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Speaking for Oneself: Wittgenstein, Nabokov and Sartre on How (Not) to Be a Philistine

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 July 2015


The aim of this article is twofold. First, I want to offer an introduction of and a comparison between three accounts of philistinism. Secondly, I show how the phenomenon of philistinism, a failure to speak for oneself, helps to develop an original perspective on Wittgenstein's moral thought. It is often claimed that Wittgenstein's personal ethics were quite unorthodox because he repeatedly seems to have supported destruction, war and slavery. I argue that, in the light of my discussion of philistinism, the remarks upon which such conclusions are based should be read differently.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2015 

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1 Ray Monk, The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), 211.

2 Hans-Johann Glock, ‘Wittgenstein and Reason’, in James Klagge (ed.), Wittgenstein. Biography & Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 195–220 (205–6).

3 Richter, Duncan, ‘Whose Ethics? Which Wittgenstein?’, Philosophical Papers 31 (2002), 323–42 (325)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Monk, Duty of Genius, 211.

5 For a full account of these views (in Dutch), see De Mesel, Benjamin, ‘Nabokov, Sartre en de Triomf van de Domheid’, Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 76 (2014), 3157 Google Scholar.

6 Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books. Preliminary Studies for the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), 44.

7 Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov. The Russian Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 182. On the history of the term ‘philistinism’, see Brill, E. V. K., ‘The Philistine Concept in German Literature’, European Studies Review 7 (1977), 7793 CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Nyegaard, Ole, ‘Poshlust and High Art. A Reading of Nabokov's Aesthetics’, Orbis Litterarum 59 (2004), 341–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Philistines and Philistinism’, in Lectures on Russian Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1981), 309–14 (309).

9 Ibid., 309.

10 Ibid., 309–10.

11 Some authors have pointed at differences between philistinism and poshlost (Nyegaard, ‘Poshlust and High Art’). For our purposes, they can be treated as synonyms.

12 Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol (New York: New Directions, 1968), 68.

13 According to Nabokov, Germany is the land of poshlost. A similar view is defended in Brill, ‘The Philistine Concept’.

14 Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, 65–6.

15 Ibid., 66.

16 Ibid., 68–9.

17 Nabokov, ‘Philistines and Philistinism’, 309.

18 Ibid., 311.

19 Ibid., 312–13.

20 Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, 240.

21 Nyegaard, ‘Poshlust and High Art’, discusses the same example.

22 Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 26.

23 Nyegaard, ‘Poshlust and High Art’, 343.

24 Nabokov, Pnin, 26–7.

25 Ibid., 26.

26 Ibid., 26.

27 Ibid., 21.

28 Nabokov, ‘Philistines and Philistinism’, 313.

29 Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot. Gustave Flaubert 1821–1857. Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 592–627.

30 Ibid., 592.

31 Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1982), 126.

32 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 593.

33 Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, 142.

34 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 595.

35 Ibid., 596.

36 Ibid., 597.

37 Ibid., 597.

38 Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, 133.

39 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 598.

40 Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Received Ideas (New York: New Directions, 1968), 43.

41 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 602.

42 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (London: Routledge, 2005), 59.

43 Ibid., 59.

44 Ibid., 59.

45 Ibid., 55.

46 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 606.

47 Ibid., 606.

48 Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, 127.

49 Ibid., 143.

50 Ibid., 142.

51 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 622.

52 Ibid., 622.

53 Ibid., 623.

54 Ibid., 623.

55 Boyd, The Russian Years, 63, 88 and 4. See also ibid., 84 and Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov. The American Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 82, 133, 345.

56 Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books, 18–19.

57 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), §455.

58 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 4.

59 Monk, Duty of Genius, 275.

60 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 3.

61 Monk, Duty of Genius, 114.

62 Ibid., 139.

63 Ibid., 212.

64 Ibid., 212. See also ibid., 228.

65 Ibid., 478.

66 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 8.

67 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4.

68 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 9.

69 Ibid., 72.

70 For support of the claim that Wittgenstein was not against peace or pro destruction, see Wittgenstein's letter to Malcolm in Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge. Letters and Documents 1911–1951 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 383.

71 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 20.

72 See Benjamin De Mesel, ‘On Wittgenstein's Comparison of Philosophical Methods to Therapies’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies (forthcoming).

73 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 69.

74 Ibid., 69.

75 Ibid., 42.

76 Ibid., 53.

77 Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books, 45.

78 O. K. Bouwsma, Wittgenstein. Conversations 1949–1951 (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), 28.

79 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 201.

80 Karsten Harries, ‘Philosophy in Search of Itself’, in C. P. Ragland and Sarah Heidt (eds.), What is Philosophy? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 47–73 (67).

81 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 64.

82 Rudolf Carnap, ‘Intellectual Autobiography’, in Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (La Salle: Open Court, 1963), 1–84 (29).

83 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §116.

84 Ibid., §43.

85 See, in this respect, James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (eds.), Ludwig Wittgenstein. Public and Private Occasions (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 119.

86 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §38.

87 Ibid., §132.

88 Ibid., §97.

89 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), §482.

90 Klagge and Nordmann, Public and Private Occasions, 403.

91 Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 175. Cavell offers an interpretation of Wittgenstein and, like any interpretation of Wittgenstein, some other interpreters will have problems with it. I do not want to present Cavell's reading as the only possible one and this is not the place to defend it. I can only say that I agree with the parts I quote.

92 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 593.

93 Vladimir Nabokov, ‘The Art of Literature and Commonsense’, in Lectures on Literature, 371–80.

94 Nabokov, ‘The Art of Literature’, 371.

95 Sartre, The Family Idiot, 592–3.

96 Waismann, Friedrich, ‘Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein’, The Philosophical Review 74 (1965), 1216 (16)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

97 For another discussion of this point, see Pianalto, Matthew, ‘Speaking for Oneself. Wittgenstein on Ethics’, Inquiry 54 (2011), 252276 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The relation between Pianalto's article and mine is complex and cannot be discussed here.

98 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 45.

99 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge, 2005), 6.421.

100 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 3.

101 Ibid., 36.

102 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 416.

103 Cavell, Claim of Reason, 154.

104 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 63.

105 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §133.

106 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 370.

107 Cavell, Claim of Reason, 176.

108 Ibid., 207.

109 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 25.

110 Ibid., 44. See also ibid., 16, 42, 60.

111 Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Memoir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009), 47.

112 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 371.

113 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 55–6. For Wittgenstein on ‘bourgeois’, see Klagge and Nordmann, Public and Private Occasions, 129, 147 and 271.

114 See, for example, Richter, ‘Whose Ethics?’, 326.

115 Glock, Hans-Johann, ‘Wittgensteinian Anti-Anti-Realism’, Ethical Perspectives 22 (2015), 100Google Scholar.

116 Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 314.

117 Boyd, The American Years, 227.

118 Monk, Duty of Genius, 178.

119 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 385.

120 Consider, in that respect, the Chinese millionaire who put on his business card that he is China's ‘Moral Leader’, the ‘Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model’ and the ‘Most Prominent Philantropist of China’. See [accessed 01/06/15].

121 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 326 and 372.

122 Maurice Drury, ‘Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein’, in Rush Rhees (ed.), Recollections of Wittgenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 112.

123 McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, 314.

124 Sabina Lovibond, Ethical Formation (Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2002), 100.

125 Ibid., 87.

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