Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

The world is everything that is the case.

I am fascinated by philosophy, even though I’m barely qualified to read it, let alone write about it. Last year, I tackled Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling; this year, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, I decided to try some Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein has a reputation for being amongst the most difficult of philosophers, second only, perhaps, to Heidigger, and I suspect this is because his philosophy works at such a base level.

Indeed, the primary contribution of the Tracatus is the idea of Logical Atomism which says essentially that all logical statements can be broken down into tiny parts, and then those parts broken down further until at last they reach their “atomic” level, wherein they are recognizable as self-evident tautologies, which Wittgenstein calls propositions. These propositions require no proofs, or, rather, they prove themselves—they are both the statement of a fact and the evidence of said fact. They are self-contained, and by combining these atomic facts, we can construct a logical model that describes the world.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Wittgenstein is careful to point out that having a model that describes the world does not mean that the model is an accurate representation of the world as a whole; rather, it means that the model is one way to describe the world, and this tells us something about the world itself. If we were to discover another model that could describe the world more accurately, this too would tell us something about the world—but the world itself remains essentially unknowable.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Wittgenstein is a relativist. He takes great pains to point this out:
At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. So people stop short at natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they are both right and wrong. but the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained. The world is independent of my will. Even if everything we wished were to happen, this would only be, so to speak, a favour of fate, for there is no logical connexion between will and world, which would guarantee this, and the assumed physical connexion itself we could not against will.
There’s a lot more to the Tracatus, which, even at a slim 80 pages, is quite an undertaking, but I don’t feel like I have a strong enough grasp on Wittgenstein’s big picture to go into much detail about it. That’s ok, though. If philosophy is a search for knowledge, a quest to understand the way the world works, then it seems to me that reading it without understanding it all is sort of the point. The key is not to dissect every word—it’s to learn a way of thinking, a method of inquiry that will slowly expose blind spots and blank slates, and to begin to see the world as a beautiful, mysterious place, capable of inexplicable moments of epiphany and complexity. It’s a way of staying humble, of realizing that there is so much that is unknowable, and so much yet to know.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

1 comment:

joelchopp said...

Brent - congrats on tackling the Tractatus. It is no small accomplishment. I'd recommend picking up some of his later work - particularly the Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty. He modifies some of his previous positions in the Tractatus, (moving away from logical atomism, developing the highly influential concept of "language games", etc.) and I found them both considerably easier to read. They are still in the numbered propositional form, but they are not one sentence propositions, he uses a ton more illustrations, and drops the whole truth table business.
Anywho, best of luck with your readings.