Friday, November 15, 2013

Wittgenstein on progress

When I first studied in Germany, in Marburg, many years ago, I was still in my teens and rather uneducated. Some fellow students were discussing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which led me to buy a copy (in the neat Suhrkamp edition) of the Tractatus. The first proposition brought me up short: "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist." Such a simple sentence, but what did it mean?

Something similar had happened to me two years earlier, during my freshman year in college, when I opened the big textbook for my Sociology 101 class. The opening sentence of the first chapter: "Sociology is one of the social sciences." It was English, but what on earth did it mean? The sentence represented a kind of intellectual Rubicon: would I cross it and stumble forward, or take the easier path and retreat? The decision is obvious. I forged on with that class, also with German 101, and two years later I was studying in Marburg, still baffled by many things. One might say that I had "progressed" intellectually, but the experience illustrates how difficult such progress is.

This experience came back to me recently while reading a post on one of my favorite blogs, First Known When Lost. The post was about the vanishing of a once-familiar world, and introduced a poem by the English poet Kathleen Raine. FKWL is a richly illustrated blog and in this case included paintings by Samuel Palmer. At the end of the post, the FKWL blogger commented on the present-day belief that we have "advanced" beyond our forefathers. It is true that I have progressed beyond the intellectual accomplishments of my own parents, but do I possess any more wisdom or understanding of life? Hard to judge, except in a subjective sense.

In concluding the post, our blogger quoted Wittgenstein on progress, contradicting the optimism of the 18th-century philosophes:

"Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience.  Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Paragraph 132 (translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe) (Basil Blackwell 1969).

Picture credit: New Philosophy

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