Ludwig Wittgenstein and Paul Holmer: A Comparison

by Jonathan Sweeney

Monument Avenue, one of the central avenues in Richmond, Virginia, is so named for the many statues and monuments that line its bricks and pavement. To the majority of passers-by, most of these statues and plaques stand in quiet obscurity. However, as one approaches an intersection near downtown where the avenue begins to widen, one monument demands that the traveller take notice, as he or she must pass by either to the right or to the left of it. It is a statue of a hardened military commander and his horse, which lacks any description save three simple letters: LEE.

My father-in-law, a military historian and a native to Richmond, tells me that the more important the figure is, the less a monument requires explanation. The same measure does not apply to biographies; in fact, the converse is often true. It is not uncommon for a biography of an important figure, say Churchill or Coleridge, to fetch three volumes. Ray Monk’s recent study, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, however, comprises only one manageable volume.1 Certainly, Wittgenstein would have wanted it this way, had he wanted a biography written of him at all. Though Wittgenstein stands as perhaps the most important thinker of this century, he wouldn’t want his life to keep anyone from the serious concerns of living.

In the brief introduction to the book, Monk states his intention to portray “the unity of [Wittgenstein’s] philosophical concerns with his emotional and spiritual life” (p. xviii). This is basic to a biographical study of Wittgenstein, for his work has everything to do with himself. For my focus of comparison, Paul Holmer’s life and work demonstrate the same sort of unity.

From the beginning of Monk’s book, it is clear that Wittgenstein’s interest in philosophy was never motivated by an analytic desire to eradicate doubt with certainty. Wittgenstein does not appear to suffer from this all-too-common philosophical disease which Richard Bernstein calls the “Cartesian anxiety.” Instead, he initially viewed philosophical questions as problems to be solved—not unlike mathematical problems. This changed early in his academic career, however, as he came to see philosophy more as therapy for the tasks of living.

It will come as no surprise to former students of Paul Holmer that many lines of comparison can be drawn between him and Wittgenstein. It would be a mistake to name these as comparisons of thought only, because for both Wittgenstein and Holmer, distinctions cannot be drawn between thinking and living.

Wittgenstein is a common lecture topic for Holmer. As he is very persuasive in his lecturing, I quote at length:

The great Austrian philosopher, Wittgenstein, said that when we’re concerned about the meaning of language it’s not that a piece of language says everything it means; you can’t read meaning off of words; and it isn’t in virtue of the fact that you simply understand words that you know all that’s meant; but rather, it’s like this - that something about the form of life of the person who says the words shows you how the words mean. Not everything is said by the words; some things are shown you by the form of life in which those words take shape. The notion that one· has to therefore know something about the form of life, and human forms of life, in order to understand words that are spoken, follows as a matter of course.2

Here lies the importance of biography in that it can, like the best of scholarly history, bring insight into distinctive forms of life. Many a live emerges from the immense paper trails of penetrating biographical studies, revealing a subject with few centers—sometimes only one—of formation and concern.

For Wittgenstein, truthfulness—in the broader, reflexive sense—is an overriding passion and a concern. Monk shows that Wittgenstein was influenced from his teenage years by the writings of Karl Kraus, the controversial Austrian intellectual. From Kraus, Wittgenstein first formulated the life-principle of the importance of self-examination. As Monk reports, this came to young Ludwig in a manner similar to a Kantian categorical imperative: “One should be truthful, and that is that; the question ‘Why?’ is inappropriate and cannot be answered” (Monk, p. 18). Similarly, on the insufficiency of politics for the fabricating of a just society, Wittgenstein, later in life, was fond of saying: “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world” (Monk, pp. 17-18).

Holmer’s own life embodies this principle. Throughout his writings, and particularly in his teaching, Paul Holmer offers many personal examples of his own struggle for the good will. This life principle could easily have come as much from a pietistic upbringing as from Wittgenstein’s thought. But, either way, Professor David Swenson prodded the young Holmer at the University of Minnesota into Kierkegaard’s writings, which certainly developed his capacity to understand Wittgenstein’s mysticism.

Wittgenstein and Holmer share the conviction that language flows from a form of life. Like Kierkegaard, they both aim their writing at the task of distilling the jargon of objective, academic writing. Walter Kaufmann expresses this impulse well in his introduction to The Present Age: “To be sure, it is not literally with a kiss that Christ is betrayed in the present age: today one betrays with an interpretation.”3

Holmer’s teaching and writing offer many examples of attempts to counteract obscurantism. Take, for example, Holmer’s use of words like “iffy” or “jabber” in a German academic journal article,4 or his use of everyday speech in discussion of philosophical problems. In my opinion, Monk’s explanation of Wittgenstein’s choice of language illuminates Holmer’s as well: “This lack of sophistication has, I think, a propagandist purpose. Wittgenstein’s use of casual, everyday language in discussion of problems in mathematical logic, and his simple dismissal as ‘bosh’ of the terms in which those problems have been raised, serves as an antidote to the seriousness and earnestness with which they have been discussed by those who have fallen for their ‘charm’ (including, for example, himself, in 1911)” (Monk, p. 417).

On this score, charges of fideism and anti-intellectualism are misguided when aimed at Paul Holmer, in the same way that Bertrand Russell’s judgment of the young Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge was misguided. Wittgenstein’s subjective passion perplexed Russell. This passion stood even in the face of questions regarding mathematics and logic. As a result, Wittgenstein remained largely unintelligible to Russell, who found him not only alien but quaint. Monk records one occasion on which Russell told his mistress: “I am seriously afraid that no one will see the point of what he writes, because he won’t recommend it by arguments addressed to a different point of view” (Monk, pp. 53-4). Russell’s misunderstanding of Wittgenstein on this point underscores his fundamental incapacity for the kind of inwardness that characterized Wittgenstein.

Holmer is similar to Wittgenstein in this regard. His own teaching and writing do not depend upon notions of verification and systematic argument. But Holmer, like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein before him, advocates subjective interest and passion as the goal of academic work. For this reason, Holmer, too, does not waste space with arguments that might keep one from living.

Both Holmer’s and Wittgenstein’s appreciation of Friedrich Nietzsche demonstrates this as well. The thesis Paul Holmer wrote for his M.A. at Minnesota compared the life and writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. One of Holmer’s central theses was the notion that neither Kierkegaard nor Nietzsche believed as they did regarding Christianity on the basis of evidences or truth. Kierkegaard willed and wanted to believe while Nietzsche willed and wanted to disbelieve.5 Ray Monk quotes a passage from Nietzsche’s book, The Anti-Christ, that had a similar influence on Wittgenstein. It speaks eloquently to this theme:

It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a “belief,” perchance the belief in redemption through Christ, the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian: only Christian practice, a life such as he who died on the Cross lived, is Christian... Even today such a life is possible, for certain men even necessary: genuine, primitive Christianity will be possible at all times... Not a belief but a doing, above all a not-doing of many things, a different being... To reduce being a Christian, Christianness, to a holding of something to be true, to a mere phenomenality of consciousness, means to negate Christianness (p. 122).

Let us not take a comparison between Wittgenstein and Holmer too far, however. One outstanding difference between them can be found in Monk’s account of Wittgenstein’s years as an undergraduate. One gains the impression from these pages that Wittgenstein is constantly attempting to come to terms with himself. In fact, it is Monk’s underlying thesis that Wittgenstein gained an oftentimes burdensome duty to genius from his upper-class Viennese mind-set and his own extraordinary talent. Thus, we see the undergraduate at Cambridge in a constant battle with himself to come to terms with his capacities for certain emotions and passions. He often alternated between expressions of passion or emotion and of guilt or self-disgust.

More than’ anything, this seems to indicate the trouble of attempting to form one’s life after something as dubious as genius. Genius can be a panacea for a passionless life, but faith will increase capacities and form one’s life. Thus, Paul Holmer would, I suspect, feel uncomfortable under a guise of “genius.” Rather, Holmer would be most complimented being seen as fully at home in himself, thoroughly authentic, a man of his words. Holmer, like Wittgenstein, believes as he lives—at a cost and with interest.

In the end, biographies are not really suited, in my opinion, for people of inwardness. You cannot simply point at a particular form of life and say, “Look.” I, for one, would feel quite uncomfortable questioning Paul Holmer’s form of life the way Monk questions his subject. You cannot argue with a form of life.

1. Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, (NY: Free Press, 1990).

2. Paul L. Holmer, “Saying and Showing,” Lecture One, The Annual David Nyvall Lectures at North Park Theological Seminary, 1974.

3. Walter Kaufmann, intro. to Soren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age and Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle, trans. Alexander Dru (NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1962).

4. Paul L. Holmer, “Wittgenstein: ‘Saying’ and ‘Showing,’” Neue Zeitschrift fur Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie; 22. Band 1980, Heft 3:222-235.

5. Paul LeRoy Holmer, “A Comparative Study of the Philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche,” a thesis submitted to the graduate faculty of the University of Minnesota, December 1941:3.