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Wittgenstein's Ladder Analysis

Author: poem of David Lehman Type: poem Views: 5

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        "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.


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