Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wittgenstein to Sraffa

The March 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine reports that a new edition of Wittgenstein's letters in Cambridge is being published by Blackwell. They include the following 31 January 1934 letter:
Dear Sraffa,

The following are some remarks I've put down on the topic of our last conversation. I hope they won't be too disconnected and that you'll read them to the end.

You said, "The Austrians can do most of things the Germans did." I say, How do you know? What circumstances are you taking into account if you say they can? "This man, Austria, can remove the wedding ring from his finger." True, it's not too heavy and doesn't stick to his finger. But he may be ashamed of doing it, hiw wife may not allow it, etc.

You say, "Learn from what happened in Italy." But what should I learn? I don't know exactly how things happened in Italy. So the only lesson I can draw is that things one doesn't expect sometimes happen.

I ask, How will this whose face I can't imagine in a rage looks when he gets into a rage? And can he get into a rage? What shall I say when I see him in a rage? Not only, "Ah, so he can get into a rage after all," but also, "So this is the way he can be in a rage; so this is how it connects up with his former appearance."

You say to me, "If a man is in a rage, the muscles a, b, c of his face contract. This man has the muscles a, b, c, so why shouldn't they contract? If you, Wittgenstein, wish to know what he will look like in a rage, just imagine him with those muscles contracted. What will Austria look like when it turns Nazi? There will be no Socialist Part, there won't be Jewish judges, etc., etc., etc. That's what it'll look like."

I reply, This gives me no picture of a face; apart from the fact that I don't know enough about the workings of things to know whether all these changes that you point out will happen together. For I understand what it means to say that the muscles a, b, c will contract, but what will become of the many muscles, etc., between them? Can't the contraction of the one in this particular face prevent the contraction of the others? Do you know how in this particular case things interact?

You may say, "Surely the only way to tell the future physiognomy is to know more and more exactly the contractions, etc., of all, not only the main, muscles."

I say, I don't think this is the only way; there is another one, although the two ways meet. I may ask a physiologist what the face will be like, but also a painter. The two will give different answers - the painter by drawing the angry face - although if they both are correct they will agree. Of course, I know that painters have to study anatomy. I want to know the painter's answer, and I also want to know what the physiologist can tell me to check the painter's answer.

I am interested to know what phrases the Austrians will use when they'll have turned Naze. Supposing their patriotism is only talk, then I'm just interested in their future talk.

I wish to say one more thing. I think that your fault in a discussion is this: YOU ARE NOT HELPFUL! I am like a man inviting you to tea in my room, but my room is hardly furnished; one has to sit on boxes, and the teacups stand on the floor, and the cups have no handles, etc., etc. I hustle about fetching anything I can think of to make it possible that we should have tea together. You stand there with a sulky face, say that you can't sit down on a box and can't hold a cup without a handle, and generally make things difficult. At least that's how it seems to me.


Ludwig Wittgenstein


Praxis said...

Thanks for the heads up, this is great. A certain... uh... discordance between Sraffa and Wittgenstein's attitudes, though, I think. Sraffa discusses the political threats of the day; Wittgenstein goes into a weird riff about teacups. Economics vs. philosophy, perhaps...

Robert Vienneau said...

I assume the strange analogies are Wittgenstein, too.

I have seen it suggested that one read the opening of Philosophical Investigations as describing a sequence of languages, complete in themselves. One should not think of a"brick, slab, etc." language as incomplete or part of another.

One can read the sequence of Sraffa's models in Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities in the same way. Furthermore, supposedly Sraffa tended to use concrete examples to explain his ideas in private conversation, never writing down an equation.

So maybe something about Wittgenstein's use of examples is Sraffa's contributions. Who can say?

Mathew Toll said...

That's brilliant, quite interesting.