‘The Big Lebowski’, Wittgenstein, and the Garbage Pile That Is Online Discourse
Recently Slate tech writer David Aurbach wrote a fascinating column about how Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language can account for much of the confusion that arises when we debate issues online. I thought this was as good an opportunity as any to debut my own long-held theory that The Big Lebowski (1998) demonstrates these exact ideas. That’s right, folks: The Big Lebowski is based on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language.
That may sound like a stretch, but stay with me. Ethan Coen wrote his senior thesis at Princeton about Wittgenstein. There are a startling amount of parallels between Wittgenstein’s work and the plot of this movie. There are also a few parallels between his life and the characters in this movie. And finally, it came out in 1998, when the concept of easy mass communication was first becoming a reality for the average person with the rise of 24-hour news networks and widespread internet access.
So it’s fair to say that Ethan Coen might have come to some of the same conclusions based on early internet culture and illustrated them in the The Big Lebowski.
The main point that I think applies to both is Wittgenstein’s concept of a “language-game” or what I want to call a “language puzzle.” He wrote a lot about how “philosophy is the battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In other words, when we’re doing philosophy, it’s very easy to get caught up in language and just kind of start moving words around without saying anything, and then we feel like we’re doing something when we’re really not. The point of Aurbach’s column is that this is also what happens when we debate online.
And I think that’s the point of The Big Lebowski as well. Almost every character has a natural inclination to start engaging in some form of empty rhetoric or “language puzzles” except the Dude. Over and over scenes end when the Dude’s conversation with another character slips into just moving words around detached from any meaning, at which point the Dude loses interest and just walks away.
For example, the scene when the Dude first meets Jeffrey Lebowski (introduced by Philip Seymour Hoffman asking the Dude “Do you speak English?”) ends when Lebowski launches into this 90s welfare/personal responsibility rhetoric (“Is that what you want? A handout?” “The bums lost, Lebowski. The bums will always lose.”). Nothing more to engage with here, so the Dude just puts on his sunglasses and walks away.
It’s easy to see this exact speech Lebowski gives coming out of a cable news pundit or some right wing tweeter. It’s a language puzzle. It means nothing, and the Dude is not interested.
This happens over and over in the movie, and the plot is pushed forward by his decisions to engage more and more with these language puzzles for a progression of reasons: first to get the money, which gets him further entangled in the plot, and then to get the girl back, and then to get out of trouble.
Consider Walter. Walter is basically a walking subreddit. Walter is everyone on Twitter who replies “Well actually…” At one point Walter literally says, “I’m not mad. I’m calmer than you are.” At the diner, the Dude has to literally tell Walter, “This is not a freedom of speech thing, man!” And I think it’s safe to say when the Dude tells Walter, “You’re not wrong, man. You’re just an asshole!” that is meant as one of the main takeaways of the movie. His intelligence is completely bewitched by means of language. Whenever confronted with a problem, he starts moving words around emptily and meaninglessly, and that is meant to solve it. “I got this. They’re amateurs, dude.” “Not to worry. These men are nihilists, Donnie.” “They kidnapped that woman? That woman — that slut — kidnapped herself!”
This is obviously common in storytelling, but in The Big Lebowski I think it is super intentional, because it happens with every character (except the Dude) and even between characters. I, and many other people, have noticed that a number of phrases occur throughout the movie, spoken by different characters. In fact, someone took the time to find all of them and make this video:
I would say these are all very clear signals that a character is starting to move words around instead of actually use language meaningfully. These are meant to hint at the importance of Wittgensteinian language puzzles. And again, as the plot moves forward, the Dude engages with them more and more.
The trouble really starts when the Dude tells Walter that he has the briefcase full of money. Imagine what would happen if you asked Reddit what to do with a briefcase full of money. You would get much the same response: conspiracy theories, crazy plans to keep the money, etc. And the Dude of course is kind of tempted to believe Walter, because that’s the effect money has on people, and this is shown by him justifying it to himself with the Lenin quote. That’s a language game: say quotes of powerful people to lend credibility to your own ideas. And then when they’re in the car about to drop the money, Walter literally says “this is a game” over and over.
Maude Lebowski also relies heavily on language puzzles, but she knows she is doing it. She knows that she can just say “vagina” and “the word itself makes some men uncomfortable.” She’s smart and uses these language puzzles to her own ends, and she likes the Dude because he doesn’t give a shit about them. That doesn’t mean she will drop the façade and say what she actually means, though. “He’s a good man. And thorough. He’s a good man. And thorough.” (Echoes of “It’s our most moderately priced receptacle. It’s our most…moderately priced receptacle.”) And of course there is the scene that ends with her and Knox Harrington (the video artist) talking and laughing on the phone in literally another language and the Dude walking away.
The German nihilists, of course, are Walter’s greatest threat. They are ideological mercenaries, playing the same game he does, but for no reason other than money. If they are following these same rules, can the rules truly be said to have any meaning at all? “Say what you want about the tenets of national socialism, dude. At least it’s an ethos.”
No wait, scratch that. Walter’s greatest enemy is Larry Sellers, the kid who just stares at him blankly, not engaging. Even worse than his polar opposite ideologically is someone who refuses to engage whatsoever. This is what finally sends Walter over the edge and makes him start smashing the sports car with the golf club.
It’s worth noting that probably the most famous single incident from Wittgenstein’s life was a debate he had with philosopher Karl Popper (as in Hungus) at Cambridge about whether there are philosophical problems at all. Wittgenstein thought that all difficult philosophical problems were at their core these kind of language puzzles, and Popper thought they actually did represent meaningful issues in the world. Wittgenstein got so mad at one point that he picked up a poker from the fireplace and started waving it around. Popper was presumably not mad and actually very calm and actually it’s funny that you would even think he was mad.
Golf club? Fire poker? The coincidences just keep piling up…
The thing is, though, Walter isn’t the Wittgenstein figure. The Dude is. Again, Ethan Coen wrote his college thesis on Wittgenstein, so he would know that Wittgenstein was born in Austria in 1889 to one of the richest families in Europe, but chose to forego his inheritance (essentially giving up his name) to go do his own thing with no responsibilities.
He would also know that Wittgenstein had run-ins with the Nazis throughout his life, starting with going to elementary school with Adolf Hitler, and continuing into middle age when the Third Reich rose to power while Wittgenstein was in England teaching. As a Jew, he had a huge dilemma about the Nazis running his native Austria, but chose to deal with it by kind of not thinking about it.
Until, of course, 1939, when he was forced to confront this problem. The Nazis were threatening Wittgenstein’s sisters Hermine and Helene, still in Vienna, and he went to Berlin (and Vienna and New York City — it must have really been a wild goose chase) personally to negotiate their safety in exchange for a huge sum from the family fortune.
He also had a huge amount of anxiety his entire life around his sexuality. There’s a lot of debate about this, but I think he was what we would today call bisexual, having long relationships with both men and women. I imagine there was a good amount of anxiety about what would happen if the Nazis found out about that. Maybe even dream sequences about it. “We cut off your Johnson, Lebowski. Yaah.”
So this movie I think echoes the same point that Slate article makes, which is that Wittgenstein’s theories about language resonate pitch perfectly with how we communicate with each other in the digital age. It’s too easy to slip into playing these empty language games at the cost of actual meaningful communication, and that causes a huge amount of confusion that drives the various plots of life forward, as it were.
But it’s important to point out that Wittgenstein didn’t just say that it’s difficult to talk about these hard issues. He would say that it’s pointless to, and a waste of time, and even almost immoral beyond a certain point. He himself quit philosophy altogether after writing a hugely influential book (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) because he thought it was a waste of time to continue debating it (the original Port Huron Statement, not the compromised second draft). He also told (often his brightest) students to drop his class and go do something else. And the famous argument with Popper was basically him telling everyone “nobody needs to be talking about this! This is a huge waste of time! Go home!” (extreme paraphrase).
He wouldn’t just say it’s hard to debate issues on Twitter. He would say never tweet. And I think Lebowski says this as well, as the ultimate casualty in the end is Donnie, the only purely innocent character in the whole thing.