Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The thought is the significant proposition

I have made it to section 4 ("The thought is the significant proposition") of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where he might be revealing that the first 3 sections are not actually about language as we use it, but rather describe a perfect logical language that would make philosophical speech possible. Maybe. One problem with Mr Wittgenstein's tract is that he doesn't actually tell you what he's attempting to describe. Nor does he give examples of any of his proposed linguistic elements. Possibly he himself was never sure; there's a lot of nomenclature wrapping around itself in his system, and Wittgenstein never differentiates between the levels. But a fact is a symbol is an object, yes? Why do we need three (and, actually, far more than three) names for the same thing? Is it a function of function within the proposed system? No, I have no idea. Again, some examples would help but apparently Wittgenstein agonized in his notebooks about how to map his proposed logical language to the real world. He could not decide, for example, if his own watch was a "simple object" or not. And whereof he could not speak, thereof he remained silent.

Anyway, once Wittgenstein starts to talk about how actual ("colloquial") language is used, a lot of my objections to his ideas disappear and he seems to be on firmer ground. Or I am, so his writing makes more sense to me. It's impossible for me to know how much of Wittgenstein's writings are solid thinking versus provisional gibberish, because it's impossible for me to recognize the limits of my own mental abilities. In other words, maybe I object to his proposals because I'm not smart enough to understand them but I don't know I'm not smart enough. Certainly that's a common human experience. Certainly I am not the smartest person in whatever room I enter. So here I am in a room with Ludwig Wittgenstein, trying to understand him, unsure which of us knows what we think we're talking about.

My fascination with Ludwig continues to increase, though. He's more interesting than his system is, at least to me. I am sort of attempting to reverse-engineer Wittgenstein from his Tractatus, envisioning a prickly antisocial guy who was forever frustrated by the provisional nature of knowledge and language, who attempted to create a language in which only truth-statements could be made, or at least a language in which one could see whether a statement was true or false. Ludwig may have been, that is, attempting to map human speech to typographical number theory, in which you can make false (either deliberately misleading or mistaken) statements, but it's apparent when you do if you understand the typography well. Wittgenstein was destined, if indeed this was his intent, to fail, for all of the reasons I've already listed in my previous post about his little book.

Still, once Wittgenstein moves away from his proposed language to actual language and begins listing what he thinks philosophical discourse should be (and draws proposed limits to that discourse), he's entertaining and clear enough. So I continue to put off writing my novel's Chapter 11 and keep reading Mr Wittgenstein.

Also, I'm starting to think about a story involving a cranky misunderstood Austrian philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a successful English translator like Constance Garnett. That could be interesting. I could throw in a Sylvia Beach character for good measure. That could be very interesting indeed.

1 comment:

  1. The more I read of Ludwig's book, the more I like the idea of writing about a philosopher. Ludwig seems to have been motivated primarily by the urge to rule out forms of discourse and subject matter. Most intriguing. Possibilities for rich fiction abound. Maybe this is my next book.