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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

WITTGENSTEIN and others ...


WITTGENSTEIN and others …


Bertrand Russell was impressed by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of a logical language that would not allow any nonsense to be produced. Gödel’s later refutation aside, one is also impressed with the final assertion in the Tractatus that, in Wittgenstein’s words, … meine Sätze erläutern dadurch, dass sie der, welcher mich versteht, am Ende als unsinnig erkennt, wenn er durch sie—auf ihnen—über sie hinausgestiegen ist. (Er muss sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist.). Er muss diese Sätze überwinden, dann sieht er die Welt richtig. In other words, a sort of Nietzschean or Zen demand to go beyond dualistic concepts of sense vs. non-sense, and thereby discover the world as it really is. Since Russell was definitely not impressed by Nietzsche – he sees him as a forerunner of the German Nazi ideology – one can only assume that all philosophers mentioned are as confused as Wittgenstein himself, what with Wittgenstein asserting that philosophy itself doesn’t really exist as a worthwhile intellectual enterprise.

What is more interesting is Wittgenstein’s – and all philosophers before and after him – struggle with language per se. What exactly is language? Are thoughts independent of language? Hardly! What are the connections? Does language equal thought? Can language be described by language? If logic is a sub-set of language, how come the human species at large ignores it? How come we can land a spacecraft on a comet but we cannot have anything resembling peace on earth? Why does it seem impossible to eliminate non-sense? Why, even in the realm of pure logic, is it still possible to make mis-calculations? Obviously there is some fuzzy logic simply because the human mind, even withy the best of efforts, cannot comprehend itself. Chomsky’s has a fine analogy in that all sciences work on the principle of looking for the lost key near the lamp post because that’s where the light is. Defining and devising the grammar (syntax) of a language, let alone a putative universal grammar of language per se, at times looks like a lost cause and at other times looks like a successful landing on a comet, only with the damn thing bouncing into a crevice never to be seen again.

Wittgenstein’s post-Tractatus view of language in term of game theory is more amusing than scientific, especially when summarized as follows (by Wikipeadia):

Wittgenstein asks the reader to think of language as a multiplicity of language-games within which parts of language develop and function. He argues that philosophical problems are bewitchments that arise from philosophers' misguided attempts to consider the meaning of words independently of their context, usage, and grammar, what he called "language gone on holiday”.

What is a word? What is context, usage and grammar? And what on earth is the metaphor “language gone on holiday” meant to convey? Does personal context mean anything? Does Russell’s life (at least according to biographer Ronald W. Clark) and do Wittgenstein’s exploits (at least according to biographer Bartley) cast a sorry shadow over their academic achievements? They were both aristocratic snobs that embodied academic life as a long list of personal debauchery that caused them romantic pains  to be suffered over a glass of fine wine. Wittgenstein’s cruel treatment of his pupils in Austria would have been prosecuted if he had been a member of common society. Are bad people capable of good philosophical thoughts? Apparently they are.  Are good people capable of bad philosophical thoughts? Surely. In context nothing makes much sense. Russell as a donnish aristocrat could afford to be a bohemian anti-establishment figure. Great intellects like Wilhelm Reich, Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell (the list is endless) could not afford to be different and suffered accordingly.

What does meaning mean? The German cognates Meinung/meinen have an interesting twist in that Meinung translates best as ‘opinion’ while meinen in Was meinst du? carries the meaning ‘to mean’ (What do you mean?). As such everything is mere opinion, or as Nietzsche said, everything is story telling, science tells stories just like religion and myth. That the space craft landed on a comet is a good story. That god is dead is a bad story or a good story depending on one’s opinion about such matters. Fukuyama, the ‘end of history’ guy once took lessons from the likes of Derrida, Lacan and Barthes until he formed an opinion that said that they all talked bullshit (cf. Guardian interview). Fukuyama went on to become the darling of the American neo-cons, a state of affairs which he apparently now regrets to a certain degree. Context explains everything. Contexts are metaphorical constructs using the building industry: you need bricks to build but the bricks do not determine the structure of the building. If you want to understand the building (the sentence) you must deconstruct it to appreciate the structure and then you re-construct it to appreciate its beauty or ugliness as the case may be. Quoting people out of context is often a charge leveled for reporting idiotic utterances: in most cases the context will not change the idiotic utterance one iota. Structure does not in itself mean that the building is comprehended as such. The famous Chomsky sentence ‘Green ideas sleep furiously’ has perfect structure but lacks meaning. Why? To merge words into phrases requires not only syntactic selection criteria but also semantic criteria, e.g. the verb ‘sleep’ selects its argument from a semantic field that doesn’t normally include ‘idea’. Hence the sentence is ab-normal. When Fukuyama asserts that liberal democracy is the end-game in the history of humans, we acknowledge that both the structure and the meaning are comprehensible but as Wittgenstein might have said, such utterances are nonsense because they fail the test of logic. Surely Fukuyama’s language - and thoughts - have gone on an extended holiday – a holiday that did not deliver the promises of the on-line brochure that showed a pristine beach when looking out of the room booked. The bitter reality proved that the room was a concrete prison cell with no view at all. In the meantime Fukuyama and the likes make a nice living from the virtual world of make-belief.

Maybe mathematics is everything (cf. Max Tegmark): we can calculate everything but we do not know the basis of our calculations. Great minds construct axioms pared down to Wittgensteinian atomic ‘simples’. Then the atom splits into particles. The particles behave in strange ways. Higg’s boson’s moniker is the God Particle. It doesn’t properly exist yet because it has not been properly confirmed to exist. Chomsky says that in the beginning was ‘merge’, i.e. two words combining to make a phrase, phrases merge to make sentences, sentences merge to make iterative narratives about language. In the beginning was what? The Big Bang? What a laughable metaphor that is! The Bible has a good beginning (forget all the rest): in the beginning was the word! So what happens when and if the atomic word aka God Particle gets split? The universe will shrink back to its singularity and perhaps another Big Bang will follow.

Philosophy as an enterprise conducted by gentrified academics will to a certain degree always be incestuous, writing volumes about each other, for each other, against each other, and the lesser lights – those who have to earn a crust by being eight to five academics – will have to join the bandwagon in the hope that they too will publish a small volume or two, acknowledging that they, as midgets, stand on the shoulders of giants.

This is not to say that philosophy cannot be the proverbial queen of all sciences, especially if it encompasses a philosophy of language. Applied sciences such sending a craft to land on a comet can presumably do it without one iota of philosophy but then again the applied sciences are based on theoretical achievements such as those by Einstein. While Wittgenstein, à la Fukuyama, heralded the end of philosophy there is no end to speculation (in the sense of educated guesses) as to what might happen next. For example, will the ever increasing gap between those who know a lot (and have a lot) and those who know almost nothing (and have almost nothing) result in modern society that can be described as neo-feudalist in analogy to what history teaches about feudalism of old. If history is the history of the class struggle then the struggle will result in revolutions and upheavals driven by the sheer numbers of the prekariat (the modern version of the serfs and slaves). The CEOs and oligarchs will have to maintain ever increasing armies to control their subjects until the armies themselves will side with the leaders of the prekariat, in the safe knowledge that the revolutions will again eat their children. The repetition of history as a tragic farce.

Or will the super-intelligentia have found ways and means to colonize other planets where they can look down on earth with sad amusement, wondering what went wrong with people who never had a choice? Maybe philosophy is about asking questions, noting that Wittgenstein quite correctly asserted that every logical question must have a ready-made answer. In fact we often start with the answer: what makes 5? 1+4? 2+3? 0+5? If only such a method was available for the answers to ‘what do we want?’ knowing full well it includes items like ‘peace on earth’ and ‘a billion dollars for me and my Mum’. Perhaps philosophy is the freedom from logical thinking because logic dictates the answers. If there are 10 logical steps to happiness (and to becoming a billionaire) then everyone must be able to achieve it by decree. Logic, it seems, only serves those who are logicians. Logic did not serve Wittgenstein the man. As the joke goes, logicians have bodies to transport their heads to the next seminar on logic. Wittgenstein’s bizarre sexual urges defy the logic of decent human behaviour (unless one isn’t worried about the practice of renting young, male prostitutes in dark alleyways of London or Vienna for quick gratification). Wittgenstein says that all this stuff is ‘psychology’ and as such devoid of logic. Freud, Reich, Jung and some of his other Austrian and Swiss compatriots would think otherwise. Psychology is a science. Behaviour is what? Is it subject to cause and effect? What are the symptoms that define a person to be mentally ill? The APA currently has the DSM-5 version that informs clinicians on how to arrive at a diagnosis. To confabulate is a symptom. To talk nonsense is not. Killing people depends on the context. Killer-psychopaths are technically insane and cannot be held responsible for their actions. Personally I think that anyone who kills – or orders the killing of - any other living being is a psychopath. Wars are fought by old men who send (order) young people to die for them. Perhaps it is quite logical that countries with borders are like the padded cells of a lunatic asylum called the United Nations. BTW this is nicely illustrated by a NZ (since this is the peace-loving country where I write from) parable: The NZ Herald (31/12/2014) reports that one Simon Draper, a high ranking Forreign Affairs bureaucrat, is credited with getting NZ voted in as a non-permant member of the UN Security Council. His moto is: si vis pacem, para bellum. Obviously another oxymoron, with emphasis on the last two syllables.

We need people like Wilhelm Reich to tell us how to live with a modicum of fuzzy logic, how to be normal, how to be free, how to love, how to live in peace and harmony with nature, how to live a life of social justice. We don’t need homicidal maniacs to parade as presidents, prime ministers, chancellors and ‘leaders’ to lead us down the garden path where the promised flower fairy turns into a firry dragon of destruction. At least we can imagine it and say so. We can communicate such thoughts. Only language offers the hope that not all is lost: we speak, we write, we read, we listen. Just apply a bit of logic to ascertain what is nonsense and what makes sense. Do not fall for beguiling prophets who promise you paradise after death: it does not make any sense! Do not fall for the beguiling business prophets who promise you untold riches if you follow their business model (and yes, they are the living proof in the pages of the ‘rich listers’): it does not make any sense. If you sell a penny button to every Chinese you’ll be rich for sure: it’s pure business logic but you also know it’s pure conjecture that means absolutely nothing – unless you really do it by eliminating all the other button sellers on earth and at the same time devise a clever advertising campaign (with the help of behavioural scientists) that creates button demand where no need is present. Just do it (Nike)! Impossible is nothing (Adidas)! Success breeds success (social Darwinism)! No points for second place (Top Gun)! Believe me, to paraphrase Fukuyama, all these beguiling sayings are pure bullshit!

So what’s your philosophy? You don’t have one? Well, get one! It doesn’t matter at this stage if it’s right or wrong, logical or illogical. We need your version to have something to talk about! Otherwise there is deadly silence. Just imagine if Wittgenstein were to be right with his last sentence (in German Satz, which is a sort of homonym meaning both ‘sentence - as in grammar-’ and ‘axiom, postulate, logical formula’)  in the Tractatus:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

which in the original (somewhat totured) translation reads (remembering that the Tractatus was first published in German and English, i.e. the original German by Wittgenstein with the English translation by a Cambridge student and further edited by Russell and others):

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Is this a tautology, an oxymoron, a Zen koan or a philosophical statement of great impact? I beg your pardon? How about speaking the unspeakable, à la Derrida who famously asked if the unforgivable can be forgiven.


Note: I am in agreement with Wittgenstein who in the introduction to his Tractatus came up with this nice affront to pseudo-academics:

Ja, was ich hier geschrieben habe macht im Einzelnen überhaupt nicht den Anspruch auf Neuheit; und darum gebe ich auch keine Quellen an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.

So in the same vein, I don’t care if what I think (and have written down) has been thought before (and written about) by someone else. Believe me: intellectual property is an oxymoron!