Wittgenstein: Philosophy’s “Avalanche”

wittgenstein

So up next on the ol’ Self-Doctorate Reading List:  Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow.  It’s a book about Wittgenstein and Karl Popper and their divergent approach to philosophy in the 20th century.

I discovered author Dave Edmonds via iTunes.  He’s not a rockstar– well, maybe in the philosophical community; he does a podcast called “Philosophy Bites” that I highly recommend, one of my personal favorite top 20 podcasts, though I feel it’s in that state of diminishing returns at this point, several years into their run.  By the way, another exceptional philosophical podcast is History Of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) by Peter Adamson.

“People often say that all philosophy is just a footnote to Plato, but they should add, until Wittgenstein.”  So said Wasfi Hajib, a man who knew Ludwig Wittgenstein personally.

Though Wittgenstein today enjoys a vogue that often finds modern philosophers placing him in the top five philosophers of all freakin’ time (!), I, personally, have never been much enthralled by his approach.  Wittgenstein, as much as anyone, has shifted the philosophy of the last seventy years or so away from the ponderous topics that it heroically pursued for twenty-five hundred years (the nature of reality, the meaning of existence, the ethical life, etc) and toward the isolated lake of esotericism in which it now paddle-boats around.  Modern philosophy has become a sort of contemplative boutique, perversely specializing in the fetish item of language.

Not the place one might have thought philosophy would have been dragged by the hair by the man described by Bertrand Russell, the 20th century’s Dick Clark of pop philosophy, as someone whose “avalanches” of thought “make mine seem mere snowballs.”  One look at a photograph of Wittgenstein (see above), and you can feel the fire of those manic eyes blazing at you across the decades; it is a stare possessed only by passionate zealots (see John Brown) or world class charlatans (see Rasputin).

Wittgenstein has been called a man “whose life was consumed with a passion for inquiry” (John Vinelott).  He hit the contemplative world with the force of a hurricane from hell, and in his wake left a changed philosophical landscape.

Wittgenstein only published one book in his lifetime (you wouldn’t know that now, with all the collections of his posthumous works packaged and repackaged and lining the bookshelves).  The book is called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  You don’t want to read it.  His later stuff is better (more on that in a future post).

Wittgenstein stated after the completion of the book, somewhat matter-of-factly, that he had now solved all the problems of philosophy; there was nothing left to do– a claim I find a little extreme for a book comprised of a patchwork of numbered sentences grouped in sections organized, apparently, along the lines of a game of fifty-two card pick-up.  The New York Times in their obituary of Wittgenstein generously called the Tractatus a “logical poem”—and something about it does remind me of a particularly long and atrocious Ezra Pound cantos.

I guess calling something a poem is a nice way of saying that the thing makes no sense as a whole, but has several snappy phrases.  In a related anecdote, Wittgenstein is supposed to have patted his examiners on their backs after his defense of his doctoral thesis and said with patronizing reassurance, “Don’t worry.  I know you’ll never understand it.”  You know, maybe as a dimwit myself, I underestimate the genius mind, but as far as I’m concerned, if I ever have a friend who writes a book that not even the specialists in his field can make sense of— I’d advise the consideration a second draft   :/

By the way, here’s how you can impress your philosophy professor friends (and I assume that if you have a friend who is a philosopher that he or she is a teacher since, really, what else are they going to do but continue propagating their clan through the least virile means:  the tenured professorship?):  since no one except philosophy professors actually reads the Tractatus, most educated people content themselves with knowing the famous first and last lines of the book, which are:

First Line:  “The world is all that is the case.”

Last Line:  “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”

And by the way, it irks me that Wittgenstein gets credit for this last line, because Buddha said it before him a few millennia ago.

Wow.  Okay.  That’s the post today.  Sadly, it’s all mere prologue, but I’m out of time.  Maybe tomorrow I can write the actual entry I sat down to write.  This has happened to me a few times.  Maybe that’s the nature of the bloggy beast (?).

More from Hammering Shield on Wittgenstein:

How Wittgenstein Ruined Philosophy

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