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Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard

For my Traditio final, we were asked to bring a short presentation on some topic relating to the term, and I used the opportunity to jump into another can of worms, to see what I can fish out of it over the next few months. Specifically, I'm getting fascinating with Wittgenstein, his enigmatic approach to philosophy, and the resemblance it bears to Kierkegaard's approach. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to think and write more about this soon, but for now, here is the presentation I gave:

Wittgenstein is usually understood as having had two distinct periods, with very different approaches to philosophy. The traditional interpretation goes as follows:
In his earlier work, The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he advocated an ideal language philosophy, in which he carefully circumscribed the areas of meaningful discourse along rigorously logical lines, and insisted that our understanding of reality must conform to these formulas. Therefore, many statements, such as those concerning religion and metaphysics, are actually nonsense statements, and philosophy must stick to what is logical and avoid such nonsense. In this sense he is considered to have prefigured and influenced the Logical Positivist philosophers of the Vienna Circle.
In his later work, however, the Philosophical Investigations, he repented of his rigidly logical system and admitted that language was actually much more complex and meaning was far less fixed. All we have is “language games”—sets of artificial rules that bear some “family resemblance” to one another.

However, this view tends to neglect the strange and cryptic remarks that close the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as well as Wittgenstein’s reaction to the logical positivists’ use of his work. In the final sections of the Tractatus, he argues that according to the principles developed, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, religion—in short everything of real meaning—transcends the logical limits of language, so that the traditional discussions of philosophy become nonsense and philosophy is rendered meaningless. His own argument, indeed, by its own principles, is nonsense—“through the philosophy of the book one must come to see the utter meaninglessness of philosophy.”
That he was not intending the same thing as the logical positivists seems clear from his subsequent interactions with them:
“The Tractatus also caught the attention of the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, especially Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick. The group spent many months working through the text out loud, line-by line. Schlick eventually convinced Wittgenstein to meet with members of the circle to discuss the Tractatus when he returned to Vienna (he was then working as an architect). Although the Vienna Circle's logical positivists appreciated the Tractatus, they argued that the last few passages, including Proposition 7, are confused. Carnap hailed the book as containing important insights, but encouraged people to ignore the concluding sentences. Wittgenstein responded to Schlick commenting, ‘I cannot imagine that Carnap should have so completely misunderstood the last sentences of the book and hence the fundamental conception of the entire book.’ “
This revealing statement—that the final sentences of the book contained the key to understanding the whole—suggest that Wittgenstein’s goal in the Tractatus was actually something much more along the lines of Kierkegaard—using philosophy to show the futility of traditional philosophical endeavors, and its inability to discuss all of the highest truths, which lie outside its domain. The role of philosophy, then, in this conception, is therapeutic—philosophy serves to show us the limitations of our traditional methods of analysis, and to lead us to a more honest conception of realitywhich does justice to its mystery and complexity. If this is true, then the Tractatus need no longer be interpreted in contrast to the Philosophical Investigations, but can be seen as saying indirectly what he later decided to say directly.
The penultimate proposition says “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: Anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)” Scholar Cora Diamond emphasizes Wittgenstein’s careful word choice “anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them” not “anyone who understands them eventually recognizes them…” The reader is to understand Wittgenstein himself, not what he is saying in the propositions, because the propositions are actually saying something quite to the contrary. They are drawing a limit to thought in order that that limit might then be transcended. As he wrote to his editor,
“the book’s point is ethical. I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now, but which I will write out for you here, because it will perhaps be a key for you. What I meant to write then was this: my work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. For the ethical gets its limit drawn from the inside, as it were, by my book; and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing that limit. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it… For now I would recommend you to read the preface and the conclusion, because they contain the most direct expression of the point.”

This indirect methodology is, as some scholars have pointed out, a hallmark of Kierkegaard’s, who never sets forth a systematic expression of his philosophical thought but relies on irony and literary techniques to make his point. In several works, he argues from a perspective that is not really his own in order to reveal the weaknesses of that perspective.
Charles Creegan describes it:
“Kierkegaard's and Wittgenstein's concern with methodology is an expression of the fundamental difference in their conception of philosophy. The idea of philosophy against which they are reacting is that of the search for foundations and the construction of a unified understanding of the world. Metaphysical concerns are central to such a philosophical system.
The philosopher's use of multiple methods, masks and metamorphoses is the last step in the breakdown of monolithic 'Philosophy' which begins with the transition from factual investigation to conceptual investigation.”
And it is not merely in method that they agree. Kierkegaard, like Wittgenstein, is concerned to “discover what thought itself cannot think” in order to make way for the weightier matters, which traditional philosophy has been unable to address.
An interesting additional point of reflection would be to use both of these thinkers as a foil for understanding Kant; because really this debate in Wittgenstein interpretation is very similar to a debate in Kantian interpretation: namely, how honest was Kant being when he said, “I am destroying reason to make way for faith.” When Kant set rigid limits to the province of human reason, was he saying: all beyond this transcends reason and thus is not fit material for men to think or discuss—it is only for foolish faith”; or, was he saying, “Reason can only go so far, and is thus radically limited—to be fulfilled, to discover the important truths, we must go beyond the realm of pure reason by faith”? I’m not going to try to answer that question here, but, as far as Wittgenstein goes, I believe he takes the latter route, not, as traditionally understood, the former.


Well, of course truth lies outside of the domain of secular philosophy. This is why I don't really see the point of reading it, except as a study. It all seems so self-evident.

Good post, though. If this was Xanga I would give it eprops. ;)

May 16, 2007 at 10:31 PM  

That's actually pretty cool, Brad. Thankest thou. And this is a good excuse to quote Mencken, since I think it's relevant enough, and funny. He's talking about some theologian, I think.

"Starting out in life with an idea lying well within the bounds of what most men would call the rational, he gradually pumped it up until it bulged over all four borders. But he never departed from it altogether; he never let go his hold upon logic; he never abandoned reason for mere intuition. Once his premisses were granted, the only way to escape his conclusions was to forsake Aristotle for Epicurus. Such logical impeccability, as all connoisseurs must know, is very common among theologians; they hold, indeed, almost a monopoly of it. The rest of us, finding that our ratiocination is leading us into uncomfortable waters, give it the slip and return to dry land. But not the theologians. They have horribly literal minds; they are less men than intellectual machines. I defy any one to find a logical flaw in their proofs of the existence of Hell. They demonstrate it magnificently and irrefutably. Do multitudes of wise men nevertheless deny it? Then that is only because very few wise men have any honest belief in the reality of the thing that the theologians and other logicians call truth.
Mr. Broun, in his appendix, tries to find holes in Anthony's logic; but it turns out to be far from easy: what he arrives at, in the end, is mainly only proof that a logician is an immensely unpleasant fellow."

May 24, 2007 at 1:33 AM  

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