What Wit!

Last night I started to read Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (it seems it can only be read at night), the first major work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and I have come across several things that have been pretty interesting so far, including links to Solipsism, which we were discussing in philosophy last week.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, into one of the richest family’s in Europe at the time (holding a monopoly on the steel industry in Austria), with four brothers and four sisters. He was the youngest member of the family. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was dominating, apparently lacking empathy, and saw only a future in industry for his sons. His mother, Leopoldine Kalmus, was reportedly timid and anxious, unable to stand up to her husband, a harsh perfectionist, focused only on business and the continuation of it through his family.

Ludwig’s brothers displayed evidence of a streak of depression that seems to have run through the family. Three of his four brothers committed suicide, and Ludwig contemplated it regularly, approaching it as though it was a problem of logic that he needed to overcome. In his notebooks he wrote:

“If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed. If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed. This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin. And when one investigates it it is like investigating mercury vapour in order to comprehend the nature of vapours.”

His eldest brother was a musical prodigy, able to identify the different pitches and keys of music from the age of four. He disappeared on a boat after leaving for a America in 1902. The third eldest brother committed suicide in Berlin at a bar, where he ordered a glass of milk, requested the song “Forsaken, forsaken, forsaken am I” to be played by the pianist, and proceeded to mix potassium cyanide into his glass, before drinking it.

However, intro and gloom aside, I’d like to talk about several passages, the first being what Russell (who was Wittgenstein’s good friend and wrote the 20 odd page introduction to this work, which includes sentences like, “The definition of identity by means of the identity of indiscernible appears to be not a logically necessary principle”) describes as Wittgenstein’s most fundamental thesis.

“The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts. Given the syntax of a language, the meaning of a sentence is determinate as soon as the meaning of the components words is known. In order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the structure and the structure of the fact. (…) That which has to be in common between the sentence and the fact cannot, so he contends, be itself in turn said in language.”

This is difficult. And I’ve been reading through it (by the way, he has written his Tractatus in numerical point form, e.g. “1 The world is all the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not things. 1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.“) and I’m struggling to make an enormous amount of sense of it. But basically, what I think he’ saying, is reasonably simple, but the terms he uses are confusing. For example, his sentence that begins, “Given the syntax of a language,” is essentially saying that there is no difference between understanding the words in a sentence, and the persons meaning. It reminds me of the part from Atonement, when Briony is sitting in the nursery contemplating he failing play.

“By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it. Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing; as with the crooking of a finger, nothing lay between them. There was no gap during which the symbols unravelled. You saw the word castle, and it was there, seen from a distance, with woods in high summer spread before it…”

I’ll let this sit for a little bit, as I have to go off to training, but it is to be continued…