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Wittgenstein Without Tears

This 29th April is the 60th anniversary of Wittgenstein’s death. Neven Sesardic humorously celebrates his life.

What a great country, Austria!
Yet what is its real forte?
I know just what you’re thinking,
but it's not the Sacher Torte!

Though its Alps are awesome,
and Mozart’s music is divine,
pride of place still goes to –
that fellow Wittgenstein.

He didn’t speak a single word
before the age of four,
but later on he talked and talked
until his throat was sore.

Torn between suicide and logic,
he came to Russell for advice.
Russell said, “You are a splendid chap –
or genius, to be precise.”

World War interfered with his studies
but with a book written in the trenches,
he threw into philosophical debate
some nasty monkey wrenches.

The Tractatus’ main propositions
numbered one to seven
were presented as the final truth,
or like a word from heaven.

He called its sentences nonsensical,
yet meaning they did convey.
Afterwards, when no longer useful,
this ladder could be kicked away.

He then himself abandoned
these barren, futile disputes,
making next a radical turn
to follow non-philosophical pursuits.

As a teacher in an Austrian village
he regarded its people as bad.
They did not like him either,
he often made them mad,

because his way with children
was harsh, even severe:
a boy he once struck collapsed,
and a girl bled behind the ear.

His later return to philosophy
was something of a quake;
The Tractatus he now declared
to be a huge mistake.

New slogans were introduced
in the Blue and in the Brown Book:
“The meaning is language use!”
and “Do not think, but look!”

He solved that age-old question:
“How should one follow a rule?”
Well, if it is your form of life,
any way you proceed is cool.

Many fell under his spell,
their worship made some cringe,
especially whenever British dons
spoke with an Austrian tinge.

He said that if a lion could talk,
we would not understand him,
yet the chance of his thought being grasped
was also very slim.

His fans busily scribbled notes,
trying to fathom what he meant.
He judged they comprehended
at most five to ten percent.

Here is how he explained
what philosophy is about:
it’s about the fly in the fly-bottle
being shown the way out;

and all philosophical puzzles
resemble a kind of disease,
which has a cure that, oddly,
leaves everything as it is.

But then what’s the point of all this,
if it keeps everything the same?
The answer is: Hey, take it easy,
it’s just a language game!

© Neven Sesardic 2011

Neven Sesardic is a Professor in the Dept of Philosophy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

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