Sunday, April 26, 2009

A labile equilibrium

And (following on from Friday’s article) it’s also 120 years since the birth of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian born but one of the most influential figures in British philosophy during the 20th century. He was a bit of a diarist too, with a penchant for coded entries about his private life as well as somewhat existential musings, such as ‘I feel as if my intellect was in a very labile equilibrium.’

The youngest of eight children, Wittgenstein was born on 26 April 1889, exactly 120 years ago, and raised in a rich and intellectual Viennese family. He studied engineering in Berlin and Manchester, but became interested in the foundations of mathematics and pursued philosophical studies with Bertrand Russell and G E Moore at Cambridge. Wittgenstein’s father died in 1913, leaving Wittgenstein independently very wealthy, although he donated some of his inheritance to Austrian artists and writers.

With the onset of war, he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, and saw action on the Russian front and in Italy, where he was taken as a prisoner of war in November 1918. As a soldier he had kept notebooks and these became the basis for Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book-length treatise on his picture theory of language which, while still an Italian prisoner, he managed to write and send to Russell in Cambridge. It was not published until 1921, but nevertheless became and remains one of the most important philosophical works of the period.

After the war, Wittgenstein gave away the rest of his fortune to his siblings. According to Wikipedia’s long and detailed biography, he felt that giving money to the poor could only corrupt them further, whereas the rich would not be harmed by it. Having denounced any further need to work on philosophy and having embraced Christianity, he trained as a teacher in Austria, and spent some years working in a village school. Eventually, though, the pull of philosophy, through the Vienna Circle especially which had been so influenced by Tractatus, took him back to Cambridge in 1929.

Thereafter, he developed the idea that there is nothing wrong with ordinary language as it stands, and that many traditional philosophical problems were only illusions brought on by misunderstandings about language and related subjects, thus helping to inspire a second philosophical movement. In 1939, he was appointed chair of philosophy at Cambridge, a position he held until resigning in 1947, although during the war he volunteered as a hospital porter and laboratory assistant. But Wittgenstein was always restless, moving to Norway, or Russia, or Ireland or back to Austria at different times, for different reasons. He died in 1951

Wittgenstein’s diary output appears to have been collated into two parts: the notebooks he wrote during the First World War, and the so-called Koder Diaries from the 1930s. Some information about the former can be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Public and Private Occasions, edited by James Carl Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, and published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2003. Some pages are freely available to view on Googlebooks.

It states: ‘On August 8, 1914, Wittgenstein began keeping a diary. On that day he traded a larger manuscript volume for a military uniform, anxiously asking himself whether he would still be able to work. A week later, he suddenly started writing in an illegible code, and yet another week later Wittgenstein divided his diary in two: On left pages he recorded private matters in his secret code, while the pages on the right contained philosophical remarks in normal script.’

These diaries, a footnote explains, were published in two entirely different books: Notebooks of 1914-1916 providing the immediate philosophical background to Tractatus (peak inside at Amazon); and an ‘unauthorised publication’ of the coded entries in Geheime Tagebücher, which ‘arguably offers glimpses of a larger private and spiritual background’. Apparently, according to a website on Jacques Lacan, these diaries reveal that he thought about mathematical problems while masturbating at the front during the First World War. 

The Koder diaries, written in the 1930s in Cambridge and Norway, were first edited by Ilse Somavilla and published in 1997 under the title Denkbewegungen or Movements of Thought. The book mentioned above - Ludwig Wittgenstein: Public and Private Occasions - is, in fact, mostly about these diaries.

A slightly earlier book - Wittgenstein: Biography & Philosophy edited by Klagge and published by Cambridge University Press in 2001 - has an essay by Nordmann entitled The Sleepy Philosopher: How to Read Wittgenstein’s Diaries. A good review of the book, by Juliet Floyd, can be found on the website of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. She says: ‘Alfred Nordmann’s thoughtful essay warns against the naïve use of Wittgenstein’s diaries as a kind of magical key to the unlocking of his thought, while arguing that the kind of spiritual exercises Wittgenstein works through in them exemplify his philosophical methods.’

She also compares the two sets of diaries: ‘His diaries from the First World War were composed in unbelievably dire, existentially limiting conditions, surrounded by death and killing. The diaries from the 1930’s were composed in crises years, years during which Wittgenstein turned forty, decided not to marry, emigrated, faced the impact of his decision to earn a philosophical living by his own hand, meditated on his Jewishness, reacted to the reception of his early work, . . and tried to come to terms with his own internal philosophical drive, struggling to clarify and make habitable the philosophical place he had reached by the end of the First World War.’

Here are two quotes from Wittgenstein’s diary embedded in Nordmann’s essay in Wittgenstein: Biography & Philosophy (partly viewable on Googlebooks):

‘At the end of October or early November 1931 Wittgenstein notes: “I can lie like that - or also like that - or best of all, by telling the truth quite sincerely. So I often say to myself.”

Indeed, throughout these diaries Wittgenstein is worried that he might be lying even when saying the truth. It is as if he first allows a thought to occur, then judges whether he has caught himself in a moment of self-deception or self-revelation. As an attempt to write his life or to attain self-knowledge, the diaries are therefore characterised by editorial comments, as are his manuscripts and typescripts.

“Everything or nearly everything I do, these entries included, is tinted by vanity & the best I can do is as it were to separate, to isolate the vanity & do the right thing in spite of it even though it is always watching. I cannot chase it away. Only sometimes is it not present.” ’

Another essay in the same book includes this quote.

31 January 1937
‘I feel as if my intellect was in a very labile equilibrium: so as if a comparatively minor jolt could bring it to snap over. It is like when one sometimes feels close to crying, feels the approaching crying fit. One should then try to breath quite calmly, regularly, deeply until the fity dissipates.’

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