Tuesday, March 08, 2005

"Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense.

But you must pay attention to your nonsense."--Ludwig Wittgenstein

Having wandered into the wilderness of Wittgenstein, let me dare wander a bit further, and delive into his position (a bit) on ethics and (logic) and language.this is, admittedly, heavy sledding. Even though the language itself is simple, the concepts behind it are so profoundly fundamental that trying to understand them can be like trying to chew rocks. The general topic is Ethics. Wittgenstein argues that, while Ethics surely exists, it is not a concept, perversely, that can be said to have meaning. That is, that can be said to have philosophical meaning.

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.
The distinction here is a simple one: the distinction between words as used in a scientific discussion, and words as used in ordinary conversation. In this essay Wittgenstein distinguishes between "relative" and "absolute" usage. He gives the example of someone behaving badly and, when this is brought to their attention, the person says, "Yes, I know, but I won't change." Our response, he says, is not to say "Oh, that's all right, then." That's language used ethically, and in an absolute sense. But if you say I play piano badly, and I say yes, but I don't really want to play any better," you'd say "Oh, well, as you wish." The word "badly" is being used in a relative sense. But can language be used absolutely, across disciplines? And the clear meaning of the metaphors, is that an absolute in the presence of reality, would destroy all relatives. Which is, frankly, almost a Biblical view of the presence of God.

For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that :om. For we see now that we have been using the word 'miracle' in a relative and an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: lt is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle. Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense. Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt as to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

Now, there is a bit of a leap, there: the idea of "running against the boundaries of language" presumes that language contains, effectively, our "world," that language is, in the strictest sense, our "cosmos." And, for Wittgenstein, it is; but it also, isn't.

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.--Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).
Now this is where things get really curious, and Wittgenstein bends back around and touches existentialism (especially the ethics of Sartre). "Consciousness of sin" is, he says, a real event. The doctrines of Christianity arise from human experiences. But do those experiences transcend, "go beyond," the world? What sense does it make to say so, except from a perspective of faith, or belief in such a possibility? But if we do not say so, is it because those experiences are not real, do not happen? Can we say your experience is false, only mine is true? It is not true that a paranoiac is suffering persecution, but it is true he is suffering. Because we do not share the cause, we call his suffering delusional. But we do that primarily because it is suffering. I have somewhere on my shelves a book by a woman who describes an experience of the ineffable that she had, an experience she was convinced was the presence of God. Most of us would envy her, but it has brought her nothing but suffering, as if someone flashed a bright light into absolute darkness, illuminated a world of spectacular beauty, and then switched it off forever, denying her both the light and a life in that world. Mother Theresa went to Calcutta following the last in a series of visions she said were from Jesus the Christ. In all her long life afterward, she never had another one, and never stopped longing for another one.

These people suffer, too, but obviously to a very different degree. It may be these things can be explained scientifically. But would that not mean only that we cannot express what we want to express? And what has changed? Our language? Or our shared assumptions? And is the world richer, or poorer, for that change?

That's really scratching the surface of this, and probably scratching in the wrong way. Maybe we can come back to it, in smaller doses.

1 comment:

  1. I too have experienced of such delusions at times but on careful empirical observations/continuous experiences of such predicaments drove me to extensive researches for many years. I finally believe were not illusions but the "Truth" and nothing but the truth.