Saturday, July 21, 2012

Thinking about Vienna

In his later years, Ludwig Wittgenstein had many insightful and salutary things to say - about language especially. He had freed himself from a rigorous but narrow view of logic and language, and thought his way back to what looks like a very sane and sensible and quite ordinary point of view which respects the fact that human language is embedded in human life in all its forms and activities, and reflects this variety. There is nothing metaphysical about language and meaning, no mystery (though many philosophers continue to operate as if there were*).

But there is another side of Wittgenstein which I find less appealing: his negative attitude towards science, his tendency to play the sage, and his religion.

He was, I think, very close to Tolstoy in his religious views, and very much a Christian. He gave away his share of the family fortune (and in so doing incurred the lifelong enmity of his brother Paul). He prayed. He read the New Testament.

I say that Wittgenstein played the sage. He did so in his writings, which often have an oracular tone, but also in life (as a teacher, etc.). He was a notorious philosophical head-clutcher.

And, as befits a sage, Wittgenstein had and has disciples. Philosophical Wittgensteinians often play down the religious dimension of his thought, but this is not the case with Henry Le Roy Finch, who, having completed a PhD at Columbia, taught philosophy for more than forty years, mainly at Sarah Lawrence College and CCNY (later CUNY).

I am currently reading a short work of Finch's in which he presents Wittgenstein and Heidegger as harbingers of an epochal change in Western civilization.

"We may not expect the change, which seems to be seeping in from many directions, to be forecast or presaged by any one particular philosopher or prophet. However, the thinker who is attuned to his or her own time as well as to deeper currents may pick up the seismic tremors well before others do and express some critical formative ideas in advance of the more general historical changes. Such a thinker, in the opinion of many, is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)... [He] was a thinker of such originality that no one claimed to understand him fully in his lifetime and the attempt to comprehend his 'new way of looking at things' and make it available to the mainstream continues."

For many of Wittgenstein's followers - and especially, I would say, for the non-philosophers among them - his forbiddingly complex and beautifully written oeuvre represents a profound and sophisticated defense of the (or a) religious point of view.

And, because he didn't make explicit religious claims ('Whereof one cannot speak ...'), it is difficult to argue against his position.

I try to keep an open mind on these issues, but I do tend to the view that Wittgenstein's religious propensities are inextricably bound up with some very peculiar psychological imperatives and with his family and cultural background. His culture and most of his preoccupations are alien to us today. He was a member of one of the richest and most highly cultured Viennese families and grew up in the declining years of the once-glorious Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Romantic cult of death was in the air.

I have my doubts also about his followers. Finch sounds at times like a bit of an oddball. In an endnote on the discarding of "age-old machinelike aspects of the human mind", he mentions favorably the religious thinker Eric Gutkind (whom I have not read), and recalls attending in New York in October 1949 a talk by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

"He came out on the stage and began his lecture with these words, which are imprinted on my memory: 'The greatest man of our time has died today, and probably none of you has ever heard of him.' It was Gurdjieff ..."

If old Vienna was a weird and alien world, the bohemian milieu of mid-twentieth century New York might have given it a run for its money.

* Saul Kripke's work was very influential in re-mystifying the philosophy of language.