anecdotal philosophy 3. Wittgenstein and the myth of Tantalus

One of the pleasures of studying a literary work in a half familiar language is the compulsion to invent what resists understanding. Given the minute attention to detail this text has received from ordinary language philosophers, we can presume that the English translation is fairly reliable. But the 99% of us who have no training in formal logic will still have the diagrams and what might be mathematical demonstrations to contend with. The solution? Assume they're right and ead the rest. Once you abandon the attempt to understand the whole, you may discover that what’s left is a surprisingly clear sequence of take-home insights which you can comfortably polish off within the space of an afternoon.

Accepting that you will not fully understand certain aspects of the ‘Tractatus’ is both in keeping with the spirit of the text and against it. On the one hand, it is a staggeringly ambitious work which Wittgenstein believed was ‘unassailable and definitive' and that through it, the problems of philosophy ‘have in essentials been finally solved’, on the other hand, the kind of problems his philosophy solves have been radically reduced to issues of correct elucidation. Rather than a study of all that can be known, the 'Tractatus' risks devolving into a book of manners about what it is permissible to say, one which more or less explicitly aims to take down the entire philosophical tradition in the process: continental friends, welcome to the originary Brexit of Anglo-American philosophy. On the face of it, such purity of intent would appear rather single-minded, even if one concedes that ‘[t]he silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated.’

As typified by the withering rejection of the ‘destructive’ Wittgenstein in Gilles Deleuze’s final interview with Claire Parnet, the standard poststructuralist dismissal of the ‘Tractatus’ is that it leads to a kind of philosophical barbarism. By bracketing all metaphysical questions as foolish attempts to invest abstract nouns with physical substance, the human desire to think and wonder, let alone create, is stonewalled out of existence, and in its place is a smug defeatism in the face of scientific advancements. The cosmos is the sum-total of valid (because potentially falsifiable) propositions and the philosopher’s task is to ‘only connect’ without any idealistic excrescence. ‘If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless. That is the meaning of Occam’s razor’.

Yet, despite the tantalising hope of establishing the clearest logic of 'what can be said' being as bold as any philosophical enterprise which precedes it, and regardless of the studied exultation of Wittgenstein’s triumphal claims in the preface, the famous concluding line of the 'Tractatus' leaves us in that infamous deafening silence, which will presage the systematic ambiguities of his posthumous ‘Philosophical Investigations’. What truths, exactly, had Wittgenstein reached? Let’s first take the picture theory of language: ‘At first glance the proposition—say as it stands printed on paper—does not seem to be a picture of the reality of which it treats. But nor does a musical score appear at first sight to be a picture of a musical piece’. This analogy between notation and music is plausible so long as one doesn’t probe too deeply into the nature of the sign. To what extent is its material expression another fact in the world rather than a transparent medium of explanation? How do such conventions of meaning become related to its sign? To what extent is noise inherent in all communication? Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language will be partly redressed in his later pragmatic notion of ‘language games’, but here the sign remains just out of reach. Furthermore, while Wittgenstein recognises that ‘[t]he sense of the world must lie outside the world.’ because ‘[i]n the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value’, it begs the question as to where value comes from at all.

Where is this ‘sense of the world’? Just as the falsifiable propositions of science which describe lowly objective phenomena cannot themselves be grasped, as to do so would be like finding an intrinsic link between sound and signified, or like trying to prove how a set of features are common between a father and a son without showing the father and son, then the higher moral truths of art and ethics are for Wittgenstein ‘transcendental’, and consequently outside the scope of his philosophy. Like the receding branches of fruit and water in King Tantalus’s peculiar hell, Wittgenstein’s linguistic subject can see their objects of interest and reach none. The 'Tractatus' itself is like a mysteriously uprighted statue to Ozymandias, floating legless on its own grandeur.

Yet there is much to be salvaged from the wreckage. Wittgenstein’s dismissal of the metaphysical subject as something which adds nothing to the falsifiable proposition is brilliant in its clarity, and his simple logical arguments against granting special status to Darwinian theory or empirical psychology can likely be drawn upon today in our current neo-positivism paradigm, even as Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language has obvious parallels with the way in which Thomas Metzinger explains the operations of phenomenal consciousness which are non-intuitive. Lastly, there’s the undoubtedly artistic nature of the ‘Tractatus’ itself. To what extent had Wittgenstein sought to compose a minimalist philosophical underworld of shadows to counter-balance the daily operations of philosophical speculation? Astute readers of the ‘Tractatus’ have long noted that if one follows the teachings of the ‘Tractatus’ to the letter, then its own prepositions should be rejected as much as any other idealist enterprise. Either everything is already alright as it is, or, Wittgenstein’s whole project is immersed in a kind of Kierkegaardian satire. For my part, I prefer the latter. Towards the end of Derek Jarman’s ‘Wittgenstein’ (its script, penned by Terry Eagleton, is, to my knowledge, the finest thing he's ever written) our eponymous anti-hero laments the fact that he never got around to writing a book of jokes. With its comedy of inferences and its barely restrained exasperated tone, one might argue that on a good day the ‘Tractatus’ is just such a book. On a good day, [t]he world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy’.

© 2020 Matthew Travers—website design by Mano Kapazoglou