A Glimpse of Success in Wittgenstein

14 Jul

In preparation for my English honors thesis on the formation of notions of meaning, meaningfulness, and (maybe) the sublime within both literary and theoretical works, I’ve been reading a good share of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Born around the turn of the century (1889) in Austria, Wittgenstein comes from that generation of thinkers thrown into a quickly changing intellectual world (thinkers like Freud and Saussure were influencing Humanities while physicists like Heisenberg were constantly probing the issue of certainty in scientific study) along with the first of the World Wars. As a volunteer soldier for the Austrian army, he was captured in Italy in 1918. Out of his time as a captive in the Italian prison camp, Wittgenstein produced his most famous work––the Tractatus Logicus Philosophicus (trivia point: it was the only work he published during his life). The work is framed in most analyses as a reaction to the breakthroughs Bertrand Russell (Wittgenstein’s mentor during his time at Cambridge) made in the growing fields of analytic philosophy and logic. Because of its intent focus on analytic philosophical questions, the Tractatus was not very helpful to my own strange investigations of meaning, but I still found something unbelievably common-sensical about it, especially within the first proposition and the last (both of which have found their way onto the walls of my room). The work, while dizzying and confusingly mathematical at many turns, was a page-turner for anyone interested in seeing how brilliance looks on a page. I promised to myself I wouldn’t gush too much in public, so instead of beating a dead horse, I’ll just display the carcass (the quotations, that is) to you:

“The world is everything that is the case.”
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Elegant, I know, but I must move on to things that I actually learned in the other selection I’ve read from Wittgenstein. Called simply The Blue Book, it was a preparation for Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which were never published during his lifetime. It starts with a simple question, a question which is in fact the perfect beginning for a study of meaning: “What is the meaning of a word?” This is, of course, right up my alley simply because it allows me immediately to indulge in the introspective process of reflecting on what I associate meaning to. I was, as is to be expected by such a substantial, simple question, dumbfounded. I could think of nowhere to start. Reading on, though, I learned something which will stay with me for a while. Wittgenstein responds to this opening question like a bamf:

“Let us attack this question by asking, first, what is an explanation of the meaning of a word; what does the explanation of a word look like?”

Why was this so bamf? You’re right, it is a fairly common-sensical method of moving from under what seems to be such a heavily packed question. But it is exactly this common sensical approach that blew me away. The most impressive sign of someone we would deem successful is an ability to relate things back to common sense. Someone who, in the face of an intimidating substantive dragon like the question what is meaning, steps up to it, looks at it, looks around it, and transforms either it or herself to make the substantial more manageable. Problem-solvers, systemic-thinkers, they somehow take nothing for granted but are somehow able to use everything around them as if it were a tool. They are somehow within the moment and also outside of it enough to know what to do.

This is what I got a glimpse of when reading Wittgenstein. But let me end with a like short caveat: these experiences happen all the time. We all have either those writers, those artists, shit, even those businessmen (especially in my mother’s case) who we see in a certain light, believe in a little more than the rest of them, because they have shown us something about the world, something about themselves; and, if they’re good enough, they’ve left little hints all along the trail of their wanderings to guide us toward some sense of success.

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