A weighty philosophical tome it may not have been, nor a seminal paper, nor a famous meeting which made the greatest contribution to modern philosophy, but a single gesture. Unusually, for a gesture – since gestures are so quickly lost in the tumult of our daily life – it was one of the best recorded gestures of time.
Piero Sraffa – otherwise known for his lectures on economics at Cambridge – impulsively brushed his chin with his fingers. So important was Sraffa to Ludwig Wittgenstein – above all, it would seem, through that single gesture – that Wittgenstein acknowledged Sraffa in his Philosophical Investigations. The same Wittgenstein, that is, who wrote to his professor G.E. Moore: “Dear Moore,... the whole business [of acknowledgement] is too stupid and too beastly.” For such sentiments, Wittgenstein was denied his BA degree. Citations, at Cambridge, were required by the regulations.
Wittgenstein finally wrote acknowledgements in his Philosophical Investigations, but not to his mentors Gottlob Frege, or Bertrand Russell, nor to any of the luminaries he there refers to merely as “other people” – only to Frank Ramsey and Piero Sraffa. The acknowledgement to Ramsey seems somewhat cursory: through him, he “was helped”. But his acknowledgement to Sraffa is profound: "I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas in this book". And “this book”, in turn, arguably had the most consequential effects of the century, in philosophy. While it is not known which stimulus it was that Wittgenstein refers to in his book, it is generally assumed that the gesture encapsulates it all – followed by Sraffa's interrogation of Wittgenstein:
“What is the logical form of that?”Sraffa need not have brushed his chin with his fingers. It might as easily have been a punch. “What is the logical form of that?” Or a hug. Even a jig. Or, for that matter, a legacy, or a rampage. President Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, we may suppose, was a gesture. The Bomb under Mururoa. The independence of East Timor. The destruction of the Twin Towers. In their broadest sense, these are gestures all. They are actions, that is, performed to convey a feeling or intention.
Let us now turn our attention to another gesture – in another place, another time. It is a gesture which holds much in common with that of Sraffa. The details of this gesture, unlike Sraffa's, are lost in time – yet we may assume that it was the one gesture which raised all other gestures to prominence in a certain young man's mind.
In his introductory observations in Of Morals, David Hume wrote simply: “I see the effects of passion in the voice and gesture.” Hume, that is, observed not merely that the voice reveals the effects of passion, but gesture. Or to put it more broadly, it was not merely Hume's mastery of words and ideas which informed his moral philosophy, but his witness of gesture.
Hume, in this way, may be said to foreshadow Wittgenstein. Like Wittgenstein, gesture caused him to look beyond a world of mere words and logical structures. Wittgenstein merely saw what Hume had seen before. Hume had had his Sraffa moment, two hundred years before – although, to be sure, he had not made much of it.
Hume, further, appeared to assume a logic of gesture. We do not need to look far to find it. We find it in that fleeting comment in Of Morals: “I see the effects of passion...” Gestures, for Hume, were “effects”. Further, these effects were “seen” – and presumably therefore, interpreted. Effects, of course, have causes. And both causes and effects, in turn, are what systems are made of. Whatever one may say about Hume's ethics, he believed in some kind of gestural trade.
We give gestures and we take them. We balance gestures. We contemplate them. We arrange gestures within our world. This is the stuff of which our moral life is made. While on the surface of it, such gestures may appear to have no logical form – being intangible, mysterious, and as Hume considered, “perfectly inexplicable by human reason”, yet we know what they are. We have a repertoire of gestures. This repertoire has definition, of a kind. And further, it forms a vast network – personal, social, global.
Piero Sraffa might cast some further light on this. Usually it is assumed that Sraffa gave Wittgenstein the impulse for abandoning ethics as a rational quest. We imagine that Sraffa, brushing his chin, would have answered his own question thus:
“There is no logical form of that, of course. Ethics and logic do not mix.”Yet Sraffa himself was an ethicist, and a systematic one at that. He was a Ricardian – which is, he sought a balance of human and material value. Let us for a moment suppose that there may be a variant reading of Sraffa. Supposing that Sraffa's internal dialogue would have read something like this:
“What is the logical form of a gesture, Wittgenstein? Speak, Wittgenstein, for I see it before us so clear. I recognise a gestural trade.”
Supposing that gestures are logical forms. Supposing that there exists a system of gestures – where we understand gestures in their broadest sense. Gestures, then, might be organised structurally, as a kind of gestural ethics. This raises a number of questions which are beyond the bounds of one short essay – yet one may suggest that chief among them are these:
Firstly, may a system of gestures be so ordered as to be more pleasing than other systems of gestures? How, then? and on what basis? And secondly, would such a system of gestures be unique and autonomous, as G.E. Moore suggests? Or is the way in which we trade in gestures in some way fundamentally the same as the way in which we dialogue in history, law, geography, and theology – in fact chemistry and physics, too?
It would seem too daring to take on both questions at once – yet with a leap of the imagination, Sraffa might help us further with the first. Supposing that the emphasis of Sraffa's question was this:
“Logic, Wittgenstein, is little pieces of thought. Think, Wittgenstein – think more expansively! Look at the meaning of this gesture, socially and globally!”Sraffa's gesture clearly combined action with meaning. Not only that, but in that moment in which he brushed his chin, he used the expression of an entire culture – not merely of a man. His gesture combined history and society, heritage and cultivation. It exploded the bounds of logic. Good morals, Sraffa might have suggested, do not lie in the study of logical pieces.
Sraffa, after all, was a globalist. Supposing this interpretation to be true, the lesson might not have been lost on Wittgenstein. On the surface of it, while he abandoned any logic of ethics, his mature philosophy embraced forms of life – namely, the notion that our language is embedded in the entire matrix of our lives: sociological, historical, linguistic, physiological, behavioural.
David Hume, apparently, moved in much the same direction. In his later thinking, his ethics came to encompass not merely individual morals, but “the happiness of mankind”. A raft of moral gestures, he thought, rested “solely” on considerations which took the whole of society into account: justice, fidelity, honour, veracity, allegiance, and chastity.
Both of these conclusions, of Wittgenstein and of Hume, the first located in the 20th century, the second in the 18th, may originally have been motivated by gestures – so opening up to these key philosophers a more apposite and expansive thinking, an ethics in the context of the whole world, in all its varied manifestations.
There remains one more gesture which we find in the annals of philosophy, without which this essay would not seem to be complete. It was the final, touching gesture of Immanuel Kant. Rather than signalling a philosophy that was yet to come, this was a retrospective gesture.
When Kant's doctor called on him in his final days, the ailing Kant, with some difficulty, stood up to receive him, and would not allow himself to be seated again until the doctor had taken his place.
One might wonder what it was all about – if Kant had not, reportedly, explained it himself. It was, said Kant, the sign of a life that had connected the personal with the universal. That is, it was a gesture which revealed the categorical imperative – a gesture as wide as the world, and not merely for his own sake – in fact, even at his own expense. For Kant, too, gestures embodied an ethic which transcended narrower, personal, parochial interests.