THE ESSENTIAL WITTGENSTEIN
philosophy • 01.12.98
Of all the philosophers it is probably Wittgenstein who I feel for most. I’m sure I don’t understand the complexity in his work but I increasingly identify with the spirit behind what he was saying.
It’s possible to look at the works of the great thinkers as responses to those who have gone before them: Socrates to the Sophists; Marx and Kierkegaard to Hegel; Hume to the religious dogmatists. Wittgenstein stood against his old teacher, Russell, and possibly the entire Western tradition with an attempt, as I see it, to demolish the authority of all the conventional absolutes. I have been reading about his argument against Russell’s case for mathematics having its basis in logic. Russell wanted to show that mathematics was truly objective and that one of the great achievements of our time was being able to define exactly what it ‘is’. Wittgenstein said bollocks to this. It was just another calculus redolent with contradictions, but who cares anyway. A mathematical proof had no more authority than, say, a Freudian dream interpretation where the main thing was to benefit the believer by using the interpretation to see things a different way. To talk of the truth of an analysis is almost nonsensical by this account. Perception is more important than truth. Usefulness is better than veracity.
This resonates with my interest in the importance of context over content. Believing in the supremacy of content seems to me backward. Most people are fixated by content. Philosophers call it essentialism. It wants to know what everything ‘is’ - is the action right, is the music good, is the girl beautiful? The high subjectivity confuses but more importantly the context dominates entirely, rendering the value of content hard to define. These questions would have different answers depending on the context and the context itself changes all the time. This means that there is nothing which actually ‘is’ that wouldn’t be otherwise if the context was different. And as Wittgenstein says, who cares anyway? It’s not what’s important. The fixation with content, cause, reasons, what ‘is’ etc. is a cast of mind thing that may be of dubious value. It’s what you do that’s important, not what you are.
usefulness is better than veracity