Sraffa & Wittgenstein – An exchange

by Witty Ludwig

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.