Wittgenstein’s Confession

In 1936, Wittgenstein took it upon himself to prepare a confession to which he would subject his closest acquaintances. I say “subject” because…well, read on.

For both Rowland Hutt and Fania Pascal, listening to the confession was an uncomfortable experience. In Hutt’s case, the discomfort was simply embarrassment at having to sit in a Lyons cafe while opposite him sat Wittgenstein reciting his sins in a loud and clear voice. Fania Pascal, on the other hand, was exasperated by the whole thing. Wittgenstein had phoned at an inconvenient moment to ask whether he could come and see her. When she asked if it was urgent she was told firmly that it was, and could not wait. ‘If ever a thing could wait,’ she thought, facing him across the table, ‘it is a confession of this kind and made in this manner.’ The stiff and remote way in which he delivered his confession made it impossible for her to react with sympathy. At one point she cried out: ‘What is it? You want to be perfect?’ ‘Of course I want to be perfect,’ he thundered.

In the same year in which he made his confessions, Wittgenstein astounded the villagers of Otterthal by appearing at their doorsteps to apologize personally to the children whom he had physically hurt. He visited at least four of these children (and possibly more), begging their pardon for his ill-conduct towards them. Some of them responded generously…but at the home of Mr Piribauer, who had instigated the action against Wittgenstein, he received a less generous response. There he made his apologies to Piribauer’s daughter Hermine, who bore a deep-seated grudge against him for the times he had pulled her by the ears and by the hair in such a violent fashion that, on occasion, her ears had bled and her hair had come out. To Wittgenstein’s plea for pardon, the girl responded only with a disdainful, ‘Ja, ja.’

In reflecting upon the effects of his confession he wrote:

Last year with God’s help I pulled myself together and made a confession. This brought me into more settled waters, into a better relation with people, and to a greater seriousness. But now it is as though I had spent all that, and I am not far from where I was before. I am cowardly beyond measure. If I do not correct this, I shall again drift entirely into those waters through which I was moving then.

(Ray Monk, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, 370-372)

3 thoughts on “Wittgenstein’s Confession

  1. The Monk book is very good – I thought I heard it mentioned here first actually. A few years back now.
    It has been considered in some circles that Wittgenstein may have had Asperger’s Syndrome – to which I tend to say, why the hell not? At least what he said still has people thinking, and his life teaches us not to dismiss or pathologise the thoughts of impatient people.

  2. I should add that my emphatic remark there is deliberately dismissive, more of a ‘what will people say next’ thing – can’t stand the whole retro diagnosis thing actually. But W. certainly had a terrible temper and was very unrealistic about many things, as Monk often notes.

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