Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Dublin 2017


Sraffa & Wittgenstein – An exchange

Piero Sraffa is generally known to be one of the few intellectual influences Wittgenstein acknowledged in respect to his philosophies and, whilst anecdotes are often mentioned in texts and biographies, I was reminded of one of their exchanges via letter the other day when watching a mundane piece on fashion on the BBC one morning.  Aside from being echoed in the Blue and Brown books, I haven’t seen this given attention elsewhere.  I thought I would share it here in case of interest.  This features amongst a collection of his letters and documents:
Notes for P. Sraffa, [21.2.1934]

I think that writing down my arguments might possibly be the only way of making it worthwhile expressing them all.-  For correct or incorrect I believe they are in most cases worth hearing and properly considering & the mere fact that I know they are wasted on you when I just say them fills me with a kind of despair while I’m stating them.  It’s like trying hard to fill a barrel which has no bottom.

I don’t mean to say that I’m sure that you get something out of an argument of mine if it’s written down.  But it’s just conceivable;  for you’ve got time then to do with it what you please and you won’t throw it away as easily as if you just hear it.


Is it a correct argument to say that the Germans cannot live contentedly or prosperously in a republic because they are a monarchist people?  One could deal that argument a blow by asking, “wouldn’t you have said exactly the same of the French people under Louis XIV?”  This argument reminds me of something apparently quite unconnected with it.  If one asks the question “why does fashion (say the fashion of dressing) change”, most people would answer:  Because the taste changes.  They would say people dress as they do because they now like to dress this way.  But this, in most cases, is wrong or it means nothing.  People dress as they do for lots of different reasons:  because they see other people dressing in this way, because their tailor just makes the suit as he does and they would have dressed differently had he made the dress according to a different model.  Even the tailors who design the new models can’t be simply said to design the ones they do because they like them.  They may think them more suitable or instinctively design them as they do etc. etc.  Of course it happens that a man chooses between different models, likes one better than the others and has his suit made accordingly.  Now the fallacy which I want to point out is this, – to think every action which people do is preceded by a particular state of mind of which the action is the outcome.  So they will not be contented to say that the tailors draw one model this year and a slightly different one next year and that this has all sorts of reasons, but they will say that there was a state of mind, the taste, the liking which changed; and regard the act of designing the model as a secondary thing (the state of mind being the primary one).  As though the changed taste did not amongst other things consist just in designing what they did design.  The fallacy could be described by saying that one presupposes a mental reservoir in which the real causes of our actions are kept.  Now this connects up with our first question because one is tempted to think of such a reservoir, I.E. “the mentality of a people” and when one speaks of changes which the Government of a country might undergo one imagines this thing, the mentality, not to alter.

Supposing one asked the question: “Is a King possible without a crown?” Here one might be tempted to say”No, because it doesn’t fit the character of a King not to have a crown, or it doesn’t fit into the physiognomy of Royalty if the King hasn’t a crown.”  But the answer to this is really “Well that physiognomy will just change and there will be Kings without crowns.” If one says, “Germany can’t change into a proper Republic because this is not like the Germans not like their physiognomy as I see it. The fallacy in this argument is, I suppose, that one then (in a sense unconsciously) presupposes that a certain kind of characteristics (which forms the mentality or is its expression) won’t change.  The fallacy roughly speaking is to think that if the unexpected things happened the people would have no face, NO physiognomy.

If I had observed a body moving in a circle and it had just completed its first round like this


then I might be so strongly impressed by this picture that it would seem to me impossible that the body when it continues its movement should move in anything but the same circular path again.  For, I should argue, its motion has the physiognomy of a circle.  But suppose it continued this way

OO    [in the letter, the circles are touching]

then of course this hasn’t the old physiognomy but a very simple new one and as soon as I see it I will again be tempted to think that now the body must obviously move on in the shape of an eight.

It will therefore be correct to say, as you did: “If you want to know what will happen with Germany, don’t argue from its physiognomy and things like this.” But not because this physiognomy is too vague. Not at all.  But because in arguing from the physiognomy one argues from a prejudice that certain things will not change, although there is no reason to suppose they won’t.

We store away impressions in our mind, certain standards (such as that of the King with a crown) and are inclined to think that everything we may meet must conform with these standards.  But if we met with a Kingdom in which the King has no crown we would soon enough put this in our collection of standards too.


I will provide Sraffa’s response in another post when I can find the time.


Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can — Eric Linus Kaplan

It is well known that Wittgenstein admired Kierkegaard, thought he was the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century and a saint, although towards the end of his life he got fed up with how constantly teasing Kierkegaard’s writing is. (Kierkegaard thought this was positive — his writing was teasing the way existence is teasing). I […]

via Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can — Eric Linus Kaplan

The Danger of Words; Drury

Yet to purchase the book (I can’t seem to find it anywhere for less than £100), I spent a great deal of Saturday reading this in the British Library.

Of particular interest were his memoirs–  I remember Monk commenting that this work was the most Wittgensteinian of anything written by his students and, as much as this becomes apparent quite quickly in his writing, the memoirs, too, are distinct. There is something that little bit more personal about the recollections and it is the way Drury decides that little things are worth commenting on (Wittgenstein’s comment on the lighting at dusk; the writer’s observation of Skinner delicately returning the bugs and slugs to the garden when washing lettuce; the comment L.W. made when giving him a silver cup as a gift; etc.). These little things that he considers important to mention give a great insight into Drury himself.  Where others (Rhees; Bouwsma; et al.) aren’t sure what made Wittgenstein keen on their friendship, it is very easy to see why these two were friends.

A great deal of their discussions focused on religion, which of course was particularly interesting for me.  Especially the discussions on Catholicism and how Drury was clearly haunted to some extent over his decision in respect to Wittgenstein’s funeral arrangements.  I found myself thinking about it at a funeral at the Brompton Oratory yesterday.  It is a harsh and uncompromising faith.

Reblogged: Wittgenstein & the Mad Tea Party of Wonderland

Source: Wittgenstein & the Mad Tea Party of Wonderland


On 12 June 1940, as the Germans broke through the French lines and
Paris lay open before their advance, [Isaiah] Berlin went on to
deliver a paper on `Other Minds’ to the Moral Sciences club
in Cambridge. In Oxford, the imminent fall of France was on
everyone’s mind. In Cambridge, the otherworldliness of the dons
was unreal.

All of the Cambridge philosophers turned out – Braithwaite,
Broad, Ewing, Moore, Wisdom and a sixth figure, small and handsome of
feature, who appeared surrounded with acolytes in tweed jackets and
white open-necked shirts identical to his own. This was Ludwig
Wittgenstein. Berlin delivered his paper on the problem of how one
could have knowledge of others’ inner mental states. It was, he
remembered `terribly boring’. After a few initial questions,
Wittgenstein became impatient and took over the discussion. Berlin
remembered him saying `No, no, that is not the way to go about it
at all. Let me see. Don’t let’s talk philosophy. Let’s talk business
with each other. Ordinary business. In ordinary circs, I say to
you, “You see a clock. The minute hand and the hour hand are both
nailed to the clock face to certain ciphers. The whole face goes
round, but the time remains the same.” No? That is solipsism.’

It was idiotic, Wittgenstein was saying, to claim that time had
stopped simply because the hands of the clock remained motionless.
Time changed whatever the clocks, whatever the sense data happened to
record. This was a vintage demolition of Ayer’s type of
verificationism. No one else spoke. `Broad sat there like a
boiled lobster looking angry. G.E. Moore, old and decrepit, looked
open-mouthed.’ Isaiah parried as best he could and the acolytes
hung on every word and dared not interrupt. After an hour,
Wittgenstein rose to his feet, his acolytes rose with him, and he
leaned over the table and shook Isaiah’s hands. `Very
interesting discussion. Thank you.’ With that, other participants
crowded around and said how rare it was to be complimented in this
way. But Berlin was not fooled. Wittgenstein hadn’t been much
impressed with the paper or Isaiah’s arguments afterwards. But he
did seem to think that Berlin had been honest and sincere, not trying
to show off, as Freddie Ayer might have done. Wittgenstein’s
judgment was Berlin’s own, and their encounter marked the
symbolic, if not the actual, end of Isaiah’s active philosophical

(Memorandum of interview, Michael Ignatieff with Isaiah 
Berlin, 7 Feb 1990)

Two sorts of people

Seeing as I took the time to find this and type it out a moment ago in response to someone’s post, I thought I would take the time to record it here:

” An examiner once said to me: ‘Sir Arthur Keith once remarked to me that the reason why the spleen drained into the portal system was of the greatest importance; but he never told me what that importance was, now can you tell me?’ I had to confess that I couldn’t see any anatomical or physiological significance in this fact. The examiner then went on to say: ‘Do you think there must be a significance, an explanation? As I see it there are two sorts of people: one man sees a bird sitting on a telegraph wire and says to himself: “Why is that bird sitting just there?”, the other man replies “Damn it all, the bird has to sit somewhere”

The reason why this story pleased Wittgenstein was that it made clear the distinction between scientific clarity and philosophical clarity.[…] Scientific explanations lead us on indefinitely from one inexplicable to another, so that the building grows and grows and grows, and we never find a real resting place. Philosophical clarity puts a full-stop to our enquiry and restlessness by showing that our quest is in one sense mistaken. “

Relieving the mental cramp

I hadn’t read this quote in a while until re-reading Malcolm’s memoir. I do very much like it.

What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it.

Duck-Rabbit War

Language Games – Notes

Again: nothing exciting I’m afraid. I wrote this the other week in response to what someone wrote (quoted below) and didn’t want to lose track of it. I want to keep it here for future reference. Perhaps it will be of minor interest to some.


“I am currently embroiled in a long discussion that started from how the notion of “two” is abstracted from being shown two nuts, etc.

Wittgenstein seems to favor the position that notions like “two” behave as counters in overarching language games that we internalize from social immersion. I certainly hope this is followed by at least a nominal discussion of other theories, because so far, methods like establishing positive and negative contrasts haven’t even been mentioned.

By positive and negative contrasts, I mean that in theory, two-ness can initially be explained by being shown as many sets of two objects as necessary to clarify the concept, sets that vary along every axis other than number, especially those axes along which misunderstandings are likely. And if negation is understood, then also several sets of nuts that are not two in number, while being told those are not-two nuts. This can then be repeated with all words, until it becomes clear which quality each label is intended to represent.”


On one hand, it’s generally accepted that Wittgenstein doesn’t ‘theorise’. He only has an argument to the extent ‘cogito ergo sum’ is an *argument*. More importantly, on the other: are you sure two-ness can so easily be explained? Is it as straight forward as the method you have just described? To everyone in the modern Western world, yes, of course; but only because our lifestyles are so similarly aligned.

I’m not sure if you have interest in Chomsky et al. but you might find it interesting to explore the work of one of his students, Daniel Everett, with the Pirahã. They’re one example of a culture who have no need, use, and thus concept of cardinal numbers or numerary but their language has uses for quantities (small, large, few, many, etc.). Now, unless you think that they’re intrinsically and naturally incapable of numeracy, the reason that they struggle with these definitions is that they’re seemingly arbitrary because mathematics is a cultural habit that they have never employed and do not employ (along with a lot of other social ‘norms’).

The example of positive and negative contrasts above is of course valid but is analogous to cases where, although the languages are very different, the cultures or societies between the pair are similar enough. For example, as an English speaker approaching a French speaker, I could be forgiven for the fact that when the French person is rapping his knuckles on a wooden table and saying the word ‘en bois’ to me that I presume that ‘en bois’ is the French for table. The Frenchman realises I have misinterpreted when I say ‘ah!’ and start tapping several glass tables in the room, gleefully exclaiming: ‘Enbois! … Enbois!… Enbois!’ To which he starts again: ‘Non, non, non: c’est en bois et ceux-ci NE SONT PAS en bois’. And so on and so forth. I think he means the word ‘flat’; I’m mistaken. I think he means ‘you can eat off this’; I’m mistaken. Eventually, though, what he meant is negatively defined for me, as you suggest. This cannot work if the item (or concept) has no cultural parallel or similarity.

Now, let’s pretend that the infamous French Ortolan dish, unique to their culture, was always eaten with a special dining tool that was, say, a figure 8 made of sterling silver and that our Frenchman refers to as a Pilala (this or something similar isn’t that inconceivable, really, given the religious quirks surrounding the meal). What positive or negative definition process is going to teach the Englishman what this object is? You might get close with ‘eating utensil’ etc., but you are truly and honestly only going to *understand* what the word is if you understand its role within the culture, the rules surrounding its usage, that you can talk about it meaningfully and correctly with other people: “Ah, you see, it’s a dining utensil but it is specifically used for only one meal: the Ortolan dish. A delicacy in France that is considered so sinful to eat that you wear a napkin over your head to shield what you’re doing from God. As such, being such a sacrilegious meal, knives and forks are not permitted; instead one must use a pilala, which is the only implement to be used to eat the bird and which should not be used to eat anything else.”

Such a social quirk doesn’t have any parallels in England and the only way you would learn it is from gaining familiarity with the culture.