Home

In his essay “Understanding Toulmin” (Philosophical Papers Part II) Imre Lakatos quotes J.O. Wisdom on Wittgenstein: “One has the sense of wandering about the corridors of a maze; and the maze has no definite centre. This mode of presentation, leading one through a maze whose ‘centre’ is the discovery that there is no centre, in itself conveys some philosophical message.”

This is a very natural response to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, especially (as I take this Wisdom to have been) from someone who met the philosophy viva voce, from Wittgenstein’s own mouth. Nevertheless, now that Wittgenstein is dead, there seems to me to be only one way to study him, and that is to start at the beginning of his manuscript notes, work one’s way through until one gets to the end, and then stop (and start thinking for oneself). Wittgenstein himself would never have minded anyone taking a random walk through his eventually available manuscripts and printed texts, for jumping without discipline from one to another was just what his thoughts seemed to him to do. We, however, can see how his thoughts did actually develop out of one another. What he thought one day prepared for what he thought the next. In seriously studying him we should study his texts, and in the order in which he wrote them. Hence, my internet-site title, “Wittgenstein in real time”.

Alas, while I have tried, in a book I hope to publish soon, to practice what I preach, I cannot do anything on my web site but present a succession of very unchronological snap shots. These began four years ago (it is now July 2004) with a mere jeu d’esprit to get me started. I had found a book called Wittgenstein in 90 minutes (Strathern), which combined an excellent summary of Tractatus Wittgenstein with a misleading account of his later work (which began in February 1929 and ended in April 1951, when he died). So I quickly drafted something called “Wittgenstein’s second half in 45 minutes”, the time I reckoned it would take anyone to read it. It was intended to be a chronological bird’s eye view of those 22 years, but it was rather slapdash. Worse, another article which was certainly not intended to be slapdash, on the penultimate notebooks, contained a dreadful biographical error, which I feel I must mention as a warning against jumping to conclusions.

Reading Ayer’s autobiography, I discovered that Ryle had joined Wittgenstein for a walking holiday, apparently some time in 1930. Now it happens that I had long been puzzled by a passage in a 1930 manuscript volume (MS 109, see page 65, Volume 3 of Nedo’s Wiener Ausgabe) in which the term “logical and phenomenological constants” occurs. The problem behind this term is expressed fairly naturally in the last paragraph of 9.[9.30], printed on the same page, but the term itself, in the third paragraph of 10.[9.30], is not easy to understand, and it does not seem to recur in the manuscript notebooks. I became obsessed with wondering why this problem, or at least the term expressing it, came into Wittgenstein’s train of thought so abruptly and, equally abruptly, left it. Then I found in Ryle’s Concept of Mind a mention of Helvellyn (see pages 251-252) in a discussion of mental images (‘seeing Helvellyn in one’s mind’s eye’) and the explanation became clear to me: the walking tour had taken them across the Striding Edge to Helvellyn, where the problem had been blown away by Ryle’s arguments and the Helvellyn wind. To make this fit the dates quoted, it would have had to happen in the fortnight or so just before the Michaelmas term of 1930. Unfortunately, the Wittgenstein diaries published as Denkbewegungen and edited by Ilse Somavilla establish that he did not leave Vienna until September 26th and then went to Switzerland, not to see Ryle but Marguerite Respinger, now de Chambrier, arriving in Cambridge on October 2nd and still needing to change his lodgings. Getting back to Cambridge barely in time for the coming term was his normal practice.

Total adherance to my principle of ‘real time’ study would require a student of Wittgenstein to begin with a detailed reading of the Tractatus and its background manuscripts. There is no doubt that to study 1929-1951 in ignorance of the Tractatus would be disastrous, so many harkings back to it are there. Nevertheless, there is a difference. On 2.2.29 Wittgenstein took a deep breath and began a new method of composition which took him to 27.4.51. In the Denkbewegungen diaries he acknowledges this difference — see an entry for 28.1.32: “Meine Hauptdenkbewegung ist heute eine ganz andere als vor 15-20 Jahren.” The current ease of access to the complete manuscripts makes a chronological study of them not only feasible but, in my view, philosophically imperative.

They begin with an episode which is not sufficiently valued, the quest for a ‘phenomenological language’ in which sense data could be isolated and recorded, based on the assumption that until this was accomplished philosophy would be incomplete. There is a reference to the quest in Investigations §436, where it is called jene Sackgasse des Philosophierens, that dead end of philosophising, but the rather purple description that follows suggests that this dead end was not a mere wrong turning (ein Irrweg, I believe Dr Kienzler has called it) but an attraction whose seductions reverberated with him for long after.

The rather bathetic reason why this opening episode in Wittgenstein’s return to philosophy is undervalued is that he wrote it in two volumes (MSS 105 and 106, admirably edited in the first Nedo Wiener Ausgabe volume) in which he wrote first on right hand sides and then on left. This made this pair of notebooks extremely difficult to unravel, especially for scholars whose only access to them was the appallingly edited Cornell microfilms. Difficult, but by no means impossible, for I cracked them quite quickly in 1976 when I first met them. For many years I made rude remarks about scholar wimps who could not be bothered with the task — but I have the impression that they are still enormously reluctant to pay attention to the phenomenological language quest, as if out of habit, even now when, thanks to Nedo and the Bergen editors, it can hardly be called a task at all.

I do my best to remedy this state of affairs in my book, in two chapters in which I put the whole episode under a microscope. Two years ago I promised to publish these chapters on this site, but this has proved impossible. Only when the book is finally published shall I be able to claim that I have practised what I preach. Meanwhile, I hope that my very unchronological efforts on this site will spur younger scholars to practise my preaching for me.

Please send any comments about these pages to admin@wittgenstein.co.uk