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Wittgenstein Jr, Reviewed

Wittgenstein Jr.


I recall, a good number of years ago, reading that ‘a philosophical novel is an impossibility.’ I maintain that it was Iris Murdoch who said this – I remember being struck by the idea that, if anyone were to know, it should be her – but I can’t for the life of me dig it up via Google. Irrespective – if this were true, bad news for Sophie’s World and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – but not for Lars Iyer’s 2014 novel Wittgenstein Jr, because, despite the name and the nominal subject matter, it is in fact a love story.


The narrative follows, loosely, a group of philosophy undergrads in present-day Cambridge over the course of their degree, united by the presence of a shared lecturer. A lecturer they half-jokingly refer to as Wittgenstein Jr, as if he were a diminutive version, in all the eccentric mannerisms, of the more famous namesake. The jumbled-together nature of the cast – boys from different backgrounds and with different approaches to and desires from life – is highlighted in the work itself, resulting in moments of humour and pathos in equal measure as they strike off one another and maintain an uneasy friendship. This is balanced against the somewhat abstract maunderings of Wittgenstein Jr (whose real name is never offered up) which, while they don’t necessarily build to a coherent philosophical project, do massage the story forward.

No normal, straight-ahead tale, the prose style throughout the work is in a state of flux: at times, dialogue is laid out as a screenplay – named characters in block print, followed by words that we assume are passing in some manner of ordered temporality. At other times, we have the situation related to us by our protagonist, Peters, in a clipped, present-tense reportage that curtails any worries that he might not be the most faithful of narrators. Thirdly, we have the broad-stroke, hermetic declarations of the titular Wittgenstein Jr, as filtered by Peters, thrusting themselves between the actual events of the story.

It’s somewhat difficult to dissociate my own experiences from those of the novel – I fear that, being situated in Cambridge myself, I’m giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to the book. How much am I filling in gaps within the presentation, when I too have walked along the University backs, drank late at night on Cambridge’s rooftops, spent lazy afternoons meandering to Grantchester? Doubly, I’ve been an undergrad in a philosophy program, too. Much of the experience rang true – Iyer was a lecturer in philosophy at Uni of Newcastle before taking the position of Reader in Creative Writing, so he ought to know, if most recently from the other side of the equation – but how much is just my own insertion? Then again, the experiences we each bring to a reading inform it – there can be no distilled, pure version of any such affair, can there?

My biggest complaint, structurally, is brought on by my own experiences: no women in the class itself, and the female characters outside the main, male undergrad set are little more than set-dressing. In my own cohort, the few female colleagues amongst the majority male crowd were by far the best of us – but, and this is something endemic to analytic departments, few is the rule. Likely, my friends and colleagues performed so much better than the rest of us because of the unvocalised assumption that they were, even in the 21st century, interlopers, and thus had to outstrip the rest just to get by. I can only assume that Cambridge, at the undergrad level, is even worse on this. It would have been positive if Iyer was able to critique this state of affairs in some way, but I appreciate the lampshading nonetheless. The reported romances, those few that involve women, are dealt with on an abstract, allegorical level (and it is the disappointment thereof, the inevitably mundane nature of the amoureuse, that stalls the romance).

Rather than receive reports on the minutiae of the didactic process, the descriptions of the classes the group take with Wittgenstein Jr are opportunities for gnomic, aphoristic utterances that do more to provide an atmosphere to the book than anything of a linear, plotted construction. There are through-lines, such as the idea of the ‘English lawn,’ which resurface at various points. The metaphor is used as a heavy-handed critique of the modern Oxbridge reality, without necessarily hearkening back to a ‘better’ past:

“The English lawn is receding, Wittgenstein says. And with it, the world of the old dons of Cambridge.
New housing estates, where once was open countryside… A new science park where once were allotments and orchards… New apartment blocks near the station, their balconies in shade … And towering barbarisms: Varsity Hotel, looming over Park Parade; Botanic House, destroying the Botanic Gardens; Riverside Place, desecrating the River Cam…
They’re developing the English lawn, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glassy towers on the English lawn. They’re laying out the suburbs and exurbs on the English lawn. They’re constructing Megalopolis on the English lawn.
And they’re developing the English head, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glass-and-steel towers in the English head. They’re building suburbs and exurbs in the English head…
The new don is nothing but a suburb-head, Wittgenstein says. The new don – bidding for funds, exploring synergies with industry, looking for corporate sponsorship, launching spin-off companies. The new don, courting venture capitalists, seeking business partners, looking to export the Cambridge brand. The new don – with a head full of concrete. A finance-head. A capitalist-head.”

Iyer does a good job at presenting the self-important priggishness of overly-clever young men, puffed up on their own abilities and lacking the self-awareness to temper their more brash statements. Your humble reviewer may or may not be able to attest to the veracity of the following passages…

“EDE: Have you noticed how the rahs are all saying literally now? I was like literally exhausted. I was like literally wasted. But nothing they say actually means anything! Literally or figuratively! Most of the time, they don’t even finish their sentences. I was literally so… They just trail off. They barely speak, most of the time. Mmms and ahhs. Little moans, nothing else. Oh reeeealllly. Lurrrrrvely. Coooool.
And they use the word uni, which is unforgiveable, Ede says.”

“We speak of our desire for despair – real despair, Ede and I. For choking despair, visible to all. For chaotic despair, despair of collapse, of ruination. For the despair of Lucifer, as he fell from heaven…

Our desire for annulling despair. For a despair that dissolves the ego; despair indistinguishable from a kind of death. For wild despair, for heads thrown back, teeth fringing laughing mouths. For exhilarated despair, for madness under the moon.

Our desire for despairs of the damned. For crawling despairs, like rats, like spiders. For heavy despairs, like those on vast planets, which make a teardrop as heavy as lead…

Our desire for the moon to smash into the earth. For the sun to swallow the earth. For the night to devour both the sun and the earth.

We speak of our desire for extinction, for cool mineral silence. For the Big Crunch, for the end of all things. For the Great Dissipation, when electrons leave their atoms…”

Truthfully, the only thing that saves these extended sections from contemptibility is the earnest, charming honesty by which they are delivered. As much as they signal – on their surface – entitled, inexperienced boasting, the reality is that of young, nerdy men bonding, building a friendship to push back against the often-hostile, imperfect world they wish they could change for the better, or at least to their conception of what that might mean. Moments of shared, unselfconscious awkwardness – such is the mortar of friendship.

There are passages where the reader is offered glimpses of Wittgenstein Jr’s mounting paranoia – never so sharp, though, as to turn the tenor of the book, which remains fundamentally light in its touch. The sheer outrageousness of it, though deadly serious in delivery, can’t but undercut itself. One can almost picture Bernard Black uttering the below –

“The dons are always ready to pounce, he says. Always ready with their greetings. Hello, they say. Nice weather we’re having, they say. How are you?, they say. How are you getting on?, they say. What have you been up to?, they say. Each time: an assault. Each time: a truncheon over the head. Hello. Nice day. Hello. Hello.

As I had mentioned earlier, though, the work really shines when it is relaying the essence of Cambridge, descriptions of the physicality and references to the culture combining to provide a hefty psychogeographical distillation. One where you can almost feel the sandy crumbling of acid-rain washed architecture under your fingers, the heaviness of all this accumulated, academic prerogative bearing down on you.

“Flooded pasture. Meadows full of standing water. Salt-water wetlands. Tidal creeks and meres. Rivers braiding, fanning out.

You get a sense of what the Fens used to be like, before they were drained, Wittgenstein says. Settlers building on banks of silt, on low hills, on fen edges. Towns like islands in the marshland.

We imagine the first scholars, expelled from Oxford, founding the new university in Cambridge. We imagine the first colleges growing out of boardinghouses. The first classes, teaching priests to glorify God, and to preach against heresy. The first benefactors, donating money for building projects. The first courtyard design, at Queens College, the chapel at its heart. The first libraries, built above the ground floor to avoid the floods. The lands, drained along the river, and planted with weeping willows and avenues of lime trees. The Backs, cleared, landscaped lawns replacing garden plots and marshland. Cambridge, raising itself above the water. Cambridge, lifting itself into the heavens of thought…”

I started off this review by denying the idea that it should be a ‘philosophical novel,’ and instead declaring it a love story. I think I’ve shown some of the appreciation it has for the particular moment in life the characters share; the physical place they find themselves in. There is a more prosaic, more carnal love story that winds its way through the piece, but, I think, to give it away here would be a disservice to the reader. As much as it comes to the fore towards the end of this relatively short piece, it does a good job of injecting a degree of energy, of providing motion that makes sense of and solidifies the earlier passages.

Suffice to say, if you yourself have come from a humanities background, or really from any space where a volatile, passionate friendship has sprung up – one that hangs together despite itself, and burns the brighter for it – and it’s something you’d like to see represented; if you’ve a desire to get a feel for what Cambridge is like as a place and a head space; if you’re interested in intriguing and challenging narrative forms, there are worse tales to read than this.

Plus, it’s quite funny.


Value Ethics; or, At Home in a Foreign Land

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

Greek *and* Latin, because Authority.

I’ve been working away at the Nichomachean Ethics for a while now – put on hold after it was shelved during a thorough tidy, I’ve dug it out and am attacking it in earnest.

As I think I’d mentioned elsewhere, I did for a long while, at least the first years of my demi-adulthood, count myself a Kantian, or at least a Deontologist. There was something comforting about being able to point to an absolute, a well-supported base that could be universally applied. As I was to learn upon closer examination, i.e., a reading of the First Critique (catalyst for the emergence of some mental health fun I’m still working through)i, the whole system collapses if you take a loosely Judeao-Christian God out of the equation. Rather than standing up by the strength of its own architectonics, its rigid formulae, the compulsion of the dicta was surrogate. The whole apparatus was an empty vessel, and, without the Holy Ghost animating it, sits lame and inert.


An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn't stick.

An attempt from earlier in the summer, featuring maybe the reason it didn’t stick.

I cannot accept a god of that sort, and so I find myself sealed off from the enjoyment of an ostensibly airtight ethics. I don’t know that that precludes Deontology altogether, but it is difficult to move from a preset group of universalised principals without an external force to lend them power. If the system itself doesn’t provide the validity, it has to come from somewhere. This is one of the strengths of Utilitarian systems – built from the ground up, they don’t really need the universality of a Deontic system – you set your assumptions (which is where the problems start) and then the whole thing skips along. Historically, those assumptions have been mistaken, and the apparatus is invariably too clumsy to actually grasp the nuances of the world itself, but at least there is a pleasing mechanistic coherence about the whole thing.

So, top-down Deontology doesn’t work for me, without God at the crank making sure it keeps running it’s simply empty. I’m not especially interested in a Utilitarian ethics – I have an intuition-level distaste for it, which I’ve shored up in a post-hoc form several times, but should really take the time to chew on. What then of Value Ethics? Fine grained enough to get a hold on the world, and doesn’t seem to need external authority. So far, so good.

The trouble, and this was something I noticed in my initial skim back in uni, is that so much of, at least what Aristotle’s formulation presents, is prey to the rankest of societal relativism. I realise that it would be anachronistic to project our own standards of logical rigour backwards, but there exist many fundamental assumptions in the Nichomachean Ethics that simply don’t pan out when you get beyond folk-wisdom. Declaring virtues to be a known element to “all men” works nicely if you’re talking about a single population, within a limited time-frame and geographical spread, but, as we know from experience, what one society takes as patently obvious is the far edge of the alien to another.

It’s not a novel complaint, by any means. I guess I’m just left a bit disappointed that it collapses so readily into relativism. Mind you, it’s not as if the take-away portion of the system – the pursuit of eudaemonia, that human flourishing produced by valorous conduct – could be anything other than a very specifically, societally bound affair. I suspect it’s directly related to how nuanced and fine-toothed the approach is that it gets so thoroughly tangled in individual cases.

Alongside concerns about Kantian Deontology, it was also in preparation for reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s works (his earlier, Marxist works) that I took on the re-reading of Aristotle. It’s interesting, then, that he confronts this issue of cultural relativism in After Virtue. The way out is a fallacy, its true, but this is a messy world. In defence of Value Ethics, MacIntyre and others admit that there is a significant problem with cultural relativism. So too, they say, does every other form of Normative Ethics. Worse they, in fact. As much as Virtue Ethics may be mired in cultural concerns, Consequentialism and Deontology have it just as bad – the generalised goals of Consequentialism, every time, are chosen within the blinders of a culture. The best Deontic system, as I’ve already said, had a massive deity-shaped crutch. Tu quoque, but at least Virtue Ethics owns it.

One of the more attractive elements of MacIntyre’s position, from what I’ve read of it, is the onus on humans-as-members-of-communities. MacIntyre’s position from the outset is to reject the individualist thrust of modern (Renaissance/Enlightenment forward) ethical systems. By situating humans in relations with one another, in something more robust than mere actor/acted upon, we arrive at a better way of conceptualising proper behaviour in society. For what it’s worth, this dovetails with the common-sense approach to ethics – no one, no honest person, would say that American society owes nothing to the victims of slavery, or genocide. And yet, no one of my generation has owned slaves, or driven Native Americans off their land. Clearly, we believe in some degree of historical culpability – “I am born with a past, and to cut myself off from that past in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships,” MacIntyre says. I suspect the ways in which this aligns with my politics to be readily evident.

I’ll finish the Nichomachean Ethics, and I’ll grab MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as well. I guess I’ll just have to get used to having a more bounded, localised ethics. I’m not sure what metaphysical baggage I’ve loaded myself with, yet, but I’ll wriggle out of it without too much trouble – I still fly the flag of the Vienna Circle, even if it is 2/3 in self-mockery. It’ll be a shame to not know that I’m always right, categorically, anymore though.

i. More so the difficulty of the text and what this meant for me as a scholar – the whole God thing I’d gotten over half a dozen years before.

A Contextualised View of Historical Figures

I recently finished reading a review of a biography of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar. Despite its copy editing failures, the review had me feeling pretty good about the character of old RaMBaM, and, better yet, helped me crystallise feelings I’ve had for a while (incidentally, this is the link for said review Full reveal: I was born, raised and confirmed a Catholic: a rather milquetoast elementary education and a more Hellenic-oriented high school experience managed to drill into me a strange fascination and respect for World Jewery, both cultural and historical. Since then, I’ve become a rather strident agnostic, if that isn’t a contradictio in terminis, but the respect for Judaism has remained.
More to the point, what learning more about Maimonides’ character allowed me to do was divorce my respect for the person (or, let’s be real here, his or her more essentialised characteristics) from their historical situation. I like that Maimonides was pushing against mysticism, and “magic,” and other stripes of nonsense. I suspect that, had his project been taken up more fundamentally, “we” would have reached the truth rather sooner than we have.
That being said, I don’t think we can fault anyone for not being agnostic or atheist before the last century or century-and-a-half. Though these people may have had the same rational tool-set that we do, they did not have the aggregate of physical evidence that we have available to us now. Which delivers us to my main point.
For those of you who know me well, this will come as little-enough a surprise. I look on those in current society, especially those who pursue higher education (see importance of aggregate physical data as outlined above), who continue to hold religious views with a modicum of disdain. It does seem to me that it is, in some ways, intellectually dishonest to continue to endorse mysticism in full view of a material reality which accounts for most everything we experience. We can argue about the minutiae of it, but, to my estimation, the metaphysical impossibility of “the super-natural” was proven by Kant in his First Critique (whether he knew it or not), and further underlined by Schopenhauer in his works (again, whether he realised it or not). That being said, the majority of historical Humanity has endorsed these views, including people that, for better or worse, we want to laud and esteem. How then should we deal with this (rather artificial) conundrum?
Although it’s become a rather frightfully over-used simile since the ’50s, I suspect that the adoption of the scientific method, coupled with materialist perspective (in the philosophical interpretation) in the late 19th century was in fact a fundamental paradigm shift for our species. Recognition of the aggregate data which allowed us to free ourselves from the shackles of mysticism that had come before provided a decidedly frightening moment for the individual. How were we then to look upon those paragons that “came before”? Should we condemn the Newton’s (truth be told, we probably should-he was pretty weird), the Leibniz’, the Boyle’s, the Descartes’, the Astell’s and the de Pizan’s, and all those of Antiquity, because they may have been speaking about (G)od?
No, of course not. These were people, these were Staggering Heights, working within their ferment, to broaden human knowledge. We ought to judge them by their times. We ought to contextualise them.
How, then, do we accord what we know now to how we respect these individuals’ legacy? We look upon ourselves, and the work done after this watershed paradigm shift, as an outgrowth of the past. We can look back and weigh what was reprehensible and what was worthy of accord in each individual, based upon the way they furthered capital-t Truth; in the intellectual honesty that they portrayed. In this way, I can find someone like Maimonides, who definitely had drawbacks both personal and intellectual, worthy of my esteem. In this way, we needn’t divorce ourselves from the rich ground from whence we’ve sprung, simply because we’ve walked down the road a bit further.
Uncontroversially, we are products of the society we are born into.

Notebook Clarihews

Notebook Clarihews

Came across these while I was looking for a recipe for tabbouleh in an old note book. Not especially serious, nor very good, but silly enough to be worth sharing.

Rene Descartes
over-abundantly smart;
wished to be remembered for philosophy
but its really his math that ought to be

Jeremy Bentham
base pleasures, he would up-send ’em;
though many do him despise
for his propensity to maximise!

Gottlob Frege
his contribution to logic was mega
though its proper application he surely didn’t use
in his inane hatred for the Jews

Immanuel Kant
renowned for his daily jaunt;
his systems were categorical
and their application not merely rhetorical