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  • Leporello's Question
  • Garry L. Hagberg

One finds in the later philosophical writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein an articulation of the distinctive attitude we bring to the perception of human beings. This attitude, called by Wittgenstein "Eine Einstellung zur Seele," an attitude towards a soul, is irreducible—it cannot be analyzed into any more basic constituent parts—and it is the precondition for our sympathetic and imaginative understanding of others. It serves at the same time as the precondition for human selfhood. Stated succinctly, this unique attitude, marking the contrast between our perception of a human being and our perception of anything else animate or inanimate, is constitutive of who and what we are. And while this irreducible facet of the human situation is expressly articulated in philosophy—that is, it is therein said—it is shown in myriad places and ways. Viewed through the lens of Wittgenstein's fundamental concern with this ineliminable human attitude, Mozart and da Ponte's Don Giovanni reveals considerable insight into the content of humane acknowledgment, and the very concept of selfhood upon which that acknowledgment is based.


It is just after voicing his aspirations to become a gentleman himself that Leporello, outside the palace of the Commendatore, provides the [End Page 180] interpretive clue to the philosophical significance of the entire opera. Thinking that he hears someone coming, he puts into play within the opening line of Don Giovanni the intertwined themes of concealment, of person-perception, and of the underlying desire for human avoidance that motivates the particular act of concealment in question: "I don't want to be seen, ah, I don't want to be seen, I don't want to be seen, no, no, no, no, no, I don't want to be seen" (p. 86).1 However, the deepest clue to the philosophical significance—and the one that resonates most clearly throughout the opera—is given by Don Giovanni himself and comes in his very first line: "You shall not know who I am" (p. 86). He repeats this morally significant epistemic limit a moment later to secure this limitation on person-perception with an emphatic denial (to Donna Anna): "You scream in vain, you shall not know who I am, no" (p. 86).

If we are then to see Don Giovanni as an opera that houses considerable insight—and an instructive object-lesson—about what Wittgenstein and others have discussed as the preconditions of selfhood, of inner human content, that make the distinctive—and as I have discussed elsewhere, instructively irreducible—attitude or stance we take towards other persons so much as possible, we must investigate how the opera serves to frame Giovanni.2 That is, we must comparatively situate him in relation to the other characters, as a person lacking precisely that human content, that interiority, which makes the distinctive and remarkable attitude, the essence of person-perception, possible. But before I proceed with the attempt to sketch the philosophical content to which both Leporello's and Giovanni's first words provide clues, let us consider some preliminary details in the libretto that point out the interpretive direction we will take.

As early as the fatal wounding of the Commendatore, a telling contrast emerges. With the Commendatore dying, Leporello exclaims "What a tragedy! What a crime!" and then, having made these morally-engaged judgments, he describes his inner state with "I feel my heart pounding with fear in my breast." Then, in humanly-engaged reaction to the scene, he exclaims with increasing urgency (owing to his moral perception of the magnitude of the profound human loss presently occurring at Giovanni's hand) that he does not know what to say or to do. Showing in his words, his actions, and his felt urgency, his attitude towards the person of the Commendatore, Leporello stands in striking contrast to the humanly disengaged language and posture of Giovanni—a posture or stance that displays only a refusal to acknowledge the [End Page 181] humane loss he is presently causing. Giovanni provides the cold description of a detached eyewitness—one without a trace of imaginative sympathy for the victim—that approximates the outwardly descriptive language of a dehumanized behaviorist: "already...


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pp. 180-199
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