In 1943, two of the most original thinkers of the century – Ludwig Wittgenstein and Simone Weil – found themselves in bombed-out London, looking for medical work to help the war effort. Although they never met, they were remarkably similar. Both were foreigners by birth, and both struck others as foreigners by their behavior.
Basically, both were equally foreign to the traditional way of doing philosophy, their chosen profession. Austrian-born Wittgenstein and French-born Weil insisted that philosophy must be lived – or, as academics say, “embodied” – and they avoided the academy to live and work. in the real world. While many of us take a break from work on Labor Day, we could take a moment to consider these abstract thinkers who gave themselves almost as much to work as they did to contemplation.
For Wittgenstein, the lure of the physical world came first. He intended to become a mechanical engineer. As a graduate student of aeronautics in Manchester, he built an engine that helped in the development of helicopters, and during a brief stint as an architect he helped design for his sister, right down to her grips. de porte, a house whose severe lines made the Bauhaus look positively baroque.
“Wittgenstein brought a hammer to philosophy, not only to destroy assumptions, but also to understand how we function in the world.”
However, upon discovering the writings of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein turned to philosophy. The book that served as his Cambridge doctoral dissertation, “The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” has both intimidated and inspired generations of philosophers (as well as artists and musicians). Written while serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, it offers a series of terse propositions about the nature of the world and the limits of language. These propositions, he confidently announced, were like rungs: by climbing them, the reader could “throw down the ladder.”
The metaphors of construction in Wittgenstein’s work are not accidental. He brought a hammer to philosophy, not only to destroy assumptions, but also to understand how we function in the world. This world was the one that people created and understood through their work. And for Wittgenstein, work was not just sitting in a hut pondering big questions, but also, as he himself did, collaborating with the workers who built that hut.
After giving away the great wealth he inherited from his father, Wittgenstein helped build coffers to fund a vacation. Twice he worked as a gardener in monasteries, in one case living in the garden shed, and he took great pride in fixing a colleague’s toilet. His work has always been meticulous, exemplified by his time as a laboratory technician during the war, when he developed an extraordinarily high quality medicinal cream.
“Weil was a labor activist and a true conservative who argued that workers should acquire “the heritage of human culture.””
Wittgenstein’s posthumously published “Philosophical Inquiries” include notable examples from his experiences in the world of manual labor. The book presents a series of “language games” intended to upset the reader’s reflexive assumptions about language. In one, it introduces builder A, which gets the desired actions from helper B via simple words. For example, in response to the command “Slab!” of A, B picks up a slab from a pile of slabs.
It sounds like “Slab!” is just shorthand for “Bring me a slab!” But why, asks Wittgenstein, “shouldn’t I have called the sentence ‘Bring me a slab!’ an extension of the phrase ‘Slab!’?
Wittgenstein called these exercises “games,” but they are more meaningful than playful. They reveal that words only have meaning when we discover the purposes they serve. At this point, Wittgenstein assures us, our “philosophical perplexity” evaporates.
Wittgenstein wanted to defend against the philosophers, writes his biographer Ray Monk, our “ordinary perception of the world”. In this sense, his philosophical mind remained tethered to the world in which he and others worked, harnessing tools and materials, whether concrete or abstract, for constructive purposes.
Like Wittgenstein, Simone Weil thought long and hard about the work. When she wasn’t teaching philosophy to her high school students during the week, she was teaching economics and literature on the weekends to miners and factory workers.
Both a labor activist and a true conservative, she asserted that workers, blue-collar as well as white-collar, should acquire “the heritage of human culture”. But culture is a two-way street. “The great human error,” Weil announced, “is reasoning instead of finding out.”
Weil had a demanding vision of the philosopher’s mandate. It is, she says, “exclusively a matter of action and practice”. Moreover, if philosophy was a matter of action, it was an action always attached to the truth. And the truth, Weil insisted, must “always be a truth about something” – something lived, something experienced.
When he was not teaching workers, Weil sought to be taught by them. In exchange for math lessons with a fisherman, she works on her trawler. During a storm one evening, she refused his request to buckle up for extra security, insisting that “I always did my duty”.
She also sought to do her duty on a farm, shoveling manure, digging beets, and piling hay. Between chores, she questioned the family about their lives, so relentlessly that she soon discovered her help was no longer needed. Duty further prompted Weil to descend a mine. Although nearsighted and clumsy, she insisted on using a miner’s pneumatic drill. The miner won out when the drill started pulling Weil along the face.
Eventually, she quit teaching for a year to work in factories around Paris. Inside the walls of those dark, deafening sheds, harnessed to machines where she was doomed to repeat the same movements countless times, Weil discovered misery, or affliction. Both physical and psychological, this state reduces a human being to a machine-like existence through hard, repetitive physical labor. Such work, Weil realized, made it almost impossible to think. In fact, to put an end to the suffering, the worker had no choice but to put an end to the thought, for her the ultimate drama.
Neither Wittgenstein nor Weil concluded that a workers’ revolt would solve these problems. Weil warned that “revolution” is a word “for which you kill, for which you die, for which you send the working masses to their death, but which has no content”. But both philosophers emphasized the importance of thought in giving purpose to human activity.
Weil told his students, “If you stop thinking about all this, you become complicit in what is going on. For his part, Wittgenstein never rejected expressions like “the meaning of life”. It is, he insisted, “a document of a tendency of the human mind which I cannot help but deeply respect and would not wish for my life to ridicule”. He would have agreed with Weil’s belief that not only “man should know what he is making, but, if possible, he should see how it is used – see how nature is modified by him. The work of every man should be an object of contemplation for him.
For these two thinkers, it is a duty to use our minds and our hands together, so that our own powers mesh with the resistant gears of the world. Work conspires to reconnect us to this world and to ourselves. Maybe that too should be something to think about on Labor Day.
—Mr. Zaretsky is a professor at the University of Houston’s Honors College and author of “Victorias Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague” (University of Chicago Press). Mr. Alliger is a consultant in work psychology, a lecturer at Rice University, and the author of “Anti-Work: Psychological Consideration of Its Problems, Truths, and Solutions” (Routledge).
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