Friday


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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Friday


One of the many famous aphorisms that have been plucked out of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt” section 5.6). Like much in the Tractatus, this gnomic aphorism invites interpretation and can never be exhausted.

One way to construe this Wittgensteinism very broadly would be to think of it as the limits of my idiom are the limits of my world, with “idiom” construed broadly to include any way of talking about the world, and not merely a particular language. If you’re of a continental persuasion, you could say the limits of my discourse are the limits of my world. It amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Particular theories about the world are idioms for talking about the world, forms of discourse, if you will. Scientific theories are scientific idioms for talking about the world. Now, scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.

The limitations we take upon ourselves by thinking in terms of particular theories or speaking in particular ways are human limits that we have chosen for ourselves; they are not intrinsic limitations imposed upon us by the world, and this, of course, is something that Wittgenstein wanted to bring to our explicit attention.

We very frequently mistake the idioms we employ, and the particular ways in which we understand these idioms, to constitute the very fabric of the world. When in this frame of mind we make claims for our theories that are not supported by the theories themselves, but rather reflect our particular, limited understanding of very difficult matters. This has been the case with the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, both of which are very young sciences, but which now dominate physics. Because of the dominant position of these theories, and of particular interpretations of these theories, we forget how young they are, and how far we have to go in really coming to an adequate understanding of them.

Our inadequate understanding of quantum theory, in particular, has been glossed so many times by physicists seeking to give a popular account of quantum theory that one might be forgiven for supposing that quantum theory is a form of mysticism rather than of science. (For example: “For those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” Niels Bohr) It is inevitable that, as our understanding of the world gradually and incrementally improves, much in quantum theory that now seems inscrutable will eventually make sense to us, rather than the theory being a mere systematization of a mystery.

A recent paper in Science by Sacha Kocsis, Boris Braverman, Sylvain Ravets, Martin J. Stevens, Richard P. Mirin, L. Krister Shalm, and Aephraim M. Steinberg, Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer, points to new ways of thinking and talking about quantum theory. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“A consequence of the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle is that one may not discuss the path or “trajectory” that a quantum particle takes, because any measurement of position irrevocably disturbs the momentum, and vice versa. Using weak measurements, however, it is possible to operationally define a set of trajectories for an ensemble of quantum particles. We sent single photons emitted by a quantum dot through a double-slit interferometer and reconstructed these trajectories by performing a weak measurement of the photon momentum, postselected according to the result of a strong measurement of photon position in a series of planes. The results provide an observationally grounded description of the propagation of subensembles of quantum particles in a two-slit interferometer.”

There is a good article by Jason Palmer of the BBC, Quantum mechanics rule ‘bent’ in classic experiment, about the paper and its ramifications. Palmer writes that researchers, “say the feat ‘pulls back the veil’ on quantum reality in a way that was thought to be prohibited by theory.” If one wanted to go seeking headlines, one could say something dramatic like “Scientists break the laws of quantum physics” — you get the idea.

But what has been thought to be prohibited is in large measure a limitation upon the current language of quantum theory and, to a certain extent, an artifact of particular experiments. As more sophisticated experiments are conceived and conducted, we may someday know quite a bit more about quantum theory than has been thought possible to date.

In Palmer’s BBC story there is an excellent quote from Marlan Scully of Texas A&M University:

“The trouble with quantum mechanics is that while we’ve learned to calculate the outcomes of all sorts of experiments, we’ve lost much of our ability to describe what is really happening in any natural language.”

“I think that this has really hampered our ability to make progress, to come up with new ideas and see intuitively how new systems ought to behave.”

Progress in understanding quantum theory will, as implied by Scully, ultimately take the form of being able to discuss it in natural language and to formulate the theory in an intuitively perspicuous manner. We do not yet have the language or the concepts to do this, but each advance like the recent results reported in Science bring us a little closer, chipping away at the limits of our language that currently constitute the limits on our world.

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Since writing the above I have learned that the method used in the experiment described is called “weak measurement” (as mentioned in the abstract quoted above) and has been employed in other recent experiments (as well as having been criticized quite harshly). I have written further on weak measurement in some comments on the paper Observation of a quantum Cheshire Cat in a matter-wave interferometer experiment.

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Wednesday


Last night I watched The Jane Austen Reading Club on DVD. As a film, there certainly isn’t much to recommend it. Most the characters are two-dimensional and uninteresting. There are a few good lines of dialogue here and there, but not enough to rescue this effort. Nevertheless, watching these scripted book “discussions” among the protagonists, a small circle of devoted Jane Austen readers, made me think of the origins of the Vienna Circle, which we could as well call The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club.

The Vienna Circle began as a reading club, essentially, and the book they were reading was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the great philosophical works of the twentieth century. At once compressed and fragmented, studied and capricious, it is like a philosophical version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In short, the Tractatus was a work to be reckoned with, and the Vienna Circle reckoned as best they could. Members of the circle read other books as well, but it was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus that was the game-changer, and Wittgenstein only published this single work during his lifetime (though he wrote much more that was posthumously published), so the Vienna Circle couldn’t choose from among a body of work (like the six Austen novels that members of the book club in the film could distribute to appropriate individuals).

Wittgenstein, on the left, wrote one of the masterpieces of twentieth century philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Just as the members of the Jane Austen Book Club disagreed with each other and had interpretations of Austen that probably would have shocked if not saddened the author, so too the members of the Vienna Circle had interpretations of Wittgenstein that would have probably enraged Wittgenstein — and I say “enraged” in the light of many testimonials regarding his character by those who knew him well. While the Tractatus has much in it that would have appealed directly to the founders of logical positivism, there is much in the Tractatus that would have been utterly opaque to them. It is almost amusing to imagine Carnap, Neurath, and Waismann trying to elucidate the visionary and mystical sections of the book.

Wittgenstein was, by all accounts, a difficult character. There is a lot of biographical material that has been published, and it is worth reading. He was also a difficult author. It is incomprehensible to try to imagine Wittgenstein on the contemporary talk show circuit discussing the Tractatus (as amusing as the image above of Carnap discussing Wittgenstein’s mysticism). Members of the Vienna Circle tried to persuade Wittgenstein to join in discussions, mostly to no effect. Wittgenstein at one point isolated himself in the Austrian village of Trattenbach, worked as a village schoolmaster, wrote despairing letters to Bertrand Russell, and was eventually visited by Frank Ramsey, who made the pilgrimage to Trattenbach in order to discuss the Tractatus with Wittgenstein line-by-line. By that time Wittgenstein had forgotten a good deal of the context of his ideas while writing the Tractatus, and frequently had to tell the doomed Ramsey (who died young in a mountain climbing accident) that he didn’t know what he meant by a given line in the text.

Wittgenstein's philosophical manifesto: brevity is the soul of ratiocination.

When Wittgenstein returned to the world after his self-imposed exile in Trattenbach, some philosophical friends persuaded him to come to Vienna to hear a couple of lectures by Brouwer, the founder of intuitionism (one of the influential philosophies of mathematics of the period). The lectures left an impression on Wittgenstein, and the careful reader can discern Brouwer’s influence in the later Wittgenstein. Brouwer, too, was reputedly a difficult man; it seems appropriate that, among Wittgenstein’s very few influences, Brouwer should be among their number.

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An exercise in self-declaration

Since I started with Sartre yesterday (in Disappearing Act), it is appropriate, in a sense, that I continue with Sartre. In his influential essay, “What is Writing?” Sartre wrote:

If a writer has chosen to remain silent on any aspect whatever of the world, or, according to an expression which says just what it means, to pass over it in silence, one has the right to ask: “Why have you spoken of this rather than that, and — since you speak in order to bring about change — why do you want to change this rather than that?”

This is vintage Sartre: unforgiving, demanding, and totalizing. For the last reason — its totalizing pretensions — I cannot wholeheartedly agree. Nevertheless, even if my agreement falls short of totality, I recognize the imperative embodied in the words.

This little passage is quite pregnant with implicit references. Did Sartre ever read Wittgenstein? It is hard to imagine, but he may have been referring to Wittgenstein when he speaks of “passing over in silence”, as this is exactly what Wittgenstein recommends in the last sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” (“Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss mann schweigen.”) Wittgenstein, too, offers an imperative.

No writer can say everything, or address every question posed by his public pronouncements. Similarly, one does not always want to effect a change in choosing to write about anything. To imagine that one only speaks in order to effect a change is to already have placed oneself in the attitude of an institution, in virtue of the avoidance of which, as we mentioned yesterday, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize: “I, Sartre the Institution, have said it, therefore let it be done.” This is what Sartre took pains to avoid, but in fact could not avoid.

But now my reader (if I have any readers) have the right to ask me why I am going on about this anyway. For this reason: yesterday, in a caption of a picture of Heidegger, I asked the rhetorical question: “And what are we to make of Heidegger? Was he a mere apologist for the Nazis, as Hegel was taken to be an apologist for Prussianism? Can the philosopher be salvaged from the ruin of the man, as one book recently asked?”

I think that if we interpret Sartre sympathetically, and do not insist on attaining an impossible totality of expression regarding any aspect whatever of the world, that he meant leading, rhetorical questions such as I asked above constitute a form of bad faith (mauvaise foi)… words lying there like inert objects that pretend not to act even while in not acting they act.

The written word is a two way street. The writer writes, and the reader reads. If the reader’s reading leaves him dissatisfied, he certainly has the right, if not the duty, to interrogate the writer. Thus the writer responds, and writers again, and the reader reads again. This does not give us the totality of the world in prose, but it does give an account of the demands of the public sphere.

So let me declare myself on Heidegger: can Heidegger the philosopher be rescued from the ruin of the man? Yes. That is the short answer. The longer answer is that, while I despise Heidegger’s writing style, which strikes me as unforgivably obscurantist, there are some valuable ideas hidden among the verbiage, like sapphires in the mud. The long answer must also honestly acknowledge that the content of Heidegger’s thought is intimately related to what initially drew him to Nazism, or least to what he believed Nazism represented in the spring of 1933 when he joined the Nazi party to the spring of 1934 when he resigned his rectorship. Heidegger’s Nazism wasn’t a “mistake” on his part; he quite earnestly believed that the movement did not live up to its promise, and it was that promise to which Heidegger remained committed.

There is a considerable Heidegger industry that cranks out commentaries and publications in numbers apparently calculated to pad academic CVs, and because of the Heidegger controversy there is also a virtual sub-industry of books on Heidegger and Nazism. There are philosophers who think that Heidegger is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and others who won’t mention his name. This Heidegger industry has turned both Heidegger the man and Heidegger the philosopher into an institution of no mean order.

I guess there is a sense in which my attitude to philosophy is utilitarian, as I will use ideas from any source whatsoever, be it Heidegger or Sartre, Gobineau or Valery, Croce or Marx — all deeply compromised men, but all with something of value to say. Sartre himself is supposed to have said, “Valery is a fascist, but not all fascists are Valery.” I don’t think that Sartre would have argued that great poetry excuses fascism, but the least that can be said is that he clearly sees the dilemma.

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