Me and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Writers Under the Influence: David Rees on Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
By David Rees

In the unsettling weeks after 9/11, two Davids made us remember how to laugh all over again: Letterman and Rees. The arrival of David Rees's Get Your War On served as a much-needed pop-culture tonic, proving that irony was far from dead. Since then he's written two impossibly funny collections, My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable and My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable, and--just in time for the 2004 Presidential Election-- Get Your War On II. Read on as David Rees writes on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

I went to college in Ohio. I spent a semester abroad in the usual half-assed way: I went to England, because English is the only language I understand. When my plane touched down at London's Gatwick Airport, I was an eager, enthusiastic American philosophy major. When my plane lifted off eight months later, I was shattered. The reason lies within the strangest seventy pages I've ever read.

When I studied philosophy in England, I became--as many have--sort of obsessed with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the legendary and dyspeptic philosopher of language. My fascination with Wittgenstein (and my poverty of intellect) was such that I found greater reward in reading accolades about his philosophical brilliance than in actually reading his brilliant philosophy. Years of skulking at the edge of the World Of Ideas have taught me it's usually easier to appreciate praise than praise's object--and more enjoyable to catch a cheap buzz from vicarious adulation than to invest in a sober understanding of what's actually being adulated.

So I spent evenings in the library leafing through commentaries on Wittgenstein's work, not for the steady light of analysis they'd shed on his thought, but for the flashes of hyperbole that concluded their introductions and their prefaces: "Surely Wittgenstein will stand as one of the giants of 20th century philosophy"; "In philosophy of language Wittgenstein's influence is immeasurable"; "Wittgenstein changed the way philosophy is practiced in the modern age." After a book had yielded its inevitable kernel of praise, it was quickly returned to the shelf. The fan-boy charge would soon be fading; I had to leaf my way to another hit.

"[Wittgenstein] entered this world a prodigy--a prodigy who grew ever more smart as he grew older. By the time he died in 1951, breathing his last words: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life (even though I had to suffer all you dumbasses)'--he was the most brilliant man to ever die." --David Rees

Picture the scene: Foggy olde England, far from merry. The year is 1910. Lying in a valley before two wars, miserable and apprehensive, a nation waits to exhale. Anemic curtains of rain besog the ground. And yet, like a Phoenix rising from the washes, in yon spongy field towers Cambridge University, the greatest educational institution since the Parthenon; the most awesome repository of human knowledge since the very Library of Alexandria (which I have been to and gotten drunk at). Biologists, classicists, physicists, and philologists pursued their life's work within these storied walls, among these storied hills, canals, battlements, and waterfalls. Their life's work was the life of the mind, and the life of the mind was, in those rotten and ill-begotten days, and in spite of their almost bottomless rotten ill-begottenness, lively. Some even made use of the Wren Library, the most beautiful library that can be seen in England. Reading books; checking out books from the library.

Research!-- Teaching!-- and the uncompromised pursuit of knowledge were these men's only goals; their only remorse, the fact that they were not British professor-robots who could read books 24 hours per day in perpetuity. (Of course, now that we have such technology, they are all dead. Sic transit was truly gloria in those days.)

Among these ingenious masters of reality strode another, even more powerful cabal of geniuses. Of course… the philosophers. The smartest type of people there is. Those who question reality itself. Those who look into the abyss and don't even give a damn if the abyss looks back into them. In fact, they might just blow pipe smoke straight in the abyss's face. According to the ancient code of the philosophers, any mental inquiry must be pursued to the bitter end--even if the truth revealed threatens to turn the world upside-down. WHAT IS BEING? WHAT IS "THE GOOD"? WHAT IS TIME IMMEMORIAL? IS TIME TRAVEL POSSIBLE IN THIS WORLD? The philosophers will soon find out. From Aristotle, to Socrates, and then Descartes; and then after Descartes, David Hume, and then Gilbert Ryle, and now even today we have John Searle, but John Rawls died. The philosophers. The giant killers. Striding around Cambridge University in their galoshes.

And who led those philosophers? Who commanded this amalgamation of early-century Cantibridgian ultra-braniacs? Bertrand Russell. The number-one head colossus in charge. The alpha-Harvard-cum-laude of all philosophers. In a field of giants, he stood as the sine qua non gigantic behemoth. His was a wise, white face that flushed with pleasure when presented with a killer new theory about logic, mathematics, or metaphysics. But if in the course of his many mental safaris Russell spied a limping, unsound theory or a half-assed specimen of sophistry, a scowl would download upon his face, the day would darken, and there would come to pass a "Sabbath, bloody Sabbath." The moans of broken, blasted ideas echoed in his wake.

In the course of his audacious career Bertrand Russell discovered the logical basis of mathematics, the ontology of integers, the rotten core of set theory, the metaphysics of epistemology, and many other theories I can't even remember. Indeed, if all of 20th Century philosophy could be represented by one object--the Declaration of Independence--then Bertrand Russell's signature would replace John Hancock's: Florid. Brilliant. Unabashed. The very best.

But, almost impossibly, Bertrand Russell's greatness was soon to be overshadowed by a second, more powerful greatness. On the horizon burned a stupendous intellect--a world-destroying avatar of all that was to follow… the one true wielder of modern philosophy's hammer of Odin. A mighty thunderhead that would lay siege to the fields of philosophy tended by lesser hands. A man whose words would collapse galaxies of thought in the blink of an eye... (a mind's eye, that is). At this moment, he is busy being born, half a world away… Fly with me in our philosophical time capsule…

…To Germany's neighbor Austria, where Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889. He entered this world a prodigy--a prodigy who grew ever more smart as he grew older. By the time he died in 1951, breathing his last words: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life (even though I had to suffer all you dumbasses)"--he was the most brilliant man to ever die. How do we know this? Because of the first book he wrote, and the first book to blow Bertrand Russell's head off his shoulders: The infamous Tractatus Logico-Philosohpicus.

"Because I chose to study philosophy in England, and fancied myself a serious philosopher, I refused to afford to neglect the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus . And in turn the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus refused to afford to neglect to confuse me to no end." --David Rees

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a slender volume. The copy I bought at a British bookstore runs to 70 pages. If it were dropped in a swimming pool (which I have seen happen at Paris Hilton's summer house, when Clay Aiken and Daniel Dennett got in a fight), it wouldn't displace much water. Physically, it's no cannonball. When it was dropped in the waters of western philosophy from Wittgenstein's lonely helicopter, however, it displaced oceans. It created neap tides where before there had raged tsunamis. Issues long thought settled were born again in more hideous form. Feral questions long assumed uncontrollable were, with the blink of any eye and the turn of a phrase, disemboweled, castrated, amputated, and beheaded. The little book put Cambridge University on intellectual orange alert with a twist of "Oh my God."

Bertrand Russell, in his introduction to the book, describes it as "one which no serious philosopher can afford to neglect." Because I chose to study philosophy in England, and fancied myself a serious philosopher, I refused to afford to neglect the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus . And in turn the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus refused to afford to neglect to confuse me to no end.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus reads like a calculator's weblog about C-3PO's honors thesis, or an instruction manual for meaning itself translated from the algebra by Data from Star Trek Voyager . The book's skeleton is a septet of underwhelming statements: "The world is all that is the case;" "A thought is a proposition with a sense." The intellectual savagery of this book lies in what spins out of these nodes, furious and brilliant. Each initial statement is broken out into sub-statements which are numbered according to Wittgenstein's secret taxonomy. For example, paragraph 3.33 ("In logical syntax the meaning of a sign should never play a role…") is elaborated by paragraph 3.331 ("From this observation we turn to Russell's 'theory of types'. It can be seen that Russell must be wrong." [Oh SNAP!!! How much did Bertrand Russell hate reading paragraph #3.331 in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ?])

In addition to the numbered paragraphs--including paragraph 6.4312, which concerns a little something called "the solution to the riddle of life in space and time"--there are all kinds of diagrams about linguistics and logic. In some heated passages, when the page is thick with grammatical equations and Greek letters, the text resembles the syntax errors of Plato's Cave's laptop. I collect early 20th Century electrician's manuals because I enjoy electrical schematics. Sometimes when I'm flipping through one of my manuals, I'll think, "Damn, this looks just like the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus . Did Ludwig Wittgenstein secretly design this diagram about light bulbs?"

So what are the Tractatus's diagrams about? They're about as hard as a motherfucker to understand, for one thing. The book has something to do with linguistic structure actually mirroring the ontological components of reality. The sentence "The bird sits on a branch" is a one-dimensional picture of that state of affairs in the world--word by word, letter by letter, and space-between-letters by space-between-letters. For instance, "sits on a branch" represents what the bird is doing: Namely, sitting on a branch. "The bird" represents the bird, where "bird" is the flying animal and "The" is how we know to point at THAT PARTICULAR BIRD RIGHT THERE. The sentence "The bird sits on a branch" is true if and only if (spelled "iff") the bird sits on a branch. How do we check? It's as simple as looking out the window. Iff the bird is sitting on the branch, you have a fully functional sentence to use at your discretion. Iff, however, the branch is bare, or a squirrel is sitting on it, you have entered the realm of nonexistent truth conditions (~T), the realm beyond language, where words refer to nothing and the void is composed of yesterday's paragraphs. (~P: ![~T]/non-P) So… do you dare look out the window, knowing that a squirrel holds the power to make a bitter nonsense of reality?

An interesting aside: The above sentence would be more accurate if it was typed:

Bird [sitting]



Because that's a two-dimensional picture of reality. ("Stereo language reality," as Bertrand Russell called it.)

According to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , language's only proper use is the description of states of affairs that can be verifiably true or false: those involving solids, liquids, or gases. Nothing else properly falls within language's words. The traditional philosopher may object: WHAT ABOUT MY FAVORITE QUESTION, "WHAT IS THE GOOD?" The Good is not a solid, a liquid, or a gas, so we can't use language to talk about it. Same with religion, ethics, metaphysics, and all the profound subjects traditional philosophers usually talk about. From now on those topics will be off-limits to language. You want to discuss the Good? Go play a guitar solo in your jam band about the Good. Just don't mess up the alphabet trying to talk about it.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus famously ends with proposition #7, the only proposition not followed by a decimal-pointed elaboration. Proposition #7 specifically forbids readers to use language to talk about the things that lie beyond language. (Wittgenstein's analogy was, Why use a ladder to climb a house with no roof?) But here is the great paradox of it all: Wittgenstein had to use language to say that! Because we hadn't developed emoticons yet. : )

Wittgenstein was convinced that his little book had given the lie to philosophy as it was practiced in early 20th Century England. The men in galoshes yammering about things beyond language--the Good, the soul, etc.--were using language stupidly, ie talking out of their asses. And unless they could prove the human soul to be a solid, liquid, or gas, they needed to shut up about it once and for all. (This was before the discovery of Scientology, which proved that the soul is a gas. Scientology was developed at Oxford University, the bitter rival of Cambridge University.)

Having dissolved the riddles of philosophy in the soda of semantics, Wittgenstein decided to retire. He left Cambridge University, abandoning his litter of blown minds. He moved to the coast of Norway and became a professional barracuda hunter. His influence was such that even in his absence, Cambridge University teetered on the brink of anti-philosophy.

Then, late one August night Wittgenstein awoke with the realization that he had not totally destroyed philosophy. A few wily questions had survived his armageddon. They had grown stronger during his hiatus. They had learned from their fellow questions' fatal errors. They steeled themselves to the Tractatus . And now they called out to Wittgenstein, taunting him. So our hero came out of retirement and starting swinging harder than ever. He returned to Cambridge University and began raging against the dying of the light. He raged so hard, he accidentally developed an entirely new philosophy of language, one that contradicted the Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus . This new philosophy was called "Language Games." The basic idea behind it was, "Just talk and have fun. It's all good. It's only language." This philosophy was a little more mellow and less strident than the pit bull paragraphs of Wittgenstein's earlier work. This later period of Wittgenstein's career is referred to as the "All Good Period." Cambridge University teetered away from the brink of anti-philosophy and over towards the brink of genius overload once more.

"Unfortunately, Wittgenstein's philosophy was too much for me. I struggled with the diagrams, the Greek letters, the numbered paragraphs, and the language games. My professors rolled up their sleeves and eventually, their eyes. I imagined Wittgenstein--famously impatient--scolding me, the hollow voice of his genius ringing soundlessly in my mind." --David Rees

Amazingly, Cambridge University still stands today. Its reputation of awesomeness is earned by the saturation of quality that attends every element of the school. Take the campus: Cambridge looks like if King Arthur had designed a fantasy world of mansions and meadows, a sprawl of castles glowing in the perpetual dusk of a thousand years' heritage. To walk through its campus is to walk through the very corpus callosum of the better British angel of our nature's brain. To breathe its air is to breathe the best of Britain, the best of our former enemy from the Revolutionary War days.

Only the best American college students can study at Cambridge University, and thereby find themselves borne backwards in time to the golden age of British philosophy I have just summarized. My time studying in England was spent in a less storied location, some modest miles south of Cambridge. In the Spring of 1993, I hit the books at the University of Sussex, which looks like a gigantic pile of upside-down concrete shoeboxes. It was here that I came to learn of the proud tradition of British philosophy. My guide on this journey of the mind was, of course, none other than the unconquerable spirit of Ludwig Wittgenstein. You see, his teachings live on in all the philosophy professors of England!

Unfortunately, Wittgenstein's philosophy was too much for me. I struggled with the diagrams, the Greek letters, the numbered paragraphs, and the language games. My professors rolled up their sleeves and eventually, their eyes. I imagined Wittgenstein--famously impatient--scolding me, the hollow voice of his genius ringing soundlessly in my mind. Why couldn't I understand the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ? It's not like he didn't NUMBER EVERY SINGLE PARAGRAPH SO I COULD FOLLOW ALONG ! Eventually, the exhausted mind of an American abroad had to face facts: Wittgenstein's work had been patient long enough. It lay anesthetized on the table and yet I couldn't bring myself to wield the scalpel--Because I had a crush on it . I couldn't stand the thought of mangling its flawless alien skin. Did I really have what it takes to be a doctor of philosophy? I gave up my drum-solo dreams of tenure and settled in for years of holding a lighter above my head.

I'd like to end this philosophical transmission with a vision I had shortly before leaving England: An enormous college was disintegrating on a beach. It was dusk. Ludwig Wittgenstein walked towards me in a dark wool suit. Without warning he stooped over and picked me up. He carried me along the sand, to the crashing surf of others' praise for him. We spent a moment standing together at the edge of an ocean I was too scared to explore. The sun moved over our heads and into the sea as Wittgenstein slowly spoke words he wrote near the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus : "Our life has no end in just the way our visual field has no limits." When he was done speaking, it was dark.

And so, before I flew back to North Carolina, I made the one pilgrimage of my life: To Cambridge University. To his grave.

David Rees is the author of the political comic Get Your War On , most recently collected in Get Your War On II --for which all author royalties will be donated to land mine relief in Afghanistan. Rees is also the author of the unstoppable comics My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable and My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable. He lives in Brooklyn.