The Lasting Attraction of Wittgenstein’s “Image Idea”

Having solely so many fingers, we people wish to divide up historical past by multiples of ten. This 12 months literary sorts all over the world are celebrating the centenaries of The Waste Land and Ulysses; simply as enthusiastically, philosophers are marking the one hundredth anniversary of a piece as rebarbatively modernist as something by Eliot or Joyce — the Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Organized in numbered propositions and sub-propositions like these of Euclid’s Parts or Spinoza’s Ethics, the Tractatus was the younger Wittgenstein’s try and work out a complete account of the connection between language and actuality, what has been referred to as his “image idea”: the construction of our language represents the construction of the world in the identical manner {that a} image represents what it depicts. The Tractatus guidelines out as unphilosophical, even “mindless,” lots of the questions which have historically occupied philosophers — ethics, aesthetics, the “which means of life.”

“§4.003 Most questions and propositions of the philosophers,” Wittgenstein writes, “consequence from the truth that we don’t perceive the logic of our language.” “§6.421 It’s clear that ethics can’t be expressed. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one),” he asserts. Finally, “§6.41 The sense of the world should lie exterior the world.” 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Non-public Notebooks 1914-1916, ed. and trans. Marjorie Perloff, Liveright Publishing Company, 2022 (picture courtesy Liveright Publishing Company)

Wittgenstein was awarded a Cambridge doctorate on the idea of the Tractatus (one among his examiners is reported to have written “The Tractatus is a piece of genius, nevertheless it in any other case satisfies the necessities for a Ph.D.”). He by no means accomplished one other e-book. As an alternative, he endlessly tinkered with what can be posthumously revealed because the Philosophical Investigations, through which he largely rejected the Tractatus’s “image idea” of language in favor of a much more advanced notion of “language-games” rooted in numerous “types of life.”

If the Tractatus radically redefines (and narrows) the scope of philosophy, its lapidary pronouncements have proved irresistibly suggestive to literary theorists, poets, and artists: “5.6: The limits of my language imply the boundaries of my world,” or “§6.44 Not how the world is, is the magical, however that it’s.” The younger Danish poet Signe Gjessing describes her personal Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus as a “rewriting” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. However whereas she has adopted the Tractatus’s ostensibly logical numerical association, her poem can solely be described as very un-Wittgensteinian, obsessed exactly with the problems of being, magnificence, ecstasy, and God that the early Wittgenstein felt have been past language:

1 The world seems out, then arises, in magnificence.
1.01 Right here is the the world.
1.011 Actuality slips proper by means of right here.
1.0111 Prospects uncover actuality’s shortcut: The world arises.
1.1 The world is every part that's evident.

(Right here Gjessing riffs off of and subverts Wittgenstein’s personal opening: “§1 The world is every part that’s the case.”)

From starting to finish Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus flouts Wittgenstein’s scrupulous refusal to invest: if his Tractatus drew limits to what we are able to sensibly discuss, Gjessing’s poem serves up joyous, playful bursts of paradox and non-sequitur, celebrating exactly these large, impalpable concepts from which the sooner philosophical work shrinks:

3.7 The past follows us and holds up the world like a bridal veil. Avant-garde.
3.71 The world’s lightness shouldn't be the identical as its ecstasy.

At occasions, Gjessing sounds virtually Hegelian: “§4.2 The world is hypostasised freedom.”

Signe Gjessing, Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus, trans. Denise Newman, Lolli Editions, 2022 (picture courtesy Lolli Editions)

The world through which Gjessing’s poem dwells is much totally different from the crystalline logical construction of Wittgenstein’s (“§1.1 The world is the totality of details, not of issues,” he wrote); it’s a type of radiant, blooming totality, shot by means of with motion and potentiality, expressing itself in “rose” and tensile “silk.” Most notably, Gjessing brings to her dialogue of the “world” and the “universe” a type of fierce emotional dedication — a private voice largely absent from the 1922 Tractatus. Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus with an admonition towards talking — “§7 Whereof one can not communicate, thereof one should be silent”; Gjessing ends hers with a private mash notice to universality: “§7.8 The every part is among the few vivid spots in my life.”

Wittgenstein labored out a lot of the Tractatus whereas serving within the Austrian military in the course of the First World Struggle; his household was fabulously rich, and whereas he may have simply secured an officer’s fee, with typical monkishness he volunteered as an enlisted man. When he was not on responsibility, he pursued the philosophical work he had begun at Cambridge, the place he had studied with Bertrand Russell.

The wartime writings revealed in 1961 as Notebooks 1914-1916 current the Tractatus in embryonic kind, because it have been. However that publication is barely half the story: Wittgenstein wrote his philosophical ideas (in German, in fact) on the right-hand web page of every pocket book opening; on the left he saved a private journal in code. Marjorie Perloff’s translation of the Non-public Notebooks 1914-1916 is the primary English-language publication of these left-hand pages.

All that Wittgenstein sought to expunge from philosophy within the Tractatus — ethics, aesthetics, the “mystical” — seems in abundance within the agonized pages of the Private Notebooks. Wittgenstein is dismayed and disgusted with the brutishness of his fellow troopers (“depressing scoundrels”); he topics himself to lacerating self-examination, noting how sexually aroused (“Sinnlich”) he has been and recording how usually he masturbates; he bemoans how little progress he has made on his philosophical work; repeatedly, ashamed of his personal inadequacies and terrified of the prospect of seeing fight, he prays: “I’m sick and lead a foul life. God assist me.”

Whereas the Non-public Notebooks embrace little outright philosophizing, they do shed invaluable mild on Wittgenstein the human being. Perloff’s translation is easy and gracefully idiomatic — she is a local speaker of the identical Austrian German Wittgenstein used. Significantly welcome is her determination, within the latter stretches of the final pocket book, to enrich the “non-public” writings with passages from the philosophical work, in order that we are able to see particularly how the Tractatus’s concepts on ethics and the self spring from the private struggles affecting the philosopher-artilleryman.

Regardless of the final impression of his thought — and he himself appeared finally to dismiss the Tractatus as a lifeless finish — Wittgenstein was some of the fascinating personalities of his century. To learn his austere philosophy within the mild of his inward anguish is a type of Waste Land expertise, an odyssey of sensibility as stirring as something Joyce or Eliot imagined.

Tractatus Philosophico-Poeticus by Signe Gjessing, translated by Denise Newman (2022), is revealed by Lolli Editions. Non-public Notebooks 1914-1916 by Ludwig Wittgenstein, translated by Marjorie Perloff (2022), is revealed by Liveright Publishing Company. Each can be found on-line and in bookstores.

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