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« Was Wittgenstein Wrong on Ethics? | Main | Toward a Comprehensive Account of Value Discourse »

Wittgenstein on Heidegger and Ethics

In a draft paper not yet open for quoting, Paul Livingston of the philosophy department at the University of New Mexico explores the relationship between Wittgenstein and Heidegger based on two instances when the two thinkers mentioned one another. While Livingston’s commentary on this is not available for citation (it is publicly readable in draft if you google "Wittgenstein Reads Heidegger, Heidegger Reads Wittgenstein") there would seem to be no obstacle to quoting what Livingston himself quotes in relation to his thesis.

He begins with a quote ostensibly of Wittgenstein’s to Schlick and Waismann dated December 30th, 1929. It was first published, he reports, in the January,1965 issue of the Philosophical Review in German with a translation to English by Max Black. Here we have the Wittgenstein known to the members of the Vienna Circle and still in the shadow of his early thinking as we find it in the Tractatus, before the change that eventually led to the Philosophical Investigations and other later work.

The Wittgenstein we see is a man interested in ethical concerns but clearly reluctant to engage in a philosophical inquiry about them:

I can very well think what Heidegger meant about Being and Angst. Man has the drive to run up against the boundaries of language. Think, for instance, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer to it. All that we can say can only, a priori, be nonsense. Nevertheless we run up against the boundaries of language. Kierkegaard also saw this running-up and similarly pointed it out (as running up against the paradox). This running up against the boundaries of language is Ethics. I hold it certainly to be very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter. It is a priori certain: whatever one may give as a definition of the Good – it is always only a misunderstanding to suppose that the expression corresponds to what one actually means (Moore). But the tendency to run up against shows something. The holy Augustine already knew this when he said: “What, you scoundrel, you would speak no nonsense? Go ahead and speak nonsense – it doesn’t matter.

Livingston goes on to invoke similar comments by Wittgenstein in his Lecture on Ethics delivered to the Heretics Society six weeks earlier (http://sackett.net/WittgensteinEthics.pdf) in which he likens the inquiry of ethics to the search for what is good (as per Moore) or what is valuable or, as he also puts it “the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living.” Wittgenstein goes on in his talk to differentiate between the way we use “good” in ordinary language (a harbinger of things to come with him, one might say) and how we use the term in ethics, i.e., as a name for some ultimate human good. The use of terms like “good,” Wittgenstein suggests in that paper is as an assertion of some absolute value whereas in the ordinary case we only mean it relative to some goal or objective we may have. What is good in the latter case is whatever advances the goal in question. But ethical goodness, he suggests, wants more.

Wittgenstein proceeds to invoke the fact/value distinction to claim, like Hume, that no fact or facts by it or themselves, can be taken to imply a value claim in the ethical sense. And here we see the impetus of the later movement of folks like Anscombe and Foot, to answer Moore’s challenge of the naturalistic fallacy by finding a basis for rooting such ethical value notions in facts, in the fashion of Aristotle and his contemporaries. From this, though, Wittgenstein himself drew the conclusion in that lecture that

. . . if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and[sic] if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

He proceeds to make the case that “absolute good” is, as he puts it, “a chimera,” that it seems to be something but, on examination, we find it indescribable and intensely personal, being absolutely good for someone only insofar as it meets one’s particular needs. And yet, he suggests, there is something we all share, or can share if open in the same way, and he makes that a sense of “wonder at the existence of the world” characterized by a tendency to utter such comments as “’how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.'” He thinks there are other experiences like that which also are suggestive of absoluteness:

I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say 'I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.'

But, he adds, “the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense!” Here, I would suggest, we are in the presence of the evolving thinker, the Wittgenstein who is beginning to move beyond the Tractatus, to become concerned with the subject matter, ethics, which he told us in the Tractatus was beyond mere words. Wittgenstein again:

. . . a certain characteristic misuse of our language runs through all ethical and religious expressions. All these expressions seem, prima facie, to be just similes. Thus it seems that when we are using the word right in an ethical sense, although, what we mean, is not right in its trivial sense, it's something similar, and when we say 'This is a good fellow,' although the word good here doesn't mean what it means in the sentence 'This is a good football player' there seems to be some similarity.

He likens ethical talk (discourse about what is absolutely good) to religious talk and concludes that:

Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

In attacking the effort to philosophize about ethical questions, he singles out the impetus to make of it a kind of science (think of the Moral Science Club at Cambridge which was a conclave of philosophers!) and rejects such a project out of hand. But he doesn’t reject the ethical impetus. Or the religious one. But what has he finally added by this to the questions surrounding moral issues, to how that sort of language works and what it does in offering behavioral guidance? For if it cannot offer that, what do we look to it for?

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