logic

Wittgenstein And Philosophy As Fiction


“I say that it will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not be imagined otherwise.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Philosophical Investigations. Written in the context of exploring the nature of how humans learn basic language and communication.

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After so many references to Wittgenstein’s monumental contributions to religion, language study, and philosophy from the venerable J.R. Benjamin at The Bully Pulpit, I began to feel at a loss without knowing more of the man first hand. More recent explorations of poets like Charles Bernstein led me back to Wittgenstein’s monumental philosophical contributions on linguistics, and I decided to buckle down and prioritize at least a cursory look at his work. After only a few pages each from Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Philosophical Investigations, I am realizing that the emphasis on logic in language and communication which I have long annoyed other with is something I have in common and more to learn about at Wittgenstein’s feet.

This little quote above impressed me so because I made an immediate link to the value of speculative fiction. Much of Wittgenstein’s genius and discernment comes from his distinct ability to hone in on what can be logically validated and what is not verifiable by a human in the given universe. He often illustrates his lofty and meticulous conclusions with practical analogies and, although he rarely indulges in distinguishing the possibilities, a major and intrinsic component in his process is understanding and exemplifying what does not fall within our sphere of possible knowledge and what would change with alternative reality.

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All of this brings to mind the transcript of a conversation between Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss, and C.S. Lewis on the value of science fiction as a format for exploring the state of the world as we can perceive it. They speak of their personal favorite concepts among alternate reality and space exploration stories and the ideas they’ve found in science fiction which have most drastically affected the way they perceive the world around them. Their discussion frequently returns to science fiction’s place in literature.

 

“Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

Of course, Lewis is right and we see that, by and large, culture and even academia have begun to embrace or at least tolerate speculative fiction, although the attitudes toward all forms of fiction have drastically changed as well.

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Finn The Human, as genius in repose

Obviously, most philosophers would scoff with a genius Finn The Human “What Quaint Notions!” at the idea of finding value in a science fiction paperback. Many Star Wars geeks would roll their eyes and begin to feign snoring if you attempted to start a linguistics conversation that wasn’t on Elvish or Klingon. The point is not that one equals the other, or that most will find them mutually fascinating. The wonder is simply that such externally different interests can and usually do actually come to the point of overlapping. Most great writers of speculative fiction address very real psychology in human struggles and moral and social concepts. Philosophers like Wittgenstein are constantly creating small fictions to both illustrate the real and the impossible. And then there are those of us who are equally fascinated by each in turn, constantly seeking to learn and to create. This makes sense, according to Wittgenstein, for living life is simply “an intellectual problem and a moral duty.”

 

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Further Reading

 

 Rod Serling On Speculative Fiction And Censorship

Non-Fiction Should Change You For The Better

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

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How To Get Rid Of Faith


“What those ancient Greeks (who also had some understanding of philosophy) regarded as a task for a whole lifetime, seeing that dexterity in doubting is not acquired in a few days or weeks, what the veteran combatant attained when he had preserved the equilibrium of doubt through all the pitfalls he encountered, who intrepidly denied the certainty of sense-perception and the certainty of the processes of thought, incorrigibly defied the apprehensions of self-love and the insinuations of sympathy–that is where everybody begins in our time.

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be. . .going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days of weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . .except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

The present writer is nothing of a philosopher, he has not understood the System, does not know whether it actually exists, whether it is completed; already he has enough for his weak head in the thought of what a prodigious head everybody in our day must have, since everybody has such a prodigious thought. Even though one were capable of converting the whole content of faith into the form of a concept, it does not follow that one has adequately conceived faith and understands how one got into it, or how it got into one.”

– Soren Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio), excerpt from the Preface of Fear And Trembling.
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This sarcastic little preface starts one of the key works of existentialism, a book that champions faith. It turns out that Kierkegaard is, contrary to his claims, capable of presenting very dense philosophical concepts. His goal in this preface seems to be to validate self-doubt in a culture of self-presumption and faith in a culture that assumes it can discover all that there is to know. Doubt and faith exist as check and balance that should last a lifetime, keeping us honest about the nature of the things we believe and helping us to more deeply trust what we have recognized as reliable truth.

The interesting point here is that “our day” for Kierkegaard was the early 1840’s. It is sometimes hard to remember that the troubled ideas of a modern age brimming with scientific discovery are not new. Just because we are only recently making rampant “discoveries for discovery’s sake” does not mean we are the first or second or fifth generation to assume we can get somewhere based on discoveries alone. Humanity has eternally presumed and desired a mysterious completion of (or in) discovery rather than faith in anything. But isn’t that a form of faith in scientific discovery?

Kierkegaard is humble enough to assume that he will never be able to Systematize existence. Just as he calls our implicit faith in sensory-perception and process-of-thought into question, he questions whether faith itself, even if we claim to understand what it entails, can be pulled out and set aside from ration.

When I read this piece I immediately think about how ready we are to hurl a slew of random statistics and scientific studies at problematic points to prove our emotionally-based opinions. There are studies and statistics available to validate nearly every opposing viewpoint available to choose from today; so much so that, though we haven’t created self-presumption and human omnipotence, our generation has nearly perfected the use of them.

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Related reads

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

What Christians Can Learn From Athiests

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Is Life A Narrative And Does It Matter?


Last night I read a new article on a great blog I follow called The Bully Pulpit. The blog is mainly philosophical in bent with large doses of political thought and heaps of great quotes from thinkers throughout the ages. If you enjoy the Author Quotes section here you would probably like The Bully Pulpit.

I really find just about everything ol’ J.R. says over there to be fascinating and last night’s post didn’t disappoint. The post is titled “Is A Human Life A Narrative?” and it basically quotes a couple of authors on their thoroughly-devised philosophies of how life is distinctly not a narrative. They point out that life is simply a collection of random events to which human beings naturally assign a plot. J.R. seemed to readily agree with their logic.

The post has stirred up a lot of contemplation in me and I can tell it gets to others as well in an almost surprising way. Even though most people don’t frequently consider their own narrative or effective story-processing skills, it can prove quite unnerving to contemplate one’s own world as invalid or, worse, an illusion. As this simple blog can attest, I have made myself a student of story and creative inspiration. I have devoted a great deal to these concepts and even read some good books on the science behind the natural human behavior of narrative-based risk-weighing and decision-making (I highly suggest Wired For Story if you are a writer. While it is not a science text, it is a very light read on narrative design that builds upon scientific research into how we process information.) I would not say, however, that I have given an adequate amount of significant thought to the question of whether life is actually in fact a story. It seems that most of us interested in recognizing this axiom are already determined to validate and love on it.

I think it is easy for anyone to agree that, yes, the tuna sandwich I ate for lunch last Tuesday plays little to no role in my preconceived life narrative. While every little experience may be a grain of sand upon a scale which changes our attitudes over time, we would not include 90% of the actual content of our lives in a memoir. The things we do recognize as valuable are usually pivotal because they are sensationalized in our memories and because they are a cumulative representation, a turning point of events we would recognize as changing chapters or entire narratives from before and after said key memory. Regardless of these facts, the much larger and less theoretical question immediately becomes “should human beings continue to process information as narrative and do we even have a choice?”

I personally would argue that we have no choice in the narrative framework and that this is really a very good thing. Narrative is important. It gives life meaning. While “meaning” is a highly subjective concept, I still find it very hard to even conceptualize any sense of purpose outside of a larger set of implications termed as a narrative. It is also the starting point for processing concepts like relationship, responsibility, time, and cause-and-effect. Narrative as a cognitive tool is not invalidated by that fact that every detail of a life may not be an aspect of a consecutive narrative or by the fact that we cannot adequately process it. Many people use their narratives to successfully navigate life decision making, while many are deluded to make horrify decisions. It is not the narrative process that is at fault, it is the narratives themselves which are prone to great flaws.

This question on our minds also leads into a spider’s web of intricately related and equally daunting questions of fate, time and space, creative inspiration, and relationships.

If narrative-based cognitive processing is invalid, what are we to make of the repeated interactions between beings and/or objects?
Can we measure relationships in the scientific process without believing that we have a starting relationship, an added variable relationship, and an alter resulting relationship?
Can two human beings develop beyond strangers without a joint narrative?
Can we build an idea upon one formerly supposed without calling it a narrative?
How can you read and follow the (supposed) logic I’ve put forth in this article if not by some form of following a narrative?

So many good questions included here, I would love to hear your thoughts, further questions, and rebuttals!