Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ludwig Wittgenstein and the 'Jewish mentality'

I made reference recently – in a comment on a blog post by Belle Waring on clowns and masks and related matters – to Wittgenstein's curious remark, made in a notebook around 1930, about 'masked theatre': namely, that only Jews will be attracted to it.

That discussion didn't really lead anywhere so I thought I might set out here a few suggestions and thoughts not only on Wittgenstein's comment but, more generally, on his attitude to Jews and Judaism.

I'm not sure what kind of masked theatre Wittgenstein was thinking of, but he appears to have been associating it somehow with the unpoetic, abstracting and intellectualizing tendencies which he saw as characterizing the 'Jewish mentality'.

Most of what Wittgenstein says about Jews is conventional 19th-century nonsense related to the idea that Jews are not truly creative, but the reference to masked theatre is decidedly odd.

This is drawing a very long bow but could he, in his eccentric way, be referring to something like what we would now see as autistic tendencies? Those on the autism spectrum have trouble reading subtle social signals (including facial expression) and – I don't know about masked theatre – but they do tend to gravitate more to comic books and cartoons than the rest of us. They also often have a narrow focus in their thinking and are sometimes highly gifted in mathematics and related disciplines.

And, of course, many of the greatest mathematical and scientific thinkers of the last century-and-a-half (autistic-tending or not) were Jewish...

But I am not making specific claims here so much as just tossing around some ideas to try to make sense of Wittgenstein's remark.*

He was aware, of course, of his Jewish forebears and at times referred to himself as Jewish. After previously playing down his Jewish background, he told his friend Fania Pascal in 1938 that three of his grandparents were Jewish. She subsequently discovered that all three of those Jewish grandparents were – or became – Christians.

Wittgenstein's paternal grandparents were both born to Jewish parents but were baptized as Lutherans and married in a Lutheran church.

His maternal grandfather was raised as a Catholic by his mother who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism. His maternal grandmother was a Catholic without a Jewish background.

"Some Jew," Fania Pascal remarked.

Wittgenstein was baptized a Catholic, instructed in the faith and even considered, about the age of thirty, taking holy orders. He was given a Catholic burial. But he lived his religious life very privately, a devout if unorthodox Christian.

I recall reading that he was not only devastated but disbelieving when he found out that the invading Nazis had classified his family as Jewish.

Wittgenstein's religious commitments have been downplayed or ignored, for the most part, by his philosophical followers but his anti-Semitic-sounding remarks (as well as his fundamental philosophical commitments) only really make sense when seen in the broader context of his Christian beliefs.

As this essay by Michael Walzer (a review of a book by David Nirenberg actually) makes clear, Western anti-Semitism – or, more precisely, anti-Judaism – is only comprehensible historically when seen in the light of Christian doctrines and is, or at least has been, an essentially explanatory idea intrinsic to Christian thinking.**

But there were always conflicting traditions of thought within Christianity, and the frictions were often traceable to tensions between those who emphasized classical elements and those whose focus was more on Biblical and Jewish sources.

Consider, for example, the controveries surrounding the notion of the 'Hebrew republic' in the 16th and 17th centuries when some prominent Christian scholars took a decidedly pro- or philo-Judaic approach. These individuals – mostly Protestants but also Jesuits – sought enlightenment about pressing political questions from the Hebrew Bible and its Jewish interpreters.

By Wittgenstein's time the concerns were quite different, of course, as various forms of idealism dominated the philosophical world and modernism battled with neo-scholasticism.

Wittgenstein's main problem with Catholicism, apparently, related to its emphasis on natural theology and, by extension, metaphysics, both of which disciplines he rejected unequivocally.

His views seem to have more in common with certain mystical and fideist traditions, and he found religious inspiration in the writings of Augustine, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as well as certain books of the New Testament.

John Hayes discusses Wittgenstein's intense moral preoccupations in terms of his Jewish background, but I see these preoccupations as being quite consistent with those forms of Christianity which draw more on Hebraic sources than Greek or classical ones.

Hayes writes: "From the point of view of Wittgenstein's religious sensibility, [a] feeling of Jewishness seems to have manifested itself in a strong belief in the Last Judgement as a young man and, as an older one, in what he called the 'hundred per cent Hebraic' sense that what we do makes a difference in the end. Such a perspective compels taking our actions seriously; there is only one chance at life and an accounting at the end of it. Wittgenstein seems to have had an abiding sense of guilt which he constantly counter-balanced by a renewed resolution to live life decently."

Significantly Wittgenstein felt far more comfortable with Matthew's gospel – the most Jewish of the gospels – than, say, with the Gospel according to John. And he originally rejected but came eventually to see value in the letters of Paul – who had, it seems, been deeply involved with a mystical form of Judaism (as evidenced by his reference to the 'third heaven', for example).

* Another thought relates to concealment and deception, as Jews have often been characterized as deceptive. Wittgenstein was preoccupied at various stages with his own deceptions and confessed them to friends as a form of self-abasement. (They related, amongst other things, to his allowing misperceptions of the extent of his Jewish background to go uncorrected; and to violent behavior – which he had originally denied – towards children during his brief career as a primary school teacher in rural Austria). But, though masks do involve concealment and deception in a sense, so does theatre in general. And, not only is this decidedly not a morally suspect form of deception, any concealment or 'deception' is on the part of the players rather than the audience.

** Though anti-Semitic ideas are not necessarily associated directly with Christianity, there are usually at least indirect links. For example, though many 20th-century anti-Semites were influenced more by philosophical idealism than by Christianity, idealism can be seen as a development of the Platonistic elements embedded in the Christian tradition. And, surprisingly, some of the most virulent forms of Islamic anti-Semitism trace their origins to Christian sources.


  1. I have no idea what sort of point you are trying to make (it may be my fault) but I enjoyed the article by John Hayes.

    I'm coming to think that people can find whatever they want to find in Wittgenstein -- as also in Nietzsche and Heidegger.

    1. This post derives from the brief discussion on the comment thread at Crooked Timber which was prompted by my reference to that obscure remark by Wittgenstein (about which I may have a little more to say presently).

      Someone there said that Wittgenstein was a Jew and I was in part reacting to that, and just setting out the facts as I know them.

      If there is a general point I'm trying to make, I suppose it is that traditional Christianity is extremely various and I would place LW squarely within this (broad) tradition. More specifically he seems to have been much more at home with Christianity's original or 'primitive' or more Judaic features and decidedly hostile to certain classical elements.

      I think his changing view on Paul is particularly interesting.

  2. It seems quite possible that LW was attracted to Matthew's gospel because of its (or Jesus') attack on the scribes and Pharisees, an attack meant to show the importance of an inner rather than an outward-showing religion. I think this is a theme LW is very passionate about.

    Nicely summarised here:

    The "Jewishness" of Matthew's gospel -- its emphasis on law-keeping -- may not have mattered to him.

    1. Yes, that is a theme which would have appealed to him, no doubt, but it is not exclusive to Matthew. I think LW's attraction to that particular book would need further explanation which I am suggesting lies in its being more deeply rooted than the other gospels in Jewish culture and ways of thinking. (That attack on the Pharisees always seemed to me a little unfair, by the way. There is no doubt a sectarian angle to it.)

    2. I once read a book about the Pharisees, and yes, it emphasised their integrity. The attack seems wildly rhetorical.

  3. This bit of Hayes is curious:

    "He was, in general, disinclined to privilege any religious tradition, finding a common fundamental experience to respect in all of them, and recommending William James's Varieties of Religious Experience to help Drury to see this. In religion, as in all other areas of life, Wittgenstein wanted to 'teach people differences'—especially where what they wanted to see were similarities. [C., 157. Wittgenstein adopted this phrase from King Lear, Act I, Scene iv. Drury in a note to Letter 14 of his 'Letters to a Student of Philosophy' (supra) says that 'the Philosophical Investigations are concerned with insisting on differences where we want to see similarities' (169). Note however, how in The Danger of Words, Drury writes: 'it is not given to any man to be an honorary members of all religions' (133)]"

    All religions share a common fundamental experience, but we should emphasise differences?

    1. I don't know who is confused here, Hayes or Drury or Wittgenstein. The very notion of varieties of religious experience seems quite incompatible with the notion of a single, fundamental experience, doesn't it?

      But I don't know that respect for other religions or religious paths is incompatible with the notion that one must approach one's own religious experience via a particular religious tradition – and for Wittgenstein that was undoubtedly (a form of) Christianity.

      He was a deeply and self-consciously 'encultured' person who (especially in his later years) abhorred abstractions and any practices not deeply rooted in specific cultures. Think of his scornful attitude towards Carnap regarding Carnap's support for one of those invented international languages.