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."

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