Wittgensteinian ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L114-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

1. The early Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein once told a friend that, although he was not a religious man, he could not help seeing every problem from a religious point of view (Rhees (ed.) 1984: 79). Given the austerity of much of his philosophical subject matter, the statement is a curious one. However, it is a useful reminder that throughout his career he was in search not just of intellectual insight but of a correct attitude to life. This is already apparent in the first phase of his work.

The main ethical theme of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), and the subject of his ‘Lecture on Ethics’ (1929), is the inexpressibility of (absolute) value. He bases this idea on a distinction between the world as a whole, or the ‘totality of facts’, and the particular facts that obtain within the world. Whereas the latter can be represented linguistically, anything we may say about the former will be ‘nonsense’ (even if it is the special kind of nonsense exemplified by all the propositions of the Tractatus). But since any given fact might have been otherwise, and is thus a mere accident, Wittgenstein holds that the entire domain of fact – and hence of what can be put into words at all – is, from an absolute standpoint, devoid of value. Ethics therefore – along with aesthetics – has to do not with particular facts but with the totality, or rather with the way in which the totality presents itself to us; and this in turn depends on the quality of our will – not the empirical ‘will’ recognized by psychology, but one whose good or bad exercise makes the world ‘wax and wane as a whole’.

Wittgenstein mentions in the ‘Lecture’ some states of mind that seem to possess this transfigurative power: ‘wondering at the existence of the world’, ‘feeling absolutely safe’ and ‘feeling guilty’. However, he stresses that one can speak only for oneself about such experiences and that language can in any case do no more than gesture towards what is important in them. We rely here on (apparent) allegory or simile of a kind that is essentially unconvertible into literal factual statement.

These views reflect Wittgenstein’s desire to safeguard the private, spiritual nature of ethics and not to let it be demeaned by philosophical ‘chatter’. Even at a more practical level, though, he sees little scope for discursive argument about moral questions. An individual may or may not ‘have an ethics’; if so, then they will have a basis (be it Christian, Nietzschean, or whatever) for their life choices; but the question whether one ought to be a Christian or a Nietzschean is senseless, since there is no suitably authoritative standard by which to settle it.

Citing this article:
Lovibond, Sabina. The early Wittgenstein. Wittgensteinian ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L114-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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