Nov 24, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 009

Young Wittgenstein

The Tractatus is one of the stranger dissertations written.

Even for philosophy, which certainly sees strange dissertations, the Tractatus is unique. For one thing, it wasn't mainly written in the course of Wittgenstein's studies with Frege or Russell or G.E. Moore. He started it by himself, writing it alone, on the front during World War I and then as a prisoner of war. It was begun in isolation and is a strangly, markedly isolated work. Most works of philosophy are in conversation with other works -- footnotes to Plato, responses to Kant, and so on -- but the Tractatus is, in contrast, really a text without context. Wittgenstein says, in his introduction, he doesn't even know how or if it relates to other philosophy. Where normally a work, and esp. a dissertation, is in a conversation, the Tractatus is encased in isolation.

It's not directed to anyone. There's this sense the text is talking to itself, talking to the wall.

This sense -- a strange sense, an am-I-crazy?, are-you? sense -- is reinforced by an anecdote about Wittgenstein's PhD examination. When Moore and Russell said they didn't understand a sentence, Wittgenstein reportedly replied "I know you'll never understand," or, alternatively, "I don't expect you to understand."

He says more or less the same thing to the reader in the introduction: This book is probably not for you. "This book," he says, "will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it -- or similar thoughts. It is therefor not a textbook." It's a moment of disinvitation, right at the start.

If it's not for the reader, though, and not for Moore and Russell or even Frege, and it's not directed to Plato or Kant or to philosophy as a whole, we have to ask, who is the Tractatus for?

Wittgenstein comes off arrogant. He comes off as uncaring, austere, and ascetic, in both the good way and the bad. This early Wittgenstein comes off as ... an affront.

This lack of understanding and aggressive-but-nonchalant offensiveness was noted, this week, when Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge, casually suggested on the New York Times' philosophy blog that Wittgenstein was "not unlike someone with Asperger’s." This is probably true, and he might have even been a bit autistic, though one has to be careful, because retrospective, armchair diagnoses tend to lead to stupid analyses.

There is, though, a lack of understanding of others, in Wittgenstein. There's a lack of compassion and the sort of normal, social interaction one expects of a person and of a philosophical text. The Tractatus can be and often is read this way: as hard and harsh, an act of blinding logic, extrodinarily austere.

It can be read another way, though. It's possible to answer the question, who is the Tractatus for, by saying, it's for Wittgenstein himself. That is, that it's therapeutic. It's aimed not at proposing a new or different system -- not really -- and not at responding to or criticizing or discoursing with others and other texts, but at solving some problems, specifically his own.

It's not for you, he's saying, unless you have this problem I have too.

I am moving here, with this translation project, with this inverted reading I'm doing, towards a new and rather unorthodox reading of "early" Wittgenstein. I'm finding myself shifting kind of unexpectedly towards a position promoted by the "New Wittgenstein" school, which says that his early work and latter work are alike in more important ways than they're dissimilar, and alike in that they're meant to be therapeutic.

Even with his seemingly brusque introduction, Wittgenstein does come close to saying that what he's trying to do is deal with a problem -- the problem "that the method of formulating these problems rests on the misunderstanding of the logic of our language" -- and suggests that, at least in some ways, the Tractatus is directed towards himself, not in an arrogant attempt to set everyone else straight, but as a sort of self-correction. His notes, right there where he says the book is not for you, that he worries his own powers "are insufficient to cope with the task."

It can be read, it seems, as an exercise of Wittgenstein's to fix himself, that is, his way of thinking. It's possible he meant it as an indictment of all us idiots, but maybe not. He wrote it, after all, in the sunken-cheek prisons of WWI. Maybe he was trying, with this text and this thinking, to do self-therapy, to make himself better.

Auf Deutsch:
2.17 Was das Bild mit der Wirklichkeit gemein haben muß, um sie auf seine Art und Weise -- richtig oder falsch -- abbilden zu können, ist seine Form der Abbildung.
2.171 Das Bild kann jede Wirklichkeit abbilden, deren Form es hat.
Das räumliche Bild alles Räumliche, das farbige alles Farbige, etc.
2.172 Seine From der Abbildung aber kann das Bild nicht abbilden; es weist sie auf.
2.173 Das Bild stellet sein Objekt von außerhalb dar (sein Standpunkt ist seine From der Darstellung), darum stellt das Bild sein Objekt von richtig oder falsch dar.
2.174 Das Bild kann sich aber nicht außerhalb seiner Form der Darstellung stellen.
2.18 Was jedes Bild, welcher Form immer, mit the Wirklichkeit gemein haben muß, um sie überhaupt -- richtig oder falsch -- abbilden zu können, ist die logische Form, das ist, die Form der Wirklichkeit.
2.181 Ist die Form der Abbildung die logische Form, so heißt das Bild das logische Bild.
2.182 Jedes Bild ist auch ein logisches. (Dagegen ist z.B. nicht jedes Bild ein räumliches.)
2.19 Das logische Bild kann die Welt abbilden.

2.17 What the picture must have in common with the reality, to be able to picture it in manner and measure -- true or false -- is the shape of the representation.
2.171 The picture can picture every reality whose shape it has.
The spatial picture everything spatial, the colored everything colored, etc.
2.172 The picture, however, cannot picture its form of representation; it shows it.
2.173 The picture presents its object from outside (its standpoint is its shape of presentation), that is why the picture presents its object true or false.
2.174 The picture however cannot place itself outside of its shape of presentation.
2.18 What every picture, of whatever shape, must have in common with reality, to be able to picture it at all -- true or false -- is the logical shape, that is, the shape of reality.
2.181 The actual shape of the representation is the logical shape, thus the picture is called a logical picture.
2.182 Every picture is also a logical picture. (In contrast, e.g., not every picture is spacial).
2.19 The logical picture can picture the world.


  • Darstellen -- I've gone with "to present" and "presentation" for my translation of this word, but only because that seems like the mildest option. The possible translations stretch from "to make" to "to mark," from "to demonstrate or illustrate" to "to pose," and there's also "to constitute," "execute" and "exhibit." When in doubt, I try to choose a word that a) describes a kind of static state, a relationship that merely exists, and doesn't require and actor, and b) dosen't make the one thing the creator or progenitor of the other unless it's clear that that's what's happening in the text.
  • außerhalb -- Ogden translate this as "without." says that's archaic and poetic, and suggests "outside," "outlying" and "beyond." I'm not sure that "without" and "outside" are that different, but have opted for the commonest English word.
  • Abbildung -- Given that I've translated the verb "abbilden" as "to picture," I should probably make this another form of that word. That breaks down, though, in that it makes some sentences really strange, with too many forms of the word "picture" to be legible without some real parsing, and in that the gerund ended up being really ugly in places, and not really getting at the idea here. I'm translating "abbilden" as the verb form of "picture," and "Abbildung" as "representation." Not entirely happy with that, but that's how it stands now.
  • überhaupt -- This seems to be used, by Wittgenstein, the way I would use (or overuse) "acutally." It's for emphasis. It's a trickily vague word, though, as it can also mean "even" or "at all," and, broken down into "uber" and "haupt," would seem to mean "overhead." I keep having to mentally correct this false friend mistake.
  • z.B -- The abbreviation for "zum beispeil," which we translate as "for example" or, as an abbreviation, with the Latin, "e.g." Literally, though, in means something "to play with it," which I think is a fantastically Wittgensteinian turn of phrase.