International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 131 14th November 2007


I. 'Jesus as a Jewish Philosopher' by Matthew del Nevo

II. 'Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy' by Martin Jenkins

III. 'Wittgenstein on Ethics' by V. Prabhu



We are presented in this issue with three of the most iconoclastic thinkers of all time, who sought to change the rules for thinking about ultimate questions.

Matthew del Nevo's Jesus is a Rabbi steeped in the tradition of the Jewish Talmud. Calling upon Kierkegaard and Franz Rosenzweig, del Nevo argues that the philosophy of Jesus is strikingly at odds with the Greek philosophical tradition which came to mould official Christian doctrine, in being centred on questions rather than dogmatic answers.

Martin Jenkins looks at the early work of Nietzsche, still under the influence of Schopenhauer, where he formulated the distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian, proposing the problem of values and the meaning of life as fundamentally an aesthetic problem whose solution lies in the creation of great works of tragic art.

V. Prabhu explores the ethical underpinnings of the philosophy of Wittgenstein showing that by stark contrast with the Logical Positivists who claimed Wittgenstein as their inspiration, Wittgenstein believed that what is most important is not 'what can be said' but rather the ethical, which cannot be put into words; any attempt to do so is destructive of the very notion of value.



An appraisal of Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Jesus (St. Augustine's Press, 2007)

This is a popularly written book about the philosophy of Jesus rather than the Jesus of philosophy -- at least that is the intention. The book scopes the philosophy of Jesus in terms of the primary questions of ontology, epistemology, anthropology and ethics, respectively: What is being? What can I know? Who is man? What ought I to do? The style is very direct, and what is lost in subtlety is gained in clarity. The book gets off to a good start but increasingly confuses the philosophy of Jesus with the theology of the Catholic Church as represented by recent official documentation. The book is divided into four sections aligned with the four prime questions. There is a subject index and a scriptural index.

So what does Kreeft make of Jesus' philosophy?

First of all Kreeft makes it clear that he does not occupy that ostensibly neutral or supposedly objective position struck up by many in philosophy of religions discourse. Kreeft's presumption in writing about Jesus' philosophy from a Christian point of view is not apologetic or polemical, rather he understands, rightly in this reader's view, that Jesus' teaching and person (like Socrates') present matters of intellectual substance that have to be engaged philosophically if they are to be engaged properly. He believes that Jesus' philosophy is not only of historical philosophical importance in the history of ideas, but still has a critical relevancy today. As a Christian he is in a good position to expound this, just as someone who knows the Greek is in a better position to expound Plato.

On Jesus' metaphysics or ontology in Chapter 1 Kreeft rightly accentuates its Jewishness and in this regard the uniqueness of the Jewish take on reality in which God, world and humankind are seen as ontologically other and not merged, submerged or seen as intrinsic to one another. It is a philosophy of otherness and difference. Kreeft could have been more definite about this point. The threefold difference of God, world and humankind demarcates Jewish reality from pagan reality which does not mark the ontological otherness of these three so absolutely, if at all. The Jewish take on reality is different from that of other religions and non-religions (pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, ontologism, atheism, prophetism etc.), and Kreeft touches on this.

Kreeft tends to describe Jesus' metaphysics theologically rather than out of the Jewish world of Jesus. Kreeft speaks of a metaphysics of love, but this does not capture the links back, in rabbinic thought, between God, world and humankind which can be encapsulated by naming Creation, Revelation and Redemption, as Rosenzweig has famously put it: Jesus has both a teaching on these links back and a personal stance that is re-creative, redemptive and revelatory. It is in this kind of metaphysical context that Jesus speaks of love. Kreeft argues his case for Jesus' metaphysics of love from the Name of God, but he is incorrect in saying that Jesus calling God 'abba' (father, papa) was revolutionary. It is not in the Hebrew Scriptures as such, although the Fatherhood of God is, but speaking to God familiarly as abba was common in rabbinic tradition. What is revolutionary about Jesus' philosophy is that he said you did not have to be Jewish to speak to God like this, or even religious!

Kreeft rightly asserts that everything else follows from Jesus' metaphysics. In epistemology, what we must know is ourselves, the world and God. There are degrees of knowledge and the key is wisdom. Again Jesus not only taught in the Jewish wisdom tradition but personified it. As Kierkegaard wrote in Practice in Christianity, 'the only explanation of truth is to be it.' Jesus' philosophy is in that sense 'existential'. Our knowledge will increase with our sanctification of the Name of God, and of the world and of ourselves. Kreeft rightly refers to prayer as an important key to knowledge, allowing us to draw close and relate to that which we need to know, rather than just to 'know about'.

Jesus' anthropology revolves around the imago Dei, the instruction that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Each person is infinitely other than God, but bears God's image and likeness in one major respect: each human person is absolutely one and only. Upon this is founded human dignity. Jesus' anthropology is one which seeks to serve human dignity and increase it upon the face of the earth, for God's glory.

Jesus' ethics revolves around the imitatio Dei, the imitation of God, which in Christianity becomes the imitation of Christ. Kreeft argues that we have to be 'little Christs', which I take it has to do with becoming all that God has called us to be, individually and as a people of God. The idea is that we each need to be personally responsible for our share in collective destiny, which is with God, to 'mend the world' (tikkun olam). Jesus' own philosophy was to do the Father's will, which he did, and which he enjoined us to do, and in which prayer and personal wholeness is the key to knowledge and true freedom.

In the second half of the book, in these chapters on anthropology and ethics, Kreeft's tendency to move from the philosophy of Jesus to the theology of the Church, becomes more pronounced. This shift will lose many readers not predisposed in like manner to Kreeft. The problem goes back to Chapter 1 on metaphysics which gets a little lost in a Thomistic interpretation of the Creed, which is an anachronistic discussion. But this kind of anachronism is stepped up in Chapter 3 on Jesus' anthropology. This chapter starts with the idea of Jesus as perfect Man and perfect God, which is Greek philosophy, not Jesus' philosophy. Kreeft then takes up the anthropological question in terms of the Socratic dictum, 'know thyself'. This chapter shifts into apologetics with a justification of Mary as the Mother of God, Catholic dogma rather than Jesus' philosophy. Chapter 4 on Jesus' ethics also shifts over into apologetics with an argument that ends with the assertion that, 'we are to worship the Eucharist'; again, Catholic dogma, rather than Jesus' philosophy.

Traditionally Catholic Christians have taught that philosophy is a 'handmaid' to philosophy. This is preferable to the Protestant response which was to try and expunge philosophy from theology, which gave them ideology. My view, the view of most philosophers, would be that any theology is no better than its philosophy. Traditionally Christian thought, that is, Christian interpretation, has depended on Greek philosophy, more precisely on combinations of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Jesus' philosophy -- whatever it was -- was Jewish, rabbinic, in the sense we read about in the Talmud, which reflects the oral tradition of Jesus' Jewish world. Jesus' philosophy was not Platonic or Aristotelian.

The problem for Kreeft, which his book bears out, is that philosophy for him is by definition non-Jewish. There is a long quotation from C. S. Lewis in the Preface to show that Jesus' style followed broadly along Aristotelian lines as found in the Poetics and the Analytics. But Jesus' style was halakhic and aggadic. Kreeft asserts in the Preface that it is not the style but the substance of Jesus' philosophy that interests him, his answers. Jewish religious philosophy has always revolved around the question, though, not the answer; on answers it is pluralistic.

Catholicism by contrast is about answers and is autocratically assertive about its own answers, both to its own global constituency and with regard to other denominational points of view. Kreeft needs to cross over from a culture of answers in which he is steeped to a culture of the question, in which Jesus was steeped. Moreover, in achieving the relevancy of Jesus' philosophy another bridge has to be crossed from an autocratic 'one answer fits all' culture to a plural culture. For we live in an age of philosophies, a pluralist age in which by definition there cannot be one overarching theological metaphysic because that would mean one underlying dominant philosophy, which is simply not the case in our time. Therefore we need to situate Jesus' philosophy in terms of an age of interpretation if we are going as Kreeft intends, to gauge its enormous transformative power.

Ultimately the lack of distinction between the philosophy of Jesus and Catholic dogma lets the book down. Kreeft has taken the ecclesiastical future of Jesus as the cue, rather than the Jewish background, Jesus' own world and the greatness of rabbinic thinking in particular.

In an age of interpretation when a lot of metaphysical theology is suspect, archaic and unengaging, the project of re-discovering Jesus' philosophy is important as a basis for Christian self-understanding, and then for pre-understanding in philosophical argument. Jesus' philosophy was certainly questioning and critically formulated in a rabbinic manner and it aimed to be foundational for the philosophical task of bringing heaven down to earth, a prophetic task in which humanity becomes all that God meant it to be.

(c) Matthew Del Nevo 2007


Dr Matthew Del Nevo Senior Lecturer in Theology and Christian Spirituality Broken Bay Institute Pennant Hills New South Wales Australia



As an escape from the everyday world with its mundanity, trials and tribulations, many people find a sanctuary in music. The surrounding world of things, people and events melts away as the powerful ecstasy of music intoxicates. Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900] identified the importance of music and its relation to everyday life in his first published book The Birth of Tragedy.[1]

Schopenhauer and Der Wille

The young Nietzsche read The World As Will and Representation by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and it had a profound effect upon him.[2] Schopenhauer maintained that the world we perceive around us (i.e. the Phenomenal) is the mere appearance, the representation of an underlying nature of reality. The underlying reality (i.e. the Noumenal) is the Will [Der Wille] and the representations we perceive are its appearances [Vorstellung]. The appearances are facilitated by the principle of sufficient reason by which individual objects [principium individuationis] are made possible. However, the underlying Will is insatiable, restless and boundless. It appears in nature as the struggle for existence, red in tooth and claw. It appears in human beings as the desire for something which because unsatisfied makes unhappy and, unhappiness when the desire has been achieved. Sometimes called the philosopher of pessimism, Schopenhauer did not believe the world could really be changed for the better as the nature of the Will would always obtain; far better to be resigned to its nature and seek temporary escape by losing oneself in the contemplation of art.

Trained and precociously excelling as a philologist, Nietzsche synthesised Schopenhauer's philosophy with his philological insights of ancient Greece and the music of the composer Richard Wagner. The result was his The Birth of Tragedy in 1872.

Apollo and Dionysius

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argued that the Ancient Greeks identified two forces in nature -- the Apollonian and the Dionysiac -- deified respectively in the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Like representation in Schopenhauer, Apollo symbolises artistic form and order in all its manifestations. The Dionysiac is the underlying dynamic force of being rather like The Will as identified by Schopenhauer.

Manifesting itself in the plastic arts of Epic Poetry, Painting and Sculpture, the Apollonian is the representation of images. It facilitates determinate form from out of the Dionysiac. Nietzsche quotes a graphic scene from Schopenhauer:

     Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting his
     fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every
     direction, rises and falls in howling mountainous waves, so
     in the midst of a world full of suffering, the individual
     man calmly sits, supported by and trusting in the
     principium individuationis.[3]

By means of the principium individuationis [principle of individuation] the Apollonian creates individual form, shape -- creates the images we take to be the world of others, objects and ourselves -- whilst underneath the Dionysiac rages.

Appearing in religious, festive force and the exuberance of the worshipers the Dionysiac can be reached through intoxication inducing ecstasy. Captured by the German word Rausch which can be translated as 'Rush' as in the 'rush' or the 'buzz' one experiences from a peak or extreme experience -- especially with music; Simon Critchley writes:

     Music for Nietzsche... is not a copy of the Will but an
     articulation of what he calls the Dionysian, the primal
     life of desire, the deathly, dangerous and discordant core
     of consciousness that he identifies with the experience of
     Rausch -- intoxication, ecstasy or literally Rush. Music
     gives us an experience of rush.[4]

With the Dionysian Rush, the principium individuationis is dissolved and all returns to a primal oneness.

The Wisdom of Silenus

Understanding the nature of the Dionysiac Will and its relation to the Apollonian appearances of the world around us reveals the reason why life can be absurd, painful and capricious. When asked by King Midas what was the best and most admirable thing for all humanity; Silenus replied that the best thing is not to have been born and the second best is to die soon.[5]

Such a gloomy prescription follows from the fleeting nature of the Apollonian world of appearance; all that comes into existence will pass out of existence. No thing is forever -- parents, lovers, friends, places -- with which we invest our love, faith and familiarity are all transient subject to change and demise. For beneath the transient surface nature of the world around us is,

     the Dionysiac oceanic current. Rising, raging, insatiable;
     it invariably overwhelms the little boatman of individuated
     form. This creates suffering: that nothing lasts forever,
     that success rarely stays, that happiness is ephemeral.[6]

Whilst the individual comes into existence in the Apollonian and disappears, life as a whole in the Dionysiac Will continues. As Arthur Lee wrote 'For every happy hello there must be goodbye': individual lives come and go but life as a whole continues.[7]

Greek Tragedy

The centre of Greek Tragedy is the Chorus representing the whole unity of life. Individuals in the chorus are individuated forms of life in the process of birth, life, death, creation and destruction. This terrible transience is symbolised in the tragic hero.

Unlike Apollonian Art which is constituted by the representations of the illusory phenomenal world we perceive around us; Music is the replica of the Dionysian Will itself. Before the frenzied dithyrambic chorus of Satyrs Dionysus appears as the first individual; the Tragic hero. The Will [variously interchangeable with Being or Nature] manifests itself to itself in the guise of the hero god Dionysus as individuated through Apollo and, in the frenzied dithyrambs of the satyr's. A 'dialectic' of evanescent moments is enacted between the two. In Tragedy, the hero invariably suffers unfairly and encounters death. As John Duncan writes:

     There is a sense that the suffering was apportioned
     unforgivingly, brutally.[8]

For the spectators, the unforgiving tragedy of pain and death symbolised in the interaction between the Apollonian [masks, dances, symbols] and the Dionysiac [Music, singing, dithyrambs] highlights the transience of individuated life and its dissolution in the larger Dionysiac whole. The frantic dithyrambs imbue the Rausch mentioned above so that just as the individuated hero dies and returns to the unified Dionysiac Will so; the individual spectator him/ herself evanescently dissolves into the greater whole of the Will.[9] As Nietzsche writes:

     Now the slave is a free man, now all the rigid and hostile
     boundaries that distress, despotism or 'impudent fashion'
     have erected between man and man break down. With the
     gospel of world harmony, each man feels himself not only
     united, reconciled and at one with his neighbour, but one
     with him, as if the veil of Maya had been rent and now hung
     in rags before the mysterious, primal oneness.[10]

Individuated life is tragic but it is part of a bigger whole that continues despite the suffering and destruction of the individual and Tragedy highlights this by the tribulations, suffering and death of the hero. Tribulations in the Apollonian phenomenal world are manifestations of the turbulent Dionysiac Will. Nietzsche again:

     Only in the single instances of such destruction can we
     clearly see the eternal phenomenon of Dionysiac art, which
     expresses the Will in its omnipotence, behind the
     principium individuationis, the eternal life that lies
     beyond the phenomenal world regardless of all destruction.
     Metaphysical delight in the Tragic is a translation of the
     image: the hero, the supreme manifestation of the will, is
     negated to our gratification, because he is only a
     phenomenon and the eternal life of the will is left
     untouched by his destruction.[11]

Contrary to Aristotle who argued that Tragedy encouraged a catharsis -- a purging from the psyche of negative emotions -- for Nietzsche, Tragedy is positive as it affirms life. Submergence in the Dionysiac Will removes the illusory representations of individuation, time and space. The ecstasis of this experience rekindles a lust for life because of and despite the prospect of annihilation. The Dionysiac Will for Apollonian individuated life fuels the lust for life even though the Dionysian Will is that which extinguishes individuated life. Yes life is awful but lets go for it while we're here!

Wagner and Germany

For Nietzsche German Philosophy had paved the way for the return of Tragedy. He maintained that German Philosophers such as Schopenhauer had demonstrated the limitation of scientific knowing to within the phenomenal world. This knowing can only give us knowledge determined by time, space and causality. Beyond this, is the Noumenal realm evoked Dionysiac Music which is manifested in Tragedy, giving us the realm of feeling [pathei mathos]. Science in Physiology and Medicine might tell us why we become ill or die but it cannot tell us about the feelings and the meanings surrounding illness and death.[12]

Nietzsche hoped his insights into Greek Tragedy could be combined with the musical works of Wagner to renew the spirit of Germany. Along with others, Nietzsche felt society lacked coherence, meaningfulness and a sense of belonging that previous societies -- especially the Ancient Greeks -- did not.[13] Nietzsche's solution at the time of writing The Birth of Tragedy was that archaic Greek society was the ideal to be followed. It was a society based on Art contrary to our modern cognitivist and rationalist approach and reliance on science.

To attend an event of Attic Tragedy was to be a citizen of Athens. To participate in the Tragedy, to dissolve in the Dionysiac, was to enjoy a collective experience which temporarily dissolved social rank to unite all. Nietzsche hoped the music and festivals of Wagner could do the same for Germany.


The issues raised by Nietzsche are germane. Contemporary society appears fractured to some commentators, where individuals are lacking a sense of community and common identity with a greater whole. Also, the possibility of achieving existential satisfaction by material acquisition alone is also disputed. Requiring more than the quantitative within time, space and individuation, to achieve a meaningful life relationships, moods, a sense of purpose, of belonging and meaning -- what the early Nietzsche would have termed the metaphysical -- is also important. Finally, despite all the advances in Medicine and Science, the finitude of human life and its relation to death continues to exist as the ultimate event on the horizon before all thinking and feeling persons.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Penguin. 1993.

2. Arthur Schopenhauer. The World As Will and Representation. Dover Publications. 1967.

3. #1. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

4. Simon Critchley. Rausch. The Philosopher's Magazine Essay. The Philosopher's Magazine. #28.

Think also here of the Islamic Dervishers who induce religious exaltation with their dances. Think also of dance festivals, [Outdoor 'Raves'] Concerts, Political Rallies, German Oktober beer festivals and the like.

5. #3. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

6. The poem Mutability by Percy Bysshe Shelley for me, captures the tragic transience of life. I cite the first verse:

     The Flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow dies,
     All that we wish to stay,
     Tempts us and then flies.
     What is this worlds delight?
     It is like lightning that mocks the night,
     As brief as it is bright.

     The Major Works
     Oxford University Press. 2003.

7. Again, the lyrics of Arthur Lee from the band Love in the song You Set the Scene capture the tragedy and profundity of transient life.

     This is the only thing I'm sure of,
And that all that lives is gonna die.
     And there'll always be some people here to wonder why,
     And for every happy hello there will be goodbye.
     There'll be time to put yourself on.

     You Set the Scene by Arthur Lee.
     Love. Forever Changes. 1967.

8. P. 64. John Duncan. Culture, Tragedy and Pessimism in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. PhaenEx 1. No 2. Winter 2006. Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture

9. After E.R. Dodds' Bacchae highlighting the significance of the oxyrhs fragments -- long after Nietzsche composed The Birth of Tragedy -- modern interpretations show that the Bacchic possession is external and paramount.

10. #1. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

11. #16. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

12. For more on this see the Introduction by Raymond Guess to Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

13. Different solutions arising from the same concerns were formulated by Friedrich Von Schiller, Friedrich Holderlin, G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx.


E.R. Dodds. Bacchae. Cambridge University Press. 1960.

John Duncan. Culture, Tragedy and Pessimism in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. PhaenEx.1. No 2. Winter 2006. Journal of Existentialist and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.

Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Penguin. 1993.

Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. Dover Publications. 1967.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Major Works. Oxford University Press. 2003.

Walter Sokal. On the Dionysian in Nietzsche. Monism and its Consequences. Nietzsche Circle. 2006. http:---

Many thanks to Brian Lewis and Anthony Dybacz of Chester Philosophy Forum for their knowledgeable guidance and suggestions in relation to the Ancient Greek world and its culture.

(c) Martin Jenkins 2007


Martin Jenkins is a Mentor on the Pathways to Philosophy distance learning program https:---



A struggle towards perfection

This paper attempts to position Wittgenstein's views on ethical values as a struggle towards perfection between his existential predicament and philosophical commitment. Wittgenstein's position regarding the nature of values is singular; where one can see the constant turmoil exhibited between his philosophical (rational) thought process, and his existential struggle. The struggle he had was with finding the meaning of life, of his existential situation but he was unable to rationally explain the universal human predicament. Unlike other philosophers, who view that values do not have universality, Wittgenstein strongly believed that they have such a status. But at the same time, his technique of language and philosophical justification did not give him scope to universalize it. Thus, this paper aims to show how his views on values are a constant attempt to bridge the gap between the two.

There are two stages in Wittgenstein's thoughts -- earlier and later -- with respect to language. In his earlier approach to language, he had clearly laid down the criteria for a sentence to be of sense. In the Tractatus (his earlier work) the essence of language is assumed to reside in its fact-stating function. Those sentences that cannot fulfill these criteria are termed as nonsensical, under which religious, cultural, ethical and all other value based and metaphysical sentences fall. He relegated them to the realm of 'mystical', that which cannot be brought under the purview of language, i.e., communication.

Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus made a number of gnomic remarks about values. In Tractatus, Wittgenstein held that there are no values in the world, for there are no propositions to mirror the values of the world. All values, the meaning of the world and of life, are in some sense stand outside the reality (world). It follows that values cannot be expressed in propositions, for there are no ethical propositions. To quote Wittgenstein:

     If there is any value that does have value, it must be
     outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case.
     For all that happens and is the case is accidental.[2]

According to his Tractatus conception of language, no value exists in the world. If anything exists in the world, it has no value. In that context, he says that ethics cannot be put into words, because ethical attributes cannot alter facts. They can only alter one's own world, but not the world shared by all of us. Therefore, they are ineffable. They belong to the realm of mystical.

A statement is nonsensical when it cannot be verified empirically or when it is not analytic (tautology). Those statements that cannot fulfill either of the two criteria are termed as nonsensical. As a matter of fact, in his preface to Tractatus, Wittgenstein mentions that anything that lies beyond the limits of language will simply be treated as nonsense. However, we cannot simply draw a conclusion that Wittgenstein did not show any interest in these subjects. The statements concerning these subjects may be treated nonsensical, because any attempt to explain them in terms of truth-functional language results in a miserable failure. This is clear from the following statement of Wittgenstein:

     How things are in the world is a matter of complete
     indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal
     himself in the world.[3]

Whether Wittgenstein was concerned about that which he described as nonsense was a contentious issue for some period of time but it is almost for certain now that he was very deeply bothered about it. Many thinkers believe that Tractatus is basically a metaphysical work. Suresh Chandra opines thus:

     Tractatus is primarily an essay in Metaphysics, and only
     secondarily that it is concerned with language, i.e. the
     meanings of the words and sentences. He is primarily
     concerned with reality, and only secondarily concerned with
     language. He is first a metaphysician then a philosopher of
     language. And his metaphysics has influenced his views on
     language. Therefore any understanding of Wittgenstein's
     philosophy of language by delinking it with his
     transcendentalism will be an utter failure. His
     transcendentalism is a necessary presupposition of his
     philosophy of language.[4]

Wittgenstein himself was of the view that his work has to be understood from a transcendental viewpoint. In one of his letters to Ludwig Ficker, he claimed his work Tractatus to be an ethical one.[5] To understand Wittgenstein's contention regarding the ethical, thereby transcendental nature of Tractatus, we have to look into some other source of information that includes his life and thought. Wittgenstein's enigmatic life style and his constant botheration about leading an ethical life gives the impression that he was more concerned with what he termed as 'mystical' rather than what is not mystical in his Tractatus.

To substantiate this view we can quote Wittgenstein's remark in his letter to Ludwig von Ficker:

     My work consists of two parts; of the one which is here,
     and of everything which I have not written. And precisely
     this second part is the important one.'[6]

It is clear that Wittgenstein in Tractatus maintained a distinction between what can be said and what cannot be said. Such a distinction is logically necessary, as,

     It must set limits to what can be thought; and, in doing
     so, to what cannot be thought... It will signify what
     cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said.[7]

But contrary to logical positivist's claim, Wittgenstein was concerned with that which cannot be said. Interpreters of Wittgenstein's philosophy such as Tilghman held the view that Wittgenstein's 'purpose in making these distinctions was to emphasize the importance of that area he called the mystical and to preserve it from the tyranny of the sciences, not to dismiss it.'[8] One can make a distinction between the attitude of Logical Positivists and that of Wittgenstein towards life. To the former, what matters in life is anything that can be spoken about significantly; but to the latter what is significant in life is that which cannot be spoken about.

However, the tacit dimension of the work certainly reveals the emotional side of his life. Of course, no one would openly claim that his work is a treatise on ethics. But his inner urge is to look for those transcendental aspects of life that exist outside the purview of this world of facts. It was his wish to make Tractatus a treatise on ethics. This is revealed from his personal letter written to Ludwig von Ficker in 1919 incidentally after the publication of Tractatus. Wittgenstein writes in his letter:

     The point of the book is ethical. I once wanted to give a
     few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it,
     which, however, I'll write to you now because they might be
     a key for you.[9]

Perhaps this was his intention. Now it poses a problem to the reader. How can one defend Tractatus as a treatise on ethics? If we concede the point of Wittgenstein, we must ask ourselves in what sense it is ethical. As an answer to our query, Wittgenstein remarks:

     The ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my
     book; and I'm convinced that strictly speaking it can only
     be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of that
     which many are babbling today, I have defined in my book by
     remaining silent about it.[10]

One who is familiar with Wittgenstein's writings on these topics can come across a number of expressions such as goodness, value, life, God's will, and so on. As a matter of fact, he was very critical of those who tried to find meanings of these expressions in this world of facts. Obviously, Wittgenstein did not want to equate values with facts. His argument is that if the values can exist in this world of facts, then they are no more values. In other words, the world of facts being logical in its structure, cannot accommodate anything that goes beyond the laws of logic. Hence, according to Tractatus, there is no value in the world since all facts and all propositions representing the facts are all on the same level. All value, the meaning of the world and of life, in some sense stands outside the world. It follows from that values cannot be expressed in propositions. Consequently, there are no propositions of ethics.

The mystical nature suggests that they are not easily comprehensible. Wittgenstein says:

     What is eternal and important is often hidden from man by
     an impenetrable veil. He knows: there is something under
     there but he cannot see it. The veil reflects the

To know the importance of these values is, for Wittgenstein, not a matter of 'understanding' in terms of science, but it is a matter of seeing beneath the veil. They need a different sort of perception and treatment. The values therefore, for Wittgenstein, need a transcendental treatment. He opined that:

     The problems of life are insoluble on the surface and can
     only be solved in depth. They are insoluble on the surface

Wittgenstein, the earlier and later, strongly held that neither the science nor even philosophy was able to grasp these essential concerns. According to Tilghman:

     Both the preface to the Tractatus and the Philosophical
     Investigations... suggest that Wittgenstein's mind was
     occupied by the thought that modern technical progress,
     whether in science or philosophy, has not come to grips
     with our moral concerns.[13]

This shows that he is bothered more about his existential concerns, than about his scientific knowledge. For him, to solve the problems of life and to 'see' the 'thing' under the veil is important in his life.

According to him, values are something absolute. Therefore, they cannot be reduced to facts. Consequently, they cannot be expressed in terms of propositions. At the same time, Wittgenstein was much concerned about this issue. His very attempt to deliver a lecture on the nature of ethical values itself is an indication that Wittgenstein was serious about moral issues. His lecture on ethics also reveals why he distrusted systematic treatment of ethics. In this lecture, he did not talk of ethics in the normal sense by giving a code of conduct or having a discussion on the code of conduct. But, he speaks in a broader sense in which he includes issues like 'what is valuable', 'what makes life worth living', 'the most essential part of what is generally called aesthetics' and like.[14] He held that ethics as an absolute value manifests itself in certain ways in one's own experience. But it is the proclivity of the human mind to express this experience through linguistic expression that results in miserable failure. The reason is that such experiences cannot be overtly exhibited. Philip Shields says:

     Absolute values are incompatible with language because they
     presume to transcend the arbitrarily predetermined
     conditions that make language possible. The only
     expressions of value, which make sense, are relative
     expressions of value, and they are not really about value
     because they can be reformulated as expressions of mere

They are purely the internal matters of the individual. Therefore, any attempt to make one's internal experiences public through the medium of language bound to be nonsensical. Wittgenstein gives an example in his 'Lecture on Ethics' about an event of lying, he says: 'I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better.' As a reaction against this, we would say something like, 'Well, you ought to want to behave better.' Wittgenstein calls this 'an absolute judgement of value.'[16] But he knows very well that they cannot be reduced to statement of facts. Hence, they are nonsense, though Wittgenstein is very sympathetic towards such a value statement. Therefore, Wittgenstein writes:

     My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who
     ever tried to write or talk on Ethics or Religion was to run
     against the boundaries of language. This running against the
     walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics
     so far as it springs from the desire to say something about
     the meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute
     valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to
     our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a
     tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help
     respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.[17]

From the above passage of Wittgenstein, it is clear that ethics cannot be treated as a science. Hence, it does not yield any knowledge. Consequently, we do not make any claims to knowledge in the field of ethics. Since all our claims to knowledge are expressed through propositions, there are no ethical propositions. Although his contemporaries held that ethics is a moral science, Wittgenstein was critical of such an attitude. Though Wittgenstein regarded ethics as a realm in which nothing can be said, there is no let up in his deep concern for moral problems. In his personal life Wittgenstein always struggled in overcoming the temptations presented by his pride and vanity.

Here we can see the struggle experienced by Wittgenstein. On one side, he cannot propose any moral theories or value hierarchies as it is beyond the scope of philosophy. On the other side, he always believed that there is universality in values. These values do not just belong to the realm of human beings and he strongly held that man could not be the measure of values. This struggle is exhibited in his writings. Hence, Wittgenstein throughout in his writings concentrated on the 'transcendental' nature of values and on the impossibility of holding on to a theory of values or finding the essence of any value. According to Philip Shields:

     There is something about the notion of 'the will of God'
     which he thinks is crucial and sadly lacking in our modern
     view of life. By evoking 'the will of God' Wittgenstein is
     suggesting that in an important sense man is not the
     measure of all things, the world and our forms of life are
     not of our own making, and there are standards thrust upon
     us which are not of our own choosing.[18]

     On the one hand, just as a judgement of relative value is
     not really about value, an anthropocentric ethics would not
     really be about Ethics, because it could always be reduced
     to a description of the human activities that fulfill the
     conditions set by a particular preexisting form of life.
     Thus, for Wittgenstein, Ethics must still reflect absolute
     judgements of value, or in other words, it must reflect
     something like 'the will of God.'[19]

In 1930, Wittgenstein said: 'What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics. Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.'[20] This view is further substantiated from the following statement of Wittgenstein: 'You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other. The good is outside the space of facts.'[21]

Thus, Wittgenstein maintained that any value, for that matter, could only be articulated within a form of life. And it means to obey the rule and for him it is obeying blindly. And if one does not partake in such a form of life, there is no way one can explain the significance of the value, be it ethics or aesthetics or any other value. That is, universal account of values is not possible. But Wittgenstein personally lived with such a conviction that values exist in a different realm altogether, independent of subjective attitudes, resulting in a constant struggle in his life, particularly when it comes to the question of ethical values and moral perfection. In a sense, maybe he wanted to show the importance of values in the human life by the way he led, than by proposing theories.


1. Senior Lecturer, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati

2. Wittgenstein, Ludwig., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (TLP) trans. C. K. Ogden. London: Routledge, 1922, sections.6.42&6.421

3. TLP, section.6.432

4. Suresh Chandra, Wittgenstein: New Perspectives, (New Delhi: 2002), p.34.

5. C.G.Luckhardt (Ed.), Wittgenstein Sources and Perspectives, (Sussex: 1979), p.94.

6. Ibid.

7. TLP, sections. 4.114 & 4.115.

8. B.R. Tilghman, Wittgenstein, Ethics and Aesthetics, (London: 1991), p.17

9. C.G.Luckhardt op.cit., p.94.

10. Wittgenstein Ludwig, Philosophical Remarks, eds. G. H. von Wright and G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, (Oxford:1953), p.7.

11. Wittgenstein, Ludwig , Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. P. Winch, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980, p.80

12. Ibid., p.74.

13. B.R. Tilghman, op.cit., p.19.

14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'Lecture on Ethics' in The Philosophical Review, Vol. LXXIV, 1965, pp.4-5; hereafter cited as LE.

15. Philip R. Shields, Logic and Sin in the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Chicago:1993), p.42.

16. LE, p.5.

17. Ibid., p.4.

18. Philip R. Shields, op.cit., p.36.

19. Philip R. Shields, op.cit., p.43.

20. CV, p.3.

21. Ibid.

(c) V. Prabhu 2007

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V. Prabhu
Senior Lecturer Department of Humanities and Social Sciences Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati

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