Sunday, June 08, 2008

Drawing a Limit...

To the Expression of Thoughts.


Here, I try to answer your query about that particular line in the Tractatus preface. (I think you felt your guide was wrong—"wrong somehow"—about the 'impossibility' of the idea—and you are right.)

First of all, before we discuss that 90-year old Preface, let us first see what you and I think is the limit to thought. (We speak with definite [dis]advantages that Wittgenstein had not had—cable TV, movies, the Internet, video...and the sitcom and the reality show.)

Thoughts do have limits. Limits are imposed by the very process of thought—otherwise known as thinking.—So, thought is not an absolute but the result of something. The fact that we cannot think of a limit to thought does not signify that there is no limit to thought. The fact that I do not know of the existence of something does not mean that it does not exist, etc.

Thoughts...are not absolute. Thoughts are merely a reflection of the world. A thought needs a life to support it. Thoughts...stand on crutches, crutches of different make. (Anything goes.)

And even if there is no limit to thought; it makes no difference at all to the way you or I think; it would not have mattered at all to Wittgenstein or Russell either.

I listened to your statement of the problem. For convenience and for clarity and to prove a particular point, I quote straight from the Pears and McGuinness translation:
The aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather—not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought).
(TLP Preface)
As a literature student, I guess you might have noticed (not from this run-on sentence, but from the whole of the preface) what is curious about this preface. You must have noticed the rather bizarre punctuation, the flurry of periods followed by dashes and so on...

Wittgenstein's preface is composed of so many apologies stuck up like stacks of hay, and each toppling in turn, because Wittgenstein, first-time author, is fumbling over what he has to say. He has striven for clarity in the entire book; indeed the book is often cited as a supreme example of lucid prose. Whereas he is very comfortable, unassailable even, as he takes the help of logic in his arguments ('purification and clarification' exercises, as one might call them), he is clunky when he talks about the book. I feel that no preface is necessary for a book which is so blatantly entitled in the Latin. So.—I feel he has bungled with the very idea of a preface—a lame attempt at a humble overture to the sweeping generalizations that are to follow in the remarkably structured ...thought cathedrals. These chapters are not expositions, they are like the different books of the Bible; what he establishes is not premises supported by proof (logical or otherwise) but basic tenets that will be taken more on faith because the author's technique and his devotion to the task is so selfless and flawless. (In the same way most people find something to emulate in Christ.) It is not the man's words, it is the life that matters. (Most of his apparently iron-clad premises can easily be broken down, or otherwise proved fallacious; Wittgenstein's philosophy will not survive a postmodern appraisal, which does not know the meaning of a war which you can lose. Wittgenstein, it must be remembered, fought on the losing side first and then sat on the fence watching his adopted side win.)

The idea of the Preface was not to bandy about the impregnability of thought—or indeed to say anything at all about thought. What he says is about the expression of thought—in other words, language. The concern is with the formulation of questions in language. The objective is to identify sense and nonsense on the basis of questions which are proper, and those which are not. It is not about 'thoughts as absolutes.'

I think an important point made in the Preface is that there are some things which can be clearly written about, and other things which can only be shown, not written down (writing stands for any means of depiction which separates the experience from the retrieval; it includes also the video and the multimedia; thus it includes all information retrieval systems—text, sound, everything.) But this point is made elsewhere in the text. The one point which is not made elsewhere—essentially something 'about the book itself'—and which gave me a reason to read it over and over again—is that it (the book) "will be understood only by someone who has himself had the thoughts expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts." Indeed, excepting the difficult logic chapters, I had had a lot many of these thoughts before I came across Wittgenstein. So when I first read the line,
What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language.
(TLP 4.121)
Or, the even more trite,
What can be shown, cannot be said.
(TLP 4.1212, my emphases)
I thought, 'Wow, he's the one, he doesn't beat about the bush!' I was coming to grips with the writings of a man who had experienced the limit language placed on his thoughts, yet, heroically, decided to pour forth what he could, in whichever incomplete way, to indicate that limitation. This, I too had been doing for ever since I had been writing (July 1986).

The first line of Wittgenstein I read was in 1991. It was a quotation in a journal called Scientific Worker, (a pretty useful magazine that quickly went out of business), which ran:
We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. (TLP, 6.52)
The quotation omitted the latter part ('Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer'), because the authors were using it to prove a point. And, though it is beyond the question if such a use is 'fair use' (I think it was), unfortunately that is how Wittgenstein continues to be read and understood and dealt with in the academia these days. It's not a tragedy that happens to Wittgenstein; when the great practitioner who inflames, invigorates, difficult theory with his own lively words and elucidations leaves the scene, he and his work is left open to scavenging. The result is the establishment of a mauled and battered idol that somehow resembles an incomplete human being.

Wittgenstein has become a punctuation mark, or an apostrophe, or an embellishment to literary and philosophical dialogue, in much the same way biblical quotations have become embellishments in similar situations. It is a natural progression, the purists dread it, and I hate it.

And now, to answer your guide, who really hasn't made any sense of Wittgenstein at all: No, it is not "impossible." The question is not one of possibility (he assumes na├»vely—if not conveniently—that Wittgenstein, being so clear and clever, should have found it out if it had been possible) or impossibility. The aim of the book is to draw the line between sense and nonsense, between proper questions (which have proper answers) and improper ones (which do not have any answer, and are hence not questions). Language does not make anything possible. (When a lion kills an antelope, it is hardly the doing of language.) Language merely signals communicative possibility, which is only one among many possibilities. Things—objects and ideas—contain the possibility of certain events. To say that something is impossible is only to express a particular idea in language, in speech, in writing, in thought. 'Thinking both the sides of the thinkable limit' is merely a linguistic construction, not something which we logically encounter in our thoughts, in much the same way we do not encounter a colourless colour. I would heartily recommend to him the following thought, which is, surely enough, from the Brhadaranyaka, which expresses this basic limitation of language and knowledge (logocentrism, to jargon-freaks) in this stunning idea:
How can the truth be known? How can the knower be known?
(It is no wonder that the best formulations of all the issues of linguistic limits are to be found in the Upanishads. I don't think it is possible to improve upon the preceding formulation of the problem.)

The deep forest is not outside of us, existing in some remote place where we would like to go one day, on vacation or for dying; the deep forests are the forests of our thoughts, it is within us. Language is something we use to record our thoughts and to reach out to others. We do not use language for our thoughts. Thoughts are something primal, they are a reaction to stimuli and to internal excitements;—

Thoughts...do not speak. Thoughts do not write, either; thoughts only show. When we record to preserve the thought (a trace, if at all), we lose the process. And it is exactly this—that which is lost—makes the difference, and draws the line. The limit to thought is not the unthinkable but the impossibility of depiction of even simple thoughts. Recorded thought—makes no difference at all; what we read are not thoughts but the depiction of thought, which is inferior and altogether a different thing.

En passant: thanks for the great collection, the many-splendoured disc (x6).

[Two-penny verse]

When the brothers joined together
Disc-to-disc, shoulder-to-shoulder
The movement-image arrested the blinking text,
Shifting, seething, screaming with life...and what's next?

The brothers they faced the world anew,
Seeing things through the mind's eye,
Ever-blinking but never sinking, unlocking
Secrets consecrated to printer's dye.

Just imagine: Scorsese's Age of Innocence padded by The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton! Think! Rejoice!

You did not call...I waited, and then I rang you up, but me got the bleating network.
...So I write to fill the silence in me eardrums.
...And I held on so tight.
(Willie Garvin, on mobile phone misuse, with apologies to Paul Hewson.)


[1762, after nine straight edits and corrections; additional edits 8 June

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