Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Klemke on Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics"

I recently came across, and finally read, an old-ish (1975) paper by E.D. Klemke called "Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics." Ever read it? What a hoot! Klemke really doesn't like Wittgenstein's LE!

In short, he argues that Wittgenstein provides no support for the claim that "no statements of fact can ever be or imply statements of absolute value" or for the claim that "all significant judgments are factually descriptive; hence there can be no significant ethical propositions." More generally, Klemke points out that Wittgenstein's arguments rest on a dubious criterion of meaningfulness and on the questionable fact-value dichotomy. These latter are intelligent points.

His paper, however, is book-ended with a very strange vitriol; Wittgenstein, he says, offers no argument. He will not argue that Wittgenstein is wrong--only that he has offered no argument, and his ideas rest on perhaps "outdated" (read: positivistic, I think) assumptions.

One might think that it would be enough to stop there. But here's how he concludes:
I conclude that Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics" is of no worth whatever for ethical inquiry and that the manner of philosophizing which it exhibits is despicable.
I wonder whether The Journal of Value Inquiry would let such a paragraph pass editorial review today.

In Wittgenstein's defense, Klemke argues at a couple points that perhaps the only justification for basic claims that Wittgenstein makes is that they are self-evident to him--such as that "all states of affairs are [evaluatively] neutral." But all Klemke says is that this is not self-evident to him; he offers not a single example that would count against what Wittgenstein says. Why isn't that despicable, too? Strange. (What was going on in 1975?)


  1. I wonder whether this has anything to do with the claim that Heidegger's way of doing philosophy was "dictatorial" because he didn't argue the way philosophers are supposed to. As I recall, this is part of the reason why Heidegger was not allowed to teach for some years after WWII. If one takes seriously the idea that for philosophers to make unsupported claims (or claims not given the right sort of support) is Nazi-ish, then much of Wittgenstein's work might seem despicable. This is an idea that I find hard to take seriously, but perhaps it was easier to do so in 1975.

    It's not hard to imagine someone thinking that work of this sort just isn't philosophy, or reeks of arrogance. Perhaps that is all that Klemke was thinking. But it isn't the most charitable way to read Wittgenstein (or Heidegger), and the Lecture on Ethics seems anything but arrogant to me.

  2. and the Lecture on Ethics seems anything but arrogant to me.

    I agree, especially then end. BUT I suppose if you're reading it as a kind of positivist treatise--which, as we've both discussed elsewhere--is tempting for various reasons, then perhaps one would find it arrogant? (I'm not really sure about that...though I suppose one could see the positivist dismissal of Heidegger-style philosophy as "merely" poetry is pretty arrogant.)

  3. Yes, I was thinking of the end when I wrote that. Any dismissal of anything as "merely" poetry seems bad to me, although it's almost too stupid to count as arrogant. But dismissal itself, including positivist dismissal of Heidegger-style philosophy, is always likely to be/seem arrogant. And if Wittgenstein's lecture seems positivistic then it might also be taken as dismissive.