Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wittgenstein Was a Beery Swine

Suppose a friend points a finger and asks, "What is that?"  Do you answer, "A finger"?  Of course not.  You look in the direction of your friend's finger at something else.  But what exactly do you look at?  Your friend doesn't know what it is and can't name it.  Nevertheless usually you find the same thing and can converse about it.  Maybe you don't know what it is, either, but you know it is an it.  And after all, your friend has a name for it: he called it that.  You both have some idea that an object exists to point at, but that primary idea cannot be communicated.  Somehow we simply already know it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote of this unlearnable knowledge that comes before communication, wrote for years on the philosophy of language, and in fact defined philosophy as an examination and clarification of language.  Significant things are not as they appear, he says, and yet traditions in language keep us from seeing things clearly.  Philosophy must find these "grammatical knots" and untie them; the exercise, he says, is both as urgent and as difficult as getting a hair out of your mouth.

As far as I know, Wittgenstein was not a beery swine, although the Monty Python song that claims it is extremely funny.  Earlier this year I read a collection of excerpts from his works (Wittgenstein's works, not Monty Python's) and found them far too thoughtful to be the product of a dizzy sot.  These anthologies (the Blackwell Reader series, the Portable series from Penguin, etc.) generally contain writings from throughout a thinker's life, and critical notes to help make sense of it all.  This way, the fellow who wants to understand one philosopher's ideas doesn't have to get entangled in the details of a large book, only to find that he doesn't understand the work and doesn't know how important the ideas in that particular book are to the writer's entire philosophy or whether the thinker ever changed his mind.  I found out in this anthology, for instance, that, after having laid out in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus a systematic philosophy showing that every conceivable state of affairs in the world should have a clear parallel in language, Wittgenstein later rejected the idea.  I've read similar anthologies for Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in recent years, and in each case, I ended up glad I had not read just one of the books excerpted.  I plan to read one for Hegel in 2011.

Like William James, Wittgenstein believed there is in us no will to move, say, an arm apart from actually moving the arm.  Unlike James, he said that we cannot even think without speaking or at least imagining speaking.  (Try it!)  On the other hand, we have feelings, experiences, and interpretations that we cannot communicate in speaking at all.  I don't know if the sky looks the same to you as it does to me; I only know that we both say it looks "blue."  But your blue could be my red, and we could never know it; your saying it doesn't really convey to me the image you get.  Similarly, we do and should help someone who appears in pain, but we can never know if his feeling of pain is the same as ours; no amount or precision of language can ever convey the exact impression.  You can be sure that blue looks like blue to you, but to try to explain it to me, you have only one source to draw on: your experience.  How could you ever check one source for accuracy, Wittgenstein asks.  That would be like looking in the same edition of a newspaper over and over to check the veracity of a story.

In passages on religion and faith, Wittgenstein says that all religious statements are similes, and that we can't find what they are similes for.  This view seems right to me; God's true nature is ineffable.  We say He is everywhere, but we know that as spirit, He does not occupy space (if anything, we should say that space is in Him rather than that He is in space), and that when incarnate, He occupied one particular tiny part of space at any given moment (in a manger, in a tax collector's home, on a cross).  So God is not actually everywhere the way air is all around us, but God is not nowhere, either.  What exactly are we trying to say?  Wittgenstein says that faith is possible in spite of our inability to voice precisely the ideas we believe in, and that these problems only show the limits of language, not the limits of God's existence.

Solomon said that God has placed eternity in our hearts.  Augustine said our hearts are restless until they rest in God.  Pascal said the human heart has a hole in it like a lock and that only Jesus is the perfectly fitting key.  I think Wittgenstein must have seen the soul's restless abyss and asked, "What is that?"

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