Monday, August 31, 2015

Wittgenstein and the First World War

View on the Italian Front, where Wittgenstein has fought during the First World War

Once I wrote in a blog (dated March 10, 2014) that I was surprised that Wittgenstein said nothing about his war experiences in his Notebooks 1914-1916, although he wrote them during his service as a soldier in the First World War. It was not true: he did write about it. As so many soldiers Wittgenstein kept a diary, which is now known as the Secret Notebooks. What is strange, however, is that in volume one of the collected works of Wittgenstein published by Suhrkamp Verlag in Germany, so in the volume that contains the Notebooks 1914-1916, there is not any mention at all of the existence of these Secret Notebooks. This is also strange since these personal notes have been written in the same notebooks that Wittgenstein used for his philosophical notes, namely on the pages opposite to these philosophical notes. Moreover, the personal notes clearly help understanding the development and explanation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Therefore it is a “must-read” not only for those interested in Wittgenstein’s war experiences but also for those interested in his Tractatus.
I “discovered” these secret notebooks on a website with new publications in philosophy. They have been published (in German) by Wilhelm Baum in a book on Wittgenstein in the First World War (see the reference at the end of this blog). Baum presents there not only the Secret Notebooks but he gives also much information about the history of the notebooks, about Wittgenstein’s participation in World War One, his relations with other people in this period of his life, the philosophical meaning of the notebooks, and so on. It’s a pity that Baum could publish only a part of Wittgenstein’s notes, for most of them have been lost.
For an interpretation of the Secret Notebooks I refer to the work by Baum. I want to make only two comments. The first is that religion and a religious view on the world were for Wittgenstein more important than many people know. Wittgenstein was a religious person, as it turns out. My second comment is that this allows a religious interpretation of a famous statement by Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus 6.52). This is especially so, if one relates this statement to a remark by Wittgenstein in a letter to Ludwig von Ficker: “The meaning of this book [the Tractatus] is an ethical one. ... [It] exists of two parts: the one that you see here and everything that I haven’t written. And just this second part is the most important part. For the ethical is so to speak bounded from the inner side by the book...” (Baum, 120). It is possible to give this passage a religious interpretation, as Baum does, in the sense that in fact most important in the world are not the facts but our view on the facts, and for Wittgenstein this view was religious. This reading by Baum is possible and at first sight his argumentation is convincing, but a more general ethical interpretation of this passage remains possible.
Since I am very interested in the First World War I was curious to know Wittgenstein’s war experiences. As for that the value of the notebooks is limited. They tell us a bit about what Wittgenstein did during the war, his relations to other soldiers, how much he worked on the Tractatus, when he was under fire, and so on, but the notes are short – often too short– and it is difficult to relive Wittgenstein’s war on the basis of these notes. Many other war diaries and novels written by soldiers give so much more insight in the personal experiences and feelings of the authors (cf. the diaries by Maurice Genevoix and Charles Delvert, to mention only two of them). The notebooks have hardly any value for military history, but the more important they are for understanding Wittgenstein as a person and for understanding the Tractatus. Therefore I wonder why it took so long before they have been published and why they haven’t been published in Wittgenstein’s Collected Works. They are essential for understanding a great work in philosophy and a great philosopher.
I want to end with a quotation from the Secret Notebooks:
“When one feels that one gets bogged down in a problem, one must not think about it any longer, for otherwise one stays stuck to it” (November 26, 1914). It’s a lesson a lot of us should take to heart.

Reference: Wilhelm Baum, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tageb├╝cher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918), Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.

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