I will come to the context for this sentence after some substantial preliminaries, but here it is, from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Cambridge Lectures:
“‘If A had loved B he would have saved him” is not an experiential statement at all, but a definition or explication of what I call love.
So now, this is the story of what is called, in my house, the Wittgenstein trial.
My brother and his fiancée, who lived in Maine, were going to a housewarming party in Boston, and they invited me to tag alone. I showed up mid-party with some Dunkin Donuts coffee; the party had already begun to rollick. The host of the party, who apart with my brother and his fiancée was the only person at the party whom I knew, came up to me and started talking to me about books he had been reading, and got to Wallace’s The Broom of the System, which he said he did not understand. It is not an easy book to understand! A lot of it is taken up with explicating the theories of the early Wittgenstein, a guy whose name has come, in certain circles, to be the metonym of gnostic abstruseness itself. Because gnostic abstruseness is the water in which I swim, I am always quick to see Wittgenstein in everything. So I said to the host: “well, have you read any Wittgenstein?”
I cannot say that I have often been roared at; but that is the only speech tag possible for what happened next, which was that my brother, from across the room, roared at me, “GODDAMMIT, MATT, YOU CAN’T GO INTO SOMEONE’S HOUSE AND JUST ASK THEM IF THEY’VE EVER READ WITTGENSTEIN!”
In nearly every circumstance, I agree. That’s not the thing to do; but I maintained that I had entered the rare, dare I say, language game (talking about The Broom of the System) in which such a question was indeed what the situation called out for. In situ, I made a few noises like an engine failing to turn over, and then the guy whose house it was and I started talking about professional football instead. But it was not over, because a few months later we assembled most of my family and both my brother and I presented our cases on why I should, or should not, have asked such a question. My brother mostly repeated his bedrock claim from the party; I mostly repeated the sputtering noises that come out of me when called upon to justify something that is as important to me as thinking about Wittgenstein (I am a quick one to hit bedrock and turn up my spade). It ended in a hung jury: my sister voted for my brother, my father voted for me, my mother and sister-in-law abstained. Everyone considered this a loss for me, because we all knew that my other brother, who was not there when we convened the Wittgenstein trial, would certainly have come down on the side of the categorical maxim: you can’t go into someone’s house and just ask them if they’ve ever read Wittgenstein.
Suppose it is said that A loves B, meaning that he has certain feelings for B, but that when B’s life is endangered and A could have saved him, he did not. We say “This cannot have been love.” Has the statement “A loves B” been contradicted by A’s not saving his life? No. It is not a contradiction to say A had the feeling for B but did not save him. It is only a conjecture that whenever A has a certain feeling he will do so-and-so in the future. But it is quite another thing to say I am not going to call this love if A did not save B when he could have done so. “If A had loved B he would have saved him” is not an experiential statement at all, but a definition or explication of what I call love.
I had a hell of a time finding this quote when I wanted to write about it: it was given to me, in April 2013, on a handout in a class about ordinary language philosophy. I threw the handout away only two months ago, figuring that since I had had no call to look at any of my old papers in four years, they might as well be consigned to recycling. And then I thought: what sentence would serve best to hang the story of the Wittgenstein trial on? I thought pretty quickly of “Suppose A loves B,” but I misremembered orders and parts of the quote enough that my recent google search is a complete havoc of “Wittgenstein love” and “Wittgenstein A loves B” and “Wittgenstein failed to save his life”. Luckily, I finally found enough of the little bits of verbiage that now I have it forever.
A and B are not the usual Wittgenstein guys, who spend most of their time looking at blocks of different shapes, or adding up to extremely high sums. They have a relationship of love to one another, though what sort – romantic, friendly, familial – is left unsaid. The stakes are unusually high, although Wittgenstein is using this high-stakes, high-emotion case to make a somewhat arcane point about the failure of the concept of contradiction to describe a lot of things that don’t make sense in the world. (This was also the passage I had in mind when months later I told my mother that I was going to give a toast at my brother’s bachelor party in which I quoted Wittgenstein, at some length. My mother responded with maximum steeliness. “Do NOT,” she said, “talk about Wittgenstein in front of your brothers’ friends.” I obliged, although I did draw some attention to myself inadvertently at the bachelor party by showing one of my brother’s friends a magazine that I had in my bag with my mother’s face on it, an event that is still often spoken of when the bachelor party is referred to.) But it offers a hook where language and the world an abut one another, and it is no accident, I think, that the hook here shows up through a question of action and love. It reminds us (or anyway me) of the common objective uselessness of abstract nouns: it becomes not that interesting whether A loves B in some kind of idealized way; what’s important is what A does.
Suppose it is said that A loves B, and yet when B failed to understand The Broom of the System and A might have helped by explicating Wittgenstein, he did not. Suppose it is said that A loves B, and yet when B bumbled into a party and began droning on about Wittgenstein, A stopped him. Suppose further and further along this formula.
The ways of being in the world are strange and multitudinous. Earlier today I did an anti-anxiety yoga practice in which I was instructed to roar as a means of releasing breath (I did); yesterday I went to the Brooklyn Museum and there was a blue neon Wittgenstein quote on the wall (pictured, fuzzily, above). Both of these things strongly reminded me of the Wittgenstein trial. The lattices of dozens of things reminding of everything else — or rather, an inability to refrain from commenting on being reminded — is in fact what got me in trouble in that instance. Yet. Such lattices are what one has (what I have) in order to continue to develop definitions and explications of what I call love, so I suppose that is what I will continue to do.