From my recollection, Albert Camus opened his book Le Mythe de Sisyphe with an arresting thought which hit me like a sledgehammer when I first came across it. The thought is that there’s only one truly philosophical question and that is suicide, i.e., to determine if life is worth living; other questions like the existence of God and if the earth is a sphere, etc., are of secondary importance. Of course, many others would beg to differ with Camus, but they are not philosophers cum novelists cum essayists cum playwrights cum freedom fighters, as Camus was.
To them, the question of God is of supreme and cardinal importance or they so claim, but I seriously doubt their sincerity based on the way they conduct themselves. But I have no doubt of Muhammad’s sincerity. I always wonder, however, if Muhammad had been a man of learning and his mind had not been contaminated by being exposed to the prevailing Jewish and Christian thoughts around him, and if he had known that there was some element of atheism in some strain of Judaism, in some early Greek thought around one thousand years before his times, and in Buddhism, would he have fancied that he was visited by the archangel Gabriel and he was receiving revelations from God? I am not saying the religion he founded was not an improvement over Christianity and Judaism in terms of social egalitarianism, and more sensible interpretations of the Biblical scriptures, the nature of God and the notion of Trinity. I am saying the religious landscape in the world today would look different. Anyway, I think Muhammad was grappling with existential questions and came to a predictable but sensible conclusion, given the intellectual tools available to him.
I, too, was struggling with existential questions, but I was lucky to be born in the 20th century and my parents were well off enough to send me to school. Still, amazingly enough, I proudly am going on record one more time that when I was about eleven years of age, I stopped believing in a Personal God to whom I could pray for favors and from whom I would receive punishments if I committed some moral transgressions. You could say that I was philosophically and maybe religiously precocious. Truths, verifiability (not slavish, childish, and mindless acceptance of dogmas and doctrines) and logic have always been appealing to me since an early age.
Truths are appealing to Wittgenstein, too. He devoted his whole life to them. I have tried to read Wittgenstein, from time to time, but since I am not smart enough to digest his thoughts although I intuitively feel he is speaking for me, I have relied on the exegeses of his thoughts from people who are smarter than me. The information in the below paragraphs about Wittgenstein was taken from Wikipedia. The reasons I am bringing up Wittgenstein are two-fold.
First, I fancy that I know something first-hand about the nature of language, first as a born stutterer and mispronouncer of certain sounds, and then incredibly enough my recognition that I have a relative ease to learn foreign languages, despite my linguistic handicaps. Articulation of sounds was a problem, and still is, to me, but understanding the structure of language and a notion that the more words available and accessible to a person, that person is more likely to think more precisely, have come naturally to me.
Second, just as I have failed to understand Wittgenstein’s thoughts without help, many others, especially my ex-girlfriends (that was maybe why they are part of the history of the lonely past), have failed to understand me because they are perhaps not smart and sensitive enough, but I have refused to explain myself to them, except saying that to really understand anything or anybody requires intelligence, sensitivity, a good framework of reference, and copious facts, not just self-projection. Self-projection, without the necessary counterpart of empathy, is a pathetic exercise in reasoning. Lack of self-awareness is often the main culprit of misunderstanding. So is rampant and pervasive stupidly.
Wittgenstein burst into worldwide fame with the publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, although he was known for many years before that within the narrow philosophical circle in Europe that he was a man of genius and uncommon personality. According to Wikipedia, “At the urging of Ramsey and others, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929. Keynes wrote in a letter to his wife: ‘Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.’ Despite this fame, he could not initially work at Cambridge as he did not have a degree, so he applied as an advanced undergraduate. Russell noted that his previous residency was sufficient for a PhD, and urged him to offer the Tractatus as his thesis. It was examined in 1929 by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defence, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.’ Moore wrote in the examiner’s report: ‘I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree.’ Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College.”
The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Latin for “Logical-Philosophical Treatise”) is the only book-length philosophical work published by Wittgenstein in his lifetime. It was an ambitious project: to identify the relationship between language and reality and to define the limits of science. It is recognized as a significant philosophical work of the twentieth century. G. E. Moore originally suggested the work’s Latin title as homage to Tractatus Theologico-Politicus by Baruch Spinoza.
Wittgenstein wrote the notes for Tractatus while he was a soldier during World War I and completed it when a prisoner of war at Como and later Cassino in August 1918. It was first published in German in 1921 as Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung. Tractatus was influential chiefly amongst the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, such as Rudolf Carnap and Friedrich Waismann. Bertrand Russell’s article “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism” is presented as a working out of ideas that he had learnt from Wittgenstein.
Tractatus employs a notoriously austere (the house Wittgenstein built for his sister was austere, too, and so was his personal life. Austerity was the hallmark of the man although he descended from a very wealthy Austrian family) and succinct literary style. The work contains almost no arguments as such, but, rather, consists of declarative statements which are meant to be self-evident. The statements are hierarchically numbered, with seven basic propositions at the primary level (numbered 1–7), with each sub-level being a comment on or elaboration of the statement at the next higher level (e.g., 1, 1.1, 1.11, 1.12).
Wittgenstein’s later works, notably the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, criticised many of the ideas in Tractatus.
There are seven main propositions in the text. These are:
The world is everything that is the case.
What is the case (a fact) is the existence of states of affairs.
A logical picture of facts is a thought.
A thought is a proposition with a sense.
A proposition is a truth-function of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself.)
The general form of a proposition is the general form of a truth function, which is: . This is the general form of a proposition.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
I only vaguely understood preposition 1 and 7 on my own.
Philosophical Investigations (Philosophische Untersuchungen) is a highly influential posthumous work in the 20th-century by Wittgenstein. In it, Wittgenstein discusses numerous problems and puzzles in the fields of semantics, logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of action, and the philosophy of mind. He puts forth the view that conceptual confusions surrounding language use are at the root of most philosophical problems, contradicting or discarding much of what he argued in his earlier work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
He alleges that the problems are traceable to a set of related assumptions about the nature of language, which themselves presuppose a particular conception of the essence of language. This conception is considered and ultimately rejected for being too general; that is, as an essentialist account of the nature of language it is simply too narrow to be able to account for the variety of things we do with language. Wittgenstein begins the book with a quotation from St. Augustine, whom he cites as a proponent of the generalized and limited conception that he then summarizes:
The individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
He then sets out throughout the rest of the book to demonstrate the limitations of this conception, including, he argues, many traditional philosophical puzzles and confusions that arise as a result of this limited picture. Within the Anglo-American tradition, the book is considered by many as being one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century, and it continues to influence contemporary philosophers, especially those studying mind and language.
As stated before, Wittgenstein’s thoughts are too subtle and profound to me. However, they must have value, as witnessed the impact they have on thinkers in the 20th century. The list of such thinkers is long, consisting of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell, Norm Chomsky, G.E. Moore, Frank P. Ramsey, Vienna Circle, A.J. Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, Alan Turing, Gilbert Ryle, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Richard Rorty, and Colin McGinn. These are the names I recognize and I am not a student of philosophy. For a complete list of thinkers under the influence of Wittgenstein’s thoughts, please go to Wikipedia. Also, please note the long list of languages, including Vietnamese, in Wikipedia written about Wittgenstein. While he was alive, Wittgenstein was convinced of his superiority and he acted accordingly. This was perhaps his only lack of social grace. Nietzsche was also cocksure of his greatness in spite of lack of due respect and adulation from his peers and the public during his lifetime.
What I have got so far from trying to read (and read about) Wittgenstein—and I could be all wrong and off base— is that language is indispensable in understanding the world. Even so, there are certain “truths” that can’t even be conveyed by language. To have an understanding of the world we are in, we must embark on a similar intellectual journey undertaken by Wittgenstein, seriously and honestly and totally devoted to uncover “truths” obtained by the fruits of our own labor, and not the “truths” handed down by dogmas and doctrines. His two books are the recording of those “truths”. “Truths” are all personal and must be authentic and lived, and not something we pay lip service to. Terry Eagleton, famed British literary theorist and critic, has described Wittgenstein as the philosopher of poets and composers, playwrights and novelists. Still, Wittgenstein was a solitary and strange bird, gay, had brief but intense liaisons with a few men. He died in the home of his doctor as he didn’t want to die in the hospital. His last moments were described as follows:
Wittgenstein began work on his final manuscript, MS 177, on 25 April 1951. It was his 62nd birthday on 26 April. He went for a walk the next afternoon, and wrote his last entry that day, 27 April. That evening, he became very ill; when his doctor told him he might live only a few days, he reportedly replied, “Good!” Joan (doctor’s wife) stayed with him throughout that night, and just before losing consciousness for the last time on28 April, he told her: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”. Norman Malcolm (American philosopher, student and friend of Wittgenstein) describes this as a “strangely moving utterance”.
Bertrand Russell was not wrong in describing Wittgenstein as a mystic. Here was how Wittgenstein viewed death:
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.”
— Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.431
Didn’t I mention that Wittgenstein confessed that he had a loss faith in God when he was in high school? Similarly, Bertrand Russell lost his when he was 15. Albert Camus didn’t believe in God either. I have a strange, bold, and stupid idea that humans are divided into theists and atheists, meat-eaters and vegetarians, and atheists and vegetarians are more evolved humans, but there are always exceptions. Hitler was a vegetarian. Maybe Hitler was highly evolved (he had incredible charisma and artistic sensibilities), but he let hate destroy him. That should be a lesson for me. I am working on getting rid of my hate, on ignoring and forgetting the vicious, nasty, malicious, and wrong comments and accusations leveled at me by ignoramuses with puny, tiny minds, who are not equipped to understand me.
Wittgenstein died with four of his former students being at his bedside. They were at first unsure what Wittgenstein would have wanted, but then remembered he had said he hoped his Catholic friends would pray for him, so they did, and he was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. When it is my time to die, I just want those who really love me to be there. I don’t wish any clergyman to be there. I have lived my life as an atheist. I want to die as one. I seriously doubt if any of my ex-wives or ex-girlfriends will be at my funeral. I don’t want them to be there anyway. I have had enough comedies and farces during my lifetime.
Roberto Wissai Ngô Khoa Bá
October 30, 2013