Some notes about Ludwig Wittgenstein

ludwig_wittgensteinI’ve resolved to brush up on my knowledge of a few key philosophers. Today I’ve been reading more about Wittgenstein’s life and philosophy, inspired by Ian Ground’s PESGB lecture last week and also because I felt his thoughts about language are potentially relevant to my thesis.

Like me, Ludwig Wittgenstein grew up in a house full of pianos and depressive siblings, doubted his effectiveness as a teacher, hated office parties and liked working with his hands. Other things we have in common are a love of Schubert and cooking, techno-skepticism, and disdain for the press. I think we would have got on pretty well.

Originally a student of maths and engineering, Wittgenstein’s interest in logic and structure evolved into a passion for the limits of language and meaning. An analytic philosopher, he describes philosophy as the logical clarification of thoughts. A thought cannot be shown, so we have to use representation; as musical notation and the grooves on a record are representations of music that have homologous form with it, but are not the music itself.

Here are some basic Wittgensteinian ideas that I think I’ve grasped:

  • Logic deals with information in its purest form, i.e. free of emotion.
  • Thoughts can be logical without being true.
  • Tautology and contradiction are not propositions; they are not proposing anything and mean nothing. But they are important as they demonstrate the nature of logic.
  • Not everything is explainable.
  • Logical necessity is the only kind of necessity.
  • Causality is superstition.
  • We cannot describe the limits of language (as we are limited by language!)
  • Different uses of a word share a resemblance. The strength of a word as a symbol is a product of its multiple different uses.
  • We can only ever make inferences about another’s inner world.
  • There is no difference between the content of experience of wishing and intending; the difference is in the way they are articulated.

At first I thought the implication of that final point was that we could articulate our wishes as intentions and change the world, but I really don’t think that’s what Wittgenstein was driving at. He wasn’t known for his optimism.

In the years following the publication of his main work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (literally a ‘handling’/discussion of logic and philosophy) other philosophers prompted him to question some of his original principles, including the one that all propositions must have logical form (we can debate whether certain propositional hand gestures have logical form, for example).

Wittgenstein came to agree with the Ancient Greeks’ idea of philosophy as a kind of therapy; a way of developing thoughts that are ‘at peace’, by challenging the habits of thought and taken-for-granted forms of everyday speech that are entwined with the way we live. (see p85 quote.) One suggestion he made was that we should do away with all attempts to explain and stick to description; this reminded me again of the ‘pathic’ writing activity David had us do in Year 1; the treatment of a critical incident though a descriptive, pre-reflective account.

Wittgenstein felt that the job of philosophy is to defend our intelligence against bewitchment by language. He highlighted how thought appears simple until we reflect on it and realise that it is not one kind of activity; there are many, many different sorts of thinking. It occurred to me reading Wittgenstein’s ideas about thought that the perceived effort we experience in thinking ‘hard’ is due to things other than the thinking about the problem; ‘stress’ or ‘overthinking’, perhaps the pressure to look like we’re thinking. Maybe they actually get in the way of the thinking? Wittgenstein says that thought is not an inner process that occurs in our heads. It is our thought, but we do not transfer it from one person to another. I may express the thought, and you may hear it, but you do not need to have the thought yourself in order to understand.

Another interesting point Wittgenstein makes about language is that it is dependent on non-linguistic features; for example to respond appropriately to a joke requires a sense of humour. It also helps to have familiarity with the person telling the joke.

I now totally get what Ian Ground was saying in his PESGB lecture about the relevance of Wittgensteinian thought to a consideration of animal consciousness. Wittgenstein supports what I wrote in my last post about human life being bound in language; we can’t step out of language; we can’t even describe its limits. Mathematics, like language, mirrors our form of life. If we saw and perceived objects differently, we would have a different mathematics.

I do, however, believe certain activities can provide us with a hint – a glimpse – of what lies outside. This upcoming online course by Stanislav Grof looks absolutely intriguing. If it’s free, I’ll do it.

Now, a lot of people who click on that link will probably denounce it as irrational, corny new-age delusion (as apparently many of Roy Bhaskar’s fans did when he published From East to West). But Wittgenstein points out that we seek satisfactions of different kinds, which do not necessarily contradict one another; for example Darwin’s account of evolution and the account of creation in Genesis. If we assume that magic is trying to achieve the same ends as science, we will look down upon it. But magic does not seek causal explanations; it is a language of gestures that brings different satisfactions (this is what Wittgenstein means by ‘the spirit in which one acts’; he means the satisfactions that we seek). Whereas a lot of philosophers seek the identification of founding principles, it is said that Wittgenstein’s theme of language games makes his philosophy more rhizomatic.

It struck me again, reading about Wittgenstein, what can be achieved by bright individuals when they are freed from the necessity to make a living. Wittgenstein came from an incredibly wealthy family. Not a happy one, it seems (all three of his brothers committed suicide… incidentally, he did argue against the existence of happiness as a state of mind). Ultimately, having chosen to walk away from the family fortune and carve his own individual path through life, it’s clear he was under no illusion that money equates to wealth. One key argument in favour of universal basic income if that is we are released from our wage-slavery we can follow our passions, develop our own particular talents, and do and achieve truly great things for humanity.

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