Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ludwig Wittgenstein


One of the most celebrated modern philosophers is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He early wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), and believed that he had solved all the outstanding problems of philosophy in this compact work. The Tractatus was much favoured by the Vienna Circle, a group of scientists and philosophers who pioneered logical positivism, and who interpreted Wittgenstein in that light. The Vienna Circle emphasised language, and in terms of the presiding insistence that the only meaningful statements are those which are empirically verifiable. In other words, what you cannot prove, never state, because such a statement is worthless. Metaphysics, for instance, is out of bounds.

The Vienna Circle survived their diaspora in the face of the Nazi regime. Logical positivism lived on in America and Britain, and became influential. This contingent made a relevant critique of Fascist propaganda; that form of political rhetoric saturated Germany and other countries in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Wittgenstein was born in Austria, but became a British citizen, and one strongly linked to Cambridge University. When I was a young man (and a resident of Cambridge), the dons would discuss “what Wittgenstein really meant.” There were permutations of this during my temporary employment under Professor J. P. Stern, who enthused about Kant, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche in our conversations, which occurred in his book-lined study overlooking a panoramic garden in a select area of Cambridge.

Professor Stern (who taught German at London University) was an expert on Nietzsche. I found great difficulty in conceding the importance of Nietszche. I also found the Tractatus a rather disconcerting work, though in a different way to Thus Spake Zarathustra. Professor Stern pressed upon me the Tractatus when he grasped that I had an interest in philosophy. He expected me to enthuse over the treatise, like many undergraduates at that time. I was an exception to the fashion. This was in 1973. I never did find the Tractatus inspiring, only interesting; it is generally considered significant in the history of philosophy.

[Wittgenstein had early read Schopenhauer, and believed that the latter was basically correct in his worldview. Wittgenstein persisted in the attitude that ultimate reality was beyond conceptual grasp, and therefore a factor of which nothing can be said. Only the phenomenal world could be described. Various objections have been lodged against this rather inflexible view, though in the 1970s, the exegesis of Wittgenstein was still in the ascendant at places like Cambridge].

Wittgenstein himself demonstrated a dissatisfaction with the Tractatus at a later phase of his career. By then he knew that he had not solved all the problems of philosophy. The Tractatus had been influenced by theories of the mathematician Gottlob Frege and his own tutor Bertrand Russell. Critics say that the Tractatus is ambiguous and contradictory, and even that Wittgenstein’s version of logic made nonsense of his own propositions. He urged that philosophical problems arose from a failure to understand the logic of language.

Amongst the academic philosophers, Wittgenstein is the one who came closest to being a citizen philosopher. In 1912 he became an undergraduate at Cambridge, but he reacted to the example of his tutor Bertrand Russell, who at this time authored The Problems of Philosophy (1912).


“ ‘How few there are who do not lose their own soul,’ remarked Wittgenstein one day. Russell felt obliged to tell Wittgenstein that he would not get his degree unless he learnt to write ‘imperfect things,’ a constraint which incurred the junior’s displeasure.” (Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, Cambridge 1991, p. 149).

Neglecting the degree, Wittgenstein moved back to the Continent. At this time he became a rich man, gaining the fortune of his deceased father, an industrialist tycoon. Yet he retired to Norway, building himself an isolated hut near Skjolden, his intention being to live in complete seclusion. The First World War changed his plans, and he volunteered to join the Austrian army. After the war, he became a schoolmaster, teaching in various remote villages in Austria. He subsequently became a gardener and an architect.

Two of his friends criticised the Tractatus, and Wittgenstein is said to have abandoned his earlier views. In 1929 he returned to Cambridge, quickly acquiring a Ph.D. (on the basis of the Tractatus) after his lengthy absence of sixteen years in obscurity. He thereafter did much writing, but without publishing it, apparently because he did not wish to be misunderstood. Dr. Wittgenstein was noted for giving unconventional lectures in a mood of deep concentration.

The advantages of his transition to academic status are not totally convincing. He remained a virtual alien within academic life, and his aversion to appearing in the college dining room is a well known detail. He regarded all the talking as superficial. He frequently visited the local cinema in an effort to suspend his prolonged concentration on philosophy; he could appear quite desperate not to be distracted while watching the film. During the 1930s he escaped for nearly a year to his distant hut in Norway. In 1947 he ceased to lecture at Cambridge, and moved to Ireland, where for a time he lived alone in a hut beside the sea in Galway. (For a partisan account, see Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958.)

Though he exhibited certain unusual characteristics, some critics have said that Wittgenstein was idiosyncratic, suicidal, and homosexual. He certainly possessed a strong personality, and he was apparently an exacting schoolteacher in the 1920s. “His sexuality was ambiguous but he was probably gay; how actively so is still a matter of controversy.” See D. J. Richter, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

After his death, many of his writings surfaced in print. The most famous of these later works became his Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein was here committed to what is known as linguistic philosophy. He emphasised language as a tool, and introduced the concept of “language game.” His treatment of philosophy as language can be considered more of a philosophical problem than a solution.

The meaning of life remains a mystery to much contemporary philosophical language. Wittgenstein failed to describe his own notable striving for experiential equipoise. The new language philosophy did not describe, e.g., the hut in Norway or his recurring thought of entering a monastery. The intrinsic struggle to penetrate “philosophical problems” and the artificiality of surface discourse eluded his mode of language tool.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 17th 2009

ENTRY no. 2

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Citizen Philosophy


I have described myself as a citizen philosopher, and some people wish to know more about that theme. Perhaps this theme could be successfully adapted in a blog format, and I am now willing to try this resort, which I formerly resisted, despite the advice of some acquaintances. The criterion is that of an intellectual blog, as distinct from the more popular versions.

Some people understood what I meant by citizen philosophy. Yet others did not, and queried in the vein of: “I have never heard of that; so what on earth is it ?” Their response made me smile, and I will here attempt to explain why. Please note that humour is one ingredient of contemporary citizen philosophy in the intellectual mode.

Readers noticed that David Hume and Spinoza were represented in my “citizen philosopher” book Pointed Observations (2005). In their own respective ways, both of these thinkers were citizen philosophers, neither of them possessing an academic role. Spinoza actually refused an academic appointment. I do not agree with all the views of those two thinkers, and indeed am very critical of Hume on many points. I do not share his tendency to extreme scepticism. However, I am prepared to admire his efforts in writing a multi-volume History of England that remained the standard work on the subject for a century or so.

Other citizen philosophers were Descartes, Leibniz, John Locke, Denis Diderot (the encyclopaedist), Rousseau, and Schopenhauer. That list is not exhaustive. These entities varied enormously in their output and outlook. I do not agree with all their views. Many other Western philosophers were academics such as Kant and Hegel, Russell and Wittgenstein, Foucault and Derrida. These academic celebrities generally had the upper hand in gaining attention, having the benefit of prestigious identity and formal recommendations. The majority of canonical philosophers in the last two centuries have been thinkers situated in an academic role.

The trend in academic philosophy has generally been one tending strongly towards isolation from the citizen sector. Yet anomalously, it is academics who have elevated antique citizen philosophers to celebrity. University students can now write prestigious doctoral theses on citizen thinkers who could not understand why their works were ignored during their own lifetime. Early works of Hume and Schopenhauer were a total failure when first published, and the struggle that Spinoza had in gaining recognition is surely memorable. Spinoza was defamed as an atheist for many years after his death. He was definitely not an atheist, though he was a freethinker.

Karl Marx really was an atheist, and he is generally ascribed to the annals of sociology. Yet some academics have insisted that he should be regarded as a philosopher. He was definitely one of the most influential thinkers in recent times, despite the fact that he early lost an academic career and chose to live in virtual poverty while furthering his studies at the British Library. One of his well known assertions is: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real task is to change it.” It would seem that Marx did not regard himself as a philosopher, but as a communist revolutionary. Like many other influential thinkers, he was little known during his lifetime.

For those who desire a testimony of intellectual orientation, I can here state that I am not, e.g., a Spinozan, a Marxist, a Humean sceptic, or a Cartesian. I do fundamentally regard myself as a philosopher, though my output has extended into other fields also, a feature denoted by the adventurous word anthropography, which in my case refers to a philosophy of culture and not to ethnography. I fear that it will never be possible to compress that extending subject into a blog without risk of misunderstandings.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 12th, 2009


ENTRY no. 1

Copyright © 2009 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All rights Reserved.