Opinion | Wittgenstein’s Confession

By Jonathan Beale


Like Socrates, he knew that being honest with oneself is the most philosophical act of all.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)CreditCreditIllustration by Hans Pfannmuller/Photo 12 -- UIG, via Getty Images

“I have come to make a confession.”

It was 1937 and Ludwig Wittgenstein had just arrived at the house of his Russian teacher, Fania Pascal, in Cambridge. He wanted to confess his role in an incident that had plagued his conscience for more than a decade.

Confession, as most of us know, takes courage, especially when what you confess reflects regrettable behavior or an unpleasant character. It forces us to confront things hidden, from others and from ourselves. Facing up to self-deception also demands personal change.

Wittgenstein, who is regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was by most accounts a deeply sincere and unsparingly self-critical man who spent much of his life in a struggle with self-transformation. It is not surprising, then, that he saw the act of confession as a way of escaping self-deception.

Despite the reverence Wittgenstein inspires in intellectual history, he remains an enigmatic figure. But a few biographical points are helpful here. In 1919, straight out of the Austro-Hungarian army, he trained to be an elementary-school teacher and taught in Austria from 1920 to 1926. Believing he’d solved all the problems of philosophy in his soon-to-be-published “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (1921), his focus turned to self-improvement. Influenced by Tolstoy’s romanticized vision of the self-cultivation developed by working and living among peasants, Wittgenstein began teaching in poor, rural villages.

On several occasions in the 1930s Wittgenstein made confessions to friends and family, in writing and in person. Before his visit to Pascal on that day in 1937 he called, saying he needed to see her urgently. In a story recalling Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s confession of the stolen ribbon, Wittgenstein confessed that during his time in Otterthal, the final village in which he taught, he hit a schoolgirl for misbehaving. Upon interrogation by the headmaster, Wittgenstein — in the pupil’s presence — denied the accusation.

Or so goes Pascal’s recollection of events. Ray Monk, the author of the acclaimed “Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius,” has expressed doubts about Pascal’s recollection. He points readers to what he believes is a more reliable account of a related but separate incident, from Rowland Hutt, a friend of Wittgenstein’s.

Hutt recalls that Wittgenstein committed perjury by denying accusations in court following the “Haidbauer incident.” In 1926, a frail 11-year-old named Josef Haidbauer collapsed and fell unconscious after Wittgenstein hit him. Wittgenstein sent the class home, carried Haidbauer to the headmaster’s office to be seen by the doctor, and fled. It’s disputed whether Wittgenstein waited for the doctor or left immediately. Wittgenstein was exonerated; his colleagues defended him and he was even asked to continue teaching. But this episode marked the end of his career as a schoolteacher, as he didn’t feel he could return. Whichever incident Wittgenstein confessed it seems that it was his dishonesty rather than his violence that most burdened his conscience.

Ruminating over his confessions in 1937, Wittgenstein wrote:

Last year … I pulled myself together and made a confession. This brought me into more settled waters … But now … I am not far from where I was before. I am cowardly beyond measure. If I do not correct this, I shall again drift entirely into those waters …

In a book of personal recollections of Wittgenstein by Pascal and others close to him, one of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, the philosopher Rush Rhees, interprets “cowardly beyond measure” as a reference to Wittgenstein’s difficulty of recognizing his own self-deception due to a “failure of will” that “could be corrected only by courage.” The courage required for confession helps to understand Wittgenstein’s confessions as, to use Monk’s metaphor, self-surgery to remove cowardice. Wittgenstein saw his dishonesty toward others as dishonesty toward himself.

In those recollections Rhees also recalls that Wittgenstein worried, in a manner typical of his severe self-criticism, that he was a “monster.” This criticism echoes a discussion about the authenticity of the philosopher in Plato’s “Phaedrus.” Socrates admits he has failed to obey the Delphic injunction to know his own self and declares it “absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still in ignorance about my own nature.” And so Socrates investigates “not these things but myself, to know whether I am a monster.” Wittgenstein’s confrontation with his dishonesty, like the Delphic pursuit of self-understanding, was a pursuit of authenticity.

Like Socrates, Wittgenstein saw philosophy as at least as much an exercise in self-honesty as an intellectual endeavor. In a 1931 remark among the collection of notes posthumously published as “Culture and Value” (“Vermischte Bemerkungen,” 1977), Wittgenstein writes that philosophy’s difficulty lies “with the will, rather than with the intellect.” The same goes for confession. Wittgenstein didn’t lack the insight to locate and define his own failings; rather, as Rhees says, Wittgenstein found it difficult to recognize that he had been behaving “in a character that was not genuine … because he hadn’t the will.” To escape self-deception Wittgenstein needed to do “something that needed courage” — to confess.

Admitting wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness weren’t Wittgenstein’s main concerns; his concerns were escaping self-deception and changing himself. Confession fulfills this role because it requires courage and askesis — self-discipline. Wittgenstein’s demands on himself were high: during his confession Pascal asked, “What is it? You want to be perfect?” — to which he proudly replied, “Of course I want to be perfect.”

Wittgenstein saw philosophy in a similarly ascetic way: “Working in philosophy,” he wrote in 1931, “is really more a working on oneself.” Rhees writes that Wittgenstein expressed in various letters and personal notes that he wanted to be “rid of self-deception regarding his own failings and in this way lead a different life.” The aim was to be a different person. “A confession,” Wittgenstein also wrote in 1931, “must be part of your new life.”

Wittgenstein’s confession is best understood as part of a spiritual means of self-development. Two thinkers he respected deeply probably influenced him: St. Augustine of Hippo and Tolstoy, both of whom conceive of confession similarly in their autobiographies. The ultimate purpose of Augustine’s and Tolstoy’s confessions, like Wittgenstein’s, was ascetic: self-improvement through the catharsis and penance confession elicits.

Wittgenstein’s desire for self-development went back further than his teaching years. Rhees recalls that Wittgenstein sought to facilitate character change by engaging in activities “that would change the way he looked on his life and on himself,” including public displays of courage which might motivate self-development, such as being “placed in situations where his life was constantly in danger.” To this end, in 1916 Wittgenstein requested one of the most dangerous roles in the army, the forward observation post in No Man’s Land. This involved the two criteria he saw as the means of escaping self-deception: courage and the askesis such an experience could precipitate.

For these reasons, Wittgenstein relished knowing that on every night he stood a good chance of dying. In 1916 he wrote: “Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live.” For “only death,” he also wrote in his war diaries, “gives life its meaning.” Although a coward by his own exalted standards, he was a hero by more conventional ones, testament to which are the medals he received for bravery.

Wittgenstein’s character is as difficult to get to grips with as his philosophy. G.E.M. Anscombe, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of her generation, as well as another of Wittgenstein’s literary executors and perhaps his best student, felt “deeply suspicious of anyone’s claim to have understood Wittgenstein.” But one thing we can understand about Wittgenstein is that he longed to change himself; and he saw confession as a means to fulfilling this.

“Nothing is so difficult,” Wittgenstein wrote in 1938, “as not deceiving oneself.”’ His vision of the authentic self is perhaps always beyond reach, like the exemplars of authenticity with which he was familiar through the writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Authenticity throughout the history of philosophy is often conceived of as an ideal to which we should aspire, but that doesn’t prevent it being a useful means for self-improvement. Confession can help remove obstacles standing in the way of our becoming our authentic selves.

If it can do that for Wittgenstein, it may do the same for us.

Jonathan Beale is the head of religion and philosophy at Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, England, and the co-editor of “Wittgenstein and Scientism.”

Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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