Thursday, 19 February 2009

"The Tragedy of Wittgenstein."

“There was once a young man who dreamed of reducing the world to pure logic. Because he was a very clever young man, he actually managed to do it. When he’d finished his work he stood back and admired it. It was beautiful. A world purged of imperfection and indeterminacy. Countless acres of gleaming ice stretching to the horizon. So the clever young man looked around the world he had created and decided to explore it. He took one step forward and fell flat on his back. You see, he’d forgotten about friction. The ice was smooth and level and stainless... but you couldn’t walk there. So the clever young man sat down and wept bitter tears. But as he grew into a wise old man he came to understand that roughness and ambiguity aren’t imperfections: they’re what make the world turn. He wanted to run and dance. And the words and things scattered upon the ground were all battered and tarnished and ambiguous and the wise old man saw that was the way things were. But something in him was still homesick for the ice where everything was radiant and absolute and relentless. Though he had come to like the idea of the rough ground, he couldn’t bring himself to live there. So now he was marooned between the earth and ice; at home in neither. And this was the cause of all his grief.”

From Derek Jarman’s film Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the truly great geniuses of the 20th Century. He only published one philosophical work in his lifetime but has still come to be regarded as one of the greatest minds in all of philosophy. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein set out a minimalistic world that was purely logical. It’s a beautiful accomplishment even if the endeavour was ultimately a failure. He came as close as anyone ever has to making the world into what Quine called a “desert landscape.” Flush with success, Wittgenstein then left Cambridge and lived in self-imposed exile for years. When he finally returned, he was horrified to discover that he was the most famous philosopher in Britain. By then he had changed his mind and realised that the everyday and the ordinary were greater than pure logic. He had discovered that logic was a solution to a problem that no-one was troubled by: that life carried on going even without logic’s elegant intervention. So he wrote what would be published after his death as the Philosophical Investigations: a sprawling, labyrinthine text full of dead ends, pitfalls, and strange anecdotes in stark contrast to the aphoristic simplicity of the Tractatus.

There could never be two more different works. Both are Wittgenstein and both are masterpieces. Wittgenstein was a genius: a mind too intense, too complex, and too brilliant for this world. And so he suffered. He was a man without peers for none could hope to match him. He was a man without a cause because he could see through them all. He was a man without a world because he saw the potential for what the world could be. He was cursed with the blood of a philosopher flowing through him: he later referred to philosophy as a form of therapy for addled minds. He was born with a fortune and chose to give it away. He was an intellectual celebrity and chose to live in exile. He spawned disciples and was disgusted by their work. He was a genius and he lived an exciting but tragic life.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s last words were “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

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