A discussion of the book
“Wittgenstein Reads Weininger”
This essay is in response to a particular academic book, but could have been a response to any of countless books typical of Western academic philosophy, or of the humanities in general. Thus the reader can appreciate the message of this essay without having read the actual book in question, since if the reader has read even one paragraph of Western academic philosophical drivel of any kind, they will have been more than sufficiently informed.
Upon reading “Wittgenstein reads Weininger”, a compilation of writings by various Western academic philosophers, I asked myself what impression it had left on my mind, and how I could express that. The answer immediately formed itself in my mind: “Nothing”.
There is no mistake. Indeed, from cover to cover, from one page to the next, and irrespective of author, the consistency is unmistakable. It is absolutely nothing. The theme is nothing, the execution is nothing, the intent, nothing. And there is absolutely nothing about the book that is not nothing.
For this reason “Wittgenstein reads Weininger” will only be of interest to the handful of Wittgenstein scholars, and then only grudgingly, since they already have more than enough of nothing to keep themselves occupied into the far future.
This all might sound unbelievable to some; for how could it be that such highly educated and handsomely paid professionals (who yet cry poor) conspire to produce a book that might as well have had all its pages left blank?
To illustrate how and why this happens, I will examine the actual “contents” of the book – remembering all the while, please note, that any expression I use describe this book, such as “having contents”, must necessarily be poetic only, since there is in fact nothing to be described, and no real contents at all.
And since the nothingness in question is precisely that spoken of by Otto Weininger when he says that people can indeed truly be nothing, and enact nothing (specifically the criminal and the feminine-minded), it will serve for us to examine this book from the perspective of Weininger’s view. More specifically, I will examine how Weininger’s ideas are represented in this book as a way of demonstrating the essential nothingness of the whole book, and by logical extension the essential nothingness of the whole of Western academic thought.
The Introductory essay by David G. Stern and Béla Szabados:
It turns out that Ludwig Wittgenstein regarded Otto Weininger to be a “great genius” and would often recommended Weininger’s books to his students and friends. Wittgenstein studied and meditated on Weininger’s work for the duration of his life and listed Weininger as one of the people who most influenced his thinking.
Yet in the introductory essay of the book, Stern and Szabados personally accuse Weininger of being a mere pop-psychologist, as well as a peddler of the most powerful prejudices of others, and guilty of “racism, homophobia, and sexism”. These are all extremely serious and damning accusations to be making in the opening pages of a supposedly scholarly book, but the authors feel no need to provide any evidence or argument to support their accusations – accusations which can easily be shown to be entirely false. Presumably the authors feel that the opening volley of fire is sufficient character assassination to lay the foundation for the rest of the book – which involves the dismembering and abusing a corpse – a corpse unable to defend itself.
At this point the obvious question to ask is whether Stern and Szabados really think these things they have stated about Weininger, or whether they are in fact merely echoing or channelling the popular prejudices of others – for the reason of self-defense (so as not to offend anyone they personally consider to be significant) – or perhaps also to flatter others (to please those they consider significant).
In the course of this essay I will show why I believe the latter is the case, for the reason that there cannot be any thinking taking place.
The essay by Béla Szabados:
In his essay, Szabados makes the bold claim that Weininger makes “a priori and dogmatic generalizations about sexual, racial, and national characters”. But true to the form so far displayed in this book, Szabados provides no evidence or argument whatsoever that Weininger’s generalizations are either a priori or dogmatic. Rather, he dogmatically makes the claim, and expects us all to believe it.
In fact, it is not hard to show that this claim made by Szabados is entirely false. Firstly, since Weininger’s generalizations are based on personal observations, they therefore have an empirical basis, and are not “a priori”. And secondly, since Weininger’s generalizations are neither unwarranted, nor arrogant, being valid generalizations based on observable fact, it follows that they are not dogmatic. As we might expect, it is Szabados himself who is making dogmatic and even “a priori” generalizations about Weininger.
But as we shall see, it is perfectly normal for academics to damn their victims of the very crimes which they habitually commit themselves – and which they commit in the normal course of their professional duty to “fill the space” – a duty which has resulted in the publication of the book under question.
Szabados continues with the perplexing statement that “Weininger’s desire to transcend our animality and his antifeminism are indeed prejudices . . .”.
The desire to transcend animality is . . . a prejudice . . . ? Prejudiced against animals no doubt! . . . In much the same way that the desire to live a truthful life would indicate a “prejudice” against the lying and criminal life?
And too, “antifeminist” is a very strange criticism of Weininger, who was arguably one of the greatest feminists of all time – there being probably no person in all history who has argued so strongly for the right of every woman to independence and self-determination, or argued so persuasively for her true freedom from the dictates of both men and other women.
True freedom must always begin with truth, and that is where Weininger starts. No amount of wishing equality will ever make it so.
Continuing, Szabados then accuses Weininger of “essentialism” – or, to paraphrase, “applying an ideal type in an extreme and inappropriate manner in every nook and cranny of our lives.” But again, Szabados conveniently fails to provide any argument or evidence that Weininger does this.
For the fact is, that Weininger does not do this. While Weininger does indeed apply his types (eg, M and F, signifying masculine and feminine, or conscious and unconscious characteristics) extremely, and in every nook and cranny of our lives, he does so perfectly appropriately. If it were the case that Weininger was stuck on particular ideal types which were not fruitful, and to the exclusion of other possible types which might be more fruitful, then perhaps we could criticize his method as “inappropriate”. But this is not the case. The evidence of Weininger’s writings indicate that he is exceptionally flexible in his use of types, and that he uses those types only so far as they prove true and useful.
Later on, Szabados makes mention of “Weininger’s inconsistencies”, and claims that Weininger’s thoughts result in “stereotype, prejudice, and absurdity”. But here again, in accordance with all his fellow scholars, he never mentions what he thinks these inconsistencies, prejudices, and absurdities might be. Szabados does not argue a case, but rather, states his claims as facts that are beyond question. The end result of all these unsupported accusations is essentially no more than undignified mud-slinging.
The essay by Allan Janik:
Allan Janik took twenty-six pages of dense text to say, essentially, that Wittgenstein saw things in a different way to some other people, and may have been inspired, in part, by Weininger’s seeing things in a different way.
Janik’s long essay does not bear further mention than this.
The essay by Steven Burns:
In his essay, Steven Burns accuses Weininger of “essentializing and dichotomizing”, but, like the others, doesn’t put forward any argument to support his case – which makes any response very difficult. Is Weininger wrong to “dichotomize” between true and false? Is he wrong to dichotomize between consciousness and unconsciousness? Clearly he is not wrong to do so.
Burns objects to what he calls “Victorian dualisms” – which we can only presume to mean something like “unreasonably simplistic categories” – but he fails to give any specific examples of dualisms from Weininger’s work that he believes to be “Victorian”.
Burns does give some examples of Weininger’s dualisms which don’t seem to meet with his approval, but he doesn’t specify whether he believes them to be “Victorian” or not. For example, Burns says that he doesn’t like Weininger forever saying that things are either “A or not-A, or some mixture of the two”.
We are of course left to presume that Burns thinks that this kind of categorizing oversimplifies matters in a way that is not useful. But Burns mounts no case for such a contention.
Burns says, “Wittgenstein showed us how many other paths there are than just two” – implying that Weininger was narrow-minded and inflexible with his use of dualisms. But if that criticism is correct, then we ought to be able to find dualisms in Weininger that are either wrong or not useful. Can we do it?
Let’s look at Weininger’s famous theme: the degree of consciousness or unconsciousness in a person (or in other words, the degree to which a person is “M”ale or “F”emale). Is there a third category possible, beside consciousness and unconsciousness (and all grades in between)? No, there is no third category possible. So Weininger’s dualism is perfectly valid, and useful too. If Burns wishes to complain, then let him provide additional categories.
Likewise, if Burns thinks there is a problem with Weininger’s dividing people into “seekers” and “priests” (i.e., seekers of wisdom, and possessors of wisdom), or dividing people into “sadists” and “masochists” (dualists and non-dualists), then Burns is not providing any argument which would demonstrate any problem.
With regards to the division of people into seekers and knowers of wisdom, it could possibly be argued that it is a faulty division since there are people who are so foolish that they neither have wisdom, yet nor do they seek it (. . . academic philosophers come readily to mind). But it could be said of such people that even they seek wisdom at least to some small degree – even if they are not aware of this fact themselves. This would make the division a valid one. And what is more, and importantly, Weininger does not say that this particular division necessarily applies to literally all people. Rather, Weininger applies his division only to a select group of people. What would be the point of strictly applying this division to a person who had the mentality of a vegetable? Even further, Weininger is clearly applying this division of people into “seekers” and “priests” not as some kind of final and absolute solution to all problems, but only as a kind of experimental application of thought that is useful only so far as it produces, or spins-off, helpful results, when used in a certain context.
I suspect that Burns is not allowing Weininger the right to his own meaning for his own terms and modes of thought. Instead, Burns is projecting his own preferred meanings onto Weininger’s words, and resulting in absurdities.
Burns seems to want to make a clown of Weininger – a clown who makes simple errors of logic and observation. For example, it would be clownish indeed for someone to suggest that we should divide all people into, say, “bakers” and “plumbers” – since it is obvious that many people are neither bakers nor plumbers. Yet this is indeed the kind of error Burns attributes to Weininger.
In fact Weininger, who, according to Abrahamsen “was praised for his invincible logic”, simply does not present as someone who would make such spurious divisions. Rather, I suspect that the scholars are simply finding fault with tiny details of semantics – of their own creation – in order to dispose of someone they find both disturbing and a menace.
The essay by Joachim Schulte:
Joachim Shulte is to be commended for two things; firstly, for writing in fairly readable English, and secondly for suggesting that there might be another way of reading Weininger’s work than the way Western scholars have traditionally done.
Given the deep irony and humour in Weininger’s work, Schulte says that he finds it “hard to understand why Weininger is generally taken to be nothing but a solemn, zealous and bigoted stickler for nasty and stupid principles.” But if Schulte had any kind of understanding of the mind of the typical Western academic scholar then he wouldn’t be so puzzled.
Towards the end of his essay Schulte accuses Weininger of being dated and “time bound” – which are things that no great genius ever is. And, like all the others, Schulte conveniently doesn’t provide any evidence or argument for his claim. In doing so, Schulte has similarly made himself a small target through use of the “hit and run” method. That is, he slings the mud, inflicting the damage, but then provides no details that you can pursue for reparation.
Despite that major fault, Schulte’s essay is probably the only one in this book that has elements that are moderately reasonable and human.
The essay by Daniel Steuer:
Steuer does a serviceable job of summarizing a few of Weininger’s ideas, but falls down badly where he says, “Let us call the Weininger a priori absolute, and ascribe the concept of a relative a priori to Wittgenstein.” Since the fact is that Weininger’s a priori is just as relative as is Wittgenstein’s, and indeed is “established through the choice of a standard of comparison from within the empirical”. For example, Weininger’s continuum from consciousness (M) to unconsciousness (F), is a standard of comparison established out of empirical observations. It is notable that Steuer does not provide any examples of a dualism from Weininger that he would call “absolute a priori”.
Steuer illustrates an “absolute a priori” when he describes an a priori dividing of dramatic space into only comedy and tragedy. And he then describes the obvious shortcomings of this division. As Wittgenstein says, “They are two of many possible types of drama, and they just seemed to be the only possible ones for a particular – and past – culture.”
But Steuer makes the serious error of thinking that this illustration has something to do with Weininger, since Weininger doesn’t divide empirical spaces up in such a way, and Steuer doesn’t make any effort to show that he does.
To the contrary, it seems that Steuer is himself trying to establish an absolute a priori difference – i.e., one not based on observable facts – between Weininger and Wittgenstein on this issue.
Steuer makes an even more serious error when he disputes Weininger’s use of the law of identity (i.e., A=A), saying that “Wittgenstein negates these principles.” Unfortunately, the only way a person can negate anything is by using the law of identity, making Steuer’s point ridiculously meaningless.
Finally, Steuer thinks he is saying something wise when he says “The philosopher should behave like one of Weininger’s criminals: he should adapt to any environment, to any system.” Yet this is precisely why Weininger says that academic philosophers are indeed criminals – because instead of adapting themselves to the one truth of the Universe, they instead adapt themselves to countless dreamworlds that are all disconnected from reality. In sharp contrast, the genius of which Weininger speaks – the true philosopher – is able to effortlessly adapt to all environments, since they are all part, all facets of his environment.
Steuer wins points for mentioning Kierkegaard’s name, and thereby injecting a faint hint of humanity, but nothing else can be said in favour of his essay.
The essay by David G. Stern
Stern discusses some of what Weininger has written about what animals symbolize. In it, he comes to the realization that “‘Humanity’ turns out to mean those very few people who can live up to Weininger’s inhuman ideals of denying everything in this world in order to strive for one’s own salvation, a salvation that turns on dwelling on the dangers of damnation.”
Stern provides no reference for this claim, and it is clear that he has simply made it up. Firstly, Weininger’s ideals are not inhuman, but are in fact truly human; secondly, nowhere does Weininger say that the genius denies everything in this world. Rather, the genius only denies what is false in this world. And thirdly, Weininger certainly does not argue that salvation turns on “dwelling on the dangers of damnation”.
This last point is easily revealed, since if it were truly the case that Weininger spent his short time on earth dwelling on the dangers of damnation, then he wouldn’t have produced two timeless, masterpiece works by the age of twenty-three. David G. Stern should look down at his own feet instead of wasting his time nit-picking for faults in others.
Next, Stern makes the strange claim that Weininger’s ideals are not presented as the deliverances of Reason. Yet that is precisely how all of Weininger's ideas are presented. Reason is the whole of Weininger, and is what he sacrificed himself for. It would be very unusual indeed for someone who was “praised for his invincible logic” (Abrahamsen) to not present his ideas as deliverances of Reason.
And while Weininger writes about what he believes certain animals symbolize (necessarily for himself at least, and in a certain context), Stern, very weirdly, goes on a lengthy discussion about whether we can know what is truly going on in the mind of animals – a discussion that has nothing whatsoever to do with Weininger, yet is presented as though it is somehow relevant.
For example, Weininger says that the dog symbolizes the criminal. But Stern, unbelievably, understands this to mean that Weininger holds the dog to be really criminal, and that the dog thinks criminally, and is thus truly evil! This is too crazy for words.
According to Stern, Weininger wants us to “understand animals entirely [my italics] in terms of the extent to which they express characteristically human concerns”. Once again, this is entirely fanciful on Stern’s part, and is blatantly made-up.
In fact Weininger very wisely says nothing about what animals or plants are really thinking – or even if they are thinking at all – which makes Stern’s whole case concerning “Weiningerian anthropocentrism” a pitiful non-event.
The aim of the book under discussion, i.e., “Wittgenstein reads Weininger”, was supposedly to try and shed light on why Wittgenstein listed Weininger as one of his main influences, and, indeed, why he referred to Weininger as a “great genius”. It also sought to offer an explanation as to why Wittgenstein said that, to paraphrase, “if one negates the whole of Weininger’s book, it says an important truth”.
As for the former, it is not hard to see Weininger’s influence on Wittgenstein and why Wittgenstein should praise him as a great genius. But the question as to why Wittgenstein wished to negate the whole of Weininger’s masterpiece work (“Sex and Character”) was not dealt with at all convincingly in this book.
Wittgenstein doesn’t give us much information to go on, but I propose the following simple explanation for the “negation”:
Wittgenstein lost three of his brothers to suicide. And Otto Weininger too, whom Wittgenstein perhaps thought of as a kind of brother, killed himself shortly after having written “Sex and Character”. Throughout his life Wittgenstein was to be haunted by thoughts of suicide.
I suggest, then, that the whole issue of suicide was of huge significance to Wittgenstein, and was an issue to which he was particularly sensitive. He likely perceived a way of thinking in Weininger’s book – an extreme and uncompromising way of thinking – which, it seemed to him, led to an untimely death – and it was especially this which he felt the need to “negate”. Therefore it was not for any tight logical reason that Wittgenstein talked about “negating” Weininger’s book, but rather it was for largely personal and emotional reasons – with his negating serving him perhaps in the manner of a small crucifix which might ward off some kind of demon.
When critiquing the work of academic philosophers, it is almost impossible to know what to do, for it is as though one were presented with a cloud of dense fog, and are invited to deal with it.
One is first struck with the obvious problem that it is impossible to tell whether the academic philosopher believes anything of what he writes, or whether one is expected to take it as some kind of a game or a joke. The content of their ideas is so fabricated, so artificial, having no relation whatsoever to the subject material, and so completely conforming with the latest fashions in academic thought, that one strongly suspects that they don’t believe a word of what they write, but are instead simply contributing, almost cynically, to the mass of what academic philosophers have done before – not unlike the children’s game of “sticks” where many small sticks are awkwardly and precariously balanced on each other to form a pile, until eventually the whole lot collapses under its own weight and you start again. Indeed it is not even part of the job description of an academic philosopher that they believe anything they say – so it is probably wrong to even expect it of them.
The academic philosopher too commonly seems to be mocking his own profession through some kind of perverse self-parody – perhaps as a form of confession to ease the burden of guilt for the crime.
But if academic philosophers don’t believe anything they say, or if it is all in jest, and a joke, then what do they really say?
Nothing at all.
And that is precisely what we are faced with in this book.
Not once in this book did I read the words “I don’t know”. If the book contained these simple words, then it might have at least contained something – and thus something respectable. For, it is a regrettable fact that none of the authors who contributed to this book were qualified to pass comment on Weininger’s work, and for that reason should have either remained silent, or gracefully and politely declined with an honourable “I don’t know”. Instead, each author feels a duty to fabricate meaningless opinions, completely disregarding the subject material, and giving the impression that the subject material is somehow immaterial.
On the surface this book might appear more intelligent than previous modern academic works about Weininger, since it does go so far as to suggest, though without any conviction, that an actual reading of Weininger’s work might be useful to a discussion of it. Yet its pages still fail to muster up an actual thought. The recognition of deep humour in Weininger’s work by Joachim Schulte was the nearest this book came to that lofty achievement.
In summary, “Wittgenstein reads Weininger” shows what happens when people are paid to simply show up. And it shows what happens when scholars are allowed to judge the worth of their own work. For it happens that when the quality of thought of the average academic philosopher is appallingly low, that level becomes the professional standard. A sheer absence of thought, and even more, a complete absence of respect for the thought of others, becomes the highly paid craft of the Professor.
 “Women have no existence and no essence; they are not, they are nothing.” Weininger 1906, 286, 300 based on Weininger 1980, 383, 402