Wittgenstein’s Commitment to Philosophy

As part of my recap / catch-up on Wittgenstein I’m at last reading Ray Monk’s “Duty of Genius“, much referenced in other readings of course, but reading the original for the first time. This is my mid-point review (his 1929 return to Cambridge) to capture my own agenda points with notes under 3 headings:

The Job Done – Did Wittgenstein believe he’d put philosophy to bed in the Tractatus?
The Incompleteness – Is Gödel consisent with the Tractatus on incompleteness?
The Kunmanngasse House – A metaphor for the Tractatus

[DoG – the Duty of Genius]
[TLP – the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus]

The Job Done

I’m finding very little to disagree with in DoG and indeed it is truly excellent in joining the man to his work, a recurring interest of mine to understand where was P coming from when they wrote X. Lots of clarification and deepening of detail as well as confirmation and reinforcement of the broader themes. Scholarly and human. Recommended. Excellent as I say.

As I’ve said many times, the one Wittgenstein meme that continually nags me is the suggestion he believed he’d solved philosophy in writing TLP and that this was why he ostensibly removed himself from philosophical activity for the decade 1919 to 1928.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Discounting for a moment that his knowledge of academic philosophy as a whole was limited and selective beyond Russell (eg Kant, Schopenauer, Nietzsche) due to his age and experience, he knew philosophy was a lot more than the immediate target audience of TLP. For the logicians it was all that could be said, but what couldn’t be said with formal logical language – metaphysically, ontologically, epistemologically – was as he had also said, a lot more and a lot more important. He had solved the problem of logicians, if they could understand what he had done. Nothing more, nothing less.

Frustrated that they didn’t get it, again as he knew they couldn’t do immediately without the will to do so, he left them (hopefully) to study and absorb what he had done, whilst he went off to walk his talk. To walk his non-talk in fact – to live, experience the aesthetic of real life – to do the more important part of philosophy. Watch me. He was taking his own medicine, again probably frustratedly hoping they would notice his message.

Of course lived experience through and after WWI had a massive psychological effect on intelligent humans as well as the enormous physical effects on people and states in general. But, even in normal times there would be no best laid plans for developing the greater unspoken half of any human enterprise. Plans apply only to the formally describable elements. Very much puts me in mind of T E Lawrence.

Whilst he indeed had no interest in elaborating or extending TLP (its scope was complete, to him) he was of course keen to hear of it’s progress.

To Ogden in 1923, who had suggested his own “Meaning of Meaning” solved a problem with meaning in TLP, Wittgenstein said:

“I believe you have not caught the problems which I was at in [TLP] (whether or not I have given the correct solution).”

He was realistic enough to know his work wasn’t perfect (complete and consistent) but he was simply not interested in debating any detail criticisms of TLP until he saw evidence that his main objectives were accepted or even recognised.

Later the same year working on detail TLP clarifications with Ramsey whom he did find sufficiently open and sympathetic (and able), Ramsey is “illuminated” to confirm that:

He [Wittgenstein] is very interested in it [clarifying TLP] …

Although, what he is not interested in and why, he continues:

… he says his mind is no longer flexible and he can never write another book.

Corresponding with Keynes Wittgenstein makes it clear why he is resisting a return to formal philosophical activity. He would dearly love to in fact, he knows there is useful work to be done, but he can’t:

… because I myself no longer have any strong inner drive towards that sort of activity …. the spring has run dry.

He is fixated on the specific importance of TLP not being recognised, that he is effectively unable to move on until it is. Especially frustrating that the need to move on is all the greater since what is not said in TLP is the more important part of the necessary work. There is no doubt of his obsessive personality regarding whatever his current project. Not listening is normal for him. Accusations of madness are not in short supply either, and he understands the psychology that actively pushing and promoting (the written contents of) TLP to anyone not already sympathetic to his agenda, can only backfire on his credibility. Harranguing those previously sympathetic has already consumed all their available attention and patience. He’s obsessive to the point of madness, and he knows it.

Relationship-wise Wittgenstein undoubtedly needed mutual intimacy for any human interaction to work. The formal content of any argument is the smaller part of what it takes to add any value. The humanity is all. The contradiction is all too clear to him as his frustrations lead to his own inhuman treatment of others when the inability to communicate what is necessary. That’s his point, the Catch-22 of TLP. He himself is consistent about this, whatever the topic or context. As he says to Eccles

It is no use writing to you about [it]
as I couldn’t explain the exact nature of [it].
You will [have to] see it for yourself.

The job of philosophy is far from being complete in TLP. Living life beyond the page, you have to see it for yourself before the job can progressed to completion.

The Incompleteness

This inability to properly define what is needed axiomatically in philosophical logic has obvious parallels with Gödel in mathematical logic. So having seen the view from Gödel’s side, I was interested to see the connection from the Wittgenstein perspective. Monk makes only two Gödel references in DoG.

Firstly, Wittgenstein’s work was planned as 1/4 of the whole agenda at the 1930 Konigsberg conference, whereas the conference was in fact overshadowed by von Neumann’s unplanned announcement of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem(s). Since his proof was based on numbers, it has been debated whether it really only applies to arithmetic rather than the whole of (mathematical and philosophical) logic. I happen to believe that IF you want to express your philosophy in that kind mathematical logic you are indeed bound by incompleteness – consistent with both Gödel and Wittgenstein. As Monk says, Wittgenstein’s only comments on Gödel were primitive and dismissive, so:

Whether Wittgenstein accepted this [common] interpretation of Gödel’s result is a moot point.

[Follow-up – S. G. Shanker reference.]

Secondly, in the 1940’s, Wittgenstein had some significant and regular interaction with student Georg Kreisel who later went on to become an important Gödel scholar. Although Wittgenstein considered Kreisel to be …

“… the most able philosopher he had ever met who was also a mathematician.”

… it seems ultimately they were really talking past each other and that Wittgensien was, as ever, the droll commedian. Kreisel’s work was to be part of mathematical logic whereas Wittgenstein’s was seen as an attack on the same field, and Kreisel was dismissive (and perhaps embittered):

“Wittgenstein’s views on mathematical logic are not worth much.”

“The [Blue and Brown] books are deplorable.”

As Monk says, Wittgenstein’s precise relation to Gödel is moot, which looks like a lost opportunity.

The Kunmanngasse House

And, finally for now, at this mid-way point, the Kunmanngasse House architected in typically obsessive and austere detail by Wittgenstein is a wonderful metaphor for his work so far.

Hermine [Wittgenstein, sister] said … even though I admired the house very much […] it seemed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me. [I felt] opposition to [its] perfection and monumentality; to this “house embodied logic”.

Monk adds … the qualities of clarity, rigour and precision that characterise it are indeed those one looks for in a system of logic rather than in a dwelling place. Wittgenstein made extraordinarily few concessions to [humans].


Also published on Medium.

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