Jews, 1931: Wittgenstein’s Marginalia on Jews, Jewishness, and “Reproductive” Jewish Thought


Some of the most interesting things that come out of our lives can be found in the margins. Freud – like a good detective – took marginalia seriously. An occasional or out-of-the-ordinary slip can disclose a lot more than a narrative. In fact, the hidden secret of a narrative can be found by way of focusing in on these small things in the margins.  Writing, like a microscope, can reveal these small things; reading can amplify them.   You and I can get a whiff of what Wittgenstein* thought about what it means to be a Jewish thinker.

Reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s marginalia from 1914 to 1950 – collected under the title Culture and Value – I was surprised to find a series of telling ontological reflections about Jews, Jewishness, and Jewish thought. Wittgenstein had a Jewish parent, and, as David Stern notes in his essay “Was Wittgenstein a Jew?” Wittgenstein wrote a lot about Jewishness in the 1930s.   Stern argues that Wittgenstein’s “notion of being a Jew, of Jewishness, is ambiguous and problematic”(238).   Stern points out how Brian McGuinness, in his biography of Wittgenstein, argued that Wittgenstein “did not think of himself as Jewish and neither should we.”

Wittgenstein, as both Stern and McGuiness note, was influenced by the “self-hating” Jew, Otto Weinninger who conceived of Jews as abnormal: Jews, in his negative view, were not nor could not be autonomous since heteronomy is built into Jewishness; Jewish males, for this reason, are more effeminate. Weinnenger wondered if this “Jewish character” could be changed if it was biological.   He associated Jews with “reproduction” as opposed to non-Jewish “originality.” For McGuinness, Wittgenstein was influenced deeply by these ideas and thought of himself as only being “reproductive.”

Reading over Stern’s essay, I noticed there are more secondary sources than primary. With this in mind, I took a look through Wittgenstein’s marginalia in order to, on the one hand, subject his reflection to a, so to speak, Weinnenger test; on the other hand, I wanted to look into how, in the margins, Wittgenstein is disclosing struggles that he kept off the page.

Before Wittgenstein discusses Jewishness in a series of notes, he writes: “A confession has to be a part of your new life.” One wonders: what confession is he about to make?  And how is this confession related to his “new life?”

Following this, Wittgenstein becomes incredibly self-conscious about worries about properly articulating this confession:

I never more than half succeed in expressing what I want to express. Actually not as much as that, but by no more than a tenth. This is still worth something. Often my writing is nothing but “stuttering.” (18e)

The next notes speaks directly about Jews and Jewishness. And, most importantly, it evinces an urgent reflection that Wittgenstein has of himself:

Amongst Jews “genius” is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself for instance.)

I think there is some truth in my idea that I really only think reproductively. I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking. I have always taken one over from someone else. I have simply straightaway seized on it with enthusiasm form y work of clarification. That is how Bolzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Kraus, Loos, Weinninger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me. Can one take the case of Breuer and Freud as an example of Jewish reproducitiveness? – What I even are new similies. (19e)

As this passage makes clear, he passes the Weinninger test. But he is not ashamed of this (contrary to Weinninger, who was ashamed of Jewish thinking and committed suicide over it). He sees “clarification” as the task of the Jewish thinker:

What I do think essential is carrying out the work of clarification with COURAGE: otherwise it becomes just a clever game.

Sounding a lot like Paul Celan in his celebrated “Conversation in the Mountains” piece, Wittgenstein sees the Jew as having “nothing that is peculiarly his.”

It is much harder to accept poverty willingly when you have to be poor than when you might also be rich.

The fact that Wittgenstein underlines the word “have” suggests that he saw his Jewishness in terms of a necessary impoverishment. But his “courage,” which he capitalizes (“COURAGE”), is to accept this.  By doing this he can take on his cultural and philosophical task of clarification.  It is ethical.

Wittgenstein doesn’t mind that Jews aren’t “original.” He sees the Jewish task of clarification as necessary for the world.  The Jews can let everyone know that “everything is all right.” This, for Wittgenstiein, is the essential Jewish task.

Its way (the Jewish way) is rather to make a drawing of the flower or blade of grass that has grown in the soil of another’s mind and to put it into a comprehensive picture. We aren’t pointing to a fault when we say this and everything is all right as long as what is being done is quite clear. It is only when the nature of Jewish work is confused with that of a non-Jewish work that there is danger, especially when the author of the Jewish work falls into the confusion himself, as he so easily may. (19e)

In other words, Jews shouldn’t try to be “original.”  Wittgenstein is fine with this arrangement. He doesn’t want to “confuse” cultural roles. The Jews task is to disclose meanings that may have been hidden from the “non-Jewish” author:

It is typical for a Jewish mind to understand someone else’s work better than he understands it himself.

When Wittgenstein notes how, in the years 1913-14, he had some “thoughts of his own,” he reflects and wonders if that was actually possible:

I mean I have the impression that at that time I brought into life new movements of thinking (but perhaps I am mistaken).   Whereas now I seem just to apply old ones. (20e)

These words, coming from one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, who actually did introduce a “new movement of thinking,” should make one pause. He was not immune to racial thinking and even thought of himself and his own work in terms of it. Because of this influence, he doubted the fact that he could be or even was original.

Since he knows his task as a Jewish thinker is to clarify with “COURAGE,” one would think that the act of clarification gives him the most pleasure. But in his last marginal note of 1931, Wittgenstein tells us that he derives pleasure elsewhere.

The delight I take in my thoughts is delight in my own strange life. Is this joy of living? (22c)

His “strange life” is the source of his thoughts. Is that life the life of an Austrian Jew in 1931?   And why would this reflection bring joy? The oddity of this reflection is that while Weininger didn’t take any joy in his strangeness, Wittgenstein does.   Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Wittgenstein enjoys the possibility that he – a “Jewish” thinker whose task is to “clarify” – may have had an original thought!   Clarifying this possibility is a means of tapping into the strange life of a 42 year old Jew named Ludwig Wittgenstein.  He lived in 1931, which was one year before Hitler took power.

The terrible historical irony is that Hitler had no need for Jewish “clarification.”  His “original” thought took aim at the “fact” that Jews had nothing to offer Europe: since Jews can only “reproduce” European originality, they don’t have a culture of their own; and, for this reason, Hitler – like many an anti-Semite – thought Jews, Jewish artists, and Jewish thinkers are parasites.  In retrospect we know, quite clearly in fact, that this racist and anti-Semitic thought about originality had devastating consequences. Even though Wittgenstein tried to turn Jewish thought toward its noble and ethical task (“clarification”), nothing, it seems, could have redeemed (or as Nietzsche might say, “transvaluated”) the distinction between “originality” and “reproduction”  from its racist and anti-Semitic roots.



*Wittgenstein was born in 1889 and died in 1951.


5 thoughts on “Jews, 1931: Wittgenstein’s Marginalia on Jews, Jewishness, and “Reproductive” Jewish Thought

  1. He asks, rather than asserts, “Is this Joy of living”? On his death bed he says “Tell them I’ve had a happy life.” But of course he was miserable much of the time, partly because he did not not what to make of his “strange” life; born into riches that he gave away, caught between Jewishness and Christianity (he carried Tolstoy’s work on the Gospels into combat in WWI, reading it daily), and his confession, over which he agonized, might well have been to come out, to someone he respected, as gay.

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