Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language

LudwigWittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein made a major contribution to conversations on language, logic and metaphysics, but also ethics, the way that we should live in the world. Wittgenstein published only one book in his life, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1921). The Philosophical Investigations (1953), for which he is most well known, is a posthumous document comprised of notes taken by students in his classes.

Wittgenstein was a difficult character. Those who knew him assumed he was either a madman or a genius. He was known for working himself up into fits of frustration, pacing about the room decrying his own stupidity, and lambasting philosophers for their habit of tying themselves in semantic knots. In his favour, Wittgenstein was not afraid to admit his own mistakes. He once said: ‘If people never did anything stupid, nothing intelligent would ever get done’. He also said: ‘I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves’. Students approached his classes at Cambridge University with due trepidation, never sure if they were about to witness a brilliant act of logical deconstruction or the implosion of a tortured mind.

Sometimes a crisis can be productive. Wittgenstein, who was constantly in the grip of some kind of intellectual cataclysm, tended to advance his thinking by debunking what he had previous thought to be true. The best example is his celebrated about turn on the nature of language. In the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued for a representational theory of language. He described this as a ‘picture theory’ of language: reality (‘the world’) is a vast collection of facts that we can picture in language, assuming that our language has an adequate logical form. ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things’, Wittgenstein claimed, and these facts are structured in a logical way. The goal of philosophy, for early Wittgenstein, was to pare language back to its logical form, the better to picture the logical form of the world.

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Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journies of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think?

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Promises to myself: ten philosophical resolutions

Dandelion Clock

Don’t you love the feeling when you realise that your work for the year is done and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t kick up your heels and relax? I woke up with that feeling this morning. I’m off to Vietnam at the end of the week and I can feel myself being drawn towards the plane.

Bon voyage, friends and fellow philosophers, wherever you may venture this holiday season! I’ll see you again in 2014 with more adventures of the cerebral kind.

I’ll leave you with a list of philosophical resolutions for 2014. I’ve lifted them from some of my favourite posts on this blog. I’ll be taking them with me on holiday. Promises to keep.

1. I will say ‘yes’ to life.

‘To complete Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes”. The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world”. Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation’.

From Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses (February 2010)

2. I will grow collective.

‘Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain’.

From Life changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility (January 2013) [Read more...]

Be with me: Heidegger in the age of the smartphone

It is early morning. A chorus of birds filters through an open window. A young woman lies in bed with her boyfriend. It is a quotidian scene, almost perfect – yet something is off. The boyfriend is checking his phone, a web-enabled device. In this intimate moment, his attention is elsewhere. Cut to the great outdoors: the couple are getting ready to go jogging. The boyfriend is still caught up with his phone. She waits while he chatters to a friend. Cut to the woman lunching with friends of her own. There is real social chemistry here, a buzz of laughter and conversation. But the others soon start thumbing through screens, engaging with their phones. The young woman has forgotten hers. Her expression, as she looks about the table, is worried as much as reproachful.

Where are you, my friends? Why can’t we just be together?

‘I Forgot My Phone’ is a gem – a softly ironic and resonant statement about life in the smartphone era. It is not a polemic. It features people who are clearly enjoying the connectivity and functionality that their phones provide. The genius of the film is to let us see the world through the eyes of a character who lacks a phone, and is looking for human connection. In this way, it focuses our attention on what happens when we introduce smartphones into social situations.

The protagonist in ‘I Forgot My Phone’ wanders through a set of strangely ‘deworlded’ social events. People co-occupy physical space – sharing a bed, sitting about a table, congregating in a hall – yet their attention is directed away from the people around them to a greater or lesser extent. They exist alongside one another, as opposed to ‘with’ one another, in a psychological and existential sense. Everyone is enjoying private experiences mediated by their smartphones that never add up to something unified and common. A couple enjoy a private event on a public beach; a group of friends at a bowling alley sit hypnotised by their glowing screens; people at a concert engage the show through their video apps, as if they were elsewhere, watching the action unfold. The atmosphere is dead. The experience is so individuated, you could scarcely call it a crowd. [Read more...]

Sceptical thinking: the five modes of Agrippa

sceptic‘What if?’ These are possibly the most disruptive words in the English language. If ‘why?’ stops us in our tracks, ‘what if?’ fills the mind with possibilities. Politics, innovation, and art would be impossible without ‘what if?’ ‘What if we tried talking, instead of fighting all the time?’ ‘What if we put a computer in the mobile phone?’ ‘What if the natives on Skull Island worshipped a giant ape called Kong?’ Start a sentence with ‘what if?’ and anything can ensue.

‘What if?’ also clutters the mind with troubles and anxiety. ‘What if it rains on the day of our wedding?’ ‘What if there is a God (or a demon!) watching and judging me right now?’ ‘What if I’m wrong about everything I believe in – what then?

‘What if?’ is a semantic stick thrust into a hornet’s nest of possibilities. Endless ideas fly buzzing about our heads, occasionally inspiring us but mostly distracting us from challenges and tasks.

There are numerous approaches one can take to relieving the effects of ‘what if?’ Some people explore meditation. Others deaden their senses with alcohol and drugs. Too many people simply choose to stop thinking. They give themselves over to the tedious routines of life, ‘blink’ rather than think, and select ‘brain off’ entertainment that enables them to maintain a zombified state through evening until sleep claims them. The approach that I recommend is the opposite of this. Instead of thinking less, I believe that we should be thinking more about the possibilities of life, but to do so in a sceptical way, so that we dispel the irrelevant and immaterial ‘what ifs?’ and focus instead on genuinely valuable and thought-provoking possibilities.

In the last post, we explored scepticism as a way of life. This post provides you with a set of thinking tools to help you engage life in a sceptical manner. Learning to live in a sceptical way takes practice, but it is worth it. By learning to think sceptically about things, we are not only better able to identify things that have real meaning, relevance, and value in life, we are enabled to identify the things that lack meaning, relevance, and value, and thereby declutter our minds by setting these things to one side, zeroing in on the things that count.

Decluttering the mind is every bit as valuable as defragging your computer. Decluttering helps you stop worrying about all the meaningless, irrelevant, and absurd thoughts that clog up your mental bandwidth. It gives you space to think. It gives you back your freedom. [Read more...]

Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce a fine that had been imposed on Athens for the invasion of Oropus. The Romans believed the fine was just, while the Athenians thought it was wildly inappropriate. Carneades had promised to take a sceptical approach to the debate, to see if it were possible to transform the way that both parties thought about things. To achieve this, he’d deliver two speeches in the course of two days, both on the topic of justice.

On the first day, Carneades wowed his audience with a stunning review of Platonic and Aristotelian arguments in favour of justice. Justice, Carneades declared, was the supreme virtue, the Archimedian point that should guide all thought and discussion. The Roman senators were impressed. That evening, there was much talk of Carneades’ oratorical power and persuasiveness. How would he top it on the second day, people wondered?

When Carneades turned up the next day, the Senate was packed with the best and brightest of Rome, ready to imbibe his wisdom. Carneades stood at the podium and calmly refuted everything that he’d said the day before. The senators listened aghast as the great philosopher enumerated the virtues of injustice, which Carneades presented as a natural law that any reasonable person should adhere to. He wound up with some practical advice for the senators. ‘Rome has won her empire by injustice both to gods and men’, Carneades declared. And such is the course that Rome should maintain. Heaven forbid that the capital should explore the virtues of justice. How foolish! Carnaedes claimed: ‘A policy of justice would make Rome again what she was originally – a miserable poverty-stricken village’.

To say that Carneades’ speech went down badly is an understatement. Carneades and his entourage were ejected from the city. Scepticism never set root in Rome and the Greeks, presumably, learned an important lesson: never enlist a philosopher in diplomatic work. [Read more...]

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