Wittgenstein’s Handles

A door handle in the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed with architect Paul Engelmann, 1972
Studio Hubert Urban
A door handle in the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed with architect Paul Engelmann, 1972

What was it about handles—door-handles, axe-handles, the handles of pitchers and vases—that transfixed thinkers in Vienna and Berlin during the early decades of the twentieth century, echoing earlier considerations of handles in America and ancient Greece?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, as everyone knows, abandoned philosophy after publishing his celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1921. He took up gardening instead, in a monastic community on the outskirts of Vienna, where he camped out for a few months in a toolshed. It was in part to draw him back into “the world” that his sister Margarete (Gretl) invited him to join the architect Paul Engelmann in designing her new house, a rigorous Modernist structure that, much changed, now houses the Bulgarian Embassy.

Wittgenstein’s participation in the project was relatively limited, his biographer Ray Monk maintains (though Engelmann himself, from professional modesty or perhaps ambivalence about the final product, claimed the collaboration was more extensive):

His role in the design of the house was concerned chiefly with the design of the windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. This is not as marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly, house its distinctive beauty. The complete lack of any external decoration gives a stark appearance, which is alleviated only by the graceful proportion and meticulous execution of the features designed by Wittgenstein.

To details like the door-handles, in particular, Wittgenstein accorded what Monk calls “an almost fanatical exactitude,” driving locksmiths and engineers to tears as they sought to meet his seemingly impossible standards. The unpainted tubular door-handle that Wittgenstein designed for Gretl’s house remains the prototype for all such door-handles, still popular in the twenty-first century. (Thomas Bernhard was surely evoking his idol, Wittgenstein, when he told a friend that the only way to find an exact replacement for a broken window-handle would be to find another, identical broken window-handle.)

Monk argues, more than once, that this design project brought Wittgenstein “back” to philosophy. Viennese society is central for Monk, who reproduces Klimt’s portrait of Gretl, and notes that she introduced her brother to an influential professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. “Through working for Gretl,” he writes, “Wittgenstein was brought back into Viennese society and, eventually, back into philosophy.”

But I doubt that the return to philosophy was prompted by social connections, which were always a mixed bag for the antisocial Wittgenstein. I prefer to believe that the prompt was in the handle. For when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, the idea that drove him beyond all others was that the nature of language had been misunderstood by philosophers, “including,” he noted winningly, “the author of the Tractatus.” Words did not, he had come to believe, primarily provide a picture of life (the word “snake” representing, or sounding like, an actual snake); they were better conceived of as a part of the activity of life. As such, they were more like tools. (We do things with words, as J. L. Austin famously argued, things like, from a list of Wittgenstein’s, “thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.”) “Think of the tools in a tool-box,” Wittgenstein wrote in his epochal Philosophical Investigations (1953). “There is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” Words may look similar, especially when we see them in print. “Especially when we are doing philosophy!”

The analogy Wittgenstein drew was precisely with handles.

It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.

It is the utility of handles that Wittgenstein insists on here. The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles.

This utility of handles had also caught the attention of the pioneering German sociologist Georg Simmel, but he thought utility was only half the story. In his brilliant 1911 essay “The Handle,” Simmel argued that the handle of a vase bridges two worlds, the utilitarian and the non-utilitarian. A vessel, according to Simmel, “unlike a painting or statue, is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose—if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life.” 

Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time: whereas reality is completely irrelevant to the “pure” work of art and, as it were, is consumed in it, reality does make claims upon the vase as an object that is handled, filled and emptied, proffered, and set down here and there. This dual nature of the vase is most decisively expressed in its handle.

For Emerson, too, handles had a dual nature. “All things have two handles,” he wrote in his American Scholar address, “beware of the wrong one.” Stanley Cavell notes that this gnomic admonition “itself has two handles.” Apart from the familiar reminder that there are two sides to every argument, Emerson urges scholars not to unmoor themselves in their thinking from what he called, in another essay, “the city and the farms.” In Cavell’s summary of Emerson (whom Wittgenstein was reading during his military service in World War I), effective thinking and writing require, on the part of the scholar, a certain “doubleness, of worlds, of words,” a straddling of the practical and philosophical worlds, like Simmel’s handle. 

Scholars have long assumed that Emerson—who evasively names his source as “the old oracle”—found his aphorism about the two handles in the Enchiridion (handbook, or manual), attributed to the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus. But I think he filched them (like Dylan’s handle-vandal) from a more immediate source, Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:

Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit and at the Old Bailey), and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it—that is, in relation to good taste.

De Quincey then tells the story of a fire in a London piano-factory, witnessed by his friend Coleridge, who, interrupted in his afternoon tea, expressed disappointment that the fire wasn’t more of an aesthetic spectacle.

Was Robert Frost also channeling De Quincey’s murder essay in this arresting run of (seemingly) free association, from a 1916 interview?

Love, the moon, and murder have poetry in them by common consent. But it’s in other places. It’s in the axe-handle of a French Canadian woodchopper…. You know the Canadian woodchoppers whittle their axe-handles, following the curve of the grain, and they’re strong and beautiful. Art should follow lines in nature, like the grain of an axe-handle.

Of course, Frost may be seen to be alluding to other things—here and in his related poem “The Axe-Helve,” in which a French-Canadian woodcutter named Baptiste criticizes a machine-made handle, showing with his thumbnail how the grain ran “Across the handle’s long drawn serpentine,/ Like the two strokes across a dollar sign.” Handles here stand in for the way Frost’s poetry followed the crooked, and perhaps non-commercial rhythms of ordinary speech, the grain, or what he called “sentence sounds.” (“I knew each nick and scratch by heart,” Elizabeth Bishop’s Crusoe says of his beloved knife, “the bluish blade, the broken tip,/ the lines of wood-grain on the handle.”)

Such a view of how the grain must dictate the lines of the handle—recalling how Michelangelo claimed to free the statue imprisoned in a chunk of marble—would seem the opposite of Gary Snyder’s praise of previous patterns in his poem “Axe Handles,” in which his son wants to replace a missing hatchet-handle, and Snyder suggests they repurpose a broken ax-handle.

There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
                      the pattern is not far off.” 

Snyder traces the quotation to a fourth-century Chinese source, translated for him by his own teacher Chen. “And I see,” he concludes in an epiphany: “Pound was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again, model/ And tool, craft of culture,/ How we go on.” Snyder’s patterns lack the machine-made precision decried by Baptiste, resembling, instead, the pattern a writer of sonnets has in mind in setting pen to paper.

Snyder invokes the idea of literary tradition as a “handing down,” from father to son and from teacher to student, “how we go on.” In such a transfer, the ax stands in for the pen (in a different context, Snyder compared a laptop to a nice little chainsaw). In his seductive praise of the “craft of culture,” Snyder recalls Elias Canetti’s moving assertion: “It is the quiet, prolonged activities of the hand which have created the only world in which we care to live.”

Is there some unfinished business here? Was there, for example, any significance to Wittgenstein’s parenthetical joke about handles resembling one another, like brothers and sisters? “We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.)” For Wittgenstein, those handles seem to come momentarily alive; they’re animated. Handles, for potters, are often the liveliest part of the vessel; naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled. In a kindred speculative foray, Simmel imagines the handle—think of the fanciful frogs perched atop Chinese porcelain, or the serpentine handles of the potter Karen Karnes’s casseroles—as swooping down on the vessel from some other, more practical world. “This contrast between vase and handle is more sharply accentuated when, as frequently happens, the handle has the shape of a snake, lizard, or dragon,” Simmel notes. “These forms suggest the special significance of the handle: it looks as though the animal had crawled on to the vase from the outside, to be incorporated into the complete form only, as it were, as an afterthought.”


The above text was inspired by a request to make some remarks on the topic of “Utilitarian Clay” for a gathering of professional potters to be held this September in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Reluctant as I am to be drawn into one more standoff between proponents of art versus proponents of craft (a stalemate if there ever was one), I’m inclined to adopt a conciliatory approach, a reaching of the hand—or, more precisely, the handle—across this evergreen divide. While I’ve never been to Gatlinburg, my mother’s first fiancé, a Quaker conscientious objector, worked in a forestry camp outside of the town during World War II, repairing trails in the Smoky Mountain National Park and contributing to a mimeographed newsletter called The Double-Axe. He drowned in a canoeing accident after the war, and certain things of his were eventually handed down to me, including his tennis racket, as I wrote long ago in a poem called “To the Man Who Almost Married My Mother”: “My hand has worn smooth/ the handle of your tennis racket.”

—for Stanley Cavell