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Thursday 13 February 2014

Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Happy World


Untitled (Newark): photo by Joshua Perez (StrangeGoodness), 1 February 2014


Man cannot make himself happy without more ado. 

Whoever lives in the present lives without fear and hope. 

Chinatown #2 (New York City): photo by Jim Rohan, 9 February 2014


What really is the situation of the human will? I will call "will" first and foremost the bearer of good and evil. 

Let us imagine a man who could use none of his limbs and hence could, in the ordinary sense, not exercise his will. 

He could, however, think and want and communicate his thoughts to someone else. 

Could therefore do good or evil through the other man. 

Then it is clear that ethics would have validity for him, too, and that he in the ethical sense is the bearer of a will.

Untitled (Newark): photo by Joshua Perez (StrangeGoodness), 28 December 2013

Now is there any difference in principle between this will and that which sets the human body in motion? 

Or is the mistake here this: even wanting (thinking) is an activity of the will? (And in this sense, indeed, a man without will would not be alive.) 

But can we conceive a being that isn't capable of Will at all, but only of Idea (of seeing for example)? In some sense this seems impossible.

But if it were possible then there could also be a world without ethics. 

Perfumes (Chinatown, New York City): photo by Jim Rohan, 8 February 2014


The World and Life are one.

Physiological life is of course not "Life". And neither is psychological life. Life is the world. 

Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic. 

Ethics and aesthetics are one. 

Untitled (Newark): photo by Joshua Perez (StrangeGoodness), 30 January 2014


For it is a fact of logic that wanting does not stand in any logical connexion with its own fulfilment. 

And it is also clear that the world of the happy is a different world from the world of the unhappy. 

Untitled: photo by Alyona Surikot, 9 February 2014

Is seeing an activity? 

Is it possible to will good, to will evil, and not to will? 

Or is only he happy who does not will? 

"To love one's neighbour" means to will! 

But can one want and yet not be unhappy if the want does not attain fulfilment? (And this possibility always exists.) 

Brooklyn Bride #3: photo by Jim Rohan, 7 February 2014

Is it, according to common conceptions, good to want nothing for one's neighbour, neither good nor evil? 

And yet in a certain sense it seems that not wanting is the only good. 

Here I am still making crude mistakes! No doubt of that! 

Cities of Tomorrow #2 (New York City): photo by Jim Rohan, 6 February 2014

It is generally assumed that it is evil to want someone else to be unfortunate. 

Can this be correct? Can it be worse than to want him to be fortunate? 

Here everything seems to turn, so to speak, on how one wants. 

It seems one can't say anything more than: Live happily! 

The world of the happy is a different world from that of the unhappy. 

The world of the happy is a happy world. 

Then can there be a world that is neither happy nor unhappy? 

Elasticity #1 (Ink transfer to Arches 88 paper using Purell hand sanitizer and instant coffee): photo by Jim Rohan, 11 February 2014


When a general ethical law of the form "Thou shalt . . ." is set up, the first thought is: Suppose I do not do it? 

But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward. 

So this question about the consequences of an action must be unimportant. 

At least these consequences cannot be events. 

For there must be something right about that question after all. 

There must be a kind of ethical reward and of ethical punishment but these must be involved in the action itself. 

And it is also clear that the reward must be something pleasant, the punishment something unpleasant. 

Circles and rectangles: photo by efo, 4 January 2014

I keep on coming back to this! simply the happy life is good, the unhappy bad. 

And if I now ask myself: But why should I live happily?, then this of itself seems to me to be a tautological question; the happy life 
seems to be justified, of itself, it seems that it is the only right life. 

Depth Map (El Cerrito, California): photo by efo, 8 February 2014

But this is really in some sense deeply mysterious! It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed! 

But we could say: The happy life seems to be in some sense more harmonious than the unhappy. But in what sense?? 

What is the objective mark of the happy, harmonious life? Here it is again clear that there cannot be any such mark, that can be described. 

This mark cannot be a physical one but only a metaphysical one, a transcendental one. 

Ethics is transcendental.

Reality and fiction (Stockholm): photo by Jimmy Dovholt, 25 November 2010


How things stand, is God. 

God is, how things stand. 

Only from the consciousness of the uniqueness of my life arises religion — science — and art.

Yummy Garden Chinese Restaurant, Portland: photo by Austin Granger, 12 February 2014


And this consciousness is life itself. 

Can there be any ethics if there is no living being but myself? 

If ethics is supposed to be something fundamental, there can. 

If I am right, then it is not sufficient for the ethical judgment that a world is given. 

Then the world in itself is neither good nor evil. 

Electricity (El Cerrito, California): photo by efo, 8 February 2014

For it must be all one, as far as concerns the existence of ethics, whether there is living matter in the world or not. 

And it is clear that a world in which there is only dead matter is in itself neither good nor evil, so even the world of living things can in itself be neither good nor evil. 

Good and evil only enter through the subject. And the subject is not part of the world, but a boundary of the world. 

It would be possible to say (a la Schopenhauer): It is not the world of Idea that is either good or evil; but the willing subject.

Development, Woodburn, Oregon: photo by Austin Granger, 12 February 2014

I am conscious of the complete unclarity of all these sentences. 

Going by the above, then, the willing subject would have to be happy or unhappy, and happiness and unhappiness could not be part of the world. 

 Trash bagman outside Shattuck Theater (Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley): photo by George Kelly (allaboutgeorge), 16 October 2011

As the subject is not a part of the world but a presupposition of its existence, so good and evil are predicates of the subject, not properties in the world. 

Here the nature of the subject is completely veiled.  

Surveillance camera and shadow, Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley: photo by Jeremy Brooks, 30 August 2010

My work has extended from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world. 

from Ludwig Wittgenstein: Notebooks 1914-1916, ed. G. H. von Wright and G. E. M. Anscombe, with an English translation by G. E. M. Anscombe, 1961 

Ticket Booth, Canby, Oregon: photo by Austin Granger, 12 February 2014


ACravan said...

For someone like me, who finds it impossible to live in the present (I try and try), you and your collaborators have created a very useful piece, which rewards immediate study and I believe future contemplation and consideration. Curtis

Hazen said...

First thought: Wittgenstein in Newark. In America. On the streets. Discovering “the nature of the world,” and the self, the subject; and knowing desire and its consequences, intended and unintended, in the organized hysteria that passes for civilization. It’s possible to philosophize with a camera; you and the photographers show that here, most amply.

Nin Andrews said...

Ah, yes, the struggle of logic and ethics and language. I love it. I think the Buddhists do the best with this topic. Their mind training, Lojong, I find, so helpful. Their concept of a happy life -- how not wanting is actually a way of being happier--it is so counter-culture and, at least for me, so inspiring.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

i once posed a philosophical question to a thinker - Robert Nozick, specifically - see my account at

these days i am reading two books on lojong - by norman fischer and b. alan wallace, respectively

and today i encountered a buddhist teaching on chocolate (not only chocolate, of course) - Lama Yeshe asserted:

Chocolate, like all our pleasures and all our problems, is impermanent — chocolate comes, chocolate goes, chocolate disappears. And that’s natural. When you understand this, your relationship to chocolate can change, and when you deeply understand this, you will truly have no fear of anything at all.

Barry Taylor said...

'Whoever lives in the present lives without fear and hope.'

This is the kind of moment in Wittgenstein when I wonder which Buddhist texts he's been reading. As some kind of stumbling toddler Buddhist myself, I'd only want to extend what Nin says here by slightly modifying it - 'not wanting is actually a way of being' - period. Which is to say it involves a fundamental reorienting of self to reality which brings with it an ethics, and a clear-eyed opening up to the unredeemed reality that we're being shown in these clear-eyed, unredemptive photographs (which suggest to me also the kind of aesthetics that might come with this letting go of the will to possess and the clarity that's released by that relinquishing). Whether that adds up to a recipe for 'happiness' I'm not sure - it probably requires of us the kind of searching questions about what happiness is that Wittgenstein is rolling over in his extraordinary mind in these notebook entries.

Mose23 said...

The thinking's sinuous. You can taste the sweat of it. I can't help but reflect that he was seeing active service at the time. There could be no retreat to some empty present: falling shells, blood damp soil, missing arms and legs (that limbless , willing body!).

Words and pictures make a poem.

A thinker with a pulse.

Anonymous said...

I dare say Wittgenstein understood better than most logic-minded Westerners that the letting go of its grasping -- including the last thing to go, the letting-go itself -- lends language -- happily or mournfully? who can say, though perhaps all should try -- its constructive inadequacy.

Barry Taylor said...

Thank you Brad for the 'constructive inadequacy' of language - that's a really nice tool for thinking about the stuff this post - this blog - stirs up.

TC said...

A bit of explanation regarding the textual source, from the preface by Margaret Anscombe and Georg von Wright to Notebooks 1914-1916:

"It was Wittgenstein's habit to work by writing down separate paragraphs, or 'remarks' as he sometimes called them — for they might comprise more than one paragraph — on the questions that were exercising him. Later he would seek for an arrangement of his results which would make a satisfactory book. This was as much hard work as the thinking that had gone into the 'remarks; and he did not aim to incorporate all the remarks that he was satisfied with in the book that finally emerged. There is a great difference between a mere compilation from his notebooks, like the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics or the present volume, and Philosophical Investigations or the Tractatus.

"Most of the notebooks containing his preliminary work, belonging to all his periods of writing, were destroyed by his orders in 1950. These included a large number of notebooks from the time of germination of the Tractatus. Three of these last survived, however, by the accident of having been left in the house of his youngest sister, Mrs. Stonborough, at Gmunden, instead of in Vienna. They were written in the years 1914-16 when Wittgenstein was 25-7 years old. The first two are continuous. They form the main body of the present

On the subject of Wittgenstein and Buddhism:

“[Alan] Watts viewed the writings of Wittgenstein as a form of jnana-yoga, intellectual bending and stretching which makes the mind supple and ready to realise profoundly its identity with It”.

("The thinking's sinuous" -- WB.)

As Wooden Boy suggests, these were the notations of a soldier.

Some bits from the Cambridge biography of LW, covering the period of these notes:


On the eve of the war, Wittgenstein returned to Vienna. He was determined to enlist, but his motives, as his sister Hermine wrote in the family memoirs), were not only of a patriotic nature: "As I well know, he was not only concerned to defend his country; he had an intense desire to take on something difficult and demanding and to do something other than purely intellectual work." On 7 August he voluntarily reported for duty although excused from military service on the grounds of a double hernia. On the same day he was posted to a fortress artillery regiment. On 9 August he began the first extant manuscript volume of the Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung, MS 101, published in Notebooks, 1914-1916.

A few days later, as a private soldier, he reached the front aboard the patrol ship Goplana on the Vistula. On 30 October he began the second manuscript, which he worked on until 22.6.1915: MS 102, published in Notebooks, 1914-1916. In the middle of December he was transferred to an artillery workshop in Cracow. In view of his abilities, he was exceptionally accorded the privileges due to an officer.

Before the end of the first year of the war his brother Paul was seriously wounded, losing his right arm, and was taken prisoner by the Russians. Through his fate, Ludwig first learned the horror of the prospect of losing one’s career. Back in Vienna, Paul Wittgenstein continued to work at his career with extraordinary strength of will. He later achieved celebrity, notably in the USA. In 1932 Maurice Ravel wrote for him his Concerto pour la main gauche.


After being wounded in an explosion in the workshop, and following a short stay in hospital in Cracow, Wittgenstein was transferred at the end of July to an artillery workshop aboard a train in the vicinity of Lwow.


At the beginning of the spring Wittgenstein was transferred at his own request to a howitzer regiment on the Galician front. There he began, on 29 March, the third extant manuscript, on which he worked until 10.1.1917: MS 103, published in Notebooks, 1914-1916, Oxford 1961.

He was decorated several times and was promoted to corporal on 1 September. He was then ordered to the school for artillery officers in Olmütz...

TC said...

“[Alan] Watts viewed the writings of Wittgenstein as a form of jnana-yoga, intellectual bending and stretching which makes the mind supple and ready to realise profoundly its identity with it”.

I hate to say this, but -- I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot his Deputy -- I felt a bit silly typing that sentence, which may well strike others as well as me as being... a bit silly.

In specific, what do you suppose is MEANT by the "it" in that sentence?

And then I remembered that Wittgenstein said, "Don't worry about the meaning, worry about the use."

So I lashed the weary eyeballs to the midnight yoke yet again and trekked across the himalayana and the mahahimalayana to recover the original source, a Buddhist commentator discussing Alan Watts' views on the connexion between Zen and the philosophy of our Lud.

And found that I had neglected to capitalize the "I" in "It".

So that the quote should read:

“[Alan] Watts viewed the writings of Wittgenstein as a form of jnana-yoga, intellectual bending and stretching which makes the mind supple and ready to realise profoundly its identity with It”.

Correct now, but... does this investigation of the use really do us any good?

Should we learn at last to speak precisely and clearly, will the lives of common people on the streets of Oakland or Newark be improved in any way?

When we look at the images in this post with Wittgenstein's beautiful earnest sentences fresh in our minds, do those minds shed a small tear for what has been lost?

(I ask because it has begun now to rain, and the falling teardrops in the drainspout are reminding me of the light artillery fire preceding an Italian offensive.)

When you're cold and old and hurting and pushed aside to the margins by the rough combat of daily urban existence, does having a flexible mind make things worse -- or better?

A question for Ludwig.

Unknown said...

Tom -- I think you've honed in on the principal question. It's one of the reasons I don't fret that much about not being able successfully to live "in the moment." Yesterday, with this on my mind, I was helping arrange long-haul international travel for a friend/client who is all about living in the moment. I mentioned to him that he must not have any problem sleeping on airplanes. (I can't do this.) He said that he doesn't sleep -- he meditates. I have no idea where that puts him in relation to the moment or how it affects his philosophy. Curtis

Chris said...

"And the subject is not part of the world, but a boundary of the world."

Later, he would put this differently, by saying that the word "I" (in, for example, "I love you") does not refer to anything. "I" here functions differently than "he".

"In the cases in which 'I' is used as subject, we don't use it because we recognize a particular person by his bodily characteristics; and this creates the illusion that we use this word to refer to something bodiless, which, however, has its seat in our body. In fact this seems to be the real ego, the one of which it was said, "Cogito, ergo sum".

TC said...


Well, I don't fly on airplanes, but do at times attempt to sleep in the usual appropriate form of terra-firma convenience; though alas, the ancient corpus now being damaged past repair, Morpheus eludes me there as well, leaving, in the end, no option but meditation... and meditation invariably makes matters worse. Right there "in the moment", and all.

At such times being a boundary of the world (the action stops here) seems hazardous enough, but being part of the world... yegads, the mere prospect, at this late stage, scrambles the cranial noodleroni unduly.


Thanks once more for being our thoughtful guide and companion in the unending and always fruitfully bewildering trek through the wilds of Wittgenstein (who may be regarded in some unenlightened zones as an epic partykiller, but here among the older folks -- life of the party!).

Yes, a good deal of the interest in the 1914-1916 Notebooks lies in seeing how Wittgenstein persistently circles around the problems that engaged him, shaping and fine-tuning his thoughts.

That aphoristic entry of 8 February 1916 did, as you are aware, undergo that characteristic development.

In the Tractatus the statement in question morphs into:

5.632 The subject does not belong to the world but is a limit of the world.

5.633 *Where* in the world is a metaphysical subject to be noted?

(I don't know that Garmin has yet come up with a geolocation device that would direct us to a solution in that regard.)

In the larger sense, though, the mere act of typing up those early Notebooks was a revelation, as close attention was required, and close attention to the workings of this extremely unusual mind is always rewarding, taxing, challenging, inspiring... in short, a wonderment.

But when all is said and done I can't help feeling there is an unbridgeable gulf between a sensitivity like Wittgenstein's -- a person actually concerned with what living in the world is like, as apart from how such living may be used to garner personal convenience, power, security, property et al. -- and the blunt-force-trauma-level acquisition techniques that seem de rigueur among "normal" citizens these days.

After all, inheriting one of the largest fortunes in Europe and then quickly realizing the problems that massive inheritance brought with it -- chiefly, figuring out how to get rid of it all ASAP -- would at least save one from being assailed by the desire for further enrichment.

But Wittgenstein's career in philosophy did matter very much to him, and I think his brother Paul's remarkable fortitude in learning to play the piano with one arm after the other had been lost in the War affected him deeply.

Returning to Cambridge after the war, I think he felt his own career would be lost; he had got on the wrong side of Russell, Whitehead, a dedicated Pacifist, loathed him for his war service in Germany.

But of course that time passed, and he got on with the work.