The Darkness of this Time: Wittgenstein’s pessimism

Schopenhauer as educator

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, and Adolf Hitler, the dictator, were born just six days apart in the Spring of 1889 – Wittgenstein into golden luxury in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler into a modest family and a provincial town at the Empire’s border to Germany. Different as those backgrounds were, Wittgenstein’s and Hitler’s life-paths came to parallel each other at certain points and occasionally even to intersect. I am concerned in this essay with Wittgenstein’s pessimism about his time but have found it useful to look also at Adolf Hitler as an antithetical figure propelled by another kind of pessimism. The contrast between the two men may help to illuminate questions about their and our age, about technology and technological thinking, and, possibly, about pessimism itself.

The first thing Wittgenstein and Hitler shared was, of course, that both were born into an increasingly unstable multi-national empire. This was, perhaps, less of a problem for Hitler who always thought of himself as German and who grew up hostile to the Empire with its Jewish and Slavic populations. But many others – such as the Wittgensteins with their place in Viennese society and their Jewish ancestry – felt seriously threatened by the unravelling of their social and political order. Pessimism was in the air in Vienna. We hear that Arthur Schopenhauer, the early 19th century pessimist, was avidly read by the likes of Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Boltzmann, the physicist, Karl Kraus, the literary critic, and Gustav Klimt, the painter, among many others. Ludwig Wittgenstein was no exception. Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation was the first work of philosophy he read, long before he took up the subject at Cambridge in 1911 and it made a lasting impression on him. Even Hitler came under the spell of Schopenhauer and later recounted that “during the whole of World War I carried the five volumes of Schopenhauer’s work in my pack. I have learned much from him.”

In 1904, Wittgenstein’s and Hitler’s paths almost crossed when they both attended the Technical High School at Linz. But they probably never knew each other, because Wittgenstein was one year ahead and Hitler one year behind. Eleven years later both became soldiers in the First World War with Wittgenstein volunteering to join the Austrian forces, while Hitler enlisted, instead, characteristically in the German army. Both came out of the war burned and traumatized. After that their lives began to move in sharply different directions. Wittgenstein saw himself confirmed in his Schopenhauerian pessimism. Hitler, meanwhile, turned from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche whom he misread as an advocate of nationalism and anti-Semitism and the prophet of men like himself – “artist-tyrants” – who would destroy the existing moribund culture and create a new global order “made to endure for millennia.” If he had been a more perceptive reader, he would have realized that Nietzsche’s assertiveness had its own pessimistic underside in the belief in the inevitable coming of nihilism.

We don’t know why two people with more or less similar experiences can nevertheless draw diametrically different conclusions. Are there psychological reasons that make the one withdraw from the world and the other to seek active engagement? Or are the reasons social in that each one of them has been conditioned by background and upbringing to react in a distinctive way – one becoming wary of technological progress and the other a self-declared technophile? Or is it that historical circumstances are configurations – puzzle pictures, in other words, – that can be perceived in utterly different ways and make the one a philosopher and the other into a dictator? But to see Wittgenstein and Hitler simply as antagonistic figures may still be too simple. Could we not also understand them as representing two complementary kinds of pessimism – one of skeptical withdrawal, the other of ideological engagement? One a nihilist in his denial of the will, the other a nihilist in its affirmation?

The First World War had been a war like no other before it. It was a new technological war fought with an array of never before seen weapons: gigantic navies, submarines, planes, bombs, tanks, long-distance cannons, machine guns, and poison gas. Technology displayed itself thus with a heretofore unknown power, foreshadowing yet further advances in armaments in the later parts of the twentieth century and the first decades of our own. The experience of this newly dehumanized warfare, the military defeat of the axis powers on whose side both Wittgenstein and Hitler had fought, and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in particular, convinced both of them that Europe and, indeed, the West as a whole had entered a moment of historical crisis.

We know what brutal conclusions Hitler drew from that conviction. In 1941 he said: “I went to war out of pure idealism; but then one saw thousands maimed and killed and one became conscious of the fact that life is a continuous cruel struggle which ultimately serves the preservation of the race. Some must perish so that others can live.” By then, Hitler had become convinced that the most advanced modern technology was needed for victory in this struggle. One official who saw him in action in that period, describes Hitler as “altogether the type of the totally technologically minded man, the homo faber of modern civilization.” The official had no doubts about Hitler’s “extraordinary interest and uncontestably strong talent in the area of modern technology.” But he also felt that Hitler displayed all the flaws of this type: such as an “atrophy of all powers of the soul” and an entire lack of human feeling. In 1942, Hitler commented on his own preoccupation with technology: “In technological warfare the winner is the one who has a superior weapon at the right moment… One must possess technical superiority at the decisive point. I am, I admit it freely, obsessed with technology (ein Narr der Technik).” Hitler’s obsession with technology extended in all directions. In the military field, he took personal charge of the development of new weapons and during the war “set the monthly target, direction, and size of every production of weapons and ammunition in every detail.” Elsewhere he was obsessed with techniques for propaganda, with the control of large populations, the capturing, transporting, and interning of those he deemed hostile, technical means of mass sterilizing and exterminating . He displayed the same technological drive in the civil arena. Symptomatic for this was the “people’s motorization” campaign he began as soon as he came to power. On September 23, 1933, Hitler addressed workers on the first German “Autobahn” concerning his gigantic project. “Today we stand at the threshold of a tremendous task. .. In future decades transportation will be coupled with these great new roads which we now plan to build throughout Germany.” The engineer Ferdinand Porsche was given the task of creating an affordable “people’s car” (i.e. “Volkswagen”). Hitler himself came lay the foundation stone of the new factory and returned for the rolling out of the first car. The new car technology was to be propagated by car races at the Nürburgring in the Eifel and at the AVUS track in Berlin, events that were transmitted by radio all over Germany.

“I am completely powerless.”

If this was Hitler’s response to the experience of the First World War, how did Wittgenstein react to it? Strangely enough, Wittgenstein, like Hitler, saw the war initially also as a racial struggle. In his diary he wrote on October 25, 1914: “I feel today more than ever the terrible situation of the German race. For it seems to me as much as certain that we cannot prevail against England. The English – the best race in the world – cannot lose. But we can lose and will lose, if not this year then the next. The thought that our race should be beaten depresses me terribly, for I am totally and completely German.” But the lesson he drew from this was very different from Hitler’s for he concluded that one must not let oneself depend on chance, “neither the lucky nor the unlucky one.” In an almost Buddhist spirit (inspired, no doubt, by Schopenhauer), he sought to foster in himself an attitude of acceptance of whatever happens and to free himself thus from the demands of the will.

We can see from Wittgenstein’s war-time diary how he came to this view-point, what it meant for his philosophical thinking, and how it eventually came to shape his Tractatus. He had begun work on that book as soon as he had enrolled in the army. During the course of the war he maintained a series of philosophical notebooks from which he eventually extracted his book. The Tractatus is thus, in the most literal sense, a war book reflecting the course of his thinking in the years from 1914 to 1918.

When he had shown up in Cambridge in 1911, Wittgenstein had initially aligned himself with Russell’s way of seeing and doing philosophy. Russell was imagining at the time “the possibility and importance of applying to philosophical problems certain broad principles of method which have been found successful in the study of scientific questions.” This, he wrote, would make philosophy ultimately “indistinguishable from logic.” As such, it would investigate the logical forms of propositions and the various types of facts and their constituents. Russell concluded programmatically: “A scientific philosophy such as I wish to recommend will be piecemeal and tentative like other sciences; … This possibility of successive approximations to the truth is more than anything else, the source of the triumphs of science, and to transfer this possibility to philosophy is to ensure a progress in method whose importance it would be almost impossible to exaggerate.” Logic, science, and progress were thus the leading ideas in Russell’s philosophical thinking and there is no doubt that Wittgenstein for a while adopted the same objectives. In his “Notes on Logic” from 1913, he declared in the spirit of his philosophical mentor: “Philosophy consists of logic and metaphysics… Philosophy is the doctrine of the logical form of scientific propositions.” During this period, Russell came to think of Wittgenstein as, in fact, dangerously one-sided in his preoccupation with logic. To his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morell, he wrote of Wittgenstein: “He has not a sufficient wide curiosity or a sufficient wish for a broad survey of the world. It won’t spoil his work in logic, but it will make him always a very narrow specialist.” Russell did evidently not realize that other and older philosophical concerns were also already swirling in Wittgenstein’s mind.

But it needed Wittgenstein’s war experience to bring them back to the surface. The early entries in Wittgenstein’s war-time notebook show how he was still caught in the spirit of Russell’s philosophizing. But this was to change as the war dragged on. In June 1916, Wittgenstein was pulled into the so-called “Brusilov Offensive,” a Russian military campaign in which Wittgenstein’s unit lost 12,500 men out of a total of 16,000. Wittgenstein himself was unsure that he would survive. And he realized at this moment that there was nothing he could do to change that situation. It was then that his philosophical notebook turned from deliberations on logic to thoughts about the world at large and its meaning. “What do I know about God and the purpose of life?” he wrote. “I know that this world exists… That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning. That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it… I cannot bend the happenings of the world to my will: I am completely powerless.”

It was In this situation that his attention returned to authors he knew from his early life in Vienna: Schopenhauer and his treatise The World as Will and Representation; Otto Weininger and his book Sex and Character with its reflections on the nature of the human self; and Fritz Mauthner and his monumental Contributions to a Critique of Language whose preoccupation with ordinary language he still rejected in the Tractatus but whose skepticism about the powers of philosophy he came to share. In addition he was reading others like Tolstoy, Emerson, and Nietzsche. And all these influences converged with the philosophical inspiration he had drawn from the logical writings of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell and flowed into his book. His ultimate goal, he declared at the end of the book, was to see the world aright; but in order to do so one had first to work oneself through the propositions of philosophy but only to overcome them finally and set them aside. “The right method in philosophy,” he concluded was this: “To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. … something that has nothing to do with philosophy.”

These conclusions were certainly no longer inspired by Russell’s way of thinking. In the introduction to the Tractatus which Russell wrote for its original bilingual edition, he praised the work as an achievement in “logical theory” and as such “a work of extraordinary difficulty and importance” but he only skirted the broader concerns of the book. Of Wittgenstein’s new doubts about the possibility of saying anything philosophical Russell wrote sarcastically: “What causes hesitation is the fact that, after all, Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said.” No wonder that Wittgenstein was incensed by Russell’s words. He accused him of having failed to understand the book and threatened to withdraw it from publication, if it could appear only with Russell’s introduction. He wrote to Russell: ”Now I’m afraid you haven’t really got hold of my main contention, to which the whole business of logical propositions is only a corollary. The main point is the theory of what can be expressed by propositions … and what cannot be expressed by propositions.” To another correspondent he wrote: “The point of the book is ethical … my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within as it were, by my book … All of that which many are babbling of today, I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it.

Russell had clearly touched a raw nerve in the author of the Tractatus. He had identified an apparent paradox in the book in that much of it, despite its call for philosophical silence, remained preoccupied with thoughts about logical structure and form. Was Wittgenstein then not, after all, continuing on the track of Russell’s philosophizing? Russell did evidently not see that such a preoccupation could be split off from his own faith in science and progress. He failed to be aware of the modernist conviction that whatever is “higher” (the aesthetic, the ethical, the spiritual) could no longer be represented concretely and in traditional terms but could be made manifest only in its absence by means of abstractions. It was this conviction that drove Adolf Loos, with whom Wittgenstein was at that time closely connected, to conceive of an architectural aesthetics of pure form, stripped of all historical references and ornamentation. The impact of this view on Wittgenstein is apparent in the house that he built in Vienna in the late 1920’s together with his friend, the architect Ludwig Engelmann who had, in turn, be a student of Loos. It was this same modernist awareness that expressed itself in the same period also in the work of Mondrian, Malevich, and Kandinsky.

“May the spirit live,” Wittgenstein had written in his war-time diary. “It alone is the safe harbor, protected, far away from the desolate, infinite, gray sea of happening.” The sentence expresses both the positive and the negative side of the conclusions he was to draw in his Tractatus. On the positive side there was a turn to a new “spirituality”, vividly present in his “Lecture on Ethics” of 1929, on the negative one a turning away from Russell’s faith in science and progress, a turning away from all philosophical theorizing, and distrust of the culture in which it flourished.

“Spengler could be better understood in this way.”

It was more than a decade later that Wittgenstein returned to the philosophical matters he had raised in the Tractatus. That moment proved to be of profound philosophical and personal significance to him; it affected how he would go on to think about philosophy and it certainly changed how he thought about himself and his time.

The turn to the 1930’s was first of all the moment when Wittgenstein began to question the assumptions about logic and language that he had laid out in the Tractatus. He now discovered that he could no longer subscribe to Russell’s conception of logical analysis and his conviction that language could be understood on the model of the logical calculus. He found himself, instead, drawn Mauthner’s view on language which he had explicitly rejected in the Tractatus. “All philosophy is ‘critique of language’,” he had written there, “(but not in Mauthner’s sense).” This despite the sympathy he felt even then for Mauthner’s skepticism about philosophy. Adopting a metaphor borrowed from Mauthner’s book – who had taken it, in turn, from Sextus Empiricus, the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptic – Wittgenstein had concluded the Tractatus by saying that one had to abandon his philosophical propositions to see the world aright. “My propositions are elucidatory in this way,” he had written: “He who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” The Tractatus had, in effect, used Russell’s conception of logic, language, and meaning to motivate Mauthner’s skepticism. By 1930, Wittgenstein, however, began to discard these remnants of Russell’s view of philosophy.

The turn to the 1930’s was also of profound personal significance for Wittgenstein. It was the moment at which in reaction to the rising wave of antisemitism, stirred up by Hitler and his followers, he became for the first fully conscious of his own Jewish family background. And thus he could no longer retain the thought that he was “totally and completely German” and that recent history had to be understood as the struggle between his own, the German race, and the English one. When Hitler marched into Austria in 1938, he found himself reluctantly having to make a choice between a German and an English passport. He weighed the possibility of Irish citizenship, but in the end, for practical reasons and without deeper convictions, agreed to become a British subject. Some of his family members stayed behind in Vienna. In the end, after handing over their foreign stocks, they managed to obtain a certificate from Berlin declaring Hermann Christian Wittgenstein, the grandfather of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and all his descendants to be purely Aryan even though Hermann Christian’s father had been Moses Mayer who had changed his name and had his son baptized. It has been said that Hitler personally approved this certificate.

The political turmoil of the late 1920’s and early 30’s affected Wittgenstein’s entire outlook on the world. This turn comes first into focus in a projected preface from 1930 for a book he never completed. He wrote then that the spirit of his work was not “the spirit of the great stream of European and American civilization.“ The words make clear that Germany and England were for him now part of one single civilization and as such equally problematic. He also wrote: “The spirit of this civilization makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time. In its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author.” Modern civilization, he added, was obsessed with the idea of progress. “Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure.” In reading these words, we are reminded that Wittgenstein’s father had been a dedicated engineer and wealthy industrialist who had long insisted that his son should follow him in that career. Wittgenstein had veered away from this trajectory already before the war when he abandoned his engineering studies and had begun to work on logic with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge. But by 1930, Wittgenstein felt just as alienated from Russell’s scientific conception of philosophy as he had earlier from his father’s preoccupation with engineering and industry. So, in his 1930 note he added that the spirit of the typical western scientist was also alien to him. “He will in any case not understand the spirit in which I write… I am not interested in building a structure … I am not aiming at the same target as the scientists.”

Such thoughts sharpened his view of what he himself was seeking to do in his philosophy. In his Blue Book he spoke of a mistaken “craving for generality” that spoiled philosophy. One of the reasons for that craving was the modern obsession with science. “Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.” In this modern age, Wittgenstein told his students at the same time, “the nimbus of philosophy has been lost.” We have now philosophers skillfully operating their formal methods. “But once a method has been found the opportunities for the expression of personality are correspondingly restricted. The tendency of our age is to restrict such opportunities; this is the character of an age of declining culture or without culture.”

Wittgenstein’s skepticism about the age in which he was living was re-enforced by his belated reading of Oswald Spengler’s book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). The book had been an instant bestseller when it appeared in 1918, at the end of the First World War. The title suggested an account of the military disaster that had befallen the central European powers. But Spengler’s book had, in fact, been conceived before 1914 and was meant to provide a much more ambitious “sketch of a morphology of world history,” as its subtitle said. Wittgenstein, reading the book ten years after its appearance, the end of the war, and the completion of his Tractatus, understood immediately what the book was really about.
Spengler had been motivated by two great ideas: the first was cultural pluralism and the second historical determinism. He had rejected the conception of world history as a single, linear, and cumulative process. Instead he had described it as constituted by a series of separate, self-contained cultures that each had their own unifying idea – a ground-plan that determined every element of the culture from its art and religion to its science and mathematics. Spengler admitted therefore “no sort of privileged position to the Classical or the Western Culture as against the Cultures of India, China, Egypt, the Arabs, Mexico · separate worlds of dynamic being which in point of mass count for just as much in the general picture of history as the Classical, while frequently surpassing it in point of spiritual greatness and soaring power.” Every culture had for Spengler “its own possibilities of self-expression.” “I see world-history,” he wrote, “as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms.” The development of each culture and its formative idea followed, moreover, – so Spengler sought to show – the same fixed course which led organically from an initial larval state through an age of unfolding maturity to a terminal phase, which Spengler called “civilization.’’ “Every Culture,” Spengler insisted, “has its own civilization … Civilization is the inevitable destiny of a Culture. … Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion, intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic. They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again.”

Spengler concluded that his comparative analysis of world-cultures could reveal also the current state and future of the West. It would show that Western culture had entered now into the age of civilization. And with the assumption of historical determinism in hand, Spengler went on to argue that such a comparison of the West with cultures that had already completed their course (such as that of ancient Hellenism) one could foresee the inevitable end of Western culture. The first phase of that process, he thought, had already begun around 1800 and was to conclude around the year 2000. It was characterized by “the domination of money, “democracy,” and of economic powers permeating the political forms and authorities.” The second phase, from 2000 to 2200 would bring about “Caesarism, the victory of power-politics over economics, increasing primitiveness of political forms, the decline of nations into a formless populations, and an imperium of gradually increasing crudity and despotism.” The final phase after the year 2200 would lead to “a world of spoils,” to “Egypticism, Mandarinism, Byzantium,” and finally to “primitive human conditions slowly thrust up into the highly civilized mode of living.”

Theodor Adorno, who was well aware of weaknesses of Spengler’s thought would later write that “the course of world history vindicated his immediate prognoses to an extent that would astonish if they were still remembered.” In criticizing Spengler, he added, “German philosophy and science could bring to bear only pedantic punctiliousness in concrete matters, the rhetoric of conformist optimism in its ideas, and often enough an involuntary admission of weakness in the form of the assurance that things aren’t really all that bad.” Spengler saw himself, in fact, as a realist rather than a pessimist. But it is easy to see why he attracted readers, like Adorno and Wittgenstein who saw the world in a dark light. Almost twenty years after first reading Spengler’s book, Wittgenstein was still sufficiently in thrall with it to write: “My own thinking about art and values is far more disillusioned than would have been possible for someone 100 years ago… I have cases of decline (Untergang) before my mind which were not in the forefront of people’s minds at that time.” He remained convinced that he was living in an age of civilization in Spengler’s sense, a time in which no real culture was possible anymore and, hence, a time also which limited the power and productivity of intellectual labor – his own included. In such an age, Wittgenstein noted, “forces become fragmented and the power of an individual man is used up in overcoming opposing forces and frictional resistances.” He was thus prepared for the possibility “that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known.”

The traces of Wittgenstein’s encounter with Spengler can be found everywhere in his later work. For one thing, Wittgenstein came to see the world in temporal and historical terms – something that had been sorely missing in the Tractatus. In that work he had treated language as an essentially timeless structure mapping on to the equally timeless structure of the world. The Tractatus had barely acknowledged the temporality of things and it had not even mentioned that the world had a history. “What has history to do with me?” he had written in his war-time notebook. “Mine is the first and only world.” The Tractatus foreshadowed thus the coming of a philosophical movement that would eschew history in the name of formal analysis. But Wittgenstein’s own thinking after 1930 was to diverge from this new trend. Not that he ever became a systematic philosopher of time and history. But he began to think about language under the sign of its temporality. What mattered to him now was the use of language, rather than its supposedly determinate, a-temporal structure. And this use, he recognized, takes place in time and changes over time. Wittgenstein’s late reflections in On Certainty about the existence of different world-views with their own distinct internal logic was evidently in debt to Spengler. Like Spengler, he came to think that world-history divides into different cultures that cannot be ordered along a single axis of progress. There are, Wittgenstein concluded, different world-views which have their internal coherence and which allow thought to move within them. Each of these views is committed to assumptions that it takes for granted. But these assumptions may still change over time. The riverbed of thought may move and so one world-view may emerge out of another one; one culture may change into another.

For all that, Wittgenstein was not an uncritical reader of Spengler’s book. From the start, he never accepted the claim that each culture is characterized by one single formative idea that determines all its significant contents. And he also never subscribed to Spengler’s historical determinism. He argued, instead, that we can compare cultures with human families: “Within a family there is family resemblance, though you will also find a resemblance between members of different families.” It was in this encounter with Spengler that Wittgenstein first came to the notion of family resemblance that was to play such a crucial role in his subsequent reflections on language, meaning, mathematics, and the mind. In critiquing Spengler, he meant to say that individual cultures, far from being hermetically sealed off from each other by their formative ideas, should be thought of as diverse and multi-featured just like any biological family. While Spengler had written of a pluralism of cultures, Wittgenstein thus sought, in addition, to emphasize pluralism within cultures. He also refused to agree with Spengler’s view that human cultures are so different from each other that there cannot be any understanding across the lines of cultural division. On Spengler’s view, we have to assume that they are, in effect, incommensurable whereas Wittgenstein stressed the resemblances between cultures that allow for the possibility of mutual understanding and interaction.

“Perhaps, one day this civilization will produce a culture.”

It would be wrong to think of Wittgenstein as denying the insights of science or of wanting to destroy the works of technology. What concerned him, rather, was the fact that science and technology have become the template on which the entire culture, including its philosophy, were shaping themselves. This, he felt in agreement with Spengler, would lead to the death of living culture and thus to the petrified state of civilization. His thinking met at this point with that of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, like Wittgenstein and Hitler, had been born in 1889. He, too, had been a soldier in the First World War, and while his experience had been less traumatizing than that of these two others, the war and his aftermath had still convinced him that he was living at a moment of world-historical crisis. Like Wittgenstein he read and was influenced by Spengler’s, Decline of the West. In 1920, two years after the publication of that work and early on in his own career, he delivered a lecture on the book. Its text is unfortunately lost and we have no report on its contents, but Spengler’s book certainly retained Heidegger’s attention. In his subsequent writings Spengler’s name occurs frequently. While those references are often critical in tone, it is clear that without Spengler’s influence Heidegger might never have conceived of his own time in the way he did: as an age of the complete forgetting of the question of being and one in which everything is reduced to being a mere resource. Heidegger, like Wittgenstein, was no technophobe or enemy of science; both of them rather sought to remind us of the need to resist a merely technological form of thinking.

Against the tendencies of the culture, Wittgenstein sought to define a new way of doing philosophy whose aim was neither scientific nor technological. Where he saw science as motivated by the search for general, explanatory laws, he wanted philosophy to attend to the particular. “Where others pass by, I stand still,” he wrote. His new philosophy was to be alert in particular to what differentiates things, to their multiplicity and diversity. For this reason he had contemplated giving his Philosophical Investigations the motto: “I will teach you differences,” a phrase chosen from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Instead, he eventually adopted an equally apt sentence from the Austrian poet Nestroy which said that progress “looks always greater than it really is.” Wittgenstein was convinced that the most pressing and deepest philosophical puzzles came from not paying attention to what is close and at hand. The solution of these puzzles, he was certain, would not be found in ever more elaborate theorizing. The true goal of philosophy was, rather, to free the mind from the illusionary tendencies to which it is prone. “What is your aim in philosophy?” he asks in his Philosophical Investigations and he replies: “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” The aim of philosophy was, in other words, to liberate the mind from its entrapments by letting it retrace the particular steps by which it had got into its dilemma. Wittgenstein recognized at this point an affinity to Freud’s psychoanalysis. While he rejected Freud’s elaborate and reductive theorizing, he identified with his psycho-analytic practice which he considered a model for the proper conduct of philosophy, “The philosopher treats a question as one treats a disease.” And like the work of the psychoanalyst, that work “consists in resembling reminders”

Time has passed. The protagonists of my story are long gone. Spengler died in 1936 at odds with the regime that Hitler had brought to power but also convinced that he had correctly predicted the appearance of a new “Caesarist” form of rule. Hitler killed himself in 1945 in the rubble of the empire he had meant to last for a thousand years. Wittgenstein died peacefully in 1951. In one of his last notes he wrote: “It is so difficult to find the beginning.” But knowing that he would soon be dead, he added: “Here is still a big gap in my thinking. And I doubt whether it will be filled now.” For all his anxiety about the times through which he had lived, his final message to his friends was: “Tell them that I have lived a happy life.” Heidegger died in 1976, still looking somberly at his age. He concluded an interview with the magazine Spiegel that he wanted to be published after his death, with a word from his favorite poet, Friedrich Hölderlin: “Only a God can save us.”

The West is still powerful today and, perhaps, even flourishing. Science and technology have made further strides. The scars of the First and Second World War are hardly visible any longer. There is still creative life, or so it seems. Can we then still speak of a decline of the West? The answer is “yes” if we mean the term in the way Spengler, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger understood it. Their concern was not with science and technology as such but with the fact that they have become increasingly the templates on which everything else in society is understood, judged, and adjudicated. They saw this as an end-stage in the development of a culture, as a becoming cold and rigid of something that had once been alive and vital. Wittgenstein, in particular, worried over how we have reduced philosophy to the model of scientific theorizing and how this has distorted and impoverished what philosophy can be and once was.

We certainly need to modify and expand Spengler’s, Wittgenstein’s, and Heidegger’s perspective. They saw science and technology as part of Western culture and understood the threat they pose as specific to the West. We have come to understand since then that science and technology are cross-cultural forces. They bear on every culture in the world, from the smallest to the biggest, from the indigenous cultures of the Amazonian Indians to a grand one like China. Science and technology and the modes of thinking they bring along affect every human form of life, transform it, and press it into a particular pattern. If this is so, and this represents a threat to living culture, we must speak no longer only of a decline of the West but of the possibility of a global decline – one that manifests itself here in China, in India, in every continent on earth and not only in the Western world. In China we see today a country that has made great and necessary progress in science and technology, but we also see a place in which the danger of losing the vitality of its ancient culture is most evident.

The decline we face has a peculiar character. It may go together with gigantic systems of economic and political power. It may even see those systems persist and grow ever more complex. The decline may be all around us, confining and distorting, while we imagine that we are flourishing. The paradox is that the power, order, stability, and efficient organization of 21st century states may turn out to be exactly signals of this decline. Spengler could still be hopeful in his view, despite his forebodings over the state of Western civilization, since he thought of the decline as confined to the West and thus leaving open the possibility of the emergence of a new vital culture in some other place on earth. But if the condition he diagnosed is truly global, this hope is no longer available to us. It seems to me possible that Wittgenstein came eventually close to that view. It may have been in consequence of it that he began to think that, if there was the hope for a new culture, it would have to arise in the middle of the old and not elsewhere.

In the years after 1930, he began to think intensively about a kind of philosophizing that was needed free ones from the confining modes of science and technology – a liberating sort of philosophy that could deliver us, the West and the rest, from the bewitchments of the mind amongst which was for him our obsession with scientific and technological progress and with scientific and technological forms of thinking. This thought had been with him in some form or other ever since the Tractatus. There he had conceived of a philosophical attitude that would set aside theorizing in the scientific style in favor of a genuine seeing of the world. We can call this a visionary attitude, if we want to. With the 1930’s and Spengler’s influence on him, he began to realize that there were different ways of viewing the world, different world-views and that the task of philosophy was not to persist in any one of them, certainly not in our modern scientific and technological view of things, but perhaps also not in that view-point of complete powerlessness he had adopted in the Tractatus. But after his encounter with Spengler, he came to look for a more active way of opposing the slide into the dead end of civilization. At this time he undertook a critique of the British anthropologist Frazer who had argued that mythological thinking was just a step towards scientific theorizing. Wittgenstein concluded that the mythological form of thought has its own grammar and justification different from that of the logic of scientific reasoning. Mythological thought, he maintained, was not after reductive and causal explanation of phenomena and their subsumption under general laws; it aimed rather at interpreting and giving meaning to the concrete phenomena of human life. There was, of course, no way of returning to mythological thinking. The question was now whether philosophy could develop its own distinctive way of looking at things. This might involve thinking in terms of a visionary form of philosophy, or of descriptive and phenomenological one, or even a therapeutic forms but none of these would be engaged in formulating general theories, striving to attain the status of a progressive science..

Wittgenstein understood how difficult this project would be and how difficult it would be to move an entire culture from the track on which it was traveling. In the preface of his Philosophical Investigations he spoke of “the darkness of this time” that would make it unlikely that his thought would be understood and he expressed fear the work, “in its poverty,” might not succeed in doing what it intended to do. He wrote in another place in the same spirit: “The sickness of a time is cured by an alteration in the mode of life of human beings, and it is only possible for the sickness of philosophical problems to get cured through a changed mode of thought and life, not through a medicine invented by an individual. Think of the use of the motor-car producing or encouraging certain sicknesses, and the human species being plagued by such sicknesses until, from some cause or other, as the result of some development or other, it abandons the habit of driving.”

Was Wittgenstein thinking here of Hitler’s “people’s motorization” campaign? We should not dismiss that possibility. But more important is his conclusion that philosophical thinking alone cannot bring the technological Behemoth under control. What is needed is more than a changed mode of thought; life itself must change. What when was he doing in the face of this realization? What did he assume his philosophizing to amount to? Did he see it as a mere place holder? Keeping a form of thinking alive, perhaps for only a few, until a new culture would emerge? Or was it meant to be a first, tentative step towards such a culture? Was Wittgenstein returning here to his earlier sense of being completely powerless? Martin Heidegger leaves us with similar questions. What did he think he was doing by recalling the question of being? Did he mean simply to remind us in an age of forgetfulness that there was more than one way to conceive of being – not only as a resource as our technological made of life continuously suggests? In the end, Heidegger could only say that we would have to wait for a new clearing, to ready ourselves for a new understanding of being that might come to us some day, perhaps unasked for. What more could the philosopher do?

3 Replies to “The Darkness of this Time: Wittgenstein’s pessimism”

  1. Dear Hans,
    Happy holidays in these dark times. I appreciate your reflections, and I wonder if you know my 2011 book Wittgenstein in Exile, where I look at some of these same issues.
    Happy New Year. Hope our paths cross sooner rather than later.
    Jim Klagge.

  2. Dear Jim,

    Thanks for the greetings and the reference to your book which I didn’t know of but will now have to read.

  3. Hans, I just noticed this engaging and illuminating essay. It conveys more fully than you did in the seminar the strong influence of Spengler on Wittgenstein’s way of thinking, ideas, and method in his later years. Interestingly, I see a possible parallel between Wittgenstein’s approach to undoing the formal structures of traditional philosophy and the efforts of Dewey. Aside from a number of other resemblances between their work, related to the pragmatist impulse, both thinkers, by different means, seemed to be struggling to disentangle science from technology with all of its destructive consequences. It seems that neither rejected science (Dewey embraced it) but sought to redefine and reimagine it, giving it a new, creative, and exclusively ameliorative meaning. Dewey displayed more confidence in this respect while Wittgenstein did not want to say what form(s) this might take. Reading this essay makes me think that what they thought of science and its role in society–how they understood it–in some sense was at the center of their efforts to transform philosophy.

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