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 Puzzle of Power

Let us be frank and admit that there is no such thing as power – just as there is no such thing as “the elephant” or “the rhinoceros.” It pays to be nominalist in all these cases and avoid a metaphysics of power just as much as a metaphysics of biological kinds. A noun makes us look for a corresponding object and an abstract noun for an abstract entity. Wittgenstein has shown how that misleads us. So, no power, but no harm will be done with the term, if we take it in the right way. Let us say, then, that there exists a field of relations of something affecting (bearing on, controlling, shaping, transforming, destroying, etc.) something in some way or other. Like Foucault, we can call this the field of relations of mobile inequality. It is from this field that we usually pick a subset we call relations of power. But the choice is wide open. Thus, we end up with disputes about the nature of power, disagreements about how power is to be defined. These arise only from an ill-conceived essentialism and should be relegated to the metaphysical dustbin.

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How to become a philosopher

Let me say right away that I don’t know how one becomes a philosopher. I can only speak about this in personal terms. Having studied philosophy for a lifetime, I suppose I can call myself a philosopher in the way others call themselves physicists or plumbers. Even then I hesitate to use the word. I generally avoid it when I am asked what I do for a living. Experience has taught me that there will be two possible responses. The first is: “Let me tell you my philosophy.” And the second: “So, what is your philosophy?” I find that I can only stammer in reply. After all these years I don’t know what “my philosophy” is. I certainly don’t want to pin some label on myself, saying that I am a realist, a materialist, a historicist, or whatever. And I certainly also don’t want to hear a catalogue of someone else’s dearest convictions.

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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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The philosopher as a toad

I have been reading all summer – right across the field, whatever has come into my hands. My seminar last semester on Foucault’s  “The Order of Things” stimulated my interest in French literature and because of Foucault’s well-known hostility to Sartre I decided to have another look at that philosopher. So I took up Sartre’s autobiographical work “Les Mots” which had been on my bookshelf for quite a while.

Certainly an intriguing and disturbing book. Intriguing as a description how Sartre leaned to read and began to write. But disturbing also because Sartre speaks about himself in the starkest terms.  We read, for instance: “My long hair got on my grandfather’s nerve. ‘He’s a boy,’ he would say. ‘You’re going to make a girl of him. I don’t want my grandson to be a sissy!’ One day – I was seven years old – my grandfather could no longer stand it. He took me by the hand, saying that we were gong for a walk. But no sooner had we got around the corner than he rushed me into a barber shop, saying: ‘We’re going to give your mother a surprise.’ I returned home shorn and glorious. There were shrieks, but no hugging and kissing, and my mother locked herself in her room to cry. Her little girl had been exchanged for a little boy. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As long as my ringlets fluttered about my ears, they made it possible to deny my obvious ugliness. Yet my right eye was already entering the twilight. She had to admit the truth to herself. My grandfather himself seemed nonplussed. He had been entrusted with her little wonder and had brought back a toad.”

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Living in the twilight

“Fully 99.5 per cent of human existence was spent in the Palaeolithic era, which began about 3 million years ago when humans began using primitive tools. That era ended about 12.000 years ago with the last ice age. During this long twilight period, people noticed almost no cultural change at all, ‘The human world that individuals entered at birth was the same as the one they left at death’.” (Jamie Susskind, Future Politics, p. 4)

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Heidegger on History: Generations and Ages

Martin Heidegger reflected on history, on the philosophy of history, and on what it means to think historically from the beginning of his career at the time of the First World War onward. Over the years he advanced a series of philosophical reflections on history. A critical revaluation of his thought is still needed.

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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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There goes philosophy — Claremont Graduate University closes its philosophy program

The humanities are increasingly in a beleaguered position in Universities and Colleges across the country. Academic philosophers like to think that their place is still secure because their subject is the most ancient of the so-called humanities; it is a discipline devoted to promoting basic intellectual skills; and it has connections with a diversity of other fields. But the turbulence that is affecting our institutions is not making halt before philosophy departments.

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Disinformation: An Epistemology for the Digital Age

Our epistemologists are used to ask some very general questions: What is knowledge? What is the relation between observation and theory? How do we justify claims to knowledge? Digital technology is changing how information is collected, organized, and disseminated. The proliferation of claims to knowledge in the Internet highlights moreover the issue of error, mis- and disinformation, of “Fake News,” of its distribution and the question how to disarm it. We need an epistemology for the digital age that looks at knowledge not only in the usual timeless fashion but takes into account the changing landscape of human knowledge.

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