Thursday, 9 January 2014

Reading Wittgenstein on Good Life

Ideally most of the classics in philosophy must be read by a general reader. And in the 20th century, the two most important philosophers must be part of the general curriculum for anyone who wants to be introduced to the best of its thought. These are the Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Begin by watching films or documentaries on them or some accessible lectures by recognized authorities. Today a few preliminary points about life and work of Wittgenstein as an appetizer for taking heavier doses later. I would recommend at least his slim work Culture and Value that criticizes modern Western civilization as without culture on religious-mystical grounds as his more philosophical writings are hard nuts to crack been for professionals in philosophy.
Described by Terry Eagleton as the philosopher of poets and composers, playwrights and novelists, Wittgenstein has been “something of a cult figure but shunned publicity and even built an isolated hut in Norway to live in complete seclusion.” Keen about moral and philosophical perfection, he would find modern civilization a condemnable perversion. In fact modern academia repulsed him. He felt more comfortable as gardener and primary school teacher than a university professorship that was in fact thrust on him. Though almost a saint he would hardly appear as an orthodox believer. His life and work is an elaborate allegory of mystical and ethical themes though, to this date, he has been claimed by other ideologies. His last words “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life” show him to be distinct from generality of modern thinkers and writers who have often felt life a liability and not an asset due to lack of trust/gratitude/mystical faith in sacred founts of life.
Wittgenstein is considered either the greatest or second to Heidegger the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. He inspired two major movements in 20th century philosophy. His biography is also inspiring as an example of great simplicity and commitment. He belonged to one of richest families of Austria and thought that philosophers should not build assets and distributed all his property. In ethics he was greatly influenced by Tolstoy’s Gospels in Brief and saintly character of Father Zosimma in Dostovesky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
It is instructive how he got into the University. He had no PhD and it was Bertrand Russell who motivated him to present his small book he had written years before for award of PhD. He agreed and was asked to recite certain passages from the book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus at the time of interview. The thesis was examined in 1929 by Russell and Moore. At the end of the interview, Wittgenstein patted the two examiners on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it." In fact Wittgenstein thought that it needs different kind of sensibility to understand him. If one is not deeply ethically or mystically oriented one may miss his point altogether. The book is still debated and its underlying mysticism a problem of rationalist logical mindset. I wonder when will the third world attract brilliant minds to academics by doing away with formalities such as need of degrees and concentrating on pure merit. It needs catholicity and vision of a Russell to spot the talent and let it bloom. Wittgenstein had read few thinkers (including Plato whom he greatly admired) and books that can be counted on fingers and had concentrated on thinking. He had the peculiar habit of thinking loudly in class as his students (he had very few of them as he couldn’t entertain ordinary minds as his students) kept watching him almost lost in his reveries as he struggled hard with new ideas. Today even philosophy teachers don’t think either inside or outside classes, not to speak of teachers of some other disciplines.
Wittgenstein found it intolerable that a war was going on and he was teaching philosophy (like Prof. Muhammad Yunus who worried how ethical was his teaching career as an economist if it didn’t help the poor and accordingly made himself a guarantor to unknown farmers to help them pick up small businesses and this ultimately materialized in the idea of Grammein Bank). He sought the job of a porter in a hospital and tried to hide the fact from the hospital staff the fact of his identity as one of the world's most famous philosophers. Although the band of logical positivists who read off metaphysics, poetry and ethics as species of unverifiable nonsense claimed him to be their inspiration, he bluffed them on one of the conventions they had organized and invited him for deliberations, this great philosopher of logic and mathematics chose to read from few verses from poetry of Tagore.
Wittgenstein is the prophet of what has been called “accept and endure” ethics. In his Tractatus he tried to say “This is how things are” and one is advised to love fate as Islam and other traditions and such thinkers as Spinoza and Nietzsche have recommended. A few themes that recur in Wittgenstein’s work on ethics and religion:
• Value or meaning is not to be found in the world.
• The straight path is acceptance without resentment of the world/life/God’s will/Fate/Tao.
• One who lives this way will see the world as a miracle and feel eternally safe. For him the fact is that it  is not how the world is but the fact that it is that is mystical.
• There is no answer to the problem of life and the solution consists in the disappearance of the problem. This dissolving of the problems is what philosophy’s task is. If you have any question ask a philosopher and he would dissolve the question. There are no answers provided by a way of approaching the questions and one is put at rest. The aim of philosophy is more a vision or new attitude or way of seeing than any things else. His aim was to get “vision of things as they are and therefore he aimed transcending philosophy itself.” The Prophet of Islam’s (S.A.W) prayer “God! show me the things as they are” implies the same objective.
• God is to be taken as the Meaning of Life and not an object or entity. He is part of language game of religion and this also requires hard ethical discipline to participate in.
Wittgenstein famously remarked that the riddle doesn’t exist and the solution of the problem of life is seen in the disappearance of the problem of life. The question is how to live and that dissolves the problem or riddle. Life is not a riddle to be solved but a mystery to be lived, dissolved in. Riddle exists for those who want to conceptually approach life that resists all logic. The problem of meaning of life is the problem of how to live, how to live so that life stops being problematic.  For him good life is world seen in certain way rather than in a way of behaving.
Art understood as that which defamiliarizes the world, is, according to Wittgenstein, a solution to problem of life. For him art alone can express the meaning of life. Only the artist can teach the things that matter most in life. For him giving up the centre of one’s own value system (the self) is harder, but when we succeed, the very sensibility changes and we become capable of a new way of seeing.  I take your leave with the following sample of statements from Wittgenstein to contemplate on them. These are wazeefas for the philosophically inclined:
To pray is to think about the meaning of life.
I can’t bend the happenings of the world to my will; I am completely powerless. I can only make myself independent of the world.
How things stand is God.
The urge towards mystical comes after non-realization of our wishes by science. We feel that even with all possible scientific questions answered our problem is still not touched at all.

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