Empty Days

Monday, February 02, 2004

Meantime, in Wittgenstein-land...

It is interesting to see how W's mind worked regarding philosophy. Somehow it all looks like Newton's apple. And maybe that's all it takes to "think well" - apples.

***

G.H.von Wright, one of the literary executors of L.W. estate, on sources of thought:
The young Wittgenstein had learned from Frege and Russell. His problems were in part theirs. The later Wittgenstein, in my view, has no ancestors in the history of thought. His work signals a radical departure from previously existing paths of philosophy.[17]

Note 17: I have seen this statement, and the one preceding it, contested. But I think they are substantially correct and important. The Tractatus belongs in a definite tradition in European philosophy, extending back beyond Frege and Russell at least to Leibniz. Wittgenstein's so-called 'later philosophy', as I see it, is quite different. Its spirit is unlike anything I know in Western thought and in many ways opposed to aims and methods of traditional philosophy. This is not incompatible with the fact - about which more is known now than when this essay was first published - that many of Wittgenstein's later ideas have seeds in works which he had read and conversations he had with others. It is interesting to note what Wittgenstein himself says about this in Vermischte Bemerkungen (...Culture and Value, 1980), especially pp. 18ff and 36. In the latter place he says: 'I believe that my originality (if that is the right word) is an originality belonging to the soil rather than to the seed. (Perhaps I have no seed of my own.) Sow a seed in my soil and it will grow differently than it would in any other soil.'
The same von Wright gives this account of how L.W.'s arrived at some of his ideas. I think this is important in the context of "hunting for influences". Wittgenstein didn't need books to think from:
There is a story of how the idea of language as a picture of reality occurred to Wittgenstein. It was in the autumn of 1914, on the Eastern Front. Wittgenstein was reading in a magazine about a lawsuite in Paris concerning an automobile accident. At the trial a miniature model of the accident was presented before the court. The model here served as a proposition; that is, as a description of a possible state of affairs. It has this function owning to a correspondence between the parts of the model (the miniature-houses, -cars, -people) and things (houses, cars, people) in reality. It now occurred to Wittgenstein that one might reverse the analogy and say that a proposition serves as a model or picture, by virtue of a similar correspondence between its parts and the world. The way in which the parts of the proposition are combined - the structure of the proposition - depicts a possible combination of elements in reality, a possible state of affairs.
Same story told by N.Malcolm:
Wittgenstein related to me two anecdotes pertaining to the Tractatus, which perhaps I should record, although he also told them to several other persons. One has to do with the origination of the central idea of the Tractatus - that a proposition is a picture. This idea came to Wittgenstein when he was serving in the Austrian army in the First War. He saw a newspaper that described the occurrence and location of an automobile accident by means of a diagram or map. It occurred to Wittgenstein that this map was a proposition and that therein was revealed the essential nature of propositions - namely, to picture reality.
Ingenious. Luckily L.W. abandonned this view later on. Next anecdote from von Wright:
It was above all Sraffa's acute and forceful criticism that compelled Wittgenstein to abandon his earlier views and set out upon new roads. He said that his discussions with Sraffa made him feel like a tree from which all branches had been cut. That this tree could become green again was due to its own vitality. The later W did not receive an inspiration from outside like that which the earlier W obtained from Frege and Russell.
As told by N.Malcolm:
The other incident has to do with something that precipitated the destruction of this conception. Wittgenstein and P.Sraffa, a lecturer in economics at Cambridge, argued together a great deal over the ideas of the Tractatus. One day (they were riding, I think, on a train) when Wittgenstein was insisting that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same 'logical form', the same 'logical multiplicity', Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans as meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger-tips of one hand. And he asked: 'What is the logical form of that?' Sraffa's example produced in Wittgenstein the feeling that there was an absurdity in the insistence that a proposition and what it describes must have the same 'form'. This broke the hold on him of the conception that a proposition must literally be a 'picture' of the reality it describes.[3]

Note 13: Professor G.H.von Wright informs me that Wittgenstein related this incident to him somewhat differently: the question at issue, according to Wittgenstein, was whether every proposition must have a 'grammar', and Sraffa asked Wittgenstein what the 'grammar' of that gesture was. In describing the incident to von Wright, Wittgenstein did not mention the phrases 'logical form' or 'logical multiplicity'.
Another anecdote reported by N.Malcolm:
Wittgenstein then did talk to Dyson about the nature of philosophy and his own part in it. Dyson recalled one anecdote of Wittgenstein's which is of considerable interest: One day when Wittgenstein was passing a field where a football game was in progress the thought first struck him that in language we play games with words. A central idea of his philosophy, the notion of 'language-game', apparently had its genesis in this incident.
[From L.W. A Memoir, by Norman Malcolm, OUP, 1984]





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