Terminus Mechanicae

In preparing for the first lecture in the fall of 2014 at Spinderihallerne, Eva Sommer Hansen has challenged me to teach a little of Ludwig Wittgenstein in order to dispose my audience to the understanding required for the lecture. After reading my notes, she posed two questions:

What problems motivated Wittgenstein?
Why is Wittgenstein relevant today?

My answers satisfied the need for online material to prepare my audience. Now I repeat those answers here, to prepare a reader of Terminus Mechanicae.

I would like to start off by saying something like, “To note first is Wittgenstein’s project to set philosophy straight. Grammatical confusion had led the metaphysical philosopher astray…” But to be honest, I cannot bring myself to assume the authoritative language which is required for proscribing ideas to Wittgenstein in order to teach Wittgenstein. Likewise, I cannot assume that excitement over his work should be demanded from anyone today. However, I hope to satisfy these questions using a more experiential language.

Now, when studying translations of Wittgenstein one will surely encounter explorations of this “grammatical confusion.” Consider the following taken from a translation of Wittgenstein’s Blue Book,

Consider as an example the question “What is time?” as Saint Augustine and others have asked it…Very often the way the discussion of such a puzzle runs like this: First the question is asked “What is time?” This question makes it appear that what we want is a definition. We mistakenly think that a definition is what will remove the trouble…The question is then answered by a wrong definition; say: “Time is the motion of the celestial bodies.” The next step is to see that this definition is unsatisfactory. But this only means that we don’t use the word “time” synonymously with “motion of the celestial bodies”. However in saying that the first definition is wrong, we are now tempted to think that we must replace it by a different one, the correct one. (From Harper Perennial’s Major Works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Studies for ‘Philosophical Investigations, Blue Book, pages 117 and 118)

Consider if someone asks, “What time is it?” This question is similar to “Is it yet an appropriate time for…?”—diner, speaking aloud, or celebrating a birthday, for example. In any of these uses, the meaning is clearly understood. However, no one should expect any overlap in the meaning of time in this question and the meaning of time in a question such as, “What is time?” This question asks for an entity named time—and this is of a completely different meaning than in the first use.

It is easy to see how the confusion is then generalized in another passage appearing just a few pages later in the Blue Book,

…the characteristic of a metaphysical question being that we express an unclarity about the grammar of words in the form of a scientific question. (From Harper Perennial’s Major Works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Studies for ‘Philosophical Investigations’, Blue Book, page 129)

In itself, the critique of the misuse of our language is surely profound in the exegesis of philosophical texts. Yet, I have not made use of this practice in my life. In this, I have not found inspiration in this critique and I think the typical layman today would feel the same.

Now, in reading Wittgenstein’s Blue Book, I do find myself bothered by a slight annoyance. There is an explicit lack of attention to the multiple meanings which we might have for entities. Each meaning of an entity alludes to an understanding in which that entity has meaning—and this is true even in the case when someone might ‘mistakenly’ ask, “What is time?”

Each understanding gives us a way of speaking about the world, a sub-language itself which makes use of a world of entities. And undoubtedly, the possible ways of defining entities are multiple—for sure, our languages are multiple. Consider the languages of the sciences. The entities that make up a particular science compose one world, the entities of another science, yet another. A physical world is one of physical entities, and a psychological world is one of psychological entities. And there is nothing which demands that love as used in physiology should map neatly on to the love in psychology, for example.

In this, the manifest critique of the metaphysical philosopher anticipates another—a foundational critique which can be read into many of Wittgenstein’s published notes. (These notes rival the passion found within the translations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s polemics and here I am tempted to ascribe a particular intention to Wittgenstein. I want to say that the critique of the metaphysical philosopher is solely a preparation.)

If one takes it, as I do, that the spirit of the physicalist has come to be the foundation of popular discourse today, Wittgenstein assumes the role of a cultural critic—concerned not with academic philosophical exegesis, but with a change of popular perspective on the entirety of experience.

Now, I want to say that whoever does not find this profound is likewise one who has not 1) awakened to the inadequacy of mechanics to explain the entirety of experience, and 2) desired to ground the multiplicity of understandings.

The first difficulty is this: the mechanics of time and space do not offer rules for the entirety of entities expressed in language. Consider what Richard Dawkins has written about the nihilism which some accuse him of following a reading of his own work, The Selfish Gene,

Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feeling and those of most working scientist, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected. (The Selfish Gene, 30th Anniversary Edition, Introduction, page xiii)

After reading this quote, I am left with the feeling that Dawkins openly admits that the rules which he believes governs the universe cannot explain all that there is to experience. Now, physics does describe material and the mechanics of that material very well, but it seems, at least here, that Dawkins does not acknowledge any interest in describing an understanding of the “warmer perceptions” beyond this naïve expression. Nor does he even seem to want to consider the second difficulty: a more holistic understanding which could govern both.

Contrast this to a note translated and published in Culture and Value,

It is all one and the same whether the typical western scientist understands or appreciates my work, since he will not in any case understand the spirit in which I write. Our civilization is characterized by the word ‘progress’. Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure…I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings.

So I am not aiming at the same target as the scientists and my way of thinking is different from theirs. (From Peter Winch’s translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, page 7e)

To entertain multiple understandings requires something of an epistemic modesty—that is, an acknowledgement of the variety of things possibly meant by a single word, and at the same time, an acknowledgment of how little is meant in each particular use. And this modesty gives way to a healthy discourse with any friend, colleague, or lover.

I will conclude this preface to Terminus Mechanicae with a passage from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.

So people stop short at the natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate.

And they both are right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear conclusion, whereas in the modern system it should appear as though everything were explained. (From Harper Perennial’s Major Works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophius, sections 6.371 and 6.372)

– Justin Carmien, 10.07.2014