Wittgenstein's early ethics
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AbstractWittgenstein's cryptic remarks on ethics at the end of the Tractatus seem to bear no connection to rest of the book, and as a result were virtually ignored by interpreters for decades after its publication. His comments also derive much from the work of Schopenhauer, and can best be deciphered against the background of Schopenhauer's ethical views. This thesis aims to give a coherent reconstruction of Wittgenstein's early ethical thought, based on his remarks in the Tractatus and the Notebooks. Chapter 1 explains Wittgenstein's claim that ethics is transcendental. In his view, value does not attach to anything contingent, so, since he restricts meaningful language to the domain of contingent, particular facts, ethics is inexpressible. Value attaches only to the will "as bearer of ethical attributes", which is not a fact in the world, either physical or mental; it is a person's attitude towards the world as a whole. Chapter 2 begins with an examination of the connection between the will and the world. Wittgenstein claims that the will is not an attitude towards particular facts, but towards the world as a whole. The exercise of the will is the adoption of such an attitude, and it does not alter particular facts in the world. Rather, it alters the character of experience as a whole, making the agent's life a more or less happy one. Wittgenstein describes happiness as the acceptance of the fact-totality, however it is: the happy person attaches no special importance to any particular facts, and is "in agreement with the world". The unhappy person, on the other hand, mistakenly attaches value to particular facts, specifically facts about his own body, so failing to affinn the fact-totality. Wittgenstein suggests that fear and hope are signs of unhappiness. This suggestion, I contend, compromises Wittgenstein's claim that ethics is inexpressible. Chapter 3 examines two of the consequences of Wittgenstein's account. The first is is that it is impossible to sustain a happy attitude towards the world. The second is that fill):'. change in ethical attitude happens in an unplanned, unintentional way: the will has no causal connection to any of my intentions or desires. Wittgenstein took his account of ethics very seriously ; he attempted to lead an exemplary life, demanding honesty and integrity of himself and others, in an effort to affirm as much of the fact-totality as possible. However, given that there is no causal connection between actions and the will, and that actions are, themselves, of no value, Wittgenstein's account implies that it makes no ethical difference what we do. This implication follows from Wittgenstein's sharp distinction between value and facts. In addition, he claims that our ordinary ascriptions of value to events and actions are nonsensical. I argue that these two implications are so strongly counter-intuitive as to make Wittgenstein's account of ethics untenable.
Bibliography: p. 95-97.
CitationElstein, K. (1991). Wittgenstein's early ethics (Unpublished master's thesis). University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. doi:10.11575/PRISM/15483
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