Contextualizing Wittgenstein

9 January 2015


The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1905.

The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1905.

This past December a link to my 2011 post The limits of my language are the limits of my world was posted on a Reddit philosophy discussion forum. I have never paid any attention to Reddit, but I guess it gets a lot of traffic, since as a result of this link I received a peak number of 12,749 hits on 22 December 2014 — most of them from Reddit, but also a substantial number from Hackernews, which had apparently re-posted the link. This is the greatest number of hits that any of my individual posts have received.

The spike in traffic encouraged me to look at my old post again, and think about what I had said in it. My past effort left much to be desired, and as a result of all the traffic I did receive one perceptive comment on the post itself (apart from all those comments on the Reddit page, where I am not registered so could not respond), and this also gave me reason to think it over again.

In retrospect what bothers me the most (but which was not a focus of any of the comments) is that I had taken this popular Wittgenstein quote out of context and discussed it without systematically relating it to the corpus of Wittgenstein’s thought from which it drawn. In defense of my former self, I can say that it was merely a blog post, and pretty much written off the top of my head. It would take a book-length study, or several book-length studies, to adequately contextualize the Wittgenstein quote that I had plucked out as an aphorism and to give it a proper textual exegesis. But my scholarly conscience bothers me a bit, as my conscience has also been bothering me about a post I wrote about a line plucked out of Einstein in Unpacking an Einstein Aphorism. I don’t repudiate what I wrote in that post, any more than I repudiate what I wrote in my brief post on Wittgenstein, but I do intend to return to this Einstein passage and write about it again in proper context.

The aphorisms taken out of the Tractatus must be understood in the context of the work from which they are taken, and the work itself much be understood in the context of the Wittgenstein’s thought — no small task, especially given the sheer volume of Wittgenstein scholarship. In the case of the Tractatus we are quite fortunate to possess two closely related posthumously published texts by Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, edited by G.H. Von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, as well as Prototractatus: An Early Version of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, edited by B.F. McGuinness, T. Nyberg, and G.H. Von Wright. Both of these works generously overlap with the completed text of the Tractatus and provide material not included in the published text. In addition, there are numerous personal letters between Wittgenstein, his philosophical friends, publishers, and translators, and a commentary tradition starting with Russell’s introduction written for the first English language edition and continuing up to the present day. I myself own at least a dozen commentaries on the Tractatus alone (excluding works on Wittgenstein himself or on his later work). That is a lot of context to grind one’s way through.

Some of the confusion surrounding aphorisms attributed to Wittgenstein is understandable because Wittgenstein did write some aphorisms (many of them collected in the posthumously published Culture and Value). However, the sections of the Tractatus that have been taken out of context and used as aphorisms are not aphorisms, but rather sections of a treatise that was composed in aphoristic style. This may sound like an overly-subtle distinction, but it is a distinction that makes a difference. An aphorism is intended to stand on its own; a work composed in aphoristic style is intended to be read and understood as a whole.

Wittgenstein shares this confusing character of his style with the writings of other philosophers who composed works in aphoristic form, notably Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Walter Kaufmann, the noted Nietzsche scholar, often went out of his way to point out that Nietzsche’s aphorisms are part of books and are intended to be read as part of a text that develops an idea throughout. I think part of my scholarly conscience grows out of reading so much of Kaufmann at an early age. When Kaufmann wrote about Nietzsche the latter was still a highly controversial figure, so Kaufmann was at pains to be on his best scholarly behavior. I think that it was also Kaufmann who said that Nietzsche often wrote too well for his own good, as he is often attacked for passages that he was not himself defending, but which he formulated so concisely that his phraseology was taken as a kind of advocacy. The same might be said of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

Kierkegaard, of whom I just wrote in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor, takes this confusion of the aphorism taken from an aphoristic work to a higher level by publishing pseudonymous works written in aphoristic style, so that any “aphorism” attributed to Kierkegaard may be be a single sentence plucked from a longer work which moreover is written under a pseudonym. Does this “aphorism” represent Kierkegaard’s views? The question is as fraught as how much of Plato’s Socrates represents the views of the historical Socrates.

Given the volume of scholarship available on a figure like Wittgenstein, is it even possible to write something like a blog post without entirely misrepresenting one’s source? In other words, is it possible to blog with intellectual integrity? A lot of my early blog posts were written off the top of my head, often from memory without bothering to consult an actual text. That seemed sufficient at the time. None of these posts would stand up to serious critical scrutiny. Since then, my posts have become longer, better researched, and much less frequent. With blog posts like this, one is likely to lose all but the most dedicated readers, but in the event that a post should receive unexpected attention (like my Wittgenstein post that was linked on Reddit), it would stand up a little better to critical scrutiny.

Aware of this, I started my second blog, Grand Strategy Annex, but this, too, has grown into something more serious and I hesitate even there to post poorly thought-out ideas — though I am still guilty of this on occasion (especially with my recent post on gray goo).

A lot of what I put in my early blog posts consisted of ideas to which I attached no great importance. My first post on civilization, for example — Today’s Thought on Civilization — was something I wrote because it wasn’t one of the ideas I was working on in my manuscripts, hence of no great importance. However, that post led to further posts, and now I have a significant tranche of posts on civilization. I also have a much clearer idea of civilization than I had six years ago, and the philosophy of civilization now constitutes a central research interest of mine. Most of what I think about civilization now goes on my blogs, with no thought of “saving” it for a manuscript because I consider it too important for a mere blog post. So my own attitude to my own writing has changed over the time I’ve been blogging on strategy, civilization, and philosophy.

In any case, I now hope to return to my post on The limits of my language are the limits of my world and to give this idea an exposition that does not treat this passage from the Tractatus like an aphorism, which it is not. Skimming though a number of Wittgenstein’s works and commentaries over the past new days I already have a idea of how I will do this, but it will take me some time to get to it. And it would take more time yet to then take the consequences of an inquiry into Wittgenstein and apply it to the interpretation of quantum theory, which was what I did my my original post. To do justice to that idea would definitely require a work of some scope. But I am not entirely ready to give up my intellectually opportunistic ways, seizing upon any idea that strikes me as interesting at the moment and writing about whatever seems related to it.

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In this picture you can clearly see the spike in my stats generated by the Reddit link to my post on Wittgenstein. You can also see that the best day ever was 12,749, which was the second day of the spike in traffic.

In this picture you can clearly see the spike in my stats generated by the Reddit link to my post on Wittgenstein. You can also see that the best day ever was 12,749, which was the second day of the spike in traffic.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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