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Posts Tagged ‘Wittgenstein

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…

Joy Walker: Three Boxes Three Ways, 2009

Nonbeing belongs to that category of concepts that seem self-evident and self-explanatory, but as FT explains, it has perplexed philosophers for ages…

Bertrand Russell’s 1951 obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein is only a few paragraphs long, and the second consists largely of a single pointed anecdote:

Quite at first I was in doubt as to whether he was a man of genius or a crank…. He maintained, for example, at one time that all existential propositions are meaningless. This was in a lecture room, and I invited him to consider the proposition: “There is no hippopotamus in this room at present.” When he refused to believe this, I looked under all the desks without finding one; but he remained unconvinced.

The exchange is typical of the two philosophers’ relationship: Russell’s proper British demeanor was frequently ruffled by the Austrian’s dry humor. But it also illustrates two general approaches to philosophy: one that takes pleasure in complexities, absurdities, and ironies, and one that takes pleasure in resolving them. Just as Wittgenstein surely realized that there was no hippopotamus in the room, Russell surely realized that Wittgenstein’s objection could not be dispelled empirically by looking under each desk. At stake was not a fact of perception but the epistemological status of negation—the philosophical meaning and value of assertions about nothing.

Nothing, or nonbeing, belongs to that category of concepts—like being, space, and consciousness—that seem self-evident and self-explanatory to most people most of the time, but that for philosophy have been objects of deepest perplexity and millennia-long dispute. It’s a little like breathing, which happens automatically until we stop to think about it. To most of us, Russell’s statement “There is no hippopotamus in this room” is both easily understood and easily verified. We think we know what it means, and most of us would only need a quick look around to affirm or deny the proposition.

But here our troubles begin. If you look around the room and don’t see a hippopotamus, presumably you do still see something: some kind of perception or sensory data is reaching your consciousness, which allows you to make a judgment. What is it that you do see when you see a hippopotamus not being there? Are you perceiving a nonbeing, seeing a particular thing whose nature is absence, or are you not perceiving any being, seeing no “thing” at all? When you see a hippopotamus not being there, are you also seeing a whale and a lion and a zebra not being there? Is every room full of all the things that aren’t in it?

From an evolutionary perspective, one predator not being there is just as good as any other predator not being there, but dialectics and logic are a little more particular. If every possible animal is not there at the same time, what specific truth-value can the assertion “There is no hippopotamus in this room” possibly have? Hence Wittgenstein’s insistence, facetious or not, that all existential propositions are meaningless. In this manner the complications and implications of nothing spill into every area of philosophical inquiry, and we quickly come to sympathize with Aristophanes’ brutal satire of philosophers in The Clouds:

Socrates: Have you got hold of anything?

Strepsiades: No, nothing whatever.

Socrates: Nothing at all?

Strepsiades: No, nothing except my tool, which I’ve got in my hand.

Nonbeing, through the ages: “Apropos of Nothing,” from @ft_variations in @nybooks.

* Oscar Wilde


As we analyze absence, we might send mindful birthday greetings to Mahasi Sayadaw; he was born on this date in 1904. A Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master, he had a significant impact on the teaching of vipassanā (insight) meditation in the West and throughout Asia.


“A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”*…

Metaphysical debates in quantum physics don’t get at “truth,” physicist and mathematician Timothy Andersen argues; they’re nothing but a form of ritual activity and culture. After a thoughtful intellectual history of both quantum mechanics and Wittgenstein’s thought, he concludes…

If Wittgenstein were alive today, he might have couched his arguments in the vocabulary of cultural anthropology. For this shared grammar and these language games, in his view, form part of much larger ritualistic mechanisms that connect human activity with human knowledge, as deeply as DNA connects to human biology. It is also a perfect example of how evolution works by using pre-existing mechanisms to generate new behaviors.

The conclusion from all of this is that interpretation and representation in language and mathematics are little different than the supernatural explanations of ancient religions. Trying to resolve the debate between Bohr and Einstein is like trying to answer the Zen kōan about whether the tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one can hear it. One cannot say definitely yes or no, because all human language must connect to human activity. And all human language and activity are ritual, signifying meaning by their interconnectedness. To ask what the wavefunction means without specifying an activity – and experiment – to extract that meaning is, therefore, as sensible as asking about the sound of the falling tree. It is nonsense.

As a scientist and mathematician, Wittgenstein has challenged my own tendency to seek out interpretations of phenomena that have no scientific value – and to see such explanations as nothing more than narratives. He taught that all that philosophy can do is remind us of what is evidently true. It’s evidently true that the wavefunction has a multiverse interpretation, but one must assume the multiverse first, since it cannot be measured. So the interpretation is a tautology, not a discovery.

I have humbled myself to the fact that we can’t justify clinging to one interpretation of reality over another. In place of my early enthusiastic Platonism, I have come to think of the world not as one filled with sharply defined truths, but rather as a place containing myriad possibilities – each of which, like the possibilities within the wavefunction itself, can be simultaneously true. Likewise, mathematics and its surrounding language don’t represent reality so much as serve as a trusty tool for helping people to navigate the world. They are of human origin and for human purposes.

To shut up and calculate, then, recognizes that there are limits to our pathways for understanding. Our only option as scientists is to look, predict and test. This might not be as glamorous an offering as the interpretations we can construct in our minds, but it is the royal road to real knowledge…

A provocative proposition: “Quantum Wittgenstein,” from @timcopia in @aeonmag.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


As we muse on meaning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that the official ground-breaking for CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) was held. Located in Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world… that’s to say, a prime spot to do the observation and calculation that Andersen suggests. Indeed, it’s been the site of many breakthrough discoveries over the years, maybe most notably the 2012 observation of the Higgs Boson.

Because researchers need remote access to these facilities, the lab has historically been a major wide area network hub. Indeed, it was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee developed the first “browser”– and effectively fomented the emergence of the web.

CERN’s main site, from Switzerland looking towards France

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”*…

… and the interest rate on that loan is rising.

There’s much discussion of what’s causing the sudden-feeling spike in prices that we’re experiencing: pandemic disruptions, nativist and protectionist policies, the over-taxing of over-optimized supply chains, and others. But Robinson Meyer argues that there’s another issue, an underlying cause, that’s not getting the attention it deserves… one that will likely be even harder to address…

Over the past year, U.S. consumer prices have risen 7 percent, their fastest rate in nearly four decades, frustrating households and tanking President Joe Biden’s approval rating. And no wonder. High inflation corrodes the basic machinery of the economy, unsettling consumers, troubling companies, and preventing everyone from making sturdy plans for the future…

For years, scientists and economists have warned that climate change could cause massive shortages of major commodities, such as wine, chocolate, and cereals. Financial regulators have cautioned against a “disorderly transition,” in which the world commits only haphazardly to leaving fossil fuels, so it does not invest enough in their zero-carbon replacements. In an economy as prosperous and powerful as America’s, those problems are likely to show up—at least at first—not as empty grocery shelves or bankrupt gas stations but as price increases.

That phenomenon, long hypothesized, may be starting to actually arrive. Over the past year, unprecedented weather disasters have caused the price of key commodities to spike, and a volatile oil-and-gas market has allowed Russia and Saudi Arabia to exert geopolitical force.

“This climate-change risk to the supply chain—it’s actually real. It is happening now,” Mohamed Kande, the U.S. and global advisory leader at the accounting firm PwC, told me.

How to respond to these problems? The U.S. government has one tool to slow down the great chase of inflation: Leash up its dollars. By raising the rate at which the federal government lends money to banks, the Federal Reserve makes it more expensive for businesses or consumers to take out loans themselves. This brings demand in the economy more in line with supply. It is like the king in our thought experiment deciding to buy back some of his gold coins.

But wait—is it always appropriate to focus on dollars? What if the problem was caused by too few goods? Worse, what if the economy lost the ability to produce goods over time, throwing off the dollars-to-goods ratio? Then what was once an adequate number of dollars will, through no fault of its own, become too many...

… if the climate scars on supply continue to grow, does the Federal Reserve have the right tools to manage? Stinson Dean, the lumber trader, is doubtful. “Raising interest rates will blunt demand for housing—no doubt. But if you blunt demand enough to bring lumber prices down, you’re destroying the economy,” Dean told me. “For us to have lower lumber prices, we can only build a million homes a year. Do you really want to do that?

“Raising rates,” he said, “doesn’t grow more trees.” Nor does it grow more coffee, end a drought, or bring certainty to the energy transition. And if our new era of climate-driven inflation takes hold, America will need more than higher interest rates to bring balance to supply and demand.

A provocative look at the tangled roots of our inflation, suggesting that “The World Isn’t Ready for Climate-Change-Driven Inflation,” from @yayitsrob in @TheAtlantic. Eminently worth reading in full. Via @sentiers.

* Native American proverb


As we dig deeper, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Frank Plumpton Ramsey; he was born on this date in 1903. A philosopher, mathematician, and economist, he made major contributions to all three fields before his death (at the age of 26) on this date in 1930.

While he is probably best remembered as a mathematician and logician and as Wittgenstein’s friend and translator, he wrote three paper in economics: on subjective probability and utility (a response to Keynes, 1926), on optimal taxation (1927, described by Joseph E. Stiglitz as “a landmark in the economics of public finance”), and optimal economic growth (1928; hailed by Keynes as “”one of the most remarkable contributions to mathematical economics ever made”). The economist Paul Samuelson described them in 1970 as “three great legacies – legacies that were for the most part mere by-products of his major interest in the foundations of mathematics and knowledge.”

For more on Ramsey and his thought, see “One of the Great Intellects of His Time,” “The Man Who Thought Too Fast,” and Ramsey’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


“My work consists of two parts; that presented here plus all I have not written. It is this second part that is important.”*…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wooden cabin in Skjolden, Norway

On the occasion of it centenary, Peter Salmon considers the history, context, and lasting significance of Wittgenstein‘s revolutionary first work…

One hundred years ago, a slim volume of philosophy was published by the then unknown Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The book was as curious as its title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Running to only 75 pages, it was in the form of a series of propositions, the gnomic quality of the first as baffling to the newcomer today as it was then.

1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is a totality of facts not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

And so on, through six propositions, 526 numbered statements, equally emphatic and enigmatic, until the seventh and final proposition, which stands alone at the end of the text: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

The book’s influence was to be dramatic and far-reaching. Wittgenstein believed he had found a “solution” to how language and the world relate, that they shared a logical form. This also set a limit as to what questions could be meaningfully asked. Any question which could not be verified was, in philosophical terms, nonsense.

Written in the First World War trenches, Tractatus is, in many ways, a work of mysticism…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is as brilliant and baffling today as it was on its publication a century ago: “The logical mystic,” from @petesalmon in @NewHumanist.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein


As we wrestle with reason and reality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1930 that Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon— likely a favorite of Wittgenstein’s— was published. In 1990 the novel ranked 10th in Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the Crime Writer’s Association. Five years later, in a similar list by Mystery Writers of America, the novel was ranked third.


“Don’t think, but look!”*…

The scene is London; the year, 1941. Ludwig Wittgenstein, likely the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, has taken a hiatus from his Cambridge professorship to do “war work” in a menial position at Guy’s Hospital. By the time he arrives there, in September, the worst of the Blitz is over, but there’s no way of knowing that—the bombing could begin again any night. Wittgenstein serves as a dispensary porter, meaning he pushes a big cart from ward to ward, delivering medicine to patients. He’s 52 years old, small and thin, not to say frail. He writes in a letter that sometimes after work he can “hardly move.”

To John Ryle, brother of Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein explains his reason for volunteering in London: “I feel I will die slowly if I stay there [in Cambridge]. I would rather take the chance of dying quickly.”

Wittgenstein’s time at Guy’s Hospital is an especially lonely period in a lonely life. Socially awkward in the extreme, he does not endear himself to his coworkers. Although it soon gets out, he initially hopes to conceal that he’s a professor in regular life, hating the prospect of being treated differently. But he is different. His attempts to hide in plain sight must strike everyone as yet another eccentricity.

Nevertheless, he makes at least one friend at the hospital, a fellow staffer named Roy Fouracre. After some time, Fouracre is permitted to visit Wittgenstein in his room, a rare privilege with the reclusive philosopher. Crossing the threshold into Wittgenstein’s private quarters, Fouracre must expect to find books everywhere, hefty, awe-inspiring tomes by Aristotle and Kant and the like. Nothing of the sort. The only reading material in evidence is “neat piles of detective magazines.”

Those magazines would have been American detective pulps, the kind that chronicled the adventures of Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade and other hardboiled heroes. During the last two decades of his life, Wittgenstein read such fiction compulsively. But what drew him to detective stories, and to American hardboiled ones in particular? How did a man engaged in a fundamental reform of philosophy—no less than an overhaul of how we think and talk about the world—develop such a passion for pulps?…

How pulp magazines inspired Wittgenstein’s investigations of the mysteries of language: “The Philosopher of the Detectives- Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enduring passion for hardboiled fiction.”

For more on Wittgenstein’s thought, see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article; for more on his life, this engaging biography.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein


As we “only describe, don’t explain,” we might spare a thought for Henri-Louis Bergson; he died on this date in 1941.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding of reality…. many, but not Wittgenstein (nor Russell, Moore, nor Santayana), who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result, in philosophical circles, of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and in the religious and spiritualist studies communities, of Bergson’s seeming embrace of the concept of an overriding/underlying consciousness in which humans participate.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 4, 2021 at 1:01 am

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