Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Wittgenstein & Heidegger: Parallel Spiritual Lives (Part One)

i) Introduction
ii) Wittgenstein and Heidegger's Parallel Mystical Lives
iii) Unthought and the Point of Pointlessness
iv) The Prose and Philosophy of Wittgenstein
v) How to Get Unthought Wrong
vi) How to Miss the Point of Pointlessness
vii) Heidegger and Wittgenstein as Non-Philosophers


Not that I believe that [the Tractatus]…is to any extent ‘mystical’…I shall try to prove that this is not the case…what Wittgenstein says about ‘the mystical’ depends heavily on what he says about facts, objects, logic and language; that any interpretation which brings in ‘mystical’, alien doctrines and concepts…totally misses the mark.” (Eddy Zemach, in his 'Wittgenstein's Philosophy of the Mystical', 1964)

The following is a piece on the mystical and spiritual leanings of Martin Heidegger (1889 -1976) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 -1951); as well as on the comparisons that can be made between the two philosophers.

As far as Wittgenstein is concerned, there will be virtually no mention of his early period. However, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus will be a brooding presence in the background and will evidently, at times, break through. In any case, the mystical side of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus has already been well-commented upon. Despite saying that, it's still worth remembering that, at a certain point in history, the many connections that can be made between, for example, the mystical sides of Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein had to be forced down the throats of Wittgenstein’s incredulous - though faithful – positivist and analytic acolytes. To many of them (at that time) the ideas that could be found in the history of German metaphysics were almost all strictly verboten.

So I myself will quote a very Tractatus-like passage here from Arthur Schopenhauer that isn't only relevant to a reading of the Tractatus itself; though also to a reading of late Wittgenstein:

What is supposed to be communicated by [this book] is a single thought…[which] viewed from different sides, shows itself as what people have called metaphysics, what they have called ethics, and what they have called aesthetics…” (1816)

Instead of a detailed commentary on the Tractatus, I'll argue that the mystical (or spiritual) side of Wittgenstein’s work was, in certain senses, carried on until his death. I don't believe, therefore, that there's any deep chasm between the early and late Wittgenstein.

As far as Heidegger is concerned, I came to find that what can be called my very English reading of the German philosopher was very much like Richard Rorty’s very American reading of him. What appeals to me about Rorty's position on Heidegger - and indeed continental philosophy generally - was his ability to “demystify” the obsession with deepness (or, as the English would say, heaviness); as well as with Life and Death. What Rorty argues is that under the “onto-theological” expressions of these issues (at least as far as Heidegger is concerned) lies some quite simple elements which are (in some cases at least) not particularly deep or profound at all.

For example, take this de-mystificatory (or, simply, non-pretentious) interpretation of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein from Rorty:

I take ‘Being’ to be, in Heidegger…merely ‘transcendental German’ for a ‘connection of man with the enveloping world’, which naturalism…does not help us envisage.” (1983)

There are many other connections between Wittgenstein and Heidegger that could have been commented upon in this piece. They include:

i) Their shared concern with language.
ii) Their philosophical externalism and anti-individualism (as a response to – Cartesian - internalism and subjectivism).
iii) Their interest in what Robert Brandom called the “ontological primacy of the social” .
iv) Their sceptical position on scepticism itself (which is itself a correlative position with the externalism just mentioned).
v) Heideggerian arguments that are somewhat close to Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument.

Primarily, I believe that both Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s mystical and spiritual leanings can primarily be found in the following ways:

i) Their desire to reach a state of what I call unthought (or, alternatively, thoughtlessness).
ii) Their anti-academia and anti-philosophy.
iii) Their strong anti-scientific (or anti-scientistic, in Wittgenstein’s case) proclivities.
iv) Their metaphilosophical attempts to either “overcome” the Western philosophical tradition (Heidegger) or to simply ignore it (Wittgenstein).
v) Their defence of religious (as well as other) language games.

What follows is not primarily a work of philosophical analysis (if at all). In fact analytic philosophers (of the hard-core type) may find this essay to be one long ad hominem. I would say, however, that this piece is indeed biographical (to some extent at least). Having conceded that, I will still say that ad hominem arguments (if, indeed, the following are such things) are justified if they (arguably) lead the way to a better and deeper understanding of the philosophical arguments. That is, biographical detail isn't seen as an end of this philosophical inquiry: simply the beginning. And this particular inquiry into Heidegger and Wittgenstein is still ongoing.

Biographical Sketches

The following section is by way of two very short biographical sketches of both Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s spiritual and religious lives. Although, again, it's evidently not a piece of philosophical analysis, hopefully it will put the following sections of this essay in some kind of context.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, 'To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.' That is what I would have liked to say about my work.” (Wittgenstein)

Wittgenstein’s father was baptised a Protestant. His mother and her children were Catholics. (Wittgenstein was Jewish “by blood”.)

Wittgenstein only achieved an A twice in his entire school career. Perhaps it won't be surprising to be told that he scored As both times in religious studies. A decade or so later, a writer friend of Wittgenstein said that the philosopher would have most have liked to have become a priest and “to have read the Bible with the children”. Shortly after this, Wittgenstein began a short career as a schoolteacher. At his school he would pray with his pupils every day. After leaving that post, Wittgenstein called in at a monastery and enquired about becoming a monk. (Needless to say, he didn't take up this vocation.) However, Wittgenstein’s Christian beliefs remained strong after this event. So much so that in the 1920s Bertrand Russell said of Wittgenstein: “[He] was much pained by the fact of my not being a Christian.”

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger was brought up in a strict conservative Catholic family. Early on in his life he wanted to join the Catholic priesthood. However, in 1919, Heidegger broke with the Catholic confession. Despite that, Heidegger still described himself as a “Christian theologian” until around 1921.

Now let’s quickly skip forward to Heidegger’s funeral. He was buried in a Christian Church at which a Mass of Christian burial was held. It was the same church at which Heidegger’s father had once served as a sexton. The celebrant on this occasion was a Christian theologian. Heidegger had previously asked him to read verses from the poet Hölderlin, and these verses were to be read alongside sections from the Scriptures. The celebrant theologian also spoke on Heidegger’s behalf. He said that Heidegger was a great philosopher and a “seeker whose thought has shaken our century”.

Unthought and the Point of Pointlessness

“…it is not philosophy in any straightforward sense, [with] its permanent traversal, excess, or outflanking…[he] has not so much re-defined philosophy (the traditional task of philosophy), as rendered it permanently indefinite.” (Geoffrey Bennington, 1998)

Is the Christopher Bennington passage above an accurate description of Wittgenstein’s philosophy? To me, at least, it is. However, Bennington is actually referring to Jacques Derrida. I hope, nonetheless, that my implicit point still holds. (Of course it could also - to some extent at least - be a description of Heidegger’s philosophy.)

In terms of the quoted passage above (at the least), that’s partly why there are so many cross words in the long-burgeoning Wittgenstein Industry. It's also because “there is no standard by which one can measure [him] without begging the question against him”. That was Richard Rorty speaking in 1976. However, Rorty, like Bennington above, isn’t speaking about Wittgenstein: he's speaking about Heidegger! Rorty continues thus:

[H]is remarks…are beautifully designed to make one feel foolish when one tries to find a bit of common ground on which to start an argument.”

That’s also why there are as many interpretations of Wittgenstein as there are people who've read his work.

Though what if (as is often claimed) “there is no authority outside the text”? Then these multiple interpretations of Wittgenstein (as well as Heidegger) may not be such a bad thing after all. It would also be a good thing if Wittgensteinians themselves were to seek out an explanation for this Wittgenstein interpretation-frenzy. However, it's the case that many Continental philosophers have had part of the answer to this ongoing situation.

For example, the following is a generally-accepted position (i.e., within much Continental philosophy) on (all) “texts”:

“…this text cannot exhaustively control the reading you give it (no text can read itself without remainder)…there is no end to reading, no conceivable horizon of interpretation…” (Bennington, 1998)

It may be even wiser to keep the above remarks in mind when specifically considering Wittgenstein’s works. His works - almost more than any other texts in the analytic philosophy tradition – are made to suffer from what Roland Barthes called “semiosis” (as used in a critical sense) – that is, excessive over-interpretation.

I'm not the only one to have been by perplexed by Wittgenstein’s work. Many within the analytic - and indeed the Wittgensteinian - tradition have dared to admit to their own perplexity.

For example, take these words on the Tractatus:

It is for the ordinary reader a book sealed with seven seals, of which the significance is only to be revealed to the most esoteric devotees, and which…embodies a very peculiar combination of rigorous mathematical and logical thought and obscure mysticism.” (Rudolf Metz, 1935)

Perhaps it's a little more surprising to read Brand Blanshard writing in these terms:

“…Wittgenstein…has the strange distinction of having produced a work on logic beside which the Logic of Hegel is luminously intelligible.” (1962)

The heat that brings forth so many interpretations also brings forth a copious amount of cross words too. Many commentators/admirers of Wittgenstein think that far too many other commentators/admirers have “got Wittgenstein wrong”; just as many commentators/admirers of Heidegger believe that far too many other commentators/admirers have got Heidegger wrong.

An enigmatic and gnomic (or even inscrutable) philosopher such as Wittgenstein was - and still is - bound to attract his fair share of acolytes or disciples. As Gilbert Ryle once put it:

[V]eneration for Wittgenstein was so incontinent that mentions, for example, my mentions, of any other philosopher were greeted with jeers.” (1946)

A mystical philosopher who wrote profoundly mystical prose was almost bound to be venerated (as he still is today). The very obscurity of (some of) Wittgenstein’s utterances may well mean that his initiates have prided themselves on discovering the truth about their Master’s work. After all, it takes a lot of hard work to get Wittgenstein right. So perhaps their self-praise is justified to some extent.

Of course it needn't be said here that just about everything written so far about Wittgenstein (in this section) is equally applicable to Heidegger. No one ever gets Heidegger right either. They just get him wrong.

To sum up. Wittgenstein himself once said that only two people understood his philosophy - and one of them was Gilbert Ryle!

How To Get Unthought Wrong


[Wittgenstein] has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think…that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.” - Bertrand Russell (circa 1919)

Any ‘translation’ of [Heidegger’s] thought into terms that we can understand, he argues, will most likely result in a misunderstanding. Similarly, any attempt to locate him in the tradition that he rejects will probably produce a false picture of his efforts.” (Continental Philosophy Since 1750: the Rise and Fall of the Self, by Robert C. Solomon, 1988)

The “problem of life” (as Wittgenstein once put it) isn't solved by philosophy: it's solved by (more or less?) ignoring philosophy. Or, as Heidegger might have put it, the problem of life is solved by deconstructing (traditional) philosophy.

According to Wittgenstein himself, he once claimed to have read “little philosophy”. And what little he had read wasn't “too little, rather too much”. Indeed whenever Wittgenstein read a philosophical book, he claimed that it didn’t “improve [his] thoughts at all”. Rather, “it [made] them worse”.

There was an hilarious conversation which was notated between Wittgenstein and H. A. Prichard that exemplifies the former’s position on philosophy (at least at that time):

Wittgenstein: “If a man says to me, looking at the sky, ‘I think it will rain, therefore I exist’, I do not understand him.

Prichard: “That’s all very fine; what we want to know is: is the cogito valid or not?”

The conversation above at least shows that Wittgenstein had a sense of humour (despite opinions to the contrary). Strangely enough, the man Wittgenstein referred to actually offered a (kind of) valid argument for the Cogito, at least in a very limited sense. Prichard (presumably a typical English analytic philosopher of the time) responded drearily and typically to Wittgenstein’s witty take on the Cogito. It must of course be said that Wittgenstein was perhaps being just a little disingenuous and rhetorical when he claimed not to “understand” the man who looked at the sky to prove his own existence.

Despite what's so far been said, Bertrand Russell might still have been a little too hard on Wittgenstein when he claimed that the

later Wittgenstein…seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary” (1944).

Perhaps Russell’s language above is still a bit too strong when applied to Wittgenstein himself. After all, extremely serious and difficult thought would still be needed in order to pave the way which led to making “serious thinking…an activity [which was] unnecessary”. Alternatively, if one just came along and said, “Fuck thought!”, not many people would listen. In any case, mysticism (of various kinds) has always been abstruse and profound. (Or, if one is cynical, profound because abstruse.)

Wittgenstein thought that many philosophical problems are in fact non-problems; and, in addition, that many philosophical questions were in fact “pseudo-questions” (a favourite term of Rudolf Carnap at one time).

For example, the questions “What is time?” and “What is a number?” were deemed to be insoluble by the late Wittgenstein. That wasn't because they are too deep and profound. Rather, Wittgenstein believed that they're insoluble because they're simply “nonsensical”. He also believed that those who ask these questions are simply “misusing language”.

Despite all that, perhaps part of the the truth is that Wittgenstein did indeed grow tired of “serious thinking”. In this context, however, that may be understandable to us if we bear in mind the fact that, according to Wittgenstein himself, the sort of questions just specified couldn't - by their very nature - be answered. And those other perennial “philosophical problems” couldn't - again, by their very nature - be solved. This was no doubt partly the reason for Wittgenstein’s frustration with - and his ennui towards - traditional philosophical problems and questions.

The Point of Pointlessness

On the other hand, it might have been more than simply a case of certain questions and problems being insoluble or meaningless. What if Wittgenstein was against certain types of questions and problems not because they're insoluble or nonsensical; but simply because he simply couldn’t see the point of them?

All that's been said so far can be put in the context of the following exchange.

In response to something Wittgenstein said, Alan Turing replied: “I see your point.” To this reply Wittgenstein had nothing but contempt. He said: “I have no point!” So, in a certain sense, we can say that Wittgenstein wasn't that far removed from the Zen master who questions the point of points. We can also say that to have a point (in Wittgenstein’s later eyes) is also to admit to oneself that one is trapped within the “language game” that is traditional Western philosophy. This was a place that Wittgenstein didn't want to be (at least not during his later years).

It can now be added that it was perhaps Wittgenstein’s intention not to spell out the point of many of his, well, points. It might well have been part of his intention to indulge in a kind of unthought or thoughtlessness. At least (in a Heideggerian vein) in such a state it may be possible to genuinely question the point of thought (if only thought as seen by “traditional Western philosophy”).

In the Tractatus, on the other hand, it's been assumed (by certain commentators) that Wittgenstein simply believed that his readers would already be familiar with the work of Frege and Russell; not to mention the work of Kant and Schopenhauer. Similarly with his Philosophical Investigations. Many people find it difficult to comprehend what precisely Wittgenstein is actually trying to say in that work. Wittgenstein might have actually said to these people: That’s because I'm not saying anything! Or, more charitably, we can say that what Wittgenstein was actually trying to do in that book was diagnose our philosophical confusions by means of particular examples and particular counter-examples.

There is a problem here: if we don’t have the same confusions as Wittgenstein, then we certainly won't see the point of his words.


So what about Heidegger?

Wasn’t Heidegger similarly “tired of serious thinking” throughout most of his life? Didn’t he want to get back to pre-Socratic and Medieval unthought (or thoughtlessness)? Didn’t he also question the words, concepts and tools with which we philosophise?

The following is a long passage from Rorty on Heidegger’s attempt to reach a state of unthought (or thoughtlessness) that was at the same time still - what the continentals call - “onto-theological”:

“…Heidegger ended up…as a thinker who tried to get away from beliefs…altogether. He wanted a language that was not hammered out as an instrument for communicating…but one that ‘is what it says’ (a compliment he once paid to Greek). He wanted to discover a language that was as close to silence as possible…Being and Time was (like A Common Faith…) a proposal to teach us a new way of talking – one that would let us ask about God or Being without thinking of ourselves as superscientists… He leans over so far backward to avoid being one more superscientist, one more metaphysician, one more theologian…He merely points and hints [like Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations]…Heidegger doesn’t employ any method. …in his later work he takes care to assert only sentences that cannot be construed as…beliefs (thus making it impossible to converse with him at all).”

In many respects, a large amount of post-Hegelian examples of Continental philosophy also attempted to acquire a state of unthought (or thoughtlessness). It did so by stepping outside what Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) called “the cognitive All”. In such a state, certain philosophers found themselves free from the wicked gaze and control of Reason and Science. Or, in Rosenzweig’s own words again, the philosopher found himself

in the utter singularity of his individuality…[in which he stepped] out of the world which [only] knew itself as the conceivable world, out of the All of philosophy” (1921/1970).

Heidegger & Wittgenstein as Mystics (Non-Philosophers)

Although Heidegger and Wittgenstein were philosophers, this shouldn't (or doesn't) automatically mean that they couldn’t also have been mystics of some kind (e.g., philosophical mystics).

So what is a mystic?

It's often said that mystics attempt to overcome strict (or rule-bound) ways of thinking (at least when it comes to spiritual or religious matters). Many mystics have also insisted that heaven, Christ and God are not in fact to be found in a distant realm – i.e., one that's more or less untouched by us in our present lives. Instead they're to be found “hidden within our hearts”. When, finally, we find them, then we can bring them to life with desire, love, or with acts of the will.

So what about this “mystical tradition”?

It was a tradition that nearly always placed a strong emphasis on the limits of religious language. It also stressed the need to go beyond what can be called “ontological objectification” (an aspect of mysticism that certainly appealed to Heidegger).

Finally, in many respects mystics have generally wanted - or tried - to rise above what they saw as the limitations of knowledge (or knowledge- acquisition). Instead, many mystics thought that we should quite simply replace knowledge with love, devotion, “heightened” psychological states, etc.

In certain respects Wittgenstein didn't even see himself as (solely) a philosopher. He certainly didn't see himself as an essentially professional (or academic) philosopher. He often veered, instead, towards mysticism or even – sometimes - towards straightforward religiosity (in certain cases, also towards artistic expression). Wittgenstein himself wrote that “philosophy ought really to be written as a poetic composition” (1931). Of course the Tractatus can – in certain ways – be seen as a poetic (or even a Nietzsche-like) poetic-prose composition. On the other hand, it's also been said that the Tractatus's epigrammatic (or gnomic) prose style is more a result of Wittgenstein’s assumption that his readers will have already read Frege and Russell; not to mention Kant and Schopenhauer. That is, he simply didn’t have the time (at the time) to fill in all the dots. (Wittgenstein wrote most of his Tractatus as a soldier during World War One.) Despite that possibility, in 1912 Russell once told Wittgenstein that he ought not simply to state what he thought: he should also provide arguments for it. To which Wittgenstein replied:

Arguments would spoil its beauty. I would feel as if I were dirtying a flower with muddy hands.”

I therefore believe that Wittgenstein was being quite intentionally poetic and epigrammatic (as well as intentionally mystical and esoteric) when he wrote his Tractatus.

Heidegger too was also keen to express a poetic vision.

No comments:

Post a Comment