Thursday, January 24, 2013

Saying to Show: Reflections on Wittgenstein's Tractatus

I have just finished the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, (pictured above) an Austrian-born student of Bertrand Russell, is widely considered the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. This, and the fact that I am currently taking a class about him, means that I have been led to gorge myself upon his philosophical work, beginning with the aforementioned philosophical treatise. And, let me tell you, there is much to partake of.

The Tractatus is Wittgenstein's attempt, through investigations into logic, language, and mathematics, to solve all the problems of philosophy. And even though he himself rejected a lot of its premises in his posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations, I think he did a pretty good job. This is why: by taking a striking turn toward the "mystical" near the end, he uses philosophy to transcend philosophy. The work itself anticipates this, as seen below:

6.54: My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions: then he sees the world rightly.

In this sense it is not what the Tractatus contains that is important, but what it does not contain. To use a Wittgensteinian set of terms, what it says is irrelevant and ultimately false; what it shows is key.

On that note, let me share with you my favorite proposition from this amazing work:

6.41: The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is not value, and if it were there, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

What Wittgenstein means by "the world" is unlike the normal definition of the term. Instead of meaning the entirety of existence, of things "as they are, as they were, and as they are to come", he simply intends to signify "the totality of facts, not of things" (1.1). The meaning of this phrase may escape the reader, so let me elaborate by saying that, for Wittgenstein, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world", (5.6) and that "I am my  world" (5.621). If there is something of which I cannot speak, think, or conceive, common sense says that this thing does not exist to me - it is outside my world. And yet, as the above quotation seems to indicate, these extra-conceptual things are the most important entities of all.

But wait! How can something of which no knowledge is possible give value to the world? How does it even make sense that an un-thinkable thing could make life meaningful? For that, I return to the "say"-"show" distinction mentioned above. There is nothing whatsoever that one can meaningfully say about ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, etc., for as soon as you try, you run into the problem that you lack a "referent". Take free will, for example. Have you ever seen free will? Even if you were to examine the brains of every person on the earth, combing through grey matter for something which accounts for this nebulous quality, would you then hold free will in your hand, so to speak? Surely not. The existence which our agency possesses cannot be pinned down and examined, and so any attempt to reference it in language would lack meaning. But, as evidenced by our encounters in everyday life, these higher things can be shown.

But what is this "showing", really? If I were to put it simply, I would say that to "show" something is to become a manifestation of that entity. Instead of miniaturizing the thing in your head and then conveying it to another person, (as per Wittgenstein's picture-theory of language and thought) showing involves letting that thing act through you, in as vague a sense as possible. For example, if one were to show ethics, he or she would be an ethical person. Likewise, to show free will, he or she would act freely. 

And now we can see where Mormonism comes in. There are many religions and worldviews that try to bring us into contact with existence outside the Wittgensteinian world. For Hindus, this seems to be Brahaman, while for or others it would be the Tao or even God. But many of these religions or philosophies try to exclusively convey this outside world in language instead of through demonstration. Think of pantheism, for instance. A pantheist believes that God is the reality behind the world, beyond language and beyond conceptualization. While this may sound Wittgensteinian, the fact that this too is a representation of God (however ethereal and abstract) is a form of idolatry, a futile attempt to convey someyhing which cannot be said. The reader then may protest by saying that only a literally thought-less person could avoid this problem - every religion, including Mormonism, seems to have claims about the nature of reality. This is true, but you would be missing a key point: in Mormonism, (and other faiths to varying extents) we say not to say, but to show. When we say that God has a body, it is much more than just a fact: it is a way of getting us to feel our significance as a finite being. Likewise, when we believe that families can be together forever, we are led to experience the joy of the familial life. Both of these are exquisite manifestations of the emotional joy at the heart of reality.

What makes Mormonism unique among all religions is that in it the joy of Reality (capital R) becomes most fully manifest in its believers. These are the fruits of the spirit - it's what you feel when you read the Book of Mormon prayerfully, attend sacrament meeting, or go to the temple. For ultimately, I believe that Mormonism's strength is not is saying the truth, but in showing it.

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