest grew out of that idea, which I had played with for 30 years by the time the second book was published.
SC: James Klagge has advanced a similar view to your own in his book Wittgenstein in Exile—a book that you reviewed. He argues that one of the chief difficulties of understanding Wittgenstein has been a tendency to remove him from his cultural context. How much clearer will our understanding of Ludwig Wittgenstein be if seen through this prism?
AJ: There is a lot more to learn here. For example, I am currently working on a lecture on the philosophical consequences of Wittgenstein’s war experiences, which are enormously consequential for our understanding of Wittgenstein’s so-called mysticism. During World War I, Wittgenstein was a hero distinguished for his fearlessness in the face of death, and an inspiration to his fellow soldiers in the heaviest fighting—a situation where these qualities were conspicuously lacking among Hapsburg troops. The experience is built into the Tractatus.
SC: In an interview for Humanities Magazine, your colleague, Stephen Toulmin, stated:
“[Ludwig] Wittgenstein saw his vocation as having to clean the Augean stables of the intellect. He thought that the brilliant young were being distracted from urgent tasks by pursuing these intellectual dead ends. I think he would have been deeply depressed if he’d lived long enough to see how many thousands of philosophers are earning a living that way.”
Do you agree with his assessment?
AJ: Absolutely! When Wittgenstein’s student Norman Malcolm told him that he had obtained his Ph.D. and would begin to teach, Wittgenstein congratulated him and at the same time warned him to use this position well because being a “professional philosopher” is a very ticklish business: you are continually expected to cheat your students or to cheat yourself.
SC: If you could sum up Wittgenstein’s enduring legacy, what would it be?
AJ: More than any of his predecessors he made us aware of 1) how conceptual/philosophical problems both in life and in thought arise because we misunderstand the use of language, 2) that language is an interweaving of words and actions into practices that give propositions/signs/sentences/symbols their meaning, and 3) that it is incredibly difficult to be a good philosopher and a decent human being.