This article was written on 15 Feb 2011, and is filed under Essays.

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F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein

In this essay, literary critic F.R. Leavis recollects his bizarre encounters with Wittgenstein and how his personality was inextricable from his philosophy. That latter point should be already obvious to anyone who’s read Ray Monk’s excellent biography of Wittgenstein. I should quote some of the best bits from it. Wittgenstein seemingly generated representative anecdotes about himself at a rate unmatched by any modern writer, philosopher, or rock star.

Leavis’ agenda is more or less that philosophers like Wittgenstein should stay the hell away from literature (the dismissal of Finnegans Wake elsewhere in the collection signifies a certain protectiveness of Proper Literature), but he’s too honest to ignore Wittgenstein’s peculiar genius. The whole essay is worth reading for anyone even marginally interested in Wittgenstein (one anecdote, where Wittgenstein’s interest in Leavis is raised only after Leavis chastises him for berating a student, is both touching and disturbing), but I’ll quote some of the best bits:

The ‘influence’ represented by the immense vogue generated by Wittgenstein’s genius, which was so manifest and so potent, wasn’t in general the kind that has its proof in improved understanding of the influencer and his theme, or in fortified intellectual powers. And this is the point at which to avow that I can’t believe Wittgenstein to have been a good teacher…I can’t believe that most (at any rate) of even the mature and academically officed professionals who were present supposed that they could sincerely claim to have followed, in the sense of having been able to be even tacit collaborators (that is, serious questioners and critics), the discussions carried on by Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s discussions were discussions carried on by Wittgenstein. I say this with confidence, deriving from my own experience of him, and my own very positive sense of the nature of his genius. I don’t question that now and then some especially gifted, well-equipped, and determined person did succeed in breaking into the battle and maintaining for a while something in the nature of an exchange. But…the wonder and the profit for the lecture-audience lay in the opportunity to witness the sustained spontaneous effort of intellectual genius wrestling with its self-proposed problems.

Wittgenstein is far, far from the only person who falls under the rubric Leavis gives in the first paragraph, but the particular dialogic nature of his incomprehensibility seems to have been iconically his.

Leavis reads William Empson’s “Legal Fictions” to Wittgenstein, who has never even heard of John Donne before. (He preferred detective stories.)

Wittgenstein went to the point at once: ‘Where’s that anthology? Read me his best poem.’ The book was handy; opening it, I said, with ‘Legal Fictions’ before my eyes: ‘I don’t know whether this is his best poem, but it will do.’ When I had read it, Wittgenstein said, ‘Explain it!’ So I began to do so, taking the first line first. ‘Oh! I understand that,’ he interrupted, and, looking over my arm at the text, ‘But what does this mean?’ He pointed two or three lines on. At the third or fourth interruption of the same kind I shut the book, and said, ‘I’m not playing.’

‘It’s perfectly plain that you don’t understand the poem in the least,’ he said. ‘Give me the book.’

I complied, and sure enough, without any difficulty, he went through the poem, explaining the analogical structure that I should have explained myself, if he had allowed me.

This, I think, almost perfectly illustrates Wittgenstein’s Ramunajan-like savantism, and its strengths and drawbacks. Strange to see it applied to natural language, however, and perhaps the entirety of Wittgenstein’s project derives from this tension, the obsessive need to seek clarity where none exists, sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand (but throwing up endless clarifications) in trying to formulate the issue precisely. Maybe this makes him the most honest positivist of all time, the one who takes the positivist’s maxims so seriously that he can never be positive about anything, even the maxims. I think the understanding of his philosophy as therapeutic or Pyrrhonist only goes half the distance–if that was the whole story, he really would have quit philosophy, as he urged others to do.

Update: Since the fancy “Related Links” thing at the bottom does not seem to be smart enough to decide that a post entitled “Wittgenstein’s Confession” is more relevant than the links it has chosen, I here offer this link to Ray Monk’s gripping account of Wittgenstein’s Confession.


  1. j.
    16 February 2011

    i don’t wholly understand ‘ramanujan-like savantism’, and anyway wittgenstein’s treatment of leavis in the anecdote sounds like it’s of a piece with his attitude toward aesthetic propriety and especially performance, one that he shared to some extent with his family members (so, say: an exasperating, domineering demand for exactness, among other things).

    but i believe others have pointed out that leavis’ impression of wittgenstein’s culture was probably mistaken, and also probably biased in favor of english literature and away from german.

    in a seminar i took from a philosopher who was also a poet, he mentioned wittgenstein’s example of a changed perception of a poem in the ‘lectures and conversations on aesthetics’, which refers to klopstock; the offhanded comment was to imply, ‘whoever the hell this klopstock guy is’.

    it cuts both, or all, ways, i guess.

  2. nnyhav
    16 February 2011

    Funny, as Haffenden retails it, that last “anecdote redounds to the credit both of Wittgenstein and of Empson” (of whom W. was enquiring of Leavis at the time, seemingly nearer TLP than PI etc), and “there is a further fine irony underlying the fact that Wittgenstein could so readily appreciate and explain Empson’s poetry.” As to the effect upon Empson: “Imaginative literature should encompass more than the philosopher’s dream of expounding: a complex art must reach the parts that conceptual thought falls short of. In that sense, Empson’s poetry stands for an attempt to meet the challenge of Wittgenstein’s aphorism [Whereof, thereof], the philosopher’s ruling on the limits of language.”

  3. David Auerbach
    17 February 2011

    J: By savantism I just meant the idea that Wittgenstein could have a clarity of ideas and purpose that ironically defied (a) verbal explanation, and (b) explanation of its origins. Leavis actually makes exception and says W. might have known more about German culture, but there’s still a good case that he was quite literal in his treatment of literature and art in general. Still, Leavis is obviously very very biased.

    nnyhav: I should read the Haffendon bio one of these days. I think there’s a case for some parallels to be drawn, since Empson was a lot more conceptually rigorous than most poets, at least in his poetry. (Wittgenstein would have loathed Ashbery, I think.) But I wouldn’t go quite as far as Haffendon does. Empson works within a tradition. Laura Riding comes closer to what I think W. sought.

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