publisher colophon
  • Strangers in a Strange Land: Wittgenstein, Flies, Us Too

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a prime example of how an intellectual text can simultaneously advance theoretical positions and allude to profound, troubling personal experiences and emotions. And, having—to save his skin—taken up an alien, refugee existence, Wittgenstein was well equipped to call our attention to how there is no language in which we can be ourselves. Language has brought us our feelings. It is in this sense that this paper connects our and Ludwig’s experiences with one that Moses stamped on his son: we are indeed strangers in a strange land.

Overview. It has been said that the roots of one of the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s theories about the experiences of infants may be found in Bion’s experiences as a soldier in the trenches of the First World War. That is, that experience gave him insight, right or wrong, into challenges infants face. Similarly, this paper will connect with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy how, in his childhood home, both his life and his autonomy were threatened, and how this led him to take refuge alone and as an alien. Inter alia, these experiences and emotions may have given Wittgenstein insight into an alien quality of our life in language—into what it is like for an infant to have even his seemingly most personal experiences framed, or imposed upon him, by his mother tongue.

Words are not a translation of something else that was there before they were.1

You learned the concept “pain” when you learned language.2 [End Page 233]

It is in this sense that this paper will connect to how, through language, Moses’s son became a stranger in a strange land.

On its way to this conclusion, this paper will begin by proposing that, like other intellectual works, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations may be experienced as a polyphonic text, in which an attuned ear can hear both philosophical assertions and the struggles of a human being to give voice to, and in this way unburden himself of, personal experiences and emotions. And, second, it will propose that the Investigations speaks of quite common human experiences, emotions, and constraints, and that this is at the heart of the work’s appeal.

Although the present text will make connections between ostensibly philosophical assertions in the Investigations and aspects of Wittgenstein’s life, I would not insist that it has to be the case, say, that Wittgenstein felt that his life was like the struggle of a fly to escape from a fly bottle. What I am insisting is:

  1. a. The Investigations is indeed a polyphonic text, as outlined above.

  2. b. By paying more attention to the dialogue between Wittgenstein’s experiences, emotions, and philosophizing, we can be led to pay more attention to such dialogue within ourselves and other intellectuals.

  3. c. In our modern age many people resort to escape, isolation, and compulsive intellectual activity in attempts to preserve themselves or some autonomy, or to live in a more perfect world, such as a mind may create.

  4. d. There is an aspect of our life in language that makes us all strangers in a strange land.

Given this outline, readers should not be surprised to find that the present text is less polyphonic than polyhedral, or that, in a few places, it speaks of my own experiences or offers anecdotes about people I have known. The latter “speaking” is for several reasons. One is that, insofar as I am claiming that intellectuals use the language and calm space of rationality in part as a way of trying to express (to include in the sense of “get rid of”) their personal experiences and emotions, then I must— and am not ashamed to—recognize that this assertion applies to my own work too. Second, insofar as this paper wishes to call attention to how the Investigations speaks about the struggles of many human beings, examples from other lives, besides Ludwig’s, are essential. [End Page 234]


First proposition

The Investigations is not only a (great) work of philosophy but also the best way Wittgenstein found to speak about his personal experience. In this regard, the Investigations offers a good example of a more general phenomenon—how we intellectuals move our emotional experiences into the language and calmer space of rationality. (Some take this a step further: emotions gets expressed through or hidden in the interstices of empirical research or hard science.) It may seem that in this way we ignore or discount our feelings, and one might argue that this is a shortcoming. We do not present clear or whole pictures of the world because significant aspects—the personal and emotional—are dismissed. In this regard, too, the Investigations offers a good example because, on the one hand, Wittgenstein might be said to have escaped from his personal pains into a compulsive discussion of what pain might be, how it might be felt and expressed. And this without airing one of the goals of such rigorous intellectual activity: to keep his own pains at bay. But the resulting text—Wittgenstein’s assertions and reflections and the language he uses to express them—gives readers many opportunities to recognize and indeed feel the person behind the philosophy, to feel that he—like us—has suffered and is struggling, relentlessly struggling, and seeking, with thinking and with the rhetoric of rationality, to keep his head above water:

It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is this supposed to mean—except perhaps that I am in pain? . . . The truth is: it makes sense to say about other people that they doubt whether I am in pain; but not to say it about myself.

(PI, §246)

Allow me to here set the stage for a discussion to come, while also underscoring the extent to which Wittgenstein’s philosophical battles with language were also battles with his feelings and personal experience (e.g., as a person with strong homosexual desires). In one of the private notes he made during the years he was developing what became the Investigations, he wrote:

Niemand kann mit Wahrheit von sich selbst sagen, daβ er Dreck ist. . . . Nobody can truthfully say of himself that he is filth. Because if I do say it, though it can be true in a sense, this is not a truth by which I myself can be penetrated: otherwise I should either have to go mad or change myself.3 [End Page 235]

The second proposition below will speak of the Investigations’s universality. Let me also touch on this now, giving an example of how another intellectual, in a different academic discipline, may have, in a more typical fashion, converted emotional experiences into a seemingly dispassionate, objective, un-personal, and even quantitative scholarly text. I have changed some of the details so as not to violate another’s privacy.

The outlines of the story: I once knew a scholar who specialized in writing about working-class city dwellers, relatively recent immigrants to the United States. Yet the scholar herself was from the old, American WASP upper class; she had grown up in exurban communities and preferred them, one of her great pleasures being gardening. She once visited me in the big city in which I was living, and we took a walk through one of the old immigrant neighborhoods. She was enthralled. “I wrote a book about this!” she said. Her book had been focused on what we might call a very dusty neighborhood and American past, one that she had found in libraries and census data. And yet in my city such things lived, too, in the many old multifamily dwellings that were still standing.

Some years later I happened to ask her husband why this scholar had chosen working-class city dwellers to write about. There are of course many scholars, perhaps the majority, who choose to study subjects that seem at best only indirectly connected to their own experiences, and much wonderful work is done. Yet we may be curious about how these people have come to their subjects and become so devoted to them.

The husband explained how the scholar had been raised by two emotionally distant parents and a warm Irish nanny who had, above all, given her love. And so, when it came time to research and write her Ph.D. dissertation, she chose to investigate the lives of the Irish working classes. I doubt the word “love” appeared anywhere in the resulting text. It was full of statistics about people’s occupations, housing conditions, and so forth. And—I am proposing—the white space between the lines was crammed with love, and perhaps with lovelessness too. And this may be the reason that the dissertation turned out to be this scholar’s most successful book, making her career.

In a discussion of a range of works, including The Importance of Being Earnest, the Phaedo, Walden, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I have proposed that it may be thanks to what some texts withhold—and to the power of this withholding—that some works have become classics.4 The idea was suggested to me by a comment that Wittgenstein apparently made to the German editor of the Tractatus: that the book had two parts, the written part and the unwritten part, [End Page 236] “And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.”5 From this perspective, the Investigations has broader appeal and reaches us more deeply than the Tractatus because the more mature Wittgenstein found a way to make the unwritten part more apparent. One might, for example, compare the Investigations “I am in pain” section (quoted above) with a rich observation from section 5.62 of the Tractatus: “That the world is my world shows itself in the fact that the limits of language (the language which only I understand) mean the limits of my world.”6 The Tractatus comment is hardly lacking in insight! Indeed, this paper makes a good deal of an idea contained in this comment. But in the lines from the Investigations the feelings of a person—an “I” “in pain”—are right there in the words. We do not lose sight of the fact that there is a person behind the Tractatus’s words; the author refers to “my world.” But the feelings we get are of disconnection and distance, a kind of chill.

In one of his presentations of the concept of a true self and a false self, the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott alludes to a tendency of intellectuals to dissociate intellectual activity and psychosomatic existence.7 In a related article, he suggests that the mind and intellectual activity develop in infants as a way of adapting to stressful “impingements” or disturbances in the physical and psychological environment. “According to this theory then, in the development of every individual, the mind has a root, perhaps its most important root, in the need of the individual, at the core of the self, for a perfect environment.”8

From this perspective, we can see in Wittgenstein’s life and writing such a struggle to establish a perfect environment (for himself and for philosophy). And we can say that the Investigations reaches us in a way that the Tractatus cannot because, while both works seek an escape from psychosomatic being and a way of arriving at the perfect approach to philosophy, in the Investigations the author hints at—and at times shouts about—some of the experiences and emotions underlying this seeking: “Aber der Andre kann doch nich DIESEN Schmerz haben!” [But surely another person can’t have THIS pain!] (PI, §253).

One might content oneself—people have contented themselves—with the intellectual products of Wittgenstein’s struggle. And certainly these products have at times a breathtaking and rubbish-clearing power. We glimpse or feel that we glimpse The Light. (I here betray Quaker roots.) But another reading makes room both for Wittgenstein’s insights and for experiences and emotions (his and ours) that give insights their force and necessity. [End Page 237]


Second proposition

“What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes” (PI, §415).

At the heart of the Investigations’s appeal lies the fact that, although it is the work of a quite unusual and cerebral individual, the experiences and emotions from which its assertions and internal dialogue spring are experiences and emotions to which many human beings can relate. The present paper is particularly interested in how, among other basic subjects such as pain, the Investigations speaks of the struggle of a self amid others. Such struggle includes, for example, the struggle for self-expression and the struggle to be understood and to understand.

“What would it be like if human beings showed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of the word ‘toothache’.”—Well, let’s assume the child is a genius and itself invents a name for the sensation!—But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word.—So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone?—But what does it mean to say that he has “named his pain”?— How has he done this naming of pain?! And whatever he did, what was its purpose?—When one says “He gave a name to his sensation,” one forgets that a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word “pain”; it shows the post where the new word is stationed.

(PI, §257)

There is a sense in which the struggle of a self to find his or her voice and to have his individual pains (or pleasures!) recognized and understood—this is a problem of particular interest in our modern, vastly populated, industrialized, and bureaucratized, globalizing age. But it may also be said that Wittgenstein’s particular position—not only as a modern intellectual but also as a refugee working in a country whose language and culture were foreign to him—gave him insight, rare insight, into a more universal aspect of the human predicament. Wittgensteinians use the phrase “our life in language.” An aspect of this life that interests me is the extent to which all our languages, even our mother tongue, are foreign to us, imposed upon us. We may as infants or immigrants [End Page 238] be quite enthusiastic about learning these languages, about there being such a thing as language, about our ability to communicate—and in the midst of all this we lose track of this alien aspect of language.

Some have written about how the colonized, enslaved, and oppressed may be alienated from their own language; their thoughts and feelings, even their ideas of freedom, are framed in the language of their oppressors. See, for example, this line from a man—of all things—from Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd: “It is hard for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”9 In the midst of such reflections, we rarely consider how such observations touch on a universal experience, how we come to express ourselves in a language—within the frame of a Grammatik (grammar)—that, we might say, has been imposed on our muscular movements and babbling. (And this notwithstanding the contributions that all of us make—and that women in Hardy’s England made—to the ongoing evolution of languages.)

We have come to Wittgenstein’s particular subject: language. This topic will get yet more attention toward the end of this paper, where I will dwell on this strangeness of the human experience as Wittgenstein has helped us to see it. The first line of section 338 of the Investigations: “After all, one can only say something if one has learned to talk.” The picture of our life in language and of self-expression that this brings to my mind: a past era in which a child was only allowed to eat with the grown-ups after he had learned how to use a knife and fork “properly.” Another writer on the false self, the psychoanalyst Mervin Glasser, has written about how it “protects the hidden True Self from the mother’s colonization.”10 From the perspective of the present paper, and of its idea of colonization by language, Glasser’s observation suggests that—like the fly in the bottle?—we are trapped, or driven into our shell, by language. Self-expression may be a dream of a focus imaginarius: the true self.11


Supporting evidence

As regards how in the Investigations, Wittgenstein speaks about his personal experience, many lines from the text might be used, but I will here focus on two. To support the claim that these lines may be read as touching on or emerging from Wittgenstein’s personal experience, I will revisit a few salient features of Wittgenstein’s biography. This revisiting will be brief, however, as my sense is that readers of this paper may already be familiar with the biography. The two lines are: [End Page 239]

  • • What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. (PI, §309)

  • • A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.” (PI, §123)

On one level these are, of course, statements about philosophical problems, and they have long been discussed as such and in interesting ways. The proposal here is that they may also be read as Wittgenstein’s comments to himself. Indeed there are many passages in Investigations in which Wittgenstein seems to be letting his readers in on his conversation with himself.

One might say that the concept “game” is a concept with blurred edges.— “But is a blurred concept a concept at all?”—Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one?

(PI, §71)

From this perspective, I am proposing that the lines about the fly and about not knowing “my” way about may be read—alternatively, not exclusively—as personal reflections on the central challenge of Wittgenstein’s life. That is, he had to escape from the toxic environment of his familial home and hometown and reestablish himself in a new land. It might be said he thereby escaped the fly-bottle, or it might be said that—having become a stranger in what seemed to him a strange land—he was able to better appreciate our life in language. He was able to better appreciate fundamental alien aspects of the bottle in which we all find ourselves (cf. Henry Adams: “the whole unutterable fury of human nature beating itself against the walls of its prison-house”).12

Given our theme of universality, we may note that—although Wittgenstein had the advantage of being fabulously wealthy; his father was the Andrew Carnegie of Central Europe—in outline his challenge was that of millions of refugees and emigrants. Like many refugees, or like the fly in the bottle, if Wittgenstein had not found a way out, he would not have survived.

On a political level, during Wittgenstein’s lifetime his hometown went from being one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant cities of Europe to becoming, as historian Peter Pulzer has phrased it, “the cradle of modern political anti-Semitism.”13 The Wittgensteins were what the Nazis called Mischlinge (half-breeds). His sisters and their families did [End Page 240] manage to live out the war in Vienna, but only thanks to their brothers allowing the Nazis to take something like $100 million in family property.14 Of the seventy-five thousand Jews who remained in Vienna in 1939, fewer than one thousand seem to have survived the war. The majority were eventually taken east and murdered in the death camp of Belzec, or in the Lodz ghetto, or at mass execution sites near Minsk, Riga, and Kovno.15

Norman Bentwich, a British eyewitness to the Anschluss, wrote:

Nobody was spared the savagery, the persecution, and the despair with which one of the most cultured Jewish communities in the world, and the third largest in Europe, was stricken. Vast queues gathered outside the consulates of possible host countries. They stretched for miles and were subject to constant attack.

(WP, p. 122)

Given the Wittgensteins’ wealth, Ludwig’s situation might best be compared to that of his contemporary Stefan Zweig, another writer from a wealthy Viennese Jewish family. Zweig got out of the physical fly bottle—escaping from Vienna to England, the United States, and then, finally, to a German-colonized town in Brazil. There, in 1942, he committed suicide. A comment from the end of his life: “People talk with such ease about bombing, as if it were an everyday affair, but when I read that houses have crumbled, I crumble too.”16

In the Investigations Wittgenstein writes, “What the names in language signify must be indestructible; for it must be possible to describe the state of affairs in which everything destructible is destroyed” (PI, §55).

I have positioned this as a comment that touches on the tragic demise of Vienna (and of the experiment in multiculturalism that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but it can also be read as touching on what happened to Wittgenstein’s family. Ludwig was the last of five brothers. Three of his four elder brothers committed suicide and the fourth lost an arm in the First World War. This brings us to the familial fly bottle Ludwig had to escape. A dynamic, aggressive businessman, Karl Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s father, was rigid and overbearing. He loved music, played the violin, and was a great patron of musicians, but his older sons were to go into the family steel business. Nor would Karl accept even the suggestion that one, or more, of his sons might be homosexual.

But Ludwig and two of his brothers had strong homosexual desires. At age twenty-two, living in Berlin, Rudi, one of the two, drank a mixture of milk, mineral water, and potassium cyanide, and died in agony. He [End Page 241] sent several farewell letters, one of which referred to “doubts about my perverted disposition.” It was reported at the time that Rudi had sought advice from an organization that was campaigning against a section of the German Criminal Code that, until 1969, forbade die widernatürliche Unzucht (unnatural sex acts). Rudi may have become identifiable as the subject of a published case study about homosexuality. After his death, Karl forbade the family from ever mentioning Rudi’s name in his presence again.


Along with the body, the ego would like to survive

When my son Jonah was little, I once or twice read to him an old children’s book about a female mouse who wanted a place where “I can be me.” I don’t think the story made the least impression on Jonah, but it made a big one on me. It touched on personal experiences, which I will avoid dwelling on here. (The unwritten part is the important one? Should I at least say that, not unlike Ludwig, in some of the kinds of isolation that being an intellectual can offer, I have sought a place where I can be me? And I have enjoyed how words can be brought together so much more neatly than people.)

At first the mouse—contemplating her escape, moving away from home—was besieged by suggestions and “help.” We might say that her family and friends wanted to build a new fly bottle for her, but finally, in the end, she realized she had to build her own. She could only “be me” if the walls and furnishings of her home were of her own choosing, designed and constructed by her alone.

In the previous section we were considering the needs of humans (and other animals) to escape in order to go on living, in order not to be killed or driven to suicide. But vast waves of migration also continue to be inspired by people’s desires—or needs—to find places where they can feel free, or freer, to be themselves. (And where they can keep on avoiding reflection on what words like “freedom” mean.) A place where there is or seems to be room for “my” feelings and desires, my orientations. Such a place may be chosen for its particular qualities—its tolerance of alternative lifestyles or of artists or intellectuals, for example. Or the key feature may be distance from the previous—threatening, violent, narrow-minded, or otherwise oppressive—home. (And while the new place may come with its own narrow-mindedness, the quality [End Page 242] seems new and different and is not so easily identifiable. Or it may be that the new place’s narrow-mindedness better accords with “mine.”)

The flight of homosexuals to places like New York or San Francisco may come to mind, but in fact all sorts of people have, say, left small towns for large cities or one region of the United States or the world for another, and there are people who have simply moved thousands of miles from home. An idiosyncratic feature of my own life is that I have known many people who have moved three thousand miles from their birth families—as if this number of miles, or the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean or the North American continent, were essential. And essential not only to my friends’ well-being, but also to their being able to revisit their families for holidays and vacations. For his part, Wittgenstein—after some years away and after his parents died—got in the habit of going home to Vienna and his sisters’ families every year at Christmas.17 Like a lot of refugees, he always had but one real home: the one he had left.

I also have in mind women who, as women have gained legal rights and economic opportunities, have decided to (or accepted that they must) live on their own. For example, a woman once told me that she could not be herself when she was living with a man. She was too conscious of the man’s desires and opinions, too responsive to them. And even if such responsiveness was not demanded by the man with whom she was living. We might well say (shades of the Wittgenstein brothers) that the real man was her father or that her father cast a long shadow. She had been raised to be hypersensitive to this man’s moods and needs; now man-in-home equaled hypersensitivity. In order to be, to try to save, herself, she had to live alone.

I propose this as another way of looking at Wittgenstein’s flight from Vienna and home and establishing himself in rooms at the top of a little tower at Cambridge University. Visitors have described the furnishings as extremely spare—no pictures, no curtains, and almost no books. A very self-centered, even solipsistic person, to be himself Wittgenstein needed a high level of isolation. Not finding for sale any furniture that he liked, he designed his own. (In a fly bottle of my own construction I can be me? And so it is, too, for those who surround themselves with philosophical systems of their own invention?) [End Page 243]


I kenne mich nicht way about. “One human being can be a complete enigma to another,” Wittgenstein writes:

We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is even more, even given a mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.)

(PI, Part II, 190e)

In his struggles to survive physically and psychologically, in his struggles to escape impingements and re-create a nonexistent perfection, Wittgenstein ended up living and teaching philosophy at Cambridge. There he lived in a linguistic limbo between his antiquated German and his not-quite-mastered English. In our twenty-first century of global brands, technology, and ways of life, and in which English is so widely taught and spoken and is omnipresent in the media and pop culture, it may take some work to imagine the linguistic and cultural isolation Wittgenstein experienced a century ago. Clearly during his decades in England he did a lot of speaking in English, and one comes across postcards and so forth that seem perfectly well written, and in a colloquial style, but one also comes across other remarks. For example, after first meeting Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell remarked that he spoke very little English. This was after Wittgenstein had been studying in England for three years. An adolescent whose home Wittgenstein visited in 1942, after Wittgenstein had lived in England for two decades, recorded that Ludwig was “not a very good English speaker.” The philosopher G. E. Moore remarked that Wittgenstein seemed often to use the words “proposition” and “sentence” as if they meant the same thing. (The German word Satz might be properly used for either of these English words.)18

Several of Wittgenstein’s Cambridge colleagues have noted how he insisted on dominating discussions and on making others bear witness to his internal conversation, to what he was thinking about. I note that this is a behavior not only of the highly self-involved but also of many people in foreign countries who prefer talking to listening, because only when they are talking do they feel clear about what someone is trying to say.

“Suppose you came as an explorer into an unknown country with a language quite strange to you,” Wittgenstein writes. “In what circumstances would you say that the people there gave orders, understood them, obeyed them, rebelled against them, and so on?” “If we watch [End Page 244] [these strangers’] behaviour we find it intelligible, it seems ‘logical.’ But when we try to learn their language we find it impossible to do so. For there is no regular connection between what they say, the sounds they make, and their actions” (PI, §206 and §207).

It might be said that Plato’s Socrates had intimations of this phenomenon and called attention to it in questioning his fellow Athenians about their understandings of key, common words. Wittgenstein, when he writes “you,” is often, first and foremost, talking to himself and referring to his own experience. And yet, certainly, when he reflects on the experiences of migrants, he is referring to experiences shared by many people, whether we be refugees or tourists, or find ourselves outsiders for some other reason (say, in a new workplace).


Life in language

The phrase “stranger in a strange land” has served as the title of a well-known work of science fiction: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel about a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on Mars and raised by Martians. Thus the novel’s appeal to many adolescent boys? My fourteen-year-old son might be moved at times to say: “It’s as if I’m coming to Earth after being born on Mars and raised by Martians.” My sense is that this is how Cambridge felt to Ludwig.

The “stranger in a strange land” phrase comes to us originally from the King James translation of the book of Exodus. Moses’s wife bore him a son, and Moses named him “Gershom, for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” The Hebrew word behind this “Gershom” is said to mean “sojourner there.” More loosely, I would translate the word as “just passing through.”

Note that Moses did not call his son “just passing through” because of his son’s status, but because of himself, Moses—“I have been a stranger in a strange land.” (And Moses’s life hardly became less strange after he left Egypt!) We can say that Gershom, like a lot of sons and daughters before him and since, was a stranger in his own name.

I named my son Jonah after a man who sought to run away rather than lie to people who were not much interested in the truth in any case. This story spoke powerfully to me or I would not have proposed this name for my son, and perhaps he will come in time to meditate on my choice and on his mother’s assent to it. But he may also come to say, as Gershom may have, as many of us have at one time or another, “This is not my name. I am shackled with someone else’s name.” [End Page 245]

Wittgenstein did not think that infants were capable of language (for all this could be a language of facial expressions) before they learned the stage settings of language in the course of acquiring their mother tongues. (For example, an infant’s first language could be the one she learned as a result of her caregivers assigning meaning to her facial expressions.) And so, with Heinlein in mind, we might say that we all come originally from a language-less planet. And from there—as infants and before, while still in the womb—we find ourselves in a strange country. From the very first language we learn (e.g., that of facial expressions) our languages always have an external, imposed, colonizing quality.

My son’s first word was “Papa.” That is, burbling along as is an infant’s wont, Jonah repeated a pa-ish sound, to which his mother and I excitedly responded, congratulating him on having said his first word! (And of course it was Papa!) How strange all this might seem to an infant. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear,” the poet Theodore Roethke has written, before alluding to how, in going, we learn both what going involves and where we have to go.19

We make faces, gesture, and cry, and to these actions our elders assign meanings: “He’s hungry. She’s tired.” And we begin to learn that we may feel hungry or tired and that our faces, gestures, and cries may have—and will, in any case, be assumed to have—meaning. Even more than for the politically colonized, it is very hard for us to appreciate that there are things we might say or ways we might think for which “our” language has made no provision or that it precludes or diverts us from.

Words swallow our thoughts before we have time to make their acquaintance, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests.20 But Wittgenstein’s point is notably different. Again: “Words are not a translation of something else that was there before they were.” The external does not preclude or preempt the internal; it creates it.

“Augustine,” Wittgenstein writes, critically, “describes the learning of human language as if a child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if [the child] already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And ‘think’ would here mean something like ‘talk to itself’” (PI, §32).

I have, in this paper, returned to the Bion anecdote with which I began. My proposition is that, aided by his own experience as a stranger in a strange land, Wittgenstein came to appreciate the extent to which the child’s challenge and the adult stranger’s are different. For example, the stranger knows that pointing can be a way of getting things he wants [End Page 246] and of learning foreign words for these things (see PI, §32), but the child has first to learn to point and a whole grammar of pointing (see PI, §33). Or, as I am stressing, a child—including for her survival!—has to have pointing imposed upon her.21


“Ich kenne mich nicht aus”—once more, with feeling

With all this in mind, let us reconnect briefly with Wittgenstein’s phrase “I don’t know my way about.” We might hear in this the cry of a young child confronted by the stream of language, or of an older stranger confronted by an alien language and culture. We might also hear in this the cry, or simple statement, of a philosopher who, after long study and reflection, has realized that the language she speaks, the way she has of organizing the world, both feels natural to her and yet is alien. From the perspective of Plato’s dialogues we would call this the essential moment of aporia, of resourcelessness, when we have lost all confidence that we even know what we want to say. Or that we have, among all our languages, one for self-expression.

This is the place to note that “I don’t know my way about”—the standard translation of Wittgenstein’s “Ich kenne mich nicht aus”—is a particular reading of a phrase that might be otherwise translated: “I am not familiar with any way out.”

William Eaton
New York, New York


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), §191.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations; 3rd ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), §384; hereafter abbreviated PI and cited by section number.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright and H. Nyman, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). This is a bilingual edition, the original German on the verso pages, English on the recto. Note is from pages 32 and 32e, and it is dated 1937. I have given only the first sentence of the German; however, the entire note in both German and English appears in the book.

4. William Eaton, “The Unsaid,” Agni 79 (Spring 2014): 219–31. [End Page 247]

5. David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument between Two Great Philosophers (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 158–59; hereafter abbreviated WP.

6. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003).

7. D. W. Winnicott, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (Madison: International Universities Press, 1996), p. 144.

8. D. W. Winnicott, “Mind and Its Relation to the Psyche-Soma,” paper read before the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society, December 14, 1949, and published in The British Journal of Medical Psychology 27 (1954): 202–03.

9. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1874), chap. 81.

10. Mervin Glasser, “Problems in the psychoanalysis of certain narcissistic disorders,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 73 (1992): 497. Quoted in Christal Daehnert, “The False Self as a Means of Disidentification: A Psychoanalytic Case Study,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 34 (1998): 251–71.

11. Focus imaginarius: That is, per Kant, an idea that lies “outside the bounds of possible experience,” but nonetheless helps organize and extend our thinking. See “Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic” in the Critique of Pure Reason (A644/B672–A645/B673). Quotation here is from Norman Kemp Smith’s translation of Kant’s text as it appeared in a Modern Library edition of the Critique published in 1958.

12. Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904; repr., New York: Viking/Penguin, 1986).

13. P. C. J. Pulzer, “The Development of Political Antisemitism in Austria,” in The Jews of Austria: Essays on Their Life, History, and Destruction, ed. Josef Fraenkel (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1967), p. 429.

14. Details regarding Wittgenstein’s family and biography may be found in Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York: Free Press, 1990), as well as in Alexander Waugh, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War (New York: Doubleday, 2008) and in Edmonds and Eidinow, Wittgenstein’s Poker. The $100 million figure should be taken to mean, above all, “a great deal of money”; otherwise one will struggle to translate 1940s assets into twenty-first-century values.

15. See Sonia Misak, “The Jewish Community of Vienna: Existing against All the Odds,” Jerusalem Letters 356 (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, April 15, 1997).

16. Stefan Zweig, Montaigne, trans. (from German into French) Jean-Jacques Lafaye and François Brugier (Paris: Quadrige / Presses Universitaires de France, 1982), pp. 8–9. Translation from French to English is mine.

17. See Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 235.

18. Adolescent mentioned in Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 434. Bertrand Russell, letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, October 18, 1911, as quoted in Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, pp. [End Page 248] 38–39. George Edward Moore, “Wittgenstein’s Lectures in 1930–33,” in G. E. Moore, Philosophical Papers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1959), pp. 262, 268.

19. I have taken philosophical license with Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” (1953). The first four lines:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go. We think by feeling. What is there to know?

20. Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), p. 20: “La plupart du temps, faute de s’attacher à des mots, mes pensées restent des brouillards. Elles dessinent des formes vagues et plaisantes, s’engloutissent: aussitôt, je les oublie.” [Most of the time, not being tied to words, my thoughts remain nebulous. They sketch vague, pleasant shapes, absorbing themselves. I forget them almost immediately.]

21. On this subject see William Eaton, “On Pointing,” Agni 75 (Spring 2012): 200–18. [End Page 249]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.