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The Dead German Philosophers’ Club

Carl Murray eavesdrops on an heroic argument.

In Valhalla, the resting-place for great German heroes and warriors, there is a corner reserved for eminent philosophers. Membership of the Philosophers’ Club is highly prized and jealously guarded.

The purpose of the meeting today is to discuss the possible admission of a new member. Present are Immanuel Kant (Chairman), GWF Hegel (Minutes Secretary) and ordinary members Gottfried Leibniz, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

Kant Gentlemen, the sole item on the agenda today is the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and whether he should be elected to our circle. Mr Secretary, could you remind us of the qualifications necessary for membership?

Hegel Yes, Mr Chairman. First the candidate must be dead; second, he must be German, and must think and write in German; and finally, his contribution to philosophy must demonstrably be of lasting value. There is unfortunately a slight complication in that Herr Wittgenstein is Austrian by birth and later took British citizenship.

Kant Ah yes. Well, I think for our purposes we can regard Austrian as good enough in this case. By the way, has he actually applied for membership?

Hegel That is not entirely clear. When questioned, he became rather testy and shouted something about not wanting to be in any club that was prepared to have him as a member. However, he did finally agree – rather grudgingly – to be a candidate.

Leibniz Mr Chairman, there is another slight problem.

Kant What problem?

Leibniz The question is, which Wittgenstein is under consideration for membership? Is it the writer of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or the author of Philosophical Investigations? Some critics regard the two works as distinct and incompatible.

Hegel I incline towards those who see his career as having its own dialectical development – the Tractatus being the thesis, the Investigations the antithesis, so to speak…

Kant My dear Hegel, that is very schematic, rather like your Philosophy of History; but unfortunately, our candidate does not seem to have lived long enough to have achieved a synthesis. Herr Leibniz, for our purposes there is and can only be one Wittgenstein. However, another question we must put to our members, is why his writings have proved extremely influential in English-speaking countries although originally written in German, while his standing in Continental Europe seems to be on the wane despite a strong initial impact in Vienna. Clearly he was a magnetic lecturer when teaching at Cambridge, but I do wonder whether he was still thinking in German while speaking in English. I think we need to know.

Heidegger Hmm… very interesting. Thinking philosophically is difficult enough in one’s Muttersprache, let alone in an adopted language. However I have come to the conclusion that Wittgenstein has wilfully excluded himself from the continental tradition. In addition, he did not receive or undertake a thorough training in Philosophy. He seems to regard it as some sort of ‘therapy’ or as ‘an activity rather than a doctrine’. Indeed, he has come to it by way of Aeronautical Engineering and Mathematical Logic. Admittedly these are both very exacting intellectual disciplines, but he has, I believe, made a point of not reading any Descartes, and not much Plato, let alone any Aristotle, either in the original or in translation.

Husserl Yes, but could it not be that all these factors contribute to his much vaunted ‘originality’? Personally, I find it rather more worrying that he allegedly discouraged some of his students from studying philosophy and told them that they would be more use working in a factory.

Heidegger Yes indeed – a disturbing notion! As for his standing as a German philosopher, I must confess that I find his style – how shall I put it? –rather ‘undeutsch’. Much of the Tractatus is written in mathematical symbols, and much of the rest is presented as a series of aphorisms or oracular pronouncements – not without great insight I grant you, but lacking any supporting arguments. In fact he reminds me strongly of Nietzsche – which, I suspect, is why Friedrich is still only a probationary member. Furthermore, Wittgenstein’s claim that “What can be said at all, can be said clearly” is not exactly in the tradition of German philosophy, as I’m sure we would all agree. We seek, do we not, to build a comprehensive system of thought, buttressed by the appropriate technical vocabulary. However, in the Investigations he consciously rejects a systematic method in favour of a piecemeal approach. His conversational style can also be rather deceptive. If a student were to write a philosophical dissertation in this manner, would you accept it?

Kant Ah well… But apart from the question of style, we have to establish whether he is a real German philosopher, or some sort of mystical prophet of language. For example, he says that we are ‘bewitched by language’ and that these philosophical problems that exercise us are examples of language ‘going on on holiday’. He claims that they are merely linguistic puzzles that can easily be solved when we examine how we use language in ordinary speech. He claims to have solved, or rather ‘dissolved’, the main problems of philosophy!

Leibniz Unless I am mistaken, back down on Earth, philosophers of the Anglo-Saxon and Continental variety, and many other intelligent people, are still arguing about free will, the existence of God, Reality, Goodness, Truth, Beauty and the Meaning of Life, and so forth. It seems to me that they do so on the understanding that these problems that perplex us are deep, substantive, and really matter. The study of ordinary speech in my view has at best a limited, preliminary role to play. If it were simply a case of examining how we use words like ‘free’, ‘God’,‘good’, ‘true’ and ‘beautiful’, these problems could and should have been solved or ‘dissolved’ centuries ago. And I for one am puzzled and unconvinced by Wittgenstein’s rather Delphic pronouncement that “The meaning of a word is its use.”

Kant I agree. When we interview him, I must ask him whether he considers that statement to be analytic or synthetic.

Hegel An interesting point, Mr. Chairman. I have always taken his pronouncement to mean that Meaning is not a ‘thing in itself’ but is dependent on context and on what he calls ‘family resemblance’, ‘form of life’ and so on. But none of this is fully worked out.

Husserl I have struggled to understand Herr Wittgenstein’s often obscure writings on language and philosophy. He seems to be saying that since all our experience and understanding of the world comes through language, we must first study language to obtain the most accurate picture of the world. He asserts that since philosophical questions are formulated in words, if the limits of language can be found, the limits can also be found of what philosophical questions can be asked and answered. On the face of it, this seems similar to the Copernican Revolution in thought which you initiated, Mr. Chairman, when you yourself showed us that to understand the world, we must understand the processes by which we perceive and interpret it. I wonder whether Herr Wittgenstein’s so-called ‘Linguistic Turn’ will prove to be another Copernican Revolution.

Kant Hmm. We shall see. Personally, I am not sure whether we have not yet fully grasped his ideas, or on the contrary we have properly examined them and concluded that the Emperor is, if not entirely naked, then only partially clothed. By the way, do you happen to know what Wittgenstein has been working on lately, Herr Hegel?

Hegel With characteristic intensity, he has been conducting a series of experiments with ducks or rabbits – I’m not quite sure which – and also with flies and bottles, trying to train the flies to fly out of the bottles, but the flies seem reluctant to co-operate. He also spends much time climbing up ladders and throwing away the ladder, leaving himself stranded in mid-air.

Kant I think Probationary Status seems the best we can offer at the moment. Agreed, gentlemen?

© Carl Murray 2011

Carl Murray is a classicist, a singer, and an adult education lecturer in Philosophy and also in Opera.

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