The Private and the Public. What we can learn from Wittgenstein

On a Canadian website devoted to the translation of writings by contemporary Chinese intellectuals, its creator, David Ownby of the University of Montréal, writes: “China is, if not totalitarian, surely authoritarian, and I readily admit that I do not fully understand the relationship between the Chinese state and the intellectuals I study.  It is obvious that their published work is not a perfect reflection of their private thoughts, which surely means that many times they cannot say what they really think, but what trade-offs they make and how they make their calculations remain obscure.  While I prefer to believe that what they publish is a fair if perhaps partial reflection of what they think, many people do not, and I admit that now and again I wonder if I’m being played.”[1]

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Wittgenstein’s Transitions

 “In this work more than in any other it is worth looking at apparently solved questions again and again from new sides as unsolved,“ Ludwig Wittgenstein jotted in his philosophical notebook in November of 1914. “Don’t get stuck with what you once wrote. Think always of a fresh beginning, as if nothing had as yet happened.” (p. 30) [1] The First World War had been raging for months; Wittgenstein was serving as an outlook on an Austrian gunboat; but he remained determined to continue the philosophical work he had been doing before the war with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. “Logic must take care of itself,” had been the opening entry in his new notebook on August 22. He called it “a singularly profound and significant insight.” (p. 2) The sentence was intended to say, first of all, that logic is self-contained, that it does not rest on anything outside it. But by putting it at the head of his notebook Wittgenstein may also have been expressing the hope that his work in logic would not be affected by the vagaries of the war. “Will I be able to work now?” he had asked himself anxiously on the first page of the private diary he attached to his philosophical notebook.[2] It turned out that he could do so even under heavy bombardment. “Canons shook the boat as they fired near us at night. Worked much and with success,” he wrote on December 6.[3] But progress was often slow and he feared that “the redeeming word has not been spoken.”[4] As long as that was the case, he could only go over the same ground again and again. His most vexing problem at the time was that of “the logical form of the proposition,” a topic he had been exploring with Russell in the preceding years. But his view on the topic was still far from settled. “Does the subject-predicate form exist,” he now asked himself. “Does the relational form exist? Do any of the forms exist at all that Russell and I were always talking about?” (pp. 2-3)  And so it went with questions but no definitive answers.

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The Darkness of this Time: Wittgenstein’s pessimism

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, and Adolf Hitler, the dictator, were born just six days apart in the Spring of 1889 – Wittgenstein into golden luxury in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler into a modest family and a provincial town at the Empire’s border to Germany. Different as those backgrounds were, Wittgenstein’s and Hitler’s life-paths came to parallel each other at certain points and occasionally even to intersect. I am concerned in this essay with Wittgenstein’s pessimism about his time but have found it useful to look also at Adolf Hitler as an antithetical figure propelled by another kind of pessimism. The contrast between the two men may help to illuminate questions about their and our age, about technology and technological thinking, and, possibly, about pessimism itself.

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Why I read Wittgenstein

I have never been able to attach myself to a single philosopher as my guru. There are those who find all their philosophical enlightenment in Aristotle or Confucius, in Kant or Nietzsche or Marx, in Heidegger or Derrida. I have never been able to follow them. As soon as I read a philosopher, critical questions start swirling in my mind. That's certainly also true when I read Wittgenstein.

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The Wittgenstein Project

My project is simple but demanding. I am trying to reread Wittgenstein from the beginning without, however, relying on any established interpretations. My question is whether we can look at his work with fresh eyes. Ignoring the halo of secondary writing that now surrounds that work does not mean that I will always end up disagreeing with what previous interpreters have said. But my plan is to re-discover their insights where they are such and otherwise go my own way.

In doing this, I want to look more thoroughly at Wittgenstein’s own words than has previously been done. I don’t know how far I will get with this but completeness is not my goal. It is rather to start with the first sentence of the Tractatus and work myself forward from there as far as I can manage.

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Who am I?

On the gravestone of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke we can read one of his last poems which says: Oh rose, you pure contradiction. To be nobody's sleep under so many eyelids." Is there a self and if not, who am I?

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Wittgenstein on the Puzzle of Privacy

“In what sense are my sensations private? – Well, only I know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it. – In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word ‘to know’ as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people often know when I am in pain. – Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself! – It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean – except perhaps that I am in pain.”

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Reading Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the leading philosophical minds of the twentieth century and his thought remains of live interest. Twenty years ago, David Stern and I published the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein which was intended to help readers of Wittgenstein along. We have now brought out a second edition of this work with some great new contributions and a completely updated bibliography.

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