Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New Books on the Reading Pile

I got a few books about Wittgenstein from the library yesterday. I wanted to get his biography by Ray Monk but it looked a little hefty and unmanageable to me. So I decided to pick up a routledge introduction to his philosophy instead and another book called Wittgenstein's Poker which seems to have lots of details about him and Karl Popper, another Austrian philosopher. I picked up Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus too, just to see what is in there.

I wanted to read about his life too. For the little I have read about him he seems to be a very interesting personality and a very nice person too. I don't think many people outside the academy really understand his philosophy (even the basic ideas) but surprisingly he came out at number three in a popular poll of greatest philosophers of all time conducted by BBC a couple of years ago. Here's the complete list. (I would have voted for him just for his attractive face. Along with Samuel Beckett his face is one of the most haunting and haunted faces ever. Two of my favourites ever, even though their works are beyond my reach.) There's also this BBC radio show worth listening to, though I think the anchor himself threw his hands up when his guests started getting deeper into Wittgenstein's philosophy.

21 comments:

mr waggish said...

The Monk biography is amazing and not at all a slow or difficult read. (I read it on the treadmill.) His life and personality are fascinating, but he was not a nice person. He was impossible. But he lived what he thought.

Alok said...

Didn't he donate most of his inheritance to writers and other charity? He also lived a life of such austerity and saintliness... that's what my impression is after reading some brief biographical sketches of him.

Cheshire Cat said...

I second Mr. Waggish. I don't like biographies in general but the Wittgenstein biography is fascinating. After all, Wittgentein's persona was what made him so famous, rather than just his philosophy.

About his being "impossible", there's the famous anecdote about him, Mrs. Keynes and the "beautiful tree". Contempt and condescension seem to have been second nature to him. True about the austerity and generosity; then again Gandhi and Einstein were difficult people too...

I think the key Wittgenstein book is "Philosophical Investigations". It is an exhilarating read, better than any novel. "Tractatus" is rather naive, it hasn't aged well.

Alok said...

ah, the absence of social tact? Won't we allow that for such a great person? in fact that should be counted as a virtue, honesty with others even if it means being impolite and "impossible".

His philosophy seems to be a little out of reach for me at this stage. Interesting that you say Tractatus hasn't aged well.. In a way the whole analytic philosophy itself has disappeared from mainstream intellectual culture, all the talk of philosophy in media now is centred around those french guys. wittgenstein is popular because of his persona I guess.

mr waggish said...

He was austere, for sure, but he insisted that everyone else meet his standards, and unsurprisingly, he found them lacking. He wasn't a monster like Russell or Canetti, but he wasn't made for human company.

I'll defend the Tractatus: aside from its poetic organization, its laying out of the sayable and the unsayable and the picture theory not only provide very articular information on what the later work reacts to (I think you have to read Tractatus to understand the later work), but also provide a lot more continuity than conventional wisdom dictates.

antonia said...

well he donated one half to charity and the other half to the war industry....i agree he was impossible, but intriguing. I agree also with mr waggish about the vaule of the tractatus today and for the latter work. There are lots of ugly logical problems in it and our teacher told us it is best to read it in layers...you have the ethical component about what can you say and what not which relates to Kierkegaard and lecture on ethic and then the picture theory and then his replies to problems that were posed by Frege and Russell...also, the system of the numeration is sometimes arbitrarily..it can make it easier to get an idea of the whole tractatus when one first only reads sentences that start with no1. then no2 and then only you read the other ones, 1.1, 1.2...2.1,2.2...via this way you get some structure...and after that the numeration gets arbitrarily...a good book also is the one by Hacker, 'Insight and Illusion', that covers the whole Wittgenstein.
Ingeborg Bachmann really early had discovered Wittgenstein, wrote an essay about him and made efforts to get his works wider published and to meet him, but then he died. Another rather good background book that is also interesting regarding Karl Kraus and probably could be of interest for you anyway is 'Wittgenstein's Vienna' by Janik/Toulmin. Very interesting are also his notebooks from the years 37/38. And the McGuinness book....ok I should stop now.
He was a complete nutcase, but on the other hand he also had an awesome judgement on classical music.

Alok said...

actually that introduction book is written by Hacker. I read parts of it, it looks good. I also checked for wittgenstein's vienna, it is not available in the library right now.

Even thomas bernhard liked wittgenstein.

Anonymous said...

see derek jarman's film.

Cheshire Cat said...

Wittgenstein has had a considerable influence on contemporary poetics. Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Michael Palmer are heavily indebted to him, to give just two (rather diverse) examples. The critic Marjorie Perloff has a great book, "Wittgenstein's Ladder", where she traces Wittgenstein's literary legacy, focussing on the formal and sylistic innovations of his philosophical writings. I'm sure he has had an even bigger influence on German literature but there are other people more competent to elaborate on that (you know who you are...)

mr waggish said...

I'm with Antonia, Hacker is a great resource: "Wittgenstein's Place in 20th C. Analytic Philosophy" is a great, if technical, overview. I'm very partial to David Pears's "False Prison Vol 1" on the Tractatus, as well; in fact, I'd recommend it as the single best place to start. (Pears was my teacher, though, so I'm biased. Vol 2 on the later philosophy is weak, unfortunately.)

Antonia, you beat me to mentioning Janik/Toulmin, who make an admirable attempt to synthesize the earlier and later philosophy in "Wittgenstein's Vienna." (Not to be confused with "Wittgenstein IN Vienna," their other book.) But I found a lot of their philosophical thinking to be pretty muddy and sketchy, even if the project is extremely worthwhile. I enjoyed the book, but I fear it might give some wrong impressions of the philosophy.

The link to the later philosophy is indeed in the more mystical and cryptic statements towards the end of the Tractatus, and I don't know of a good reference on that. But figuring out the logic issues are probably the best clues available.

I think pretty little of Perloff--I don't think she "gets" Wittgenstein at all, and turns him into a more generic postmodernist reference point.

Cheshire Cat said...

"Getting" people is over-rated. It can be more fruitful to misread someone, as Creeley misread Williams. Where does Wittgenstein the philosopher end and Wittgenstein the oracle begin? It's the oracular voice, really, the aphorisms, that's where the action's at... The picture theory of propositions will soon be forgotten, but "Die Welt is alles, was der Fall ist"? Perhaps not.

Alok said...

I am feeling a little stupid here. I am now back to the books with renewed energy. btw, just in case, here is the first chapter of Perloff's book. Her website has lots of interesting and in-depth essays on lots of different topics.

thanks anonymous, for the movie heads-up, will see if i can find somewhere.

mr waggish said...

Maybe. But when I read this in Perloff's first chapter:

"Far from being a "gesture of reverent authoritarian authenticity," Wittgenstein's aphorism "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is no more than the common-sense recognition that there are metaphysical and ethical aporias that no discussion, explication, rationale, or well-constructed argument can fully rationalize-- even for oneself."

Well, that's just not the case (die Fall). It's not common sense, and it's not about rationalization, and it's not about aporias. (These things were very real to Wittgenstein.) It's about the relation of language to world as *representation*, and to say otherwise is to have ignored large chunks of the Tractatus, which says nothing about rationalization.

That's not misreading; that's not doing your homework.

Cheshire Cat said...

Come to think of it, this strangely elaborate concern with language as representing is what caused me to lose interest in Tractatus when I tried reading it several years back. Maybe perseverance is needed to get to the good parts...

As for Perloff, she can be unreliable on Wittgenstein's philosophy, but she 'fesses straight up she's no Wittgenstein scholar. She surely has more interesting things to say about how Wittgenstein helped to open up a new space for writing.

antonia said...

agreed, waggish, re Janik/Toulmin's philosophical ideas. But as a background reading it is quite nice, now that I think of it nothing similar comes to my mind very soon that covers so much of all the relevant figures at that time. And it is quite good regarding the connection Kraus-Wittgenstein. I don't know Pears - my W teacher was Goran Sundholm, a very lovely man. I remember we read also Kenny's Wittgensteing book from 1973 and the Tractatus Introduction by Mounce, but as mentioned earlier, I found most helpful first Schulte for a gentle approach and overview and then building Hacker on top of that.
BY the way derek jarman, I must see the film, too, have a book about his garden which is just amazing.

antonia said...

which film by derek jarman, I wonder did he make one about wittgenstein?

Anonymous said...

antonia,
jarman's film is called wittgenstein. its not your conventional biopic though.

alok
some "beautiful words" that connect the last two posts of yours.

Words can be beautiful but they can never be true. Beauty is an aesthetic value. You can enjoy it, just like a beautiful painting, but nothing much will happen out of that enjoyment. It is good as far as it goes. But words are never true - they cannot be by their very nature. Truth can be communicated only in silence. But this is the paradox : those who have insisted that truth can be communicated only in silence have all used words.

Szerelem said...

out of my depth here as I haven't read Wittgenstein. I do remember my professor telling me that reading Wittgenstein was a weird experience because it gives you a sense that I am the only one who truly understands what he is trying to say....that in itself made me curious to read his works. Once I have more time on my hands I guess :)

Also when I was in London they had a video installation at the Tate Modern on "Remarks on Color".

Alok said...

I am a little out of depth too. I have lot of catching up to do. And I have never been to Tate Modern either.

seherezada said...

alok, here is an interesting site of
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
where Wittgy begins with his 7 phrases (*), then proceeds with their ramifications ...
(see this charming Tractatus Map),
trying desperately to search for words with extreme precise meaning, ...

The last one:
"7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." of course, has no ramification ...

His students related frequent situations when Wittgenstein, while trying to explain something, will remain tight-lipped, not being satisfied with the precision level of the words he was ready to utter ...

(*)that he later refuted ...

Alok said...

Thanks Seherzada for these links. the hyperlink tractatus looks enoormously cool, way easier and interesting to read than from the book. thanks again.