Nothing contrasts with the form of the world.

22 February 2011


To continue with the Wittgensteinian theme of yesterday’s guest post from William Lyons (A Play about Wittgenstein), the author of the soon-to-be-produced play about Wittgenstein, The Crooked Roads, I’d like to consider Wittgenstein’s transitional period. Scholars of Wittgenstein distinguish between the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations and the ordinary language philosophy that this book spawned. Between these two periods concerned, respectively, with the formal character of language and the informal character of language, Wittgenstein wrote much and published nothing.

Almost everyone has heard, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen”) from the Tractatus, and probably most have heard, “Back to the rough ground!” and, “Nothing is hidden” from the later Wittgenstein (although I note that neither of these examples appear on the Wittgenstein page of Wikiquote).

Wittgenstein was no less aphoristic during his transitional period, and his posthumously published works that fell between the Tractatus and the early drafts of the Philosophical InvestigationsPhilosophical Remarks, Philosophical Grammar — are a rich source of ideas. While Wittgenstein had a program and a method when he wrote the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, during his transitional period he was groping for answers. His former thought had come to seem inadequate to him, and he had not yet arrived at the ordinary language method that he employed in his later period. I find the tentative and exploratory character of the transitional works to be quite congenial.

There is one line from the Philosophical Remarks that has haunted me for years, and I don’t think that this has achieved the recognition it deserves. In fact, I have never heard anyone quote, and I have never seen anyone cite, this line: “Nothing contrasts with the form of the world.” I stumbled upon this not long after acquiring my copy of Philosophical Remarks, and I have remembered it and thought about it time and again over the years, much as I continue to think about the line attributed to Valery, too see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.

Like much in Wittgenstein it sounds more like a Zen koan than an aphorism of Western philosophy. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What contrasts with the form of the world? This is more a locus of meditation than an answer to a question.

Here’s the quote from Wittgenstein with some context:

“That it doesn’t strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, etc., etc., shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn’t strike us and can never strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought, and it’s impossible we should since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. 80, section 47

This observation is not so distant from another quote from Wittgenstein that I previously mentioned in my second reflection on the Paul Valéry line above, in Of Seeing and Forgetting…

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

One can feel Wittgenstein struggling toward the ordinary world in these quotes, as though it were difficult to grasp. And perhaps it was difficult for Wittgenstein to grasp the ordinary world in which we walk up and down and feel our own bodies. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard wrote this about the relationship of the wise man to simplicity:

“…is it not the case that what is most difficult of all for the wise man to understand, is precisely the simple? The plain man understands the simple directly, when when the wise man sets himself to understand it, it becomes infinitely difficult. Is this an indignity visited upon the wise man that his person is so emphasized that the simplest things become the most difficult things, because it is he who is concerned with them? By no means. When a servant-girl weds a day-laborer everything passes off quietly, but when a king weds a princess it becomes an event. Is it derogatory to the king to say this about him?”

Like much that Kierkegaard wrote, this passage has a beautifully poetic quality to it, and even a fairy tale quality to it also. If Hans Christian Anderson had written philosophy it would have sounded like this.

After Wittgenstein heroically struggled toward an understanding of simplicity, he ultimately institutionalized that understanding in a new philosophical method that placed a ordinary language describing an ordinary world at the center. Yet I still find some value in the struggle itself, before any answers have been formulated, and for serious thinkers the struggle is never finished.

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