Wittgenstein's Bastard

Waxing - and Waning - Philosophic

An investigation into the utility (or futility) of seeking meaning in a quasi-post-modern world.

In his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein sought to design a philosophical system encompassing everything logic could show. He concluded, "That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence." Even though the phrase is a tautology, it is still wrong. Our aim is to speak of that which Wittgenstein could not: the illogical majesty of the universe, the nature of its creator and the meaning of man's being all wrapped up in it.



Pearls Before Swine

More reading

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: German-English Text


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Speaking - and living

The Taoist understands that there is in nature a profound intelligence that the rational mind can never comprehend. Even as a horse cannot run beyond the borders of its corral, so the rational mind cannot venture beyond the limits of language and the categories of thought.
Laurence Boldt
Zen and the Art of Making a Living (40).

When Wittgenstein wrote, "That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence," he was an imposing a limit on the knowable world and our ability to systematically define it. But whether that limits the world, just us, or something more subtle is another question. Boldt is hinting at what Wittgenstein might have admitted: Nothing worth knowing can be definitively known. We can experience it, and we can talk around it, but we cannot capture it as a set of ordered facts subject to our manipulation.

It is interesting that Boldt tossed in a reference to "categories of thought." He does evoke Kant throughout his text, and here the reason is clear. Our brain, like our existence, argues Boldt, stands not in contrast to nature but within it and emanating from it. What we can know definitively is limited not by logic, per se, but by our natural ability to reason.

What Boldt is saying, and what we're inferring, is not new and has doubtless been better said elsewhere. Still, it merits succinct formulation: Rationality is a trait as natural to man as claws to a cat. As such, his rationality does not differentiate him from nature, only from other parts of nature.

Those who separate man from nature, be they church fathers or environmentalists, fail to understand that in our application of rational thought, we are neither sophisticated computers nor divinely inspirited golemns, but rather are at once animal and divine, containing within us the possibility of making and shaping worlds internal and external, yet constrained by the limits of our natural or God-given abilities where action in the physical - and in a different way, intellectual - realm is concerned.

In Wittgenstein's formulation, our abilities as logical and rational beings limit our ability to experience the world, with our choices constrained to absolute rational comprehension and the nullity of silence. Let us reformulate: That of which we cannot speak, we must be content to live.

posted by gbarto at 10:31 PM

Whole - or parts?

In Zen and the Art of Making a Living, Laurence Boldt tells us:
[Man has] denied the great Mystery of life and put his faith in ratio-nality. A ratio is a portion, a part. In rationality, we divide life into parts, but in endless fragmentation, we miss the experience of the whole. Life is simultaneously the ratio (the part) and the whole - at once the same and different (12-13).
A few paragraphs on, Boldt tells on, "Through analysis, problems can be solved, but always new problems take their place" (13).

The word "analysis" is an interesting one. Literally, it means "to cut through." This is a popular notion in our culture. We cut through the red tape. Not to mention the crap and the clutter. We cut to the chase. And when we're done, what are we left with? Whatever it was, it's all sliced up now.

This is, in its way, where Wittgenstein went wrong with the Tractatus. It is an amazing piece of work, no question, delineating the knowable world in seven statements (divided into lots of sub-statements, of course). But the wonder of the world is not its myriad parts, but that its Creator, or the process that created it, actually managed to fit them all into one package.

We have tried rational analysis, of course. It has put us in touch with smaller and smaller particles as the purported building blocks of our universe. But that still leaves the question of what these fundamental particles are, where they came from, and most importanly, why they are fundamental? Why can't we split them in two? And cannot conceiving of something half the size of one of them still raise questions?

I picked up a magazine the other day that included an article on the Higgs' field. Or is that the Higgs' fields? Higgs' fields and Higgs' bosuns all go into a higgledy-piggledy stew that might explain why fundamental particles differ or what they are or how they are, or at least how they come to have mass. But there's a curious thing about a Higgs' field: when you diagram where things stabilize in them, it's not at the axis or 0 point. It's a little bit to one side or the other. The world does not turn, then, on moderation - the middle ground - but in fitting together disparate elements. The thing about these elements - like proton and electron, for example - is that they go to hell without each other.

Percy Walker wrote a marvelous essay, "The Loss of the Creature," looking at how our tendency to dissect leaves us with - I'm summarizing crudely - a whole lot of frog parts but no frog. For a frog is not the stuff of frog parts, but a thing that jumps and splashes and grows itself out of a tadpole. And a work of literature is not the sum of the words, nor even ideas, but the experiencing of those words and ideas - the process of reading (and writing, to start with) is the thing, not the thing itself. The same goes for life. If we live it by balance sheets, literal or internally created, we will discover that things don't add up. This leads to disappointment, for these balance sheets inevitably fail to account for the ineffable stuff that makes life more than whirling atoms, and so we feel shortchanged.

Those looking for philosophy homework, then, should eschew the creation of new tractati, breaking up into smaller pieces a world whose true miracle is being one whole thing. Far better to seek a single statement, or a single poem, that expresses baffled wonderment at cosmic unity.

To see a world in a grain of sand
and a heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour.
-William Blake

posted by gbarto at 10:28 PM

Manage - or live?

In Zen and the Art of Making a Living, Laurence Boldt tells us:
The approach of traditional career models is to help people defend against problems. The implicit assumption is a notion of work as a means of defeinding against the problems of poverty, ridicule, boredom and the like. A problem-solving approach to work puts us in a defensive posture, from which we hope for escape - ultimately from work itself. (Defending, after all, is a rather tiresome business.) Since work is something we do to solve our problems, the implication is that no problems equals no work. So, many dream of winning the lottery and "solving all their problems" and not "having to" work.
The problem posed here is one that applies to life as well. In a biochemistry seminar I took, our professor announced that unlike in regular chemistry classes, our equations would hopefully not come into balance. A living human being, after all, is warm from all the energy he burns as he goes about living. When the human equation balances, the end product is a corpse.

If the endpoint of life is a corpse, then we can define life, chemically, as a self-perpetuating process of maintaining sustainable imbalances. The choice is how we perceive and relate to this situation. We can conceive of ourselves as riding a rickety bicycle, our every move forward an effort to stay on or readjust course. Or we can think of ourselves as a lake, waves going in and out like inhalations and exhalations of breath.

The first image puts us in the driver's seat, but this is not an enviable position, for there are only so many places we can go and are limited ways to get there.

The lake gives us a different way of dealing with life. The waves of a lake are tied to the pull of the moon. Likewise, we can allow ourselves to exist in harmony with the natural order in which we live.

Having rational consciousness, of course, we go one step beyond the lake. We can express ourselves. But we still have to decide how to do so. How are we to live? Do we treat life as something we have to continually manage and direct? Or do we allow ourselves to be, manifesting ourselves as a part of the world we inhabit? It all depends on whether we treat life as a struggle to be fought through or a process to experience and interact with.

posted by gbarto at 10:20 PM