Wittgenstein dramatized

Eagleton, Terry; Jarman, Derek; Butler, Ken. Wittgenstein: The Terry Eagleton Script, the Derek Jarman Film. London: BFI Publishing, 1993.

The actual video is as a practical matter inaccessible, but it is listed for sale: Wittgenstein (1993).

Wittgenstein is a figure of fascination and admiration for many, but the more I learn about him, the more I hate him. His quirks and contradictions have also fascinated observers, but I find them evidence of his ideological bankruptcy.

Wittgenstein’s linguistic prestidigitation is not empty word magic at bottom–to leave it at that would be to imitate him. What it is about is the fundamental contradiction of his social position, which drove him–a man who belonged nowhere, isolated from the rest of humanity but who wanted to belong, an aristocratic snob who humiliated himself in a vain attempt to absorb himself into a world into which he could not fit—to fight in the trenches in the Great War, to teach schoolchildren, to attempt to volunteer to labor in the USSR, etc. Herbert Marcuse described Wittgenstein’s philosophy perceptively: it is sadomasochism, the repression of the very essence of thought, which is abstract and theoretical and reaches beyond concrete expressions and semantic tricks and beyond facts in order to understand their generation, historical significance, and potential, and to judge them in the process of creating a better future.

Wittgenstein made contributions to logic and played some interesting mind games in the philosophy of mind and a few other areas, but at the end of the day, he’s small, a piss ant of a philosopher.

Eagleton, in his introduction to his script, enumerates Wittgenstein’s contradictions:

No one has more vehemently defended the notion of a private language than the Romantic artist, marooned with his transcendental wisdom in a blankly uncomprehending society. And it is here that Wittgenstein, for all his formidable Viennese cultivation, is most bracingly unromantic, in his relentless deconstruction of this consolatory myth. What the Investigations try to therapise us out of is just that Western bourgeois notion of ‘inwardness’ — of an inner life so deep, subtle and evanescent that it eludes the reach-me-down categories of our social existence. It is exactly this that some have found so unacceptable about his later thought, which on a crude interpretation is just a species of souped-up behaviourism, allergic to talk of ‘mental processes and ‘inner experience’. This really is to travesty the work of a man who knew, if anyone did, all about ‘inner experience'; but it is a symptom of the political prejudice of a rampantly individualist society that the later Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the public nature of our most apparently private terms should have been resisted in this way. He lived a secret sexual life, but insisted that nothing was hidden; he appealed to the constitutive role of convention in all that we say and do, and had all the insouciant disdain for convention of the aristocrat. There is a split, here as elsewhere, between the man and the work, which the Freudianism he thought no more than a tolerably interesting fiction might do well to examine. Long before contemporary cultural theory, Wittgenstein was teaching us that the self is a social construct — that when I look into my most secret feelings, I identify what I do only because I have at my disposal a language which belonged to my society before it ever belonged to me. There are some radical political implications in this way of seeing, though here, once again, the man and the philosophy are intriguingly disjunct. Politically speaking, Wittgenstein was for the most part a reactionary remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and if he was attracted to the Soviet Union it was for all the wrong reasons. Some of his best friends, as the old cliche has it, were on the Left; but there is little evidence he shared much in common with them, other than scorning the English middle classes from his own patrician end of the political spectrum as they condemned them from the other. Wittgenstein was historically displaced, out of his epoch, a man who profoundly wished that modernity had never happened and simply wanted it to go away; and in this sense too, oddly enough, he resembles the great artistic modernists, who were often at once archaic and avant-garde, buoyantly confronting an inconceivably transfigured future while fixing their gaze elegaically on an unrecapturable past.

This passage contains a certain amount of characteristic Eagletonian pretentious BS, particularly his scurrilous remarks on individualism (probably a residue of Catholicism, since Eagleton is ostensibly not a Stalinist), but he does capture the fundamentally contradictory character of Wittgenstein’s existence.

Eagleton’s script gives us vignettes of Wittgenstein’s encounters in an Austrian monastery and at Trinity College peppered with several of his famous philosophical condundrums. One sees Wittgenstein’s obsessional, guilt-ridden, perfectionist character, which is highly unattractive in combination with his sterile anti-philosophical philosophical ruminations.

Derek Jarman prefaces his script with emphasis on Wittgenstein’s picture-theory of language and his Remarks on Colour.

Jarman’s scenario is quite different, with a highly surreal tinge. While there is overlap with Eagleton’s script, there are considerable differences. With respect to the philosophical content, there is a heavy emphasis on language and much more material from the Tractatus. There are some differences in the encounters, particularly the addition of a dialogue with Soviet logician Sophia Janovskaya.

Wittgenstein’s doctrine of linguistic bewitchment doesn’t work for me. By contrast, I suggest a reading of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, especially chapter 7:

The Triumph of Positive Thinking: One-Dimensional Philosophy.

Note also what Marcuse has to say about universals in chapter 8:

8. The Historical Commitment of Philosophy

For examples of what I consider retrograde Wittgensteinian philosophizing, see:

A Lecture on Ethics

Monk, Ray. “Full-blooded Bolshevism: Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mathematics,” Wittgenstein Studies 1, 1995.

And see my Wittgenstein, Marxism, Sociology: An Annotated Bibliography.


One reply

  1. “He lived a secret sexual life, but insisted that nothing was hidden;”

    This isn’t really a fair criticism. If he had been open about his attraction for men, he would have been terribly mistreated and possibly jailed. His prominence wouldn’t have helped him, probably. Wilde wasn’t helped by fame, for example. Even years later, the British government forced Alan Turing, one of the most brilliant computer scientists who ever lived, to take Estrogen against his wishes and drove him to suicide.

    Very interesting post, though. Strongly stated. I like your writing style.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.