My previous column, “Was Wittgenstein a Mystic?”, argued that the legendary philosopher’s great work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus can only be understood if one assumes that he was trying to express mystical experiences, which by definition elude description. I emailed the column to a few friends I thought might be interested. Philosopher Garry Dobbins, historian of technology Lee Vinsel and jack-of-all-trades Jim Holt, a member of my philosophy salon, sent me these comments:
Garry Dobbins: YES! Wittgenstein was a mystic IF by that we mean he believed that there is a dimension or aspect of life itself, a “mysterious” dimension or aspect, independent of all that happens in the course of life. Only it makes no sense to say any such things because, as he says in Tractatus, “all propositions are of equal value.” For if all propositions are of equal value then all the things we want to talk about by means of propositions can only be of equal value, also.
“In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists; and if it did exist, it would have no value.” This because everything in the world might have been other than it is; but then what happens to be good might have been bad, but life’s “mystery” is of necessity good and can’t be bad. So the mystery isn’t anywhere to be found, for it can’t be found, IN life. But we can only make sense in speech of what lies within the world, or what we see or experience in the course of our life. So once again, we can’t make any sense of talk of “the mystical.”
As I understand him, Wittgenstein thought that we look at all the things IN the world, all the things that we see and experience in the course of our life, and value what lies close to us at a higher rate than what lies further off - we love our own Mother, for instance, more than even a dozen other people's Mothers, and to try to live otherwise would be as absurd as morally wrong. Peter Singer at one time urged otherwise, but he can hardly be taken seriously: imagine him saying, “Oh I’m really sorry Mum, but I can’t pay for your chemo treatment because the same amount of money would save the lives of two other mothers, and a half a dozen rabbits!” So here it makes sense to speak of what is good, or of value, as a “mystical” experience because it’s goodness or value is relative to us. Not absolutely, or without qualification, good or valuable.
The mystery of life, or “the mystical” becomes visible in the same way that we might become aware of the blind spot in our own vision: we can’t see it directly, but infer its existence by holding and moving a pen, or other object, before our eyes off to one side until the pen “disappears.” So too we can become aware of the mystery of life by noticing that while all the things that we see, and in which we invest ourselves - all that we care for – are on the same level, that there is looking, and seeing, and investing ourselves, this is where the mystery is to be found. We look at the things that come our way in life and let ourselves be distracted by them - when I was a kid I couldn't walk past a candy store, for example, without giving all my attention to what I was seeing through the window: then my mother would pull me hard by the hand and say, “What are you doing? Get a move on!” It is not the things in the world, or the candy store window, that really matter, but that there is a world, with among other things, candy store windows, is where the mystery is to be found.
He also says in his Tractatus that “solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it.” Again, I take this to mean that to appreciate life’s mystery is to BE immersed in it, the way that as a child I was immersed in the things I saw in the candy store window, but without thinking that those things, whatever they may be, are what really matter.
To be a mystic as I think Wittgenstein early had it in mind to say, requires that we invest ourselves entirely in the things of this world, yet without losing sight of how there being a world for us to invest ourselves in requires our investment of ourselves in this, not that, and here not there, and so deeply at this point, not more deeply, and so on. Requires that is to say that we make sense of life – put our world together out of all the bits and pieces that, magpie like, we find attractive to us – so that it holds together, or rather, in such a way as we can hold it together, according to rules not of our choosing.
Lee Vinsel: I think McGuiness's essay has been far outmoded by subsequent discussions, like the book by Malcolm and Winch (Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View?) In all these matters, seems to me Wittgenstein evades easy is he? or isn't he? questions/answers. For many people the Tractatus is a blank canvas on which they project whatever they want to see. And so I think your interpretation just shows that YOU are the mystic, John.
From a certain angle, Tractatus looks like mysticism today because our scientism believes knowledge is what we can put clearly in words. But then you have to say, "Well, OK, but what kind of mysticism?" One of the most important interpretive guides for the Tractatus, to my mind, is the bit of text Wittgenstein wrote to his publisher Ficker about the important part being what is unsaid. I paste it below:
“My work consists of two parts, the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important point. For the ethical gets its limit drawn from the inside, as it were, by my book; … I’ve managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it …. For now I would recommend you to read the preface and the conclusion, because they contain the most direct expression of the point” (ProtoTractatus, p.16).
Jim Holt: I think my point at our meeting was that Wittgenstein could be called a “mystic” because (in the Tractatus) he purported to establish the limits of language and also claimed that there were things (I hesitate to call them truths) that could be “shown” but not said. So he made space for a kind of non-discursive knowledge that might be called “mystical”--and indeed he located the very insights supposedly afforded by the Tractatus in this space. Whether a mystical “experience” was needed to attain such knowledge is unclear--but Wittgenstein did remark that his own sense of the ethical derived from three experiences: wonderment at existence, guilt, and the feeling of being absolutely safe.
See also my next column, “Responses to ‘Was Wittgenstein a Mystic?’”