By Arthur Evans
In 1969 I helped found a new group in New York City called the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). One of GAA's favorite tactics was the "zap"—a form of militant but nonviolent confrontation with anti-gay oppressors that combined high camp, political savvy, and chutzpah.
In those days there was almost no serious coverage of gay/lesbian issues in the mass media. The zap was designed to shred the media's cloak of silence. It had been conceived for this purpose by the late Marty Robinson, a brilliant Stonewall-era tactician. Using Marty Robinson's tactics, GAA (and other groups that followed GAA's example) revolutionized the American political landscape for our community.
Coining of the Word "Homophobia"
Although GAA's zaps were smashing through media barriers, we realized that we suffered from a linguistic deficiency. There was no simple term that we could use to capture the various forms of oppression that were crippling our lives.
By good fortune, George Weinberg, a straight psychologist who had long been a friend of our community, regularly attended GAA meetings. Watching with fascination our zaps and the media responses, he came up with the word that we had been struggling for—"homophobia," derived from Greek words meaning "the same" and "fear," and meaning the irrational fear of loving someone of the same sex. George's new word first appeared in book form in 1972 in his ground-breaking work Society and the Healthy Homosexual.
The invention of the word "homophobia" is an example of how theory can be rooted in practice. The word didn't come from an arm-chair academic viewing the movement at a distance, like a biologist squinting through a microscope at a slide. Instead, it came from personal interactions among active, thinking people who acknowledged a shared value: the transformation of society for the better.
The Sterility of Academic Philosophy
While getting arrested at GAA demonstrations in New York, I was also a doctoral student in philosophy at Columbia University. I couldn't help but marvel at how intellectually dead Columbia's philosophy department seemed by comparison.
In the movement, we thrived on questioning everything—sex-roles, the government, the military, the family, art, science, fantasy. In the philosophy department, however, graduate students plodded through the required courses and exams with a glazed look in their eyes. Professors pretended that the 60s had never happened. They scorned the idea that being gay or lesbian could be something of philosophical significance. Gay and lesbian professors who were in the closet were the most scornful of all.
Despite my professors' resistance, I was convinced that being gay or lesbian is something of philosophical significance. It isn't just a matter of what we do in bed. So I decided to withdraw from Columbia to begin a life-long philosophical quest of my own.
What is the cause of homophobia? What does it mean to be gay? What is liberation? These were the questions I wanted to address, but not in the style of my existentially-disemboweled professors. Instead, I wanted to follow the model that led George Weinberg to coin the word "homophobia": intellectual inquiry as part of existential engagement.
Inspired by this existentially-honed approach, I started poking my nose into areas that others had neglected. In the process, I made a discovery about a branch of philosophy known as formal logic—It had a historical overlap with homophobia.
What follows is an overview of one segment of this overlap, involving two gay philosophers. Knowing their stories is important because such knowledge can deepen our understanding of homophobia, gay identity, and liberation. In short, being gay or lesbian has philosophical consequences.
Sex, Character & Logic
What is formal logic, anyway? And what does it have to do with sex?! Believe it or not, there's a connection—
Formal logic, as opposed to every-day logic, can be defined as the application of calculative methods to verbal arguments, with an eye to seeing which turn out to be true. Example: Let p and q stand for simple sentences. If so, then we can calculate that the following compound sentence is also true: "If p and q, then q and p."
Although few are aware of it, the development of modern formal logic was affected by the philosophical speculations of a self-hating Jewish gay man who later influenced Nazi ideology. His importance for formal logic came through the impact he exercised in another direction, on a philosopher much better known today than himself—Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Our mystery man is the Viennese philosopher Otto Weininger, who was born in 1880 and who committed suicide in 1903, at age 23. Shortly before his death, Weininger published a brilliant and twisted book on logic and sex entitled Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character). His youthful suicide, following publication of Sex and Character, turned Weininger into an instant literary sensation. For a while, he was more famous than his Viennese contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
The Nazis borrowed from Sex and Character in their propaganda. David Abrahamsen, a biographer of Weininger's, recounts a personal experience:
It may be of interest to note that as late as 1939 I heard in Norway a radio broadcast beamed from Nazi Germany, which used some of Weininger's attacks upon the Jews.
Weininger's mishmash of homophobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism rested on a philosophy of formal logic. He believed that formal logic represented the culmination of what it meant to be human. He also believed that women and feminine-identified men were genetically incapable of mastering formal logic because of the role of emotion in their thinking. The same applied to Jews, whom Weininger regarded as an effeminate, emotion-driven race.
A typical Weininger quote:
Logic is a law which shall be heeded, and man is first entirely himself when he is entirely logical. Indeed, he is not until he is thoroughly and everywhere only logic. ... The logical axioms constitute the principle of all conceptuality, and these are lacking in women. ... This lack of conceptual determinateness in all feminine thinking is the basis of that "sensitivity" in women by which they give unlimited free play to vague associations and so frequently drag in far-fetched things in making comparisons.
Weininger was influenced by the faddish interest of his day in physiognomy. This is the pseudo-science that claims that a person's character can be read-off from his or her bodily features. Weininger wanted to quantify physiognomy, while stressing that sex was the most important part of bodily features.
Weininger's book contains a number of curious tables and formulas using the two symbols M and W (for Mensch and Weib, that is, "man" and "woman"). From the M-W table for a person's body, Weininger contended, you could read-off his or her character. Character as the physiognomy of sex! Hence the title of his book, Sex and Character. We'll shortly see how Weininger's gender-tables inspired Ludwig Wittgenstein's truth-tables, a keystone of modern formal logic.
Formal Logic & Mystical Silence
Weininger believed that formal logic was a kind of ladder to a higher realm. Any man (and it had to be a man) who climbed the ladder of formal logic to its end would come to a mystical vision of a transcendent, silent Truth.
As part of this view, Weininger presented a novel view of the so-called "propositions of logic" (for example, the proposition of identity, "A is A"). These logical propositions, said Weininger, are empty, adding nothing to our knowledge, but rather point the way to what is higher. We'll shortly see how this view affected Ludwig Wittgenstein's claim that the truths of logic are empty tautologies, regarded as one of Wittgenstein's most original contributions to formal logic.
Here Come the Fascists
Weininger's homophobic/misogynistic theory of character and his theory of formal logic were connected. Both were parts of a grand philosophical flight from the feminine. Weininger took those aspects of human character and thinking that patriarchal societies associated with domineering males and made them into exalted ideals of ethics and logic.
Weininger did not draw out the political implications of his philosophy. Nonetheless, his fantasies fed the hunger of reactionary elements in Europe. They longed for a powerful male authority-figure to appear on the scene who would solve all their problems. As the living embodiment of male decisiveness and authority, this hoped-for leader would put uppity women, homosexuals, and Jews in their place. Mussolini and Hitler played on such fantasies in plotting their paths to power.
Queer Little Ludwig
A quiet 14-year-old fan of the deceased Otto Weininger attended his funeral in 1903. The others hardly noticed the boy. His name was Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Were it not for Ludwig Wittgenstein, Otto Weininger's philosophy of logic would have faded from the pages of history, an odd quirk of a disturbed mind. However, 19 years after Weininger's funeral, Wittgenstein slipped as much as he could of Weininger's thought into the Western cannon of formal logic. He did so through the publication of his classic essay Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logical-Philosophical Treatise).
Wittgenstein's gay life did not become widely known until after his death. His executors, led by Elizabeth Anscombe, a devout Catholic, did everything in their power to throw biographers off the trail. When biographer William Bartley first disclosed in his 1973 book Wittgenstein that the great philosopher had been gay, the executors, led by Anscombe, trashed him and tried to stop publication of his book.
Wittgenstein vs. Russell
In 1912, at age 23, Wittgenstein left Vienna for Cambridge University, there to study formal logic with Bertrand Russell, the greatest logician of the age. At the time, Russell, aided by Alfred North Whitehead, was publishing a monumental trilogy on formal logic, Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles).
Russell cultivated Wittgenstein as his protégé. But the irony is that the two disagreed on almost everything. Russell was an atheist and a materialist. He advocated a liberal education system, free love, women's suffrage, and repeal of the laws against homosexuality. The young Wittgenstein, by contrast, was deeply religious. He believed in the old, authoritarian system of education and opposed women's suffrage. Although gay, he was appalled by Russell's liberalizing attitudes toward sex.
The disagreement spilled over into formal logic. Russell wanted to demystify formal logic, cutting it loose from the metaphysical docks to which it had long been moored. Russell assumed that on this question at least, Wittgenstein was in the same boat. He couldn't have been more wrong.
The Ghost of Otto Weininger
In 1922, thanks to efforts by Russell, Wittgenstein managed to get a dense little book on formal logic published, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logical-Philosophical Treatise). Russell (along with most readers then and since) understood very little of the book. Nonetheless, he praised it highly.
The fame of Tractatus spread. The logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, understanding the book as little as Russell, praised the work too. As a result, Tractatus quickly became part of the canon of Western formal logic, where it remains to this day.
Alas, most of the book's readers, beginning with Russell, misconstrued the thrust of Tractatus. The many passages that seemed incomprehensible (and, therefore, profound) were actually modeled after Otto Weininger's mystical philosophy of logic in Sex and Character. Nothing could be farther from the views of Bertrand Russell and the Vienna Circle!
Wittgenstein often remarked that Weininger had influenced his thought. However, almost no one who read Wittgenstein bothered to read Weininger. Four factors contributed to this neglect: Weininger was a homosexual; he was anti-Semitic; his thought was saturated with mysticism; and he influenced the Nazis. Unknown to the fans of Tractatus, the first three factors also characterized the young Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein's Tractatus and Weininger's Sex and Character share a common motif: ascent by the socially-isolated male ego up the ladder of formal logic to a mystical vision of silent Truth. In Sex and Character, Weininger calls the loner who reaches this peak "Kant's solitary man" (alluding, inappropriately, to Immanuel Kant):
Kant's solitary man laughs not, nor dances, shouts not, nor rejoices. For him, no need to make a noise, so deeply does the world-expanse its silence keep.
In Tractatus, Wittgenstein presents his "elucidations" of logic and language as a ladder by which the enlightened loner transcends the world. Reaching the last rung, he throws away the ladder, realizing the truth of the book's famous last line:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one keep silent.
Tractatus is famous in formal logic for its notion of truth-tables. These are arrays in table form of various combinations of the letters T and F, standing for "true" and "false." Today these arrays are used to define logical relations between propositions, like "either," "and," etc. Most commentators believe Wittgenstein developed his truth-tables from earlier hints in the works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell.
Although Frege and Russell influenced Wittgenstein, he derived his truth-tables from Weininger's gender-tables in Sex and Character. As noted above, Weininger's book contains tables and formulas using the two symbols M and W (for Mensch and Weib, that is, "man" and "woman"). By looking at a person's M-W table, you can read off his or her overall character—an idea based on the pseudo-science of physiognomy.
Wittgenstein created tables using the two symbols W and F (for Wahr and Falsch, that is, "true" or "false"). He said they represented the "polarity" of language, just as Weininger had spoken of the "polarity" of sex. In his private notes, Wittgenstein said his tables displayed the physiognomy of language, just as Weininger believed his tables displayed the physiognomy of the body.
Wittgenstein's tables had a mystical aspect. That's because of something else he borrowed from Weininger, the notion that the truths of logic are empty tautologies. They don't say anything about the world. Instead, they show unspeakable logical forms that point to higher visions. All this is vintage Weininger. Yet many still regard Wittgenstein's notion of the emptiness of logical truths as an original contribution to modern formal logic.
The Flight from the Body & Sex
Weininger and Wittgenstein shared more than conceptual details. There was a common spirit that energized the homophobia and misogyny of both. Wittgenstein called it "the drive to the mystical."
This was a drive to flee sex and the body. Both the young Weininger and the young Wittgenstein were ashamed of being gay. They felt that being gay made them like women, whom they viewed as inferior. Because they viewed Jews as an effeminate race, the two were also anti-Semitic. These beliefs entangled both men in a deadly existential crisis, since they themselves were gay and of Jewish descent.
How would they escape from this existential crisis? They seized on formal logic as the quintessential masculine pursuit and the highest expression of the human mind. Formal logic would take them above the realm of the flesh and their sexual urges. Following the path of pure logical forms that said nothing but pointed to higher realities, they hoped to find peace of mind by merging with a silent Truth that transcended the material world.
This kind of strategy—overcoming erotic impulses by redirecting them into allegedly higher paths—is an old chestnut for emotionally isolated closet-homosexuals with spiritual aspirations. Not surprisingly, those who take this tortured path are often drawn to authoritarian ideologies, while yet engaging in secretive, guilt-ridden sexual encounters on the sly. (The Catholic priesthood continues to be a magnet for such conflicted men.) In Wittgenstein's case, maturing as he did in pre-war Vienna, the particular authoritarian ideology to which he turned was that of the protofascist Otto Weininger.
Following Weininger's lead, Wittgenstein in Tractatus rejected the view that language is a socially-conditioned, materialistic phenomenon, as the socialists had argued. He rejected Russell's liberal ideas on politics, culture, education, the condition of women, and sexual mores. He rejected the Vienna Circle's enthusiasm for demolishing idealist philosophy and for creating a new philosophic method inspired by the sciences.
When Weininger's importance to Wittgenstein is taken into account, Tractatus comes clearly into view on the stage of history for what it really was—the spiritual self-portrait of a tormented, protofascist mind. The book was also an important contribution to the development of modern formal logic. And there's the rub that brings us to a greater question—the nature of philosophy and formal logic.
Language vs. Logic
Weininger resolved his existential crisis by committing suicide at age 23. Wittgenstein did something better. He went on to develop a whole new view of logic, language, and philosophy.
The major change is that Wittgenstein stopped trying so hard to flee the world. Instead of reaching for a crystalline ideal of formal logic in the sky, he turned his attention to the rough and tumble of language as used in everyday life.
Wittgenstein also stopped demonizing his gay feelings. He was able to establish ongoing relationships with other gay men, including Francis Skinner and Ben Richards. Although Wittgenstein never fully came to terms with his sexuality, he was less of a mess than he was in his youth.
As Wittgenstein's internalized homophobia and other-worldliness waned, so did his enthusiasm for formal logic. By the time he died in 1951, Wittgenstein had come to view formal logic as a parody of the way humans actually think.
As Wittgenstein turned against formal logic, he also became increasingly skeptical of science and technology:
It isn't absurd...to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion...; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap.
In Wittgenstein's spiritual condemnation of formal logic and science in the 1940s one can hear a presage of Allen Ginsberg's political lamentations in the 1960s. However, Wittgenstein never imagined that by celebrating his own sexuality he might deepen his critique of modernity. For that deeper insight, we have to wait for the rise of the Beat poets in the 1950s, the countercultural prophets in the 1960s, and the movements for liberation by women and gay people in the 1970s.
The Logic of Homophobia
Weininger and the early Wittgenstein both combined two character traits. One was enthusiasm for philosophy, and especially for formal logic. The other was a flight from the body, sex, the feminine, and the world.
In the case of these two philosophers, the linkage between the two traits was among the most extreme in the history of Western philosophy. Among other logicians, it has been less so. For example, although Bertrand Russell was a logician, his social philosophy was world-affirming and sexually exuberant. Even so, however, Russell's philosophy of logic contradicted his social philosophy, at times seeming like the work of another thinker all together.
Throughout Western history, logic-focused philosophy commonly reflects a pattern of alienation from the body, the world, and the feminine. When a gay male philosopher buys into this sort of alienation, the philosophy he creates can easily turn into the logic of homophobia. And that's exactly what we found in Weininger and the young Wittgenstein, the logic of homophobia taken to its most exalted metaphysical heights.
Western logic's long alienation from the world and from the feminine has created a skewed ideal of thinking, what I call patriarchal reason. This skewed ideal rests on a number of myths. One is the myth of bivalence—the claim that a proposition must be either true or false, and nothing in-between. This is like saying a human being must be either masculine or feminine, and nothing in-between. Whether expressed in gender-tables or truth-tables, the myth of bivalence has impeded our quest to understand the world. It's time to throw it out.
Gay men and lesbians who have a sense of self-worth are in a good position to lead the way in throwing out myths like this. Doing so can broaden our understanding of reason, logic, and philosophy beyond the narrowness of patriarchal presuppositions. And that would contribute to enlightenment and liberation for all.
Sometimes I wish that the young Ludwig Wittgenstein could have met the young Marty Robinson, the inventor of the zap. The encounter would have been a big jolt for each. But eventually both would have gained, and so would the world.
Arthur Evans is the author, most recently, of Critique of Patriarchal Reason. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, Summer 2000.