Did Wittgenstein Write on Shakespeare?
Joachim Schulte


It is often claimed that certain remarks by Wittgenstein reveal him to have been an unsympathetic reader of Shakespeare and an unappreciative judge of the latter’s achievements. In the present paper, I attempt to show that this sort of observation is not only wrong but due to an inadequate perspective. An examination of the relevant remarks may bring to light a number of more or less interesting principles of evaluation, or aesthetic maxims and appraisals, but these do not say much about Shakespeare’s works, nor are they meant to be instructive in this way. What Wittgenstein’s remarks are really about is his own intellectual physiognomy: it is by way of contrast, by comparing certain features of Shakespeare with what he supposes to be characteristic of himself, that he hopes to learn about the limits and potentialities of his own personality.

Table of contents

I. Two questions

There is a strange tradition of misunderstanding Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare. This tradition is exemplified by obser-vations like Ray Monk’s statement that “Wittgenstein had long been troubled by his inability to appreciate the greatness of Shakespeare” (1991: 568)1, or George Steiner’s claim that Wittgen-stein, in spite of being “a great logician and epistemologist”, could be “a blind reader of literature” – and of Shakespeare, in particular.2 Quite apart from the obvious fact that Wittgenstein was neither a “great logician” nor an “epistemologist” of any stripe or stature whatsoever, he would surely have minded being called a “blind reader of literature”. And what we know about his comments on literary works surely does not justify a judgement of the kind pronounced by Steiner.

In two recent articles, Wolfgang Huemer has made a laudable attempt at identifying these and other misunderstandings of Wittgenstein’s relevant remarks and pointing out some respects in which they can be found to be erroneous and misleading.3 Much of what Huemer says seems correct enough, but I continue to feel that he has not arrived at the heart of the matter. In my view, what we are lacking are (1) a clear awareness of the type of remark we are dealing with and (2) the true point, or points, of these remarks. As regards (1), we need information and as much clarity as possible about the manuscript context of this material, and as regards (2), we shall need to find plausible answers to questions about why Wittgenstein wrote these lines: what was he driving at, and whom was he addressing?

One reason for asking question (1) is the impression that in speaking of “Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare” too much unity of form and purpose is taken for granted. By lumping the relevant remarks together under the heading “On Shakespeare” we are being told that we should look at this material in a certain light. And consequently, the question whether Wittgenstein got Shakespeare right may seem a natural one to ask. In this paper, it will become clear that I have my doubts about the correctness of an approach of this kind. And these doubts carry over to the question about Wittgenstein’s point in dealing with Shakespeare. In fact, this second set of doubts will prove even more important than the first lot. Evidently, most commentators have failed to ask this central question, and this failure is one, or perhaps the chief, reason for many unhelpful answers to question (1).

But despite my feeling that the answers we tend to give to question (1) will to some extent depend on the answers we tend to give to question (2), I shall proceed by way of first looking at the text of the relevant remarks as well as (some of) their context and leaving the discussion of Wittgenstein’s ultimate point, or points, in writing these notes to a later part of this paper. However, before getting down to my fairly systematic examination of the text, I shall very briefly mention another question (if only to leave it aside, though with a good conscience) and say a few things about the published version of Wittgenstein’s remarks.

II. Wittgenstein’s Shakespeare

The question I want to raise (if only to leave it alone after a few desultory suggestions) concerns Wittgenstein’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s works. If this is meant as a question requiring an answer in terms of evidence for his having read or attended a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, it is quickly answered. There is evidence for his acquaintance with King Lear, but this seems to be all.4 So, people may come to wonder why Wittgenstein dared to make sweeping judgements about Shakespeare on the basis of having read, or attended one performance of, one single play. But this is a completely misguided way of looking at the matter. It used to be the case – and this is particularly true of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century – that Shakespeare belonged to the most essential segment of the literary canon in German-speaking lands. Not only were his plays performed very frequently: they were studied at school, and lines from his works were part of practically everyone’s speech. In Wittgenstein’s world, people would quote from Hamlet or Macbeth with the same degree of naturalness with which they would quote from Wilhelm Tell or Faust. What is still called the Schlegel-Tieck translation5 of Shakespeare’s works was and is generally regarded as one the finest achievements of German romanticism. Owing to this fact, Shakespeare is often perceived as almost a romantic author – a classification encouraged by the enormous popularity of the music Mendelssohn wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Every schoolboy used to know about the history of translations of Shakespeare’s plays and well-known or famous writings about him, and this was knowledge any reader of the feuilleton of a decent daily paper was supposed to possess: Lessing relied on Shakespeare as his witness in his polemics against French drama; Herder and Goethe praised Shakespeare in programmatic writings; and Heine, in his attack on the Schlegel brothers, found it extremely difficult to reconcile the thrust of his charges against them with the acknowledged merits of August Wilhelm’s translation.6 And to mention a last (but perhaps quite important) fact: Karl Kraus revised the Schlegel-Tieck translations of seven plays by Shakespeare and used these shortened texts for many of his public readings. In Vienna, these readings were tremendously popular and very well-attended. And as Wittgenstein was a great admirer of Karl Kraus, Kraus’s appreciation of Shakespeare may well have influenced Wittgenstein.7

In short, there can be no question about Wittgenstein’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s works. Of course, we may wonder how many of these works he knew, how well he knew them, and whether he knew much about the original English texts or their background. But as far as I can see, there is no way of arriving at reliable answers to these questions.

III. Quotations

Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare have all been published in the collection Vermischte Bemerkungen (Wittgenstein 1977). A translation by Peter Winch has appeared in the English version Culture and Value; a revised version of this translation was published on the pages facing the revised edition of the German text, which was prepared by Alois Pichler (Wittgenstein 1998).8 There is a lot that can be said about Georg Henrik von Wright’s edition, and a lot has been said – in praise as well as in criticism of his selection of the material. I suppose it is true that one may object to this type of book on general grounds. On the other hand, much material that can be helpful in reading Wittgenstein’s writings would be inaccessible to most people if Culture and Value did not exist. So there are no doubt reasons to be grateful for its existence. But two things need to be remembered. First of all, this is a selection by one person, and von Wright’s choices reflect his own time and his own interests (as he would have been the first to acknowledge). Second, no book of this kind can provide a substitute for actually reading these remarks in their original manuscript context. Pichler’s revised edition contributes to reminding us of this fact by reproducing certain features of the original and giving exact references to the manuscripts. This is helpful, but unfortunately readers keep treating the book as if it were authorized by Wittgenstein himself. It is not, and in many cases the published remarks can contribute to our knowledge of Wittgenstein only if this fact is appreciated.

The following quotations are (sometimes slightly normalized) versions of the text presented in Culture and Value. In some cases where I wish to stress the possibility of an alternative reading of the German original not captured by Winch’s translation, I shall try to bring this out by paraphrasing the text accordingly or, occasionally, by explicitly suggesting such a reading.

1. Dance

The first quotation comes from a smallish notebook containing remarks from 1940 (MS 162b). A fair number of these remarks are of a kind regarded by von Wright as suitable for inclusion in Culture and Value.

Shakespeare, könnte man sagen, zeigt den Tanz der menschlichen Leidenschaften. Er muß daher objektiv sein, sonst würde er ja nicht den Tanz der menschlichen Leidenschaften zeigen – sondern etwa über ihn reden. Aber er zeigt sie uns im Tanz, nicht naturalistisch. (Diese Idee habe ich von Paul Engelmann.)Shakespeare, one might say, displays the dance of human passions. For this reason he has to be objective, otherwise he would not so much display the dance of human passions – as perhaps talk about it. But he shows us them in a dance, not naturalistically. (I got this idea from Paul Engelmann.)

The first point to be noted about this quotation (MS 162b: 61r; CV: 42) is that it does not seem to stand in any obvious connection to any of the other relevant remarks. The second significant point is this: that Wittgenstein finds it important to remind himself of the fact that he owes this insight to Engelmann. In a way, this helps to underline the personal, or private, character of the remark: it is in the nature of a keepsake and, like the dried flowers he used to keep in his manuscripts, meant to remind him of exchanges with his old friend. The objectivity alluded to is reminiscent of that mentioned in a much earlier (1931) remark apropos of Karl Kraus,9 where Wittgenstein observes that the latter’s plays should be performed by actors wearing masks (CV: 14). This would help to bring out that the characters are “stylized human beings”. So, the intended objectivity is produced by a kind of Verfremdungseffekt. The passions would be made visible in an highly artificial way, in the style of a ballet representing, for instance, the cardinal virtues or mortal sins. Accordingly, we may now, in spite of our first impression, try to find a connection between Wittgenstein’s claim that Shakespeare does not show the passions in a naturalistic way and his later statement (CV: 96) that Shakespeare is not “true to life” (naturwahr). It is not clear to me why Winch chose to translate the first two occurrences of “zeigen” by “display” and the third one by “show”. It may well be that Wittgenstein’s “zeigen” is meant to have the force of “having the passions performed, enacted, made visible”. This would fit the emphasis on objectivity, stylization and Verfremdung.

It is intriguing that this idea of a dance of human passions is mentioned a few lines after another remark centring on the notion of a dance and comparing piano playing to “a dance of human fingers”.10 It is not clear what exactly Wittgenstein had in mind here, but if he thought of something like Chico Marx’s film performances, where the fingers could be said to play a separate, visually appreciable, role quite independent of their function as producers of certain sounds, it may well be that it was this abstractness or stylization which made him think of Engelmann’s remark.

2. Milton’s testimony

Our next remark does not seem to present us with any difficulties of interpretation. It was written in August 1946 and can be found in the second of his large account books, generally referred to as “Bände”, forming a series of manuscripts chiefly dealing with the philosophy of psychology (MS 131: 46, 15.8.1946). In the margin, this observation is marked as “S” (= schlecht = bad), which means that upon re-reading this material Wittgenstein decided against using it again; that is, he decided that he would not include it in his typescript (TS 229 = RPP I).

Es ist merkwürdig, wie schwer es fällt zu glauben, was wir nicht selbst einsehen. Wenn ich z. B. bewundernde Äußerungen der bedeutenden Männer mehrerer Jahrhunderte über Shakespeare höre, so kann ich mich eines Mißtrauens nie erwehren, es sei eine Konvention gewesen, ihn zu preisen; obwohl ich mir doch sagen muß, daß es so nicht ist. Ich brauche die Autorität eines Milton, um wirklich überzeugt zu sein. Bei diesem nehme ich an, daß er unbestechlich war. – Damit meine ich aber natürlich nicht, daß nicht eine ungeheure Menge Lobes ohne Verständnis und aus falschen Gründen Shakespeare gespendet worden ist und wird, von tausend Professoren der Literatur.It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something the truth of which we do not see for ourselves. If e.g. I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare made by the distinguished men of several centuries, I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention, even though I have to tell myself that this is not the case. I need the authority of a Milton to be really convinced. In this case I take it for granted that he was incorruptible. – But of course I don’t mean to deny by this that an enormous amount of praise has been and still is lavished on Shakespeare without understanding and for specious reasons by a thousand professors of literature.

Here, the case of Shakespeare is adduced as an example of the difficulty mentioned at the beginning of this remark. The immediate manuscript context does not contain a clue to why Wittgenstein should feel motivated to say something about Shakespeare’s admirers or about the role of Milton. As far as I can see, nothing is known about the specific text by, or about, Milton that may have inspired Wittgenstein to this (part of his) remark.11 As this is the only occurrence of Milton’s name in the whole corpus of Wittgenstein’s writings, we cannot tell why his opinion of Milton was high enough to convince him that Shakespeare should be regarded as an author deserving great praise. Wittgenstein’s view that most people, including professors of literature, tend to have no good reasons of their own for praising X while condemning Y is surely true but of course entirely unoriginal. In view of the numerous misunderstandings mentioned in the introductory part of this paper it may be worth noting that the quoted remark does not contain anything that could be read as an attempt at disparaging Shakespeare: it merely states that to Wittgenstein himself it does not come naturally to see Shakespeare as an absolutely admirable poet. There will be more about this fact in later remarks, but at this point we may note that, for one thing, Wittgenstein does not say anything dismissive about Shakespeare and, for another, accepts Milton’s testimony as sufficient to make him agree that Shakespeare’s reputation is well-founded.

3. Similes

Our third quotation comprises four paragraphs. The first three belong together; the fourth is separated from the rest by a blank line. The text comes from MS 131 (p. 163, 31.8.1946) and after some remarks on meaning-blindness (RPP I §344); it is followed by related observations (§§345 etc.). Three remarks on similar themes have been marked as schlecht, and a brief personal remark in code does not seem to be connected with any of the other material on the page. After this line in code Wittgenstein proceeds by saying:

[a] Die Gleichnisse Shakespeares sind, im gewöhnlichen Sinne, schlecht. Sind sie also dennoch gut – und ob sie es sind, weiß ich nicht –, so müssen sie ihr eigenes Gesetz sein. Ihr Klang könnte sie z. B. wahrscheinlich, und zur Wahrheit, machen.Shakespeare’s similes are, in the ordinary sense, bad. So if they are nevertheless good – and I don’t know whether they are or not – they must be a law to themselves. Perhaps e.g. their ring makes them convincing and gives them truth.
[aa] Es könnte sein, daß bei S. die Leichtigkeit, die Selbstherrlichkeit das Wesentliche ist, daß man ihn also hinnehmen müßte, um ihn wirklich bewundern zu können, wie man die Natur, eine Landschaft z. B., hinnimmt.It might be the case that with S. the essential thing is his effortlessness, his arbitrariness, so that if you are to be able really to admire him, you just have to accept him as he is in the way you accept nature, a piece of scenery e.g.
[ab] Wenn ich darin Recht habe, so würde das heißen, daß der Stil des ganzen Werkes, ich meine, seiner gesamten Werke, hier das Wesentliche, und Rechtfertigende, ist.If I am right about this, that would mean that the style of his whole work, I mean, of his complete works is in this case what is essential, and provides the justification.
[b] Daß ich ihn nicht verstehe, wäre dann damit zu erklären, daß ich ihn nicht mit Leichtigkeit lesen kann. Nicht so, also, wie man eine herrliche Landschaft besieht.That I do not understand him could then be explained by the fact that I cannot read him with ease. Not, that is, as one views a splendid piece of scenery.

Wittgenstein himself was proud of his ability to produce striking and helpful similes. Probably he would say that – “in the ordinary sense” – his own similes are good. In his view, they are at any rate very different in kind from Shakespeare’s similes. This discussion, of course, presupposes that it is appropriate to generalize about these similes; but this is a presupposition which Wittgenstein does not attempt to justify.12 He admits that, in spite of his own doubts, he cannot exclude the possibility that these similes will be considered good ones. But if so, this must be in virtue of their being “a law unto themselves”. This is an idea which will come up again (see below, §4), but there the context is different. Here, it is not quite clear in which way their “ring” can redeem them, that is, turn them into something probable or even true. Wittgenstein cannot mean the mere sound of the words concerned. Maybe he wants to say that in their specific situations of utterance (as opposed to being considered out of context) they could be heard as “truths”.

Another theme of these reflections is the impression that for us to be able to admire Shakespeare we shall have to regard him as a kind of elemental force: something that we have to resign ourselves to in the same way in which we accept nature and its phenomena. We should see his works as effortless products of a being who creates these plays in a mood of splendid indifference,13 as if it were just child’s play. (This is related to Schiller’s famous characterization of the “naive” poet – we shall come back to this.) Accordingly it seems that what Wittgenstein says in paragraph [ab] amounts to this: (1) that it is Shakespeare’s entire output which makes it possible for us to discern the landscape and its outlines, its style, which (2) in its turn is a precondition for recognizing the law behind it, viz. what “provides the justification” (cf. §4.a and my discussion of this).

But if this is right, then an adequate response to Shakespeare’s works will presuppose the ability to see them as a kind of landscape, a product or a force of nature. And this involves seeing them with an effortlessness, a kind of acceptance, which corresponds to the effortlessness, or spontaneity,14 with which these works were composed. If, like Wittgenstein, you find yourself unable to respond to them in this way, your inability may help to explain why you find it hard to make sense of these works (for this difficulty to make sense, cf. below §§5.b and 7.a).

4. Dream narratives

The manuscript source of the fourth remark (MS 168; CV: 89) is quite striking. The manuscript consists of twelve pages in Witt-genstein’s best handwriting; the binding is ornamental and reminiscent of the kind of book young people of a certain age would use as diaries. Virtually all the remarks contained in it are copied from manuscripts 136 or 137, and practically all of them can be found in Culture and Value. There are occasional dates indicating when the remarks were noted down in one of the two Bände just mentioned. Roughly speaking, the order is January 1949, May 1948, November 1948, December 1947. If there are any scholarly discussions of the material, visible side of this manuscript, I am not aware of their existence. The whole book looks a bit like a kind of offering, perhaps a present to a friend or a relative. The only remarks not obviously copied from earlier manuscripts are the first two (dated “16.1.49” and “1.49”, respectively). The fine quality of the handwriting, however, suggests that these remarks too were copied from an earlier source; so, just as in the case of the other remarks contained in manuscript 168, the dates given may not coincide with the date of copying these two observations.

Both of them concern “dreams”. The first one (CV: 88-9) deals with topics discussed in several places in the context of Wittgenstein’s reflections on questions in the philosophy of psychology (cf. PPF §§52-3, 320). The second one, which mentions Shakespeare, may remind readers of certain things Wittgenstein says about a Freudian analysis of dreams: the dream as changing its sense completely, as performed on a stage, as torn into little pieces and re-composed in a new order, etc. (see CV: 78).15

[a] Shakespeare und der Traum. Ein Traum ist ganz unrichtig, absurd, zusammengesetzt, und doch ganz richtig: er macht in dieser seltsamen Zusammensetzung einen Eindruck. Warum? Ich weiß es nicht. Und wenn Shakespeare groß ist, wie von ihm ausgesagt wird, dann muß man von ihm sagen können: Es ist alles falsch, stimmt nicht – und ist doch ganz richtig nach einem eigenen Gesetz.Shakespeare and the dream. A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet completely right: in this strange concoction it makes an impression.16 Why? I don’t know. And if Shakespeare is great, as he is said to be, then we must be able to say of him: Everything is wrong, things aren’t like that – and is all the same completely right according to a law of its own.
[ab] Man könnte das auch so sagen: Wenn Shakespeare groß ist, kann er es nur in der Masse seiner Dramen sein, die sich ihre eigene Sprache und Welt schaffen. Er ist also ganz unrealistisch. (Wie der Traum.)It could be put like this too: If Shakespeare is great, then he can be so only in the whole corpus of his plays, which create their own language and world. So he is completely unrealistic. (Like the dream.)

One of the themes mentioned in this passage has cropped up before. This is the idea that Shakespeare’s plays are not (meant as) representations of reality; they are not realistic, not “naturalistic”, not “true to life” (naturwahr). Here, this idea is expressed more strongly by comparing Shakespeare’s procedure with that of a dream: in a dream, certain elements of what happened during the day or of a story told or read will be selected and put together in a completely new fashion, often in a fashion which seems paradoxical or absurd. But as we have always known, there may be modes of rearranging these dream materials in such a way that a previously unfamiliar sense emerges. Possibly, Shakespeare’s method is a bit like this, and his plays will offer a new sense if we find the key, the unknown law, in accordance with which the pieces of the puzzle have been assembled. This notion of Shakespeare’s Eigengesetzlichkeit, his being a law unto himself, has been mentioned before (§3.a). But now it can be seen in a new light as derived from reflections on the supposedly paradoxical or absurd character of his plays.

A third point is developed from the previous two: if Shake-speare’s plays can, in spite of their absurdity, justifiably be regarded as great, then this will be due to their working according to an highly individual law finding expression in a language and a world all its own. And such a language, such a world (that is, a world peopled with characters we are not, or not at first glance, familiar with), can only be understood if the evidence on the basis of which we try to interpret the language and figure out the world is sufficient for us to succeed. Hence, the miracle of making the author’s greatness intelligible can only be worked through the bulk of his output: we simply need a sufficient amount of evidence to arrive at the law allowing us to read him.

5. Creator vs. poet

Our fifth quotation (CV: 95-6) is a sequence of reflections on Shakespeare or, perhaps, on Wittgenstein’s (lack of a) relationship with Shakespeare. This sequence is taken from MS 173; in its manuscript context it can be found between two remarks on the middle of p. 63 of LW II. Our sequence is separated from the rest by vertical strokes at the beginning and the end of each individual remark forming the sequence. This is a device Wittgenstein sometimes used to indicate that he considered a certain remark as not forming part of the rest. The sequence runs as follows:

[a] Ich glaube nicht, daß man Shakespeare mit einem andern Dichter zusammenhalten kann.I do not think that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.
[aa] War er nicht eher ein Sprachschöpfer als ein Dichter?Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?
[b] Ich könnte Shakespeare nur anstaunen; nie etwas mit ihm anfangen.I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.
[c] Ich habe ein tiefes Mißtraun gegen die allermeisten Bewunderer Shakespeares. Ich glaube, das Unglück ist, daß er, in der westlichen Kultur zum mindesten, einzig dasteht, und man ihn daher, um ihn einzureihen, falsch einreihen muß.I am deeply suspicious of most of Shakespeare’s admirers. I think the trouble is that, in western culture at least, he stands alone, and so, one can only place him by placing him wrongly.
[d] Es ist nicht, als ob S. Typen von Menschen gut portraitierte und insofern wahr wäre. Er ist nicht naturwahr. Aber er hat eine so gelenke Hand und einen so eigenartigen Strich, daß jede seiner Figuren bedeutend, sehenswert ausschaut.It is not as though S. portrayed human types well and were in that respect true to life. He is not true to life. But he has such a supple hand and such individual brush strokes that each one of his characters looks significant, worth looking at.
[e] “Das große Herz Beethovens” – niemand könnte sagen “das große Herz Shakespeares”. ‘Die gelenke Hand, die neue Naturformen der Sprache geschaffen hat’ schiene mir richtiger.“Beethoven’s great heart” – no one could say “Shakespeare’s great heart”. ‘The supple hand that created new natural forms of language’ would seem to me nearer the mark.
[f] Der Dichter kann eigentlich nicht von sich sagen “Ich singe, wie der Vogel singt” – aber S. hätte es vielleicht von sich sagen können.The poet cannot really say of himself “I sing as the bird sings” – but perhaps S. could have said it of himself.

Besides several ideas we have encountered before, this sequence contains a number of new thoughts. In paragraph [c] Wittgenstein repeats that he does not trust the judgement of most admirers of Shakespeare (cf. §2, above). What is new is his explicit diagnosis of the reason why, in his view, people tend to form unreliable judgements about Shakespeare. It is the latter’s uniqueness, the singularity of his talent and his procedure, which is at the bottom of a kind of incommensurability: it is virtually impossible to classify him, and hence virtually impossible to classify him correctly [a]. Of course, this uniqueness is directly connected with his outstanding originality in using language (a creator of language [aa])17 and the fact that Wittgenstein feels that he cannot engage with him; he could only be amazed at his creativity [b].

Another point that is repeated here is the claim that, by normal standards, Shakespeare’s portraits are not particularly good ones – he is not true to life ([d], cf. §3.a). But, as we have seen, even if his portraits seem wrong, he manages to “make an impression”: it is in virtue of the individuality of his brush strokes that his characters look significant. This is taken up in paragraph [e], where Shakespeare’s “supple hand” is praised and contrasted with Beethoven’s “great heart”, as well as in the last paragraph [f], where it is claimed that, whereas a true poet cannot really say of himself what the minstrel, or bard, in Goethe’s poem says: “I sing as the bird sings”,18 Shakespeare might have been in a position to say it. This, I suppose, is the force of the expression “Naturformen der Sprache”: it is by giving vent to his own nature that he succeeds in creating forms that are different from everything else without appearing artificial or contrived.

What is really remarkable about Wittgenstein’s observations is not what he says in his effort to characterize Shakespeare and the individuality of his workmanship; it is what he implies by using certain contrasts and pointing out that one would not want to ascribe to him Beethoven’s “great heart” whereas one could imagine that Shakespeare would want to say of himself what true, or more normal, poets would not want to claim, viz. that their lines are, as it were, an instinctive expression of their own nature. These two contrasts seem to me to stand in need of explanation, and I hope that the rest of this paper and especially its concluding part will cast some light on what Wittgenstein may have had in mind.

6. The poet’s lot

Our sixth quotation (CV: 96), like the previous one, comes from a manuscript (MS 173) mostly containing remarks on colour (our text is enclosed between ROC III §§253 and 254), and again its individual paragraphs are marked by vertical strokes as not forming part of their immediate context.

[a] Ich glaube nicht, daß Shakespeare über das ‘Dichterlos’ hätte nachdenken können.I do not think Shakespeare could have reflected on the ‘lot of the poet’.
[b] Er konnte sich auch nicht selbst als Prophet oder Lehrer der Menschen betrachten.Neither could he regard himself as a prophet or teacher of humanity.
[ba] Die Menschen staunen ihn an beinahe wie ein Naturschauspiel. Sie fühlen nicht, daß sie dadurch mit einem großen Menschen in Berührung kommen. Sondern mit einem Phänomen.People regard him with amazement almost as a spectacle of nature. They do not have the feeling that this brings them into contact with a great human being. Rather with a phenomenon.
[c] Ich glaube, um einen Dichter zu genießen, dazu muß man auch die Kultur, zu der er gehört, gern haben. Ist die einem gleichgültig oder zuwider, so erkaltet die Bewunderung.I think that, in order to enjoy a poet, you have to like the culture to which he belongs as well. If you are indifferent to this or repelled by it, your admiration cools off.

While our previous sequence ended with a quotation from Goethe, our present set begins with an allusion to a short poem by Eichendorff (“Dichterlos”). It is a lament in the first person, and the speaker is a poet who protests that, though having to carry the burden of feeling all the passions on other (ordinary) people’s behalf, he will not live to see the fruit borne by his own achievements. Of course, this is a standard kind of complaint associated with the typical figure of the “romantic poet”, and it is surely true that the conflict between the aims of ordinary citizens and the ideals pursued by the poet played a great role, not only in the imagination, but also in the real thoughts of writers and intellectuals of the romantic and postromantic periods. Wittgenstein’s claim is that this kind of reflection would not have occurred to Shakespeare. And he surely does not want to say that this is due to the fact that Shakespeare lived in an earlier period, a period where this sort of conflict and reflections of this kind were less common or unknown. He probably wants to point out that this complex of ideas does not fit Shakespeare’s physiognomy, as it were: his effortlessness and arbitrariness (§3.aa) as well as his uniqueness and his being an elemental force, creating “natural forms of language” (§5.e), show that he simply is not cut out for the role of romantic poet. And the other archetypical function often associated with poets, viz. that of prophet and teacher, is equally unsuitable for Shakespeare.

Of course, both figures – the romantic poet as well as the prophetic one – are merely schematic characters, almost caricatures. But they are readily brought in connection with real people, people we like and admire or dislike and reject. Shakespeare, however, does not belong to any of these categories – or this is what Wittgenstein suggests. We may admire him, but our admiration will not be tinged with feelings of fondness; and if our attitude is negative, it will be like our response to a storm or a flood or a mountain: personal feelings just do not come into it.

By now, this sounds familiar, but there is an important feature highlighted by these reflections which we have not noted so far (even though it may have been present): Wittgenstein’s reflections go beyond the work to the character of their author. This is not a biographical endeavour but an attempt at drawing a picture of the type of person who could have created these plays. This effort in imaginative physiognomy is part of a more comprehensive effort to understand the author concerned as well as his work and to understand each one in the light of the other. On the one hand, this is connected with the idea that the author’s whole oeuvre needs to be taken into account (§§3.ab, 4.ab). And, on the other hand, it is connected with a consideration mentioned only now, namely, that for us to be able to appreciate an author we shall have to like his culture. If we do not find this culture attractive, we shall not be able to do justice to him; at most, a “cold admiration” will be possible (to quote the textual variant, CV: 96). If we apply this important thought to the case of Shakespeare, it will not be necessary to draw Monk’s sweeping conclusion and speak of “Wittgenstein’s dislike of English culture in general”. It is much more likely that what Wittgenstein had in mind were the Elizabethan times or, perhaps, this period of European history more generally. After all, Wittgenstein’s perspective is shaped by historical rather than national considerations.

7. Sketches as supreme art

Our last quotation (CV: 98) comes from manuscript 174, most of which is reprinted in LW II (pp. 81-90) or OC (§§66-192). The remarks we are interested in are again marked by vertical strokes and were accordingly excluded from LW II but included in CV.

[a] Ich kann Shakespeare darum nicht verstehen, weil ich in der gänzlichen Asymmetrie die Symmetrie finden will.The reason I cannot understand Shakespeare is that I want to find symmetry in all this asymmetry.
[b] Mir kommt vor, seine Stücke seien, gleichsam, enorme Skizzen, nicht Gemälde; sie seien hingeworfen, von einem, der sich sozusagen alles erlauben kann. Und ich verstehe, wie man das bewundern und es die höchste Kunst nennen kann, aber ich mag es nicht. – Wer daher vor diesen Stücken sprachlos steht, den kann ich verstehen; wer sie aber bewundert, so wie man Beethoven etwa bewundert, der scheint mir Shakespeare mißzuverstehen.It seems to me as though his pieces are, as it were, enormous sketches, not paintings; as though they were dashed off by someone who could permit himself anything, so to speak. And I understand how someone may admire this and call it supreme art, but I don’t like it. – So I can understand someone who stands before those pieces speechless; but someone who admires him as one admires Beethoven, say, seems to me to misunderstand Shakespeare

I think this much is clear: “asymmetry” stands for the “spectacle of nature”, the “natural forms”, the uninhibited bird-like singing associated with Shakespeare and his art by Wittgenstein. His inability to understand – and perhaps one should add, fully understand – Shakespeare is said to depend on his looking for the wrong thing. He approaches these works in a way which is bound to be inadequate. To be sure, he understands these works up to a point. He can, after all, tentatively describe the sort of thing you would have to be able to appreciate in order to appreciate Shakespeare’s art; he describes it as sketches rather than paintings and adds that he does “understand how someone may admire this and call it supreme art”. In Wittgenstein’s view, the problem seems to lie in this: that if this counts as supreme art, then it will stand in the way of appreciating other forms of art as equally admirable. In other words, Shakespeare and Beethoven (to use Wittgenstein’s example, cf. §5.e) exclude each other to a certain extent, and perhaps one may speak of a degree of incommensurability. From this perspective one can see that Wittgenstein’s “I don’t like it” does not simply amount to saying “This is not my cup of tea”. What he wants to express is that, on account of his true admiration for Beethoven (and so forth), he is constitutionally incapable of mobilizing the same standards of feeling and judgement when it comes to Shakespeare.19

There is a further point which is important from Wittgenstein’s perspective. It is stated in the next observation printed in CV: “One age misunderstands another; and a petty age misunderstands all the others in its own ugly way.”20 There can be little doubt that Wittgenstein thought of his own times as a “small”, or petty, age. Simply in virtue of living in this age it will be difficult or impossible for him to gain access to certain other historical periods and their achievements. So we may perhaps take it that in Wittgenstein’s eyes the historical distance between Shakespeare’s age and his own times is such that for him and his contemporaries it will prove particularly difficult, or almost impossible, to approach Shakespeare in a way which may have been open to his contemporaries or people living in periods very different from Wittgenstein’s. If this is roughly right, it would also help to explain Wittgenstein’s suspicious attitude towards the majority of Shakespeare enthusiasts: if you live in certain times, your admiration for the works of certain other periods is unlikely to be honest – especially if you also express admiration for certain other works (e.g. Beethoven).

IV. Concluding remarks

This survey of Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare should contribute to our seeing two things: (1) Most of the points made are repeated in other contexts or echoed in a somewhat different register. So, by relying on the features thus characterized it should not be too difficult to draw a picture outlining what Wittgenstein found of particular interest in Shakespeare. (2) Reflection on the picture drawn by these means and a glance at the literature will help us to understand that in various ways Wittgenstein’s observations are far from original. That is, one would not really want to examine and discuss them in the hope of gaining new insights into Shakespeare and his works. Several of the points made by Wittgenstein can be found in the chapter “Literature as a Revelation of Personality” of Abrams’s book The Mirror and the Lamp (Abrams 1953: 226-262). The material laid out there is useful also because it allows for aspects of the German tradition, which Wittgenstein was of course most familiar with. A particularly instructive example is the following quotation from Schiller’s Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung:

Wholly unconfiding, [the naïve poet, ancient or modern] flees the heart that seeks him, the longing that wishes to embrace him […]. The object possesses him utterly […]. Like the Deity behind this universe, he stands behind his work; he is himself the work, and the work is himself […]. So appear to us, for example, Homer among the ancients and Shakespeare among the moderns. […] When at a very early age I first learned to know the latter poet, his coldness, his insensibility repelled me. […]21

I do not wish to claim that Wittgenstein knew this passage or that he was influenced by Schiller. All I want to suggest is that there is a traditional way of looking at Shakespeare leading to similar results for the simple reason that it is centred on questions about the extent to which a work mirrors the character of its author and to which looking at the relationship between them can help us to understand one or both of them. The obvious motto for those inclined to follow this method is Buffon’s “le style est l’homme même”, which (as both Wittgenstein and Abrams point out) is often misquoted:

“Le style c’est l’homme.” “Le style c’est l’homme même.” The first expression has a cheap epigrammatic brevity. The second, correct, one opens up a quite different perspective. It says that style is the picture of the man.22

As it happens, this remark was written at almost the same time as our quotation §4, above.

What, then, is the real point of Wittgenstein’s remarks on Shakespeare? The answer is that they are part of his conversations with himself: things he says to himself tête-à-tête.23 For one thing, he pursues his struggle to get clearer about himself, his own strengths and weaknesses (especially the latter). In this context, his reflections on Shakespeare present him with an example of a writer who is completely different from himself, perhaps even alien to himself. By way of contrast he comes to understand more clearly than before that he will have to say what he intends to express in terms that are shaped by existing rules and conventions. He may wish or feel the need to flout them, but in his case this will never be the result of Shakespeare’s or some other “naive” poet’s dare-devil attitude; it will be done in recognition of the existence of those rules and conventions. Whatever he does, he cannot shed his “good manners”.24 In this respect he will always resemble Mendelssohn; at most, he can aspire to become like Brahms, that is, “Mendelssohn without the flaws” (CV: 18). Seen from this perspective, Beethoven is the (unreachable) ideal. That is, he is the ideal – the highest point – in the category Wittgenstein takes himself to belong to. Shakespeare, on the other hand, does not belong here at all. That is why one cannot truly admire them both.

So, Wittgenstein’s reflections are about standards of excellence. The question is whether or not he himself is capable of doing first-class work. And he asks this question because, in his opinion, only first-class work is really worth doing. From his point of view, it would be terrible for him if the following statement proved true:

I am a second-rate poet. As a one-eyed man, though, I am a king among the blind. And for a second-rate poet it would be better to give up writing poetry, even if in this respect he stands out among his fellow human beings.25

Some readers may wonder why he kept discussing these questions (“tête-à-tête with himself”) by making comparisons with poets or composers, never with philosophers.26 In a way, the question contains its answer: the standards Wittgenstein wants to appeal to cannot be seen to be paradigmatically satisfied by a philosopher; they are essentially bound up with certain people and works mentioned by him. And it is important for him that this circle is defined by a small and fairly well-circumscribed group of people. For reasons we have seen, Shakespeare is emphatically denied membership in this group.


  1. Abrams, M. H., 1953. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Anscombe, G.E.M. 1969. “On the Form of Wittgenstein’s Writing”. In: G.E.M. Anscombe, From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe. Ed. M. Geach and L. Gormally, 2011. St Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Exeter: Imprint Academic, pp.187-192.
  3. Biesenbach, H., 2011. Anspielungen und Zitate im Werk Ludwig Wittgensteins. Publications from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen, No 22. Bergen: The Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen.
  4. Canetti, E., 1980. Die Fackel im Ohr. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.
  5. Engelmann, P., 1967. Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein: With a Memoir. Ed. B. McGuinness. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  6. Goethe, J. W., 1773. “Zum Shakespeares-Tag”. In: Goethes Werke (Hamburger Ausgabe, ed. Erich Trunz), vol. XII: Schriften zur Kunst, Schriften zur Literatur, Maximen und Reflexionen. 8th ed., ed. E. Trunz, H. J. Schrimpf and H. von Einem, 1978. München: C. H. Beck, pp. 224-227.
  7. Goethe, J. W., 1815/1826. “Shakespeare und kein Ende”. In: Goethes Werke (Hamburger Ausgabe, ed. Erich Trunz), vol. XII: Schriften zur Kunst, Schriften zur Literatur, Maximen und Reflexionen. 8th ed., ed. E. Trunz, H. J. Schrimpf and H. von Einem, 1978. München: C. H. Beck, pp. 287-298.
  8. Heine, H., 1978. Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 3. 2nd ed., ed. K. Briegleb. München: Hanser.
  9. Herder, J. G., 1773. “Shakespeare”. In: Herders Werke in fünf Bänden, vol. II. Ed. R. Otto, 1978. Berlin & Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, pp. 201-226.
  10. Huemer, W. (forthcoming). “The Character of a Name: Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Shakespeare”. In: S. Bru, W. Huemer and D. Steuer, eds., Wittgenstein Reading. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  11. Huemer, W., 2012. “Misreadings: Steiner and Lewis on Wittgenstein and Shakespeare”. Philosophy and Literature, 36, pp. 229-237.
  12. Kraus, K., 1994. Theater der Dichtung: Shakespeare. In: K. Kraus, Schriften, vol. 15. Ed. C. Wagenknecht. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  13. Lessing, G. E., 1759. “17. Literaturbrief”. In: G. E. Lessing, Werke (ed. H. G. Göpfert), vol. V: Literaturkritik, Poethik und Philologie, ed. Jörg Schönert, 1973. München: Hanser, pp. 70-73.
  14. Lessing, G. E., 1767-69. “Hamburgische Dramaturgie”. In: G. E. Lessing, Werke (ed. H. G. Göpfert), vol. VIII, Dramaturgische Schriften, ed. H. G. Göpfert and K. Eibl, 1973. München: Hanser, pp. 229-707.
  15. Lewis, P., 2005. “Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare”. Philosophy and Literature, 28, pp. 241-255.
  16. McGuinness, B., 2002. “Freud and Wittgenstein”. In: B. McGuinness, Approaches to Wittgenstein. London: Routledge, pp. 224-235.
  17. McGuinness, B., 2012. “Introduction”. In: B. McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents, 1911-1951. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 1-14.
  18. Monk, R., 1991. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. London: Vintage.
  19. Rhees, R., ed., 1984. Recollections of Wittgenstein. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  20. Schiller, Fr. 1992. Theoretische Schriften. Ed. R.-P. Janz. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag.
  21. Schiller, Fr. 2004. Sämtliche Werke, vol. 5. Ed. W. Riedel. München: Hanser.
  22. Schulte, J., 2013. “Wittgenstein sulla filosofia come poesia”. In: E. Caldarola, D. Quattrocchi and G. Tomasi, eds. 2013. Wittgenstein, l’estetica e le arti. Roma: Carocci editore, pp. 157-177. Also forthcoming in English: “Wittgenstein on Philosophy as Poetry”.
  23. Schulte, J., 2013b. “Wittgenstein’s Debt to Plato”. In: L. Perissinotto and B. Ramón Cámara, eds. 2013. Wittgenstein and Plato: Connections, Comparisons and Contrasts. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24.
  24. Steiner, G., 1996. “A Reading against Shakespeare”. In: G. Steiner, No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 108-128.
  25. Wittgenstein, L., 1980. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1. Ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. [RPP I]
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  28. Wittgenstein, L., 1977. Vermischte Bemerkungen. Ed. G.H. von Wright and H. Nyman. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  29. Wittgenstein, L., 1992. Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 2. Ed. G.H. von Wright and H. Nyman, trans. C.G. Luckhardt and M.A.E. Aue. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. [LW II]
  30. Wittgenstein, L., 1998. Culture and Value. 2nd ed., ed. G. H. von Wright and H. Nyman, revised by A. Pichler, trans. P. Winch. Oxford: Blackwell. [CV]
  31. Wittgenstein, L., 2000. Wittgenstein’s Nachlass: The Bergen Electronic Edition. Ed. Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  32. Wittgenstein, L., 2009. “Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment [previously known as ‘Part II’]”. In: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. 4th ed., ed. P.M.S. Hacker and J. Schulte, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and J. Schulte. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. [PPF]

Biographical note

Joachim Schulte teaches philosophy at the University of Zürich. He has published a number of articles and four books on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. He is a member of the Board of Editors of Wittgenstein’s Nachlass, and co-editor of critical editions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. In recent years he has chiefly worked on Wittgenstein’s middle period.

Further misunderstandings can be found on this and the following page of Monk’s book.
Steiner (1996), quoted in Huemer (2012: 230). According to another quotation from Steiner’s piece Wittgenstein objected to Shakespeare for the reason that the latter fails to do the true poet’s job of being “a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind” (Huemer 2012: 231). Cf. Huemer (forthcoming).
Besides Steiner’s striking views, Huemer also discusses an article by Peter Lewis (2005). Even though some of Lewis’s observations are quite interesting in themselves, I agree with Huemer that a number of things he says rest on misunderstandings of the bearing of Wittgenstein’s remarks.
See the reports of Wittgenstein’s response to a performance of King Lear in Rhees (1984: 73, 118). The reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a letter to Engelmann 31.3.17 (Engelmann 1967: 4-5), may well be to Mendelssohn’s music. – At this point, I am deliberately disregarding the fact of Shakespeare’s omnipresence at Cambridge. Of course, there were college plays, discussions with friends and colleagues etc. See McGuinness (2012: 7): “He took Dadie Rylands round the College garden explaining how Shakespeare should be produced”.
The translation was begun by A. W. Schlegel (1797-1810) and later continued (from 1825) under Ludwig Tieck’s editorship by Dorothea Tieck (who also translated the Sonnets) and Wolf Heinrich v. Baudissin.
Lessing, “17. Literaturbrief” (1759); Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767-69); Herder, “Shakespeare” (1773); Goethe, “Zum Shakespeares-Tag” (1773); “Shakespeare und kein Ende” (1815/1826); cf. Dichtung und Wahrheit, Part III, Bk. 11; Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Part III, ch. 8; Heine, Romantische Schule (1835[6]), Bk. I (Heine 1978: 375).
Apparently, Wittgenstein’s admiration cooled off towards the end of Kraus’s life (he died in 1936) but it surely did not turn into complete indifference or even dislike. On the other hand, Kraus’s appreciation may have helped Wittgenstein to bring his questions about Shakespeare into sharp focus. – For Kraus and Shakespeare, see Kraus (1994; most of this material was first published in 1930 and 1934-35, but some of it was used as early as 1916). On Karl Kraus’s public readings, see Canetti (1980); his Shakespeare readings are mentioned on p. 73.
References will be to the usual Blackwell editions of Wittgenstein’s works, using the abbreviations mentioned in the list of references.
As a matter of fact, the remark begins in a more general way by speaking of the present-day possibility of having a kind of theatre of the stylized or objectified or “abstract” kind alluded to. Kraus is then mentioned as a special case, but in view of Engelmann’s particularly close relation to Kraus it may be appropriate to emphasize the connection with his work.
In CV, this remark immediately precedes the quoted one on Shakespeare; in the manuscript, there are two short remarks separating them.
See Biesenbach (2011: 273-4) for a possible reference. – Brian McGuinness has pointed out to me that the following lines from L’Allegro are well-known: “Or sweetest Shakespeare fancy’s child, / Warble his native wood-notes wild.” This of course fits the idea mentioned below of Shakespeare as a “naive” poet in Schiller’s sense.
Monk (1991: 568) reports that Wittgenstein discussed a particularly striking example with Ben Richards (“Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue/ Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips”). Supposing that the example is authentic, one may – in view of Wittgenstein’s other remarks – find it easy to see why he thought similes of this kind bad (“in the ordinary sense”).
In his forthcoming article, Huemer suggests “high-handedness” as a more adequate rendering of “Selbstherrlichkeit”.
Perhaps it would have been useful to render Wittgenstein’s word “Leichtigkeit” in [aa] the same way as in [b].
These observations are not contained in MS 168, even though several remarks surrounding them have been copied into this manuscript. Maybe this fact could help us to form an hypothesis about the identity of the addressee envisaged by Wittgenstein in composing MS 168 – if there was such a person. – For Wittgenstein on Freud, see McGuinness (2002).
Perhaps one might render this along the following lines: “The way a dream is assembled is all wrong, absurd, and yet completely right: if assembled in this strange way, it makes an impression.”
The adjective “sprachschöpferisch” is not extremely uncommon in German and does not signify more than linguistic inventiveness or resourceful, imaginative mastery of language. Wittgenstein’s noun is probably derived from the adjectival use of the word, so it should not be taken to imply superhuman powers. What is remarkable is the contrast between Sprachschöpfer and Dichter – a contrast which may be connected with Wittgenstein’s respect for existing rules and conventions as discussed in the penultimate paragraph of this paper, on the one hand, and his conception of the philosopher as a writer of poetry, on the other. For this last aspect, see Schulte (2013a).
Here, Wittgenstein quotes a line from Goethe’s ballad “Der Sänger”. If looked at from the point of view elaborated by Wittgenstein, the scene described and the words used in Goethe’s poem anticipate a good deal of the conflict between Walther v. Stolzing’s way of singing and Beckmesser’s criticism of it as presented in the first act of Meistersinger.
In speaking of Shakespeare I hesitate to add “and so forth” because of the fact that, according to Wittgenstein, Shakespeare is unique – a law unto himself. And yet, there may be other people belonging to the class of “unique” or “absolutely original” poets or artists, who would of course “exclude” each other in some ways but, as a class, stand in opposition to the class of poets sharing certain standards and a certain sensibility. A candidate who is often mentioned by people who hold views similar to those expressed by Wittgenstein is Homer (cf. Schiller and Abrams, referred to below).
“Eine Zeit mißversteht die andere; und eine kleine Zeit mißversteht alle andern in ihrer eigenen häßlichen Weise” (MS 174: 5v, separated from its context by vertical strokes; in the manuscript, there are two remarks between this and the previous quotation, cf. LW II: 112).
Quoted in Abrams (1953: 238). The German original of the whole passage can be found in Schiller (1992: 728-729) or Schiller (2004: 728-729). See also the long note in Schiller (2004: 756, or 1992: 781-783).
CV: 89 (MS 137: 140a, 4.1.1949). As Abrams (1953: 373, n. 13) points out, Buffon “says nothing, when read in context, about personality. Buffon’s point is that the only guarantee of literary fame is not the content of knowledge and fact, which is common property, but the quality of style, which is the contribution of the individual author.”
“Ich schreibe beinahe immer Selbstgespräche mit mir selbst. Sachen, die ich mir unter vier Augen sage” (MS 137: 134b, 26.12.1948; CV: 88). See my comments on this passage in Schulte (2013b), especially p. 19.
CV: 29 (MS 157a: 23v); cf. MS 122: 88v; MS 162b: 36v.
MS 117: 193 (24.2.1940): “Ich bin ein zweitrangiger Dichter. Wenn ich auch als Einäugiger König unter den Blinden bin. Und ein zweitrangiger Dichter täte besser daran, das Dichten aufzugeben. Auch wenn er damit unter seinen Mitmenschen hervorragt.” That Wittgenstein was troubled by worries about his Zweitrangigkeit is reported by Miss Anscombe (1969). I think that the details of her report are very instructive; her explanatory remarks, however, seem unsatisfactory. See also Schulte (2013a).
One might want to argue that Nietzsche is an exception. But of course Nietzsche’s standing among academic philosophers is very controversial, and many would be happy to classify him as a “poet”.
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