Lukács on Wittgenstein

Without committing ourselves to a detailed analysis of this new brand of irrationalism [semantics], let us attempt briefly to illustrate this orientation's general philosophical character. Wittgenstein, one of its leading figures, offers a number of statements which are central to its methodology. He wrote: 'Sentences can represent the whole reality, but they cannot represent what must be meant in them by reality for this representation to become possible—the logical form . . . Sentences cannot represent the logical form, the form is reflected in the sentences. Language cannot represent that which reflects itself in language. We cannot express through language that which expresses itself through language. Sentences show the logical form of reality. They exhibit it . . . That which one can show, one cannot utter.'

Here, perhaps I may remind the reader of my studies of the phenomenological method, especially Max Scheler's discussion of it, in order to give due weight both to the (socially determined) unity of the various modern irrationalist trends and to the (likewise socially determined) variety of their stages. Scheler resorted as much as Wittgenstein to this immediate irrationalist foundation as the sole bedrock, the sole content of philosophy. There was, to be sure, the difference that he regarded this irrationalist content as still utterable; only at the existentialist stage of phenomenology did the irrationalism of the foundation manifest itself quite clearly. In stressing this parallel we by no means wish to claim that existentialism influenced Wittgenstein; such methodological issues have a social basis, and both the shared and the unlike elements of the method and conclusions reflect this basis. The same applies to the relation between Wittgenstein and the later existentialist development of phenomenology and semantics as to the epistemological affinity between Mach and Husserl, to which we referred in the appropriate place. (Certainly Scheler's Obnmacht der Vernunft, 'The impotence of reason', may also be mentioned in this context.)

Wittgenstein was therefore forced to draw the consequences of this situation. He said of the relation of science (the science of semantics) to life: 'We feel that even if we have answered all the questions of science, we did not so much as touch the problems of life. For then, to be sure, not a single question will remain, and just this is the answer. We perceive the solution to the life problem in the problem's disappearance. (Is not that the reason why men to whom life's meaning became evident are incapable of saying out loud of what this meaning consists?) That is truly the ineffable. It reveals itself; it is the mystical.'

It is no accident that a burning admirer of Wittgenstein, José Ferrater Mora, extols him precisely as a philosopher of despair. He comments on the general characteristics of the age and its representative thinker as follows:

Heidegger, Sartre, Kafka and Camus let us go on living with confidence in a world's existence. However awesome the break they proclaim, it is not a radical one. The ground where they find their footing holds firm. The shattering earthquake reduces our old dwellings to ruins, but even among the ruins one can go on living and can build new houses. But Wittgenstein, after these sad losses, leaves us wholly bereft of support. For if the ground disappears along with the ruins, the roots along with the felled tree, we shall no longer have any support. No longer, too, will we be able to resort to nothingness or face the absurd with minds that are clear. We will have to disappear altogether.

Mora also recognizes that with Wittgenstein, as with semantics in general, the chief culprit is reason and thinking: 'Thinking is the great disruptive influence, we could almost say the great temptation. The misdeed itself, the act of thinking becomes man's great guilt, his essential sin.' In the world described by Wittgenstein, the centre is 'undiluted absurdity'; in it the question has 'put itself in question'. And Chase confirms this world‑view and its semantic analysis by drawing such radical conclusions that the exposition lapses into the grotesquely amusing. He envies his tomcat Hoby who 'is not subject to the hallucinations caused by wrong word‑usage . . . since he has no truck with philosophy and formal logic . . . When I go astray in the language jungle I revert to Hoby's outlook as though to a magnet.'

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. The Destruction of Reason, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1980), pp. 782-784.

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