In this essay by Phil Shields, Wittgenstein & Silence he relates the following story:

Wittgenstein was invited to a meeting of the Vienna circle:

“When he finally came, instead of answering their questions about his book, he sat facing away from them reading Tagore, the Indian poet, for over an hour and then got up and silently left the room. Afterward Carnap remarked to Schlick, “I guess he is not one of us.”

I had thought Wittgenstein had directly inspired the Vienna circle, and that he would have been only too glad to bask in the warmth of their admiration.

So why is he reading Tagore, probably Gitanjali, whose major theme is mystical longing to an audience who given their philosophical proclivities should be unappreciative. Is it a case of personal animus?

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    I like that question but I don't think it belongs here. We would merely speculate on his reasons to do so, unless someone finds a source.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Sep 24, 2012 at 11:35
  • I find it interesting that he was reading metaphysical poetry given his non-metaphysical stance. I understand that the orthodox position is to examine the thought and not the man, but I think the contra position is worth pursueing. Maybe we could go for a freudian reading, where he had repressed metaphysical leanings... Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 20:34
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    Freud again. What does our thought about Freud's thought on this have to do with philosophy?
    – iphigenie
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 11:08
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    Wrong terminology. And I don't even like freud. I simply mean that he had spiritual/mystical leanings which may not have been expressible due to the kind of character he was, and the kind of work he was engaged in. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 5:50
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    There is a paper titled "Why did Wittgenstein read Tagore, to the Vienna Circle?" by Peter French, published in Protosociology. It's reprinted in a book "Protosoziologie im Kontext".
    – Johannes
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 21:23

5 Answers 5


There is a paper titled "Why did Wittgenstein read Tagore, to the Vienna Circle?" by Peter French, published in Protosociology. It's reprinted in a book Protosoziologie im Kontext.

Here are my impressions:

The author makes the familiar points that Wittgenstein was trying to move past "Platonistic" theories of meaning and also wanted to downgrade traditional epistemology. Already according to the Tractatus, it makes no sense to try to justify logic: "logic must take care of itself". In his later philosophy this theme continues: "This language-game just is like that" (On Certainty).

In W's later anthropological understanding, meaning is founded on communal agreement. For epistemology this means that there is no privileged God's-eye-view and justification always presupposes a system of agreement and a form of life that give knowledge and doubt their sense.

French following Rorty says that the Heideggerians and the pragmatists break from the tradition that sees philosophy as science (or continuous with science) where beliefs are changed because of perception and inference, and consequently "the logical space of epistemology is infinitely expanded" (p.242): following Rorty the author suggests that now metaphor can be seen as a way to modify beliefs.

French seems to think that something like this entails the Wittgensteinian view of language (p.242) where meanings are not held fixed by Platonic essences but should be explicated only from within an understanding of the practices with words. And already in the Tractatus Wittgenstein too rejected the philosophy as science model, French speculates he was also tempted to make the Heideggerian poetic turn.

So reading Tagore was in part a way to make something like this point. Apparently this happened in 1927 and soon after this Wittgenstein was already formulating some of his new views about grammar, though as said there were continuities between his earlier and later phases. It's hard to deny that a prank like that would be a snappy way of undermining some of the philosophical views of the Circle.

I find this somewhat plausible. Wittgenstein's methods take language very seriously, many problems seem to take the form of riddles for him, he wanted to write a book based on jokes, and in a conversation with Schlick he said "Everything we do consists of trying to find the liberating word." And the Tractatus tries to make the reader see, by using aphorisms that have no sense.


The way your source puts it, is very misleading.

Logical empiricists had nothing against "metaphysical poetry". This seems to be a recurring misunderstanding. Indeed, according to logical empiricists, poetry is one of the best suited media to express "mystical longings".

Long explanation (by Carnap himself)

The whole point is clearly stated by Carnap in his paper on the "Elimination of metaphysics through logical analysis of language" (1932), esp. §7 "Metaphysics as expression of an attitude towards life":

[…] We find that metaphysics also arises from the need to give expression to a mans's attitude in life, his emotional and volitional reaction to the environment, to society, to the tasks to which he devotes himself, to the misfortunes that befall him. This attitude manifests itself, unconsciously as a rule, in everything a man does or says. It also impresses itself on his facial features, perhaps even on the character of his gait. Many people, now, feel a desire to create over and above these manifestations a special expression of their attitude, through which it might become visible in a more succinct and penetrating way. If they have artistic talent they are able to express themselves by producing a work of art. Many writers have already clarified the way in which the basic attitude is manifested through the style and manner of a work of art (e.g. Dilthey and his students).

[In this connection the term "world view" ("Weltanschauung") is often used; we p refer to avoid it because of its ambiguity, which blurs the difference between attitude and theory, a difference which is of decisive importance for our analysis.]

What is here essential for our considerations is only the fact that art is an adequate, metaphysics an inadequate means for the expression of the basic attitude. Of course, there need be no intrinsic objection to one's using any means of expression one likes. But in the case of metaphysics we find this situation: through the form of its works it pretends to be something that it is not. The form in question is that of a system of statements which are apparently related as premises and conclusions, that is, the form of a theory. In this way the fiction of theoretical content is generated, whereas, as we have seen, there is no such content. It is not only the reader, but the metaphysician himself who suffers from the illusion that the metaphysical statements say something, describe states of affairs. The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. That the metaphysician is thus deluding himself cannot be inferred from the fact that he selects language as the medium of expression and declarative sentences as the form of expression; for lyrical poets do the same without succumbing to self-delusion. But the metaphysician supports his statements by arguments, he claims assent to their content, he polemicizes against metaphysicians of divergent persuasion by attempting to refute their assertions in his treatise. Lyrical poets, on the other hand, do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet; for they know they are in the domain of art and not in the domain of theory.

Perhaps music is the purest means of expression of the basic attitude because it is entirely free from any reference to objects. The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart. And when a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium? Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability. Instead they have a strong inclination to work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude.

Our conjecture that metaphysics is a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for art, seems to be further confirmed by the fact that the metaphysician who perhaps had artistic talent to the highest degree, viz. Nietzsche, almost entirely avoided the error of that confusion. A large part of his work has predominantly empirical content. We find there, for instance, historical analyses of specific artistic phenomena, or an historical-psychological analysis of morals. In the work, however, in which he expresses most strongly that which others express through metaphysics or ethics, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, he does not choose the misleading theoretical form, but openly the form of art, of poetry.

Or, as Gottfried Gabriel once put it:

With Carnap, so to speak, Frege's Begriffsschrift lies on the desk and Nietzsche's Zarathustra on the bedside table.

  • I'm sure that they didn't have any problem with metaphysical poetry or books - so long as they know their place. The intent of the question isn't to discuss metaphysical poetry in the aesthetic (art) or political realm (rhetoric) which is exactly where Carnap puts it, but to simply to show something that Wittgenstein understood but the Positivists didn't - that there is weight to metaphysics, that it has Being. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 1:22
  • Carnap is for the surgical "elimination of metaphysics" by the positive examination of language, he asserts that all metaphysical claims are "meaningless, [and] we intend this word in its strictest sense). In this sense the source is NOT mischaracterising Wittgenstein and is consistent with Badious conception of him as a mystic. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 1:29
  • @Mozibur: My claim is that the "source" mischaracterizes Carnap. I said nothing about Wittgenstein, as far as I can see. The source article is right insofar as most logical empiricists rejected Wittgenstein's seeming appreciation for a deeper truth lying in that "whereof one cannot speak". Yet I would reply that "meaninglessness" in Carnap doesn't amount to "incommunicability" or something like that, as is the case with Wittgenstein. Carnap simply has a much wider conception of language than the early Wittgenstein, in which different forms and purposes of language are equally recognized.
    – DBK
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 3:28
  • @Mozibur: Also, re: "so long as they know their place". This one is ambiguous: One thing is to sharply distinguish different domains (1), the other is to draw some conclusions about how these domains are valued (2). I give you 1 (and drawing this divide is IMO the problematic part), but you (and the source article) seem to imply that Carnap valued other domains of life less than the scientific one, and I don't see any prima facie evidence for that. That's my worry.
    – DBK
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:00
  • @Mozibur: Indeed, I think the opposite is the case. The dualism in Carnap is that between Geist (Intellect) and Leben (Life), which he inherited from Lebensphilosophie and there's good evidence that Carnap saw Leben (and not Geist!) as being primary. The big difference wrt to Wittgenstein is that, even when Carnap associates Leben with irrationality, he always does so within a secularist framework, which prevents him from adopting mystical views about the non-rational domain of Leben.
    – DBK
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:06

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

6.52, which reads “[w]e feel as if all possible scientific questions are answered our problem is still not touched at all. Of course in that case there are no questions any more; and that is the answer.”

is answered by:

6.522 reads: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”

And in his notebooks:

“The urge towards the mystical comes of the non-satisfaction of our wishes by science".

Often he would say that he was “not a religious man” but could not help “seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”

Ayer admits that “the outlook of the Tractatus was misunderstood by the members of the Vienna Circle and the young English philosophers, including myself, who were strongly influenced by it.”

This was all taken from: Three Wittgensteins: Interpreting the Tractatus logico-philosophicus by Thomas J. Brommage

So if Wittgenstein pointedly rebuffs the positivists of the Vienna Circle, its because they tried to claim him as one of their own having entirely misunderstood him.

Finally, Badiou discusses Wittgenstein in his Anti-Philosophy and he characterises him as:

"[the] mystic, the aesthete, the Stalinist of spirituality".


"So why is he reading Tagore, probably Gitanjali, whose major theme is mystical longing to an audience who given their philosophical proclivities should be unappreciative."

He may have read from Gitanjali as well, but in the first 1927 meeting, Wittgenstein read from Tagore's Bengali play "Raja" (1910), based on a Buddhist Jataka tale. Kshitish Chandra Sen translated the play into English as "The King Of The Dark Chamber" (1914). Janik & Toulmin report that Wittgenstein translated the English version into German.

The subject matter of "Raja"-- a king who's presence is felt everywhere but cannot be seen at all-- would've resonated for Wittgenstein, given his interests at the time.


The Tractatus famously states "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

Wittgenstein considers the things we can't say as the most important things. However, the Vienna circle saw in the Tractatus as a licence to do away with all things that do not logically make sense.

Wittgenstein reading Tagore is a way of making this point.

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