MorassPost IV

In Part III of this Morass Series, in talking about Wittgenstein, I concluded that with the writing of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein in “talking” about what “cannot be said” had stumbled upon a Western form of Zen Buddhism, with the insight that most of Western Philosophy fell into the realm of what can only be shown and that its “problems” were really only “puzzles” which disappeared with the realization that they were simply artifacts of language which was trying to venture into the realms of the unsayable. What remained meaningful and valid were the insights of the first part of the Tractatus, spelling out all that language could accomplish in a philosophical way. Believing that there was nothing more to be “said”, Wittgenstein dropped out of philosophy for a number of years in the 1920’s, returning to Vienna from his position at Cambridge where, I would guess, he found the atmosphere unbearable and the thought of teaching philosophy unthinkable. Austria and Germany at that time were reeling from the defeat in World War I with hyperinflation and the feeling that their defeat came from some sort of betrayal. During this time Wittgenstein was “penniless”, having legally given the immense fortune he inherited from his father, to his sisters. Although Wittgenstein thought he had given up philosophy at the time, he was still living the committed life of the truth seeker with the moral sense that such a one must not have the distracting obligations which would come with owning and managing a vast fortune. I would guess that he also found the very idea of managing money totally irrelevant and disgusting, not that he would have been bad at it. Perhaps I will later tell the fascinating story of how, in the mid-thirties, he negotiated with the Nazi’s to buy his sisters’ escape from Austria. (I strongly recommend The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer for one to gain an emotional understanding of what it was like to be Jewish in Austria during those harrowing times and for the story of how the Nazi’s added to their finances by allowing rich Jews to buy their freedom.)

The story of how the Wittgenstein fortune was preserved through World War I is itself quite interesting. Karl Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s father, was not only an “industrialist”, but a masterful investor. As World War I approached, he must have had the sense that all was not well with the Austria-Hungary empire in spite of its seeming power and security. Successful investing focusses on the future. What has happened in the past is one possible guide to the future, but can be misleading especially during times of great crisis. Karl saw to it that much of his fortune was invested in the American stock market. When he died in January, 1913, over a year and a half before the beginning of WWI, his fortune was safe from the financial devastation occurring in Austria and Germany during and after the war. (See the Wikipedia article on Karl Wittgenstein.) I would guess that much of this fortune remained in the booming American stock market during the 20’s so escaped the Austrian hyperinflation.

Although Wittgenstein was “penniless”, his sisters were always available and willing to help him financially, so he could follow his own inclinations about what he should do apart from philosophy. Wittgenstein’s first venture was as a schoolmaster in a backwards area of Austria. He was fascinated by ideas about education, but his temper and artistic temperament in the face of ignorance soon got the better of him and he mistreated his students, resorting to violence. Forced to resign he retreated to Vienna and killed some more time, reverting to his engineering and artistic genius by designing and building a house for one of his sisters. By many this house is considered an architectural masterpiece from its overall design down to its details. I am somewhat hazy about dates, but shortly after this in 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and plunged back into philosophy, convinced that the first, analytic part of the Tractatus was fundamentally unsound, and would have to join the remaining parts of philosophy which only can be “shown”. I am not one to speculate too much about why Wittgenstein found the Tractatus first part wanting. I did not ever try to delve very deeply into it because I knew that such would be a daunting task and knew also that there could be no such thing as a language for dealing with an absolute scientific reality. Whether, as Ray Monk contends, Wittgenstein was persuaded that one of his postulates was invalid by the young genius, Frank Ramsey, (who, incidentally died unexpectedly in 1930, at age 27), or whether he had a more penetrating mystical insight into its shortcomings, the fact of the matter is that during those years in Austria a new idea about language and its relation to philosophy gestated in his mind.


Wittgenstein was welcomed back in Cambridge, in part, because the Tractatus had been tremendously influential in philosophy, especially in Austria with the Wiener Kreis, a group of philosophers who, influenced by the first part of the Tractatus, created “logical positivism”, an unwholesome philosophy that maintains not only that all of culture outside of science is meaningless, but therefore, valueless as well. In Austria Wittgenstein had some contact with the positivists, but never joined their circle. Ironically, as Brian Magee points out (see pp 110-111 in Confessions) Wittgenstein’s views were essentially opposite to those of the positivists: the only things that have value and make life worth living are those about which nothing can be said; namely the arts, music, philosophy and the humanities in general. (Wittgenstein apparently had a fairly low opinion of science, not realizing that the revolution in physics going on while he was in Austria had demolished mundane classical physics in favor of a new science whose depth and aesthetics was that of the highest art.) Be that as it may, Wittgenstein’s new idea was that language was no longer a stand-alone absolute entity, but a “game” practiced by groups of people advancing a common interest: a “language game”. Each group: scientists, philosophers, humanists, investors, economists, artists, mechanics, bar flies, druggies and so forth had their own version of language adapted to dealing with their reality. This was the basic idea developed in the lectures and discussions which ended up as the Philosophical Investigations. I have already mentioned how this work influenced Kuhn’s idea that a scientific revolution creates a new “paradigm”, not only a new language game, but a new meaning of experiments and “facts”; essentially a new “reality”. For what Wittgenstein’s new philosophy implies is that “language creates reality”. Without language there is no reality. Whether what I’ve just said was “really” Wittgenstein’s view, I don’t know. What I do know is that I somewhat disagree with it, especially with the idea that reality is only created by language. To me “reality” is a very muddy concept. There are many realities, some like the immediacy of unbearable pain or the realization that one’s civilization may be collapsing, very serious indeed, but I doubt that there is any “real” reality in a fundamental sense. As I put it in a snide remark when first hearing about “virtual reality”, “I didn’t know there was any other kind.”

When I first dipped into the Philosophical Investigations, amazed, befuddled, and repelled by its tortuous language, the thought occurred to me, “Did Wittgenstein ever wonder, ‘What language game am I playing right now?’” – A self-reflexive question. My fancy was that Wittgenstein, realizing that in talking about a new understanding of language, consciously or unconsciously realized that he was practicing a new language game and thereby creating a new reality for philosophy, a reality which throws serious doubts on the whole idea of philosophy as traditionally conceived. A quote here is pertinent.

“Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible ‘from the armchair’ through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.” Paul Horwich, professor of philosophy at New York University.

The link to the article from which this quote came was given earlier in the post “The Morass, Part III”

Of course Horwich’s opinion is controversial and certainly does not imply to me that “philosophy” should be abandoned. In fact, in talking about “down to earth areas” such as science, arts or language in general, philosophy, is interesting and worth knowing about.

However, a key point for what I’m trying to get across in these blog posts is that philosophy in a transcendental mode has exceeded the limits of what words can express without at all diminishing the longing which gave rise to these words. From this point of view Wittgenstein has cleared the way for a deeper rational understanding, which comprehends all the “words” but lives in a realm beyond them.

Was Wittgenstein then, an incipient Zen Buddhist? I think that such an idea is a perfect example of a statement which is provocative, but totally meaningless. There is more clarity in the idea that Wittgenstein’s philosophy leaves open a rational path to Zen Buddhism, meaningless again, but also provocative.

With this post we try to leave the Morass, talking about other matters, but doubtless muddying ourselves again from time to time.

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