Friday, June 01, 2007

Tired (With Further Asides on Wittgenstein and Other Recent Readings)

One of those posts where I announce I am feeling tired and weary. Not bored, not at all, just tired. Physically and mentally. Busier than usual at work and at home books a little more complicated and exhausting than usual. But finally a nice weekend is here and I hope I will regain all my energies and regular blogging will continue. I am even feeling like going out somewhere for a change.


Anyway, This week I finished reading Wittgenstein's Vienna by Janik and Toulmin, a truly brilliant work of cultural and intellectual history. (Thanks to Mr. Waggish and Antonia for bringing it to my attention.) Even though my guess is that it makes Wittgenstein's philosophy look less original and less complicated than it actually is. They make him sound more like an illustrator and explicator of Kierkegaardian thought. Only guess of course since I haven't yet understood Wittgenstein's philosophy. Last weekend I also struggled with a small monograph titled Wittgenstein on Human Nature by P.M.S. Hacker. It is very short, just over fifty pages and it starts off very beautifully but then when I finished it I found myself in even deeper confusion than I was before. This is by the way not different from my general experience with ANY book about philosophy of mind. The Hacker book sounded cool because he (with Wittgenstein's help of course) claimed to clear conceptual confusions which form the foundation of the subject but then after reading it I was more confused than ever. Even a simple English sentence looks threatening to me now. I am already going through a serious phase of "language pessimism". Everything seems to crumble down the moment I say it or write it down (yes that includes this blog too.) I have to part companies with these philosophers and other enemies of language for some time I think.

In any case Janik and Toulmin book is eminently recommendable. Specially since I have been reading a lot of Austrian literature of that period it felt like both, a brilliant summation and a fantastic introduction to what must be the most fascinating and complex period of European cultural history, perhaps second only to classical Greece. Besides Wittgenstein, there are stunning portraits of such figures as Karl Kraus, Otto Weininger, Arnold Schonberg, Adolf Loos, Ernst Mach, Hofmannsthal, Mauthner and others. I had barely heard of many of these people before but Janik and Toulmin make them all sound enormously interesting. On top of that their writing style is very accessible too. Yes, Robert Musil, my personal favourite Austrian, gets a short shrift and Kafka is barely mentioned (okay, he didn't really belong there but it was all one empire) but reading their discussions of the philosophical questions that animated the intellectual environment of the time gave me new perspectives and a new understanding of these writers too. I really love this approach to history and philosophy. The last time I was impressed with a similar book was when I read Isaiah Berlin's collection of essays on nineteenth century Russian Intelligentsia Russian Thinkers last year. Both of these books belong to the topmost shelf. I will try to post about some of these things in a little more detail later.

6 comments:

Ashok said...

I just wandered on in, I'm not sure how.

What I tell people before they read Wittgenstein is just to have an idea - not too much more - about what Frege and Russell were trying to do. The idea was that there could be a logically perfect language that would be a great aid to the sciences and pretty much make statements like "There is a God" meaningless. To this end, Russell started playing with logical atomism: something at the foundation of logic had to be metaphysically posited as real, so that way formal logic could correspond to truth. Note this flies directly in the face of what Kant says in the first Critique, where he says one can't expect logic to be able to comment on truth until all the sciences are known, since formal logic is just that - formal.

In any case, Wittgenstein's thought is that of a critical figure against this pre-Kantian mindset, where the law that governs all things might be written into the stuff that is the universe. Hence, he'll ask how an arrow points, like he does in the Investigations, and we have to wonder about our conventions and how they stem from the signs we make, signs that we make to inform each other. Wittgenstein never loses sight of the fact language is social; Russell and Frege, searching for a language that aids the sciences, need to get far away from the "social" because the "social" is anything but "certain."

If you want to read my ramblings on Wittgenstein further - I'm sure I've only told you what you already know so far - here's an essay on Wittgenstein and the purpose of philosophy. Hope you like it.

antonia said...

glad you liked it

Ashok said...

Will link to your blog - thanks so much for liking what I had to say!

Alok said...

ashok: your blog is a great resource. I am only learning about these things so it was nice to see your extensive commentaries on these subjects.

antonia: hopr you are okay. will write to you in a while.

Alok said...

ashok: your blog is a great resource. I am only learning about these things so it was nice to see your extensive commentaries on these subjects.

antonia: hopr you are okay. will write to you in a while.

antonia said...

well ok is a big word.- do write if you want -