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pathways (guide)

5 the depth of philosophy

From The Glass House Philosopher 18th August 2004:

On Sunday, I had a 2 hr phone call from one of my former Associate students J, all the way from Australia. ('Don't worry, I get a special rate!') J is is now studying for his BA at the University of Sydney. I was telling him about my ideas for my book. How I want to write something which is accessible to beginners, yet conveys a real sense of the depth of philosophy.

I don't know how to write a 'Philosophy made Simple', or 'Philosophy for Idiots', I said. The very idea seems absurd. Philosophy is a subject which demands the absolute best that you can give. Or it's not worth bothering about.

The topic of Wittgenstein came up. J said he didn't understand how the young Wittgenstein could have seriously thought that he'd solved all the problems of philosophy (in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). What a fatuous idea! 'Well, now I've got philosophy taped, I can go off and do something practical. I know! I'll get a job as a school master in an Austrian village. That's a suitable use for my talents.' Generations of students have puzzled over that strange episode.

However, as we all know, Wittgenstein came back to philosophy (reputedly, after hearing a lecture by the mathematician Brouwer which cast doubts on Wittgenstein's faith in the validity of classical logic).

The young Wittgenstein was not the first, and he will certainly not be the last philosopher to think that all previous philosophers had got things wrong. In his view, however, the really deep questions — ethics, aesthetics, the meaning of life — cannot be asked because they outstrip the powers of language. The whole sense of the Tractatus is: 'All that can be said are factual propositions.' The really important questions, the questions that mean most to us, are not about matters of fact and could not be. The aim of the Tractatus is not to persuade us to turn our backs on these ultimate questions, but on the contrary to lead us to the point where we have no choice but to stare speechlessly into the abyss.

The young Wittgenstein takes you up a steep, rocky slope from which you can look down in silence. By contrast, the older Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations has an altogether different vision, though no less profound. We are like a young child stuck up a tree who has to be helped back down to the ground. Our thinking has led us up the tree. Now that we are back at ground level we see something that we didn't see before. Again, this is a 'something' that cannot be described, something we would not have been able to see had it not been necessary for us to be rescued from our precarious position.

Coincidentally, the very next day I was reading an email from one of my students S, in Saudi Arabia who is taking the Pathways Philosophy of Language program:

Reading the Tractatus, I felt that here is a philosopher whose aim was, once and for all, to put the Genie back in the bottle. Here is someone who, like Kant (certainly, the affinities between Kant and LW are worth following), methodically, rigorously, is setting limits to legitimate philosophical inquiry in order to make room for faith.

The Tractatus is a philosophical manual for designing the long sought fixed point from which we can safely experience the formless. Otherwise nothing will prevent chaos from getting into us, leaving us bewitched, making so much noises and so little sense.

This is impressive. Something tells me this particular student has done quite a bit of reading before. I am still not sure what to make of the thought, 'Otherwise nothing will prevent chaos from getting into us.' Scary.

I ventured the suggestion that the Kant-Wittgenstein connection can be explained through Wittgenstein's teenage enthusiasm for the philosophy of Schopenhauer, whose theory of 'the World as Will and Idea' is based on Kant's transcendental idealism.

'Go deep.' It is so difficult, so frustrating to be told that. I've quoted before Wittgenstein's remark about philosophy and underwater swimming: that it takes a constant effort to prevent one's body from rising to the surface.

Here's what I wrote to a prospective student yesterday:

I have always believed that success in philosophy, more than any other subject, requires similar mental qualities to those found in extreme physical activities.

However, there is also a danger associated with the naive idea of 'mental control' in philosophy. This is the attitude which seeks mastery over every problem, ever obstacle, refusing to recognize that the problems can sometimes be too big for us. Behind it lies the obsessive fear that one will discover one's own mental fragility. That is the biggest obstacle which you will have to overcome.