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Remembering Wittgenstein: The Mystic with a Language

Photo: rhystranter.com

By Mir Sajad

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” — Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. He was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna, Austria, to a wealthy family, well-known in scholarly Viennese circles. Wittgenstein had a profound influence not only on language but also on the conversations in logic and metaphysics, ethics, and the way we should live in the world. He is best recognized for two of his published books, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (posthumously 1953). These made a major contribution to twentieth century philosophy of logic and language.

While Einstein, Freud and Heidegger (his contemporaries) came to the age as the enfant terrible fashioning and redefining the thought of human understanding and universe, Wittgenstein joined the league by starting a new wave of doing philosophy centred on ‘the language’. The status of Wittgenstein in the philosophical world remains the same as that of Kurt Godel, his fellow countryman, in Mathematics, who with the same iconoclastic quest literally shook the permanent nature of ‘reason and proofs’ with his “Incompleteness Theorem”. Wittgenstein came to the scene with a similar zeitgeist where language formed the quintessence of ‘essence and existence’ of life, as he would say. Considering language as the “totality of world in facts not as a thing” where every subset and whole relates to the meanings, as Wittgenstein suggests, it is rooted in the human form of life. The basis of any conflict or misunderstanding stems from the communicative failures or undermining the significance of language in our everyday lives. We need language besides other things as we live in ‘public sphere’ – this time in Guattarian post-media epoch where informational convergence happens fast and the semantic fields add on to the conflicts in the world.

Wittgenstein’s mythological view of language as social conduct is a manual for anyone interested in knowing how to communicate effectively within the social formations and interactions. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a well-timed joke can express a world-view. Wittgenstein once remarked that a “serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” In the present times, we can see humour shaping the trajectory of socio-political discourse from Hasan Minhaj to Varun Grover.

Wittgenstein was idiosyncratic in his conducts and way of life, yet extremely acute in his philosophical sensitivity. He was highly regarded as a moral purist: a man who left all the worldly honours that had been conferred on him in order to lead what he called a ‘decent’ life. His humility can be seen in his personal conduct and even in his intellectual thought.

In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein says, “It is by no means how things are.” In this, there appears to be a reflection of pursuit of the ‘supreme truth’ in Wittgenstein’s exegetical and mystical essence as he rivets through the discussion of apocalyptic manifestations and illusions of human progress. Rudolf Carnap recalling his impression of Wittgenstein says, “His perceptive outlook was more like of a creative artist than those of a scientist…his statement stood before us like a newly created piece of art or a divine revelation…as if insight came to him as through a divine inspiration.” Norman Malcolm adds that Wittgenstein’s “way of arriving at a philosophical insight is an analogue of a prophet’s way of arriving at a religious insight.” The literary structure and tone of Wittgenstein’s works are indicative of the Holy Scriptures. Eli Friedlander equates the division of the Tractatus into seven main sections as reminiscent of the seven days in the biblical creation-myth, a work that “opens with the world as such, appearing out of nothing, and . . . ends with the withdrawal and silence of the creator, after all that could be done has been done.”

While describing Wittgenstein, philosopher Bertrand Russell considered him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” To give the readers a sense of how highly Russell regarded Wittgenstein, Russell at one point considered giving up philosophy, thinking he had nothing more to contribute, following a particularly damning critique by Wittgenstein of one of his manuscripts. In 1929, Maynard Keynes in a letter to his wife famously announced Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge by this exhortation: “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.” He was previously at Cambridge before World War I and acquired a godlike status through the publication his first and only book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which became widely recognised as a work of genius by philosophers in both Cambridge and in the Viennesse intellectual circles. Wittgenstein himself was at first convinced that it had definitive solutions to all the problems of philosophical thought, and consequently gave up philosophy in favour of school teaching. With his return to Cambridge he started to think about philosophical problems again, having become convinced that his book did not, in fact, solve them once and for all.

We can see the two sides of Wittgenstein wrestling and seemingly confronting with the limits of logic and ‘language’ and the eternal quintessence of meanings in the mystical realm of ‘language-less’ spaces. There seems an ethereal connection between the metaphysical and the philosophical oeuvres of Wittgenstein which can be gauged from an anecdote in a different context:

After a conversation between a prominent philosopher and mystics (some sources believed they were Ibn Sina and Khwaja Abdallah Ansari, respectively), people asked them what they thought of each other. The mystic said of the philosopher, “He knows what I see,” and the philosopher said of the mystic, “He sees what I know.”

If superimposed on Wittgenstein’s thought, this anecdote encapsulates his thought from Tractus to his last words – “Tell them I have had a wonderful life” – which he said to his sister as living with the reality of ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’.

Tailpiece

In the last moments of his life, he was happy to have an end to his conflicting yet wondrous odyssey to the quest for ‘meaning of everything and being’ as he dwelt in the frontiers of silence. If we were to believe Paul Engelmann one of his close friends, he was always lost in breaking through time-space continuum with his ‘contemplative silences’. Mostly misunderstood, Wittgenstein would always be remembered as the ‘logical seer’ who tried to understand everything that came his way until he was conquered by his own ‘language game’.

Bio:
Mir Sajad is Research Fellow at the University of Kashmir.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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