On the irritation of reading Wittgenstein

I’ve got to another sticky point in Parsons’s book (some irritating obscurity), and am a bit stumped to know what to think. But I’ll return to that in due course.

In the meantime, one other thing I’ve started doing in a very busy week is to look at the remarks on the foundations of mathematics in the last third of Wittgenstein’s Big Typescript. Michael Potter and I are going to run a seminar on this material during the coming term. Why? Well, we both are interested in reading this relatively recently published text — and in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge it seems odd not to return occasionally to think again about his distinctly odd ruminations about mathematics as new generations of graduate students come through.

Yet, as ever, I can’t but be irritated by Wittgenstein’s affectation in refusing to write decent connected prose (albeit a different kind of irritation from that in reading Parsons). Oh yes, I know we are supposed to find deep significance in his choice of the aphoristic style. But most of what is written about that is pretentious bollocks, of course. (Wittgenstein’s epigones like to intimate that if you don’t appreciate the deep significance of the master’s allusive style, you are an illiterate philistine. Which is both fatuous and offensive.) Anyway, just as an exercise, I’m having some amusement taking a section of the Big Typescript (which at least is divided into sections) and imagining embedding the fragmentary remarks into some connected prose in a sensible ordering and with the twists and turns of argument signalled. If something useful comes out of it, I’ll post a version here!

4 thoughts on “On the irritation of reading Wittgenstein”

  1. I am just returning to philosophy in my retirement having done it at Cambridge in 1969-72. So forgive my naivity. I don’t know about the Tractatus, but I always took Wittgenstein’s introduction to the investigations literally. He wanted to make it into coherent whole but failed. I don’t call that an affectation, just an unsolved problem.

    Perhaps you will succeed where he failed!

  2. Yes, Wittgenstein is painful at times. A friend of mine gave a presentation on his concept of “perspicuous representation” (PI 122), and we learned from him that in the Big Typescript the same paragraph is preceded by two larger ones, and, at least in my case, very helpful in making sense of the issue. And then we all started wondering aloud whether or not W. deliberately muddled the waters, for some unknown purpose (maybe even for a reason).

    Anyway, when I’m frustrated with W., I just re-read Frayn’s and Fodor’s take on the PI :)

  3. Didn’t Feyerabend do something similar with the Philosophical Investigaitons, rewriting and reorganizing parts to make it flow together? I think it was published as his review of the book. It is an excellent idea I think. I’m curious how it turns out since I’m looking at some of Wittgenstein’s writings on the foundations of math too.

  4. Wittgenstein somewhere writes that his method is to go at various paths on a landscape to discover it.

    He is a precursor to the world wide web where people are commenting in two paragraph on any piece of other texts. No linearity.

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