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.1 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, even intuitively. Consistent with his view of the limits of literal thought he very rarely came straight out and said anything, preferring to use enigmatic aphorisms to suggest the paradoxical and the unspeakable. The problem is that although he lived an extraordinary life and gave marvellous expression to the extraordinary in life, he appeared to vacillate between a kind of transcendental idealism, in which a stupendous but intellectually inaccessible reality reigned, and straight — indeed extreme — idealism, or solipsism, the insane idea that nothing actually exists beyond the self. At this point his mysterious one-liners become flat-out mystifying.

So Wittgenstein was confused, but as with so many other great minds, we can certainly forgive him2 and once we have identified his confusion and sliced it away, we’re left with some pristine observations on the nature of mind or the reality of life. Here is a brief collection of some crackers. Some of these are quite clear, others quite obscure, although none as obscure as his ‘main body of work.’ These are taken from his peripheral writings, which are clearer and more human, but here as elsewhere Wittgenstein asks us to see beyond what he is literally saying, to direct our conscious awareness to that which is not literally sayable.


Don’t think: Look!

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.

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


  1. ‘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.)’ Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
  2. As Schopenhauer said of Kant, quoting Voltaire; ‘C’est le privilège du vrai génie, et surtout du génie qui ouvre une carrière, de faire impunément de grandes fautes.— It is the privilege of true genius, and above all genius which opens a new path, to make great mistakes with impunity.
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