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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.


What the Right Hand Giveth…

Anarchic Hand Syndrome and Wittgenstein’s notion of Subject and Privacy

N. N., a thorough going defender of Wittgenstein over at Methods of Projectionbrings up a supposed “refutation” of Wittgenstein offered by Barry Smith, in the example of Alien Hand and Anarchic Hand Syndromes. These medical examples seem to run counter to our main intuitions about the conceptual integrety of our bodies, and thus our identities, and as such produce tension in some of Wittgenstein’s Grammatical arguments which depend on a certain logic of Self.

This was my response to Smith’s examples, and some of the comments that followed. Apart from the points being made at that site, it seems that Anarchic Hand Syndrome (a form of apraxia wherein one’s hand is experienced to have an mind of its own) reflects most directly upon Wittgenstein’s section 268, from the Philosophical Investigations:

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? — My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left had has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: “Well, and what of it? ” And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private defintion of a word: I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed himself to a sensation

PI section 268

Here Wittgenstein (mysteriously) ties his Private Language argument to a supposedly meaningless exchange between hands (an impossibility that we take to be grammatical, I suppose). In anarchic hand syndrome the full silliness of hand-to-hand exchange becomes less obvious. Indeed there are consequences for such exchanges, which could read as a “gift” (imagine someone with multiple personalities). When the logic of the Private Language argument is foregrounded in the assumed impossibility, the ultimate question of the integrity of the “subject”, even at the grammatical level, is opened up.

What is one do to when Wittgenstein uses an example which prima facie is supposed to be taken as an absurdity (a frequent rhetorical tool of his), and this absurdity is meant to establish or make clear an “argument”; yet upon looking closely one finds that it is not so absurd in all conditions? Is Wittgenstein “refuted”? This would seem to be a odd thing to say, since he does not present direct arguments per se. What it does say is that if you look closely at the substantive, real-world examples that surround his proposed absurdities, his grammatical arguments become thinner and thinner.

“Come on” Wittgensteinians might say, “you have to read him with charity, you know what he means.” Look closely, but not too closely.

If indeed one can have instances where your right hand can MEANINGFULLY give money to your left hand, and if we are to read the above section on its own terms, does this mean that a Private definition of a word is possible, although unlikely? If not, if counter examples to Wittgenstein’s illustrations don’t count against his arguments, what really is the substances of these arguments anyway?

As for “consequences” we certainly can imagine that in a court of law someone could be held “not guilty” of murder, having stabbed someone with their anarchic hand, while it still could be considered their hand in many legal ways (amputation?). A rougue left hand also might also give food to the right hand, or directly to the mouth, with consequences that have strong interpersonal meanings.


Upon reflection, I would say that Wittgenstein (or Wittgensteinians) do not fully embrace the radical historical contingency of Wittgenstein’s notions of grammar, in a trade off which allows a certain degree of normative argument and logical force. What grammar does, in the sense that Wittgenstein uses it, is unseat even the most assured intuitions of sense, since our conditions of use ultimately are those which establish our categories, even categories of Privacy and Self.

Notes on Wittgenstein’s Notions of Illness and Therapy

Sick of the Truth, and the Truth of Sickness, Which Games Played are Pathological?

I have had an interesting exchange over at the pro-Wittgenstein website Methods of Projection, something worth posting over here. It has long been a concern of my to locate just were the normative and prescriptive authorities of Wittgenstein get their traction amid a generalized Language Game approach. The below encounters what I sometimes view as the dogmatic reading of Wittgenstein, especially by his particularly charmed followers. My discussion flowed from comments given by the site’s author, N.N. I find N.N., as far as Wittgensteinians go, a rather open-minded, self-critical thinker. [The following contains certain corrections for sense]:

N.N. : If we “chance” to speak the same language as Wittgenstein (e.g., German or English) or another language that employs similar concepts, then we (to the extent that we philosophize) are likely to become sick. We no more accept to play most of the langauage-games we do than we accept to speak our native tongue. Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness, and therefore, his cure is our cure.

Myself: as n.n. wrote: “Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness, and therefore, his cure is our cure.”

My goodness, I can certainly embrace one man seeing another man’s sickness as his own, and thus the cure the same, but when he wants start talking PROFOUNDLY of “us” and “we” and “our”, he has entered into the realm of DOGMA.

N.N.: Really? Any claim of community (in this case, linguistic community) is dogmatic?

Myself: In the context of Wittgenstein, any claim to prescriptive rhetoric in the name of “we” which determines against the consciousness of others THEIR illness I would say is dogmatic. Remember illness is a metaphor here, and is being used for rhetorical and normative effect. When you want to stop looking at individual cases (the good part of Wittgenstein, the side of him that wants to watch closely), and start talking about the abstract illness of others, you have waded into dogmatic waters.Just as is the case in most dogma, you are seeking to normatively define a communmity in terms of behavior and health. When you stop talking about your personal illness, and you start talking about “our” illness, this kind of rhetoric is straight out of Augustine and so many others.But it seems that you possess the knowledge that can save the entire linguistic community. Why should I stop you? Carry on…but this is dogma.

p.s. Its very simple. One is not just “claiming” community. One is normatively prescribing the behavior of a community, under the auspices of a so called “health”.Change “illness” to “sin” and you have the whole dogmatic ball of wax


N.N.: Of course ‘illness’ is a metaphor here. It’s a metaphor for conceptual confusion. If members of a linguistic community are prone to making certain concptually confused claims because different language games they play are deceptively similar in appearance, then the members of that community are all likely to fall into the same confusion (e.g., speaking of the mind as a kind of thing).And while the ‘cure’ is normative insofar as standards of meaningfulness are normative, there is nothing ethical involved. So talk of sin and (religious) dogmatism is misplaced.
Myself: One has to ask oneself, just why is is necessary to change “confusion” to “illness” or “sickness”. What is accomplished by this? And more interestingly, why is this question not asked by Wittgensteinians?There is a world of differnce between saying “Bertrand Russell was confused” and “Bertrand Russell was sick”; and let it be said, a world of difference between “Wittgenstein was himself sick, but his sickness was our sickness” and the same under the word “confusion”. Why “confuse” the issue by changing the word?
That is if we grant you that one is being metaphorical with the word “illness”. We know well that Wittgenstein was influenced by Freud, and Freud certainly was not being metaphorical when described mental illness. Unlike Wittgenstein though, Freud developed an entire nosology, a classification of symptoms and causes that individuated each “illness” and its purported cure. Freud thought of himself as a doctor, and a scientist.I have no doubt that Wittgenstein WAS ill, at least in the mentally disturbed sense. He was depressed to some degree, had difficulties with his sexuality perhaps, and that he to to degree did “cure” himself with his break from philosophy. But I find it highly unlikely that his “illness” was entirely due to making grammatical mistakes (though he found it to be symbolized as such), and also unlikely that “we” (all of us) should also cure ourselves in this way.
N.N. as I wrote, “We know very well that Wittgenstein was influenced by Freud.”
Far from knowing this very well, we know that there is scant mention of Freud in Wittgenstein’s writings, and that he explicitly and vehemently denied any such influence. The notion that Wittgenstein was, in some significant sense, a kind of Freudian therapist is a myth perpetuated by those (e.g., Gordon Baker) who want Wittgenstein to be something he is not. The myth is forcibly refuted by Peter Hacker in his article criticizing Baker’s interpretation of Wittgenstein (in Wittgenstein and His Interpreters). Here are some of the points that Hacker makes.
In a radio interview in the late 40s, A. J. Ayer remarked that Wittgenstein’s later writings (as practiced by one of Wittgenstein’s students, John Wisdom) made philosophy out to be a “department of psychoanalysis.” According to Ayer, Wittgenstein was “extremely vexed [by] my suggestion that John Wisdom’s view of philosophy could be taken as a pointer to his own. In particular, he did not admit any kinship between the practice of psychoanalysis and his own method of dealing with philosophical confusions.”
Of course, Wittgenstein had (on a few occasions; Hacker counts five in the entire Nachlass) compared his method to psychoanalysis, but the comparison is very limited, and therefore, easily misunderstood (i.e., taken too far).
Summarizing one of those occasions Hacker writes, “It is a main task of philosophy to warn against false comparisons, false similes that underlie our modes of expression without our being
conscious of them. ‘I believe’, Wittgenstein continues, ‘that our method is similar here to that of psychoanalysis that also makes the unconscious conscious and renders it thereby harmless, and I think that the similarity is not merely external’ (MS 109, 174).” So, we are unaware of certain conceptual confusions that underlie some uses of expressions, and Wittgenstein wants to make us aware of them. That’s it! That’s the comparison with psychoanalysis.
Similarly, Wittgenstein remarks in the Big Typescript, “One of the most important tasks is to express all false trains of thought so characteristically that the reader says, ‘Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it.’ To trace the physiognomy of every error. Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling. // . . . if he (really) acknowledges this expression as the correct expression of his feeling.// For only if he acknowledges it as such is it the correct expression. (Psychoanalysis.) What the other person acknowledges is the analogy I am proposing to him as the source of his thought.” Again, the point is an awareness that we are making the mistake in question.
Myself: as n.n. wrote: Of course, Wittgenstein had (on a few occasions; Hacker counts five in the entire Nachlass) compared his method to psychoanalysis, but the comparison is very limited, and therefore, easily misunderstood (i.e., taken too far).
Hmmm. He compared his “therapy” to psychoanalysis, but it has been “refuted” that he had been influenced by Freud. Interesting. The point is, while Freud actually had a thorough-going analysis of the illnesses that he proposed, to call Wittgenstein’s “cure” a cure of an illness is a serious dogmatic move. Either this is just a metaphor, and as such simply overstates and confuses the issue, i.e. where the word “illness” is, the word “confusion” should be used. Or, it is a literal illness, as such it requires us to say things like “Bertrand Russell was sick” and other nonsense, lacking any nosology or full declaration of symptoms.

The trouble is Wittgenstein was sick, I suggest, and others too might take an aptititude towards philosophy like he did, and might “cure” themselves of their obsessional mania (who in this world really would obsessively lower the ceiling of a room they had designed to be built, by one centimeter?). But Wittgenstein’s compulsions are not necessarily the compulsions of Philosophy, nor are they the products of the “grammatical confusions” he engaged in before his radical turn. That is, it is a vast over-statement to say “Wittgenstein’s illness is our illness”. The man was clearly both deeply disturbed and deeply brilliant, and it may the case that others who are similarly disturbed may find solace in his “cure”. But the “we” of such pathological disturbance is not the “we” of the linguistic community. That is, unless one has a passion to speak and prescribe dogmatically about a universal condition in such a way that is it nearly invariable from the way that the notion of “sin” has been dealt with.Now if you personally feel “cured” by his process, I wholly embrace this, and cheer you on. It it is only when you want so many others to be categorically ill, and imagine yourself to be in possession of the “cure”, this is where I draw the line. I do not believe that Wittgenstein’s teacher, Bertrand Russell was ill, either in the metaphorical sense, or in the literal sense, nor do I believe that Descartes or Bishop Berkeley was ill either.

As you quote Hacker: “Hacker writes, “It is a main task of philosophy to warn against false comparisons, false similes that underlie our modes of expression without our being conscious of them.”
I will tell you that calling “false comparisons” (actually comparisons are never true or false, but only more or less helpful), an “illness” is a very misleading comparison. One is tempted to say, it is a “false comparison”. It does not help us along the way, but rather inspires dogmatic views. If we are to veer away from what Hacker likes to call “false comparisons”, then we should also stop calling “grammatical confusions” “illnesses”.
Grammatical confusions, or let us say, certain kinds of comparisons like those that arose in the Cartesian view of the mind, arose for a reason. They serve purposes, they help explain things in certain situations, they help us organize ourselves in the world. These “comparisons”, like “there is a picture in my mind” for instance are not in themselves pathological. All one has to do is realize that there are boundary conditions for their usefulness, as is the case for ANY comparison.
I suggest that the comparison of certain kinds of confusions, or attempts to render rational explanations of affinities between things that resist them, to an illness is a deeply misleading one. So much of the language game of “illness” does not map onto the language game of “grammatical confusion”. Instead, to fill in the blanks in the dys-analogy, is a host of dogmatic insistence (much of which is anti-thetical to Wittgenstein’s own requirement of specific clarity), giving us to say things like “we, the linguistic community, are sick”. Instead, we, the linguistic community, can become confused, we can over extend our analogies.
Now when Wittgenstein tells us: “”…it is possible for the sickness [Krankheit] of philosophical problems to get cured only through a changed mode of thought and life – Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics.”, I am unsure if I want to be told that the answer to the philosophical questions I am attempting to answer is that I must change my “mode of thought and life”. Perhaps, but the pursuit of philosophical answers, even metaphysical philosophical answers has not been LARGELY a pathological endeavor in the West. I do not find Spinoza pathological, nor Hegel, nor Hume or Kant, nor Husserl (maybe Nietzsche, but in a good way). In fact if these endeavors are all pathologies I suggest a great deal of good and sense have come from them. Philosophers are like painters I think. Yes, there have been some pathological painters, and some of these pathological ones very good. But painting itself is not pathological. The very act of sense-making, of thinking about thinking is both served and retarded by analogy and metaphor. Analogy and metaphor both illumine and obscure. If anything, Wittgenstein simply taught us to pay attention to our ps and qs, to notice when we are analogizing. I think this is a good thing. But there is also the creative advance that occurs when we mistakenly analogize, when we allow a metaphor to take us over, when the world suddenly appears differently under a new metaphor, and often when this is the case, a picture has bewitched us, not altogether a bad thing.
Wittgensteinians I suggest are bewitched by both the picture of language as a game played, and bewitched by the notion of confusion being like an illness. Further, they are bewitched by the figure of Wittgenstein, the disturbed, ill-fitting, brilliant oracle of truths. There is a certain advance that occurs when one takes a disciple-like relationship to the teachings of a philosopher (I find it so hilarious that editions of PI are in both German and English, as if Wittgenstein used language is such a subtle way that each and every word has to be measured precisely, as if the Dead Sea Scroll is being studied…as far as philosophers go, Wittgenstein is one of the most translatable, jargon free philosophers their is; such devotion to the letter of the word only reveals the RELATIONSHIP of Wittgenstein students to Wittgenstein’s “truths”. As I said, I will certainly grant that this bewitchment has its advantages. It is necessary to propagate the ideas of a thinker, to inseminate the essential picture-form of the thought across a variety of circumstances, but there comes a time when Wittgenstein’s advisements should be used against, in self-critique, against Wittgenstein himself, and more thoroughly, upon his disciples themselves, who can come to be even more bewitched than he was. 
Beware the “false comparisons” in Wittgenstein.