Something does, on occasion, fall from a torch. A bit of pitch.
Karl Kraus (F 279-280: 5)


post № 42

24 January 2016


Wittgenstein & Kraus: some speculation

In a well-known remark from 1931, published in Vermischte Bermerkungen (Culture and Value), Ludwig Wittgenstein writes that he had been influenced by Karl Kraus:


There is, I believe, some truth in thinking that I am really only reproductive in my thinking. I believe that I have never invented any movement of thought, but that they have always been given to me by someone else. I just passionately seized them outright for my clarification work. Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me in this way. Can you take Breuer and Freud as examples of Jewish re-productivity? What I invent are new Gleichnisse [my translation] (476).


But this remark is extremely difficult; it is excerpted from a longer remark where Wittgenstein contemplates “Jewish ‘genius,’” the “Jewish thinker,” the “Jewish mind,” and other topics worthy of earnest consideration, but all beyond the scope of this blog post. … What follows cannot be new, someone had to have written or spoken about it somewhere else; I just don’t remember ever having seen or heard it before. Be that as it may, what follows is little more than speculation any way—speculation, that is, regarding how Kraus may have possibly influenced the early Wittgenstein.


And this speculation becomes more questionable still because the above remark—in whole or in part—does not seem to lend itself to any head-on analytical confrontation. Wittgenstein did not write it as part of some analytical discourse. He gives no substantive indication as to what he means by “movement of thought” (Gedankenbewegung). Peter Winch translates this as “line of thought” (16e), but his translation leaves us with problems similar to those posed by Wittgenstein’s German (a mark of a good translation?). Is a “Gedankenbewegung” a movement in the sense of, say, an artistic movement or is it something else altogether? Nor does Wittgenstein give any substantive indication as to what he means by “influence.” Is Wittgenstein conflating influence with re-productivity? … And how is he using the word “Gleichnisse” here? Winch translates this as “comparisons” (ibid.), but this seems questionable, maybe even suspicious—it seems to be, as it were, too influenced by Wittgenstein’s later thinking. Could Wittgenstein mean ‘equivalencies,’ ‘identities,’ ‘analogies,’ or something else?


Given the difficulties here, I am prepared—for purposes of this blog post—both to ignore them and to beg any questions connected with them based upon little more than a suspicion that the Wittgenstein scholar Beth Savickey is right: an investigation concerning Kraus’s influence upon Wittgenstein may benefit from a review of Kraus’s works themselves (10). Should we be able to establish that both Kraus and Wittgenstein have or at least appear to have certain thoughts or activities in common, then we shall have provided some, even if only some possible, basis from which further and more substantial investigations can be launched. We have to start somewhere. But where? Presumably where ever it is that Kraus is supposed to have influenced the early Wittgenstein. Yet, this is not at all clear. … And the issue is, to some extent, compounded by the facts.


Kraus was some fifteen years Wittgenstein’s senior and had already more or less become a Viennese institution prior to Wittgenstein’s tenth birthday; Kraus launched Die Fackel on 1 April 1899 with the express aim of “draining the expansive phraseological swamp” [my translation] (F 1: 2). And it was most likely through his older sister Gretl—who, Ray Monk tells us, was “an enthusiastic reader of Kraus’s journal and a strong sympathizer of almost everything he represented” (17)—that Wittgenstein became acquainted with Kraus at some point between 1903 and 1906 while he was at the Realschule in Linz. Wittgenstein had Die Fackel sent to him between October/November 1913 and June/July 1914 while he was in Norway. On 4 July 1914, Wittgenstein contacted Ludwig von Ficker, the publisher of Der Brenner, in order to donate a considerable sum of money to artists in need (the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl were among the beneficiaries), and Wittgenstein did so, so he claims, because of what Kraus had written about von Ficker in Die Fackel (see Monk 107 and F 368-369: 32). Both during and after World War One, Wittgenstein was friends with Paul Engelmann, who had personally known and worked with Kraus during the war (see Engelmann 71) and with whom Wittgenstein had discussed Kraus’s work. And, in 1918, Wittgenstein even tried, albeit without success, to get his Tractatus logico-philosophicus published by Kraus’s printer, the publishing house of Jahoda & Siegel—seemingly in the belief that its relevance to Kraus’s work ought to be apparent on its face (cf., Monk 157). …


While Wittgenstein neither says what this relevance is nor mentions Kraus anywhere in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus, it has long been held that this relevance consists in the critique of language. Engelmann, for instance, writes:


The influence which Kraus exercised on Wittgenstein cannot be easily discerned at a first glance, because Wittgenstein does not display Kraus’s most conspicuous trait of personal polemics. Wittgenstein’s polemics are completely impersonal: the adversary he contends against in the Tractatus is philosophy itself. […] In his polemics Kraus resorts time and again to the technique of taking his victim ‘at his word’, that is, of driving home his accusation and exposing threadbare intentions by the simple means of citing the accused’s own words and phrases. As Kraus in his literary polemic takes an individual adversary at his word, and through him indirectly a whole era, so Wittgenstein in his philosophical polemic takes ‘language’ itself (i.e. the language of philosophy) at its word (124-125).


And in their famous Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Janik and Toulmin expressly expand on this idea and argue that “even, in its own way, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was “intimately and consciously related to, and even [an] extension[] of, the critique of language and society conducted by Karl Kraus” (93). … While this view is certainly correct, it is very broad and general. But what if we can make it more specific and back up that specificity with textual evidence? What if we can identify a relationship between some specific piece of writing which Kraus read to audiences and published during World War One, on the one hand, and the Tractatus logico-philosophicus which Wittgenstein wrote during that same war, on the other?


The most promising place to begin a search for such a relationship would be “In these great times,” a speech Kraus delivered on 19 November 1914 and published on 5 December 1914 in a dedicated issued of Die Fackel (F 404). It is the most promising place to begin not only because it seems reasonable that Wittgenstein would have known Kraus’s speech—after all, he was a reader of Die Fackel—but also because there seems to be additional circumstantial evidence here. In a letter to his sister Hermine dated 12 April 1917, Wittgenstein propounds a view pertaining to developments of World War One that could have been taken from Kraus’s speech, that just seems to smell of Kraus’s speech. In response to Hermine’s thoughts as to why the war had escalated, Wittgenstein intimates his belief that the escalation of the war had its cause in commerce and “a complete victory of materialism” [my translation] (Familienbriefe, letter 14). To be clear: Wittgenstein’s view in 1917 could be construed as a simple summary of Kraus’s “In these great times” of 1914. Later in that same letter, we also find a line reminiscent of a line in Kraus’s speech. Where Kraus laments our inability to imagine what has to happen at that time of war (“in these times wherein the unimaginable occurs and wherein what has to occur is no longer capable of being imagined (if it could, then it would not happen)” [my translation] (F 404: 1)), Wittgenstein responds to the news that his sister Gretl had jumped down his brother Paul’s throat by confessing his inability to imagine such a thing, and he goes on to write: “But there are just some things we are incapable of imagining” [my translation] (Familienbriefe, letter 14).


If we read Wittgenstein’s quip in light of Kraus’s “In these great times,” then a complicated understanding emerges, which—subject to additional biographical research—may be commensurable with the complicated relationship that seems to have existed between Wittgenstein and Gretl. … On such a reading, Wittgenstein’s quip may be indicative of his disapproval that Gretl’s behavior is completely in line with Kraus’s diagnosis of the times: the unimaginable has occurred where more imagination should have been advisable. …


In addition to the (admittedly highly) circumstantial evidence provided above, there also seems to be a textual relationship between “In these great times” and the Tractatus logico-philosophicus; in both works, we find a call to silence, a critique of language, and breaking with silence in order to prevent misunderstanding. Kraus opens his speech with a critique of definite language, the phrase “in these great times,” and goes on (i) to effect a further critique of his contemporaries’ language, (ii) explains his silence from July 1914 (when Die Fackel was last published prior to this speech) through 19 November 1914, (iii) claims that he is breaking his silence to prevent misunderstanding, and (iv) calls to silence in general. His speech reads in pertinent part as follows:


In these great times which I have known since they were this small; which shall become so again, if they are given time enough for it; and which we, because such a regressive transformation is not possible in the realm of things organic, prefer to accost as the portly and truly hard times that they are, weighing heavily on us all; in these times wherein the unimaginable occurs and wherein what has to occur is no longer capable of being imagined (if it could, then it would not happen); in these earnest times which have laughed themselves to death at the possibility that they could ever become earnest; which, surprised by their tragedy, are now longing for diversion and, having been caught in the act, are trying to find words for it all; in these loud times which are booming with the nightmarish symphony of deeds causing reports and with the nightmarish symphony of reports responsible for deeds: in these times here, you should not expect any words of my own. None, but these, which are intended to prevent my silence from being misinterpreted. Too deep is my reverence for the immutability of language, to deep my subordination to language in the face of this misfortune. In the opulent empires of impoverished imagination where human beings die of spiritual hunger without ever having felt that hunger—where quills are dipped in blood, swords in ink—what is not being thought has to be done, but what is being thought is unspeakable. Do not expect any words of my own. Nor am I capable of giving voice to any new ones because there is just so much noise in the rooms we write in, and we should withhold judgment as to whether that noise is coming from animals, from children, or simply from mortars. There are those who are advocating deeds in an act of defilement of word and deed and who are twice as worthy of contempt. Extinction has not yet befallen that profession. And having nothing to say, because it is time for deeds to do the talking, they shall continue to talk. Having something to say means stepping forward and being silent! [my translation] (F 404: 1-2).


In the preface to Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes that the whole meaning of his book could be summarized as follows: “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence” (Tractatus, Pears & McGuinness at 3). The Tractatus logico-philosophicus is in a very real sense a critique of language. And, in the penultimate number of that work (6.54), Wittgenstein writes that his propositions break with, stand in the stead of, silence in order to prevent misunderstanding:


My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

          He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright (Tractatus, Pears & McGuinness 6.54).



In reiteration: Wittgenstein (1) read Kraus’s works; (2) believed that his Tractatus logico-philosophicus is relevant to Kraus’s work; (3) tried to get his Tractatus logico-philosophicus published with Kraus’s printer, the publishing house of Jahoda & Siegel; (4) may have seen his work as being relevant to Kraus’s “In these great times;” (5) may have provided some circumstantial evidence that he knew Kraus’s speech in words found in a letter to his sister dated 12 April 1917; and (6) calls, in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus, to silence, critiques language, and breaks with silence in order to prevent misunderstanding in a manner analogous to that found in Kraus’s “In these great times.”


Such speculation—poorly presented as it is—can, of course, not be satisfying in the least and would have to be worked out in greater detail, but the relationship between Kraus’s “In these great times” and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus seems to be at least plausible enough so as to encourage future analysis. … Whether that relationship proves to hold or not remains to be seen. Whatever the case, however, a full-fledged investigation along the lines speculated above promises to be interesting. Perhaps this is a beginning.


Peter Winslow


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