Books: Cultural Amnesia — Ludwig Wittgenstein |
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Born into a wealthy Viennese family, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was the glamour boy of English philosophy in the twentieth century, and in the new millennium his influence continues to be potent. If there are still English philosophers who seem to prefer it when nothing is discussed except the means of discussion, their memories of Wittgenstein are probably the reason. Before World War I, there was a period when only Bertrand Russell knew who Wittgenstein was. After valuable false starts as a student of engineering in Berlin and Manchester, Wittgenstein had come to Cambridge to study mathematical logic under Russell, who had the humility (a virtue of Russell’s that offset many of his vices) to spot an intellect potentially superior to his own. During the Great War, Wittgenstein fought for Austria as an artillery officer. Captured by the Italians, in the prison camp at Montecassinao he completed the work we now know as the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, a set of aphorisms based on the principle that language is a combination of propositions picturing the facts of which the world is composed. Under the impression that he had brought philosophy to an end, Wittgenstein gave away his money and took up the simple life in Austria as a schoolteacher, a gardener’s assistant and an amateur architect.

He resembled T. E. Lawrence both in his homosexuality and in his recurring desire to retreat from a stage whose centre he seemed born to occupy. Realizing, however, that philosophy was not over after all, he returned to Cambridge in 1929. First as a research fellow and then as a full professor, he developed a second philosophical phase, or emphasis, in which his original concept of language as a set of pictures was, if not repudiated, certainly elaborated into something more subtle—infinitely more subtle, because he now saw communication as a whole family of language games in which the meanings of words depended on their use. Usage, however, was not everything. A given line of argument could be outright wrong, especially if it sought obsessively for a unity that could not exist. Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it. During World War II he voluntarily served as a hospital porter in London and a lab assistant in Newcastle, but he never said anything in print about the Nazis. Apart from the Tractatus, all his books, collected from notes made from his lectures, were published posthumously. No student should miss the key work of his second phase, Philosophical Investigations (1953), but not even in that otherwise electrifying book is there any sense of current events. His silence might not have been an act of will. It could have been that words failed him. There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak, and broke down in tears. But in the few years left to him before his death from cancer, he still resolutely declined to say anything specific about the era he had lived through. He had helped to shape it, but only by ignoring it.

Not that Wittgenstein believed there was anything peripheral about his subject. As we know from one of his letters to the linguist C. K. Ogden, he thought nothing could beat the thrill of philosophy. Clearly, for him, close, penetrating reasoning was an aesthetic experience on the level of the Schubert C Major Quintet, which he thought possessed “a fantastic kind of greatness.” But for Wittgenstein it was the thought that was seductive, not the language. A condition in which the thing said exceeded the thing talked about was not a condition he could admit, and especially not in poetry. He despised Bertrand Russell’s attempts to write plain-language philosophy on a high aesthetic level. Russell wanted to be Spinoza, and Wittgenstein devastated him by telling him he was wasting his time. Wittgenstein was undoubtedly being sincere. He would have thought the same sort of aim a waste of effort even if it came from himself. Yet he himself was in the first rank of German writers. As an aphorist he had no superior and only a few peers: Goethe, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Schnitzler, Kafka, Polgar—the list is quite short, and for his almost unearthly detachment he can be said to dominate it.

Wittgenstein’s requirement that we should not be seduced by language is understandable in the context of the rich second phase of his philosophy, whose aim we can find summed up for him on his brass plate in Trinity College chapel in Cambridge: “Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse.” (Reason must be released from the chains of speech.) The requirement that we should not be seduced by his language, however, is hard to meet. He had things to say that were as good as Hegel’s line about the owl of Minerva. He was the poet without a context, the poet in the waste land. His chief fear was that philosophy would be dominated by science. David Pears—whose short book Wittgenstein (1971) remains valuable even in the flood of light cast by Ray Monk’s magnificent biography of 1990—assures us that the whole aim of Wittgenstein’s work was to prevent such a domination. But of course philosophy is dominated by science, if philosophy is thought of as a subject in itself. What Wittgenstein proved is that the dominance of science does not extend to language, and that philosophy, as a corollary, is present in all the considered language that is ever used. Far from it being hard to say something significant, to say something insignificant is almost impossible, even for a baby just old enough to know that babbling makes it popular.

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Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us.

PHILOSOPHY AS anyone uses the word, one would have thought. But for a long time few dared to think that, so Garboesque was Wittgenstein’s glamour. When Wittgenstein was in the room, even Isaiah Berlin was at a loss for words. Wittgenstein placed such an emphasis on precision of language that he made the merely eloquent feel slovenly. To get Wittgenstein in perspective, it required first of all his death, and then some unsentimental reflection on the breathtaking scope of what he had never talked about. He received credit for giving away the large amount of money he had inherited, and thus detaching himself from his social privileges and from the involvements and distractions of everyday life. But he also detached himself from everyday life by ignoring what was going on in Europe. After his sufferings in World War I the detachment was understandable, but the result was a chilling hermeticism in his frame of reference. Neither in his philosophy nor in his ancillary writings did he ever say much about what subsequently happened in the German-speaking countries, at the very time when civilization was facing its greatest threat. It could be said that he was under no obligation to, but it is still a strange omission. The advantage to his philosophical position was that by not saying much he never said anything ill considered. His philosophical position was like a defensive aesthetic strategy by which a poet hopes to write poetry in which there is nothing that can be criticized for its looseness: every line a Maginot line.

In the fully developed form of his second phase, Wittgenstein’s eventual position about language was so obviously right that it is hard to see, at this distance, how a whole school of philosophy could have grown out of it. “Ein Ausdrück hat nur im Strom des Lebens Bedeutung,” he said in his last days. An expression has meaning only in the stream of life. Could anyone doubt it? Generations of students learned not to ask for the meaning, but to ask for the use. Wittgenstein got the credit. If Shakespeare had ever believed anything else, he would never have written a line. (The drawback of the academic guru is that his students continue, long after graduation, to see him as the incarnation of the seriousness of their subject: but their subject incarnates its own seriousness, or it would never have been worth studying in the first place.) Wittgenstein’s real power lay in the fact that he, too, was a literary prodigy. In all phases of his career Wittgenstein was an important writer in the rich German tradition of the aphorism. He favoured the epigrammatic, the dry, the tart. But he was slow—painfully slow, hour after hour slow, sweating and struggling in front of his own class slow—to accept the truth about the simple statement: the truth being that it is an ignis fatuus.

The simple statement was never a problem: or, rather, it was never anything except a problem. The difficulty of getting something said clearly was never news: except of course, to the latest intake of philosophy students, who gave Wittgenstein the credit for everything that would have struck them anyway if they had been left alone with the merest metaphysical lyric from the early seventeenth century. Expressing oneself clearly is the most complicated thing there is. Mature English is complicated in order to mean one thing at a time—the closest to the simple that it can ever get. Wittgenstein looked always to the moment when, with the rhetoric blown away and language reduced to the parameters of a children’s language game, the “mental mist ... disappears.” It can never quite do that, but with the proper illumination we can tell it is a mist. Wittgenstein was closer to the pay dirt in one of his letters to the philosopher G. E. Moore, when he talked about thought with due attention to what fascinated Heisenberg on his deathbed: turbulence. “One can’t drink wine while it’s fermenting, but that it’s fermenting shows that it isn’t dishwater.”

As Wittgenstein conceived it, and apparently wanted to conceive it, philosophy should leave everything as it is, after having flooded it with light and air. But there was a consequence of his principle of refinement and precision that was seldom considered within his lifetime, and is still not often considered now. The precise tool was never ready to be brought to bear on the world: only on philosophy itself, which increasingly, under his influence, defined itself as an activity whose references were all to its own ways and means. The completeness with which this exclusive preoccupation suited its professional practitioners should have tipped off the more talented among them that they were engaged in a system for betting on the horses. Few of them, alas, were as talented as Wittgenstein: they could do the logic, but they could not duplicate his sensitivity to language—a sensitivity that was essentially poetic. Like literary theory at a later time, however, analytical philosophy was a game hard to get out of after you had started drawing the salary.

We acted as though we had tried to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves.

This is the Wittgenstein that matters to a writer. There is a Wittgenstein that matters to professional philosophers, but they can prove it only to each other. The Wittgenstein that matters to a writer might be mistaken for his meaning by ordinary readers, but he can never be mistaken for his poetic quality, which is apparent even in his plainest statement. The precision of his language we can take for granted, and perhaps he should more often have done the same. His true and unique precision was in registering pre-verbal states of mind. In The Blue and Brown Books (p. 137) he proposes a “noticing, seeing, conceiving” process that happens before it can be described in words. That, indeed, is the only way of describing it. It sounds very like the kind of poetic talent that we are left to deal with after we abandon the notion—as we must—that poetic talent is mere verbal ability. “What we call ‘understanding a sentence’ has, in many cases, a much greater similarity to understanding a musical theme than we might be inclined to think” (p. 167). But he doesn’t want us to think about music as a mechanism to convey a feeling: joy, for example. “Music conveys to us itself!” (p. 178). So when we read a sentence as if it were a musical theme, the music doesn’t convey a separate sense that compounds with the written meaning. We get the feeling of a musical theme because the sentence means something. I thought he was getting very close to the treasure chamber when he wrote this. In 1970, reading The Blue and Brown Books every day in the Copper Kettle in Cambridge, I made detailed transcriptions in my journal every few minutes. It didn’t occur to me at the time that his prose was doing to me exactly what he was in the process of analysing. It sounded like music because it was so exactly right.