Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Speaking Of That Regarding Which We Must be Silent

If a person knows anything about Wittgenstein, it's likely they know, at least, that he wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus the famous sentence generally translated as:  "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent."

Wittgenstein was the favorite philosopher of one of my philosophy professors in college, and so I devoted some time to reading his works, but what I read at that time were his later works, specifically The Blue and Brown Books and Philosophical Investigations.  I ventured into the Tractatus later, on my doubtless uncomprehending own.  Wittgenstein seems to have been given to gnomic and almost oracular pronouncements, which is something I've found frustrating.  His later works as we know them are apparently the joint work product (as we lawyers say) of devoted students and others in the sense they are based on notes of his classes, just as what we know of the teachings of Epictetus are based on the notes of his student, Arrian.  This may account for some of the difficulty I've had deciphering his later works, but the Tractatus as I understand it is his and his alone, so I can't blame my difficulties with that work on the errant scribblings of students.  I can take comfort, however, in the fact that Wittgenstein is known to have complained that Bertrand Russell did not understand what Wittgenstein  was doing although he wrote an introduction to that book.  From what I read of Wittgenstein's character, my guess is he felt that quite a few people didn't understand what he was doing.

His command that philosophers be silent is peculiarly satisfying in many ways, but it seems that in issuing this command he meant that they should stop trying to deal with many of what have traditionally been considered the great philosophical problems, and they show no sign of doing so, for good or ill.  For my part, I find this command insightful and wise to the extent it is intended to limit philosophical inquiry into certain questions or problems which philosophical inquiry has failed to resolve for centuries, and to the extent to which it recognizes that there are certain aspects of our lives which cannot be usefully addressed in words.

There is nothing necessarily wrong, or unreal, about these latter things because words just don't quite work in their case.  I tend to think that everything is part of "reality", even those things which we don't normally contend are "real."  For example, dreams or hallucinations are as much a part of our existence, or experience, as anything else.  They differ from other things we experience because they are dreams and hallucinations.  This doesn't make them any less real, though it makes them different.

Among the things words are not useful in addressing are experiences of transcendence, wonder, "oneness" with nature, and "God."  Wittgenstein also mused, I think, that certain things must be shown.  I think this is true, in the sense that some of the most intense and profound experiences I've had along these lines have been the result of things that I saw, usually startlingly beautiful landscapes:  Mount Nevis at sunset, crowned with a cloud; the stars over the ocean from a balcony in St. John, U.S.V.I; an entirely cloudless sunset over the ocean in Key West; a misty sunrise in the Appalachian mountains; a meadow in the Alps; beautiful blue lakes surrounded by trees exploding in glorious color on a perfect Indian Summer day seen from Bearskin Trail south of Minocqua, Wisconsin.

What is felt in those circumstances is no less real than anything else, and I don't see how this can be denied.  Does what is felt in such circumstances mean something?  Clearly it does.  What does it mean?  I'm not sure.  Do such feelings indicate the existence of something beyond or in addition to what is seen?  Not in any rational sense, and it's through the use of reason and scientific method that we've learned the most about the universe in which we live.  But I question whether the use of reason and scientific method is necessary in all cases.  It may be that they, like words, cannot usefully be employed in addressing certain things which we nevertheless feel or experience.

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