Gigs, dance, art

Back to Wittgenstein

The lack of gigs in the vicinity and the generally poor weather left me with way too much idle time, so I went back to old books I have read before. My first impulse was to read old Pynchon books, but a conversation with a coworker had been puzzling me. We had been talking about Wittgenstein and he said that he was turned off by the overwhelming sense of despair in his philosophy. That puzzled me because I never found much of anything emotional there. So I went back and read a small stack of his books, both those I have read many times and a few others.

Of course this is not exactly comedy material, but I didn’t find that despair either. Maybe my reading in English as opposed to the original German explains this, or maybe it’s my inability to relate to the person behind the ideas. Anyway, even though I didn’t find what I was looking for, it was a good refresher. It seems that every time I read one of these, I understand something more. That’s especially the case with the Tractatus, even though I must have read it more than twenty times.

That book was the first one I read by Wittgenstein, and my introduction to philosophy. If I remember correctly, I was intrigued by philosophy and selected that thin book at random, thinking it would be accessible to someone who lacked the educational background to make sense of the heavier stuff — I had very unpleasant memories of struggling with Kant in high school. I was both right and very wrong, of course. It is accessible in that the system is pretty autonomous, but there are many layers of meaning in there. I still love the density and clarity of this work, its structure and visual element too.

Another thing that has been puzzling me is the supposed opposition with the Philosophical Investigations. I just don’t get it. I feel both are consistent in method, and not really opposed as one deals with logical perfection and the other with useful languages. I always felt that the Tractatus showed that the cost of logical purity is uselessness. Well, that’s too strong, what I mean is that logic is great to clarify small details, but too unwieldy and demanding to be that useful for everyday communication — except with computers.

It seems that LW himself saw some problems with the Tractatus, so I must be wrong. I suspect that this comes from my utilitarian attitude to his writings. I don’t read these as some kind of gospel, I use them as tools. A small part of it is as a kind of meditative mantra, a way to shed the confusion in my thought in the glaring light of logical analysis. But my main use has been professional. I think the TLP, PI and Philosophical Remarks are the most useful books I ever read for writing computer programs. The first gave me tools to separate what I think I wrote from what I actually wrote — computers are unyielding about this. The second made me think of any program as a language game, a very handy analogy. The third contains a lot of stuff that explained many small technical details to me.

I think is that my readings have had more influence on the way I work than the other way around. I once referred to my line of work as “applied philosophy”. Maybe I should do that again, it managed to offend both philosophers and geeks. But still, maybe my putting Wittgenstein’s ideas to practical uses makes me blind to some of them. How am I supposed to know? I’m mostly self-taught in both subjects, and people who have seriously read him are not exactly a dime a dozen, especially in my line of work. It’s probably even worse here in France, where Wittgenstein is thoroughly despised — seriously, some people here even claim he was responsible for the Holocaust and hence should not be read.

But now I’m yearning for lighter stuff. I think I’ll read Russell’s history of western philosophy, his blatant cheap shots crack me up.

August 19, 2007 - Posted by | Life

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