Tuesday, November 27, 2012

All propositions of our colloquial language are actually, just as they are, logically completely in order

I’ve been reading Pascal’s Pensees and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to prepare for a scene I’m going to write in my work-in-progress novella Mona in the Desert. The idea was that I’d just skim through this stuff (I read Pascal long ago and had a sort of vague idea of Wittgenstein’s “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we ought be silent” statement regarding mysticism) and basically pull out lines to put into my characters’ mouths and I'd build a meaningful dialogue and scene around it all. There would be quoted stuff about language and truth and then I’d work my way around to Pascal’s Wager, which will turn out to be important to the story later on. The usual sort of shallow research, in other words. The problem I’m having is that Pascal and Wittgenstein were fascinating guys and I’ve been losing myself (and spending a great deal of time) actually reading the boys, not just trolling for bits of dialogue I can refashion in my own narrative’s image. The end result (or the middle result, I guess, as I’m not done with my reading yet) is that I’ve been having a sort of argument with Wittgenstein the last few days. Last night I took Mighty Reader’s suggestion to read the entry on Wittgenstein in her Encyclopedia of Philosophy (eight volumes! fifty pounds! ten-thousand pages!) to get an overview of the Tractatus before I gave myself a bigger headache attempting to make sense of it on my own.

The EoP entry begins with a biography of Wittgenstein, and gosh was he crazy. Filthy rich, educated in math and engineering but lacking—it seems—a grounding in classical literature (remember that), a good clarinet player and very good sight reader, philanthropist (he made anonymous cash gifts to Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl), school teacher (I pity his young charges in rural Austria, suffering under the humorless and earnest tutelage of Ludwig) and eventually professor of philosophy at Cambridge. When, in 1951, he was diagnosed with cancer, he apparently said, “Good!” because he was ready to die, apparently having been obsessed with his own death since he could first form the idea. Fun guy at parties, I’m thinking.

Anyway, I have issues with both Pascal (his arguments supporting the existence of God—essentially Thomist arguments that point to mankind and declare God necessary a priori—are weak) and Wittgenstein (he seems to say that language is an expression of the world, whereas it seems pretty clear to me that language is an expression of thought; meaning is not contained in sentences and propositions, that is, but is found in the mind of the reader/speaker/listener. Facts are interpretations made in the mind, not empirical realities expressed in sentences), but at the same time I’m aware that I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am, and likely either I misunderstand these guys or they are misunderstood by me. But none of that matters, because my characters’ understanding of Pascal and Wittgenstein needs to be no better than mine, and their philosophical discussion is actually a metaphor for something else they won’t put into words directly. Which is, you see, a big joke about Wittgenstein, whose philosophy can’t—I think—account for metaphor (or humor, for that matter). I hope to write the damned scene by the end of this week, and get on with the end of the book. My next project will be nothing like this one.


  1. I could have told you you would get lost in the reading. You're too inquisitive and your brain functions too highly, Mr. B. My suggestion: boxing or drugs.

  2. Boxing on drugs!

    Inquisitive, yes. High-functioning is less provable.

    Boxing on drugs!