Monday, 16 July 2018

Wittgenstein and The Mystical

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1922
The word “mystical” is there in three propositions in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

In proposition 6.44, he says:
Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is. 
In proposition 6.45, he says:
The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole.
The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling. 
In proposition 6.522, he says:
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical. 
Elizabeth Anscombe, in her book An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, (Chapter 13: "Mysticism and Solipsism”), suggests that Wittgenstein, being an extraordinary individual, could have some kind of mysticism about him. She says that to understand the sense in which he is using the term “mystical,” we have to look at the proposition 6.52 in Tractatus: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, still the problems of life have not been touched at all. Of course there then just is no question left, and just this is the answer.”

She drops a hint about the influence of Leo Tolstoy on Wittgenstein and says that the idea behind “mystical” is made clearer in proposition 6.41: “The meaning of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, everything happens as it does happen; there is no value in it if there were any, it would have no value. If there is a value that has value, it must lie outside all happening and outside being this way or that. For all happening and being this way or that is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot be found in the world, for otherwise this thing would in its turn be accidental.”  She also takes note of proposition 6.42, in which Wittgenstein says: “God does not reveal himself in the world.”

Bertrand Russell offers a much clearer view of Wittgenstein’s religious and spiritual mindset. In a 1919 letter to Lady Ottoline Morell, Russell says that he discussed Tractatus with Wittgenstein during their meeting in Holland, and he was surprised by Wittgenstein’s spirituality. Here’s an excerpt from Russell’s letter:
I feel sure [Tractatus] is really a great book, though I do not feel sure it is right… . I had felt in his book a flavour of mysticism, but was astonished when I found that he has become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk. It all started from William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, and grew (not unnaturally) during the winter he spent alone in Norway before the war, when he was nearly mad. Then during the war a curious thing happened. He went on duty to the town of Tarnov in Galicia, and happened to come upon a bookshop, which, however, seemed to contain nothing but picture postcards. However, he went inside and found that it contained just one book: Tolstoy on the Gospels. He brought it merely because there was no other. He read it and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him, under fire and at all times. But on the whole he likes Tolstoy less than Dostoyevsky (especially Karamazov). He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn't agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking. I don't much think he will really become a monk -- it is an idea, not an intention. His intention is to be a teacher. He gave all his money to his brothers and sisters, because he found earthly possessions a burden. I wish you had seen him. ~ (Letters to Russell, Keynes, and Moore, edited by G.H. von Wright)

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