The Wittgenstein Controversy

The dispute over the first complete edition of the philosopher's papers is as petty and academic as Wittgenstein himself was high-minded and profound

MICHAEL Nedo, the director of the Wittgenstein Archive, in Cambridge, England, is a happy man. The archive is deeply in debt, the building is in dire need of repair, and complications in Austrian politics have delayed any chance of getting further funding. But Nedo is at last on the way to accomplishing what he set out to do more than two decades ago: he has issued six volumes of Ludwig Wittgenstein's papers, in exactly the form and sequence that Wittgenstein wrote them, and several more volumes are in preparation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and an autograph page from the Philosophical Investigation

This is the first time since the philosopher's death, in 1951, that anything he wrote has been published in unaltered, unedited form. As Nedo puts it, "Wittgenstein's own connections, which he himself called the most important thing in his work, have been restored." One might expect a certain amount of scholarly rejoicing. But the saga of these papers, and of Nedo's beleaguered edition in particular, is so fraught with petty squabbling and bad blood that except for reviewers in the nonacademic press, nobody has mustered even one faint cheer.
Not that such wrangling over the papers of dead philosophers is as rare as one might expect. Ever since Elisabeth Föörster-Nietzsche edited her brother's final manuscripts (and in some cases actually forged whole passages) to reflect her own anti-Semitic and fascist views, it has become almost a tradition in the philosophical community to suspect the editors, colleagues, or relatives of philosophers of nefarious behavior with their literary remains. Thus rumors abound concerning the manuscripts of Charles Sanders Peirce, George Santayana, and Martin Heidegger, to name just a few.

Yet the Wittgenstein wars seem especially unfortunate, if only because Wittgenstein himself was a moral purist of the highest order: a man who abandoned all the worldly honors -- and worldly goods -- that had been bestowed on him in order to lead what he called a "decent" life. After serving as a volunteer soldier in the armies of his native Austria during the First World War, he gave away the vast fortune he had inherited and spent years teaching peasant children in the poorest of alpine villages. Having tried and failed to get work as an ambulance driver at the front during the Second World War, he left his professorship at Trinity College, Cambridge, to serve as a porter in a London hospital. If his genius inspired reverence in the likes of Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes, his personal history has made him a hero even to some who hardly know his work.

The fate of his manuscripts is also distressing because of the ratio of what he published to what he left behind. Such was his perfectionism that during his lifetime he published only a single book, of seventy-four pages. This was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), which altered the practice of philosophy, perhaps forever, by calling into question the ability of language to talk about ethical and metaphysical questions in any meaningful way. Wittgenstein maintained that language could only show; it could not say anything that went beyond description: "Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. . . . Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." To establish the limits of what could be spoken of, he stripped language down to its logical structure, which he saw as mirroring that of reality.

Believing that the Tractatus had cleared up all the confusions that "tormented" philosophy, Wittgenstein decided it would never be necessary for him to write anything further. After his six-year stint as a schoolteacher, he worked for a time as an undergardener in a monastery, and seriously considered becoming a monk. But in 1929 some of his Cambridge admirers -- chief among them Keynes, who occasionally referred to Wittgenstein as "God" -- persuaded him to return to the university to teach, and he began to rethink the problems he thought he had solved. Though he was adamantly opposed to their being widely circulated, a set of notes he dictated to his students during the thirties once again spawned whole new lines of philosophical inquiry.

In those notes -- designated the Blue and Brown Books, after the colors of the notebooks in which they were first taken down -- Wittgenstein abandoned his earlier quest for a logically perfect language to consider how language acquires meaning through use, the multiple ways it functions "in the stream of life." When the Blue and Brown Books were passed around, in crudely stenciled form, the general view was that he had revolutionized philosophy for the second time, although some claimed that he had killed it for the second time -- by rendering permanently suspect any writing about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Apart from his work on language, he also wrote about the foundations of mathematics, about color, and about the idea of certainty. When he died of cancer, at the age of sixty-two, he bequeathed nearly 30,000 pages of manuscript -- many of them handwritten, almost all in German -- to three of his former students, with instructions to publish "as many of my unpublished writings as they think fit." It was, on the face of it, a simple enough request. But as soon as his trustees began issuing posthumous volumes, the accusations started flying.

FACED with a huge mass of repetitive, unwieldy material that, in Wittgenstein's characteristic style, mostly took the form of discrete remarks rather than sequential argument, the trustees struggled to give it a conventional linear form. Whole chapters were omitted, with connections provided by passages from unrelated manuscripts; paragraphs written many years apart might appear on the same page. "A medley of materials from different sources, which were never intended by Wittgenstein to go together," one scholar thundered, while a reviewer called another volume "simply useless for scholarly studies of the development of Wittgenstein's thought."

The trustees' motives were also impugned, if not in print then in a hundred faculty lounges. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, the chairman of the philosophy department at Dartmouth, and one of the more genial of the trustees' critics, says, "There were several ex-students of Wittgenstein's who made careers out of lecturing on the mysterious 'unknown writings' that nobody else had seen. The trustees hung on to their power by doling out information in dribs and drabs, while refusing people access to the manuscripts."

Professor Jaakko Hintikka, of Boston University, exempts one of the trustees, Georg Henrik von Wright, from blame, but questions the motives of the other two: "Only a psychiatrist could say what Rush Rhees and Elizabeth Anscombe were really trying to accomplish. Their whole identity was vested in being Wittgenstein's interpreters. If everybody had access to his papers, their own interpretations might have been disproved."

The issue of access was a sore point for years, especially when the trustees permitted a microfilm version of the manuscripts to be issued but put strips of white paper over certain coded personal remarks. Conjecture about Wittgenstein's philosophical positions was accompanied by even more rampant conjecture about his sex life, particularly after one scholar published a book alleging that Wittgenstein had compulsively cruised a park in Vienna, picking up homosexual toughs, while he was training to be a teacher. (Although the scholar's evidence was later convincingly refuted, such stories continue to circulate.)

But things really heated up only in the seventies, when the trustees did what so many in the philosophical community had been urging all along: they authorized a complete edition of the manuscripts. At this point Michael Nedo became involved.

AS a young physics student at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, Nedo had developed a passionate admiration for Wittgenstein. This prompted him to write to Rush Rhees querying a discrepancy in one of the diagrams of the Philosophical Investigations (1953), the most important of the posthumous volumes and the only one that Wittgenstein himself had prepared for publication (though the trustees appended another manuscript to the work when it was published, thereby provoking more criticism). After initially claiming that the mistake had appeared in Wittgenstein's version, too, something that Nedo doggedly insisted was impossible, Rhees checked the original manuscript and discovered that Nedo was right. The two men embarked on a long correspondence about the problems with the printed volumes, and when the time came to appoint someone to oversee the transcription of the papers, Nedo, who had gone on to do graduate work in physics and zoology and was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, was chosen. He put together a team of philosophers to help him, and the project was launched, with a small grant, at Tübingen. Originally Nedo saw his work on the papers as something he could do part-time while pursuing his own scientific research, but it soon became evident that this was impossible, and he devoted himself to the edition.

What happened next may have been caused partly by resentment among the philosophers: Nedo had no professional qualifications in philosophy, yet he had been placed in charge. Or it may have been the result of Nedo's combination of obsessiveness, absentmindedness, and lack of regard for such things as schedules and budgets. At any rate, the philosophers questioned his fitness for the task, and questioned it even more strenuously when he refused to let them write their own scholarly footnotes to the edition -- he wanted it to consist of Wittgenstein's words alone. Finally, a full-scale mutiny broke out, with the philosophers impugning both Nedo's character and his competence, and hinting, among other things, that his Ph.D.s in physics and zoology were fictitious.

The trustees, however, gave their support to Nedo and the contract that he had signed with them. Although this only increased the hostility in the philosophical community, the day was saved for the pure-text edition. The project was transferred from Tübingen to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Nedo uprooted himself and moved to England.

At that point 15,000 pages of manuscript had already been transcribed from Wittgenstein's hand, but the computer disks disappeared at the time of the anti-Nedo crusade. Various lawsuits and countersuits were set in motion; it turned out that Nedo's former colleagues had smuggled the 15,000 pages to Norway, where the Norwegian Wittgenstein Project, a group of Norwegian scholars, sought to produce a computer-readable edition. The story goes that Anscombe demanded the disks back, and the Norwegians refused to return them; supposedly, the disks are still sitting in a bank vault somewhere in Norway, though no one will admit to knowing where. In 1991 another Norwegian team, this time at the University of Bergen, was granted permission to produce a CD-ROM version, which is scheduled to appear toward the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Nedo began the process of transcription all over again, and promised to have the edition ready for the centenary of Wittgenstein's birth, in 1989. But by the late 1980s, when Rush Rhees died, Nedo had still not published a single volume. He had several ready, he says, but the trustees were not satisfied with their typographic quality, a problem he ascribes to the shortage of funds and to the difficulties the manuscripts presented: an idiosyncratic notational system, myriad cross-references, and an unconventional structure. "The structure of the manuscripts themselves was especially complicated," Nedo says, "because Wittgenstein's thinking and writing were very musical, so you have structures and forms that are more common to music than to texts. When he comes to the borderline of his language, his sentences often break apart; one sentence ends and he produces a parallel second sentence that somehow oscillates around the idea of the first. These sets of sentences remind one of a partita where, in order to express something, one has to use different tunes."

Nedo devoted a great deal of time to designing a typographic format that would make for a readable text, and he insisted on having special software developed that would allow many different variants to be presented simultaneously, with each given a different weight. In his view, such time-consuming efforts were justified by the result: the software that he and Desmond Schmidt, a Cambridge Ph.D. in classical philology, developed at the archive is infinitely more sophisticated, Nedo says, than anything developed elsewhere, and could be used for all sorts of scholarly editorial projects.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion


What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.


Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."


The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?


More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In