Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Wittgenstein & Heidegger: Parallel Spiritual Lives (Part One)


Introduction (page 1)

Introductory Sketches: Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Parallel Spiritual Lives (2)

Part One: Unthought and the Point of Pointlessness

  1. The Prose and Philosophy of Wittgenstein (page 3)
  2. How to Get Unthought Wrong and Miss the Point of Pointlessness (4)
  3. Heidegger and Wittgenstein as Non-Philosophers (6)

Part Two: Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Religion, Language Games and Philosophy

  1. Anti-Science and Pro-Religion (6)
  2. Religion, Metaphysics and Reason (7)
  3. Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Faith and Reason (8)
  4. Wittgenstein on Religion and Ethics (9)
  5. Heidegger’s General Religious Attitude (10)
  6. Early Heidegger as Mystic and His Spiritual Dasein (11)
  7. Wittgenstein on Religious Language Games (12)
  8. The New Mysterians Against Late Wittgenstein’s Anthropocentrism (14)

Part Three: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Philosophy and Ethics

  1. Heidegger on Ethico-Ontology (15)
  2. Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s Ethico-Ontological Particularism (16)
  3. Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Society (17)

Part Four: Overcoming the Tradition as a Spiritual Act

  1. Anti-Philosophy and Anti-Academia (18)
  2. The Final Solution(s) of Metaphilosophy and the Desire to Overcome the Tradition (19)

Conclusion (21)

All philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Hegel, and even the subsequent anti-theologies of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger, revolve around the question of God…The merely moral God…attacked by Nietzsche, is not the God of metaphysics as understood by Heidegger…” (page 80, Hans Küng, On Being a Christian)

“…there can only be one ultimate end of all the operations of the mind. To this all other aims are subordinate, and nothing more than means for its attainment. This ultimate end is the destination of man, and the philosophy that relates to it is termed moral philosophy. The superior position occupied by moral philosophy, above all other spheres for the operation of reason…” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Method)


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.” (Zemach, 1964)

The following is an essay on the mystical and spiritual leanings of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein; 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 will of course be a brooding presence in the background and will evidently, at times, break through. In any case, the mystical side of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is already well commented upon. Despite having said 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 side of Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein had to be forced down the throats of Wittgenstein’s incredulous - though faithful - positivist/analytic acolytes. To many of them, of course, the ideas that could be found in the history of German metaphysics were almost all strictly verboten.

So I myself will quote a very Tractarian-like passage here from Schopenhauer that isn't only relevant to a reading of the Tractatus itself; though also to a reading of late Wittgenstein and, indeed, Heidegger (as well as to the ideas found in this essay):

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…” (Schopenhauer, 1816/1969)

So instead of a detailed commentary on the Tractatus, I will argue that the mystical or spiritual side of Wittgenstein’s work was, in certain senses, carried on until his death. I don't believe that, on these limited issues at least, there's therefore any 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 the man.¹ What appeals to me about the Rorty position on Heidegger, and indeed continental philosophy generally, is his ability to “demystify” its obsessions with deepness (or, as the English would say, “heaviness”), profundity, and Life and Death. What he sees is that under the “onto-theological” expressions of these issues, at least as far as Heidegger is concerned, lies some quite simple elements that are, in some cases at least, not particularly deep or profound at all. ²

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

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.” (Rorty, 1983)

There are many other connections between Wittgenstein and Heidegger that could have been commented upon in this essay. These include their shared concern with language; their philosophical externalism and individualism (as a response to Cartesian internalism and subjectivism); their interest in what Robert Brandom calls the “ontological primacy of the social” (1983); ³ a sceptical position on scepticism itself (which is itself a correlative position with the internalism already mentioned); and even Heideggerian arguments that are somewhat close to the Private Language Argument;⁴ and so on.

Primarily, I believe that both Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s mystical and spiritual leanings can primarily be found in their desire to reach a state of what I call unthought (or, alternatively, thoughtlessness), their anti-academia and anti-philosophy, their strong anti-scientific (or anti-scientistic, in Wittgenstein’s case) proclivities, their metaphilosophical attempts to either “overcome” the Western philosophical tradition or to simply ignore it, and their defence of religious (and other) language games.

What follows is not primarily a work of philosophical analysis (if at all).⁵ In fact Anglo-American analytic philosophers (of the hard-core type) may find this essay a long ad hominem piece. I would say, however, that this essay is indeed biographical (to some extent at least); though it's hopefully not a long exercise in simply applying ad hominem arguments. Having conceded that, I will still say that ad hominem arguments, if, indeed, the following are such things, are justified only if they lead the way to a better and deeper understanding of the philosophical arguments. That is, biographical detail isn't seen to be the end of this philosophical inquiry; but simply the beginning. And this particular inquiry into Heidegger and Wittgenstein is still ongoing.

Introductory Sketches: Wittgenstein and Heidegger as Parallel Spiritual Lives

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)

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 nevertheless put the following sections of this essay in some kind of context (as well as putting the philosophical analysis of these two philosophers in some kind of context).

Wittgenstein’s father was baptised a Protestant. His mother and her children, however, were Catholics.

Wittgenstein only achieved an A twice in his entire school career. Perhaps it won't be surprising to hear 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” (1919). Shortly after this, Wittgenstein began a short career as a schoolteacher. At his school he would pray with his pupils every day. After leaving this 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 1920s Russell said of Wittgenstein: “[He] was much pained by the fact of my not being a Christian.”

Now, by contrast, there will follow an equally short biographical sketch of Heidegger’s religious and spiritual life.

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

Part One

Unthought and the Point of Pointlessness:The Prose and Philosophy of Wittgenstein

Has she [i.e., Anscombe] read Wittgenstein correctly?” (David Keyt, 1963)

“…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.” (Bennington, 1998)

Is the 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, be a description of Heidegger’s philosophy.)

So, in terms of the quoted passage above at 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” (Rorty, 1976). That was Rorty speaking. However, Rorty, like Bennington above, isn’t speaking about Wittgenstein; he's speaking about Heidegger! Rorty continues thus: “…his 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 have read his work.

Though what if, as Derrida once claimed, “there is no authority outside the text”? Then the 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 is the case that Continental philosophers have part of the answer to this ongoing situation.

For example, the following is a generally-accepted position, within 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)

And 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, suffer from what Roland Barthes, in a slightly different context, called “semiosis” – 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 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.” (Brand Blanshard, 1962)

The heat that brings forth so many interpretations also brings forth a copious amount of cross words too. So many commentators think that so many other commentators have “got Wittgenstein wrong”. (Just as Continental philosophers believe that many people have “got Heidegger wrong”.) Such an enigmatic and gnomic (or even inscrutable) philosopher such as Wittgenstein is also bound to attract his fair share of acolytes. As Ryle once put it: “…veneration for Wittgenstein was so incontinent that mentions, for example, my mentions, of any other philosopher were greeted with jeers.” (1946/1971) A mystical philosopher who wrote profound mystical prose was, at some point, 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. Perhaps cracking Wittgenstein is like cracking the Enigma Code.

Of course I needn't say here that just about everything said so far about Wittgenstein is equally applicable to Heidegger. No one ever gets Heidegger right either. They just get him wrong.

All that has just said about Wittgenstein isn’t just my own opinion: the great philosopher himself once said that only two people understood his philosophy - and one of them was Gilbert Ryle!

How To Get Unthought Wrong and Miss the Point of Pointlessness

[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, Robert C. Solomon, 1988, page 153)

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” (1946). 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 noted between Wittgenstein and H. A. Prichard that exemplifies the former’s position, as articulated above, 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? (1946)

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 limited sense.⁶ 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/or rhetorical when he claimed not to “understand” the man who looked at the sky to prove his own existence.

Despite what has 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” (Russell, 1944).

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 (what I call) unthought or thoughtlessness? Didn’t he also question both the words, concepts and tools with which we philosophise?

The following is a passage from Rorty on late 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).” (Rorty, 1983)

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. Or, in Rosenzweig’s 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).

In terms of Wittgenstein, 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, as in Heidegger, in order to pave a way that led to making “serious thinking…an activity [which was] unnecessary”. Alternatively, if one just came along and said, Fuck thought; let’s just get back to the tribe, not many people would listen, certainly not analytic philosophers and perhaps not other intellectuals either. 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, also, that many philosophical questions were in fact “pseudo-questions” (a favourite term of Rudolph Carnap at one time); or, alternatively, simply questions we should ignore.

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 thought that they are insoluble because they are simply “nonsensical”. He thought that those who ask these types of question 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, perhaps by their very nature, be answered. And those other perennial “philosophical problems” couldn't, again, perhaps by their very nature, be solved. This was no doubt partly the reason for Wittgenstein’s frustration with, and perhaps even his ennui towards, traditional philosophical problems and questions. However, it may alternatively have been more than simply a case of certain questions and problems being insoluble. What if Wittgenstein was against certain types of questions and problems not because they are insoluble or “nonsensical”, but simply because he couldn’t see the point of them?

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

Once, 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!” (1939) So, in a certain sense, we could say that Wittgenstein wasn't that far removed from the Zen master who questions the point of points. We could 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”). We may still, however, ask: Why didn’t Wittgenstein spell out the reasons behind his philosophical endeavours in, say, the Brown Book?

In the Tractatus, on the other hand, it has been assumed, by certain commentators, that Wittgenstein simply believed that his readers would be already familiar with the work of, say, Frege and Russell; not to mention the work of Kant and Schopenhauer. However, as I show elsewhere (in the next section), this wasn't in fact the case. Similarly with the Philosophical Investigations. Many people find it difficult to comprehend what precisely he's actually trying to say in that work. Though 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 counter-examples. Though there is a problem: if we don’t have the same confusions as Wittgenstein, then we certainly will not see the point of this book.

Heidegger and Wittgenstein as Non-Philosophers

Although Heidegger and Wittgenstein were essentially 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 about 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 (one that is more or less untouchable by us in our present lives). Instead they are to be found hidden within our hearts. When we finally find them, we can bring them to life with desire, with 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 mysticism has generally wanted - or tried - to rise above what it saw as the limitations of knowledge (or knowledge acquisition). Instead, many mystics thought that we should replace knowledge, quite simply, with love, mystical devotion, mystical 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 be seen in certain ways (though of course not all) as a poetic or even a Nietzschean-like poetic prose composition. It can be said, however, that the Tractarian epigrammatic or gnomic prose style is more a result of Wittgenstein’s assumption that many of his readers will have already read, say, Frege and Russell; not to mention Kant and Schopenhauer. That is, he simply didn’t have the time, at that time, to fill in all the dots. 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.” So I therefore believe that the Tractatus is quite intentionally poetic and epigrammatic, as well as intentionally mystical and esoteric.

Heidegger too, being a keen lover of (German) poetry, and also a lover of words-in-themselves (as it were), was also keen to express a poetic as well as a philosophical vision. (Heidegger wanted Hölderlin, for example, to be read at his funeral.)

No comments:

Post a Comment