Sep 22, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 001

The task of philosophy

I suspect I'm drawn to Wittgenstein for the wrong reasons.

You're supposed to like him, I think, for his epic genius and rigorous logic, his insane claim to have solved all the problems of philosophy, and the tightness and thoroughness of his thinking. A lot of people seem attracted to the challenge of reading the Tractacus, too, which has a kind of cachet, in some circles, as an accoutrement of genius (like Go, or astrophysics), and I'm not insusceptible to that attraction, but that's not really why I keep coming back to Wittgenstein. You're supposed to like him, I think, because there's a feeling, reading Wittgenstein, that when you get this, you will have gotten it, "it" being an answer, an explanation, a full and complete picture of the world.

Even the most discursive bits of Wittgenstein read like a math problem, and you feel, when you're reading, like you're almost on the verge -- if only you can follow, if only you can concentrate -- of a solution.

You're supposed to like him, I think, because he's concise, and because he's cryptic, and has this intense, almost religious drive towards clear logic and thinking.
I've been thinking about it, though, since I went to see the house he built in Vienna, remembering late nights at the Lake House in Hillsdale where three of us played chess and taught ourselves Wittgenstein and talked philosophy and the Tractatus and Investigations all the time, and I think I've been drawn to him and drawn back to him for different reasons.

I like that for Wittgenstein, both early Wittgenstein and later too, philosophy was a struggle, a struggle he frames in moral terms.

I like that for Wittgenstein philosophy was about language.

I like that language is this space where this ongoing ethical struggle takes place.

I like it that, with Wittgenstein, language is something with very high, and very personal stakes.

I've decided to come back to him now, though it's been a few years. I'm going, as a weekly project, to try to read through and translate through a German reader of his work that my wife bought me in Vienna. Part of the point will be to work on my decidedly intermediate German, and I like translating, and I might, too, in the future, try to do some work relating what I think Wittgenstein was doing with this ethico-linguistic struggle and experimental American literature that I find interesting. A lot of the point, though, will just be to allow me to read Wittgenstein again, slowly and carefully, and try to think through his work in a thorough way.

I'll call it "Wittgenstein on Wednesdays," and translate a chunk each week. Starting with Tractacus logico-philosophicus:

Auf Deutsch:
1. Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.
1.1 Die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen, nicht der Dinge.
1.11 Die Welt ist durch die Tatsachen bestimmt und dadurch, dass es alle Tatsachen sind.
1.12 Denn, die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen bestimmt, was der Fall ist und auch, was alles nicht der Fall ist.
1.13 Die Tatsachen im logischen Raum sind die Welt.

1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the entirety of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined through the facts and, because of that, it is everything the facts are.
1.12 For the entirety of facts determine what is the case and also everything that is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

  • "Alles" -- There's a natural tendency to translate as "all," so that, "The world is all that is the case." In English, though, that can be read as a strict materialistic claim, ruling out that which isn't taste-touch-see material, whereas "alles" can also mean the more inclusive "everything" or "anything." In the store, for example, a clerk will say, "Es ist alles?", and that probably shouldn't be translated as the somewhat rude or at least aggressive, "Is this all?", but just as "Is this everything?" It's possible that Wittgenstein's word should be read with a kind of exclusionary force, but I think there's a bit more ambiguity, and it can be understood to be a more inclusive statement, so that it's not designed to eliminate somethings from what we mean when we say "world," but so that "world" means everything it could possibly mean.

  • "Gesamtheit" -- This could and maybe should be translated as "totality," but I want to avoid the philosophical baggage that word has.

  • "Bestimmt" -- I think this is the 3rd person singular verb in both 1.11 and 1.12, but labored for a while under the idea that it was an adjective in 1.11 and a verb in 1.12 (so there was a situation where Wittgenstein was saying something like "the determined facts determine ..." and I couldn't figure out how the adjective, with it's implication of another actor, agency and contingency, made sense: who determined the facts? didn't that mean the facts, thus modified, would be different at different times?). "Bestimmen" also has a lot of different possible meanings. "Ascertain" has a nice epistemological touch. "Fix" might be my favorite, since it would have, here, the idea of stopping the moving world and keeping it in place, like a moth pinned, but it would lend itself to a different (and interestingly off) reading in 1.11 if that was translated as, "The world is fixed by facts ..." "Define" would be interestingly linguistic, here, but seems slightly off, and "bestimmen" can mean "define," but normally "define" would be translated as "definieren," so "define" would likely be a bit of a biased misreading. "Determine" seems to be the most common translation for "bestimmen," and probably works best here.

  • "Die Welt ist durch ..." -- The sentence gave me a lot of trouble. I'm still not sure that this works in English, the way I have it. The first part is pretty clear, up to "und," and then I find it confusing: it seems, though, that there's this idea that the "determining," which I take to be a logical relationship or operation, has an effect on both the facts and the world. With "durch ... und dadurch ...", this sentence is very deft and very careful in the German, and carries this sense of balance that works with the echo of these two words. When translated, though, it loses that equilibrium. It's also possible I've butchered this.

  • "Raum" -- I really like the possible domesticity of this. The implied obsessiveness. It's more of a false friend than an actual translation -- Wittgenstein wouldn't have used "Zimmer" here -- but Wittgenstein, as much as any philosopher, understood his work to have implications for his own life, to be a kind of giant, ethical struggle, and there was more than one situation where he tried, mightily, to live a life of logical rooms.


I think that, in these first lines, there are three struggles going on: a writerly struggle, a logical struggle and a metaphysical struggle.

Wittgenstein, more than any other philosopher I know or can think of, is the master of form. He seems to have a deep sense of form, and to have thought about how it will work and why it's right, and this writing really shows the results of a writer's struggle. It's easy to imagine him counting syllables, measuring the sound of his concise sentences. I love some of the poetic elements in his opening here: the repeated "Die Welt," three times, the central balance with the ballast of the repeated 'durch ... dadurch" and "bestimmt ... bestimmt," and then the turn, with "Denn," and then the reversal, in the last line, so it starts with "Die Tatsachen" and ends with "die Welt." In the opening lines, his writing rings out. And that doesn't just happen.

There is another sense of straining, though, too. The conciseness is in danger, here, of becoming so cryptic as to be unreadable (a concern Wittgenstein is on record very clearly as not caring about), but the logician's struggle here is to write with austere certainty. The attempt is to write axioms that tightly interlock, like a logical syllogism.

The knife's edge of axioms, of course, is always a teetering between non-axiomatic statements that are not self-evident, and tautologies, where self-evidence tumbles into meaninglessness. Here, as Wittgenstein moves from the word to the case, the case to facts, and facts back to the world, this is the challenge. He can't say too much, can't say anything that has to be supported, but, also, he must say enough, so the statements are true in a more than trivial way.

What seems to hold this statements together, to lock the statements into this complex, is the idea that's it's fact, not things, that constitute the world. This, I think, is the really radical statement in the opening of the Tractatus.

I don't know, but wonder if the dismissal of "things" was an attempt to save logic from mathematics, since there was the idea, as I understand it, that mathematical theories should be understood as mathematical objects, which would sublimate logic into a branch of math. There may be a difference here between Wittgenstein and Russell and Frege.

I don't know, but would be interested in finding out how the object-oriented philosophy people understand Wittgenstein, and particularly this line about facts and things, given that it would seem a kind of unusually explicit rejection of their idea.

There is something initially very strange about Wittgenstein's dismissal of things. It's counter-intuitive, not the naive way of seeing the world, and could be understood, I think, as an anti-realist move. If the world is not made up of things, but of facts, then is it the case that, say, an atom of helium with two protons, two neutrons and two electrons is not the world, but the fact that an atom of helium has two protons, two neutrons and two electrons is the world. I take it that we wanted facts, normally, to allow us to know and access and be certain about things, but Wittgenstein steps that back, so what we can (or would want to) know and access is, in fact, facts, which I guess shouldn't be really thought of as "facts about things," anymore. I wonder if this claim doesn't mark a "linguistic turn" for Wittgenstein. At the same time, facts aren't exactly linguistic. They do have an independent reality, the way Wittgenstein things of them, and one must work to accurately access facts. There would seem to be this idea that the facts are there, "out there," that they can be discovered or gotten to. There is a kind of realism, here, though maybe more Platonic than materialistic.

That Plato-like reaching for reality, that belief that one can, if one strains, by force of mind, escape the illusions and the shackled-in-a-cave mis-perceptions, is the third struggle that seems to me to be present even here. I find Wittgenstein surprisingly similar to Aquinas, here, with his belief that one can somehow through philosophy reach a place or an understanding such that all philosophy will seem "as straw," that one can use philosophy to escape philosophy. I think this is what Wittgenstein is up to, in the Tractatus, and it comes across right away in the measured tone, the very careful statements, the scope of the statements, but also their crypticness, as if these are just the crib notes, the barest of an outline of a process of steps he took

From the very beginning of the Wittgenstein corpus, this struggle to get out, to escape. It's personal, for him, and this approach is not just philosophy, but high stakes.