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Monday, 19 March 2012

Log Rolling on the River of Time with Wittgenstein


Spring pulpwood drive on the Brown Company timber holdings in Maine. Feeding logs through the sluice at Long Pond. A key log is caught with twisted point of a pike and as the woodman pulls this log, others are carried with it into the sluiceway photo by John Collier, May 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

It was Frege's notion that certain words are unique, on a different level from others, e.g., "word", "proposition", "world". And I once thought that certain words could be distinguished according to their philosophical importance: "grammar", "logic", "mathematics". I should like to destroy this appearance of importance. How is it then that in my investigations certain words come up again and again? It is because I am concerned with language, with troubles arising from a particular use of language. The characteristic trouble we are dealing with is due to our using language automatically, without thinking about the rules of grammar. In general the sentences we are tempted to utter occur in practical situations. But then there is a different way we are tempted to utter sentences. This is when we look at language, consciously direct our attention on it. And then we make up sentences of which we say that they also ought to make sense. A sentence of this sort might not have any particular use, but because it sounds English we consider it sensible. Thus, for example, we talk of the flow of time and consider it sensible to talk of its flow, after the analogy of rivers.

Regenerating native bush along lower reservoir lake in Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, New Zealand: photo by Pseudopanax, 16 December 2007

If we look at a river in which numbered logs are floating, we can describe events on land with reference to these, e.g., "When the 105th log passed, I ate dinner". Suppose the log makes a bang on passing me. We can say these bangs are separated by equal, or unequal, intervals. We could also say one set of bangs was twice as fast as another set. But the equality or inequality of intervals so measured is entirely different from that measured by a clock. The phrase "length of interval" has its sense in virtue of the way we determine it, and differs according to the method of measurement. Hence the criteria for equality of intervals between passing logs and for equality of intervals measured by a clock are different. We cannot say that two bangs two seconds apart differ only in degree from those an hour apart, for we have no feeling of rhythm if the interval is an hour long. And to say that one rhythm of bangs is faster than another is different from saying that the interval between these two bangs passed much more slowly than the interval between another pair.

Spring pulpwood drive on the Brown Company timber holdings in Maine. Feeding logs through the sluice at Long Pond. A key log is caught with twisted point of a pike and as the woodman pulls this log, others are carried with it into the sluiceway photo by John Collier, May 1943 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Suppose that the passing logs seem to be equal distances apart. We have an experience of what might be called the velocity of these (though not what is measured by a clock). Let us say the river moves uniformly in this sense. But if we say time passed more quickly between logs 1 and 100 than between logs 100 and 200, this is only an analogy; really nothing has passed more quickly. To say time passes more quickly, or that time flows, is to imagine something flowing. We then extend the simile and talk about the direction of time. When people talk of the direction of time, precisely the analogy of a river is before them. Of course a river can change its direction of flow, but one has a feeling of giddiness when one talks of time being reversed. The reason is that the notion of flowing, of something, and of the direction of the flow is embodied in our language.

Forest scene on the island of Tiritiri Matangi, New Zealand: photo by brianriceca, 2 December 2005

Suppose that at certain intervals situations repeated themselves, and that someone said time was circular. Would this be right or wrong? Neither. It would only be another way of expression, and we could just as well talk of a circular time. However, the picture of time as flowing, as having a direction, is one that suggests itself very vigorously.

Logs rolling logs into river, near Littlefork, Minnesota: photo by Roy Emerson Stryker, 1937 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Suppose someone said that the river on which the logs float had a beginning and will have an end, that there will be 100 more logs and that will be the end. It might be said that there is an experience which would verify these statements. Compare this with saying that time ceases. What is the criterion for its ceasing or for its going on? You might say that time ceases when "Time River" ceases. Suppose we had no substantive "time", that we talked only of the passing of logs. Then we could have a measurement of time without any substantive "time". Or we could talk of time coming to an end, meaning that the logs came to an end. We could in this sense talk of time coming to an end.
On the drive, Pineries of Minnesota: photo by Benjamin Franklin Upton, published by Fearon & Bacheller, between 1867 and 1875; half of stereograph in Upton's Minnesota & Northwestern Views (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Can time go on apart from events? What is the criterion for time involved in "Events began 100 years ago and time began 200 years ago"? Has time been created, or was the world created in time? These questions are asked after the analogy of "Has this chair been made?", and are like asking whether order has been created (a "before" and "after"). "Time" as a substantive is terribly misleading. We have got to make the rules of the game before we play it. Discussion of "the flow of time" shows how philosophical problems arise. Philosophical troubles are caused by not using language practically but by extending it on looking at it. We form sentences and then wonder what they can mean. Once conscious of "time" as a substantive, we ask then about the creation of time.

Logs roll into the pond, Oregon
: photo by Russell Lee, October 1941 (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress)

Coloured ferns at Dusky Track in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand: photo by Sarang, 23 December 1999

Ludwig Wittgenstein,  from Notes for Lectures on Philosophy,  1932-33,  in Wittgenstein's Lectures, 1932-1935,  ed. Alice Ambrose,  1979


Ed Baker said...

wondering about the meaning (s) of the sentence(s)
just formed ?

the sentence/words on the white piece of paper
the paper being the void or the silence or the emptiness

defines their place-in-time

my ONLY problem

after the fact of just-what-written

where to place the (parenthetical) punctuate determinants (?)

( did you know that
Ludwig Wittgenstein went to school with Adolph Hitler.).

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Wittgenstein's two periods, eh:

as the early timber being dragged by artificial currents (Russell's student at Trinity) &

as thick luxuriant undergrowth or forest flowers (tacit deconstructionist)

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

You roll my log, I’ll roll yours—
Time flows:

The frogs in the river croak.

Round Bend Editor said...


I'm reminded of two American classics: "A River Runs Through It," and "Of Time and the River."

And then I am reminded of growing up along the South Santiam River in Oregon, where the river was part of the rhythmic "flow" of my daily existence.

Without it, I would have become something else.


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Anonymous said...

Not just the frogs vazambam

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TC said...

It is beautiful to hear the people testify, as to hear the rivers run...

Re. Ed's query "Did you know Wittgenstein went to school with Hitler?"

Well, "with" is a bit misleading. Both attended the Realschule in Linz, LW from 1903-1906; AH from 1900-1905. They were the same age. BUT, they were two grades apart.

As we know AH had a pretty poor record when it came to passing exams, at every stage of his dwarf-giant biped trajectory, and was "held back" at the Realschule for this reason.

(One can't completely overcome the suspicion he never got over failing his art school exam, a few years later on, and took the acute bother of that setback out on the world. Not that he'd have been the first to have wished to do so, of course. Revenge against the entire human race is after all perhaps the universal suppressed fantasy of the Failed Artist.)

LW, meanwhile, having been previously home-schooled (his family, one of the richest in Europe, could easily afford it -- and then too he had been a bit of an odd bird since hatching), was put forward a grade.

So Ludwig and Adolf, coequals in age, were two grades apart in the Realschule.

And you know (Eddie) how catty things can get in the high school cafeteria, the dunce can never have been spared -- off there picking his nose at the end of the line, dreaming up the culmination of The Decline of the West.

AH's extremely good biographer Ian Kershaw relates that AH "had no close friends at school".

Is anyone surprised?

It seems there were about 300 students in the school at the time. I'd say it's 8-5 against Ludwig and Adolf ever having exchanged a word.

Hazen said...

Sorry to be late this discussion. Monday hell.

“ . . . we have no feeling of rhythm if the interval [between two banging logs] is an hour long.” I wonder what John Cage, with his concerts of silence, would make of this?

Ouspensky had lots to say about Time. Does Time flow or circle or is it just there? For him, Time, all of it, all that has ever been or will be, exists now. There is only the present moment, and those moments don’t vanish—Napoleon is forever invading Russia, Plutarch forever writing his histories, and Auden his Museé des Beaux Arts.

It’s our sensory apparatus that creates the perception of linear time. We homo saps sense things in a linear and sequential manner, and that, dear Brutus, gives rise to our experience of linear time.

I’ve nourished a deep and life-long interest in Time, so I like this topic; it gets the neurons all jivey. Can we have time without space, or “vicey versey.” The Buddha would say we don’t have either of them, or anything at all. It’s all Mind. I keep trying to get my head around that.

TC said...

I know, it's all Vertigo all the time, any more.

In the universe of Auguste Blanqui, we and/or our doubles in the stars would/will be forever saying/thinking/writing these things.

Of course he spun that noble theory in a prison cell.

An intense sense of dislocation occurred (for me anyway) in the rift that yawned between the perhaps somewhat overstretched terms of Wittgenstein's metaphor and the pictures of the actual logs moving in the actual rivers.

It was possible to recall Wittgenstein's time in Norway, and thus possible (for me anyway) to place him into the top photo here, by momentary imaginal main force.

But then, no, he could only have been having these thoughts in his rooms at Cambridge. Much as we can only be having these thoughts here, hopeful as it may be to call these thoughts. Whereas the logs... get to go to the sawmill.

Is that a "lose-lose situation"?

Ed Baker said...


a few of the "ordinary" folks that "hung-out" at his parents' mansion (in Vienna):

Freud, Schoenberg, Brahms, Mahler, Klimt, Schiele, etc.... (his early 'teachers'

I think that most of his brothers committed suicide....

then there was the horrors of WW I ("the war to end all

TC said...

By the by, should anybody care: that photo

Logs rolling logs into river, near Littlefork, Minnesota: by Roy Emerson Stryker, 1937

is something of a rarity.

It was taken by the man who ran the FSA Photo Project, under whose care and protection it existed.

Few may recognize his name, but he sketched out, in bold, intuitive strokes, silently, from behind the scenes, a significant chapter in the history of American photography.

ACravan said...

The Stryker photo caught my eye both because I recognized it as a rare find and because of the image. The Russell Lee photo is simply overwhelming in its power. All of the pictures take me back to my youth, both time spent in the real woods and assembling Lincoln Logs. Curtis

TC said...


Yes, the Stryker photo has that double interest. In fact, that makes two of us on both counts -- the Lee shot, tremendous.

Thank you for noticing.

The "North Woods" were a daydream area of my early childhood, perhaps happily never turned into reality until much later on, when the wondrous imaginal forests disclosed themselves as a mundane make-out spot.

I too had a Lincoln Log phase. I believe that intersected with my model racing car phase.

Wooden toys were so much better!

One Christmas morning I got up very early at my grandfather's house and, out sheer enthusiasm, painted all my wooden Barney Oldfield racing cars and Lincoln Log towns in vivid colours of nail polish which just happened to have emerged from one of the packages neath the tree -- must have been meant for my aunt. And not only that, but, in what must be seen to have been an early revelation of a characteristic excessive exuberance, went on to also paint the complete Christmas presents of everyone else in the family.

Consternation of the family members once arisen and assembled of course ensued. And indeed never later ceased.



Also coming onto this late (the day after), one benefit of which is to get to read all these comments. Yes, that Russell Lee photo of water going over the falls -- "overwhelming in its power" as Curtis says, all that's missing is the sound. . . .

Meanwhile, something here (the towhee) to go with your varied thrush in today's post --


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, towhee landing on shadowed fence
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

more and more in that this,
path of rays of light

system of reference implies,
by means of, physical

blue line of sky in clouds above point,
shadowed green of ridge across channel

TC said...

Steve, that's lovely -- you've brought the sound, to flow with the paths of light... in between the ocean cloud masses now again building, approaching with the next storm...

Chris said...

So the way philosophers go wrong is by "not using language practically but by extending it on looking at it". Why are they inclined to do this? What is this business of "extending [language] on looking at it"?

The philosopher will of course agree completely that he has no practical goal in mind. He will say he just wants to get at the truth. The skeptic who says we don't KNOW that there are other minds (we BELIEVE it, and have excellent grounds for doing so, but we don't really KNOW it, the way we KNOW our own minds exist) will agree with L.W. that he is not raising a practical problem. He doesn't want to treat other people differently, for example. Not at all. He will say he just wants to note a (surprising, perhaps hitherto unnoticed) fact -- that although we think (and talk as if) we KNOW there are other minds, we really don't. L.W. says the skeptic has gone wrong in "extending [language] on looking at it". What particular kind of "extending" and "looking" is involved? And why would anyone do it?

It's not always wrong to extend language, of course. Or to look at it. It's only a certain kind of extension and looking that creates philosophical problems. What is this kind of extension and looking? What is the impulse behind it?

Chris said...

"Philosophical troubles are caused by not using language practically but by extending it on looking at it."

The philosopher whom L.W. is criticizing here will immediately agree he's not being practical. He'll say he's concerned only with the truth, not practical problems. ("When I say that you can't KNOW that other people have minds the way you do, you can only BELIEVE it, I don't mean you should TREAT people differently.") That's the hallmark of his approach to things. And he will say he can't be wrong to "extend" language or "look at it". Isn't that what Tom's doing all the time?

So what exactly is problematic about philosophical impracticality, about philosophical "extending" and "looking" (as opposed to what Tom does)? And why would anyone feel drawn to do it?

TC said...


It was my sense that in "extending" and "looking at" Wittgenstein's thought-figure by means of visualizing and thus rendering as literal its metaphorical terms, one risks a vertiginous immersion in the river of language, the assumed world of tangible loggy actuality swirling and drowning in the confusion of an impalpable conceptual flood.

And the impulse behind this sort of thought-figuring exercise, one can only speculate, must have to do with taking pleasure in it; that, or the pure dogged obsessiveness of a complicated and brilliant mind that will never allow any sleeping problems to lie... or rest without further recursive worrying-over.

A magnification or "extension", perhaps (indeed), of the mere normal and routine workings of the lazy, idle "ordinary mind" -- that sort of mind possessed by those who are not Wittgenstein?

TC said...


Your second comment tumbled into the river while I was still rolling on the first -- the Blogger river of time builds-in these locks and dams to add to the thought-traffic-congestion problem. And when we superimpose a variant of a thought upon its predecessor, we discover that one can't roll the same log into the same river twice without changing the flow dynamics.

(Over the days this post has been up, I've more than once pondered that image of the woodman on the water doing an excellent job of balancing his weight by use of a transverse pole, much as might a circus high-wire-walker. And that's the funny thing about image-truth as against thought-truth. Entirely different systems of internal verification seem to be involved.)

Chris said...

Oh yikes. I was logrolled by Blogger, blogrolled.

Having asked my questions twice, I won't ask them again. I'll just say that L.W.'s explanation of how the philosopher goes wrong seems incomplete, impoverished. To someone in the grip of a puzzle about time -- L.W. quotes St. Augustine, "What is time? If you ask me, I don't know, if you don't ask me, I know" -- it will seem unconvincing to say "You're being impractical, you're extending language, you're looking at language". The philosopher knows he's not being practical (that's not his job), he knows he's extending language (and why shouldn't he?), he knows he's looking at language (what's wrong with that?).

I think L.W. was never able to explain to himself why he was drawn to philosophy.

TC said...

My guess would be he had gone well beyond the possibility of explaining it to himself by the time he was actually doing it. And then went on with it. There is the image of his brother the pianist, Paul, losing his right arm in the war, and then later teaching himself to play the piano left-handed. And then continuing on as a concert pianist. With the will to do something there is perhaps no arguing or explaining.

This from LW: The Blue Book (1930s Cambridge lecture notes as circulated by students):

Now if it is not the causal connections which we are concerned with, then the activities of the mind lie open before us. And when we are worried about the nature of thinking, the puzzlement which we wrongly interpret to be one about the nature of a medium is a puzzlement caused by the mystifying use of our language. This kind of mistake recurs again and again in philosophy; e.g. when we are puzzled about the nature of time, when time seems to us a queer thing. We are most strongly tempted to think that here are things hidden, something we can see from the outside but which we can't look into. And yet nothing of the sort is the case. It is not new facts about time which we want to know. All the facts that concern us lie open before us. But it is the use of the substantive "time" which mystifies us. If we look into the grammar of that word, we shall feel that it is no less astounding that man should have conceived of a deity of time than it would be to conceive of a deity of negation or disjunction.

Chris said...

"With the will to do something there is perhaps no arguing or explaining."

But remember, this is the man who said, "The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. -- The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question." Philosophy is the activity of a tormented soul.

What is the source of the torment? Being "impractical"?

TC said...


All my suppositions (and I do have a few of those) about the impracticality and torment of the soul in this case are reducible to biographical speculation.

And as my wife, whose family is Viennese and whose paternal grandfather was a friend of the "boys" (in particular Paul), has sternly put it, "the private life and soul of LW are none of your business!"

(She is an extremely practical person.)

TC said...

Chris, considering further re. the putative torments of LW, here's a bit that's interesting to ponder... and hopefully discretion permits, since it's not part of the "private life" but a curious fragment of the "public record". (The minutes of the meeting can also be found online -- eg. on Flickr.)


On the evening of Friday October 25 1946, the Cambridge Moral Science Club - a discussion group for the university's philosophers and philosophy students - held a meeting. The members assembled in King's College at 8.30pm, in a set of rooms in the Gibbs Building - number three on staircase H.

Although its tenant was a don, Richard Braithwaite, H3 was just as neglected as the other rooms in the building, squalid, dusty and dirty. Heating was dependent on open fires and the inhabitants protected their clothes with their gowns when humping sacks of coal.

That evening, the guest speaker was Dr Karl Popper, up from London to deliver an innocuous-sounding paper, Are There Philosophical Problems?. Among his audience was the chairman of the club, Professor Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by many to be the most brilliant philosopher of his time. Also present was Bertrand Russell, who for decades had been a household name as a philosopher and radical campaigner.

Popper had recently been appointed to the position of reader in logic and scientific method at the London School of Economics. The Open Society and Its Enemies, his remorseless demolition of totalitarianism, had just been published in England. It had immediately won him a select group of admirers, among them Russell.

This was the only time these three great philosophers - Russell, Wittgenstein and Popper - were together. Yet, to this day, no one can agree precisely what took place. What is clear is that there were vehement exchanges between Popper and Wittgenstein over the fundamental nature of philosophy. These instantly became the stuff of legend. An early version of events had Popper and Wittgenstein battling for supremacy with red-hot pokers.

In Popper's account, found in his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, published in 1974, more than two decades after Wittgenstein's death, he put forward a series of what he insisted were real philosophical problems. Wittgenstein summarily dismissed them all. Popper recalled that Wittgenstein "had been nervously playing with the poker", which he used "like a conductor's baton to emphasise his assertions", and when a question came up about the status of ethics, Wittgenstein challenged him to give an example of a moral rule. "I replied: 'Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.' Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out."

Those 10 or so minutes in October 1946 still provoke bitter disagreement. Above all, one dispute remains heatedly alive: did Karl Popper lie in his published account of the meeting?

If he did, it was no casual embellishing of the facts but directly concerned two ambitions central to his life: the defeat at a theoretical level of fashionable 20th-century linguistic philosophy and triumph at a personal level over Wittgenstein, the sorcerer who had dogged his career.

TC said...


To an outsider, a violent confrontation between Wittgenstein and Popper might have seemed implausible. They were both Jews from Vienna and, superficially, they had in common a civilisation - and its dissolution. Although Wittgenstein was the older by 13 years, they had shared the cultural excitement of the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had in common, too, the impact on their lives of the lost first world war, the attempt to raise a modern republic on the ruins of the monarchy, the descent into the corporate state, and the maelstrom of Hitler and Nazism. With their Jewish origins, interest in music, contacts with cultural radicals, training as teachers, and their connections with the fountainhead of logical positivism, the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein and Popper had many potential links. That they had never met was remarkable.

Of the great figures in 20th-century philosophy, only a very few have given their names to those who follow in their path. That one can be identified as a Popperian or a Wittgensteinian is a testament to the originality of these philosophers' ideas and the power of their personalities. Those extraordinary qualities were on display in H3. The thrust of the poker becomes a symbol of the two men's unremitting zeal in their search for the right answers to the big questions.

Three years after Popper's death, a memoir published in the proceedings of one of Britain's most learned bodies, the British Academy, recounted essentially Popper's version of events. It brought down a storm of protest on the head of the author, Popper's successor at the LSE, Professor John Watkins, and sparked off an acerbic exchange of letters in the Times Literary Supplement. A fervent Wittgenstein supporter who had taken part in the meeting, Professor Peter Geach, denounced Popper's account of the meeting as "false from beginning to end". A robust correspondence followed as other witnesses or later supporters of the protagonists piled into the fray.

There was a delightful irony in the conflicting testimonies. They had arisen between people all professionally concerned with theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge), understanding and truth. Yet they concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eyewitnesses on crucial questions of fact.

TC said...


But why was there such anger over what took place more than half a century before, in a small room, at a regular meeting of an obscure university club, during an argument over an arcane topic?

Of the 30 present that night, nine, now in their 70s or 80s, responded by letter, phone and, above all, email from across the globe to appeals for memories of that evening. Their ranks include a former English high court judge, Sir John Vinelott. There are five professors. Professor Peter Munz had come to St John's from New Zealand and returned home to become a notable academic. His book, Our Knowledge of the Search for Knowledge, opened with the poker incident: it was, he wrote, a "symbolic and in hindsight prophetic" watershed in 20th-century philosophy.

Professor Stephen Toulmin is an eminent philosopher, co-author of a demanding revisionist text on Wittgenstein, placing his philosophy in the context of Viennese culture and fin de siècle intellectual ferment. As a young King's research fellow, he turned down a post as assistant to Karl Popper.

Geach, an authority on logic, lectured at Birmingham University, and then at Leeds. Professor Michael Wolff specialised in Victorian England, and his academic career took him to the US. Peter Gray-Lucas became an academic and then switched to business, first in steel, then photographic film, then papermaking. Stephen Plaister became a classics master.

"Consider this poker," Geach hears Wittgenstein demand of Popper, picking up the poker and using it in a philosophical example. But, as the discussion rages on between them, Wittgenstein is not reducing the guest to silence (the impact he is accustomed to), nor the guest silencing him (ditto). Finally, and only after having challenged assertion after assertion made by Popper, Wittgenstein gives up. At some stage he must have risen to his feet, because Geach sees him walk back to his chair and sit down. He is still holding the poker. With a look of great exhaustion, he leans back in his chair and stretches out his arm towards the fireplace. The poker drops on to the tiles of the hearth with a little rattle. At this point Geach's attention is caught by the host, Braithwaite. Alarmed by Wittgenstein's gesticulating with the poker, he is making his way in a crouching position through the audience. He picks up the poker and somehow makes away with it. Shortly afterwards, Wittgenstein rises to his feet and, in a huff, quietly leaves the meeting, shutting the door behind him.

Wolff sees that Wittgenstein has the poker idly in his hand and, as he stares at the fire, is fidgeting with it. Someone says something that visibly annoys Wittgenstein. By this time Russell has become involved. Wittgenstein and Russell are both standing. Wittgenstein says: "You misunderstand me, Russell. You always misunderstand me."

Russell says: "You're mixing things up, Wittgenstein. You always mix things up."

Munz watches Wittgenstein suddenly take the poker - red hot - out of the fire and gesticulate with it angrily in front of Popper's face. Then Russell takes the pipe out of his mouth and says firmly: "Wittgenstein, put down that poker at once!"

Wittgenstein complies, then, after a short wait, gets up and walks out, slamming the door.

TC said...


From Gray-Lucas's standpoint, Wittgenstein seems to be growing very excited about what he obviously believes is Popper's improper behaviour and is waving the poker about. Wittgenstein is acting in "his usual grotesquely arrogant, self-opinionated, rude and boorish manner. It made a good story afterwards to say that he had 'threatened' Popper with a poker."

Plaister, too, sees the poker raised. It really seems to him the only way to deal with Popper, and he has no feeling of surprise or shock. To Toulmin, sitting only six feet from Wittgenstein, nothing at all out of the ordinary is occurring. He is focusing on Popper's attack on the idea that philosophy is meaningless and his production of various examples. A question about causality arises and at that point Wittgenstein picks up the poker to use as a tool in order to make a point about causation. Later in the meeting - after Wittgenstein has left - he hears Popper state his poker principle: that one should not threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.

Vinelott alone sees the crucial point - whether Popper makes what was probably an attempt at a joke to Wittgenstein's face - in Popper's way. Vinelott hears Popper utter his poker principle and observes that Wittgenstein is clearly annoyed at what he thinks is an unduly frivolous remark. Wittgenstein leaves the room abruptly, but there is no question of the door being slammed.

The debate continues and the story has achieved the status, if not of an urban myth, then at least of an ivory-tower fable. The story goes beyond the characters and beliefs of the antagonists. It is also the story of the schism in 20th-century philosophy over the significance of language: a division between those who diagnosed traditional philosophical problems as purely linguistic entanglements and those who believed that these problems transcended language. In the end, of course, it is the story of a linguistic puzzle in itself: to whom did Popper utter what words in that room full of witnesses, and why?

And what of the sine qua non of this story? The fate of the poker remains a mystery. Many have searched for it in vain. According to one report, Braithwaite disposed of it - to put an end to the prying of academics and journalists.

Chris said...

No doubt L.W. suffered from his own torments. But when he says the real discovery is "the one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question", he is not claiming to speak only for himself. If he were, his claim would be of no philosophical interest. I take it he's saying that the very activity of philosophy is a way of being "impractical" and of "extending" and "looking at" language that results in "torment". This is what I'd like to understand. For this purpose, there's no need to delve into the private life and soul of L.W. Indeed, that wouldn't even be useful.

(I think I hear the horse breathing its last!)

Chris said...

I guess I just don't get along with Blogger. Tom, thank you for your patience.

TC said...

Yes, it's a pity old horses must go to the glue factory, like logs to the sawmill.

Of course glue used to be needed to make texts cohere, now not so much.

I think LW would have agreed with the poet who at a great age and after many trials had to admit, It all does NOT cohere.

But to pry open that stable-door just a crack, at the last minute...

The strange last tour of the list of people to whom he thought he might at some time or other have given offense and whose forgiveness he sought certainly seems to have come up against the hard-headed practicality of the Bavarian postman (was it?) whose son he had once, so long ago, boxed around the ears (probably for being bad at math). "No, you are NOT forgiven," exploded the still furious father, slamming the door in the face of the terminally ill pilgrim of contrition.

I don't know, in many ways the relatively austere and simple life of a philosopher was so much more sensible and practical than would have been the attempt to find a way to exhaust what remained of the family millions (they had had to fork over some colossal sum, the words "fifty million in gold" dance before the mind, in order to secure that rare and coveted document confirming that here had been some Aryan blood in the woodpile, once, way back when, in the barnyard of the estates).

But yes, anyway, the philosophy would have been a torment.

My own experience along these lines is as limited as my own philosophy, but indeed, some nights, bearing up under the strain of even that proves no mean feat.

(There is the suggestion, implied in the anecdote regarding Fania Pascal and the seemingly innocuous offending phrase "sick as a dog", as retold by Harry G. Frankfurt in that weird little monograph "On Bullshit", that the actual use of language itself, the spoken language that is, always going on around one like an endless brown drizzle, was sometimes unbearable for Lud, and about drove him nuts... speaking of the torment of philosophy.)

TC said...

(About the patience, it's I who should be thanking you for yours. I've just deleted that repeat comment. What has developed over the years is a a need, due to spam and troll traffic, to retain incoming comments in "Moderation" -- a sort of holding tank located in the sub-basement cooling ponds of Reactor #4 in the Blogger Boiler Room -- and it's that delay which naturally confuses people and afflicts even totally sane and practical commenters with fear they've wasted their words -- and time -- and thus to repeat the bother... but to avoid this impoliteness I have now resolved never again to abandon my vigilance at the gate of the holding tank... what was that line from Macbeth, "Blogger hath murdered sleep" --?)

Robb said...

I like your flow. This subject is dear to me, especially since it pushes me near the edge when I think about it too much. I enjoy thinking about it too much.

TC said...

Thanks Robb. The text pushed me to the edge, too. The literalist in me kept bumping into those logs. But then... rolling into, or with, the flow.

(And wishing for water wings.)

Douglas Section said...

Dear Tom,
My colleague Langley - Field, that is, so named in honour of Sam Pierpont, but in deference to her fairer gender- suggested that we sieze the poesis of this moment and cease merely to spectate, but pitch in. Remembering that Glen Curtiss rebuilt and actually flew the aerodrome, may she be your Tinkerbell.

Thanks for the most condensed and illuminating articulation of the heated poker incident that I have yet read (my apologies to Edmonds & Eidinow). But, notwithstanding the philosophical smoke, that incident was perhaps a minor iron in the fire when compared to the other (speculatively) mentioned - the possibility of mutual awareness of the adolescent Wittgenstein and one Adolf Hitler (believe me, I attended such a school), which may have determined the course of WW2. As follows...

A letter from one of Wittgenstein's teachers in the Realschule turns up asking: What became of the aeroplane?
Kids at my school modelled aeroplanes, but this was somewhat different. There were then, 1903-6, precious few to model (trans. bild). Building a decent model plane at that time was, to put it mildly, rather extraordinary. Wittgenstein and the adolescent Hitler may not have set fire to each others farts behind the bicycle sheds (read - counted each other amongst their best school-mates), but notwithstanding criticisms of Kim Cornish's multi-faceted excursus, in that kind of environment they certainly would have had prenom and proclivity recognition. As well as the ability to whistle complete Wagner operas, they shared a concern about Jewish ancestry, and a familiarity with the magnificent view down over a more historically innocent Linz than is now available to us from the Postlingberg. (I was there recently. It remains the flying field of choice for the contemporary aero-modeling club, and the evening sky was full of huge R.C. gliders). So: Wich Witters was bwilding a waeroplane! Actually, very seriously. He then follows, as Susan Sterrett points out, in Lilienthal's footsteps to Charlottenburg, and thence to Manchester.

When, however, it finally came to be Adolf's turn to call the shots in the hobby-room, this time around he was going to have the best toys. Hence the German High Command's obsession with the speed and beauty of the ME 163 and 262, despite their unreliability, in preference to the brutally ugly but devastatingly efficient Do 335 - which they fortunately cancelled before it could wreak its more conventionally, but reliably, powered havoc on anything we had to hurl into the sky against it. It remains rather ironic that both Ludwig's and Adolf's termination of interests in the aviation department occasioned struggles with the technology of jets. But it quite arguably lost Germany the second war.

Spooling back to the Tractatus war, its also perhaps fortunate that Wittgenstein kept his brightest light - the jet-tip propulsion and propellor work in Manchester (co-temporal with that of Coanda) - under a bushel. Given that he'd previously built a working sewing machine out of matchsticks, its not way beyond the bounds of possibility that we wouldn't have had to wait for Tony Fokker's through-prop interference firing mechanism, had Wittgenstein not been consigned, or self appointed, to suicidal searchlight duty on the Golspa, and later to the cannon factory. His parting shot on that, you will remember, was the gift a million to develop a halfway decent item of ordnance (plus 10% for art).

But so much for maybe and the power of the fuck-up theory of history. What I really want to get onto is Log Rolling, or at least its end product, which in Wittgenstein's case was anything but cheap-jack rubbish.
1/4 tbc Douglas Section

Douglas Section said...

2/4 DS
Wittgenstein built a log house ( I choose my word, his word - Hus , with care) on a cliff overlooking Skjolden, designed during the winter of 1913/14. It was, by his lights, the best place in which he ever worked. And indeed, the groundwork of the Tractatus was begun there, to be followed by the first half of the Philosophical Investigations in 1936/7, and he intended to return there to die. Despite its exposure, this building stood intact until 1956 (perhaps because it was tied down through the corners with steel cable, an engineering innovation and improvement on the vernacular jointing that seems to have escaped comment to date, despite the fact that its clear in Ben Richard's photographs), when it was dismantled and rebuilt in the village, protected under cladding, but without, again to date, a conservation schedule.

The centenary of its commission is rapidly approaching, and in anticipation of this, wheels are now at last turning in the direction of the possibility of some sort of reconstruction on the original site. But not just wheels. Propellors as well! The village of Skjolden sits at the end of the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. You can row out over its dark glassy surface, and know that the bottom is a mile below yours and your cockle's keel. It has one general store which serves the needs of its 300 gentle souls. But as of last Summer, it now also sports a brand spanking new Cruise Liner Terminal! which will briefly quadruple the population every fortnight during the summer season, when these colossal casinos tie up. Skjolden has some serious potential as a "gateway" to three proximate National Parks and the World Heritage Site at Urnes. But at present it has no facilities whatsoever save the local swimming pool (which is about half the size of the three on these boats). The bill-burning question is, what are all these laudable tourist-type folks going to do in Skjolden? How and where are they going to be provided with An Opportunity to Unit Spend?

You guessed it! They are going, for a consideration, to be bussed round to a spanking brand-new car park to be built on the far shore of the erstwhile pristine, seasonally viper infested, and hitherto Elk trodden Eidsvatnet marshland under the house site. And there, provided with inauthentic but safe access up the cliff to the holy of holies, they will gain name recognition of the greatest philosopher of the last century whilst making use of the mandatory restroom facilities, which might just neatly fit into the diminutive 7 by 8 meter structure built by him as his retreat and study. Not so bad eh? And redolent with the gentle irony that the location of the original remote toilet facility of the site remains a mystery (except possibly Ivar Oxaal), but was responsible in part for Wittgenstein's reluctance to have his one and only chance at marriage, Marguerite Respinger, stay not there with him, but instead, with Anna Rebni in the valley below. Just think, if the Eidsvatnet site's plumbing had been up to it, their passion might have gone truly, madly, deeply, further than its recorded snogging. She might have said yes, possibly children, pram in the hall and philosophy out the window. At least a third less nachlass for the trustees to squabble over, and Bartley confined to the proclivities of (Charles) Lutwidge (Dodgson).

2/4 tbc Douglas Section

Douglas Section said...

3/4 DS Lest anyone think this toilet-talk risible or otherwise beyond the pale, I respectfully refer them to the documentation of the several stages of reconfiguration of the sewage plumbing of the Kundmanngasse, and to Norman Malcolm's record of Wittgenstein's many remarks on, and demonstrations of, what he considered to be excellent examples of vitreous china installations, including his personal repair of Malcolm's own. Competent students of European Social History will of course recollect that Thomas Crapper's improvements to domestic plumbing had, within Wittgenstein's lifetime, taken Vienna by storm: the Archduke Ferdinand having had over 130 of them installed chez lui. - One wonders, amongst other things, at the beneficial effect this might have had on staffing arrangements. A talking point no doubt, it was ever thus, among the Viennese salonistas.

Students of the poker incident, by the way, might benefit from attention in detail to its antecedents in the Skjolden history. For there, Wittgenstein, who in general would not harm a fly - but according to Pinsent drew the line at wasps - was given to raising his walking stick in double-edged greeting to locals, by way of deferring their friendly advances which might have disturbed his thought engrossed peregrinations. He once went a bit further with his close friend Anna Rebni, in an act of misinterpretation which came to be known as the ladle, or dipper disaster, and which dented their friendship for a while. Rebni, herself an ex-teacher turned farmer and a cow-girl, being made of stuff at least as stern as Popper's, was likewise having none of it. And whilst we are on the subject, its worth reminding that what - criss-crossing the terrain - 'goes around', from another perspective also 'comes around', and that Mr. Mortimer, Tommy Mulkerrins' man-about-the-place who was detailed to look after Wittgenstein's needs whilst staying at Con Drury's cottage in Rosroe, was made of yet even sterner stuff! He threatened "to lay your man's head on the ground" if he (Mortimer) caught him (Wittgenstein) "at it again", traipsing like a mad-man up and down his potato rows. - Excuse me? "It was on account of the "contamination" on his boots." Now, there's a lesson in social history! And one that was not wasted on Wittgenstein, who urged his infrequent visitors to behave with a requisite decorum in view and earshot of Mortimer's traditional country travails. But I digress.

Not so bad eh? Well, actually, not so good either, when you consider the other possibilities, such as the recent treatment of the Knut Hamsun legacy at Hamaroy, and the actual requirements of current protocols for the conservation of internationally important cultural sites. And the Skjolden site is of international importance for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its relation to Wittgenstein's later architectural achievement at 19 Kundmanngasse, Vienna, the house built for his sister for which he took over design responsibility in 1926, and which clearly did not fall in final form, whatever the balance of Wittgenstein's and Engelmann's input, out of a clear blue sky.
¾ tbc Douglas Section

Douglas Section said...

4/4 DS
I'm given to wonder if it might not be a better idea to put the money required to build a coach-park, and the purchase of land necessary to access it from Vassbakken, into a Trust to maintain the returned building, which might then afford residencies for its use according to something more closely corresponding to its original purpose: that is, as a place chosen specifically because of its inaccessibility, for the indulgence of solitary and quiet contemplation. As the architectural historian Joseph Mashek wrote in one of the 100 plus letters of petition about the treatment of the site received by the Norwegian Riksantikvaren from international Wittgenstein scholars in December 2009: the tourists might be better off watching the oil lights in the house twinkle once more across the lake, knowing that "the philosopher" was again in residence.

There are in fact some very successful models for this kind of treatment, such as the cottage of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid in Lanark, which hosts a continual residency program, and permits limited public access during change-overs. But to put the boot on the other foot: if it were Plato's house, would we be thinking about turning the site et environs into a public toilet?

The problem in Skjolden is that this little pile of logs, begun immediately before Wittgenstein left in 1914 to befriend Loos, is currently jammed within limited local historical perceptions, and there is now precious little time available to demand and establish the (elsewhere) standard procedure of Comprehensive Conservation Planning that might provide a better solution than turning the place, for ever, into a gee-jaw.

This predicament ought to ring some bells in the lands of the Swansea diaspora, and conservationists like James Kerr and Kate Clark. Rolling logs downhill, as Gunnar Bolstad knew, is one thing. But rolling 'em back up again, through the various sorts of paper pulped in their wake, is something else.

Douglas Section.

TC said...

Douglas, here I am just out of the Trauma Center, and now you are taking my breath away all over again.

And to think the lad's architectural inspiration -- well, this is the entropic theory of history working itself out, innit? -- came from a misquoted line from a set of verses penned by perhaps the worst poet who ever picked up a writing instrument!

The Builders

Douglas Section said...

Dear Tom, excuse the radio silence, I've been grounded by briefings for the upcoming opps.

As my old flying instructor used to say, when your tail's getting sawn off, spin harder!
But I know where you're coming from. I too would be tempted do a Bill Blake and exit via the perspex if subjected to too much (& that's just about any) Longfellow.

I'll confess to a bit of previous though with Augustine, including De Doctrina Christiana, which is probably the closest his radiance got to what then counted as hard-line philosophy. There were translations - curiously enough, first published in the time of Wittgenstein's young youth by a couple of genetically Edinian T Clarks, at least one of whom was a Thomas. Any relation of yours? - but I doubt it was read by Wittgenstein. Life has always been just too brutally short to read everything, even, or rather especially, if you (W) are already on the case. For which, see said tome Ch. 26. Similarly, I doubt - or at least hope - he didn't plough through all that rhyming slang before picking out The Builders. I might be wrong. I mean, Mies used to read Aquinas, in Latin. But despite that neither Wittgenstein, nor I, nor I presume you, were or are Kantians… whatever turns you on. Or off.

His tastes to mine were actually pretty conservative judging by the cut of the cloth in the cultural wardrobe. No 12 tone tho there are links between Schoenberg and the Vienna Circle, execrable sculpture, and he took the piss out of the Wiener Werkbundsiedlung, tho (perhaps by that time, because) Loos was in it, and never mind Riedveldt and Neutra! Perhaps a touch of schadenfreude after Loos not entirely unfairly labeled his architectural thinking dilettante. Its ironic that the whole Werkbund estate is currently up for World Heritage status. Regarding Wittgenstein's architecture, & parking the Kundmanngasse, I'd have said that the Skjolden Hus is at least as significant to the contemporary world as Urnes church, but the WHO - I've asked them - beg to differ: they can't see the wood for the trees. In his own odd way Wittgenstein was to-the-manner-born of the fuck you, or fuck it, attitude to culture that maybe endeared him to Edwardian intellectual aristocracy, and persists with enough water under the keel to float the stern of Charles Saatchi's transit of English philistinism. Like, culture's an artefact - if you happen to be in it at the right place, at the right time, that is, with enough money. On which front - his aforementioned 10% - it's a great pity that he missed meeting Trakle.

Anyway, we don't have to love him or what he loved, but all the same, I'm grateful for being turned on to Norbert Davis. He's hilarious.

Douglas Section said...


The Builders marks an Engineers perspective (the Schulekrieg secured that capital). What you see is only the final millimetre of surface, but what delivers it is between you and the spiders. Not that Wittgenstein did not attend to surface (particularly, that of language), or on occasion, in the pursuit of the poetics of a wall projection, fake it. The Kundmanngasse is all surface. But in the end the motto chosen for the PI is the one that illuminates, or rather back-lights, its preface. And this preface is profoundly biographical. I've a lot of time for the work James Klagge and others are doing in this respect. Its a democratisation of the condition (or responsibility) of that species of literature which is called philosophy. As Wittgenstein put it: I would not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. Etcetera. And that would entail an interrogation of mode of life. The Builders was not quite fit for purpose: too ethically tractarian for someone who wanted to show you the differences, for which Augustines crew of unlikely lads that kicks off the Investigations was incompatibly (& incommensurately) better.

Contemplating using The Builders was not prima face architectural, but an exhortation to look beneath the conventional surface. A motto for a way of doing philosophy, which of course is informed by Wittgenstein's intellectual formation. And rather than seeing its effect, as on occasion he did, as being destructive, I find it useful to understand his thinking as a species of reverse engineering. Given our standing in relation to language, neither wholly within, nor without, this is a pretty smart place to come from.

There are a few good reasons for thinking that the wee hidy-hole in Skjolden may be at least as important as the Kundmanngasse, especially if we care to turn our faces rather than our posteriors to the future. Take a cue from Arne Naess who founded the library at the Turtagro, and whose own shack is just over the next hill. He took his from your man. And seeing that 'the work of the philosopher consists of assembling reminders for a particular purpose', lets go to it!


TC said...


Wondrous all that, and I now see that being grounded has something to say for itself.

The Wittgenstein house (the ambitious one) and Longfellow (the likewise), of these one might harbour a variety of private views.

Your swooping aerial skaldings over the Norway house however are dizzymaking, and leave me once again feeling for the ground.