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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It is so difficult to find the beginning

My graduate seminar this semester was dedicated to reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations once again. My motto were three sentences from On Certainty which say: “It is so difficult to find the beginning.  Or better it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back.” (471) I found this relevant to the question how to begin another reading of the Investigations; but the remarks also puzzled me. One would expect Wittgenstein to say that in philosophy we never go back far enough.  What could he mean by telling us not to go too far back?

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A short trip to China

A month ago I attended the fourth International Wittgenstein Symposium in Xi’an. I gave a lecture on the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations and a talk at Northwest University on “Wittgenstein and the Decline of the West.”

Almost everyone in Berkeley said: “Xi’an. Where is that?” It tells you how ignorant we are about the country. It is a city of some 7 million people (and perhaps unofficially even of 10 million). The first capital of China lone before Beijing and as such full of antiquities. It was also the end of the Silk Road, the place where Buddhism entered China and it has, till today, a thriving Muslim quarter. A modern city but one with a history.

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