It is ridiculous to treat everything as if the System were complete, and then to say in the end, that the conclusion is lacking. If the conclusion is lacking at the end, it is also lacking in the beginning, and this should therefore have been said in the beginning.Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
I’ve spent my life looking for the systematic explanation of, well, life. As it turns out, every systemic solution is inherently flawed. This is a philosophical analog to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which essentially state that any system strong enough to explain things is inherently contradictory. (For a layman’s introduction to this concept, I suggest the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.)
Wittgenstein, after an exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis of the logic of philosophic statements, concludes this:
The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: … whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person–he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy–this method would be the only strictly correct one.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (6.53)
One reaction to this revelation is to adopt a totally cynical view, wherein you spend your life essentially saying “Pfft! That’s not right” to whatever is said. This is both an easy and a hard approach — easy in that it’s easy to prove, but hard in that it’s a hard way to live. Consider Wittgenstein’s statement:
Skepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked. For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (6.51)
This “things that cannot be said” is the essence of God, mysticism and life. Wittgenstein himself admits this in the last lines of his book:
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (6.54)
And then concludes, famously:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (7)
Wittgenstein went on writing right up until he died, although he never published another thing during the thirty years between writing the above quote and the day he died. From my point of view, this was because he knew he couldn’t publish in sequential form (e.g., a book) something that is by its very essence multidimensional. Wittgenstein didn’t have access to hypertext, but if he did he would have used it. He wrote in fragments and aphorisms, which pretty much drives the systematic philosophy people crazy. They claim that you can pick and choose parts of what Wittgenstein wrote to demonstrate anything you want to prove. Have I just done that? I don’t think so.
Many people throughout the ages have come to the same conclusion as Wittgenstein. Some have chosen silence, some have tried to communicate anyway, using analogy and metaphor. This is the essence of poetry and all mystical writing.
But can we have beliefs without a systematic superstructure? If our beliefs are unsystematic, isn’t that the same thing as saying they’re wrong? Not at all. I’m committed to making these posts short, so more on this in the next post.
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