Monday, October 22, 2012

Ludwig's outcasts

In the comments to this thread on Brian Leiter's blog, I said that Iris Murdoch had attended Wittgenstein's lectures. It turns out that she didn't. She wanted to, but Wittgenstein had stopped teaching by the time Murdoch arrived at Cambridge. She did have a couple of conversations with him.

This was in connection with Freeman Dyson's rant about recent philosophers. Dyson said that at Cambridge, "If a woman appeared in the audience, [Wittgenstein] would remain standing silent until she left the room."

While Wittgenstein might have adopted this policy when Dyson was at Cambridge, there were in fact several women who attended Wittgenstein's lectures over the years. You can find some of this info in O. K. Bouwsma's 1961 review of the Blue Book (pdf). Bouwsma quotes from a letter by Alice Ambrose, who attended Wittgenstein's classes in the 1930's. Ambrose says that she and Margaret Masterman were among a select group of students who recorded Wittgenstein's thoughts (under his direction) for the Blue Book. Ambrose adds that a Mrs. Helen Knight also attended some of those sessions with Wittgenstein. And, of course, there's G. E. M. Anscombe. In addition, Rose Rand attended some of Wittgenstein's classes in the early 1940's. In the thread at Leiter's blog, Michael Kremer adds that Margaret McDonald was at some of Wittgenstein's lectures and took some of the notes that were later published. So, at least six women attended Wittgenstein's classes. Moreover, Wittgenstein seems to have respected not only Anscombe's philosophical abilities but those of Ambrose and Masterman as well.

None of this undermines Dyson's anecdote about Wittgenstein's sexist behaviour in the classroom. In fact, in the comments at Leiter's blog, Kremer documents one such case (initially attested to by Geach).

Wittgenstein had a disconcerting tendency to turn against previously favoured students and even colleagues. After R. B. Braithwaite published an account of how Wittgenstein's views had changed, Braithwaite found that he was prohibited from attending any more of Wittgenstein's lectures. In 1935, after Ambrose published a paper that expressed some of Wittgenstein's thinking about math, she, too, was cast out (see this pdf by John G. Slater for more). In Ambrose's letter (quoted by Bouwsma [pdf]), Ambrose says that even Masterman (aka Mrs. Braithwaite) was on the outs with the master at one point and stopped attending his lectures (though Ambrose doesn't say explicitly that Masterman was required to do so).

These events occurred before the war and thus before Dyson's time at Cambridge. Still, I wonder if Dyson witnessed Wittgenstein freezing out another erstwhile favoured student who happened to be female. Or perhaps Wittgenstein really was less receptive to female students after the war.

Update (Oct. 23): Here's a bit from J. N. Findlay's "My Encounters With Wittgenstein":
Wittgenstein in that period became much beset by visitors, many from the U. S., and to some he was petulant, ungracious, or simply exclusive: Ernest Nagel [bio], an admirable person, vainly attempted to penetrate his courses or his conversations. He would have nothing to do with anyone who had had close relations with the Logical Positivists. (Studies in the Philosophy of J. N. Findlay, p. 57)

Update (Oct. 24): I wanted to focus on evidence against Wittgenstein's misogyny, but I've found some that supports Dyson's attribution. One of Iris Murdoch's biographers, Peter Conradi, says that Wittgenstein was known to remark, 'Men are foul, but women are viler.' For the attribution of this claim to Wittgenstein, Conradi refers to a conversation that he had with Georg Kreisel. I'm quoting from p. 123 of this recent collection of papers on Murdoch, to which Conradi contributed an article, though I think Conradi included the quotation in his earlier, biographical study of Murdoch.


Duncan Richter said...

I wonder what the evidence against Wittgenstein really is on this. As you say (and as Matt points out in comment 27 on Leiter's blog), Wittgenstein seems to have had a surprisingly large number of women at his classes, not only in the beginning but even after only a hard core remained, and even after he had kicked out those who had annoyed him. The evidence that he was a sexist seems to consist of the "Thank God..." remark, for which, as Cora Diamond notes, Monk does not give a source (although Geach might be the source); the incident with Ambrose; and a time when Wittgenstein told a male philosopher that he hoped he would not marry a "lady philosopher." (I don't remember where I've got this from).

The "Thank God..." remark is very odd, given that Anscombe was there. Which makes me think it must have been a joke. Or else, as seems quite possible, by "the women" he meant "the women who come to my classes in large numbers at the start of the term but leave when the going gets tough." Presumably these women were there because he was famous or they found him attractive. (Why else would his lectures attract "a great many listeners, largely female" who did not stay when the subject matter got serious and/or difficult?) If what he meant was "Thank God the women who come for the wrong reasons have left" then that isn't sexism.

The incident with Ambrose sounds as though it had nothing to do with her sex. Wittgenstein did not want his views prematurely or incorrectly publicized. Maybe he was a jerk about that (or maybe not), but I don't see why we should regard him as a sexist jerk.

The "lady philosopher" remark is somewhat troubling, but I think I can imagine either a certain kind of woman philosopher (a lady, after all) being described this way, or else a certain kind of relationship between married philosophers, in which philosophy was not taken as seriously as it perhaps should be.

Most troubling is Geach's apparent view that other evidence could be found to make the point against Wittgenstein (although it's hard to assess this without knowing what the evidence would be) and the fact that Wittgenstein is said to have treated Anscombe an "honorary male." That does sound sexist. The main evidence Geach gives is Wittgenstein's calling Anscombe "old man" on several occasions. Why he did that I don't know. It was surely meant as some kind of joke. It sounds like a sexist joke, but if we take it that way it also sounds incredibly stupid. Could Wittgenstein possibly have thought that it was a compliment to treat a woman as a man? I suppose the answer is Yes, but it doesn't seem very plausible. I just don't know what to make of it.

praymont said...

Thanks, Duncan, for those comments. Much of the evidence is mixed. I don't see anything in W's treatment of Ambrose that was sexist, given that he treated men (such as Braithwaite) in similar fashion. The "Thank God" remark to Anscombe might have been driven not so much by sexism as by a desire to kid Anscombe about her perceived masculine habits -- wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and sometimes wearing a monocle (though I'm not sure if she did that while a student).

praymont said...

Here's evidence for his sexism. It's recounted by Peter Conradi (a biographer of Iris Murdoch), who says he heard the following anecdote in conversation with Georg Kreisel. According to Conradi, W "famously did not think women could do philosophy: 'men are foul, but women are viler' he would remark." That's from p. 123 of the recent collection on Murdoch (ed. J. Broackes).

Duncan Richter said...

That's a good point about Anscombe. And maybe she was in on the joke, or enjoyed it anyway. (Or maybe not, of course, but if it was a joke they shared and enjoyed then it's not really sexist, or so it seems to me.) "Men are foul, but women are viler" sounds pretty bad though. Then again, the source for that remark seems to be a letter written by Georg Kreisel, who doesn't sound entirely reliable (his amoralism, eccentricity, and low opinion of Wittgenstein on at least some counts are mentioned in Conradi's biography of Murdoch).

As you say, the evidence is mixed. He probably was at least somewhat sexist, but it's hard to be sure.

praymont said...

Thanks for the point about Kreisel. I hadn't looked much at the Murdoch bio by Conradi.

Duncan Richter said...

I hope I'm right. I don't have the book to hand, so I'm doing my best to read it online, and I might have misidentified or misunderstood the footnote. I'm taking CWA to mean correspondence with author.

Tommi Uschanov said...

In addition to the names already mentioned, Wittgenstein's 1939 lectures on the foundations of mathematics were attended by the renowned Polish logician Maria Lutman-Kokoszyńska. Cora Diamond mentions this in the introduction to her edition of the lectures. I also seem to remember that Margaret Paul (Frank Ramsey's sister) attended some of Wittgenstein's Cambridge lectures in the '30s.

It strikes me that an endless series of arguments and counter-arguments are available. For instance, Pinsent (quoted by Monk, pp. 72–73) records the very young Wittgenstein in 1913 as opposing women's suffrage, "for no particular reason except that 'all the women he knows are such idiots'." Then again, his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union shows indirectly that he did not feel men's suffrage to be that important either! Meanwhile, Drury related that "in relation to Weininger's theme about the fact that women and the feminine element in man were the source of all evil, he exclaimed: 'How wrong he was, my God he was wrong'." And yet this is compatible with the remark reported by Kreisel, for instance. And so on.

Once upon a time, Duncan wrote on his blog in a different context: "[Wittgenstein] was not 'awkward and unskilled in social intercourse.' On the contrary, he could be very charming. What he was is rude, which is not the same thing. My sense is that he was perfectly capable of getting along at a superficial level with people he probably thought of as superficial, but that he had a very low tolerance of what he regarded as bullshit when talking with people from whom he expected more, such as philosophers." I think this hits the nail on the head. What is apt to strike us as Wittgenstein's misogyny was probably to a large extent a case of this congenital inability to suffer fools gladly. He may well have been irritated by female fools in a qualitatively somewhat different way than by male fools (although this is hard to even try to put into words). But the two types of irritation could nevertheless have been quite closely related, and even indistinguishable in many or most respects.

Wittgenstein also enjoyed giving shocking answers to rhetorical questions designed to elicit a non-shocking answer. For instance, Russell's question as to whether he would prefer a world organisation for war and slavery to one for peace and freedom. His professed attitudes to women surely also had a lot to do with his distaste for the progressive and liberal self-image of the twentieth-century civilisation where he found himself, to his deep dissatisfaction. Women may have struck him as too good an opportunity to be rude about something which he was complacently expected to be polite about.

praymont said...

Thanks, Tommi. That brings to at least eight the number of women who attended W's lectures. This discussion certainly illustrates the ethical complexity in these sorts of cases.