GENERAL ABSOLUTION VS. PRIVATE CONFESSION
Wittgenstein Makes a Confession

February 2004By William C. Dowling

William C. Dowling is University Distinguished Professor of English and American Literature at Rutgers University. He is author, most recently, of The Senses of the Text: Intensional Semantics and Literary Theory.

In 1937 Ludwig Wittgenstein, already recognized as one of the major philosophers of the 20th century, returned to Cambridge, England, from the lonely hut in Norway where he had been living in solitude. His first business was to ring up various friends, including G.E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher, and Fania Pascal, a woman from whom he had previously taken Russian lessons, to say that he needed urgently to see them in person, to make a confession.

By confession, as it turned out, Wittgenstein meant not the revelation of a single act or deed, but an account of behavior stretching back over many years, including a particular shameful episode that had occurred when he had been a schoolteacher in Austria. This account he had written out in full. His way of confessing to his friends was to read it, in a strangely remote or impersonal manner, from beginning to end.

Though the friends to whom Wittgenstein confessed were understandably reticent in their later accounts of what the document contained, the episode has become a famous moment in his biography. The most complete account we have is provided by Fania Pascal:

The most painful part of the confession came at the end, a traumatic experience to live and own up to. I recall well that at this stage he had to keep a firmer control on himself, telling in a clipped way of the cowardly and shameful manner in which he had behaved. During the short period when he was teaching at a village school in Austria, he hit a little girl in his class and hurt her…. When she ran to the headmaster to complain, Wittgenstein denied he had done it. The event stood out as a crisis of his early manhood. It may have been this that made him give up teaching, perhaps made him realize that he ought to live as a solitary. (Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees)

Wittgenstein’s own response to his confession was one of at least temporary relief. Later, in an entry in his notebook, he would write that “last year with God’s help I pulled myself together and made a confession. This brought me into more settled waters, into a better relation with people, and to greater seriousness. But now it is as though I had spent all that, and I am not far from where I was before. I am cowardly beyond measure.”


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