The Way of Unknowing // Wittgenstein

On the limits of language and thought, the non-objectivity of morality.


Thus the Tractatus was, first and foremost, an attack on all forms of rational systems of ethics—that is, theories of ethics that would base human conduct upon reason.

            Allan Janik & Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973)

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution.

            Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

            Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

Wittgenstein wrote a book entirely about what it was not talking about. And yet, what the book said became the foundation of a philosophical school which ignored all the rest.

A version of this thesis is at the heart of Janik and Toulmin’s argument in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, which was lent to me recently by a philosophy professor after I said that I wanted to explore Wittgenstein some more. The book, about forty years old now, aimed at redirecting academic interpretations of Wittgenstein, who had been appropriated by some Cambridge scholars – Bertrand Russell among them – soon after the publication of his Tractatus.

These Cambridge scholars interpreted Wittgenstein’s central occupation in the text, roughly, as fine-tuning the grammar of logic and so clarifying the way we use language to conceive of our world. With such a reading in hand, Wittgenstein’s text became a keystone for a wing of philosophy which thought that the main goal of the discipline was to clarify our concepts, to be more precise about our language – as though clarity and precision would lead us to the truths that matter for us.

Janik and Toulmin instead situate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in the cultural sphere of the early 20th-century Vienna from which it emerged. They set Wittgenstein within a tradition of folks who not only aimed at speaking sincerely, with integrity, but who also, in succession, further forced a wedge between the factual, scientific world we can know and the aesthetic, ethical world we cannot know in the same sense. These philosophers, architects, musicians, physicists, and journalists came from a lineage not of English logical-positivists but of Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Tolstoy.

When we set Wittgenstein in his genuine historical breeding ground – believing also what he said of himself and not only what was said of him – Janik and Toulmin show that Wittgenstein, while focusing so thoroughly on language and logic in his Tractatus, was attempting rather to cast a little light on the heaven of things which we cannot possibly describe in words. As in a game of charades, he mined the gestures available to suggest the thing which the gestures cannot state. A quote from Paul Engelmann in the book sums up the reinterpreted project beautifully:

Positivism holds—and this is its essence—that what we can speak about is all that matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about. When he nevertheless takes immense pains to delimit the unimportant [i.e. the scope and limits of ordinary language], it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on surveying with such meticulous accuracy, but the boundary of the ocean.

This 500-word preface brings me to what I really mean to talk about here: how we talk about ethics and the inconceivable. Things of value – things like moral goodness, the meaning of life, our relationship to God (and whatever that means), how we love somebody – these things rest in the ocean that kisses the limits of language. This ocean is imminent, infinitely separate from the world of language but every second present before our senses, our intuitions, our motivations. It’s not that we haven’t figured out how to talk about the Good; it’s that we simply cannot figure it out. No matter how eagerly we wish to conceive the sense in words, it is impossible.

As I have spent these last few years studying philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, I’ve kept running up against morality’s ground. I ask, where is all this grounded after all? What gives it sense? Through multifarious readings and lectures, I have gathered a bouquet of moral theories. I had hoped that reason would be my divining rod, that as long as we can clarify what we’re talking about – get down to its logical brass tacks – we could at least escape with an answer in our hands – unquestionable, undeniable, objective. However, I’ve ended up instead with a conviction in line with something Schopenhauer says: “To preach morality is hard; to give it an intellectual justification is impossible.” We cannot (absolutely) found morality in anything speakable. No principles, and no dogma.

I can already anticipate likely responses from the homefront – concerns over the idea of a relative morality, the idea that truth is subjective. Is “good” or “right” just whatever we want it to be, then? Anything goes? Or perhaps, alternately, the response could be something like, You’re right. We can’t reason our way to morality; that’s why God gave us the law. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

When I was younger, a teenager in a conservative church and a Christian high school, people expressed a lot of worry about the effect the so-called “postmodern” worldview (as though there were only one) would have on Christianity. The idea was that postmodernism, understood as an ideological school, preaches a gospel of pluralistic toleration – meaning that there is no such thing as absolute Truth, and therefore all beliefs, values, ideologies are to be respected simultaneously as true.

Now, setting aside the obvious problem that this is a feeble reading of the world today and that it disingenuously distorts the actual ideas of those who might properly be termed “postmodern” theorists, we should realize some of the assumptions at play in this (albeit straw-man) objection. First, these kinds of arguments are a lot of times raised with reference to morality. If there is no Truth, or all “truths” are equal, then there’s no way to say something is either wrong or right. Sometimes these crusaders for objective morality will even descend into some pretty morbid territory to make their point. Here’s an actual argument I’ve heard: So if what you’re saying is correct, I could bash your head in with a hammer as we sit here, right? That wouldn’t be morally wrong, right?

I think this does speak to the real worry for a lot of the people vocally opposed to what they consider “postmodern” thinking: if we can’t have a firm handle on truth in an absolute sense – unchanging from culture to culture, age to age – then we face the potentiality of a radically chaotic world, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. What is to save us from such a hell if not an ironclad dogma of right action, backed with the power of an infinitely sovereign divinity?

The other assumption which motivates such furor against any subjective line of reasoning is an idea that this thinking is a radically new phenomenon, a recent development that defenders of the Right have to deal with. An apocalyptic rupture in the standing order of the universe, a breach from which God only knows what monstrosities will arise to wreak havoc on the truly decent citizens. But the thing is, these ideas are not really all that new. Wittgenstein wrote nearly a hundred years ago that value cannot be enumerated in principles. And long before him, the mystics of the middle ages knew that the only way to know that which matters is to not “know”, to release prejudice and preconception, to reach for the true and the good with motivations of love and feeling and not with reason. As T.S. Eliot says in “East Coker” (a poem I cannot but constantly return to),

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know…

And this is a method lost on some of the most decent people who, for their fear of the unknown and of losing their grip on adherents (particularly the ideologically vulnerable youth), resort to systematic apologetics. They contrive “reasons to believe” both in a morality and a divinity which are conceivable, effable, and susceptible to such limitation. They make rational arguments based on preconceived notions of the moral state of man, the nature of morality and God’s relationship to it. Wittgenstein, by laying out the final limits of language, shows such apologetic projects to be baseless, unachievable.

This is not to say that we ought to be able to take comfort in a less defined impression of goodness. To rephrase what Schopenhauer said, if we cannot justify our morality, it becomes infinitely more difficult to preach it – especially when we have an audience of individuals who know how to think for themselves. We lose some sense of self in this too, so long as we think of ourselves in terms of goodness and guilt, concepts which become suddenly unanalyzable except through some form of affective contemplation. We lose some protection against chaos. When we look out on the ocean of unknowing spanning the expanse before us and we do not blind ourselves to the fact that, yes, it is there, it will always be there – when we peer into the outer dark, we have only to guess and to risk. Or else we are the ones most to be pitied, feeble little children who believe their own lies.

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