“The Way Philosophy Is Personal”

Wittgenstein’s early private notebooks have just been published in English, translated by Marjorie Perloff (Stanford). Towards the end of an essay about them, Kieran Setiya (MIT) draws attention to “the way philosophy is personal.”

The route to this topic winds its way through the question of why it took so long for the notebooks to be translated into English. Quoting Perloff, Setiya writes:

“In the Oxbridge of the post–World War II years—and, for that matter, in the leading American universities,” she writes, “the study of philosophy has been regarded as an abstract and conceptual discipline, rigorous in its reasoning and quite unrelated to issues of individual biography.” Given the level of fascination with Wittgenstein’s life, I am not sure this explains the delay in translation. But Perloff has a point: analytic philosophy presents itself as an impersonal, objective enterprise.

Yet the early notebooks show Wittgenstein grappling with personal problems on one page and philosophical ones on the next, and provide examples of how “philosophy, even in its technical forms, is the expression of an outlook that defines who someone is.” Setiya writes:

It’s an astounding fact that someone would devote their life to the question “What is necessary truth?” or that they would write, in code, on one side of a notebook, “Much anxiety! I was close to tears!!!!” and on the facing page, “A question: can we manage without simple objects in logic?” The content of one’s metaphysics, like the content of one’s character, is a way of seeing the world. And the connection between them is a philosophical matter.

[Juan Gris, self-portrait, 1916 (detail)]

The tendency in philosophy to focus on arguments themselves, to the exclusion of biography—for all its virtues—risks leaving philosophical knowledge on the table, says Setiya:

It is often said that contemporary philosophy is inaccessible. This statement is misleading, in part because the inaccessibility is not new—the great works of philosophy have always been difficult—and in part because there is now a thriving enterprise of “public philosophy,” aimed at a general audience. What public philosophy has not much conveyed, however, is the way philosophy is personal: the fact that we can feel about abstract questions of logic or metaphysics the way we feel about our deepest moral, political, and personal commitments, the music we listen to, the poetry we love—and that these feelings may be related. Philosophers are an astonishing, flawed, obsessive bunch. We have something to learn—about them, and about their philosophy—from figuring out what makes them who they are.

Not just philosophy, then, but philosophers: that is what these notebooks help us to see, life and work reflected on facing pages. A philosophy of philosophers, even—shown, if not said… 

In my experience, many philosophers have deep—I would say, spiritual—relationships with their work, even when it’s highly theoretical. They rarely write about these feelings, at least not for publication… 

“Logic must take care of itself,” Wittgenstein writes in the first of his uncoded notes… But logic can’t take of itself; nor can philosophy. They must have caretakers: the logicians and philosophers who dedicate themselves to abstract thought. I like to imagine them each with a private notebook, written in a simple cipher, that accompanies the pages of their published work. What were they doing when they were doing philosophy? What problems did they face in life? 

Read the whole essay at Boston Review.

Discussion welcome.

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Alfred MacDonald
5 months ago

“Philosophers are an astonishing, flawed, obsessive bunch”

love this euphemism. just the right amount of self-diminishment. going to start with the premise that I’m ‘flawed’ (trivial) and get my ex to agree that I’m ‘obsessive’ (easy) then corner her with ‘astonishing’. a dialogic foot-in-the-door. pwned.Report

Mohammed I A Isedeh.
5 months ago

Yeah, philosophers are Tacklers of the bumps in life. If there are no bumps, there is no tackling to do.Report

5 months ago

Wittgenstein is a very special case of analytic philosopher – His ” idol ” was Kierkegaard and the importance of Wittgenstein s work is not on his logical method and technique but like Kierkegaard s work the importance of his work is the call that address to philosophers for exsistencial seriousness and meaningful writing and not carry away and say endless meaningless things .The problem with guys like Socrates Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein is not in ” studying the full pack – philosophy and the life of philosophers -these two cannot be separated – but the problem is in the guys that they r trying to interpret them ,their motives ,the way that r cancelling them ,their certainty about things that cannot be measured ,their love and hate angst with their self ( the students and interpreters)- this fundamental mode that every human being is connected with ,some more some less – their denial about this because some philosophers they wanna play the bad boys that they don’t feel angst and they deny the most fundamental connection of all because they interpret it as a femine quality although all people r in a love and hate mode with their evolution ,luck ,destiny ,personal choices etc.and that denial creates theatrical sophistries and problematic interpreters that r in a constant war with the most fundamental mode of all- Angst- and in war with the guys that they realised this like Socrates Kierkegaard Wittgenstein . Wittgenstein tried in a Spartan way of expression to solve a lot of problems that created the mode of” endless talking- endless thinking “in philosophy but he left out the poetic language which drugs from the dimension of fantasy and has its value and solidity and replaced it with mysticism although ” Tractatus” is a kind of “Spartan philosophy – poetry”.Gadamer and Wittgenstein r moving in the same direction – the first with the art approach and the second with Spartan language and mysticism. Hope this make sense… because my bad English can easily make it sound like endless meaningless gibberish talking…but if they canceled Kierkegaard s and Gadamer s work as religious abstractism and they call Socrates a clown ,all these” bad boys of sophistry”then who am I to complain…Report

Peter James Catapano
5 months ago

My experience as both an editor and a reader in this area over the past decade is that many philosophers do in fact write and publish philosophical essays or books — usually for general, not strictly academic, consumption — that engage with or arise from their personal experience. It may be that “public philosophy” doesn’t generally serve the roles of academic philosophy (usually not, I think, but why not, I’m not sure). I was compelled to comment here by reading this book excerpt by the philosophy professor and journalist Chloe Cooper Jones, which I thought was an excellent example of the sort of work that Prof. Setiya seemed to suggest was not very common.


It is certainly a hybrid sort of work — a commercial literary memoir — but one that seems to be very informed by philosophy. And it’s possible that, in the grand scheme of things (I don’t have any data on this) that the assertion by Prof. Setiya (whose work, BTW,I greatly admire) that public philosophers rarely write and publish this kind of work is true. I only intend to point out that, for readers who are interested in that sort of work, there are at least many contemporary examples to be found.Report

Kieran Setiya
Kieran Setiya
Reply to  Peter James Catapano
5 months ago

Thanks to Peter for the link to the piece by Chloe Cooper Jones and for his amazing work on The Stone over many years. I didn’t meant to suggest that there isn’t public philosophy out there that bridges the personal and the philosophical and The Stone was a wonderful venue for that.Report

Last edited 5 months ago by Kieran Setiya
No Thanks
5 months ago

What do we gain from access to Wittgenstein’s private remarks? We learn that he struggled to get on with his fellow soldiers. We learn how often he masturbated and that he visited the baths in Kraków when he was stationed in an artillery workshop there. Students in the digital humanities can now correlate Wittgenstein’s sexual activity with his philosophical progress and subject it to statistical scrutiny—information of value to those who hope to replicate his genius, perhaps.

I don’t know. There’s already a problem of too many publications by CV-fluffing grad students. Do we really want to encourage them to crank out more?Report

Wendy Lochner
Wendy Lochner
5 months ago

I just read this and can’t agree more—why should philosophers be excused from situating themselves in their arguments, as social scientists and scholars in other humanities fields do? The very choice of a specialization is a personal one.

Wendy LochnerReport