Wittgenstein and Judaism by Ranjit Chatterjee

Ralph Blumenau finds Ranjit Chatterjee sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s Jewish side.

The first quarter of this original and thought-provoking reading of Wittgenstein is not directly concerned with his attitude to Judaism, but is all the same, an essential preliminary to what follows. In these pages Dr Chatterjee establishes three aspects of the general character of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Firstly, he devotes some time to challenging the idea that there were two distinct Wittgenstein philosophies. He is often supposed to have abandoned the philosophy of the Tractatus for that of thePhilosophical Investigations. Chatterjee’s contention that the two books really go together is supported by Wittgenstein himself, who expressed the hope that they could be published together in one volume. Secondly, Dr Chatterjee describes Wittgenstein’s method: his lapidary sentences – really “chapter headings” as Wittgenstein himself once described them – leaving the exposition of these headings to the reader. No wonder that many readers are not up to this, or, like the Logical Positivists, drew conclusions from them which Wittgenstein then strongly repudiated. Thirdly, Dr Chatterjee comments on the mystical side of Wittgenstein, famously exemplified by the last sentence of the Tractatus: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence”, coupled as it was with the note to his publisher that what the book did not contain was more important than what it did. Wittgenstein held that not only were ethics and aesthetics more important than the investigation of language; but the investigation of language showed how subjective its usage must be and that it could not solve any philosophical problems.

In the main part of the book Dr Chatterjee links up the second and third of these aspects – the cryptic and the mystical – with some characteristics of Jewish thought. Wittgenstein was by birth a Catholic, and Catholic rites were administered to him at his death; but three of his four grandparents were Jewish, and anti-Semitism in Vienna did not allow this to be forgotten. Wittgenstein could not help thinking about Judaism and even identifying himself with it, perhaps in particular because he had grappled with the ideas of Otto Weininger.

Weininger was what was called a ‘self-hating Jew’, who converted to Christianity in the year before he committed suicide in 1903. In his last year he published Sex and Character, in which there was a chapter on Judaism. In it he attributed much of the decay that he saw in the modern world to the Jewish character. It would seem extraordinary that Wittgenstein should recommend this book to many of his Cambridge friends in 1931, even though he said there was much in it with which he disagreed, and that the whole book has to be negated before it could teach an important truth (p.46). So, whereas Wittgenstein biographer Ray Monk believes that Weininger contributed much to shaping Wittgenstein’s thought, Chatterjee suggests that he recommended the book as one might recommend Mein Kampf: if you want to prove your moral mettle, you will have to grapple with this, the most powerful expression of a perniciously skewed view of life. Thus Wittgenstein’s own view of the Jews was shaped in confrontation with Weininger’s.

Weininger had said the Jews have no genius. Wittgenstein said in the posthumously published Culture and Values that “Amongst Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (I, for example.)” This quotation shows (a) that he was identifying himself as a Jew; (b) that genius could be found among Jews, though only among their holy men; and (c) that he saw in himself a lack of such genius.

That he was “no more than talented” was perhaps just one aspect of the sense of personal unworthiness which frequently afflicted him. In a diary (published only in 1997 under the title of Denkbewegungen) there is a 1937 entry which is a call to the Jews, poetically but typically cryptically phrased, to give the world something that is not merely useful (works of talent) but of eternal value (works of genius, such as only prophets or holy men can give). Chatterjee suggests that Wittgenstein felt called to be such a prophet, and thought himself unworthy for having devoted himself instead to ‘mere’ philosophy (p.174).

Why is the genius of the Jews “found only in the holy man”? Wittgenstein does not explain, but Chatterjee suggests that in the Jewish tradition (or at least in the tradition of the so-called ultra-orthodox and ghettoised Jews) it was only the Bible and the commentaries thereon which were worthy of creative attention. The implication here is that Jewish skills in medicine and in commerce – not to speak of the creative achievements of such as Spinoza, Marx, Freud or Einstein – were merely ‘talents’.

Wittgenstein had “undertaken considerable reading” in Jewish history and the religious life of Jews. Dr Chatterjee quotes works by three authors Wittgenstein read, Meyer, Renan and Spengler; and certain metaphors used by both Wittgenstein and Maimonides suggest to him that Wittgenstein had also read The Guide for the Perplexed.

There were some features of Jewish thought which Wittgenstein shared, Dr Chatterjee suggests – whether intentionally or unintentionally shaped by his reading. But I think there must also be the possibility that often there was an accidental or coincidental correspondence between his own personality and the characteristics of Jewish thought on which Dr Chatterjee focuses.

The first of these correspondences provides the somewhat provocative subtitle for Chatterjee’s book: ‘Concealment’. Wittgenstein speaks about “die Heimlichkeit und Verstecktheit der Juden”, which we find translated in Ray Monk’s biography as “the Jews’ secretive and cunning nature”. Dr Chatterjee prefers “the secrecy and hiddenness of the Jews” (p.53). The German does bear this translation, which also avoids attributing an inborn nature to the Jews; though as a German-speaker myself, my first reaction to the phrase is closer to Monk’s than to Chatterjee’s. Would not Wittgenstein have known the way in which anti-Semites would read that sentence? [The German phrase appears in the posthumously published Culture and Value, whose translation into English could therefore not be controlled by the fastidious Wittgenstein himself.] However, giving his own translation, Chatterjee wants to make two points.

Firstly, Wittgenstein was commenting that, in a world of anti-Semitism, Jews have had to keep much of their thinking to themselves. Traditionally for example, they do not proselytise, which Chatterjee identifies with the inwardness in their religious life which characterises Jewishness (p.53).

Secondly, this reserve is reflected in the way in which Wittgenstein himself is content with ‘chapter headings’, while letting the reader work out the implications. To write in this manner, Chatterjee holds, is “reminiscent of ancient rabbinic scholarship” (p.58). That the key word here is ‘ancient’ becomes clear only later in the book (p.116), when Chatterjee refers to the early days, when the Oral Law was literally oral: “the concept of a written text being incomplete, always standing in need of oral interpretation, is a fundamentally Jewish one”. He sees this rabbinic trait in Wittgenstein’s insistence, in a letter to Bertrand Russell for example, that he could not write a commentary on these ‘chapter headings’, but could explicate what he had written only orally. I feel myself that this correspondence between the rabbinic style and Wittgenstein’s is coincidental, rather than the result of the conscious or even unconscious influence on him of early rabbinic writings. And of course, the Oral Law was eventually written down; and once that happened, so far from silence inviting the reader to think for himself, there is, as it were, an abundance of noise, as each Talmudic scholar is constantly in debate with other scholars. At this point Chatterjee sees another parallel: between the dialectical arguments in the Talmud (“on the one hand …. on the other”) and what appear to be Wittgenstein’s frequent and self-confessed self-contradictions. On several occasions Chatterjee draws attention to the playful character of Wittgenstein’s writing – playful in the sense that he’ll lead his readers to think he’s saying one thing (in the case of the Picture Theory of Meaning. for example) only to declare what he’d said to be “nonsense” to provoke readers into thinking for themselves – which they very often don’t do. Very bewildering!

In his last chapter, Chatterjee returns to the issue of Concealment. He adduces a number of reasons for Wittgenstein’s concealing his Jewishness, of which personal cowardice is definitely not one. Rather, he suggests, it was because Wittgenstein was fully cognisant of the universal importance of the method he wanted to convey to the world, so “why evoke hatred and bigotry … by burdening the method with a sectarian name?” (p.160). The message, after all, “is not diminished by concealment [of its Jewish roots], nor does openness increase its validity”. (p.169). Elsewhere (p.135) Chatterjee sees Wittgenstein as aconverso [descendant of converts] and of such people he quotes Robert Wistrich as saying that conversion never eliminated the convert’s identity problem, but rather intensified it (p.163). Perhaps some readers may find that a more convincing explanation.

Wittgenstein was massively critical of the ‘Greek’ approach to philosophy, which looks for unity of meaning in the use of words, for the striving after laws of nature, and ideally for a Grand Unification Theory. He thought that all such notions are bedevilled by the way in which language leads us astray. Matthew Arnold and others had contrasted Hellenism with Hebraism; and so did Wittgenstein when he said to his friend, the Christian Maurice Drury, “Your religious ideas have always seemed to me more Greek than Biblical. Whereas my thoughts are one hundred percent Hebraic (p103).” That does indeed suggest that Wittgenstein acknowledged the influence of a Jewish intellectual tradition. But what exactly was that tradition?

It is clear that Wittgenstein had strong religious feelings, but also that these resist any confessional formulations. Just like formulations in philosophy or science, these formulae would be trapped by language. This point is frequently stressed by Dr Chatterjee; but it seems to me that he does not pay enough attention to Wittgenstein eventually “showing the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” when in thePhilosophical Investigations he tells us, “Don’t ask for the meaning; ask for the use.” At that point we can look at religious language in a more productive way [ie in terms of its use].

In particular Wittgenstein criticized the teaching that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason, or that we can attribute to Him anthropomorphic qualities like ‘kingly’, ‘loving’ or ‘angry’. He said to Drury that he associated such dogma with the Catholic Church, and the implication is that his own thinking was Hebraic because the Jewish religion teaches that God cannot be thought of in those ways. (But in practice, of course, Jewish and Christian thinking cannot be put so clearly into one or other category. Maimonides and Aquinas both stressed that such language about God was purely figurative; but at the same time a particular contribution of each of them to the philosophy of religion was the attempt to integrate elements of Greek rationalism – as transmitted by the Arabs – into their respective faiths. In any case a warning against anthropomorphism never stopped either priests or rabbis from referring to God as King, as loving or as angry.) Wittgenstein had more sympathy with the visionary, poetic and perhaps obscure utterances of the Hebrew prophets, which like his own utterances, could be understood by “very few indeed” precisely because their language could not (or should not) be taken as representational.

There is a fascinating, though in parts very difficult chapter, dealing with the connections between Wittgenstein and Postmodernism, to which, Chatterjee says, Judaism gave birth (p.139). This is a tempting thought when one considers that the two leading Postmodernists, Levinas and Derrida, were Jews. I would prefer him to have said that it was mainly Jews that gave birth to Postmodernism, rather than Judaism. Other commentators have long recognized the compatibility between the thinking of Wittgenstein and Derrida, between Wittgenstein’s destruction of the reliability of language and the philosophy of Deconstruction. Derrida forthrightly identified himself as Jewish, though Chatterjee says that “unlike Wittgenstein, Derrida did not explicitly associate himself with the Jewish tradition, but has been [so] associated by others responding to his allusions and what they take to be his hints.” (p.134) In his powerful and moving last chapter, called ‘Epilogue to a Reading’, Chatterjee once again underlines the tremendous significance of the two remarks mentioned above: that Wittgenstein was one hundred percent Hebraic, and that other than holy men, the Jews, (“I, for example”), had only talent and not genius. “Wittgenstein”, Chatterjee writes in italics, “did belong to a tradition, and he knew it!” (p.163)

Even given that Wittgenstein identified himself as a Jew, it seems to me that Chatterjee, like the commentators on Derrida, make suppositions on the relationship between Wittgenstein’s and classical Jewish thought for which there is little hard evidence. That does not mean that he is necessarily wrong; but they remain suppositions and are often formulated in a speculative manner, such as “Wittgensteinappears to have realized the intimate, even inevitable connection between Judaism and linguistic thought”. (p.132, emphasis added). Or again: that there are links between Wittgenstein and Derrida cannot be disputed: both men went in for de-Hellenization of thought, but there is no direct evidence that Derrida consciously opposed Hebraism to Hellenism. Again, that does not mean that what Chatterjee and others have read into Derrida is not thought-provoking. Or again, the Hebrew word dhavar means not only ‘word’, but also ‘deed’. When Wittgenstein writes “Words are also deeds”, it is possible that he was influenced by this knowledge – and it would be fascinating if we knew that to be the case. But can we assume that he was?

To sum up: this is an enormously stimulating book and, wherever the subject permits, it is beautifully written. (I don’t think anybody can write beautifully about Postmodernism!) Chatterjee’s admiration for Wittgenstein shines through it all; and the empathy and knowledge of Judaism of this Calcutta-born American academic is both touching and impressive. (In addition to being involved in modern philosophy and linguistics, he received his doctorate in Slavic studies, can clearly read German and perhaps Hebrew also, and has at times also immersed himself in Buddhism.) Perhaps this reviewer, who is not a professional philosopher, is somewhat presumptuous in regarding some of his comments as speculative, but for the most part Chatterjee flags them up with an appropriately cautious formulation. And what can be more exciting than the juxtaposition of similarities, whether intentional or coincidental, that have previously been overlooked?

© Ralph Blumenau 2006

Ralph Blumenau is the author of Philosophy and Living, published by Imprint Academic, and teaches Philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

• Wittgenstein and Judaism: A Triumph of Concealment. by Ranjit Chatterjee (Peter Lang, 2005, 207pps); £36.80/$62.95.


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