BREAKING: From the annals of paraphrase!

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2018

Kenny describes the Tractatus:
In the summer of '73, he was 42. We refer to Anthony Kenny, who wrote an "overall study" of Wittgenstein in that long-ago, distant year.

Kenny is a substantial figure; you can read a profile here. His book "will be of value not only to students of philosophy, but also to general readers." So said the dust jacket which was prepared by the Harvard University Press.

Early on, Kenny presented a first capsule account of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the book which defined, and still defines, the work of "the early Wittgenstein." The gentleman started in a way we'd describe as slightly odd:
KENNY (1973): The Tractatus was finished in August 1918...It was published in German in 1921, and shortly afterwards in German and English with an introduction by [Bertrand] Russell.

The twenty thousand words of the Tractatus can be read in an afternoon, but few would claim to understand them thoroughly even after years of study. The book is not divided into chapters in the normal way, but consists of a series of numbered paragraphs, often containing no more than a single sentence. The two most famous are the first ('The world is all that is the case') and the last ('Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'). Some of them have proved easier to set to music, or to illustrate in sculpture, than to paraphrase. The style of the paragraphs is concise and economical, devoid of decoration, sparing in examples. By comparing the text with the Notebooks and the Prototractatus we can see how Wittgenstein refined and refined his thought to the essential elements. The result is austerely beautiful, but uncommonly difficult to comprehend.

The greater part of the book is concerned with the nature of language and its relation to the world, Wittgenstein's major philosophical concern throughout his life. The central doctrine it conveys is the famous picture theory of meaning...
Those were Kenny's first remarks about the early Wittgenstein's seminal book. Other than that, how did you like the Tractatus, Mrs. Lincoln?

Admit it—these first remarks were slightly odd, and perhaps a tiny bit funny. According to Kenny, the following points were true about the early Wittgenstein's seminal work:

The book had been in print for fifty-four years, "but few would claim to understand [it] thoroughly."

Some of its numbered paragraphs were "easier to set to music...than to paraphrase." (For the record, that's probably true of every paragraph ever written, numbered or otherwise.)

On the brighter side, the book was said to be uncommonly beautiful. On the down side, it was "uncommonly difficult to comprehend." So said the major figure who was about to explain the book, even to general readers.

According to Kenny, the Tractatus conveyed a central doctrine, namely "the famous picture theory of meaning." In all honesty, this doctrine was and is famous is much the same way that the sun goes around the earth.

As of 1973, this is the way the upper-end philosophy world was discussing an early seminal work by an allegedly towering figure. We think an anthropology lesson may perhaps be lurking here. Nothing that we will show you tomorrow is going to make us think different.

Tomorrow: "Pictures in a literal sense"

16 comments:

  1. My impression is that Wittgenstein represents a narrow branch of philosophy, which has little or no bearing on the political and journalistic issues TDH has always written about. Speaking for myself, I never could make any sense out of Wittgenstein, and didn't find him interesting, though admittedly I never put much effort into it, and don't blame Wittgenstein. I am pretty sure there is a lot more to philosophy than Wittgenstien. Maybe TDH should check out Bernard Williams. But 2 things - TDH's thing with Godel and Wittgenstein and writers who try to explicate them to the general public is a useless effort, because the only way you can understand any philosopher (or logician) is to read the original texts, which is rarely easy but sometimes rewarding. Two - logicians don't have much influence on politics. That hasn't been the case with all philosophers, e.g., Marx.

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    Replies
    1. Agreed, with the first half, at least. It seems to me "theory of meaning" is an abstract and more or less useless pursuit. Nothing's wrong with that, if that's your hobby, but don't make a big deal out of it, Bob.

      Personally, I find this Dawkins' quip much more enlightening: all communication is manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender. And that includes humans and animals.

      Delete


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  2. Somerby’s “theory” seems to be that academics, such as philosophers or logicians, have abdicated some sort of responsibility that they supposedly have to society, by engaging in trivial or obviously crackpot intellectual exercises. Perhaps Rebecca Goldstein or Jim Holt belong in this category, or even Anthony Kenny. But do Gödel and Wittgenstein themselves belong there? Somerby has ridiculed Gödel’s “Platonism”, and has mocked Goldstein’s and Holt’s attempts to explain it. But he fails to make a case for why this renders Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem ridiculous. He won’t deal with it directly. Nor do we know precisely what he thinks about Wittgenstein, an “allegedly” towering figure.

    Of course, Somerby is talking about the “upper-end philosophy world” vis-a-vis their paraphrases of these two “allegedly” towering figures. One wonders if the upper end philosophy world was/is perhaps discussing other things at the same time, and if the works of Kenny, Goldstein, and Holt are an accurate representation of that world.

    ReplyDelete
  3. According to Wikipedia, “Wittgenstein's later works, notably the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, criticized many of the ideas in the Tractatus.” Which Wiggenstein himself wrote. That would fall under the category of evolution of thought.


    Bob quotes Kenny, “The result is austerely beautiful, but uncommonly difficult to comprehend.” Maybe it was actually incomprehensible. If one who actually studies Wiggenstein says that, then I must confess, trying to read the “early Wiggenstein” would seem to be a waste of time.

    I did a quick jaunt out into the ‘net to see if Chomsky ever had anything to say about Wiggenstein, and all links instead lead to Russell. Curious. Maybe I need a real database.

    For myself, I’m glad to be exposed to these ideas and will look further. And now, thanks to AC/MA, I can additionally look to someone like Williams.

    What’s cool about these posts is the absence of backbiting and name-calling.

    Leroy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Be sure to spell his name correctly when you use your search engine. It is
      wrong here.

      Delete
    2. re Williams, I found this quote (Wikipedia again, just scratching) very interesting.

      "He simply refused to allow philosophical system-building to eclipse the subtlety and variety of human ethical experience." But this is disturbing:

      "[A] radical form of freedom may be found in the fact that we cannot be forced by the world to accept one set of values rather than another."

      Indeed. “Forced by the world” is a rather broad statement, but if I had my druthers, I would imagine that Williams might embrace secular humanism as a starting point, which has its foundation on critical thinking. One of my own personal critiques of utilitarianism is that it emphasizes “happiness,” rather than satisfaction. Not an original observation of mine, but salient. Capitalism serves neither purpose, except for the capitalists, and those lucky enough to travel in its jetstream.

      We need to keep in mind I think, that the mainstream of human thought is now captured by the corporations that feed us the porridge, to quote The Man himself, at least here in the US. How else can we explain the rise of Trumpism?

      Leroy

      P.S. Now I have to scratch at McKeon. : )

      Delete
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBUUalyPfXs

      Thanks, 5:13

      Leroy

      Delete
  4. Bob, I strongly suggest you read American philosopher Richard McKeon. He started his stellar career as one of the foremost experts on the works of Aristotle but moved way beyond. (He also helped found UNESCO, if your playing Trivial Pursuit.)

    ReplyDelete
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