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How Did He Do That?

by Rick Lewis

Concentrating on philosophy can be quite tough. When I am reading or writing philosophy I like to retreat to some secluded café and I adopt a furrowed brow so that everyone will know how hard I am working. So the question in my mind is how on earth Ludwig Wittgenstein managed to write one of the major classics of 20th century philosophy while serving as a forward artillery observer for the Austrian Army in World War One. Really it isn’t remotely surprising that he was a little ‘unusual’, a little intense, in later life. He spent nights sitting in a dugout in no man’s land, with the Russian Army actively trying to kill him, and in between bouts of prayer (entirely understandable) he jotted down propositions about the connections between language, thought and reality. This is the amazing history recounted by Stuart Greenstreet in his article.

It wasn’t that Wittgenstein was able to do philosophy just anywhere and under any conditions, as insouciantly indifferent to his surroundings as, say, Lord Rutherford (who once boasted that he would be able to do experimental physics anywhere, even at the North Pole). The conditions needed to concentrate on philosophy were actually something of a preoccupation for Wittgenstein. He once wrote that the difficulty with philosophy is learning how to read it slowly enough. He was a notoriously intense and erratic lecturer, who often gave students the sense that they were watching him wrestle philosophical truths from an unwilling universe before their very eyes. And after lectures he used to go to the cinema and watch Westerns to clear his mind.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus wasn’t just any old philosophy book, either. It revolutionised philosophy and set it off in a competely new direction. It has been described as a ‘glacier of logic’. Stuart Greenstreet, as I’ve mentioned, describes how it came to be written. Carlos Muñoz-Suárez walks us through the arguments of the book itself, and José Zalabardo explains just one of the threads of thought within it, namely the fairly important question of what the world consists of. On a lighter note, Sándor Szegláb thinks he has found a hidden message in the book, as he explains in ‘The Tractatus Code’. Can you see what it is?

As Wittgenstein wrote most of his Tractatus during the Great War, and as this year marks the centenary of the start of that conflict, it seemed appropriate in this issue to remember the war too, and this we do with Colin Brookes’ review of the play and film War Horse. The last few indomitable soldiers of the Great War have quite recently – aged 110, 111 – passed on into legend. Yet all of us in this branch of the multiverse are children and grandchildren of that war, and of the other war it helped spawn a couple of decades later. Not only shall we remember them; our own very existence and the existence of our particular world is itself a kind of remembrance, of the people who died and of the people who didn’t die. In November we will be publishing an issue with a theme of Philosophy and Peace. Is peace just the absence of war, or is the connection more complex than that?

Mary Midgley’s essay ‘Does Philosophy Get Out of Date?’ considers whether it is worth studying the history of philosophy. (Plot spoiler: She thinks that it is!). But her article also criticises a whole style of philosophy which she thinks is too narrowly technical. So where did philosophy in the 20th century go wrong? It started with Wittgenstein and with high hopes for dissolving philosophy’s profoundest problems. Those hopes may or may not have been realistic, but it was a grand vision. Yet those who followed after Wittgenstein somehow ended up developing a style of philosophy which many blame for the disconnect between philosophy and the thinking public at large.

Midgley says that there seems to be a trend against teaching any philosophy written more than twenty years ago. If there is such a trend then surely a magazine with a name like Philosophy Now should be rather sympathetic to it? Shouldn’t we be saying “Let’s just focus on the current philosophical problems and the current attempts to solve those problems and forget all those erudite arguments about what Kant learned from Aristotle via Descartes. Let’s leave all that to the scholars and the intellectual historians”? Well, no. Because our philosophical efforts now will often go much better if we are aware of the ideas and arguments put forward in the past. There are many examples of that in human history. Matrix algebra is just one of them; for decades it was an obscure, half-forgotten area of 19th century pure mathematics; then one fine spring morning in 1925 some physicists realised that it was just what they needed to describe quantum mechanics. Who is to say that the solution to some pressing modern-day conundrum such as the subjective nature of consciousness might not equally turn out to come from applying lessons from the classic philosophers of the past?

If you want to read classics of philosophy for yourself and are new to doing so, then our guide may give you some handy tips. Philosophy is worth doing because of its importance to our lives and our understanding of the world right now in the present. But to do it well, it does help if you have some knowledge of the history of philosophy too.

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