Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He is considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, and yet, many people have never heard of him. I first came across him when I was starting my Art Degree in 1980. I immediately identified with his thinking and wrote down several notes and quotations in my sketchbook. (Unfortunately, the sketchbook was later destroyed in a garage flood, along with my collection of quotes from Frank Herbert’s 1965 book, ‘Dune’.)
“Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
As a point of my own interest, from 1929 to 1947, Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge, UK.
Wikipedia mentions that “his philosophy is often divided into an early period, exemplified by the Tractatus, and a later period, articulated primarily in the Philosophical Investigations. The “early Wittgenstein” was concerned with the logical relationship between propositions and the world, and he believed that by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship, he had solved all philosophical problems. The ‘later Wittgenstein’, however, rejected many of the assumptions of the Tractatus, arguing that the meaning of words is best understood as their use within a given language game.”
Wittgenstein’s language-game is a philosophical concept developed by him, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven. Wittgenstein argued that a word, or even a sentence, has meaning only as a result of the “rule” of the “game” being played. Depending on the context, for example, the utterance “Water” could be an order, the answer to a question, or some other form of communication. Indeed, in contemporary society, we put much value on the interpretation of words and the ‘intent’ behind them – for example when making potentially racist comments. It has often been this intent, that has led to violence in our societies. Also, the way we teach children to read, specifically in the UK, with Phonics, makes little sense with words that can be written with the same or different spelling, but given different meaning, even when spoken out of context. For example, ‘no’ and ‘know’. Without additional clues of context, or particular vocal intonation, words are somewhat meaningless. We also have ‘self-talk’ – those words we say to ourselves. The meaning we give to words empowers them to affect us in varying ways and degrees. Sometimes, not understanding another language can be helpful, as we do not know if someone is saying something that might offend, or otherwise upset, us.
Although Wittgenstein leaned in the direction of philosophical argument, he nevertheless touched on metaphysical notions beyond the factual logic he often mentioned. He recognised the absurdity of people’s beliefs, individually and collectively. One example being:
“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.”
Westerners have for some time, lived in a world of distraction, through reward and punishment, giving little room in the day for personal and original thought. Wittgenstein stated that: “An inner process stands in need of outward criteria.” I might interpret this to mean that before one has a thought about something, they must be affected by an external trigger. However, I would say that ‘an inner process can actually produce the external trigger as physical feedback to the internal process.’
Wittgenstein also had a playful sense of humour and said:
“If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.”
Many great scientists, from Albert Einstein to Richard Feynman, have also recognised the importance of fun in discovery and playfulness like a child.
Furthermore, a demand for clarity is called for and rather like Einstein’s often cited quote:
“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
And from Feynman:
“If you can’t teach something to a 6-year-old, that means you don’t really understand it.” – from his book: ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman’
Wittgenstein offers this:
“What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”
But perhaps most importantly, Wittgenstein realised with this statement, that: “Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.” because you have to implement your beliefs and experiment with them; incorporate your unfolding understanding into your daily life and existence. This is why he later disagreed with some of his own earlier writings – because he evolved further with his inner understanding. And perhaps with this next statement, he became tired of people who professed understanding for which he recognised they had very little:
“It seems to me that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed ‘Wisdom.’ And then I know exactly what is going to follow: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’.”
Indeed, it is most often true that we can get excited about new-found knowledge and only scrape its surface before sharing with others, or setting up a business around a basic understanding. But going deeper, peeling layers like an onion, we realise so much more, and so much complexity, beyond our human comprehension.
I’ve often expressed to the effect of: “If I drop a bunch of keys on the table, they land perfectly; in alignment with universal natural laws and principles. It doesn’t matter whether or not I know the truth of their final resting place – it is perfectly correct in relation to everything else in the universe.” And if that doesn’t fill you with awe, I don’t know what will!