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Wittgenstein and all that nonsense

Actualizado: 26 ene 2023

You know when you are born in an atypical family when your father is one of the richest person in Europe, you are the last of eight siblings (three of whom will end up committing suicide), and your brother Paul is a truly accomplish piano player.

You also know you are someone pretty special when you renounce to your massive inheritance, Bertrand Russell considers you a genius even when you are very young and while fighting in the First World War you write an obscure 75 pages book that will change the direction of Philosophy at the time. Not to mention that a couple of years after your death a book based on your students notes and titled Philosophical Investigations will be considered to be the most influential philosophy book in the Anglo-Saxon world of the entire 20th century.


That, in a nutshell, is Ludwig Wittgenstein, but it would be very wrong to think that he lived a dull and boring life or that his biographers lack good material. Wittgenstein was a complicated man with a difficult character. He could be irascible and short temper with periods of profound depression. He certainly could be obnoxious, but he also managed to redeem himself in several occasions. Would you like an example? In one of his personal crises he abandoned the academic world and he became a school teacher in rural areas of Austria. He was a tyrannical figure for some of the students and verbally and physically abusive. It was not uncommon to use physical punishment against boys in Austria at the time, but Wittgenstein did not distinguish among sexes and made himself very unpopular in the area for applying the same treatment to girls too. On a sad day on April 1926, Wittgenstein hit several times a boy on the head and he collapsed unconscious. The police came to investigate the incident and Wittgenstein was brought to trial and was psychologically evaluated. The case, however, did not prosper and was forgotten, but there are those who believe that the Wittgenstein family had something to do with it. Ten years later, full of remorse, Wittgenstein visited some of the children to personally apologise for his behaviour.


Wittgenstein was something of a misanthrope combined with a philanthropist. He was that contradictory in his ordinary life. He was very dismissive of rural people and at the same time he wanted to help them. He was extremely generous with artists and he himself lived in very precarious conditions, even rejecting Christmas presents from his family. One journalist who visited him when he was a rural teacher commented: He is very poor, at least he lives very economically. He has one tiny room, whitewashed, containing a bed, washstand, small table and one hard chair and that is all there is room for. His evening meal which I shared last night is rather unpleasant coarse bread, butter and cocoa.

He was equally contradictory in his theory. In fact, academics distinguish a first Wittgenstein from a second Wittgenstein. Later in life he turned his previous philosophy upside down. In his only book published during his life, the resounding Tractatus Logico-philosophicus he is committed with the idea of "Picture theory of meaning". If language represents the world around us, then language has to have a structure similar to that of the world. The arrangements of words in a sentence need to mirror the state of affairs in the world. As a consequence, we can learn the structure of reality through the structure of language. Language, therefore, is a picture of reality.


A word, taken in isolation, is not enough, it needs to be within the context of a sentence to acquire meaning. The same happens with reality, single objects are not meaningful themselves, they need to be in relation with other things around them. He opens the aphoristic Tractatus in this fashion:


I. The world is everything that is the case.

I.I The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

I.II The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

I.I2 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.

I.I3 The facts in logical space are the world.

I.2 The world divides into facts.

I.2I Any one can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remains the same.


But there is a problem with this idea. It seems that the only language that appears to have meaning is a fact-stating language. So, what happens then with other equally important things such as religion, art, poetry, lyrics, etc.? Wittgenstein concludes that what is really important in our lives is unstatable. The Tractatus famously finishes with the sentence: Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must be silent.


The only meaningful language is the factual (scientific) one and the rest is meaningless. Consequently, questions such as: What is the meaning of life?, How to be happy?, What is love?, Does God exist?, etc. they are all nonsense. All philosophical, religious, artistic, or ethical discourses are an incorrect exercise of language. We just can't say anything meaningful about these topics.


The second Wittgenstein turns his own theory on its head and says that it is the linguistic apparatus that determines the structure of the world. The meaning of a word does not come from an essence but from its different uses of it in different contexts. The meaning of words like "good" or "beauty" do not come from an essence of beauty or goodness but from the similarities within the different uses of the word. Do not look for the meaning of words but for the use of those words in specific contexts. Many of the philosophical problems result from mixing the uses of words in different contexts. "Good" or "beauty" mean different things in art, ethics or religion. It is not possible to understand what "good" means in religion if we apply the use of art or philosophy.


It may seem that what Wittgenstein says is obvious and therefore should not be discussed, however what he does not take into account is that the contexts of art or religion are not clearly defined. Does "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci belong to the field of art or religion? In fact, many of our religious concepts are conditioned by artistic works (paintings, cathedrals, sculptures, poems, etc.) and vice versa. The same would happen in other contexts such as medicine and economics, science and technology, engineering and music, etc. They are contexts that co-determine each other, they are not independent.

 

Wittgenstein never married, but he considered it at least once. He fall in love with Marguerite Respinger and the feeling seemed to be mutual. He wrote in an entry in his diary: Arrived back in Cambridge after the Easter vacation. In Vienna often with Marguerite. Easter Sunday with her in Neuwaldegg. For three hours we kissed each other a great deal and it was very nice. But the relationship was destined to fail because the one condition that Wittgenstein had to marry Marguerite was not to have children. He wanted to keep the relationship on the platonic level. She left. (see related post below).

However, there is nothing straightforward with Wittgenstein. The real love of his life was David Pinset, the man to whom he dedicated his book. He met him in his youth, when he was 23 and Pinset 21. Together they travelled to remote places in Norway and Iceland looking for a place for them to work peacefully on logic and mathematics. Their relationship lasted only a couple of years but when Pinset died in 1918 after a plane crash Wittgenstein enter a period of severe depression. Throughout Wittgenstein life he had relationships with other men, some lasting several years.


In general, Wittgenstain's life was a constant struggle against the world, against philosophy, against himself (he suffered from depression and probably other undiagnosed mental conditions) and against illness. He died at age 62, three days after his birthday, from prostate cancer. It seems that his last words were: Tell them that I've had a wonderful life. This does not seem to be totally true and he joins the list of philosophers with a very complicated existence (see related post below)


Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1947







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