Monday, May 23, 2011

Wittgenstein's Tractatus - Model of Creative Thinking

Ludwig Wittgenstein published his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [or Logical-Philosophical Treatise] in 1921.* Written shortly after WWI, during which its author had suffered something akin to a nervous breakdown following service in the war, as a soldier and later as a prisoner. In philosophical circles, the Tractatus (as it its commonly called), has been a notorious and admired text in its field, as well as a model of thought and approach for others in disciplines as widely separated as physics, linguistics, literature, music and so forth.

Wittgenstein was an eccentric. Inheriting a huge fortune from his family, he undertook to divest it at once, taking a sort of secular vow of poverty for the rest of his life. Obsessed by certain philosophical questions, he was at first viewed by some as a hack or nut-case. Eventually, after years of study, he assumed the chair of philosophy at Cambridge (England). He published little during his lifetime, though his own collected works and the books made of the contents of notes taken by his students at Cambridge, produced posthumously, runs to a half dozen volumes.

Much in the manner of 19th Century philosophers, Wittgenstein's seminal work is a system-building work, intended to interpret and consolidate much if not all previous thought into a simplified outline as a model for error-free apprehension of phenomena. But with a difference. Unlike his predecessors, Ludwig wrote his treatise in a quasi-mathematical format of numbered statements, rather like a rule-book or set of progressive directions. The structure builds out of its initial all-encompassing pronouncements rather in the way that geometry or calculus manuals do, by enumerating a sequence of axioms intended to define the relationships of all shapes in three-dimensional space. Euclidean geometry was the first attempt to set up an interlocking system of theorems and propositions which could serve as the basis for the application of knowledge about the universe to practical problems, as well as theoretical investigations into phenomena. A set of axioms sets up a hierarchical canon of interdependent relationships, which are all related to one another through their interlocking laws and common structures. It's a powerful mental tool for building organically expanding thought(s).

Later in his career, Wittgenstein repudiated some of the principles of the Tractatus, or he incorporated its implications into his changing view of its meaning. The latter half of his career was devoted to a process of piecemeal interrogation of language itself--turning language backward, or inward, upon itself to reveal its inherent presumptions or contradictions. This was accomplished by examining, or dissecting, or deconstructing seemingly simple or "obvious" statements, and showing how language fails to provide a reliable basis for the systematic verification of sensory data, definitions, or valid communication among individuals. By undermining the classic presumptions of language, Wittgenstein was able to render much of philosophy as faulty, since all thought is dependent, to some degree or other, upon language for its structure and foundation. By language, Wittgenstein wasn't simply applying his analytical genius to verbal language, but upon all systems of representation, including mathematical symbols, and other kinds of symbolic systems.

There is a kind of ironic circularity in attempting to discuss the problems of language inside language, since there is no escaping the limitations of any system of symbols and meanings if you are using that system to express your analysis of the system itself. Of course, Wittgenstein wasn't simply trying to lay bare the structural vagaries of language, but also attempting to describe mental processes and interactions in the real world which depend upon linguistic presumptions. Thus language became both the tool and the barrier to his pursuit of truth. And this irony is never lost on Wittgenstein--he seems ever ready to exploit it, in ways that you wouldn't have guessed. His ability to bring these linguistic revelations about is almost a kind of witchery, and the feeling it inspires is not unlike what Emily Dickinson said in describing what poetry could do--"like feeling the top of your head come off."

Movements in European philosophy following WWII pursued many of the pathways that Wittgenstein had either opened, or suggested in his work and lectures and Cambridge. Modern linguistics owes much to his pioneering work. Wittgenstein's model of deconstructing language units is one of principle tools used to undermine the classic texts and works of Western thought. It was a very short distance between seeing how fragile our grasp of reality and meaning was--via language--and realizing how important the value of the creative use of language could be in defining new values in works of art, thought and speculation. The whole campaign of the dismantling of traditional art and literature has been seen to follow logically from the deconstruction of fixed notions of textual meaning and firm foundational reliance.

It was only natural that Wittgenstein's Tractatus should become a kind of model of assertion and/or a formal skeleton upon which to build aesthetic verbal structures. In traditional logic and linguistics textbooks, there were the question-and-answer exercises designed to elicit a spontaneous understanding of the loops and triggers that govern ordinary grammatical structures. Dead-ends, spin-outs, open and closed fallacies, strategies of argumentation, etc. Serious logic and semantics, styles of reasoning, etc., are fields of inquiry which would at first seem to be alien to the aesthetics of music, literature, and other kinds of formal expression, but they are quite closely related, especially at the level of fine detail familiar to students of epistemology, ethics, higher physics, behavioral and theoretical psychology, theories of the progression of history, and so forth.

Much of Modernist literature rests upon the failure of scientific investigation and empirical practice to furnish reliable bases for the understanding of culture: Meaning, behavior, value. A spreading field of relativity across all disciplines caused artists in all fields to experience a feeling of "drift" or "rootlessness" unlike anything described by thinkers or artists in the previous 2500 years. The Surrealists, for instance, repudiated truth and meaning and accepted "realities" in favor of baffling, illogical, absurd or repulsive acts, works, and assertions. Post-war American and European painters abandoned representation in favor of complete Abstraction. Pointillism, Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, Impressionism, Precisionism, Rationalism, Brutalism--seemingly an inexhaustible supply of names were summoned up over the last century to provide some nomenclatural legitimacy to different ways of expressing the breakdown of the representational impulse in art and thought. It was inevitable that a percipient mind like Wittgenstein's would apply the same kind of analytical inquiry to ordinary language that others were rendering in the plastic arts.

What I noticed immediately when the first Language Poetry works began to appear, was a common effort to employ the philosophical-mathematical model of an incremental notational sequence, which Wittgenstein had "invented" in the Tractatus. But the participants of the Language School weren't philosophers or logicians; they were poets!

The earliest examples of the tendency to use the logical sequence vehicle to create incremental faux-logical poem structures were Barrett Watten's poem Factors Influencing the Weather, his collections Decay, 1-10, Plasma/Paralleles/X, Complete Thought, and his book-length poem Progress; Silliman's sections from The Alphabet; nearly all of Armantrout's work, beginning with Extremities (in 1978); Peter Seaton's Agreement (1978). There are doubtless several others; I am not a dogged reader of Language Poetry writing. Pre-cursors to a sense of writing which rejects the representational basis of language and the inherent "logic"of grammar would be Gertrude Stein, and Louis Zukofsky. Later pre-cursors would include John Ashbery (see his Multiple Choice Questions), and Jackson Mac Low. Overtly "unpoetic" linguistic devices such as chance combinations, fragmentation, various "automatic" writing techniques, in addition to mathematical sequences and logical devices--explored at the level of the phrase--have continued to inform the movement since its inception.

In previous posts
I explored Silliman's use of the free-form paragraphic prose-poetic structure, asking "What are the implications of wanting to make a prose sequence in which the individual sentences do not relate, sequentially, to each other?" Exploiting the possibilities of poly-contextuality at the level of the paragraph--rather than the sentence--or individual word--Silliman seems to accept the denotative (and connotative) potential of the grammatical unit (a sentence). As does Watten, whose use of the incremental sequence form seems to posit a reordering of the position of address proposed by Wittgenstein (i.e., I am a person expelling probative missives into blank space, hoping to strike a nerve), in which each statement is an expression of a degree of disorientation appropriate to the specific case. Watten's early works cited above, seem like a direct appropriation of the Tractatus model of a faux-logical numbered sequence project, combined with the practice-b00k exercises from a Linguistics 1A lab manual--that's the source of their irony and their humor. Feeling the autonomy of the language coming out of one's mouth may signal a failure of the deliberate function of the creative impulse; accepting this phenomena as if it were a gift of the oracle may seem opportunistic at times.

Armantrout's poems--and I do refer to them as poems, which, I believe they are, in every sense of the word--use language almost as if it were a ventriloquial act. She seems incapable of speaking any phrase, of expressing any thought, without at the same time hearing it as the utterance of some other agency, of carrying, as it were, meanings other than those which she might think to ask of it. This duality--in which the hearing of familiar kinds of speech yields double- and triple-entendres--is a little like listening to a tape of oneself in conversation, noting its rhythms and tones and particular (nearly unconscious) intuitive insinuations--then setting up pieces of this raw matter into shrewd dialectical sequences--a kind of dialogue of self and soul, if you will--where one is talking without being quite aware of the implications of what one has actually said. Each sentence, each phrase, becomes an axiom of a system of logical (or illogical) progressions, which lay bare the hypocrisy or jeopardy or humor of the emotion contained in the language itself.


* Note: I have not described Wittgenstein's Tractatus for the purposes of this essay, assuming that readers will already be familiar with the work, and/or its basic methodology. Wittgenstein, his work, and the meaning and significance of the Tractatus is a very large subject, which I'm obviously not at liberty to address in this short essay. Equally, I have not quoted from the works cited, hoping to rely, again, on the reader's familiarity with the material.


J said...

Most humanoids who have been to collegetown go through a St. Witt. phase, but they grow out of it, hopefully.

As a logic text the Tractatus is somewhat interesting but outdated. His views on tautology are not accepted by most of the logic mavens (ie, Quine for one).

Isn't the later St Witt. the language guy? The Tractatus has a few lang. related proverbs IIRC but he was still a logic chopper at that point wasn't he. His somewhat metaphysical reflections on...logical form, the "great mirror" are interesting--he sounds rather platonic at times. But I think he moved away from that as well. And there are some puzzling sections (ie, a complete denial of inductive reasoning of any sort, and really probability).

And what do you make of the end section of the Tractatus-- ? Whack, IMHE. Read Witt's Poker as well (ie, St Witt. brandished an iron poker at some Oxford greats, including Popper). Whack. Even Lord Russell said as much about the aged Witt.

Curtis Faville said...


What did my post actually say?

The point--if you read it carefully--was the application of a prose form (from LW's Tractatus) to a literary movement which adopted many of his positions and insights--appropriating his methodology to aesthetic purposes.

Obviously Wittgenstein is a complex philosopher and a complex person. I made that point in my footnote--it wasn't an attempt to make a comprehensive assertion about his whole career from the point of view of a consideration of his best-known work.

Okay? A full-blown discussion of the Tractatus will have to await another opportunity.

Richard said...

This is good post (on an interesting Blog). This link was made by Marjorie Perloff in her book 'Wittgenstein's Ladder' and also I think "Radical Artifice"

Wittgenstein was working with Russell and Whitehead* and after he wrote his Tractatus and Russell and Whitehead realised that this, together with Russell's Paradox and Godel's Theorem meant that linking mathematics (hence perhaps all knowledge) by some logical foundation was impossible (at least to define how it could be so

Perloff links him to Silliman and others (even works by Beckett such as Watt and codes etc). I read all of his "Alphabet" books. Tjanting is a favourite. Wittgenstein's method or approach gave them (Langpos etc) a way into a systematic method as you say here.

But another who followed Euclid;s process for representing ideas was Spinoza in his 'Ethics'. I read that fairly easily as a teenager but I find it hard nowadays, and I didn't get far with the Tractatus. But the ideas structures and methods are stimulating.

The, or a, point is, I think, that the decimal "increments" imply an infinite set of "left-outs" [like the Dewey decimal system to define knowledge or book classification] linking ideas that W. and Russell etc were well aware of (these I think are due to (limits? contradictions? ambiguities) of language, and that is the key.

Hence the interest in W. by the language poets. Wittgenstein as you say was aware of this problematic aspect (did his "left-outs" preempt Derrida's deferance and difference etc?) (W. seems to want however to keep to knowledge in so far as it can be discussed, that is speculation of metaphysical sort doesn't, on the surface, seem to interest him,although it maybe a bit glaringly left out...)

None of this implies (to me) there can be "no meaning" or anything such as that. I am sure W. was quite sane if eccentric.

In any case the method of proceeding is in itself "poetic" as kind of almost austere poetic undercuts certain (old ways of writing or presenting) poetry.

In a similar way Silliman uses the Fibonacci series in some of his works as a formal device. (One word. One word. Two wds. Three wds. Fie wds. etc). This encourage concentration on the word or the phrase as it is built up. Then the whole work is built up.

Perhaps it is a bit artificial but I really liked Tjanting and Paradise for example. I think that Tjanting is possibly a great PM work. (But one needs to concentrate on the words adn phrases etc closely and this applies to such as Stein also and others...Armantrout I found more problematic. A little too riddling for me... but she is very astute.)

*(What I know of Witt. et al is second hand so I could well be completely wrong or quite wrong).

An interesting essay in any case.

Regards, RT

Curtis Faville said...


Yes, I follow all your points and agree insofar as I understand what you're saying.

And, yes, Perloff has made these same connections. They're obvious, and Silliman and Watten and Bernstein have all acknowledged their debt to linguistic (or semantic) philosophy--specifically Wittgenstein.

In that sense, this piece is not original, though not many people have made the point outright. I noticed Watten's approach in Factors and the two Tuumba books when they first appeared. Since it was something we "shared" at the time, it didn't seem very prescient even to raise the issue then. But, historically speaking, it's useful to emphasize it now.

Language is a sequential process. It occurs in time. So do logical systems--like the Tractatus. But using a logical form to make "non"-logical assertions, deliberately, was a fairly new thing. Self-consciously. It throws the process of "poetic" composition into a different light.

Using quasi-philosophical texts as a form was also employed by Ashbery in Three Poems. Those are almost "straight" philosophical/metaphysical meditations.

J said...

Well, Curtis, the Tractatus is a technical work, and thus some discussion of its content is in order. The early Wittgenstein is fairly dry. His ideas on meaning were quite limited--the "meaning of a word is the object it refers to"--wouldn't seem to promise much for literatteurs. (and a view mostly rejected now)

Russell and Whitehead claimed all mathematics could be put on a logical basis. But they did not claim completeness-- the Principia was not finished. First Order logic--ie, formal,predicate logic holds, actually--as a system. Goedel proved that. So, the logical basis of the Principia (Russell's intuition, if you will--tho Russell provided much of the logical work as well) was established. Witt. had little to do with that..

Goedel's incompleteness theorem does suggest that arithmetic may have unprovable assumptions (though some logic mavens have not accepted Goedelian "numbering'..a bit too much for the CR combox discussion). Decidable-ness is an issue (that was due to Church). But either way, one can construct a set of valid deductions (a very large set) and then have completeness, in brief. One reason your operating system works (and an OS first order logic, more or less). The impossibility of logic was sort of 60s hype. If undecidability and incompleteness, indeterminacy was a serious issue, computers wouldn't work.

Curtis: Re the literary usages of Wittgenstein, as I said that probably comes from later Witt--. Tho I recall a sentence in Pynchon's V from the Tractatus. Used in a song or something. Test. writers. ).

J said...
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