IT’S almost a law of nature that great thinkers will be traduced by lesser thinkers. Think of Marx and Adam Smith and Schopenhauer and, well, almost every philosopher! But what happens when a great thinker is grossly misunderstood by other great thinkers? There was one extraordinary and original philosopher who’s thought was so thoroughly misunderstood that it led to a schism in philosophy itself.
That philosopher is none other than the enigmatic Ludwig Wittgenstein and his equally enigmatic book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Written in epigrammatic form, this remarkable book has probably led to more misunderstandings than any other in the philosophical canon. It is full of startling phrases like the ‘world is all that is the case’ or ‘what can be shown, cannot be said’ and, famously, right at the end ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.
What Wittgenstein meant by all this was that pretty much everything that matters in life, including ethics, we must remain silent about. But there was a group of philosophers who catastrophically misunderstood him and believed that what he really meant was the exact opposite – that what we can speak about is all that matters. In his Confessions of a Philosopher Bryan Magee writes that this misunderstanding is all the more remarkable because Wittgenstein himself made it clear that ‘ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental’.
The group of thinkers – whose philosophical ponderings are described as logical positivism – that blundered into this mistake came to be known as the Vienna Circle and included such luminaries as Robert Carnap and A. J. Ayer. They came up with the Verifiable Principle, which states that only assertions that are in principle verifiable by observations or experience can have meaning. As Magee writes: “Assertions that there could be no imaginable way of verifying must either be analytic or meaningless’. And ‘all discoverable truths about the world were discovered by the methods of science’.
According to Wolfram Ellenberger in Time of the Magicians however: “In Wittgenstein’s view, philosophy was not akin to legal writing, and neither was it intellectual enquiry: in fact, it wasn’t a teachable or thematically definitive science. But these were the precise convictions that lay at the heart of the Vienna Circle.” Amusingly, Ellenberger describes the situation as being akin to a tug-of-war with the Vienna Circle on the one hand asserting that the meaning of an assertion lies in the method of its verification ‘while a famously indefatigable Wittgenstein held his ground at the other end of the rope with Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard, waiting for the whole positivist troop to collapse’.
Ellenberger regards this situation as being ‘one of the strangest misunderstandings, not without its comical side, in the history of philosophy’. But there were some serious consequences of this misunderstanding in that two tribes formed – analytical philosophy and continental philosophy which are ‘dedicated to levelling mutual accusations at each other’, thus contributing to the distrust between the continental tradition and the analytical Anglo-Saxons – although it’s probably a bit of a stretch to say that it also fed into Brexit.
As it happens Wittgenstein is also allied by Ellenberger with three other great idiosyncratic thinkers – Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer who, he argues, from 1919 to the emergence of National Socialism remade philosophy. According to Ellenberger, Cassirer wanted us to ‘cast off your anxiety as creative cultural beings, liberate your original constraints and limitations’. Heidegger, meanwhile, urged us to cast off ‘culture as a rotten aspect of your essence, and sink on the groundlessly thrown beings that you are, each in your own way, back into the truly liberating origin of your experience: Nothing and anxiety’. And just as Wittgenstein claimed that a ‘picture is a model of reality’ so Benjamin used the ‘thought picture’ as a ‘tool in order in order to see the world correctly’.
If all this sounds a little esoteric it is nevertheless an object lesson in how even the mightiest intellects can get things horribly wrong – how tribes and echo chambers can evolve in any field and how the highly educated can be just as bias as the rest of us, even if they may be able to express themselves more eloquently. Although to be fair to Ayer he later quipped that ‘the most important’ defect of logical positivism ‘was that nearly all of it was false’.