Printer Friendly

The Danger of Words and Writings on Wittgenstein.

By M.O.'C. Drury. Edited and introduced by David Berman, Michael Fitzgerald and John Hayes. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996. 278 pp. $24.95 paper.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had a reputation for discouraging his students from taking up careers in academic philosophy. Professional philosophy, he remarked, was "a kind of living death."[1] Told once that a joint meeting of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society was to be held in Cambridge, he replied, "Very well, to me it is as if you had just told me there will be bubonic plague in Cambridge next summer. I am very glad to know and I will make sure to be in London."[2] Wittgenstein was afflicted with a dangerously low tolerance for professorial hot air, and he complained that universities not only stifled original philosophical thought, but that they made it difficult to be a decent human being. He urged his students to take up useful work instead, such as farming or medicine.[3]

I don't know whether any of Wittgenstein's students became farmers, but at least one of them became a doctor. Maurice O'Connor Drury, Wittgenstein's student and life-long friend, went on at Wittgenstein's encouragement to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, after which he underwent postgraduate training in psychiatry. Drury's essays on Wittgenstein have made him a familiar figure to scholars interested in Wittgenstein's life and work, but it is sometimes forgotten that in 1973 Drury himself published a book of philosophical essays on medicine and psychiatry called The Danger of Words Neglected by philosophers (and never noticed, one suspects, by doctors) The Danger of Words was out of print for many years until Thoemmes Press resurrected it in late 1996.

The original 1973 version of The Danger of Words was what is often tactfully called "a slender volume," consisting of a mere five essays based on Drury's nonacademic lectures to a medical club. The essays were thus written to be spoken aloud (and it shows: they read very easily). The five essays range over varied topics likely to be of interest to a group of liberally educated doctors--body and mind, madness and religion, science and psychology, the logical status of a scientific hypothesis, and perhaps most centrally, the way doctors and scientists can misuse words. Drury quotes Proverbs 10:19 as a possible motto for the Royal College of Psychiatrists: "With a multitude of words transgressions are increased."

In the preface to the book, Drury writes that he has published the essays for only one reason: "The author of these writings was at one time a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein." Indeed, Thoemmes Press has published the new edition as part of their "Wittgenstein Studies" series. The new edition brings together the original text of The Danger of Words, a previously unpublished lecture about Wittgenstein that Drury delivered to the student Philosophy Society, at University College, Dublin, in 1967, and several of Drury's other published essays: "Fact and Hypothesis" from the journal The Human World "Some Notes on Conversation with Wittgenstein" from Acta Philosophica Fennica, and "Conversations with Wittgenstein" from the book Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, edited by Rush Rhees. By way of introduction, the new edition includes a very useful biographical essay by John Hayes about Drury and his lasting friendship with Wittgenstein, tided "Wittgenstein's `Pupil': The Writings of Maurice O'Connor Drury."

Drury himself thought The Danger of Words would be too narrow to interest philosophers and too speculative to interest medical practitioners. This may reflect Drury's modesty, and perhaps also his years reaching medical students at Trinity College, Dublin, who apparently found his lectures rather less than gripping (p. x1). Whatever his reasoning, Drury's conclusions were mistaken. He is an exceptionally graceful writer; but even if he wrote like a doctor his essays would be worth a careful look. Not many psychiatrists studied with Wittgenstein, and not many of Wittgenstein's students absorbed Wittgenstein's thought as thoroughly as Drury.

Ray Monk, Wittgenstein's biographer, calls The Danger of Words perhaps "the most truly Wittgensteinian work published by any of Wittgenstein's students."[4] It is not hard to see why. Drury was a true disciple, and his voice in these essays is often indistinguishable from that of Wittgenstein. In his preface, for example, Drury tells a story about an oral examination he once took in physiology. Drury's examiner explained to him that he had once been told by Sir Arthur Keith that the reason why the spleen drained into the portal system was of the utmost importance. But Keith had never said just why this was so important. "Now," the examiner asked Drury, "can you tell me?" Drury confessed that he couldn't. The examiner went on. "Do you think there must be a significance, or an explanation? As I see it, there are two sorts of people: one who sees a bird sitting on a telegraph wire and says to himself, `Why is that bird sitting just there?' The other man says, `Damn it all, the bird has to sit somewhere'" (p. xi).

This is just the kind of story that Wittgenstein might have told. We are led into philosophical confusion, thought Wittgenstein, by seeking explanations at times when we should instead simply stop and say, "This is how things are." The urge to discover ultimate explanations, to seek out final justifications for a philosophical position, is what leads us to the sort of foundational, metaphysical philosophy that the later Wittgenstein rejected. "We must do away with all explanation," he wrote, "and description alone must take its place."[5] Wittgenstein sometimes described this metaphysical, philosophical urge as an illness, and to his own method of doing philosophy as therapy:

The philosopher is the man who

must cure himself of many sicknesses

of the understanding before

arriving at the notion of the sound

human understanding. If in the

midst of life we are in death, so in

sanity we are surrounded by madness.[6]

Wittgenstein once argued that in philosophy, intelligence is less important than character. This argument may sound strange, but it sounds perhaps a little less strange if we remember how Wittgenstein felt about professional philosophy and university life. For Wittgenstein, it takes character--a kind of humility--to refrain from saying more than we really know. Drury calls this a kind of mental asceticism, less a matter of intellect than of will. Take, for example, the anthropologist James Frazer's study of magic and ritual, The Golden Bough, which Drury and Wittgenstein once read together. If Frazer had been content simply to describe the rites and ceremonies of various cultures, says Drury, he could have written a remarkable book. But instead Frazer assumes chat he can explain these rituals; and moreover, that he can explain them as a type of mistaken, primitive science. For example, when faced with a person in a traditional society who stabs an effigy of his enemy with a pin, Frazer assumes that the person is trying to cause that enemy harm. The person simply has a mistaken scientific hypothesis about how to bring that harm about. For Drury and Wittgenstein, this is utter nonsense. Are we trying to bring anything about when we remove our hats in church, asks Drury, or when we shake hands with a stranger? Of course not. Here an absence of intellectual humility has led Frazer to say more than he really knows--a tendency which, according to Drury and Wittgenstein, academic life encourages. Drury once remarked to Wittgenstein that one of his friends had abandoned his postgraduate studies on the grounds that he had nothing original to say. To this Wittgenstein replied, "For that action alone they should give him his Ph.D." (p. 109).

Wittgenstein's attitude toward intellectual vanity clearly made a deep impression on Drury. In his essay "Madness and Religion," perhaps the most ethically important essay in the book, Drury confesses his own self-doubts about one side of his psychiatric practice. He tells the story of a Catholic priest he treated for depression, a man once considered very gifted by his parishioners but who had lost his faith. Saying mass had become a tremendous burden, and he began to wake each night at 3 a.m. and lie until dawn worrying about his spiritual state. His appetite left him; he developed stomach pain; he became convinced that he had cancer. When a work-up showed otherwise and Drury was consulted, the priest became resentful, saying that his problem was spiritual, not medical, and that he himself was to blame.

Today such a priest might be prescribed antidepressants. Drury gave him electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The priest's insomnia and stomach pain immediately disappeared, and within a week he was saying mass again. After seven courses of ECT his spiritual doubts had vanished and he was back at work. A therapeutic success? Perhaps. But Drury asks us to consider a man who, while undergoing a profound spiritual crisis, had expressed himself in a manner very similar to that of Drury's priest:

I felt that something had broken

within me on which my life had always

rested, that I had nothing left

to hold on to, that morally my life

had stopped . . . Behold me then a

happy man in good health, hiding

the rope in order not to hang myself

to the rafters of the room where

every night I went to sleep alone.

The author of these words was Leo Tolstoy, and the convictions that resulted from this episode had a lasting influence on his life and work. Would Tolstoy have been an appropriate candidate for ECT? For Drury, it is clear that mental and physical health, while important, are not the supreme human goods. The question for a psychiatrist, says Drury, is when to say, "This man is mad and we must put a stop to his raving," and when to say, "Touch not mine anointed and do my prophet no harm" (p. 129).

Despite this concern with both ethics and medicine, the tone of Drury's book is strikingly different from most contemporary work in bioethics. This should not be surprising; it would be hard to overstate how foreign the notion of professional bioethics would have been to Wittgenstein, and perhaps also to Drury himself One of the difficulties (among many) of trying to reconcile bioethics with Wittgenstein's thought is that for Wittgenstein, ethics is an intensely personal, deeply serious affair. It is about the sense of life, about the state of one's soul; or as he often put it to his friends, about being decent. The form that bioethics often takes--as a kind of anonymous, impersonal, rule-writing exercise in which we advise others how to behave--could hardly be more alien to this sort of interior ethical quest.

Yet both Drury and Wittgenstein saw the importance of putting philosophy to practical use. In a letter to Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein once wrote, "(W)hat is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life . . ."[7] This, above all, is why Drury's essays are worth reading: they are a practitioner's efforts to think clearly about a practical enterprise. His essays are less about ethics, in fact, than about the way that conceptual confusion can worm its way into the way we think about medicine and the mind. Drury has a keen eye for sporting philosophical nonsense and putting it to rest. Or, as he quotes Wittgenstein as saying, "A bad philosopher is like a slum landlord. It is my job to put him out of business" (p. 117).


[1.] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984; originally 1958), p. 98.

[2.] Karl Britton, "Portrait of a Philosopher," in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy, ed. K. T. Fann (New York: Dell Publishing, 1967). p. 62.

[3.] Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 28.

[4.] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), p. 264.

[5.] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1958), p. 109.

[6.] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956), p. 157.

[7.] Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 94.

Roberto Mordacci and Richard Sobel. "Health: A Comprehensive Concept," Hastings Center Report 28, no. 1 (1998): 34-37.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Hastings Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Elliott, Carl
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Health: a comprehensive concept.
Next Article:Morality, Mortality Vol. II: Rights, Duties, and Status.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |