The Morass, Part III

So now it’s time to start dealing with Wittgenstein. Anything I say here will be controversial so I might as well say what I really think as clearly as possible without hedging. Some of that will possibly be extremely controversial. I’ll try to delineate clearly between relatively factual matters and my own opinions. With this post I will make an exception to my standard practice and try to be somewhat scholarly, first noting books and links which can form a mini-bibliography and then referring to these right in the text rather that doing footnotes.

Here’s a brief bibliography:

Hartnack, Justus, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy, translated by Maurice Cranston, Doubleday Anchor 1965. This is still obtainable on Amazon at a reasonable price. However, although pretty clearly written as philosophy goes, it is helpful to be in the “zone” while reading it. (See quote below from an Amazon review.)

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Penguin, 1990. The definitive biography so far. Read if you are getting serious and have the time. Monk tries to close the gap between Wittgenstein’s image as a celebrity and his philosophy.

Edmonds, David and Eidinow, John, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Harper Collings, 2001. If you read only one book, I recommend this. It is well written, fascinating and very informative about history and character. It recounts the only meeting between Wittgenstein and Popper, a ten minute argument during which Wittgenstein either threatened or didn’t threaten Popper with a fireplace poker, but did walk out of the meeting in a towering rage or maybe only bored with the proceedings.

Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, Random House, 1997. Magee taught philosophy at Oxford and elsewhere. He was an MP and prominent TV broadcaster. Magee disagrees with modern philosophy’s emphasis on language, (I disagree with him on this). I do agree with what Magee has to say about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus though maybe things aren’t quite as clear-cut as he contends.

I happen to own these four books.

Wikipedia, Wittgenstein. Highly recommended.

Was W right? . A philosophy professor contends that Wittgenstein has made traditional philosophy a pointless pursuit in this day and age. This is from the NY Times commentary section about philosophy called “the Stone.”

meadowreader. A review of Hartnack in Amazon.

“I read the first edition of the book (Anchor paperback, 1965), and I concur with the other reviewer that it is a first-rate brief introduction to Wittgenstein’s work.

“The short biographical introduction has a big problem, however. About LW’s service in WWI, Hartnack writes, ‘At the outbreak of the first World War he enlisted in the Austrian army, was trained to be an officer, but was taken prisoner by the Italians at the time of the Austrian debacle.’ That makes it sound like LW took the officer route, was quickly captured, then sat out the war. Well, as they say, that could hardly be further from the truth.

“According to Martin Gilbert’s, ‘The First World War,” LW won the Silver Medal for Valour Second Class as a lance corporal, ‘a rare honor for someone of such a low rank.’ This was in June of 1916, on the Eastern Front. In July 1917, he won the Silver Medal for Valour as an artillery observer, directing the guns under ‘heavy fire,’ again against the Russians. In June 1918 he was recommended for Austria’s highest award, the Gold Medal for Valour, for ‘exceptionally courageous behavior,’ this time in a fierce artillery and machinegun duel with the British, in which his ‘heroism won the total admiration of the troops.’ Wittgenstein was not captured until November of 1918, at the virtual end of the war.

“And, incredibly, it was during these years of combat that he wrote the ‘Tractatus,’ delivering the manuscript to [Bertrand] Russell at the end of the war.”  End meadowreader.

End bibliography

Since biographical facts are readily available, in my treatment here I will quickly sketch in what seems important and then mostly give quotations and my own opinions.

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born in 1889, the ninth child of Karl and Leopoldine (“Poldi”) Wittgenstein. His family was the second richest in Austria-Hungary and enormously cultured. In the times around Ludwig’s birth, Johannes Brahms would play recitals on one of the seven grand pianos in their mansion. Ludwig’s mother played piano at a professional concert level and two brothers were concert pianists. One committed suicide while the other lost his right arm in the war. Maurice Ravel wrote Concerto for the left hand for him. Wittgenstein himself had perfect pitch and was intensely musical, but his deeper interests lay elsewhere. He studied Engineering, then mathematics before turning to philosophy. Before WWI he had traveled to England to meet Bertrand Russell and others at Cambridge. It seems that Wittgenstein was obsessed by philosophy, tormented by philosophical questions and spent endless hours thinking about them. Bertrand Russell said of him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” (Wikipedia and many other sources) He was an extremely moral person, but difficult, unrelenting and tiring to be around.

Wittgenstein’s studies at Cambridge were cut short by World War I. One point to add to meadowreader’s quote above is that Wittgenstein may have enlisted as a “lance corporal”, but was later elevated to officer rank.

Wittgenstein did write his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus during the First World War. It was first published in German under a different title, then translated into English mainly by Wittgenstein himself, but only published because of an Introduction by Russell. (Wittgenstein flew into one of his rages upon reading the Introduction, considering that Russell had totally misunderstood the book). In the 1920’s after the Tractatus was published, Wittgenstein retired from philosophy, convinced that there was nothing more to be said philosophically. In the late 1920’s, however, he changed his mind, repudiated the first part of the Tractatus, and set out on a totally different course, teaching at Cambridge during the 1930’s. These teachings were published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations. “…Wittgenstein occupies a singular place in the history of philosophy, having first at an early age written a work which exercised a decisive influence on the philosophical thought of his time, and then, in his mature years, rejecting his early theory and producing a second theory which for sheer originality, stature and influence, is even more important than the first.” (Hartnack, p8) During WW II Wittgenstein, while keeping his position at Cambridge University, worked as an orderly in a hospital more or less anonymously. In 1949 he resigned his Cambridge professorship and led a peripatetic life until being diagnosed with metastasized prostate cancer. He died in 1951 with his last words to his caregiver: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

End brief biography.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This work is in two parts based on a distinction Wittgenstein made at the time between that which can be said and that which can only be shown. By “said” and “shown” Wittgenstein meant something quite different from the common usage of these words. Using logic and his intuitive insight Wittgenstein was intent on defining the logical properties of a language which would have a one-to-one correspondence with the structure of “reality” as defined by common experience and by science. In my opinion Wittgenstein at the time he wrote the Tractatus, was ignorant of Einstein’s papers on special relativity (1905), general relativity (1916) and of experiments in atomic physics during the 19 ‘teens’ which seemingly demonstrated logical contradictions at the heart of physics. So at the same time a revolution in physics was showing relativity in space and time and weirdness in atomic experiments, Wittgenstein was specifying the properties of an ABSOLUTE language dealing with an ABSOLUTE reality. Whether or not my supposition here is correct, when Wittgenstein uses the word “says” he means statements in his hypothetical language. Moreover, to him only such statements could be meaningful. Words used outside the language were talking about things that could only be “shown”. When I read about the first terribly abstruse part of the Tractatus as explicated by Hartnack, I tried to understand it, but knew intuitively that it was nonsense. There could be no such language. The second part of the Tractatus talks about “the mystic” which can only be “shown”, AND Wittgenstein gives examples, most of which are quoted in Hartnack. (One time in the Stanford University bookstore I found a copy of the Tractatus, opened it to the second part and, sure enough, there was what Hartnack had quoted.) Here are a few to give the flavor of what can’t be “said”.

“Propositions can express nothing which is higher.”

“It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.”

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason that those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)”

(Hartnack, p 41-42)

Even in the first part of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein, talking about his propositions writes “…anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) (Tractatus 6.54) Quoted in Hartnack, p28, footnote 33.

At this point let me use “said” in a conventional sense to give a definition of a Zen Koan or Mondo as words which hint at what cannot be said. If this definition is correct, Wittgenstein is speaking in Mondos not only in the Tractatus, but in all of the cryptic quotes he made throughout his life.

In my opinion Wittgenstein in his life has recapitulated the long Eastern journey from the Buddha through Nagarjuna through Bodhidharma through Hui Neng and beyond. Because 20th century thought was already on this path, Wittgenstein’s accomplishment though incredible was not impossible.

This must now be posted.

In later posts I’ll talk about Wittgenstein’s later work, my own ideas about language, myth and reality, Mondos and Koans, the question: What is physics and how does it relate to “reality?”, and talk a little about my quote:

“Aristotelian logic: The curse of Western Philosophy.”

4 thoughts on “The Morass, Part III

  1. I thought it was very interesting that his theory when he younger was set aside and he later wrote another theory that became more important than the first. As we mature , hopefully, we can put aside thoughts of which at the time we’re so real and important, and use our minds to think of more important than originally.
    Thank you for writing this blog, you are helping me think outside the so called box.


  2. I’ve been thinking about this box. My daily thoughts are, president Trump’ s lunacy, my drawings for work intermingled with my “life with Bill”, my sons and what’s going on with them, and my Rossi-Gomez family drama, what to cook for dinner, what I need for groceries, my lack of exercise, the list goes on. So when I read your blog, I’m so excited to read about intelligent and thoughtful ideas, ideas that stir up questions in my mind about which I sometimes have no clue what it all means. So thank you!


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