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  • Wittgenstein on Non-Mediative Causality
  • James C. Klagge

In the late autumn of 1947 Wittgenstein dictated a selection of manuscript material to a typist1 that contains some remarks so striking that they merit extensive quotation:

903. No supposition seems to me more natural than that there is no process in the brain correlated with associating or with thinking; so that it would be impossible to read off thought-processes from brain-processes. I mean this: if I talk or write there is, I assume, a system of impulses going out from my brain and correlated with my spoken or written thoughts. But why should the system continue further in the direction of the centre? Why should this order not proceed, so to speak, out of chaos? The case would be like the following—certain kinds of plants multiply by seed, so that a seed always produces a plant of the same kind as that from which it was produced—but nothing in the seed corresponds to the plant which comes from it; so that it is impossible to infer the properties or structure of the plant from those of the seed that it comes out of—this can only be done from the history of the seed. So an organism might come into being even out of something quite amorphous, as it were causelessly; and there is no reason why this should not really hold for our thoughts, and hence for our talking and writing. (Zettel 608)

904. It is thus perfectly possible that certain psychological phenomena cannot be investigated physiologically, because physiologically nothing corresponds to them. (Z 609)

905. I saw this man years ago; now I have seen him again, I recognize him, I remember his name. And why does there have to be a cause of this remembering in my nervous system? Why must something or other, whatever it may be, be stored-up there in any form? Why must a trace have been left behind? Why should there not be a psychological regularity to which no physiological regularity corresponds? If this upsets our concepts of causality, then it is high time they were upset. (Z 610) [End Page 653]

906. The prejudice in favor of psycho-physical parallelism is also a fruit of the primitive conception of grammar. For when one admits a causality between psychological phenomena, which is not mediated physiologically, one fancies that in doing so one is making an admission of the existence of a soul alongside the body, a ghostly soul-nature. (cf. Z 611)

909. Why should not the initial and terminal states of a system be connected by a natural law, which does not cover the intermediary state? (Only don’t think of efficacy/influence [Wirkung]!) (Z 613)

918. …Well—but now that the structure of the eye is known—how does it come about that we act, react, in this way? But must there be a physiological explanation here? Why don’t we just leave explaining alone?—But you would never talk like that, if you were examining the behavior of a machine!—Well, who says that a living creature, an animal body, is a machine in this sense?— (Z 614)

Lest you think, or hope, these ideas were just a passing fancy of Wittgenstein’s, it is worth noting that these passages were among the ones that he cut from this typescript to save in a box and rearrange and perhaps revise for future use. They were published posthumously as Zettel.2

What are we to make of these striking ideas? Do they hint at “mystical vitalism”? Is there an intellectual trajectory along which they can be located and appreciated, even if perhaps ultimately rejected? Or is he simply making a “natural” objection to reductionism about memory?3

In an earlier publication I briefly offered a motivation for these views,4 but I now have more to say and wish to try again. Earlier I saw these passages primarily in relation to Wittgenstein’s other views about mental phenomena, but I now think something can be gained by seeing them in relation to his views about causality. Unfortunately causality is not a topic about which Wittgenstein had...


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