Ethics: Commentary to Hannes Nykanen’s Paper “Wittgenstein’s Radical Ethics”

I do not wish to analyse in depth the theory put forward by Hannes Nykanen, which he exemplifies as a theory of ethics based on an I/You understanding. However, I have the impression that what he says is very close to phenomenological thinking, in particular to Husserl, Scheler and Merleau-Ponty. In all frankness, I believe that reference to these authors would have been much more appropriate, to support his own thesis, than reference to Wittgenstein.

Indeed, I agree with almost all philosophical theories on ethics, at least the most important ones, despite the fact they seem to contradict each other. Indeed, every philosophical theory, although intending to tell us what ethics essentially is, also shows us which aspect, of that which we commonly call “ethics”, or “ethical problem”, or “ethical act”, etc., a philosopher has decided to consider as relevant. All ethical philosophical theories, rather than telling us what ethics is, tell us about what, of ethics, they view as philosophically interesting, which entails a decision. Different philosophies of ethics should be seen as the expression of different ethical ways of practicing philosophy.

Consequently, I would like to observe how my way of reading Wittgenstein’s approach, not just ethics, diverges from that of Nykanen.

Firstly, it strikes me that Nykanen never mentions the Tractatus (Tr) or Wittgenstein’s early philosophical writings in his essay, which leads me to assume that the only Wittgenstein he is interested in is the later one, of the Philosophical Investigations period (PI). Yet it is precisely in the Tr that Wittgenstein explicitly speaks of ethics. And he speaks of it in the well-known Lecture on ethics of 1929, which actually belongs to the first phase of his thought. However, if Wittgenstein wrote so little about ethics and aesthetics, it was not because these were of little relevance to him, but because their relevance was too great. Too important to be able to speak of them in a sinnvoll manner, in a meaningful way.

Apart from some unpublished personal notes, Wittgenstein did not speak explicitly of ethics in the second phase of his production. This can be interpreted in the sense that his ethical theory changes drastically in the second phase, that his later philosophy implies a theory of ethics quite different from the earlier one – and it seems to me that this is also Nykanen’s reading. Personally, however, I believe that Wittgenstein did not return more explicitly on ethics because, actually, his approach to ethics did not change over time. For this reason we should refer to the Wittgenstein of the Tr and of the Lecture on ethics to grasp what Wittgenstein always thought about ethics. I will not, however, attempt to do this here, because I want to concentrate on the “second” Wittgenstein that interests Nykanen.

I will say, however, that I belong to the group of readers of Wittgenstein who do not believe there is a clear separation between the two periods. To explain why I think this would take up too much space – although I will, finally, try to say why in a very concise way.

It seems to me that Nykanen – without referring to it explicitly – interprets what was later called the Private Language Argument (PLA) as a theory of the primacy of the relationship myself/other, even though he prefers the term ‘you’, since ‘other’ might also be a third person, while ‘you’ is without doubt my interlocutor. And he cites a series of examples from the text in which it appears that Wittgenstein, to the extent that he excludes private language (that is, the fact that one can speak of private feelings as if they were an object that can be described), views the I/You understanding as grounding human communication itself. Now, I do not think Wittgenstein’s intention was indeed to ground the linguistic games we practice, and even less ethics. Nykanen sees a philosophical grounding there, while I see no grounding at all. As Rhees wrote (1970, p.101), according to Wittgenstein “we use the term ‘ethics’ for a number of systems, and this variety is important for philosophy”. In short, for Wittgenstein there is no essence of ethics, so neither is there an essence as an I/ You understanding. Or, in any case, it is not possible to say this essence.

Now, the fact that Wittgenstein questions the concrete linguistic situations in which I can pronounce a phrase such as “I am in pain” does not derive from the fact that he intends to closely link the situation in which the utterance occurs to the presence of a ‘you’, if not for the fact, a banal one, that when we talk, we always talk to someone else. We talk to someone else also when we insult him/her, we mock him/her, we condemn him/her… After all, Wittgenstein is always interested in language, and language, written or spoken, always entails a ‘you’. It is not a discovery made by Wittgenstein, it is self-evident. Following Nykanen, could we then say that every act of speech, in that it always presumes a you, is an ethical act? (Certainly I can speak to myself, but also in this case I speak to someone else, that is myself. It is as if, in a monologue, I become split, I become a ‘you’ with respect to myself as ‘I’). In my opinion, the different situations in which it makes sense to use a phrase such as “I am in pain” thematise the presence of the other only to the extent that I practice various linguistic games with others. It is one thing if I say “I have toothache” to a dentist, for example, another if I tell a friend or write it in my diary … These are different language games. In my opinion all of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, also that of the early period, revolved around signification. Wittgenstein continued to ask “what does it mean that something means?” (elsewhere I have taken the liberty to write that his work is a Critique of Signifying Reason[1]). Now, saying “I am in pain” to a dentist is a philosophically trivial situation: it is an informative game, in which I provide the dentist with an element so he may do his job. It is more interesting to say “I am in pain” in expressive situations, in which it seems that I want to reveal something about myself. Wittgenstein’s conclusion is well known: internal states (such as being in pain, experiencing pleasure …) are something I can express, also in linguistic terms, that I cannot, however, know. When Wittgenstein writes that saying “I am in pain” is a way of expressing my pain with words, rather than with shouts or moans, what interests him is not the relationship with the other, but to know whether “I am in pain” is a true proposition. Now, according to Wittgenstein “I am in pain” has only the appearance of a proposition, though it actually is not. And this is because he remained substantially faithful, also when writing his PI, to the concept of language already expressed in the Tr: that the only signifying language is that which is Bild (picture) of states of affairs. “I am in pain” is not a picture of a state of affairs, so it is not a true proposition. Here a fundamental distinction is made between Bild (picture) and Vorstellung (representation): to say “I am in pain” is a Vorstellung of my pain, it is not Bild. In this analysis, the presence of the other is not decisive. After all, I could shout “I am in pain” alone (someone would say that in this case I am speaking to the Other, not to ‘another’).

With this I do not intend to say that the ethical question in Wittgenstein is not fundamental. But in order to address it we must not forget a distinction which I think is absolutely basic in Wittgenstein: the one between to say and to show. Now, Wittgenstein closely links, as is known, ethics and aesthetics, which for him are one and the same thing[2] (does Nykanen believe that also aesthetics is based on the I/you understanding?). That is, ethics and aesthetics are values, and Wittgenstein has always believed that values are das Mystische, they lie “outside the world”.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental.

6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

Wittgenstein clearly stated to von Ficker that the Tr had an ethical sense, and not because it dealt with ethics (or aesthetics), but because through the statements of the Tr, the ethical sense shows itself. I am convinced that for him also the PI had an ethical sense, which, in turn, can only show itself. I will not develop this further here, because it would take us too far.

Now, exactly because the private world shows itself in language, it can be compared to ethics and aesthetics: ethical acts, aesthetic emotions, the inner world, only show themselves, they cannot actually be said. By demonstrating the non-sayability of what is private, Wittgenstein is indeed showing how important it is. Because for Wittgenstein what is really important is precisely what cannot be said, das Mystische. In a certain sense what is private, the inner world, is mystical … As is evident, my conclusions are quite opposite to those of Nykanen.

It is no coincidence that authors have often spoken of Wittgenstein’s solipsism (which Kripke saw as a corollary of his scepticism). Certainly, by demonstrating that “I am in pain” is a spurious proposition, a pseudo-proposition, Wittgenstein did not intend to deny the importance of subjectivity. His notes indicate the opposite:

“Only from an awareness of the uniqueness of my life do religion – science – and art rise”. Notebooks (1.8.1916);

“The world of the happy man is a different one from that that of the unhappy man.” (Tr6.43)

And we could continue with many more quotes that seem to point to a solipsistic sense.

Now, Wittgenstein expressed himself on solipsism already in Tr:

5.62 This remark provides the key to the problem, how much truth there is in solipsism.

For what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest.

The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.

5.64 Here it can be seen that solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.

It seems to me that we are very far from the I/you understanding.

Now, we have said that for Wittgenstein what shows itself is precisely that which is the most important. Wittgenstein says that he does not identify with a solipsist doctrine, but that solipsism shows itself through his saying. After all, he is neither a realist nor a solipsist: realism is that of common language, solipsism is, I would say, transcendental, and, like all that is transcendental, it cannot be said.

Precisely because ethics and aesthetics on the one hand, and the private on the other, are in-describable, they are not pictures of the world, then ethics, aesthetics, the private world are dimensions that philosophy must in some way show. But show in a negative way, by exclusion: in the case of ethics and aesthetics by exclusion from “signifying language”, in the case of inner feelings by exclusion from “public language”, from descriptive and denotative games. According to analytical philosophy, the “second” Wittgenstein would say that the only sensible language is public language – and Nykanen seems to follow this line of thought to the extent that he identifies a primacy of the I/you language – both in the sense that language always belongs to a community and is never used individually, and in the sense that language can speak only of public objects, and not of ‘private objects’ or inner objects of which only an individual can have direct experience. However, a similar key to the one Wittgenstein provided for the Tr could be applied also to his PI: according to which the unwritten part of the PI is the absolute dimension of subjective experience, of which one cannot speak; which is, however, the most important.

In fact, it is precisely to the extent that Wittgenstein excludes the possibility of describing private feelings and perceptions as mental objects, that he removes private life from the domain of logos, making it a dimension of absolute subjectivity, not susceptible to rules and conditions of public language. In short, in both philosophical phases Wittgenstein focuses negatively on what he believes is essential: by describing the boundaries and the limits of the describable, he brings out – as in a multistable image – the indescribable that these boundaries delimit.

Certainly Wittgenstein does not adhere to the most common philosophy, that which considers ethics as a way of regulating our relations with others or with the Other (God). He certainly does not reduce it to something similar to the Ten Commandments, which indeed provide rules for our relations with others and with the Other. But Wittgenstein deals explicitly with ethics in his Lecture, and the examples he makes, which may “show” what is ethical, are not of an I/You relationship, but rather of feelings that are intimate, personal: the amazement for the existence of the world, the feeling of being absolutely safe, the feeling of guilt not motivated by any wrongdoing. What do these examples have in common?  Not just their affective quality. I would say it is their unconditional character, which refers to the unconditional nature of ethics, the fact that ethics arises in relation to something that Wittgenstein himself describes as “a miracle”, which is the very same miracle of language.

Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we can say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense.

That is, the ethical question would not be a philosophical one if there were no language, which also prescribes the exact limits of the world. The transcendental quality of ethics could not be said more clearly, and it seems to me that it is very far from the choice for immanentism that Nykanen makes, when he views ethics in terms of an I/You understanding. From the examples that Wittgenstein brings, it would appear that the dimensions homologous to ethics are two: on the one hand the world as an unnecessary and unjustified entity, on the other the specificity of the subject that always constitutes the limits of the world, without ever being inside that unnecessary and unjustified world.




[2] 6.421 (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)


Sergio Benvenuto is a researcher in psychology and philosophy at the National Research Council (CNR) in Rome, Italy, and a psychoanalyst. He is editor of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis and member of the Editorial Board of American Imago and Psychoanalytic Discourse (PSYAD). He teaches psychoanalysis at the International Institute of the Psychology of Depth in Kiev and at Esculapio Specialization in Psychotherapy in Naples. He was or is a contributor to cultural and scientific journals such as Lettre InternationaleL’évolution psychiatrique, DIVISION/Review. His publications in English include: ‘Wittgenstein and Lacan Reading Freud’, Journal for Lacanian Studies, vol. 4, nr. 1, 2006, pp. 99–20, « Perversion and charity : an ethical approach », in D. Nobus & L. Downing eds., Perversion. Psychoanalytic Perspectives / Perspectives on Psychoanalysis (London : Karnac, 2006). With A. Molino, In Freud’s Tracks (New York: Aronson, 2008) nominated for Gradiva Award. “The Monsters Next Door”, American Imago. Psychoanalysis and Human Sciences, 69, 2012, 4. “The Gaze of the Blind. Notes on Cézanne and Cubism”, American Imago, vol. 70, 3, Fall 2013. “Does Perversion Need the Law?”, W. Müller-Funk, I. Scholz-Strasser, H. Westerink, Psychoanalysis, Monotheism and Morality (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013). “Ethics, Wonder and Real in Wittgenstein”, in Y. Gustafsson, C. Kronqvist, H. Nykänen, eds., Ethics and the Philosophy of Culture: Wittgensteinian Approaches, 2013, Cambridge Scholar Publishing.  What are Perversions? (London: Karnac, 2016). Conversations with Lacan. Seven Lectures for Understanding Lacan (London: Routledge, 2020).  He contributed to the volume Coronavirus, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy Conversations on Pandemics, Politics and Society, edited By Fernando Castrillón & Thomas Marchevsky (London: Routledge, 2021). []

Publication Date:

December 2, 2018

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