Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

Ethics, Wonder and the Real in Wittgenstein [1]Jul/06/2016



The author starts from the assumption that Wittgenstein’s theory of ethics (and of aesthetics) does not change radically when he shifts from his first to the second stage of thought.  This continuity between W.’s two philosophies is based on his constant need to distinguish what can be said and what can only be shown--and ethics is that which shows itself but cannot be said.  The author analyzes how we might understand the “mystical” (inexpressible) feature of ethics, connecting the earlier W’s ontological concern to his later anthropological concern. In both, W. highlights the transcendental vocation of the human being, and ethics is an active dimension of transcendentality.  In his earlier thought, ethics is not part of the world, i.e. of facts, but is related to “what”; while in his later thought, ethics is not a linguistic game, but opens us to a form of life not “playable” as such.

The author deals especially with the question of otherness, which seems to be lacking in W.’s reflection, and with W.’s transcendental solipsism (which in the second stage of his thought takes the form of the impossibility of a private language): going beyond W’s explicit formulations, the author notes that otherness in ethics is invested in its ontological dimension, i.e., in the fact that the other is considered as “real” and not as an object-for-me.  That ethics “brims over” language should then be attributed to the transcendental vocation of language itself, to its willingness to say the inexpressible.



          Wittgenstein explicitly addressed ethics above all in his first stage of thought—in the Tractatus, in his Notebooks of 1914-16, and in his Lecture on Ethics (17 November 1929).  What might one think then about his silence on ethics in his second stage of thought?  Is it his lack of interest in ethics after he had adopted his new philosophical style?  Or was it simply that he had nothing essential further to say on it?

          He often stated that what he is saying about ethics was also true for aesthetics:  “(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)” (T, 6.421) and “Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics"[2].  And what might be this most essential part of aesthetics which is valid for ethics as well?  Wittgenstein doesn’t say either here or elsewhere.  I will take a guess at it later (section 11).


  1. 1.    The arché of language


           I am among those who believe that Wittgenstein’s thought contains a fundamental unity of inspiration.  Unlike Rorty (1989), I don’t reject the early Wittgenstein as a “metaphysical” and “positivist” thinker, to exalt the later Wittgenstein as a “pragmatist” and “hermeneutical” one.  Nor, like Badiou (2009), do I exalt the earlier Wittgenstein as an “authentic anti-philosopher” and liquidate the later one as a “mere sophist”.  In my opinion, the later Wittgenstein develops the Tractatus’ ethico-mystical conceptual knots, which then become central to giving shape to his conception of meaning as usage, etc.

Wittgenstein always asked: How can our statements have sense?  How is it that when we speak we usually understand each other?  With him, the question of sense clearly prevails over the question of truth.  Let’s see how his answers differ in his two stages of thought by using one of his favorite examples, chess.  In his first stage, he considers the material objects—the chessboard and pieces—as pictures or representations of the game’s structure as such: the chosen notation on the one hand, and the (intelligible) reality of chess with all its innumerable possibilities on the other, have the same logical form.  In his later stage, he seeks the answer rather in the playing the game itself, that is, in the public rules which the players adhere to, and in the competitive form of the game.  While in his early stage he focused on the ontological side of the game, he later focused on its anthropological side.  In the first stage language is described as a representation-image of the world, while in the second rather as a system of measurement, and measurement always implies a social agreement on conventions.  And while in the first stage the linguistic representation implied something non-representable (elementary things), in the second stage the linguistic game implies a terra incognita, an originary activity which gives sense to our games, forms of life.  In his early philosophy, nothing meaningful can be said that is not relational, while in his later thought nothing meaningful can be said that is not public; just as in the first phase ethics and aesthetics are the unrelated beyond the sayable, so in the second phase our way of living gives a public meaning to what we say and do.

Even more, in his first stage Wittgenstein’s elucidation points above all to the foundation of meaning—to the substance-form of the world that names name and gives meaning to our images of the world.  In his later stage, his elucidation points rather to the origin of meaning, that is, to linguistic games and forms of life.  But both the foundation and origin are something which is there before enunciations or games.  In short, Wittgenstein never renounced indicating the arché, that which comes first and which commands the signifying language.  I wonder if any great philosophy can be anything other than either a research for arché and/or a reasoned refusal to search for it.



  1. 2.    Being a good guy is not like playing a game


          In his lecture on ethics, Wittgenstein starts from a very Kantian distinction[3]: in our usage of the term good, there is a common or relative sense on the one hand, and a truly ethical, or absolute, sense on the other.  As an example of the relative sense, he uses the expression “a good pianist”—once again, we are confronted with the aesthetical dimension.  The pianist is good insofar as he can play well.  And if I say of a road that “it is the right road”, it is right relative to a certain goal.  Kant would say here that these value judgments depend on “hypothetical imperatives”.


Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said "Well, you play pretty badly" and suppose I answered "I know, I'm playing pretty badly but I don't want to play any better," all the other man could say would be "Ah, then that's all right."


I find that this example of tennis is actually an anticipated—and definitive—critique of later attempts by many so-called analytical philosophers to describe ethics in terms of linguistic games and their rules.  At that time, Wittgenstein had not yet worked out his conception of Sprachespiele.  But I find it important that—on the eve of this conceptual turning point—he would specify very clearly that ethics is not a linguistic game.  In short, his task was not to describe ethical life as essentially a system of prescriptions or commands.  I would say that Wittgenstein does not consider ethics just, or essentially, a discourse, that is, something reducible to a speech act or performative utterance—an act, yes, but not necessarily speech.

          Take the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill!”  Technically speaking, this is an imperative act which constitutes the interlocutor (any human being) as someone who will or will not obey this command; so that the interlocutor will be either good or bad.  But there is a difference between the commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” and the commandment which I might give to a lowly soldier in Abu Grahib prison in Iraq: “torture the prisoner!”  Even in this case the command constitutes the private as someone who will or will not obey the order, but the two orders—as Wittgenstein would observe—are not articulated on the same imperative level.  These two prescriptions may superficially have the same grammar, but they express two different forms of life.  Furthermore, if I obey the order in Abu Grahib, I cease to be a good person in the ethical sense, I transgress the supposed Kantian categorical imperative, “Don’t torture anyone, not even your enemies”.  If I do obey, I may be committing what in military language is called a “dishonorable” action, but I behave as “a good soldier”.  To think of ethical acts and the commandments presupposed by them only as speech acts, does not allow us to show the specificity of the ethical command compared to all other commands.  It would mean tarring every prescription with the same moral brush.  Moreover, the problem remains about who is the agent of this command (some might answer: God).  Just like Pirandello’s Six Characters[4], the ethical commands too are always in search of an Author.

Wittgenstein’s reflection on ethics clearly distinguishes itself from others which developed on the British scene, and in particular from prescriptivism, the philosophical trend which reduces the moral discourse to prescriptions, human behavioral rules, “principles of action”, bound to a specific speech act, that of prescribing (Hare 1952).  This theory, like others, aims at reducing the complexity of ethical discourses and acts to a given “grammar”.  But Wittgenstein refuses to make reductions of this kind, that is, to determine a supposed—even grammatical—essence of ethics.  Besides, Wittgenstein refuses to state either any theory on ethics (and aesthetics) or an essential meta-rule which would regulate ethical rules[5].  But then, what is there to say on ethics?

For Wittgenstein, what matters is to delineate ethic’s place—his plan is “topical”, to assign ethics its own place without seeking to penetrate it (Bouveresse 1973).  But a place in which space?  In the Tractatus he had said that the place of ethics lay in the mystical.  That is, that ethics lies in a “supernatural” space.  He can only give us some exemplary affective equivalents of ethics.


3. Wonder

          In his lecture on ethics, he evokes what he calls “my experience par excellence”.  Not just one experience, were it the most important, but a kind of essential or originary experience, an Urerlebenis. He gives two examples: his feeling absolutely safe, whatever happens, and his wonder at the existence of the world[6].  But these two examples are basically opposed.  Feeling of being absolutely safe could be assimilated to the child’s earliest feeling that “I will always have my mommy!”—my safe hearth.  This wonder at the world’s existence, on the other hand, presupposes my own extraneousness to the world, a subjective distance from it, so that the world can appear as surprising—if not even unheimlich, uncanny, foreign to the home (Heim).  We feel safe in our environment (Umwelt),while in our wonder at the world, we consider the whole world (Welt) as something “strange”.  Thus, ethics is evoked here through both a radically domestic figure and a radical extraneousness to any domestic feeling.

          I wonder if these divergent affective examples do not describe in an awry way the sort of essential polarity of what we usually call ethics (are they two ways of conceiving ethics? Or two faces of the same ethical coin?).  On one side, the homespun dimension of ethics, as in the Greek ethos: habit, the custom of “I do it like this because everyone else here does it this way”, being observant of one’s group’s norms and values.  Ethics is seen here in its historical-ethnic—or environmental—dimension, a dimension which Philosophical Investigations will bring to the forefront.  But, on the other side, any ethics, even the most conformist one, has an inverse pole, by which it tends to respect the world as sub specie aeterni and as “- begrenztes - Ganzes” (a limited whole) (T, 6.45)[7].  This is the ontological dimension of ethics.  By ontological here I mean the fact that ethics is not only a matter of praxis, of a way of acting or living, but implies a certain relation with beings and Being.  Only superficially, from an external point of view, does ethics seem to be a way of behaving: from the point of view of the ethical human being, it is a way of relating to the world. In any case, I believe that when Wittgenstein binds ethics and aesthetics to the “limited whole”, he aims not so much at a universalist approach, but rather at thematizing the absolute as opposed to the relative contingency.   With “Ganzes”, then, he introduces the impossible dimension of the absolute, absolutus, non-relative, unlinked.   For him, the world is constituted by states of affairs, thus only by relations; instead, the world-as-a-limited-whole is in relation with nothing; and eternity is not an unlimited lapse of time but temporality itself taken altogether, not related to another time.  Ethics is an absolute value because it thematizes the world as absolutus, i.e., according to the etymology of the word, unbound by any relation.

          To make this ontological (absolute) pole perceptible, Wittgenstein evokes wonder.  In short, that the world can appear to us as a miracle.  For Aristotle, taumazein, to wonder at, was the initial sentiment which pushed towards philosophizing.[8]  But it should be noted that for Aristotle wonder is only the beginning of the philosophical harrowing journey: later, philosophy explains everything, and wonder disappears.  Instead, for Wittgenstein ethics witnesses that the feeling of wonder remains alive, that  humans still run up against the limits of their own language, as he says—a Quixotic enterprise in which even philosophical strength takes part.  Philosophical saying itself is an ethical act, insofar as both philosophy and ethics show something unsayable.  Science explains more and more the contingent, but the philosopher is not satisfied by these explanations.  “The drive towards the mystical [Der Trieb zum Mystischen]—Wittgenstein wrote[9]—comes from science’s inability to satisfy our desires”.  We can say, in Heideggerian terms, that science responds always on the ontic level, while the problems which interest us most as subjects are ontological ones.[10]  For Wittgenstein, philosophical questioning, ethics and wonder are strongly implicated in ontological desire.

Wonder certainly not for what science is not (yet) able to explain, but wonder for the fact that things are.  A Heideggerian would say that it is not wonder for a fact, but for the Being as event, while for Wittgenstein the important opposition is between the relative (facts) and the absolute (the world as limited whole).

Wittgenstein also stresses that “the miracle of the existence of the world” is not a proposition in the language, but that the miracle, in a certain sense, is the existence of the language itself.  We will consider this statement later.  At that time, he still thought that the world was coextensive with meaningful language, that is, that there is isomorphism between language and world.  We can also say that the world is everything which, thanks to our language, has sense.  But ethics and aesthetics—like everything which for Wittgenstein is absolute—express the desire to go beyond the world and language, beyond sense.  There will never be a science of ethics; no meta-ethics can found our ethics.  Rather, ethics “is a document of a tendency in the human mind [towards the absolute value] which I personally cannot help respecting deeply” (LE).  Ethics is not a fact.  It documents and signals a desire.  In different terms, the human being seeks the Being as absolute, beyond scientific counter-factual hypotheses.  But the point is that this Being gives itself always and only in a relative way in the language, as long as we don’t intuit it as eternal and as a limited whole, i.e. absolutus, unbound from any relation with anything else.

          Thus, ethical (and aesthetical) experience is something which only apparently—or only when it somehow fails—depends on norms, rules, and commandments, but in reality invests a dimension of being which does not coincide with the world.


  1. 4.    Being there


How, then, might we conceive this “mystical” dimension or place of the Being?



Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.

(There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical.)


For Wittgenstein there is the mystical.  It should be noted that in German “there is” is es gibt, “it gives itself”.  This particularity has been exploited by Heidegger: to exist means giving itself.  In this sense, dies zeigt sich, “it makes itself manifest”, appears as a quasi-tautology of es gibt.  This is like saying: “what gives itself, that is, shows itself, cannot be said.”  (And what can be said cannot be shown, except as meaning.)  This “being there”, or giving or showing itself (our intuition?), is not part of the world: it is a part or register of the Being which is not reducible to the world.  Nor is it “another world”—it is not the intelligible world insofar as it is independent from the concrete world.  Anyway, if the mystical is not part of the world, to which region of Being does it belong?  Or even, which modality of being does it have?

          We should also note that Wittgenstein, in considering ethics and aesthetics as something “mystical”, does not reduce them to subjective ways—in a psychological sense—of being related to the world[11].  Yet when we think of ethics, we think of something practical, of actions; and when we think of aesthetics, we think of something concerning our reactions, affects by which we are affected.  In both cases, we think of subjective judgments.  On the contrary, Wittgenstein seems to consider ethics and aesthetics by the same mystical yardstick as objects or things in the Tractatus.  “The world is the totality of facts [Tatsachen], not of things [Dinge]” (T, 1.1).  Ethics and aesthetics instead seem to concern things, not facts—and things are, even if they cannot be pictured.  Things allow us to picture the world, although they cannot be depicted—things are transcendental, in the sense that space and time are transcendental according to Kant.

Thus, the figure illustrating the concept of object or thing is a grid or network: things draw a kind of fundamental and necessary structure of the world[12].  True propositions represent the contingent in the sense that they fill some small squares of the grid but not others. This selective occupation does not have a necessary why—the world is as it is, but it could have been otherwise.  True propositions mark with existence places which in themselves are eternal, necessary, absolute.  The mystical or inexpressible then is a relationship to the substance of the world. But this substance is a fundamental form, it coincides with the logical form.  In the same way, can we say that the way of being of ethics and aesthetics is at once substantial and formal?

          Can we then say that--in so far as ethics and aesthetics belong to the formal, and thus not worldly, ambit of ontology--Wittgenstein is in some way a forerunner of theories which have exalted the constitutive role of language taken as a purely formal structure, as structuralism later did?


  1. 5.    Language is ontological


Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. (LE)


          Is it possible to interpret this sentence of the lecture as “structuralist” ante litteram?  It seems to say that, when we talk (think) about the world, we can speak (think) of it only because of language.  For the world to appear miraculous, in fact, language (which appears miraculous of its own doing) is needed: thanks to language, the actual existence of the world can pose itself as something only possible (believing as we do, that if something is contingent, actual, it is because it was already possible a priori).  Language allows us to even think about the possibility of the non-existence of the world, and then to wonder at its existence.

          It is thanks to language that we can think of something as miraculous.  A miracle is an event without a natural cause, something naturally impossible.  To see the world as a miracle (as a limited whole) means to grasp the contingent against a background of the impossible.  What this “seeing as” grasps is what I would call the real: something impossible in the world, but which, short-circuiting the possible, manifests itself in the contingency.  Everything that is contingent is part of the world, but is the world itself as a whole contingent?  In which sense is the whole world an event?

It was inevitable that Wittgenstein would think that wonder at the existence of the world was the equivalent ipso facto of wonder at the existence of language.  Why wonder at language and not instead wonder by means of language?  And why make note of it just in a lecture on ethics?  Which theoretical steps forward was Wittgenstein thinking of accomplishing by specifying that wonder at the world was also—and above all—wonder at language?

          It is that the existence of language implies, from the beginning, a reference not only to the world but also to the “substance”.  Elementary propositions (always sup-posed propositions but never posed by Wittgenstein[13]), whether true or false, combine things (not facts!) which we can consider as the world’s substance itself.  It is what we might call the transcendental vocation of language.  Language certainly judges, qualifies, orders, connects, and makes relations, but it does so by starting from some-thing unrelated and which it presupposes.  Language, by simply relativizing the absolute—imprisoning it in a cell against whose walls the philosopher bumps his head—makes us intuit something absolute.

In fact, what is presupposed to [HN1] language is discovered by language!  It is not that language awkwardly tries to pictorially evoke something which non-speaking beings (animals, or what in us is animal) intuit perfectly.  It is not that language supplies a sort of propositional surrogate to our blissful, not linguistically mediated  relationship to things themselves.  It is not that language “logically” designates something which would offer itself immediately in our pre-logical experience.  On the contrary, language points out something which does not offer itself in Erlebnis, in an immediate intuition without language.  Certainly a dog has a rich relation with the world, often richer than our own—the dog Argus was the only one to recognize Ulysses upon his return to Ithaca.  But we can suppose that simply because it cannot speak, the dog doesn’t care about something which his world presupposes—the real itself.  By real I do not mean reality, but the substance of the world.  Simply because I speak, and thus qualify (predicate, i.e. picture) the world, I imply something which is not represented by my propositions-representations.  According to Wittgenstein, ethics and aesthetics concern precisely this part which is not represented by language, but which would never emerge without it.


  1. 6.    Uniqueness and values


          By transcendentalist tradition, we intend first of all Kant and what derived from him, what Anglo-Americans call “Continental thought”—ranging from Hegel, Nietzsche, and phenomenology up to the more recent “continental” authors.

Connecting Wittgenstein’s conceptualization to the transcendentalist “Continental” tradition—as I do here—may seem abusive to all those who read Wittgenstein through the lens of analytic philosophy.  And yet, Wittgenstein’s position, not only on ethics and aesthetics, is authentically transcendentalist.

In particular, both phenomenology and Wittgenstein clearly separate ethics from psychology.  By “psychology” I mean both a precise anti-transcendentalist vision and the scientific research which takes ethics (aesthetics, forms of life) as an object of objective inquiries.

Wittgenstein and phenomenology both start from a fundamental distinction between the psychological subject (which is part of the world) and the transcendental subject (who transcends its own world because the latter constitutes itself in relation to the former)[14].  This transcendental subject shows itself—in the sense that it is thematizable by thought—when we look at our ethical or aesthetical life.  That is, when we consider not the objective world, but our values.


If there is any value [Wenn es einen Wert gibt] that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case.  For all that happens and is the case is accidental. (T, 6.41)


This statement, among others, illustrates Wittgenstein’s transcendentalism.  The world is where everything happens in a contingent way, it is the dimension of being-so and not of being-what or being-why.  The world is only everything which happens.  “In the world… everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value.” (T, 6.41).  Both ethical and aesthetical values are thus exclusive of the contingency of the world as a pure event.

Nevertheless, modern cognitive sciences and the philosophies which developed around them, are committed to making values themselves an object of science.  In contrast with Wittgenstein and phenomenology, they ignore the transcendentality of values and attempt to make the mind, and thus ethical and aesthetical values, an object of scientific inquiry among other objects.  The human mind, via sciences, aims to describe the mind itself as its own object of research, without incurring, despite this, paradoxes of self-reference.

Now, Wittgenstein never excluded that sciences can deal objectively with the human mind and values in order to discover causes in both.  Nevertheless, we could say that cognitive sciences always deal with the mind and values of the other, even of one’s own mind and values as if they were others’.  This is like thinking of myself as dead; of course I can imagine myself dead, and describe myself as such, as if I had survived myself.  But in this case, I would not be describing my death as my own, but as an other’s.  In the same way, the ethics which interests Wittgenstein is not that which sociology, psychology or the neurosciences can study with interesting results; instead, it is that which poses me the problem of what I should do.  We are not dealing here with a psychological ego, but with a metaphysical I—the one for whom the world is my world.  Wittgenstein initially thematized this dimension as solipsism.

“Only from an awareness of the uniqueness of my life do religion – science – and art rise”[15].  He attempts to say here what other philosophies thematized as the question of radical subjectivity—of Dasein, Heidegger would say—intended as what slips away from every psychological objectivation.  For Heidegger, Dasein (being-there, or being-the-‘there’) is above all having projects, for Wittgenstein it is an awareness of one’s own uniqueness.  This uniqueness of the “metaphysical” subject is co-extensive to that of the world.  Uniqueness is the absolute.


  1. 7.    The cup and water


          Thus, transcendentalism then implies a deep congruity between the ontological dimension (as different from the ontic) on the one hand, and the radically subjective dimension (as different from the psychological one) on the other.  In Wittgenstein’s terms: we need to understand how realism and solipsism are the same thing.  For Wittgenstein “there is no such thing [ein Unding] as the soul—the subject” (T, 5.5421).  The word Unding makes a meaningful choice, because it is literally a non-thing: the subject of psychology is not nothing, but a no-thing.  But precisely because the subject is a no-thing, it can only be transcendental.  While the psychological subject, this pseudo-thing, is correlated to the objective world (and can itself become an object of study as part of the world), the transcendental subject is correlated to the ontological dimension, that is—in Tractatus terms—because it is correlated to the uniqueness of the world, the former invests the latter as a thing (Ding), rather than a set of facts.  It invests the world as “what” and not as “how”.  Wittgenstein thematizes transcendental subjectivity, especially when he says that solipsism[16] cannot be said, but rather shows itself transcendentally in the realism itself.  In the same way, transcendental solipsism implies ontic realism.  Wittgenstein does not theorize, in short, solipsism and realism: these two correlated positions show themselves in his very philosophy.

This correlation between transcendental subjectivity and ontology—between Unding and Dinge, so to speak—is evident when he identifies the limits of the world with the limits of our language: at the same time he speaks of something “mystical” beyond these limits.  If what is essential in ethics and aesthetics is not in the world, does it then belong to an extra-world, a transcendent world?  Of course not, transcendentalism is not transcendence, it is not hypothesizing entities whose substance and order are different from those of the concrete world.  In Kant, the transcendentalist approach opposes itself to both the “transcendental” and the “empirical”.  And yet, how can we deny that the word transcendentality, from Kant onwards, derives from the transcendent?  Is not transcendentalism a secularized, lay version of the transcendent?  This is the accusation positivists address to both phenomenologies and Wittgenstein: of pre-sup-posing something which transcends the posed world.

For Wittgenstein, ethical and aesthetical experiences do not manifest an extra-world, a beyond-heaven (hyperouranios)—as in the Platonic myth (in Phaedrus) of ideai—simply because there is no World beyond our world: nevertheless, they manifest, in their own way, an unsayable dimension of the world, a something which through the world presupposes and shows itself, but which cannot be said and posed.  Ethics and aesthetics remind us of a being there (es gibt) which language removes as far as it pictures the world.  The mystical establishes different limits to the world—it waxes and wanes.[17]  Just as in language: at the level of elementary propositions one refers to some thing—elementary beings—which are not depicted by any proposition (otherwise they would not be elementary beings).  And what we call “world” always has the form that language shares with the Being, that is, the world is the putting in relation parts of the Being.  In Heidegger’s terms, language, giving an ontic form to the Being, veils the ontological dimension that this form still presupposes.

          But how can language evoke something which exceeds it?  We have seen that remaining in “nature” means to deal only with relative values and goods, while ethics, which refers to absolute values and goods, brims over nature, “as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it” (LE). Ethics is a way of being in excess with respect to language (here compared to a teacup), a surplus which language is unable to contain and give form to.  And yet we often talk of ethical questions.  What then does Wittgenstein want to say when he denounces this excess of ethics over language?


8.       Irremediable Gap


          We can say that Wittgenstein signals an unavoidable inadequateness—which no philosophical theory can ever fill—between our power-to-say and our ethical acts.  In fact, Wittgenstein tries to express verbally what we want to say through expressions like “absolute good” or “absolute value”: an impossible task, because for him language can speak meaningfully only of relative things and, thus, we have to use relative terms to evoke something absolute.

          To do this, Wittgenstein in his lecture on ethics refers to emotional experiences which we have heretofore addressed.  But why just those emotions?  Because they are feelings which signal an absolutist relation to the world—considered sub specie aeternitatis—and to life.  Wittgenstein feels safe, but not because he has taken the necessary precautions to avoid all dangers.  He wonders at the world not because he knows that our universe expands, for example, but for the simple fact that the world is.  These sensations refer not to how the world is, but to what it is, i.e. to its being—to its being an absolute event, unbound from temporality (temporality is in the world, but the world itself is not in time).  And these sensations are connected also to the fact that the world is always and only mine.

          When we say “absolute value” we are talking about something which is signified as undescribable.  On the practical level there is an irremediable gap between the world of our objects (those we like or dislike, which we want to keep or discard) and things in themselves.  The explicit ethical norm thus comes into play in order to signal this gap between the world as mine and the Being as other, and to try to suture the gap in some ways.  Just as the human’s entry into the symbolic dimension, in language, makes the world meaningful, in the same way the human’s entry into linguistic games makes her ethically and politically assessable.


  1. 9.    Does the other matter?


          Many have noted that Wittgenstein, when he talks about ethics, never talks about others.  His ethical examples, as we have seen, are of a subjective and affective character.  One might suspect that his vision of ethics is solipsistic (just as his ontology is transcendentally solipsistic).  Does this not mark the limits even of the ethics of Wittgenstein the man?  When Rhees proposes as an example of an ethical dilemma, that of Brutus towards Caesar (WE), Wittgenstein answers that this question (like any ethical dilemma) is not even philosophically discussable: “You could never know what went through his mind before he decided to kill Caesar. What he might have felt…” For him, what matters ethically is what took place in Brutus’ mind, not his public act.

          Many think, instead, that all prescriptions we consider ethical—like our Ten Commandments—in fact imply only one essential point:  the other matters.  Ethics would regulate my relations with my fellow beings.  In some cultures the fellow being is a person from my village or country, in others any human, and in others even animals are fellow beings.  Today many think that an altruistic ethics is the hard core of any religion.  A famous Talmudic story is often quoted: one day a pagan approached Rabbi Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one leg.  Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man.  That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.”[18]

Being ethically evil always means, in any culture, a lack of respect for the other recognized as worthy of respect in that culture: to use him as my tool rather than consider him an other subject with whom to have reciprocal and normative relationships.  Ethics generally does not dare to demand that we love all others; even Jesus seemed to limit his prescription to loving our neighbors like ourselves; in fact, it is harder to love one’s neighbor than to love humanity in toto.  To love everybody is an extreme limit of the ethical space, given that many ethics dictate to love just “ours” and to hate enemies.  Generally ethics limits itself to telling us to respect other humans (and today more and more also certain animals) and to aid them in time of need.

          Let us suppose that the essential feature in all these forms of life which today we consider ethical is simply taking into account the other’s subjectivity.  Still, a problem remains: what relation do I have with this system of norms which regulates my relationship with others?

Of course I can think—as a cognitive scientist does—that all, or nearly all, ethical norms are functional to a good communal life: that a society can survive better the less people kill each other, the less they steal from each other, the more they are monogamous, etc.  But, still supposing that this functionalist and utilitarianist reduction of ethics is convincing, the problem—which for Wittgenstein is essentially the ethical one—would still remain: the fact that I, in the uniqueness I am for myself, am told not to kill, steal or be unfaithful to my partner.

That is, what does it mean, the fact that I feel or do not feel an absolute duty to subject myself to these socially functional norms, even when they go against my vital interests?  Any possible psychological or sociological research aimed at understanding which types of persons act ethically and which do not, does not even scratch the essential question: my own way of being implicated [implicato][19] in the ethical norm.  And only in this light does the question of ethics stop being a grammatical issue to become a “mystical” one.

          But in which sense is this mystical quality concerned with the question of the other who matters?


10.     Ontological love


Let’s evoke an experience which can be placed halfway between ethics and esthetics: to love someone.  What do we love in a person?  It often happens that one asks one’s lover, “why do you love me?” or “but what do you love about me?”  Everyone knows that the only satisfying answer would be: “I love you because you’re you”, meaning “I love your existence”.  If I were to evoke some specific quality of the beloved, for example, “I love you because you are kind”, or “beautiful”, or “a good father to our child”…, the other might react by saying, “this means that if I’m not kind, or lose my beauty, or can’t be a good father because we’ve lost our child…, you would stop loving me!”  “Real” love is considered to be unconditional and absolute, unbound to any specific quality.  Even in death, real love means that he is loved for his existence in the past.

Of course we can study love scientifically as we study everything else (as the neurosciences do today): in this case, we should take for granted that what we love in the other are certain isolatable features which, for determined reasons (i.e. through deterministic processes), attract us.  In this view, we love the other because s/he is the gestalt of a series of (complexly) interwoven attracting objects: if some of these objects or features were to cease, our love could disappear.  And if I or my lover change with time, love might end.  We love the other insofar as s/he is so-and-so, not because s/he is just him or her.  We might say that “the important thing instead is that my beloved exists, beyond all her qualities, the proof being that I would give my life in order to let her live”.  But even in this case, the scientific game consists in analyzing (i.e.  deconstructing) love’s claim to aim at the beloved’s being.  Science does not care about the Being, it acknowledges only relations among entities; it aims to articulate true propositions, and not to show truths which can show themselves but never be said.  For science, loving the other’s being is an illusion, because being itself is an illusion[HN2] . 

And yet love—like ethics and aesthetics—always implies a tension towards the other’s being, considered as an eternal whole.  An Italian comedian said, “Love is eternal for as long as it lasts[HN3] ”, which recalls what Spinoza wrote: “I feel myself eternal”.  This means that love and self-perception are eternal not in concrete time (they are not sempiternal), but rather conceived as sub specie aeterni, as Wittgenstein writes.  The beloved other is not reducible to the (physical and psychical) “beings” which constitute her, and love seems not to be reducible to a relation between a loving subject and a series of loved objects, even if they were to be moral objects (like “being kind to me”, “being a good father”, etc.).  In short, in love I am ontologically implicated.  In love, the other matters for me in and for itself, not only as my loved object[20].  Everything which makes the other lovable is experienced by the lover as the showing of a being that I suppose as absolute, i.e. beyond any relation with me.  But indeed, is this supposition only an experience, Erlebnis, which the scientific game will reveal as illusion?  Of course science can claim that all human experiences are illusions in so far as they play a biological function for our survival and reproduction.  But, as we have seen, for Wittgenstein, as for phenomenology, this experience (Erlebnis) is not just an affective byproduct of mundane relationships, but rather, the affective state shows the essential relationship.  Love situates the beloved outside the world, sub specie aeternitatis, in the sense that love is not “propositional”, but rather invests the other as a being, not only as Objekt.


11.     Works of art


The transcendentality of love is analogous to the transcendentality of an art work.  Even this represents an object, or presents itself as an object, sub specie aeternitatis; and this object which it is or represents is absolute (a limited whole), something which must survive us.  For Wittgenstein the work of art is not so much one tool among many to reach an end independent from the work itself—for example, to amuse us—but rather an end in itself.  So what matters in a musical piece, for example, is not what it makes us feel, but the musical piece itself.  This is like Wittgenstein’s famous objection to Russell: if I want an apple to appease my hunger, and instead get a fist in the stomach, which does appease it, could I say that an apple is the equivalent of a fist?  Of course, this clashes with the empiricist assumption—and with common sense—for which every work is a piece of art if it makes us feel some specific emotion.  The point is that, for Wittgenstein, we feel emotions just because we accept the work as such, as something existing in itself.  We the spectators or listeners adjust ourselves affectively to the work, and we are able to appreciate it as such.

If I say “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is wonderful”, do I appreciate it only because it gives me pleasure to listen to it?  Rather, it gives me pleasure because it is wonderful.  That is, the work of art—certainly seductive—stands on its own, but seems to demand my affection and consideration.  Like the loved one, the art work poses itself as eternal and absolute.  Artistic activity is a way to impose new entities in the world; entities which are neither subjects nor just objects.

Just as in aesthetics, even in ethics and in love we should overturn the empiricist conception of the relationship between the act and the affect.  We cannot say that we are doing our duty to make ourselves and others happy: on the contrary, we are happy because we are doing our duty, even if someone might feel unhappy about it; for example, if I severely punish my beloved for having committed a crime.  In the same way, it is not that I love the other because having him around gives me pleasure: having him around gives me pleasure because I love him.  In all these cases, the thing—the other in the ethical act, the art work, the loved one—has a value for me insofar as it is just this thing.

In fact, there are two ways to consider the fact that something has ethical, aesthetical and affective value for me.  Social or cognitive sciences always suppose that something has a value because it satisfies me, while the transcendentalist point of view will assume instead that something satisfies me (ethically, aesthetically, affectively) because it has a value—just as the beloved person has a value in and of herself because she is.  Which means that the cause of our love is the beloved’s being so-and-so, while the reason for our love is the beloved’s being.  In short, the other’s being is something scientifically unprovable, but that becomes manifest through my ethical devotion, my aesthetical appreciation or my love election.


12.     I cannot know what I express


Someone might observe that Wittgenstein’s theses on ethics at that time were “immature”, and that a later conception of ethics—had there been one—would have been more convincing.  Having later abandoned a monistic vision of language, he would no longer have stated, “My whole tendency… was to run against the boundaries of language” (LE).  For him, the language no longer exists, and a pluralistic (some would say relativistic) conception prevails, which considers languages in the plural.  Every proposition has a sense only within a “system”, and these systems (and their grammars) are indefinitely many[21].

Anyway, I doubt that the younger Wittgenstein’s conception of ethics was later surpassed.  It is true that Wittgenstein—as far as he discovers the plurality of linguistic games and thus of forms of life which express themselves through them—assumes also the plurality of the ethical systems, their specific historicity.  Now he would focus on what I had previously called the historico-ethnic, environmental dimension of ethics, although I don’t believe that this would annul the ontological dimension.  I wonder if the various deontic systems are not variations of an ontological localization of the values which Wittgenstein had drawn earlier.  As Barrett (1991, ch. 6) correctly pointed out, linguistic games which involve ethical expressions remain senseless in the new philosophical frame: the content of ethical, aesthetic, and religious perception is necessarily devoid of any adequate propositional form to express it.

Because of ethics, an ek-static disposition of the human being becomes manifest, the fact that certain languages tend to go beyond languages and their grammars.  But toward what?

          It has been said that, in all stages of Wittgenstein’s thought, what always stirs him is the difference between sayable and showable—that is, between “the world” and what presupposes it.  In the first stage, the relevant unsayable were on the one hand things (Dinge) as such (the substance of the world), and on the other logical form: language can only say the how of the world, never the what, not even the “what” of the language itself.  The fact that language can describe the world, cannot itself be described by a metalanguage.  The mirror cannot mirror its own specularity.  In the second stage, when Wittgenstein focuses on the impossible private language, he is still dealing with the impossibility of describing and knowing; while every subject can certainly express itself, it cannot know itself.  In fact, the impossibility of a private language does not at all mean that the interior life is inexistent or even irrelevant, in fact, I would say just the contrary.  Of a private object he says that “It is not a something, but not a nothing either!” (PU, par. 304)—but, after all, that is what one could say even of the things (Dinge) of the Tractatus.  In fact, intimate life expresses itself publicly and more or less perspicuously through linguistic games.

          By sustaining the impossibility of a private language, Wittgenstein states in another way the absolute, indescribable character of the subjective experience.  For Wittgenstein, two statements such as “my molar has a cavity” and “I feel a lot of pain in my molar” seemingly have the same grammar, but usually belong to completely different linguistic games.  The second statement, far from being an objective description of my subjective state, can be analyzed as an exclamation, that is, a linguistic way to express the cry: as a way to express my pain, not to describe it and thus to know it.  After all, this is what Wittgenstein also says about typically ethical and aesthetical expressions, such as “this person is good” or “this symphony is beautiful”: adjectives like good or beautiful seem to describe qualities of the object, but in fact they are rather exclamations.  In evaluating a person or a work as good or evil, as beautiful or ugly, I express my form of life, that is my way of living-in-the-world among persons and works.  This is not something which I say of, but rather something I live with.


13.  Wittgenstein—a relativist?


The paradox of Wittgenstein’s thought is that on one side it is radically relativist, and on the other fundamentally absolutist (just as on the one hand it is completely skeptical solipsist thought, and on the other completely realist).  The ethical, aesthetical, affective value which we give to things of the world depends on the linguistic games in which we participate: thus there is no sense in establishing ethical, aesthetical, or affective norms or criteria for all situations, cultures and people.  From the other side, that which expresses itself in linguistic games in turn cannot be described as a historical relation between myself and things: rather, it is something absolute in my life and in my languages[yg4] .

So he writes, “if you say that there are diverse ethical systems, you are not saying that they are all equally just.  That means nothing.” (Rhees 1970)  An affirmation which sounds, in appearance, anti-relativist.  If, instead, I were to say that only my ethical system is just, and the others less ethical or unethical, I would actually be saying that I follow only my ethical system and not another.   This signifies that whether relativist or absolutist, both discourses are senseless.  But beyond discourses, both statements--“all ethic systems are just” (a relativist caricature) or “only my system is just” (an ethnocentrist arrogance)—show something essential (even if the later Wittgenstein stops short of demonstrating this).  The first, the relativist, is only saying that he is fundamentally indifferent to moral problems: if all ethics have the same value, and none have any value for him, he is simply affirming his extraneousness to adopting an ethical criterion for every circumstance.  The second, the ethnocentric, is saying instead that he will always remain faithful to his own ethical values, wherever he goes or whatever situation he finds himself in.  Relativist and absolutist theories (both senseless) essentially find sense in certain exquisitely singular commitments by living in a certain way and not another.

But this commitment to live in a certain way, and this is the point, is not arbitrary:  there are always important reasons for living ethically, even if these reasons are expressable only within one’s own ethical dimension.  We could only say that good reasons for living ethically consist in telling ourselves “the other human matters”, “the world exists”, “I need to stop feeling guilty”, “I need to feel secure”, “I need to be happy”, and so on.  Good reasons for being ethical are strange reasons for any rational discourse, because they are reasons at once absolute and singular.  On the one hand, an ethical system reflects a specific form of life, and yet on the other every form of life must come face to face with an absoluteness which every ethical commitment takes on.

          Let us recall the Tractatus’ proposition, «The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man» (6.43)  Is this relativism?

The world of the happy subject is different from the world of the unhappy subject because the world is strictly correlated to transcendental subjectivity.  We have seen that ethics and aesthetics, just because they are beyond the world, bring into play a transcendental subjectivity.  But why does Wittgenstein choose as a paradigmatic example of the plurality of worlds precisely the worlds’ correlation to pathos, affects, of being happy or unhappy?  Why can the subject only show itself through silent sentiment, why is its solipsism pathetic?

In fact, being happy for Wittgenstein is equivalent to expressing the essence of good—the only maxim which (mythically) describes ethics is “Live happily!”  So «The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man» can be read as: «There are as many ethics as worlds».  To be ethical means to be in a happy world, a world which for Wittgenstein is, I would say, expanded and more existing (like the proverb “being happy is being”).  That is, ethics, because it is not in the world, determines in some way an irreducible «plurality» of «worlds», a plurality of languages.  And yet, the incommensurable diversity of ethics is not reducible to a moral relativism.  In the «later» Wittgenstein, the transcendental feature of ethics—and of types of happiness—lessens, but does not disappear, even if instead of “worlds” we have here many “grammars” and games; this is a plurality which refers back to the irreducible problematic character of different ethical systems, to the fact that every ethical system is just a simple variant from a universal, sayable, ethical background. And the right philosophy he is pursuing is in the end the one which initiates us to the right way of being in the world. Being anständig, decent, as he said often, in this world.


          In his letter to von Ficker, Wittgenstein said of the Tractatus:


My work consists of two parts: one is what I wrote, and the second is all I have not written.  And this second part is the important one[22].


This non-written part is precisely the ethical side, which the Tractatus delimits «so to say, from inside; and I am convinced that the ethical should be rigorously limited only in that way» (BrVF, p. 72)[23].

Thus, through everything the Tractatus says, it shows something—the ethical (or «mystical»).  So, what matters in a philosophical text is what it shows rather than what it says.  And what is shown rather than said is more on the order of a form than of a content (a fact or state of things).  A proposition, when it tells a fact, can only show its logical form (T, 2.172).  Analogously, the ethical dimension to which Wittgenstein refers is of the order of a form; the ethical would probably be the form shown by the Tractatus, by the text which, in spite of everything, tells.

          Also in his later thought, the term Form comes back in a dimension of the unsayable, now connected to the «form of life», Lebensform, which itself cannot be said (in Investigations—where this expression appears only five times—it is never defined).  «Form of life» takes the place of the mystical—what the Tractatus as a whole shows in its numbered propositions—because it supplies “the key” to understanding the linguistic games’ rules and grammar.  Forms of life show themselves in our games, but in turn are not games.


14. Klarheit

          In conclusion, Wittgenstein’s reflections—necessarily in fragments—on ethics and aesthetics highlight two apparently opposed dimensions which are in fact intimately related.

-        First dimension.  The world of (ethical, aesthetical, or other) values gives us access to a dimension of the Being which does not coincide with the sayable world, but with something I would call the Real[24].  Ethical actions and aesthetical passions summon us to the space of Dinge, of necessary and absolute things.  I propose the term Real in order to distinguish it from both the representable and depictable universe on the one hand (Umwelt or Welt, environment or world) and from the universe of signs (what belongs to the logical form) and linguistic games (the grammar of usages) on the other. 

-        Second dimension.  Wittgenstein, earlier through the thematization of solipsism, and later through that of the ineffable private and of life, confronts us with a transcendental dimension of subjectivity (transcendental because prior to psychic life).  He confronts us with a (probably Schopenhauerian) subjectivity, in the sense of an undescribable source of our being-in-the-world, which is always an historical and socialized being in.

The ideal to which Wittgenstein always referred was that of a radical clarity (Klarheit), an ideal he expressed through figures like that of the limpid ether: an ideal of an “astral” philosophy, neutral as a mirror.  But, pursuing this ideal, Wittgenstein realizes that every mirror, no matter how limpidly it might reflect, presupposes something which will always remain outside the mirror: on the one hand, the eye looking at the mirror, which can consider the mirror as such; on the other hand, things which mirror themselves and which can be manifest only in the mirror of language.  Is Wittgenstein’s philosophy the pathetic, dramatic document of the disappointing limits of any mirror?  Is it a document of everything which, in an ideal of perspicuous representation, cannot be represented?  That is, does it document the two “impossible” faces of the Being—real things and myself?



Abbreviations used for Wittgenstein’s works:


BrVF                          Briefe an Ludwig von Ficker, G.H. von Wright & W. Methlagl, eds., Salzburg 1969.

LE                              A Lecture on Ethics, in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Oxford 1966.


PU                              Philosophische Untersuchungen; Eng. Tr. Oxford 1953.

T                                Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung; Eng. Tr. London 1961.

TB                              Notebooks 1914-1916, Oxford 1961.

WE                             “The Development of Wittgenstein's Views on Ethics", by Rush Rhees, Moral Questions, ed. D.Z. Phillips, Basingstoke 1999.


The pages I refer to here are those of the English translations of these works, while the Tractatus is quoted through the numbers as labeled by the author, and Notebooks through the dates of the notes.


A. Badiou (2009) L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein (Paris : Nous).


C. Barrett (1991) Wittgenstein on Ethics and on Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell)


J. Bouveresse (1973) La rime et la raison (Paris : Ed. de Minuit).


R.M. Hare (1952) The Language of Morals (Oxford: Oxford University press).


R. Rhees (1970)  “Some Developments in Wittgenstein’s View of Ethics” in Discussions of Wittgenstein (London: Routledge).


R. Rorty (1989) “Wittgenstein e Heidegger: due percorsi incrociati”, Lettera Internazionale, 22, pp. 21-26.


[1] I thank Claudia Vaughn for help with this text.

[2] Lecture on Ethics (LE).

[3] Since his youth Wittgenstein had been passionate about Schopenhauer, through whom he was deeply influenced by Kantianism.


[4] In the play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921).


[5] Rhees (1970) writes that, according to Wittgenstein, we use the term ‘ethics’ for a number of systems, and this variety is important for philosophy. There is no essence of ethics, thus, there is no linguistic game specifically ethical.


[6] He also mentions the feeling of guilt (LE), although here it is not clear whether this feeling of guilt is unfounded, or whether it is the allegorical form which guilt takes on in religion, when we say that God disapproves of our conduct.

[7] “Limited” (begrenztes) not “finite” (endlich).  This does not exclude then that the world can be infinite: but an infinite, taken as a whole, is in fact limited.

[8] Metaphysics, 983a.


[9] TB, 25.5.15.


[10] For Heidegger the ontic is what concerns beings (Seiende), the ontological is what concerns the Being (das Sein).

[11] This is not opposed to the fact that he recounts very subjective sensations (of which we have spoken) as exemplary of the ethical experience.  In fact, the ontological dimension of ethics is manifest especially in subjective “senseless” experiences.  We’ll see later how this is not simply a contradiction.

[12] Here I prefer to use the word things (Dinge) rather than objects (Gegenstände) because I want to stress the independence of the things in relation to us, their not being just objects-for-us.


[13] Not only did Wittgenstein never give an example of an elementary proposition, but nobody can ever formulate it on the grounds of any empirical inquiry.

[14] In phenomenological terms, on the one hand there is the worldly subject before the phenomenological epoché, on the other the subject of intentionality as being-in-the-world.

[15] TB, 1.8.1916. My own translation of the original text.


[16] “ For what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which I alone understand) mean the limits of my world.” (T, 5.62).

[17] Thanks to philosophy, “In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world.  It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.” (T, 6.43).

[18] B. Shabbat 31°.


[19] Implicato in Italian means at once involved, implied and implicated.

[20] German has two terms for “object”, Objekt and Gegenstand.  Freud uses the first term to designate the object invested by drive and desire.  Here we refer to Objekt, as what has a value for me.


[21] So that Bouveresse  (1973) observes that, “The non-sense of the ethical propositions, which in the perspective of the Tractatus and Lecture on Ethics is equivalent to an aggression against the limits of language—aggression necessarily doomed to failure—can also be explained, from another point of view, with the absence of a universal system of reference which could make possible univocal attributes of (absolute) value to things and worldly events.”

[22] My translation.


[23] My translation.


[24] I take this notion of the Real—as a concept distinct from Reality, i.e. from Wittgenstein‘s „world“—from Jacques Lacan’s thought, which had an Hegelian and Heideggerian background.  In short, by Real I mean something which we cannot say or describe in a propositional way, but which emerges (especially in certain affective experiences) as the untold supposition of what is sayable.  What is beyond sayable and which at the same time props it up.  In the early Wittgenstein’s terms, we might say that the Real is that “what” presupposed—and ineffable as such—to any “how”, while the meaningful language of science can describe only a “how” and never the “what”.  We might say that, insofar as science speaks about reality, ethics evokes the dimension of the Real.


 [HN1] "in"?

 [HN2] I think it might be useful if in the beginning of the paragraph you would emphasise the, as it were, hypothetical character of the scientific perspective. (For instance:  "If love would be just what science can detect, then love would be only about a gestalt of interwoven attracting objects.") - My concern here is due to the fact that  I like your point very much.

 [HN3] You do not feel that this saying jars with your point?

 [yg4]The line here, should it be taken away?

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