Apr 202013

In the Preface to Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein thanked the Italian economist Piero Sraffa for the criticism that

for many years [he] unceasingly practised on my thoughts. I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas of this book.

Norman Malcom recounts an episode which since then has been commonly associated with this tribute. Wittgenstein and Sraffa were sitting on a train discussing language, with Wittgenstein insisting that a proposition must have the same ‘grammar’ as that which it describes. Sraffa replied with a gesture – brushing underneath his chin with an outward sweep of his fingertips – which in Southern Italy is a sign of insouciance, meaning ‘I don’t give a damn’, and asked: ‘What’s the grammar of that?’

The anecdote marks a fundamental transition in Wittgenstein’s thinking, from looking at language as an object to analyse in abstract terms to regarding it as a game that gets its meaning from the practical circumstances in which it is used.

It is a pity Sraffa had not seen Donnie Brasco. He could have made the same point ever more strikingly by asking: What’s the grammar of fuggettabout it?

(I am sure Jack B. intended the first meaning).

Wittgenstein – not the chummiest of human beings – had great consideration for Sraffa and held with him weekly conversations for many years. But according to Wittgenstein’s biographer, in May 1946 Sraffa decided he had enough,

saying that he could no longer give his time and attention to matters Wittgenstein wished to discuss. This came as a great blow to Wittgenstein. He pleaded Sraffa to continue their weekly conversations, even if it meant staying away from philosophical subjects. ‘I’ll talk about anything’ he told him. ‘Yes’ Sraffa replied, ‘but in your way’. (Monk, p. 487).

Apparently, as Wittgenstein insisted, Sraffa repeated the chin gesture. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he said ‘Listen Lud: fuggettaboutit!’


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