Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus preface

I am moving between Wittgenstein's Culture and Value and Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I find Culture and Value more conducive to the brief morning commute when my brain is not up to the more pure and sustained logic of the Tractatus. However, as Tractatus was conceived as a whole work by Wittgenstein, and the only one such work published during his lifetime, it has a formal beauty not found in the brief thoughts that make up Culture and Value. Tractatus was written while he was in a prisoner of war camp in 1917 (by the way, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great resource for bios of philosophers).

In his brief preface, Wittgenstein concludes with the following:

If this work has any value, it consists of two things: the first is that thoughts are expressed in it, and on this score the better the thoughts are expressed--the more the nail has been hit on the head--the greater will be its value.--Here I am conscious of having fallen a long way short of what is possible. Simply because my powers are too slight for the accomplishment of the task.--May others come and do it better.

On the the other hand the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive. I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of hte problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

In 1930, in one of the tidbits collected in Culture and Value, he wrote:

Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e., the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.

Perhaps all writing should be judged by the preface of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that even if one should fail to meet the overall aim of the ambition posed by the question, one should still have communicated something unassailable and definitive. While I was reading Wittgenstein's preface, I was reminded of Henry James' preface for the New York edition of Roderick Hudson, his first novel:

...the private history of any sincere work, however modest its pretentions, looms with its own completeness in the rich, ambiguous aesthetic air, and seems at once to borrow a dignity and to mark, so to say, a station.

To strive for an organic unity and organic completeness in writing is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for a writer. It requires patience as well as the discipline to cull away any word that is not part of the organic unity. It is impossible to define organic unity except to say that one notices when it is lacking. Organic unity is such a cohesion within a work of art that each part of it seems necessary. One of my musician friends once said about Mozart's works that it is impossible to conceive any note having been written differently in his compositions. Such is organic unity. And it is not applicable only to harmonic music but a criterion to all music, to all works of art.

As far as I have read in Tractatus (which admittedly is not far enough as it is a work requiring an abstract level of thought that I find difficult to sustain), there is a beautiful composition. It seems almost unearthly...odd to say about a work of philosophy, but there's an airiness to it. Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value of thought as flight: it [thought] is as though it flies above the world and leaves it as it is -- observing it from above, in flight.

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