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.
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?
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.
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.”
A few weeks ago, I met up with a number of local activists in Hong Kong. I wanted to know how much support they still had from the general public and what their chances were for asserting any political influence, given that their leaders were under attack and their elected representatives had been disbarred.
When I arrived in Hong Kong a month ago it was already clear that a political crisis was brewing. The HK administration had tabled a new extradition law and opposition to it was growing by the day. Now the issue has come to a boil.
“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)
“During the extended period of agricultural society, China was an economic power in the world … but it later missed out on the industrial revolution … and it gradually slipped into a position where it was passively subjected to abuse,” the Chinese scholar Zhi Zhenfeng wrote in 2018. But, he added, there was now “the historical opportunity of the millennium” to catch up with the West and possibly overtake it. The project to bring this about had been announced in 2015 by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping under the name “One Belt, One Road.”
A week ago, I saw Bi Gan’s movie The End of Eternity (《地球最后的夜晚》)-- called In English Long Day’s Journey into the Night -- on a Cathay Pacific flight. I came away thinking that this must be one of the great movies of all times. The next day I discovered that it was also playing at a neighboring movie house and so went to see it again. I couldn’t sleep after that as the images, words, and sounds of the movie were hauntingly coming back to me again and again in the middle of the night. Dark, mysterious, and melancholy, Bi Gan’s work is, in fact, a piece of the most sublime Chinese poetry and utterly captivating as this poetry can be.
The European elections on May 23 mark a point of transition in European politics. More than 50 % of Europeans eligible to vote took the opportunity to do so. For the first time in its history, the parliament has come to be recognized by a large number of Europeans as an integral component of the political structure of the EU. The EU has thereby undoubtedly gained in democratic legitimacy.
On my current visit to Hong Kong I am once again trying to talk to some of the activists in order to get a better understanding of the shifting political territory. When I contacted Joshua Wong, one of the most dedicated pro-democracy campaigners, he wrote back to me: “I might not able to meet you since my court case sentencing is scheduled on Thursday afternoon. I need to prepare before being locked up in prison.” This will be the third time he is sent there for his political engagement.
Saturday May 11, 2019 There was heavy fighting yesterday in the Hong Kong legislature over a newly proposed extradition law. Legislators were injured in the melee. The previous day had seen demonstrations in the street.
Stalkers can be terrifying – as we know from the media: even when they are not, they can still be a real nuisance. I know, because I have been dealing with one for a long time. I will call my stalker Frau M. for short. She is utterly irrepressible and has been following me around for twenty years. Nothing will stop her, it seems, from harassing me with her unwelcome approaches.
Frau M. first showed up after I had taught a seminar on Wittgenstein at the University of Hamburg, She approached me at the time as someone seriously engaged with this philosopher. But her work proved quickly uninspiring and I tried to tell her so. But then the tone began to change. She had somehow come to convince herself that I was attracted to her as a person. That was, in fact, far from the case as I sought to communicate to her repeatedly. But my protestations had no effect.
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.
In the face of relentless change, we are losing the past. Customs, traditions, religion, and established institutions are going overboard. We are losing, perhaps, even a sense of ourselves as beings with a history, Universities cease to be "universities" and become institutes with "career-focused programs." The liberal arts are a luxury to be dispensed with. Who needs educated citizens? Who needs human beings with a rich inner life?
The sublime in the mundane. The stimulus of the enigmatic in the everyday. Found not in words but in a single, unexpected view. The new Berkeley Bart Station
A follow-up to the previous post of Dec. 21, 2018: The Enemy-in-Chief
There are a few philosophical aphorisms I keep coming back to. At their best, they succeed in compressing a whole philosophy into a single sentence. They are suggestive of a multitude of ideas but also often difficult to decipher. They often throw a sharp and surprising light on our reality. Above all, they give voice to the pleasure of casting thoughts into words.