How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Wittgenstein

A follow up on my post from the other day:

I was okay with my "History of Ideas" courses (HIST 514 and HIST 515) and with my "Existential Philosophy" course (PHIL 520) and even with parts of my "Theory" courses in graduate school... right up until I was assigned Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, which looked like this:
4.1 Propositions represent the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.
4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).
4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The word 'philosophy' must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)
4.112 Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.
4.113 Philosophy sets limits to the much disputed sphere of natural science.
4.114 It must set limits to what can be thought; and, in doing so, to what cannot be thought. It must set limits to what cannot be thought by working outwards through what can be thought.
4.115 It will signify what cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said.
All of that just seemed too devoid of human feeling to me--too objective. And even as I couldn't read it, I accepted what my teachers and books said: that only Heidegger challenged Wittgenstein in terms of influencing 20th century philosophy and theory. Unfortunately for me, Heidegger seemed only marginally more appealing than Wittgenstein. But trusting my professors, I always felt that there must be "something there," even if I wasn't (yet) able to access it.

...which is why stumbling upon the work of Nāgārjuna is really exciting to me. First, simply because it confirms my suspicion: "we" have gotten nowhere since ancient written history in terms of the complexity or validity of "our" ideas. My repeated complaints that contemporary American academics would do well to broaden their horizons--diminishing the influence of the relatively narrow cross-section of German and French intelligentsia that has dominated "Theory" for three decades--...all my complaints find a little vindication when I discover that Nāgārjuna was saying very similar stuff two-thousand years ago:


If mind could grasp form, it would grasp its own own-being. How could a [mind] that does not exist (since it is born from conditions) really conceive absence of form?


Since one moment of mind cannot within [the very same] moment grasp a form born (as explained), how could it understand a past and future form?


Since color and shape never exist apart, they cannot be conceived apart. Is form not acknowledged to be one?


The sense of sight is not inside the eye, not inside form, and not in between. [Therefore] an image depending upon form and eye is false.


If the eye does not see itself, how can it see form? Therefore eye and form are without self. The same [is true for the] remaining sense-fields.

...And so on. So anyway, the second thing I'm enjoying about discovering Nāgārjuna is that it's giving me other terms by which I can begin to imagine the "things-themselves" that he and Heidegger and Wittgenstein and others have always been talking about. What I believe they have always been talking about is essentially unspeakable, and must therefore be imagined beyond language. And it is immensely difficult to imagine beyond language, especially, I think, for a person who is fluent in only one language. If two thinkers two thousand years and dozens of cultures apart can use twelve or fifteen completely different words to plant the same "thought-stuff" in my mind, then I can hesitate, and dilate, in that space between. So it is through Nāgārjuna that I am beginning to appreciate Wittgenstein and others who have eluded me for so long.

Now I begin to see that the best of all thinkers have always taught the same. Nāgārjuna teaches it as well as any before or after him:
But to the Bodhisattvas [the Buddha], the best among those who walk on two legs, has always taught this doctrine about the skandhas: "Form is like a mass of foam, feeling is like bubbles, apprehension is like a mirage, karma-formations are like the plantain, and consciousness is like an illusion."
And so like Plato's dialectic, like Buddha's teaching, like Jesus' parables, and like Wittgenstein, Nāgārjuna teaches that what he teaches is only a raft, a ladder, a means to an end that does not include the raft or ladder or end itself. I am not surprised to find that my summarizing-textbooks have always taken the mysticism out of Wittgenstein; but now I have discovered it for myself, right there, very explicitly, near the end. Wittgenstein writes, "6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." And then concludes, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

I guess that means I should shuttup now?


Kevin said...

Ah--good ol' 'Tractatus'. Wrote on that years ago--probably not well.

But Casey have you read his later work, the Investigations? I think you would really enjoy them. They are nothing like the Tractatus-- in form, they are quite like the Nagarjuna sentences/stanzas (I won't say 'propositions') you cite, and comprise an almost total break from his own earlier work. He rejects completely the notion, strong in the Tractatus, that the primary work of language is to name/describe things; for instance, he begins a parable of a first language where the first utterances are interpersonal imperatives. Language gets things done, connects people, etc.--this is primary. Describing things--even 'things in themselves' is not its primary business.

Finally, referring to your fine comments on my post 'Silence and Romance' (which I will respond to soon, forgive me) Wittgenstein treated ethics and religion as something which frustrated language--as if both were an understanding that could not be added to by words--which reminds me of Levinas' 'sincerity', wherein one feels open to each other, with words only being capable of not expanding, but merely cluttering that interpersonal opening--that sacred space.

Casey said...


I'm glad I've found my way (back) to Wittgenstein. I'm reminded of the feeling I got the first time I enjoyed a Henry James novel, around age 27. I had tried him before, but simply wasn't "ready."

I'll definitely look into his later work... and you're right not to use 'propositions,' of course.

The idea of Wittgenstein as a mystical ethicist is fascinating to me, since he was first presented to me as a kind of logical positivist. And even if he remains that, I now feel like I understand why he was doing what he was doing... someone should've explained this mysterious side of Wittgenstein to me in graduate school!

Kevin said...

Given your interest I highly recommend an oddball sermon by W, usually titled 'Lecture on Ethics'--deep yet very accessible. Also be sure to check out Paul Johnston's tragically under-read "Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy". Good stuff.