Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I am in the midst of writing a long posting on Henry James' Roderick Hudson which vaguely recalls my grad school days of sitting with my laptop (the wonderful IBM butterfly which sadly broke after three years) and writing lengthy papers that meandered at length. If only I could have footnotes in my blog....I recall one particular paper on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Sentimental novels that included a footnote roughly a page long in 8 point font and single spaced.

But nostalgia aside, I am taking a break from that posting to put up a briefer post on Wittgenstein whom I am reading for the first time. I first read about Wittgenstein in a wonderful novel called The World as I Found it by Bruce Duffy (now sadly out of print). And while I loved the novel and was intrigued by the character Wittgenstein in the fictionalized version of his life, I never went on to read any of his writings until now (I was in grad school then and spent most of my free time daydreaming about what it would be like if I could have more free time).

I am reading the University of Chicago Press's edition of Culture and Value, a collection of notes, memos, and other short writings found through Wittgenstein's papers. I was particularly intrigued by the following two entries:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn't really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don't understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb `to be' that looks as if it functions in the same way as `to eat' and `to drink', as long as we still have the adjectives `identical', `true', `false', `possible', as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up.
And what's more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the "limits of human understanding", they believe of course that they can see beyond these.

Kleist wrote somewhere that what the poet would most of all like to be able to do would be to convey thoughts by themselves without words. (What a strange admission.)

It is nothing surprising to say that language is the medium of both communication and miscommunication. But what is more difficult to face is the limit of language, that language can only give approximate categorizations (and in this way is similar to all forms of human knowledge which can be recorded). Nothing can simulate the experience of the thing itself. We can only isolate and approximate.

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