Monday 14 August 2023

The ultimate uselessness of Wittgenstein: Ludwig Wittgenstein by Miles Hollingworth (2018)

I came across a recent book - Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Miles Hollingworth Oxford University Press, 2018), via a podcast interview entitled "Wittgenstein as mystic" - which I found intriguing in several ways; including the Holligworth seemed rather more interesting and personally committed than the usual run of academic philosophers. 

Consequently, I got hold of and read the book with pretty intense concentration; and, at first, was stimulated and excited by the sense of some Big Thing emerging throughout. 

But, in the end, I felt very let-down. The book seemed to promise much, some kind of break-out into something free and creative and beyond the constraints of the usual... But it delivered me back to the same-old/ same-old world of mainstream academia and its solid linkage to The System - as evidenced by the insidious and soul-sapping inversional values that underlie this book, and lurk behind everything mainstream. 

It set me to reflecting, yet again, about that unusual quality in Wittgenstein; the way that he seems to hold-out the possibility of a genuinely alternative answer and 'escape' - and yet does not. And to wondering why this is.

My conclusion is that - for all his rigorous skepticism about The System (about the dominant and superficially-compelling discourse of logic, mathematics, science etc.), and for all the mysticism of that world of the unspeakable, the religiousness of that which lies beyond or behind what can be said (etc) - the whole of Wittgenstein takes-place within the core assumptions of "Western Philosophy", and so of course it cannot escape the implications of Western Philosophy. 

One needs to go deeper than W. went in order to see where we are, and thereby become inwardly free from it. 

In other words, we need to go as deep as our primary assumptions concerning the nature of reality - that is, metaphysics; and Wittgenstein shared the deep aversion to doing this which characterized his era - indeed the refusal to do this. Something which has, to very varying degrees and in different domains, characterized Western philosophy since at least Ancient Greek times when several core assumptions became habitual.  

And Hollingworth needs to go deeper than he does. He mistakes a degree of detachment from the career structures of academia for intellectual and spiritual independence. Yet it is again and again clear that he is himself a (partly explicit, more fully implicit) supporter and sustainer of several aspects of the core and mainstream 'liberalizing' agenda of the globalist-leftist-materialist System.

The explanatory 'climax' of the book purports to be a distinction between physical and mental philosophy, thinking and doing (which is itself a vast metaphysical assumptions!) and a series of reflections of sex/sexuality in relation to Wittgenstein. 

This whole section rings false, is full of strong but wrong assertions, inconsistencies, and - this is the problem - it is bounded by the very recent and local sex-conceptualizations of political correctness... Thus the foundation of the thesis is just A Mess. And since the key explanation is an incoherent mash-up, the whole of the rest of the books structure retrospectively collapses into less than the sum of its parts.

Wittgenstein's mysticism is ultimately a oneness mysticism, because his assumption is that God must be one, and one who created everything from nothing (ex nihilo) - so that everything is of God and one. 

The failure is that W. does not recognize the asserted oneness and this nature of creation as assumptions - therefore he fails to acknowledge metaphysics.

W. also shares the assumption that the world is made of Things as well as Beings; Things that include all manner of physical abstractions (relating to such as matter, forces, fields, and their mathematical descriptions). 

For instance, one major discussed philosophical example of 'freedom' is making moves on a chessboard: i.e. an abstract mathematical game of un-alive pieces within the bounds of a fixed and unified 'world'. Such a model begs all the vital questions concerning freedom. 

The failure is that to assume un-aliveness as ultimate to reality has such downstream consequences of that Beings, such as ourselves, are ultimately constrained by the un-alive. We are regarded as dwelling among un-aliveness. Un-aliveness even permeates the understanding of God (since Wittgenstein's assumed God, as with many mainstream Christians, must be the ultimate source of un-aliveness). 

By my understanding; a fundamental (albeit common!) misunderstanding of Christianity is almost inevitable given such assumptions. Indeed Wittgenstein's reflections of Christ and Christianity are ethically focused, and to do with conduct in this life - as evidenced by W.'s focus on Tolstoy's version of Christianity. Such entails a Great Deal of moral agonizing about the human condition, and its paradoxical impossibilities. 

That Christianity - on different metaphysical assumptions - might instead be about everlasting life versus death, resurrection versus spirit; and love as creation... such cosmic transformations are out-with the scheme created by Wittgenstein's ultimate assumptions.

In all this Wittgenstein is not distinctive nor unusual, but absolutely mainstream within Western philosophy. He brought a new quality to the conversation, as I say a kind of agonized and confessional quality; and the feeling (partly from his own subjectivity, partly asserted) that he was cutting deeper and making a fresh start on thinking - but this is ultimately an illusion.  

(The fact of Wittgenstein's immediate and sustained success among high status and upper-class British intellectuals of a modernists, anti-Christian (pro-evil) type (e.g. the Bloomsbury group and the Cambridge Apostles) - all this ought to be a red flag waving against the idea of Wittgenstein as a genuinely effective mystical or Christian thinker.   

Therefore, once again (and this has happened to me three or more times before), I leave this latest encounter with Wittgenstein once again regarding him as a rather fascinating character, indeed a somewhat addictive character! -- but one whose actual work is ultimately deeply-conventional and therefore useless to our fundamental needs here-and-now: not just useless but (due to its implicit promises) actually misleading.

Wittgenstein famously stated that the philosopher's job ought to be show a trapped fly the way out of a fly-bottle. The bottle was a container into which the fly had strayed (e.g. in search of aromatic food, being used as bait) but once inside the fly could not escape. Instead, he just buzzed about in a panic. To me, this seems like projection - in that Wittgenstein and his philosophy has served as a fly-trap for many people - both at the time, and since. His personality and work is baited with the promise of autonomy of thinking and escape from system; and the philosophy offers certain, limited, satisfactions. Yet once inside the Wittgensteinian bottle - all genuine escape routes are self-blocked by unexamined assumptions. 

So Wittgenstein will be discovered, eventually, to be as useless and misleading as is the work of the entirety of Western Philosophy - being - as it is - rooted in metaphysical assumptions that are unnoticed, denied; or regarded not as assumptions but as necessary truths of existence. 

Such is our situation. 

The reason for the intractability of our civilizational decline, and why the causes of decline are defended, sustained and abetted (at various levels) by Almost Everybody; is exactly that our ideological/ philosophical roots lie so deep... 

As deep as roots can be, which is as deep as our primary assumptions concerning the nature of reality.  

Note: I should give credit to the fact that - for about two-thirds its length - I was pretty gripped by Hollingworth's account of Wittgenstein's life and work. As academic books go, it is a superior product.

Yet the whole basis of the book is that it is more than just another academic book on Wittgenstein: thus it engages in various 'breaking the fourth wall' and Tristram Shandy-esque strategies of authorial insertion. These are seemingly expressive of sincerity and a perspective from 'life' rather than 'career'. 

But, by the end and overall, I felt instead the gravitational pull of the ordinary academic values, and the modern-Western socio-political assumptions into which academia is now locked by bureaucratic structures - as well as the pervasive leftism of the intellectual class. This constrains all official instances of 'rebellion' by the need to ingratiate oneself to the ethical arbiters of The System - of which the Oxford University Press is an integral element! 

So the initial promise - and the scattered and stimulating insights - only made worse my frustration at the eventual let-down: as if I had been 'taken for a ride', fallen for a line of speil... 


No Longer Reading said...

"The failure is that to assume un-aliveness as ultimate to reality has such downstream consequences of that Beings, such as ourselves, are ultimately constrained by the un-alive. We are regarded as dwelling among un-aliveness."

Good summary.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - I can see many short-term expedient reasons for assuming that most of reality is unalive; but it leads to - I would say - insoluble problems downstream. These problems are ignored at the explicit level, but have taken severe toll on our civilizational motivation and morale (i.e. destroyed them, pretty much!) in terms of their implications. And the problems permeate all the mainstream religions, too - forcing them into de facto partial-alliance with the Ahrimanic/ Globalist/ Materialist camp - like it or not.

Deogolwulf said...

‘as useless and misleading as is the work of the entirety of Western Philosophy’

‘The failure is that to assume un-aliveness as ultimate to reality has such downstream consequences of that Beings, such as ourselves, are ultimately constrained by the un-alive. We are regarded as dwelling among un-aliveness.’

Platonism holds that the world itself as a whole is ensouled and alive:

‘[W]e must say divine providence brought our world into being as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.’ [Plato, Timaeus, 30b-c; tr. Donald J. Zeyl; in Plato: Complete Works, eds. John. M. Cooper, D.S. Hutchinson (Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1997), p. 1236.]

The world-soul (ψυχὴ κόσμου, psychè kósmou) is a famous doctrine of Platonism, which is not only a Western philosophy, but also the paramount Western philosophy, albeit radically at odds with how things have gone since the fall of the Ancient World. You've got things the wrong way round. The materialistically-assumptive mindset that sees the world as essentially soulless and unalive comes from ... ahem ... elsewhere.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Yes there are a few superficial similarities between what I am saying and what Plato said; but I am saying something fundamentally different.