September Quotes: Wittgenstein Special

Wittgenstein said that thought and language cannot speak of that which precedes thought and language (or that which is not of the phenomenal world) and that therefore the task is philosophy is to circumscribe the sayable, and leave the unsayable where it belongs. The much, much quoted line — ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ — is an expression of this, but what he actually means here, and what many people miss who quote this, is that he is actually talking about literal, logical and factual thought and language. Like Schopenhauer — from whom Wittgenstein took some key aspects of his philosophy, and then gave, in Bryan Magee’s words, a vertiginously intelligent mathematical logical form to — Wittgenstein believed that non-literal language, art, gestures, even whistling can express the inexpressible in some fashion. Moreover by the very act of his philosophy he is suggesting that it is possible to use literal thought to point beyond itself. Finally he is saying, in complete opposition to the obsessive and pedantic language-analysers who hijacked his work and dominated so much philosophical discussion in the twentieth century, that the unspeakable may be literally unspeakable, but it is the only thing which matters in life.

Well, seems to be saying. Wittgenstein was not what you’d call an accessible writer. His gnomic utterances are famously difficult to understand. Consistent with his view of the limits of literal thought and his refusal to provide his readers with anything like a system, he very rarely came straight out and said anything, preferring to use enigmatically simple aphorisms to suggest the unspeakable or to direct his readers to the kind of direct experience that philosophers are constitutionally incapable of having.

Wittgenstein was an anti-philosopher. His work is almost entirely negative or apophatic, providing readers with an antidote to the bizarre behaviour of the literalist thinking that goes by the name of ‘philosophy’, particularly in the West, where meaning is almost exclusively taken to be some kind of mind-knowable thing that the act of thinking can uncover. As Wittgenstein pointed out (in his later philosophy) over and over again, there is ultimately no such thing as the kind of ‘meaning’, ‘knowledge’, ‘morality’, ‘goodness’ and ‘consciousness’ that philosophers search for. There is only life, action, activity and experience. When we use words we do so as part of life, in situations that give those words meaning, not in order to get a series of rule-bound definitions from my mind into yours.

Wittgenstein may have recognised that activity and the unliteral are at the heart of the truth that philosophy reduces to mere fact, but he missed, or perhaps elided, that within philosophy which can express that truth. It may have to be descriptive, observational, metaphorical, artistic, strange and unprofessionally naive — the kind of work that Schopenhauer produced, along with the Eastern teachers he so admired — but philosophy can say something, as readers of the Tao te Ching, the Upanishads and the Gospel of Thomas well know. In this we can perhaps find something of the tragedy of Wittgenstein, his haunting austerity, but no need to dwell on that here. If you want to read of his rather interesting life and character, I recommend the Ray Monk biography, if you want to understand his work, Severin Schroeder’s Wittgenstein is a masterpiece of clarity (although you might want to skip some of the nasty logic stuff in the first half) and I highly recommend Louis A.Sass’ account of Wittgenstein’s staggeringly perceptive attack on [his own tendency towards] schizoid solipsism — The Paradoxes of Delusion.

Here I just want to provide a brief collection of some of Wittgenstein’s more approachable utterances. Like all great minds he scattered his work with pearly observations. In his later writing particularly there are some crackers. What follows are taken from his peripheral writings, which are clearer and more human than the towering difficulty of his ‘main body’, but here as everywhere else Wittgenstein asks us to see beyond what he is literally saying, to direct our conscious awareness to that which is not literally sayable.


I would really like to slow down the speed of reading with continual punctuation marks. For I would like to be read slowly. (As I myself read.)

If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far; indeed, you don’t have to leave your most immediate and familiar surroundings.

If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.

Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?

The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to.

Philosophers often behave like little children who scribble some marks on a piece of paper at random and then ask the grown-up ‘What’s that?’ It happened like this: the grown-up had drawn pictures for the child several times and said: ‘this is a man’, ‘this is a house’, etc. And then the child makes some marks too and asks: what’s this then?

People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc, to give them pleasure. The idea that these [artists] have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.

The less somebody knows and understands himself the less great he is, however great may be his talent. For this reason our scientists are not great.

That man will be revolutionary who can revolutionise himself.

The honourable thing to do is to put a lock on the door which will be noticed only by those who can open it, not by the rest.

The primary question about life after death is not whether it is a fact, but even if it is, what problems that really solves.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.

Here we come up against a remarkable and characteristic phenomenon in philosophical investigation: the difficulty — I might say  — is not that of finding the solution but rather that of recognising as the solution something that looks as if it were only a preliminary.

And, finally, the words he should have had written on his gravestone. The most beautiful three words ever written by an intellectual.

Don’t think: Look!