#SORRYNOTSORRY


 

Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of “non-sense.” He was apparently like that in his personal life as well. This comes out in an anecdote related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in Cambridge in the 1930s:

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”

Now who knows what really happened? It seems extraordinary, almost unbelievable, that anyone could object seriously to what Pascal reports herself as having said. That characterization of her feelings — so innocently close to the utterly commonplace “sick as a dog” — is simply not provocative enough to arouse any response as lively or intense as disgust. If Pascal’s simile is offensive, then what figurative or allusive uses of language would not be? So perhaps it did not really happen quite as Pascal says. Perhaps Wittgenstein was trying to make a small joke, and it misfired. He was only pretending to bawl Pascal out, just for the fun of a little hyperbole; and she got the tone and the intention wrong. She thought he was disgusted by her remark, when in fact he was only trying to cheer her up with some playfully exaggerated mock criticism or joshing. In that case the incident is not incredible or bizarre after all.

But if Pascal failed to recognize that Wittgenstein was only teasing, then perhaps the possibility that he was serious was at least not so far out of the question. She knew him, and she knew what to expect from him; she knew how he made her feel. Her way of understanding or of misunderstanding his remark was very likely not altogether discordant, then, with her sense of what he was like. We may fairly suppose that even if her account of the incident is not strictly true to the facts of Wittgenstein’s intention, it is sufficiently true to her idea of Wittgenstein to have made sense to her. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall accept Pascal’s report at face value, supposing that when it came to the use of allusive or figurative language, Wittgenstein was indeed as preposterous as she makes him out to be.

Then just what is it that the Wittgenstein in her report considers to be objectionable? Let us assume that he is correct about the facts: that is, Pascal really does not know how run-over dogs feel. Even so, when she says what she does, she is plainly not lying. She would have been lying if, when she made her statement, she was aware that she actually felt quite good. For however little she knows about the lives of dogs, it must certainly be clear to Pascal that when dogs are run over they do not feel good. So if she herself had in fact been feeling good, it would have been a lie to assert that she felt like a run-over dog.

Pascal’s Wittgenstein does not intend to accuse her of lying, but of misrepresentation of another sort. She characterizes her feeling as “the feeling of a run-over dog.” She is not really acquainted, however, with the feeling to which this phrase refers. Of course, the phrase is far from being complete nonsense to her; she is hardly speaking gibberish. What she says has an intelligible connotation, which she certainly understands. Moreover, she does know something about the quality of the feeling to which the phrase refers: she knows at least that it is an undesirable and unenjoyable feeling, a bad feeling. The trouble with her statement is that it purports to convey something more than simply that she feels bad. Her characterization of her feeling is too specific; it is excessively particular. Hers is not just any bad feeling but, according to her account, the distinctive kind of bad feeling that a dog has when it is run over. To the Wittgenstein in Pascal’s story, judging from his response, this is just bullshit.

Now assuming that Wittgenstein does indeed regard Pascal’s characterization of how she feels as an instance of bullshit, why does it strike him that way? It does so, I believe, because he perceives what Pascal says as being — roughly speaking, for now — unconnected to a concern with the truth. Her statement is not germane to the enterprise of describing reality. She does not even think she knows, except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels. Her description of her own feeling is, accordingly, something that she is merely making up. She concocts it out of whole cloth; or, if she got it from someone else, she is repeating it quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are.

It is for this mindlessness that Pascal’s Wittgenstein chides her. What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her statement is correct. There is every likelihood, of course, that she says what she does only in a somewhat clumsy effort to speak colorfully, or to appear vivacious or good-humored; and no doubt Wittgenstein’s reaction — as she construes it — is absurdly intolerant. Be this as it may, it seems clear what that reaction is. He reacts as though he perceives her to be speaking about her feeling thoughtlessly, without conscientious attention to the relevant facts. Her statement is not “wrought with greatest care.” She makes it without bothering to take into account at all the question of its accuracy.

The point that troubles Wittgenstein is manifestly not that Pascal has made a mistake in her description of how she feels. Nor is it even that she has made a careless mistake. Her laxity, or her lack of care, is not a matter of having permitted an error to slip into her speech on account of some inadvertent or momentarily negligent lapse in the attention she was devoting to getting things right. The point is rather that, so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.

This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. It is in this sense that Pascal’s statement is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.