Unspeakably silent

I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, for instance, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him.

On the other hand, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 he tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as is now widely acknowledged) he’d changed his views in the nearly three decades since the publication of his Tractatus in 1922. Wittgenstein asked what paper he worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein simply walked away.

Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.

A “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable.

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude.

Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

I don’t imagine he’d have had much to say about today’s election, though. I should join him, maybe. On the other hand, lasting silence will come soon enough.

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