- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

By Allan Janik
Transaction, $49.95 287 pages, illus.

In the 12 magnificent essays that make up his new book, "Wittgenstein's Vienna Revisited," the Austrian historian and philosopher Allan Janik divides Viennese culture in the years around 1900 into four parts. There was "Baroque Vienna" of the church and monarchy whose politics, as a contemporary (and accurate) mot had it was "absolutism mollified by slovenliness." There was liberal Vienna, a cosmopolitan, progressive culture, that had existed only since the 1860s that had done much to industrialize the country and establish modern finance.
And then there were the two cultures that most interest Mr. Janik: Wiener Moderne, Viennese modern, a hothouse culture comprised of poets, painters, and aesthetes that was aptly described by the writer Hermann Bahr, one of its most vocal members, as a "romanticism of the nerves" and, secondly, the culture that formed in reaction to Viennese modern, which Mr. Janik calls critical modernism and was represented by such thinkers as the social and cultural critics Otto Weininger and Ferdinand Ebner, the satirist Karl Kraus, but most significantly by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Nearly 30 years ago, Mr. Janik, along with co-author Stephen Toulmin published "Wittgenstein's Vienna," a splendid read that placed the great philosopher culturally and intellectually firmly in his native Vienna and Austria and argued persuasively that his thought can't be truly understood unless that background were fully taken into consideration.
The 12 essays and the introduction to "Wittgenstein's Vienna Revisited" deepen our understanding of Wittgenstein's background. As in his earlier work, Mr. Janik's contention in the new book is to show that the world was badly mistaken to see Wittgenstein's thought as an offspring of Bertrand Russell's positivism with its strong emphasis on mathematics and science. (Wittgenstein was a student of Russell's at Cambridge University and taught at that school for many years).
Rather it is Vienna and its culture particularly Viennese modern and the critical reactions to it that supply us with the real clues as to what the author of the "Tractatus Logico-Philosoophicus" and "Philosophical Investigations" was up to. Just as "a red square against a black background is perceived differently from a red square of the same dimensions seen against a white background," writes Mr. Janik, so Wittgenstein's thought is perceived in a vastly different way when seen against Vienna 1900 than when looked at in the context of Russell's Cambridge.
And the basic difference comes down to how readers are to understand the famous last sentence of the "Tractatus" where Wittgenstein ends with the proposition that "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." For positivists such as Russell the sentence simply meant a rejection of all metaphysics as nonsense. In their view, Wittgenstein urged silence because he concluded that outside of mathematicas and the more rigorous sciences, there is nothing that can be said that has meaning.
But this was not Wittgenstein's intention, Mr. Janik insists. Wittgenstein's point in urging us to be quiet about what cannot be talked about, as Mr. Janik sees, was that you must remain silent because "what you end up saying when you try to put what is higher into words is something trivial." To avoid triviality, we say nothing.
How Wittgenstein arrived at this revolutionary conclusion is the subject of "Wittgenstein's Vienna Revisited." Born in 1889, the philosopher came of age in the years following 1900 when Wiener Moderne which included such movements as Secession and Jugenstil was at its peak. "This is our religious idea: to breed men into artists," Hermann Bahr declared. And as Mr. Janik shows, at the center of the movement was the belief that the important thing in life was not that "my impressions of the world … be accurate, but that they be mine."
One's personal and private experience became "the ultimate criterion of truth," because one's "dreams and ecstacies are one's own in ways that nothing else is" and are therefore the only knowledge worth having.
Mr. Janik describes this view of the world as narcissistic and breathtakingly subjective and it is. Where did it come from? In his "Vienna 1900," the historian Carl Schorske wrote that the Wiener Moderne had learned their subjectivism from Friedrich Nietzsche. But Mr. Janik gently disagrees and shows that the major source had to have been Richard Wagner whose operas and essays (particularly one that Wagner wrote on Beethoven) provided "the philosophical justification of this withdrawal into our own experience" into a world of fantasy where ecstasy was the supreme achievement.
A profound reaction to the intense private and personal world of the Wiener Moderne began to form very early. In 1903, Otto Weininger published his "Sex and Character," a highly controversial work accused (wrongly Mr. Janik argues) of anti-Semitism and misogynism, but which attacked the Vienese moderns head on by concluding that their dissolving of the boundaries between the self and the world was "immoral in the most basic sense" (Mr. Janik's words). The self, Weinginger declared is limited and so is self-expression, and we humans would do well to recognize that fact.
By 1919, when Ferdinand Ebner brought out his "The Word and the Spiritual Realities" the critical reaction to Vienese modernity was largely complete (except for the work of Wittgenstein). Ebner's thesis was that what was immoral about subjectivism (Ebner called it "Ego-Encapsulation") was that it ended in monologue rather than dialogue. Monologue results in our creating a picture of the world as we want it and replacing the real world with that fantasy world. Truth comes only from engagement with the Other as Other. The important thing in life isn't to think about something. It is to do it.
But Wittgenstein's background isn't complete without the satirist Karl Kraus, influential editor of such journals as The Torch and author of the extraordinary (and very long) drama, "The Last Days of Mankind." It was Kraus's notion that many of the social and cultural problems of his time came from abuse of language. From that belief it is but a short step to the argument that regeneration of society and culture could derive only from the correct use of words and a revitalization of our daily speech.
The stage is now set for the "Tractatus" and more particularly for Wittgenstein's later works and their deep concern with what people can say that has meaning and authenticity. Mr. Janik quotes one of the philosopher's great aphorisms, where Wittgenstein defined philosophy as "a battle against the bewitchment of our minds by means of language."
For Wittgenstein, Mr. Janik shows, getting right with the world had come to mean learning how to resist the lure of words that bewitched and distorted, and that separated us from what is real. Interestingly, this led the philosopher to adopt what he himself called a "religious point of view," though he denied that he was a religious man.
Mr. Janik writes that Wittgenstein saw religion as "the source of color and vitality in life." But more importantly, "His conviction that the religious picture of human nature as basically ill was more profound than the Enlightenment's picture of it as perfect," Mr. Janik maintains, and helped him see that the "genuine metaphysical malaise of our time" is "the refusal to recognize the limits that Nature itself imposes upon an animal that speaks." It was a conclusion of human limitation grounded in the real world directly experienced that springs clearly from Weinginger, Ebner, and critical modernism, enriched by Wittgenstein's genius.
Surely few scholars can rival the breadth and depth of Mr. Janik's knowledge of fin de siecle Vienna and Wittgenstein. These essays are collected from scholarly publications but are a pleasure to read. Indeed, there seems to be no end to the author's ability to enlighten.
In his short, brilliant essay on the great Austrian poet Georg Trakl, Mr. Janik not only manages to convey something of the achievement of that extraordinary writer, he also indeliably imprints Trakl's significance and his relationship to Wittgenstein and the violent, bloody 20th Century on our minds by pointing out that Trakl was a poet of silences just as Wittgenstein was a philosopher of silences. But Trakl's silences were due, in Mr. Janik's view, because he thought one could not write of brutality and corruption without trivializing them.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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