“Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural”

What does Wittgenstein mean when he says:

If a man [sic] could write a book on Ethics, which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all other books in the world.

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, “A Lecture on Ethics,” in The Philosophical Review, Volume 74, Issue 1 (Jan., 1965), 3-12.


According to Wittgenstein, Ethics entails making judgements of absolute value whereas “our words will only express facts.” So for Wittgenstein, to “really” express a judgement of absolute value, to truly venture into ethical territory, is tantamount to going “beyond the world,” at least beyond what he terms “significant language.” 

This is certainly very different from what I take to be ethics, which can more or less be summed up as a particular relationship one has with the world, a way of moving in the world, a set of evolving practices that shapes and is shaped by it. It involves bodies, practices and discourses in their complex relatedness. In this rather Spinozan/Deleuzoguattarian/Foulcaultian conception of ethics, absolute judgements (“ought”, “should”, “is”) belong to the territory of morality. 

Could it just be that Wittgenstein says “ethics” instead of “morality”? I suspect the disparity goes beyond a difference in terminology, however. Wittgenstein’s emphasis is on language. Going beyond the world is the same thing as going beyond language. This is why the expression of an absolute truth or judgement (and not just an analogy or a simile) would detonate not only the book or language but also the world. For this is the-world-as-we-can-think-it. If something cannot be said, it cannot be thought, and therefore cannot be in the world. 

Philosophy according to Wittgenstein is the attempt to say the unsayable or think the unthinkable; the limits of language are the limits of philosophy. This is especially so in terms of metaphysics, religion and ethics which compel one to resort to analogy and metaphor, to “run against the boundaries of language,” bordering on the “nonsensical.”

As his singularly beautiful and strange words attest, Wittgenstein did stretch those boundaries. A philosopher is nothing if not a poet. 

Snarky note: Speaking of language, regard the quote at the beginning of the post. If “a man” such as Wittgenstein, or anyone really, could imagine someone other than “a man” writing anything, let alone a book of Ethics, rendering this thought thinkable would perhaps, (preferably) with an explosion, destroy patriarchy.



[Description of featured image: A sepia-toned photograph of Wittgenstein in front of a superficially cleaned blackboard which still shows the chaotic scribbles imprinted on it. Wittgenstein is directly looking at the camera with an almost-smile.]

[Description of image at the end of post: A quote by Wittgenstein that reads: “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.” Underneath it with smaller italized characters it reads: Ludwig Wittgenstein. On the bottom lefthand corner it reads: meetville.com]

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