One Must Imagine Wittgenstein Cruising

by Lucas Veltkamp | March 8, 2024

Wittgenstein, the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, was gay. Or maybe bi. Or perhaps he had especially close friendships with men for whom he had a certain aesthetic appreciation but with whom – no sir – he most definitely never ever had gay sex!


There is something slightly voyeuristic in an interest in the sex lives of long dead figures. A significant amount of the controversy about Wittgenstein’s sexuality centres around the titillating question of whether he – the cold and analytical philosopher – cruised for gay sex in Viennese parks. But, putting aside defending an interest in Wittgenstein’s sexuality for its own sake, I argue a proper engagement with his philosophy demands an appreciation of Wittgenstein’s sensuousness, in his work and person.


We tend to imagine philosophers (apart from perhaps the French) preferring contemplating to fucking. Wittgenstein, preparing for a potential marriage with Marguerite Respinger, invited her on a trip to Norway, which, to her surprise, was to be spent separately in careful contemplation of the requirements marriage was to place upon them both. If she was ever into him, when he informed her their marriage was to be chaste and childless, she made her (understandable) lack of interest clear. His writings also seem to reflect his dismissive attitude towards the physical. While we might be tempted to think that with our words – our declarations of desires, remarks on the beauty of others, messages angry at betrayal – we are drawing on something deep and fundamental, are describing our inner and private sensations, or experiencing, in a fleeting way, beauty itself, or referencing universal moral rules, in his later works, Wittgenstein would inform us that this is all an illusion; philosophically speaking, nonsense. Words are just things we happen to say at certain times in certain circumstances because that’s the way we tend to do things; it reflects nothing more than our ‘form of life’. There are in fact, no inner, private sensations. When someone moans, we happen to say they are experiencing pain (or pleasure) and that is all there is to it. There are, then, no ‘mind’ distinct from the body, no moral motivations to analyse or just duties to uphold.  So, there can be nothing more to the job of a philosopher than to describe how we use language. Other than that, we ‘leave everything as it is’. Public philosopher Alain de Botton teaches us in his ‘School of Life’ the relevance of Wittgenstein to sexual/romantic relationships. If our partner (depicted here as a woman in a relationship with us as a man) irrationally accuses us of being unreliable, we can use philosophy to see that she does not really mean what she says. This is just something that people (women?) tend to say when they are upset, rather than reflecting some more fundamental truth. She is playing, in Wittgensteinian terms, the language game of (requesting) ‘help and reassurance’.


In his article ‘On Wittgenstein and Homosexuality’, William Warren Bartly the Third discusses, in addition to the crucial cruising question, why it was so important for many of Wittgenstein’s followers to insist that he never had gay sex, against the facts of the matter. He suggests that it was crucial to maintaining their peculiar image of him. Wittgenstein was worshipped by his disciples as a great spiritual guide, mysterious and appealing, an undefinable enigma. Memoirs of memories of Wittgenstein are littered with references to his good looks, youthfulness, and alluring character, but they reach their erotic zenith with JN Findlay, who describes him as ‘like Apollo who has bounded into life out of his own statue […] with a beauty that had nothing sensual about it’, amongst a hoard of other breathless compliments. He is simply too divine, so little of this world, that to imagine him doing anything as earthly and dirty as sex (perhaps to the homophobic mind, especially as dirty as gay sex) is offensive to his memory.


Something has gone tremendously wrong here. Wittgenstein’s philosophy is meant to bring us back to ordinary life. Instead, we are failing to see anything as ordinary: Wittgenstein’s person, our observations of other people’s sensations, the statements of partners. It is as if we are floating above the ordinary, unable to engage in a healthy way with the world around us, too ‘clever’ for ordinary life.


Wittgenstein is not dismissive of the significance of the human experience, of the deep or the fundamental. Quite the opposite. While words are just things we say at certain times for certain reasons, they can be as meaningful as any other of our actions, which are too just things we do at certain times for certain reasons. Our ‘forms of life’ are something that Wittgenstein shows deep respect towards, and he is motivated by an aversion for the philosopher or the anthropologist who, dissatisfied by appearances, wishes to dig behind them. If we want to have a romantic relationship with someone, to take part in that bit of our form of life, we need to really engage with it, rather than operate from an arrogant philosophical distance where we think we know better.


If the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘desire’ must be more than things we say sometimes when certain things happen, if they must refer to these private things deep within us that our words can only graze against, there is no possibility of using these words to describe a shared sexual experience; sexual connection of even the most rudimentary, vulgar kind is not possible. Sex ends up isolated, dirty, masturbatory, below an esteemed philosopher. Wittgenstein pushes back against this isolation. We do not just reckon that our partner is experiencing pleasure, we know it; just try, Wittgenstein implores, in any real case, to doubt it. When we have sex the boundaries of our inner worlds break down, desires and pleasure become shared property – my desires are yours, we experience together one pleasure. And if there need not be something more, we shouldn’t presume that the way people have sex needs explanation or justification, that we cannot just say ‘such is our lives’. Of course, individual instances of sex need not be this transcendental experience, but drawing this potential out of Wittgenstein’s philosophy we can see it need not be dismissive of the sensual. A denial of Wittgenstein’s sexual activity is not just inaccurate, it misunderstands Wittgenstein’s philosophical character as detached and analytical, rather than sensuous and grounded. Our Wittgenstein is not some sexless priest on a throne, ripping appearances off reality but definitely not anyone’s boxers off, but an ordinary man advocating for an ordinary philosophy. Maybe he did have sex with ‘rough youths’ in the park. If so, good for him.


Words by Lucas Veltkamp.