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Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?

I often have resisted the mystical interpretations of Wittgenstein, mostly put off by a college professor who attempted to teach a Buddhist perspective through the backdoor of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, all the while refusing to admit the project. Wittgenstein always seemed more plain that than. Or more plain than the need for some to stretch him out in a way that seemed unbecoming for the engineer-like love for the obvious and the working that Wittgenstein so exhibited. So I was surprised when I ran into this review of James R. Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings (found via Methods of Projection)

While clearly the reviewer Russell Nieli has a stake in the mystical reading of Wittgenstein, in particular an enforcement of the idea that Wittgenstein may have had genuine mystical experiences of some kind, we benefit from his acute awareness of this type of influence and a familiarity with the evidence. And I have to admit that an early preoccupation with the mystical perceptions makes the stripped-down philosophical form of the Tractatus all the more understandable for me. The review leads with this wonderful bit from historical record, a letter written by Bertrand Russell following his visit to the supposedly full-blown mystic, young Wittgenstein. While we have to keep in mind that Russell is a pronounced atheist, and what a “complete mystic” would be in Russell’s mind at the time we cannot know, the letter is revealing.

[letter from Bertrand Russell to Lady Ottoline Morell that was written in the winter of 1919 after Russell had met with Wittgenstein in Holland to discuss his Tractatus manuscript.]

I have much to tell you that is of interest. I leave here today [December 20, 1919, from the The Hague] after a fortnight’s stay, during a week of which Wittgenstein was here, and we discussed his book [the Tractatus] everyday. I came to think even better of it than I had done; I feel sure it 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.

I have to say that what comes to mind for me is the inherent comparision I always felt between the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Spinoza’s Ethics. It has been pointed out that the very title may have been taken in some reference to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologio-Politicus, though orthodox Wittgensteinians are sometimes quick to rush in and deny any strong conceptual connection, making of it something of a homage or even lark offered by Moore. No one seems to consider much that both tractatus were written as rational, and in some way historically transcedent treatises in response to, or in context of, horrible political crisis: for Spinoza the threats of a religio-political self-destruction of the young Dutch Republic, and the English, French, Spanish encroachment; for Wittgenstein, the epiphanic brutalities of World War I. That Russell is visiting Wittgenstein in the Spinozian Hague, Wittgenstein just recently released from Prisoner of War status, and having given away of his enormous personal inheritance, carries little weight of comparison between the two for orthodox Wittgensteinians.

Mystical Wittgenstein

Young Mystical Wittgenstein

Aside from these thoughts, there seem to me several conceptual connections between Wittgenstein’s atomism and Spinoza’s epistemology, little of which I can go into here. Perhaps it is best to say that while logical structure connects picture-statements to the world in early Wittgenstein, it is the “order and connection” of ideas and things that connects our ideas about the world with the world in Spinoza, with logical relationships playing a determinative role in each. But key to interpreting early Wittgenstein, as Russell Nieli finds it, is seeing how the mystical ecstatic experience beyond language gives rise to a necessarily “two world” perspective that is woven into the immanence of Wittgenstein’s position:

Nevertheless Atkinson fails to see — and it is the central failing of his book — that the creation-mystical and mystically immanent is interwoven in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with a transcendentally mystical or mystic-ecstatic thematic that corresponds with what Wittgenstein considered throughout his life to be the quintessentially religious experience, namely, the ecstatic or rapturous experience of feeling “absolutely safe” beyond the changing world in the hands of a transcendent God. Atkinson acknowledges that there are important passages in the Tractatus that could be interpreted — and have often been interpreted — in the ecstatic sense to suggest that Wittgenstein believed in a two-realm or two-world theory, with language descriptive of events in the one, while the other exists beyond or outside of language and for this reason is ineffable. Such passages, he recognizes, include the following:

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. 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. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. . . . It must lie outside the world. (Tr. 6:41)

The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (It is certainly not the solution of any problems of natural science that is required). (Tr. 6.4313)

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. (Tr. 6.432)

Atkinson rejects the two-world or two-realm view of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy — or what he calls the “metaphysical interpretation” — for reasons that are poorly stated but generally boil down to the conviction that only the immanental variety of mysticism is present in the Tractatus and Notebooks, and that what might seem like a belief in a transcendental-ecstatic “outside” of the world is really just Wittgenstein’s way of stating in another manner the truth of his claim that it is not how the world is, but that it is, that is mystical. Atkinson’s defense of this view is quirky and will convince no one who both reads the relevant text of the Tractatus and Notebooks together with Wittgenstein’s direct account of his own personal religious experiences in the “Lecture on Ethics.”

This is an interesting distinction to make for those reading Spinoza, for Spinoza too walked carefully between an embrace of a concrete “here” and yet always the necessary appeal to what lies outside of it “there”. And while it is typical to read early and later Wittgenstein as radical break, this sense of “lying outside”, perhaps ecstatically so, can be read as a continuation of a kind. And while Rationalist interpreations of Spinoza are plentiful, it has come under consideration recently that he actually places the linguistic and the mathematical largely in the realm of the imagination; when one studies him one sees him constantly pointing outward to the border of cognition. Perhaps it could be said that what distinguished early Wittgenstein from later was the way in which he collapsed the two worlds into the one world, making “nothing hidden”, an operation that Spinoza seemed to carry out in the writing of the Ethics, broken as it was in half by the interruption of the Tractatus Theologio-Politicus. This point of a Spinoza reversal was made forcefully in Negri’s own prison work, The Savage Anomaly. It is the immanentist commitment that the sense we make comes out of our participation in the world itself and not our abstraction from it, something that can be found in both Wittgenstein and Spinoza, early and late. And if there is an estatic element to each, it is that one’s gaze always must pass beyond the immediate border of perception-cognition, to the nexus of the statement, the thought, the feeling, if one is to uncover the powers of sense itself, an ecstacy that one is already participating in, whether conscious of it or not. It is not that there is another world, but only that our view of this world is only necessarily partial and inclusionary.


Wittgenstein’s Silence

It is Wittgenstein’s last sentence of his Tractatus  that is perhaps his most problematic, and therefore engaging: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent”. The silence though appears not to have stopped here. There seems to be a hidden silence that carries through to Wittgenstein’s much embraced latter work, despite the arguable radical break with what preceded it. The “silence” with which the Tractatus  ends, is the silence imposed when speaking under a picture-sentence view of language, “A sentence is a picture of reality” (TLP 1, 4.021). How much of this need, this must of “silence” remains in Wittgenstein’s new thinking?. It strikes me that at least in the followers of Wittgenstein a great deal more of this silence lingers than is often acknowledged. There is the feeling that Wittgenstein wants to say “Whereof one cannot speak under a Language-game picture of language, one must, or should remain silent”. It is this implicit continuation of a sense of completion, that the adequate framework of sense as been now supplied, and that all that falls outside of it is simply by definition “nonsense”, which is somehow sublated in the Philosophical Investigations and other texts. (One can see this most explicitly in Wittgenstein’s treatment of “nonsense” and metaphysics under a normalized concept of health vs. illness.) To be sure, Wittgenstein’s loose, often playful approach to language through an analogy of rules and games lacks the rigid latticework of the Tractatus, but it seems that the prescription of silence remains.

If though we take Wittgenstein’s two projects in composite, his picture-sentence theory of language, and his language-game theory (understanding “theory” in its Greek sense), we might take away something more than a final resting place which fixedly allows us to parse sense from nonsense, and the coherently spoken from requisite quiet. Perhaps we can see that while a silence halos all our approaches of a descriptive cohesion, our pictures of language can and indeed necessarily do change. A Language-game approach is not a final framework for our divisions of the spoken and unspoken. Other circumscriptions exist, and will exist, prospectively, creatively, usefully. If anything is taught by Wittgenstein’s progression, it would be that silence is always qualified. And the “must”, the imperative of normative discourse about discourse, is itself contingent to the metaphors and analogies we fashion. Wittgenstein’s Language Game itself imposes its unique urge to silence in the implicit assumption of its descriptive powers. The Language Game also is a “picture [that] held us captive” (PI §115).

“Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what could not be said” – Bertrand Russell