Wittgenstein is another one of those warrior-poets I love. One of the greatest philosophical works of the 20th century—and indeed, perhaps in the history of the subject—was written by him while in the trenches of World War I. Not only is it an incredible philosophical piece, but it is also one of the most beautiful works I have ever read.
Before he had even turned thirty, Wittgenstein believed that he had solved all the problems of thousands of years of philosophy. His thesis was composed into what The Times called “a logical poem,” published in 1921 as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. By propositions, Wittgenstein set about to demonstrate that the problems with philosophy are based in the imperfect nature of language, and that a precise use of language could bring about resolution. Here is the first part of the work:
1. The world is all that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2 The world divides into facts.
1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.
2. What is the case—a fact—is the existence of states of affairs…
Follow that? Don’t worry if you didn’t. According to authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow in Wittgenstein’s Poker, at the end of his doctoral defense at Cambridge (the Tractatus serving as his thesis) Wittgenstein “slapped his examiners on the shoulder, and said, ‘Don’t worry. I know you’ll never understand it.’” Nevertheless, one of his examiners stated on the form for the submission, “It is my personal opinion that Mr. Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius.”
The point of this post is not to get you to understand some extremely difficult philosophical ideas—that would take much longer than the amount I allot here—but simply to share with you a bit of my thoughts on beauty and serendipity. I personally find the Tractatus incredibly beautiful. I am also painfully aware that Wittgenstein had the chance to avoid fighting in World War I, but instead he went to the front lines.
Wittgenstein had an operation for a hernia while a teenager that actually relieved him from any kind of service during the war. Instead, he used his family’s significant influence to receive an assignment to the front. He is said to have been known for holding his position as artillery forward long beyond the requirements of duty. Eventually he was captured and spent the last years of the war in a POW camp, where he guarded his Tractatus and corresponded with the great philosopher Bertrand Russell about getting it published. But what if Wittgenstein hadn’t survived? Even knowing that he did, I still feel a deep terror from the idea.
Wittgenstein later changed his philosophical views dramatically—so dramatically, in fact, that Edmonds and Eidinow refer to his two philosophical stages as Wittgenstein I and Wittgenstein II. But I am still in love with some of his early ideas, like this one, the last part of his preface to the Tractatus:
I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.
And this, the last line of the Tractatus:
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.