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Wittgenstein's Ladder

David Lehman

        "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: 
        anyone who understands them eventually recognizes them as 
        nonsensical, when he has used them -- as steps -- to climb 
        up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder 
        after he has climbed up it.)" -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus 


The first time I met Wittgenstein, I was 
late. "The traffic was murder," I explained. 
He spent the next forty-five minutes 
analyzing this sentence. Then he was silent. 
I wondered why he had chosen a water tower
for our meeting. I also wondered how
I would leave, since the ladder I had used 
to climb up here had fallen to the ground. 


Wittgenstein served as a machine-gunner 
in the Austrian Army in World War I. 
Before the war he studied logic in Cambridge 
with Bertrand Russell. Having inherited 
his father's fortune (iron and steel), he 
gave away his money, not to the poor, whom 
it would corrupt, but to relations so rich 
it would not thus affect them. 


On leave in Vienna in August 1918 
he assembled his notebook entries 
into the Tractatus, Since it provided 
the definitive solution to all the problems 
of philosophy, he decided to broaden 
his interests. He became a schoolteacher, 
then a gardener's assistant at a monastery 
near Vienna. He dabbled in architecture. 


He returned to Cambridge in 1929, 
receiving his doctorate for the Tractatus, 
"a work of genius," in G. E. Moore's opinion. 
Starting in 1930 he gave a weekly lecture 
and led a weekly discussion group. He spoke 
without notes amid long periods of silence. 
Afterwards, exhausted, he went to the movies 
and sat in the front row. He liked Carmen Miranda. 


He would visit Russell's rooms at midnight 
and pace back and forth "like a caged tiger. 
On arrival, he would announce that when
he left he would commit suicide. So, in spite 
of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out." On 
such a night, after hours of dead silence, Russell said, 
"Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about 
yours sins?" "Both," he said, and resumed his silence.


Philosophy was an activity, not a doctrine. 
"Solipsism, when its implications are followed out 
strictly, coincides with pure realism," he wrote. 
Dozens of dons wondered what he meant. Asked 
how he knew that "this color is red," he smiled
and said, "because I have learnt English." There 
were no other questions. Wittgenstein let the 
silence gather. Then he said, "this itself is the answer." 


Religion went beyond the boundaries of language, 
yet the impulse to run against "the walls of our cage," 
though "perfectly, absolutely useless," was not to be 
dismissed. A. J. Ayer, one of Oxford's ablest minds, 
was puzzled. If logic cannot prove a nonsensical 
conclusion, why didn't Wittgenstein abandon it, 
"along with the rest of metaphysics, as not worth 
serious attention, except perhaps for sociologists"? 


Because God does not reveal himself in this world, and 
"the value of this work," Wittgenstein wrote, "is that 
it shows how little is achieved when these problems 
are solved." When I quoted Gertrude Stein's line 
about Oakland, "there's no there there," he nodded. 
Was there a there, I persisted. His answer: Yes and No.
It was as impossible to feel another's person's pain 
as to suffer another person's toothache.


At Cambridge the dons quoted him reverently. 
I asked them what they thought was his biggest
contribution to philosophy. "Whereof one cannot 
speak, thereof one must be silent," one said.
Others spoke of his conception of important 
nonsense. But I liked best the answer John 
Wisdom gave: "His asking of the question 
`Can one play chess without the queen?'" 


Wittgenstein preferred American detective 
stories to British philosophy. He liked lunch 
and didn't care what it was, "so long as it was 
always the same," noted Professor Malcolm 
of Cornell, a former student, in whose house 
in Ithaca Wittgenstein spent hours doing 
handyman chores. He was happy then. 
There was no need to say a word. 

Added: 25 Feb 2002 | Last Read: 19 Oct 2018 5:25 PM | Viewed: 3693 times

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