On Certainty - Über Gewissheit

"Das Kind, möchte ich sagen, lernt so und so reagieren; und wenn es das nun tut, so weiss es damit noch nichts. Das Wissen beginnt erst auf einer späteren Stufe." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Über Gewissheit - On Certainty, Clause 538, p 71-71e, Blackwell Publishing, 1969.

Official English translation below.


Philosophy of language is mostly known in its synchronic version. The method of language analysis has been extremely productive. The early Wittgenstein - a sentence corresponding to a certain state of affairs.. - is still quoted heavily for his contributions in this vein, however much his name is discredited by the opaque writings (like the one above) of the late Wittgenstein.

I am certainly not original in not buying the dichotomy between early and late versions of Wittgenstein (apart maybe from biographical details which are not specifically interesting to me). Nevertheless, I don´t believe ever having seen the attempt at unifying his thought using the traditional aspects of the study of language: synchronic & diachronic or - as I understand it - static analysis of language & the dynamic analysis of an evolving (grasp of) language.

Most of us reading texts like these will immediately understand the difference we want to convey in talking of dead & living languages. Dead languages are no longer evolving, they allow being analyzed or dissected - living languages on the other hand are not as easily analyzed. Although vivisection on them is not as morally questionable as vivisection on animals, the living nature of the language prevents us - in my view - from exhausting all explanation by 'static' explanation.

This does not mean that dissecting language into truth/falsity, recursiveness, truth conditions & so on is a wrong or unproductive labour. Far from it, maybe one of the more stupid assumptions of Wittgenstein was that he said all that could be said on the matter. Almost a century of further developments in this tradition show not only continueing progress but fundamentally new insights. Charles Darwin did not make further study of physics after Galileo, Keppler & Newton superfluous.

It does however mean that this statical analysis is fundamentally insufficient to come to terms with language. Giving lip service - as many do - to language evolution & language acquisition is doing a great disservice to us. There is a difference between using a language and knowing something (& expressing this knowledge in a language). This is just one of the differences one needs to appreciate if one wants to study important differences between knowing something and intending for something to be the case (& necessarily putting this intention in a linguistic way for social use). If one persists in not noting & contemplating these differences one is condemned to the false belief that the thing that makes us specifically human is something similar to those computer processes that admit exhaustive mathematical analysis.

My guess is that the great Ludwig never attempted an explanation like I did because that explanation is necessarily too static to do justice to what is to be studied. Forgive me my arrogance, maybe one day I´ll be able to reason & argument my case better than an old lady that always forgets where she last put her keys ;-)


"The child, I should like to say, learns to react in such-and-such a way; and in reacting it doesn´t so far know anything. Knowing only begins at a later level."

22:53 Gepost door Guido Nius in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: language, wittgenstein, dynamics |  Facebook |


To the Christians

"(..) I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination    Imagination the real & external world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow & in which we shall live in our Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these vegetable Mortal Bodies are no more. (..)
(..) O ye Religious discountenance every one among you who shall pretend to despise Art & Science! I call upon you in the name of Jesus! What is the Life of Man but Art & Science? is it Meat & Drink? is not the Body more than Raiment? What is Mortality but the things relating to the Body, which Dies? What is Immortality but the things relating to the Spirit, which Lives Eternally? What is the Joy of Heaven but Improvement in the things of the Spirit? (..)
Let every Christian as much as in him lies engage himself openly & publicly before all the world in some Mental pursuit for the Building up of Jerusalem"
William Blake, Jerusalem Plate 77 " To the Christians", The Complete Poems, Penguin Books 1977, pp. 797-798.

Again not the most quotable of quotes, I guess it maybe risks to scare even the few interested away but I´m  not here for the success anyway, so: deal with it (to console you a bit I added below a hopefully more readable piece, down below).

My interest in Christianity is quite limited. I´m not, as Blake was, immersed in Christian symbols. I am, as most probably are you, immersed in more modern neo-liberal symbolisms with its rituals of stress & strife and its sacraments of personal merit. The quote works as well when titled "To the Neo-Liberals". It is pointing to something which is not less radical now than it was then. Blake - bless him - makes no excuses. Imagination, Art, Science makes us us & that is the only thing worth anything, at all. In an age where innovation is more & more instrumentalized to 'help' us achieve stuff merely 'help' us neutralize an adverse effect of previous innovations, this is radical. Much more radical than art for art's sake because it is not the result that matters but the mere act of creation.

Enough dwelling on today, today will soon be past & nothing is more boring - less productive - than history. The only significant aspect of history is that it invariably evolves to the future. The dynamic nature of evolution culminating, for now, in humanity - progressing continuously to more splendid creations - is something that is still not receiving the attention it deserves. More than a century after Darwin people are still mostly mesmerized into pillars of salt in looking back, taking static snapshots for detailed analysis & fighting over the subtler differences these snapshots cause in various beholders.

I should not be ashamed, but I am, to write an unabashed story of how all of us will be delivered into eternal bliss when finally letting go of the static to be fully committed to the dynamic. A thinker like Bergson was relegated to a 2nd tier list of philosophers for attempting to start with hard science but end up in something that was more than classical science. The Einsteinian curse, which condemns creativity to come up with the final clean fit of science to nature or vice versa, is proving to be a strong curse. We do not only want our houses to be clean, we expect our thought to be clean. Nevertheless, analytical as I may be, logic and mathematics are just one result of human evolution and we need to be able to break the spell they have on us. Not by breaking logic and mathematics - that won´t work - but by realizing that what makes us well & truely us is what we can do beyond logic and mathematics.

I was and I am sceptical of anybody sceptical of logic and mathematics. There is a simple reason for this: in most cases those sceptical of mathematics are a raving new agey idiots that convinced themselves that life in the Stone Ages was somehow preferable. In all other cases they are dementing scientists in which the feeling of mystery surrounding mathematics outweighs reason. I´m not sceptical at all of mathematics (or as Blake would have it: Science), as it is our human tool to perform any Mental craftsmanship. I just believe that there is something like Imagination that comes not only before reason but that also should come after reason. Imagination is the dynamic element - & analyzing it in a mathematical way brings me most mental joy - & that´s where our target or purpose lies if target or purpose or adequate words to express that.

I´m not quite there. Probably I won´t ever get there. I wouldn´t be spending time on this if I had it clear enough to tackle it head on. In commonplace - the point is not getting there but going there. That´s why I read Blake, this ' mad hatter' reminds me to be arrogant in trying to create. Because after all what is needed is to publicly & openly engage in some Mental Pursuit for Building of Jerusalem.

Human life requires leaving a mark. Once I hope to be able to explain how we live on forever not via our thoughts our actions but literally as our thoughts - in the form of our thoughs. Not in the form of written down thoughts or in an otherwise metaphorical sense but literally we live on actively as our thoughts.

Your mad hatter.


Little Fly
Thy Summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.


18:19 Gepost door Guido Nius in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: blake, dynamics, imagination |  Facebook |


Abel Gholaerts

Amateuristic translation below.

"Het leven is geen boek. Nergens begint het. Het is hier en daar en ginder, en alles gebeurt tegelijk. Een boek is anders. Dit boek begint in het huis der Van Geemen waar het altijd stil is, waar het riekt naar papier en inkt.
De Van Geemen verkiezen de stilte. Niet omdat die hun lief is. In werkelijkheid hongeren zij ergens diep in hun wezelhart naar den daver van het leven, maar zijn er bang voor."
Louis-Paul Boon, Abel Gholaerts (Manteau, 1944), Chapter 1, Paddenhoek, p. 1.


'Abel Gholaerts' is one of the first books I ever read. I guess I was barely 16. Looking for the quote I automatically started rereading it; sublime even when read without the spleen of somebody too young to read such a book (nothing good comes from reading books at a young age, life will never be able to fill in what is pointed to in such books, life simply is too coincidental, too spread out and too everywhere, life does not just begin nowhere, it also lacks the pointe and ends nowhere in particular).

Books are bigger than life. Much misery, melancholy and spleen results from a life not able to live up to expectations expressed in even the most miserable of the big stories. That's what language does in general; it creates a world in which everything seems to be like the real world but in which nothing real has a place. The great stories - those of Flaubert, Joyce, Boon, Faulkner (and not so many more) - come closest to providing a sense of the senselessness of it all. But they still provide a sense and are therefore very much unlike life.

Language is not life. It is not even life-like. Sure, it influences your reality but that does not mean it expresses any reality. Language is not here, not there, it is not anywhere at all in this world. A lot of good would come from a general acceptance of this. People would not lock others up because of a conflict that is only linguistic (any religious conflict for instance, God is eminently linguistic). Maybe people would not avoid life - sitting quietly in their language-knit little corners - when they would realize that the fears they have are, for the most part, purely linguistic fears. There's nothing wrong with purely linguistic fears or desires, as sexual imagination clearly shows, but one has to understand it for what it is: something that borders on but is not interchangeable with life, as some sexual imagination clearly shows.

From the end of the book: "When he boasts that he could still write good books, but does not do it anymore because the world is not worth it, he says. The world does not understand me. Yes - and Germain forgets that it is he who does not understand the world." Books have little to do with the world. Only a very few words have to do anything specific with the world. This is something that is to be understood - hard to understand maybe and almost impossible to explain for sure - if one wants to understand a world in which there is a phenomenon like language.

And when one wants to understand a book or a thought one needs to see it will always have a beginning and an end. When something is said, something is invariably also meant. This meaning one can try to confront with the world - in some always chronically incomplete way - and the confrontation can lead to other thoughts and other books that impact life in a more beneficial way (but beware, the benefit will always have to be put in words again). But there is a sense in which the book or the thought can be appreciated regardless of this confrontation. Maybe this is the artistic sense and maybe all art is - indeed - quite useless.

The irony is that you can even make a gospel out of Louis-Paul Boon ;-) What I wrote is much too deep but I stand by the thought: the universe of words is a completely different universe that that of actions and events. When they do touch - something they undoubtedly do - it is never straightforward. Many of our issues come from oversimplifying the relation between our language and our world. The recency of language probably explains why we have not been able to come to terms with it. The recency of "I" probably explains why we do tend to associate it as referring to a physical rather than to a linguistic item - more late, I guess.


"Life is not a book. It begins nowhere. It's here and there and yonder, and everything happens at the same time. This book begins in the house of the Van Geems where it's always quiet, where it reeks of paper and ink.
The Van Geems prefer the silence. Not because they like it. In reality they hunger somewhere deep in their cowardly hearts after the buzz of life, but they are afraid of it."


17:45 Gepost door Guido Nius in Algemeen | Permalink | Commentaren (0) | Tags: language, dynamics, boon |  Facebook |