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Brilliant biography and exposition
on 11 March 2005
Wittgenstein's philosophical writings are very difficult, not only in content but also in presentation. He was always unhappy about committing his ideas to paper, and when he did so, he would set them down in a highly compressed form as numbered notes, sometimes in the form of aphorisms. When he sent the manuscript of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, neither of these considerable intellects could understand it (which didn't stop Russell from writing a foreword when it was eventually published.)
The 650 pages of Monk's magnificent biography are of course anything but compressed, and allow us to understand how Wittgenstein arrived at his conclusions. Monk writes beautifully, and he sets out the intellectual processes with the utmost clarity; but an additional and very special merit of this book is the skilful interweaving of Wittgenstein's thought and his personality.
Wittgenstein was a tortured and difficult man: intense, introspective, uncompromising, ruthlessly honest with himself and with others. He was torn between his need for solitude and his need for philosophical discussion. There was within him an immense tension between logic and mysticism. He feared madness and was frequently uncertain about the value of philosophy: he gave it up altogether for a few years after the First World War and taught for six years at elementary schools in backward rural areas of Austria. In later life he was a practising but ashamed homosexual, and for this and other reasons often felt "indecent" and suicidal. He found friendship and even elementary courtesies difficult unless there was a total identity of philosophical ideals. But his charisma was such that a number of people were devoted to him, forgave his often savage moods and harsh outbursts, and helped him: transcribing his ideas; securing him a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1930 and a Professorship in 1939; giving him a home in his last illness.
Monk handles with particular skill the transition between Wittgenstein's two philosophies. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus laid down the foundations of what would become Logical Positivism, though Wittgenstein felt, from his first contact with the Vienna Logical Positivists, that his concerns were different from theirs. They were primarily concerned with the verification of propositions; but in the Tractatus Wittgenstein held that the only task for which philosophy was equipped was that of clarifying what we say by analyzing the language we use. This means examining the logical structure of language; but at the end of the process we have not said anything about the validity of the propositions that have been clarified. Whether a proposition is true or false is not ascertained by logical deductions but by whether it pictures the world as it actually is. Religious, ethical or aesthetic propositions cannot, said Wittgenstein, picture the world as it is, and it is therefore not possible for such topics to be meaningfully discussed. Therefore, in the famous last sentence of the Tractatus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."
The Vienna School and the Logical Positivists were perfectly happy to have the realm of philosophy thus circumscribed; they felt no regret about the exclusion of religion and ethics from meaningful philosophical discourse. But Wittgenstein did suffer from this loss, and felt that the Vienna School had misunderstood him. He had already told his publishers that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. He had to say more about those areas which he had felt forced to pass over in silence. Religious utterance could contain a truth and a meaning which did not depend on words having a very precise meaning, but on an understanding of how religious language is used; and this understanding is gained from the experience of living a religious life.
Indeed, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein shifted his attention from the relationship between meaning and truth to that between meaning and use. Language, in other words, is not a picture, but a tool; and it is the way we use it that shows the meaning we ascribe to it. "Don't ask for the meaning; ask for the use", Wittgenstein now proclaimed; that, he thought, would at last "showing the fly a way out of the fly-bottle." Though it is still descriptive rather than deductive, the task of philosophy is now to clarify the way words are used in different situations rather than to pin down the absolute meaning of a word to some unchanging fact in reality. To my mind it is a much richer and less arid philosophy than his earlier one; and Wittgenstein worked out all kinds of fascinating implications of his new insight: it enabled him to see how, for example, music or humour or body language can be meaningful discourse which can be understood once you know how those particular languages are being used. The second philosophy is also much easier to understand than his first - so much so, in fact, that Russell accused him of having "grown tired of serious thinking". It certainly resulted in building a bridge between the perceptions of the philosopher and the "common sense" perceptions of the ordinary man; and if in his earlier years it was the sheer abstruseness of his philosophy which made him doubt the value of what he was doing, he now worried about what at the end of the day might be the difference between philosophy and common sense. But in the end he did find a humble use for philosophy. He writes, "'What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.' In philosophy we are not, like the scientist, building a house. Nor are we even laying the foundations of a house. We are merely 'tidying up a room'". (Monk, pp.298/299.)