An ode to our man Ludwig

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment


I think the first time I read a quote the belonged to Mr Ludwig Wittgenstein, I was somewhat amazed, but only moderately so. He didn’t capture me in the way that, say, Nietzsche (my love for him (shamelessly) knows no bounds), or even tales and legends of Socrates did. I kind of shrugged and gave a – meh, that’s smart – swiftly carrying on with whatever had my attention at the time. Every time I see a Wittgenstein quote, I react in the same way. Well I did until today.

I went out this summer and picked up Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus  and, must admit, found it somewhat overwhelming. What a grand introduction he gave it, only to throw ‘incoherent’ (ashamedly to me, anyway) tidbits of philosophy at me. What was he playing at? I so naively thought. Then came the podcast. Whilst searching for something philosophical to listen to on my journeys to and from the tube station every day, I happened on quite a wealth of philosophy podcasts in the iTunes store, one of which was a 7 minute ‘analysis’ of Tractatus Logico. They say analysis, but it was more a narration of it. Anyway, again, despite the very authoritative way in which some of Wittgenstein’s text was presented to me, I sort of nodded and got on with my day, only pausing for a few minutes to reflect on this, now obviously, profound piece of philosophy.

Wittgenstein begins by telling his reader that his work is concerned with the simple fact that the reason problems arise in philosophy, is that the logic of our language has, somewhere down the line, been misunderstood. Now, I haven’t read enough of Tractatus Logico  to know whether he himself has had a stab at identifying where on that line, and perhaps you might let me know if he has – of course without giving me too much in the way of a spoiler, but it was at this point that I (partly) shed my skin of scepticism (for a philosopher would never shed it all), and sort of ‘let him in’, if you will. I read this, as I said, this summer, so why is it relevant today?

I recently began reading John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which so far has dealt with trying to distinguish the inherent properties of objects, from the impressions or ideas they have upon us. For example the object that is an apple, is in essence very different from the idea we have of it, says Locke. When we think of apples, we may call upon our idea of them being red, crunchy and sweet. What Locke argues is that the properties red, crunchy and sweet are not properties that belong to the apple, rather the effects the apple’s actual properties have upon our senses. Thus he concludes that any object in existence’s actual properties can only be of bulk, number, figure and motion.

This is the bit where it all got exciting for me.

Locke, by way of illustration, says:

The second sort [the quality of an object that is the power its properties have upon our senses] are looked upon as real qualities, in the things thus affecting us: but the third sort [the quality of an object that is the power it has to transform the properties of another object] are called and esteemed barely powers, v.g. the idea of heat, or light, which we receive to our eye, or touch from the sun, are commonly thought real qualities existing in the sun, and something more than mere powers of it.

Whenever an illustration is given in a philosophical text, I will, by habit, seek to provide more illustrations of my own, in order to prove of disprove a proposed theory. Before I got to that stage here, I sat and thought about real-life examples of our doing what Locke has described. It would not be uncommon, I think, for a parent explaining the concept of the sun to their child, and in trying to point out that it is hot, to therefore utter something like ‘the sun is hot’. Well, not around Locke they wouldn’t. Locke would clearly retort, ‘no, sire, the sun is NOT hot – the sun makes us FEEL hot.’ And, I thought, so would Wittgenstein, and it is here that I’ve found it in me to appreciate his philosophy in the way it should be appreciated.

I think my initial problem with Wittgenstein was the way he flippantly disregarded everything metaphysical, everything in philosophy I held dear to me, on the grounds that unanswerable questions are ultimately nonsense. They are of things that do not concern us, or, as he states more effectively than I ‘what we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence’. Being human, and more importantly, being a human interested in philosophy, my ego finds it somewhat difficult, perhaps even a little straining, to pass over ANYTHING in silence. To do so would be ignorant, so my conscious tells me, and alas, my soul yields.

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