Wittgenstein With Everything.

I’d been taking the good sense of Wittgenstein for granted in recent years having read his main works and read a great deal about him in other contexts. The only ongoing task remaining for me has been to put the sense into practical use in everyday life and policy, – what’s it best for me to do next / now? ‘Twas ever thus. [*1]

But recently Wittgenstein keeps cropping-up in other articles and conversations, so I’ve been recapping and filling gaps in my reading. [Ray Monk’s “Duty of Genius” and “How to Read” specifically right now.]

Now, it’s not that I read Wittgenstein and he gave me my worldview. I was 45 before I read any philosophy. My worldview has evolved from life experience. Reading Wittgenstein (and the rest of philosophy) these past 15 years has simply given me some literacy to express it in philosophical terms and to refine it in evolutionary terms. In essence, I already knew what Wittgenstein knew.

Consequently when people – particularly scholars and commentators I admire and respect – express doubts about Wittgenstein’s wisdom and consistency, I react in his defence.

Two examples in recent days:

(1) Ray Monk repeating the myth that, after publishing Tractatus, Wittgenstein retired from philosophy believing he had solved all problems in the field; a meme suggested by Wittgenstein’s own words in his preface to the Tractatus:

I am of the opinion that the problems [of philosophy] have in essentials been finally solved [in Tractatus].

(2) Simon Glendinning – expressing problems struggling with [accepting, interpreting, understanding] this remark by Wittgenstein:

When you can’t unravel a tangle, the most sensible thing is for you to recognise this; and the most honorable thing, to admit it. [Antisemitism.] What you ought to do to remedy the evil is not clear. What you must not do is clear in particular cases.

The latter also prompted a twitter conversation with @JudyStout1 from whom I often pick up relevant shared links.

The two quotes are of course related, but first let’s clear up some possible extraneous issues with the second first: It’s not difficult to see why Wittgenstein would have Anti-Semitism as a topic of personal interest and despite (because of) the conflict in the topic as it relates to himself, there is no conflict in him using it as an example and no conflict or inconsistency in the statement he makes about it. And I KNOW that Ray and Simon have much deeper and subtler understanding of Wittgenstein than their statements on either of these small quotes can convey in isolation, so in unpicking them, I’m not suggesting any general disagreement with either of them. [Aside – Not seen any mention of Gödel by Monk (so far) in either Wittgenstein reference.] [Aside – The idea that when Wittgenstein came back to philosophy Tractatus came “crashing down”.] Back to the issues at hand:

The two quotes are related by a third, and perhaps the most famous, Wittgenstein quote, the final and unqualified assertion in the Tractatus, and the equivalent in his introductory letter to his first prospective publisher:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

My work consists of two parts: of the one that is written here and of everything which I have not written.

Philosophy and Anti-Semitism are both big complex topics full of problems in need of solutions. They are examples of tangles which we cannot unravel and we need to be both sensible and honorable in how we address that.

What is particularly important are the sentences following both the introductory quotes:

I am of the opinion that the problems [of philosophy] have in essentials been finally solved [by my Tractatus].
And if I am not mistaken in this, then the value of this work secondly consists in the fact that it shows how little has been done when these problems have been solved.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
My work consists of two parts: of the one that is written here and of everything which I have not written.
And precisely this second part is the important one.

It is not possible to solve the problems of a tangle – in any important practical way – by saying / writing the general solution to the whole. Even if the total problem were complex but tractable logically-objectively, Gödel tells us we can never write a complete and consistent solution. Given that these tangles are inevitably also filled with subjective human angles, it is even less possible to document a whole solution. Conversely it is easy to identify specific actions that do not provide a solution and should therefore not be taken, though this doesn’t exclude specific actions that could. There are of course always an infinity of particular “what should I do next” [*1] possible courses of action once you accept there is no one general solution or any specific silver bullet solution.

Neither philosophy nor antisemitism are sciences, amenable to the logical objective methods of science. In all cases Wittgenstein was pointing out that solving a tangle in an expressable logical technical sense is …. no useful solution at all.

Far from believing Tractatus had solved the problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein knew he had merely pointed out the one big problem for philosophy. Without all the stuff he hadn’t said (knew he couldn’t say in any formal way) he knew what he had written was of minimal value. So there was nothing more to say, nothing more he could say even though what he couldn’t say was much more important than what he had said [*3]. It would be a waste of time to say more to the analytic and logical-positivist types – they and their methods were the problem. When it was obvious they didn’t get it, which he knew before it was actually published, he went off to pastures new, knowing there was nothing more he could say to them. He came back to philosophy only when the conversation had moved on and his audence had had time to think about the things he couldn’t say. When he did, Tractatus didn’t come crashing down. All that crashed was the misunderstanding (or maybe denial) of it by those that didn’t get it. He then tried a more poetic tack to address the problem with philosophy.


Recently on Psybertron:

Speaking the Unsayable

The Labour Antisemitism Row

The Simon Glendinning AntiSemitism Example:

In the antisemitism example, I suggested an example of a particular identifiable action that should not be taken would be accusing an individual of being antisemitic. Does that mean you should never accuse anyone of antisemitism? No. But it’s no solution.

Case A, – the person isn’t & doesn’t consider themselves anti-semitic, so you’ve either offended them or used the rhetoric to start a constructive conversation.

Case B, – the person is and admits it, and your rhetoric has imparted no new knowledge for either of you. The “so what” rhetoric may then initiate a more constructive conversation.

Case C – the person is, but denies it, and depending on circumstances a more constructive conversation will follow, though 99% of the time the topic will be about defining what was meant by antisemitic.

Case D – the situation is the person screaming antisemitic abuse to a stranger on a bus. We’re already in an irrational & inhuman situation. Accusing them of antisemtitism is unlikley to be more immediately useful than restoring civility and getting to a constructive conversation.

In no case does the accusation solve anything. Any solutions depend on the possible conversations and actions. The accusation may have rhetorical value in starting the conversation, and in virtue-signalling, but if the conversation doesn’t ensue, then there has been no progress to any solution to any part of the tangle. In each case there are many other possible statements or courses of action that might better lead to the right conversation and actions, to solve the antisemitism itself.


[Post Notes:

*1 – See “Tabletop” for generic “what should I do next” scenario. 

*2 – Meta. The only sayable solution is meta, about the nature or direction of the way towards solutions. Consequently any possible action can only ever be assessed positively or negatively against this meta property but can never actually be seen to be a solution. 

*3 – This is the recurring “Catch-22”. How to describe a new solution in existing terms of accepted discourse. All accepted discourse can do is destructively criticise the new solution. The “burden of proof” is impossibly biased against progress.]

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