May 1, 2011

Lost Wittgenstein work found

"It is extremely interesting that very often when people say that science has not yet discovered this or that but if X will have discovered it then..., that they very often don’t know at all what sort of discovery they are waiting for, that they talk of a discovery without knowing of what nature this discovery would be. (For example when people say that one day when psychology will be far enough developed it will make us understand the nature of beauty.)"
-- marginal note in Wittgenstein's handwriting in an as-yet-unpublished work.

New works by Ludwig Wittgenstein -- original manuscripts of more than 150,000 words, which, until now, were unheard of except, at best, as rumour or speculation -- have been discovered and are being edited for publication by Cambridge.

The manuscripts include a revised and expanded version of The Brown Book, dictated lecture notes, a series of thousands of math calculation exploring "Fermat’s Little Theorem" that pysically stretch 20 feet, an unnamed 60-page manuscript, and what may be the rumoured "Yellow Book" or "Pink Book," a narrative with illustrations written in an exercise book during his time in Norway.

The manuscripts date from Wittgenstein's "middle period," and were lost in '41
when Francis Skinner, Wittgenstein's good friend, student and (probably his) lover, died of polio. Skinner was the "in-house partner" and intimate collaborator who transcribed most of the newly-discovered material as Wittgenstein dictated it from a deck chair in the middle of his otherwise-empty British flat. Skinner was uncritically devoted to Wittgenstein -- even giving up academics to become a gardener and then a mechanic in an attempt to conform to the philosopher's ideas -- and the two had vacationed together, and even, at one point, learned Russian together as they made plans to give up philosophy and move to the Soviet Union and work as laborers.

The younger man took ill and died on a bed in the hallway of Cambridge Hospital that October, when the hospital overcrowded with victims of a German bombing attack. Wittgenstein was present when Skinner died, according to the death certificate, and broke down.

He apparently shoved the the in-progress work, some of which looks like it was in preparation for publication, into a box. He mailed it off to another former student. He also attempted to resign his professorship, one of a number attempts he made to give up philosophy entirely. Most of the work he and Skinner had done was lost for six decades.

Arthur Gibson, who has been editing the work for the last three years, believes this newly-discovered "archive shows that unpredicted and new revolutionary matters still await us in Wittgenstein’s philosophy and scientific knowledge that we incorrectly think we already understand."

Wittgenstein, who died 60-years ago Friday, was, according to Gibson, developing and working out the idea, in some of the texts, that
"even within elementary science, future unpredicted identities can emerge from within it that are quite unknown – they are not self-evident. Unfortunately many experts programme themselves as if this is not true. Consequently they block off their own true potential to discover new futures. In effect, Wittgenstein is saying: also look for the unknown in the familiar. We should not indoctrinate ourselves with what is known as if it were imperious authority. More to the point, this archive, as with many of his other writings, shows us to some degree how to achieve new thinking and action.”
Publication of the edited manuscripts is expected within the year, according to The Guardian.