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Sunday, October 28, 2007


Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
Ray Monk
My Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

The entry on Ludwig Wittgenstein by The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and by "shorter" we mean a mere 1,077 pages of small-type, double-column entries) states the following, "His writings have aroused great devotion because of the honesty and depth which many find in them. But it is important not to treat them with superstitious reverence. Rather they should be read in the spirit in which he intended, namely as an invitation to explore with as much integrity as possible one's own perplexities and what would resolve them."

Reading the above gave me pause. Why would a reputable philosophical encyclopedia feel compelled to provide a disclaimer against "superstitious reverence" toward a past philosopher? I can only imply that the author is concerned about a cult-following around the person and work of Wittgenstein. But doesn't this strike us as extremely odd? That at the end of the 20th century and as we embark on the 21st there are intelligent students of philosophy religiously devoting themselves to a philosopher not yet 50 years after his death? Admittedly, philosophy students are typically devoted to teachers and professors and even to philosophers of the past who write with the force of logic and truth. And yet I find no similar disclaimer in the Routledge entry on Plato, Locke, Kant, Hegel, or Russell. What is it about Wittgenstein that inspires such "superstitious reverence"?

The answer, I believer, is not simply to be found in the work of Wittgenstein but more so in his life. And this is where the Monk biography comes in. It bridges the gap between philosophy and life: "By describing the life and the work in the one narrative, I hope to make it clear how this work came from this man, to show - what many who read Wittgenstein's work instinctively feel - the unity of his philosophical concerns with his emotional and spiritual life." (xviii)

After reading Monk's biography I can understand why the philosophical establishment would see themselves obliged to disclaim any sense of religious devotion to Wittgenstein. Such devotion is simply the mirror reflection of a man completely dedicated to the questions of life that perplexed him, even tortured him. "Philosophy, one might say, came to him, not he to philosophy. Its dilemmas were experienced by him as unwelcome intrusions, unable to get on with everyday life until he could dispel them with a satisfactory solution." (3) Wittgenstein's ultimate solution to the problems of philosophy was to suggest that philosophy, itself, could not solve them. Or, at the very least, that philosophy has limits and parameters that it should not push beyond.

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, section 7)

In brief, the life of Wittgenstein was one of passion and complete dedication to pursue the deepest and most meaningful questions of life. He was religious, deeply committed to his own ethical purity, and above all things he was a man who brought a relentless intensity to everything that he deemed important enough to warrant investigation. For example, Wittgenstein would engage the most brilliant philosophical minds of his day and simply wear them down. He had the mental, physical and emotional capacity to sustain the pursuit of a line of thought for hours and hours on end. In many cases, philosophers like Bertrand Russell would simply not have the capacity (or even the desire in some cases) to follow Wittgenstein until he was satisfied to conclude.

How many philosophers inspire "superstitious devotion"? How many thinkers are truly worthy of the dedication of their followers? When compared to Wittgenstein, most philosophers appear to approach philosophy as though it were a mere hobby. Wittgenstein's life displayed a sheer force of intellectual passion.

Rather than attempt to review the life and work, exhaustively, I will pick and choose a few interesting portions of Monk's biography that I found particularly intriguing.

Here I highlight a comment by Wittgenstein on belief in God and its relation to science and proof:
"Wittgenstein did not wish to see God or to find reasons for His existence. He thought that if he could overcome himself - if a day came when his whole nature 'bowed down in humble resignation in the dust' - then God would, as it were, come to him; he would then be saved....Both the atheist, who scorns religion because he has found no evidence for its tenets, and the believer, who attempts to prove the existence of God, have fallen victim to the 'other' - to the idol-worship of the scientific style of thinking. Religious beliefs are not analogous to scientific theories, and should not be accepted or rejected using the same evidential criteria." (410)

The above line of thought is intriguing in its own right, and certainly a matter that has come under a great deal of debate over the years. But, aside from the substance of what Wittgenstein says, what is particularly interesting to me is the context within which Wittgenstein developed these ideas. He was working at Cambridge in the early 20th century, where a scientific approach was presumed (in some form or another) by virtually all serious thinkers. To our "postmodern" ears the above statements seem less radical and a matter to be taken seriously for thought and discussion. I don't know that we can appreciate the degree to which these thoughts would have deviated from the philosophical orthodoxy of the day. Of course, deviating from philosophical orthodoxy was the least of Wittgenstein's concerns!

Wittgenstein began his Philosophical Investigations by engaging the Confessions of St Augustine. Says Monk, "For Wittgenstein, all philosophy, in so far as it is pursued honestly and decently, begins with a confession. He often remarked that the problem of writing good philosophy and of thinking well about philosophical problems was one of the will more than of the intellect - the will to resist the temptation to misunderstand, the will to resist superficiality. What gets in the way of genuine understandings often not one's lack of intelligence, but the presence of one's pride." (366)

Monk continues on this line of thought and cites Wittgenstein, himself:
"If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing: Lying to oneself, deceiving yourself about the pretence in your own state of will, must have a harmful influence on [one's] style; for the result will be that you cannot tell what is genuine in the style and what is false....If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit. (366-67)

The Liar Paradox is a problem that develops when someone says, "I am lying." Is the statement true or is it false. If it is true, then it is necessarily false. If it is false, then the person has told the truth. It is a simple little game of logic, but it creates great problems for various theories of propositions. Personally, I have wondered whether or not such paradoxes do not reveal a fundamental flaw in ascribing truth value to propositions, that perhaps this implies that truth is a matter greater than propositions. Or perhaps it is simply a manifestation of the absurdities of the universe. In any event, here is Wittgenstein on the issue:

"It is very queer in a way that this should have puzzled anyone - much more extraordinary than you might think: that this should be the thing to worry human beings. Because the thing works like this: if a man says 'I am lying' we say that it follows that he is not lying, from which it follows that he is lying and so on. Well, so what? You can go on like that until you are black in the face. Why not? It doesn't matter." (420)

For Wittgenstein, then, the issue was really a non-issue. But why? Monk says that it is because what needs to be explained is also why the question matters. In other words, justification is needed for the theoretical constructs that demand an answer to the question. "His [Wittgenstein's] point was rather that a contradiction cannot lead one astray because it leads nowhere at all. One cannot calculate wrongly with a contradiction, because one simply cannot use it to calculate. One can do nothing with contradictions, except waste time puzzling over them." (421)

Wittgenstein was also interested in Freud and dream interpretation. "It was the idea that dream symbols form a kind of language that interested him - the fact that we naturally think that dreams mean something, even if we do not know what they mean." (448) Monk continues, "What puzzles us about a dream is not its causality but its significance. We want the kind of explanation which 'changes the aspect' under which we see the images of a dream, so that they now make sense. Freud's idea that dreams are wish fulfilments is important because it 'points to the sort of interpretation that is wanted', but it is too general." (449)

Says Wittgenstein, "Freud very commonly gives what we might call a sexual interpretation. But it is interesting that among all the reports of dreams which he gives, there is not a single example of a straightforward sexual dream. yet these are as common as rain." (449) Monk continues summarizing Wittgenstein: "This again is connected to Freud's determination to provide a single pattern for all dreams: all dreams must be, for him, expressions of longing, rather than, for example, expressions of fear. Freud, like philosophical theorists, had been seduced by the method of science and the 'craving for generality.'" (449)

This next statement in regard to Freud is interesting to me: "There is not one type of dream, and neither is there one way to interpret the symbols in a dream. Dream symbols to mean something - 'Obviously there are certain similarities with language' - but to understand them requires no some general theory of dreams, but the kind of multi-faceted skill that is involved, say, in the understanding of a piece of music." (449)

The above reflections in relation to Freud and dreams are in line with Wittgenstein's approach of going to the particular thing rather than the general. Furthermore, Wittgenstein does not necessarily go to the particular thing with the intent of using it to develop overarching theories, perhaps what we might call a "metanarrative" - an overarching explanation for all things. This simply wasn't Wittgenstein's primary concern, and as such I think he is able to demonstrate insight into the "skill" required to interpret dreams.

More on Wittgenstein's religious outlook. Monk cites W:
"An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slederest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it." Says Monk, "Though he had the greatest admiration for those who could achieve this balancing act, Wittgenstein did not regard himself as one of them. He could not, for example, bring himself to believe in the literal truth of reported miracles:
'A miracle is, as it were, a gesture which God makes. As a man sits quietly and then makes an impressive gesture, God lets the world run on smoothly and then accompanies the words of a saint by a symbolic occurrence, a gesture of nature. It would be an instance if, when a saint has spoken, the trees around him bowed, as if in reverence. Now, do I believe this happens? I don't. The only way for me to believe in a miracle in this sense would be to be impressed by an occurrence in this particular way. So that I should say e.g.: "It was impossible to see these trees and not to feel that they were responding to the words." Just as I might say "It is impossible to see the face of this god and not to see that he is alert and full of attention to what his master is doing." And I can imagine that the mere report of the words and life of a saint can make someone believe the reports that the tree bowed. But I am not so impressed.'" (464)

The above can be a bit confusing in several places, but I added bold/italics to the second to last sentence because it seems to emphasize the main point of Wittgenstein's approach to miracle, namely, that the event may not necessarily occurred, but the religious significance of those involved impressed them to the point that it was as though it had actually happened.

Monk continues and notes that Wittgenstein's belief in God "did not take the form of subscribing to the truth of any particular doctrine, but rather that of adopting a religious attitude of life. As he once put it to Drury: 'I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.'" (464)

Can one "sum up" Wittgenstein's philosophy? Likely not! However, this one sentence, perhaps might be a start in understanding Wittgenstein's reflections as they relate to his contemporaries: "Partly under Wittgenstein's influence, the Theory of Knowledge had been subordinated to the analysis of meaning." (472) So, in this sense, the study of theories of epistemology eclipse into analyzing meaning: meanings of words and meanings of objects and the meanings of anything that we encounter in life that yields meaning. In this sense we are talking about a focus on interpretation. Interpretation was also the occupation of Heidegger and Gadamer in their own ways, and from there, philosophical thought (and even non-philosophical thought) seems to take of in a variety of directions.

In Zettel, Wittgenstein states, "Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning." For Wittgenstein, Monk notes, "Practice gives the words their sense." (573) This is a comment on context. Here, Monk comments on this idea of context and follows this by citing Wittgenstein: "The thrust of Wittgenstein's remarks is to focus the attention of philosophers away from words, from sentences, and on to the occasions in which we use them, the contexts which give them their sense:
'Am In not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it.'" (578-79)

The above goes to the idea of a "framework" for thinking and interpreting. Monk states Wittgenstein as follows: "A framework itself cannot be justified or proven correct; it provides the limits within which justification and proof take place....We cannot make sense of anything without some sort of framework, and with any particular framework there has to be a distinction between propositions that, using that framework, describe the world, and those that describe the framework itself, though this distinction is not fixed at the same place for ever." (571) This reminds me of Gadamer's insistence that "tradition" and "prejudice," far from being things we should despise are the very preconditions under which all thought takes place. Interesting that for Wittgenstein we need to distinguish the propositions within the framework from those that describe the framework, and yet this cannot ever be "fixed." Monk cites an analogy that Wittgenstein uses for this point: "...the river-bed of thoughts may shift. But I distinguish between the movements of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other." (571)

The life and philosophy of Wittgenstein is intense. His works, though short in length and few in words, are dense. Monk's biography, however, is highly readable and comes highly recommended. It traces Wittgenstein's philosophy as it relates to his contemporaries, however, it is not simply a portrait of the development of philosophy. Monk skillfully combines life and thought in such a way that one cannot help but be impressed by the person. This biography is helpful for its philosophical reflections, but it is fascinating for the portrait of the person - a person whose life and works have inspired a "superstitious reverence" that should make all establishment philosophers wary!

All that philosophy can do is to destroy idols.


ktismatics said...

I read Witggentstein's Poker a couple years back -- about a dispute between Wittgenstein and philosopher of science Karl Popper in which W. allegedly brandished a fireplace tool at P. The book makes W. out as a sort of arrogant Cambridge aristocrat who, while serious about his work, still thought of it as a "language game" that didn't have much relevance to ordinary concerns. Apparently his students were kind of like cult followers, emulating their hero's manner of speaking and dress. Popper, on the other hand, was middle class, abrupt, real-world oriented. Interestingly, the authors of this book contend that Popper has had the more lasting influence.

Jonathan Erdman said...

That's a very interesting take. Monk's position is exactly the opposite - 180 degrees. He contends that Wittgenstein despised Cambridge because of the elitism that existed. W. continually sought to get away from Cambridge for purposes of reflection, contending that at Cambridge there was "no oxygen." When asked how he could breath without oxygen he said, "I create my own oxygen." As a philosophy professor W. even urged several of his students to not pursue philosophy, but to take up practical professions such as medicine and to study philosophy apart from the university setting.

Interesting that the book you read has such a different take on W.

That W. had a cult following (and still does) seems clear, though it seems like it was a counter-cultural movement, rather than a part of the Cambridge upper crust.

That W. would brandish a poker against someone is certainly something that I can believe! I seem to recall something of that nature in Monk's book.

ktismatics said...

W. must have been ambivalent about his own work. I recall that he spent many years teaching middle school or high school before finally settling in at Cambridge. And he had an ascetic lifestyle. Being Jewish, he couldn't fit in comfortably in the English upper crust, but he came from one of the wealthiest noble families in pre-Nazi Austria. It sounds as though he was fairly dismissive of Bertrand Russell, a notable philosopher in his own right and W's mentor and advocate at Cambridge.

samlcarr said...

Somehow, the encyclopedia entry seems a bit fatuous. One expects philosophers (as a class) to be always deeply pondering the imponderable, at least till they think they have figured it out!

It is also assumed that the philosopher is not just a sophist but is really interested in 'truth' and that honesty of thought is a rather important ingredient in the overall process.

Seems most likely that the writer of this entry simply ram out of profound insights and did a job filling space.

The consistency between the particular philosophy and how the philosopher lives it out may not always be there, but I think it mostly is. One thinks automatically of Rodin's Thinker...

btw, word verification is generally a good idea and i don't think anyone will mind too much!

ktismatics said...

Were you getting porn spam, or trolls? And what does "xlovid" mean to you?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics: It sounds as though he was fairly dismissive of Bertrand Russell, a notable philosopher in his own right and W's mentor and advocate at Cambridge.

The relationship with Russell is intriguing. From Monk's biography, W read Russell's Principles of Mathematics and became obsessed with some of the questions that were left unanswered, dealing with the philosophy of mathematics. He connected with Russell and the two engaged in heavy discourse and intense dialog. Russell recognized W's genius and also that W was younger and had the energy to pick up where Russell had left off. Russell by this point had tired of "real" philosophical work and began pursuing lecture tours around the world and writing popular works (in addition to his many, infamous affairs!). So, Russell tagged W. as his successor. The problem was, W. moved beyond Russell and eventually rejected R's whole project. Additionally, W. was repulsed by R's moral and spiritual perspectives. Ultimately, the two had something of a falling out.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think it is program-generated spam.

Daniel said...

"It is very queer in a way that this should have puzzled anyone - much more extraordinary than you might think: that this should be the thing to worry human beings. Because the thing works like this: if a man says 'I am lying' we say that it follows that he is not lying, from which it follows that he is lying and so on. Well, so what? You can go on like that until you are black in the face. Why not? It doesn't matter."

One of the implications here is a move away from seeking valid answers towards seeking valid questions. Although I'm not a philosopher or well-acquainted with the history of philosophy, it seems like the weight has been placed on answers most of the time. But having a good question is so much more instructive than having a good answer.

Your review made for a great intro to Witggentstein for someone like me who knows very little about him. Will reread a couple of times because I really enjoyed the way you presented the themes.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel: But having a good question is so much more instructive than having a good answer.

I agree! Truth be told, the answers we "find" are often predetermined by what kind of questions we ask.

Wittgenstein was very passionate about defining how we use words and being serious about what we say and what we are meaning. He was such a demanding philosopher that it carried over into his personal life, even setting some people on edge in his presence because if someone spoke carelessly (as we all tend to do) this could easily result in a lecture from Wittgenstein! As such, in relation to the questions we ask, it was important to Wittgenstein to understand why the questions were important and what we are meaning when we ask them.