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In Search of Meaning

Ulrich Arnswald

The Convergence of God, the Self, and the World in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

John Churchill

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I. Clearly Wrong

1In this paper I aim to explain a peculiar aspect of the picture of logic, language, and the world in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In that picture, logic and language limn the domain of sense, which corresponds to the world of facts, and exclude the domain of nonsense, occupied by philosophical explanations of logic, by aesthetics, by ethics, and by all talk about God, meaning, and value — a domain properly consigned to silence. What Wittgenstein says about this latter domain is a particularly elegant amalgam of insights and themes from an astonishing variety of sources. And yet — this is the peculiar aspect — it clearly cannot be correct. Seeing that it cannot be correct, and understanding why it cannot be correct are the two aims of my explanation.

2In a nutshell, the explanation is this: Wittgenstein’s picture demands a convergence of three concepts: God, the self, and the world. Attractive as this convergence may be, to certain sorts of pure mystics, it cannot be correct. If God, the self, and the world were all the identical selfsame thing, all our beginning intuitions — the otherness of the world and of God, and our own individuation, would be inexplicable. But in a matter of this sort, as Wittgenstein himself says in Zettel, “slow cure is all important” (382). One reason the slow cure is important is that it will assist our seeing that this convergence is also implicit elsewhere in the Western philosophical tradition. That, in turn, will lead to a deeper appreciation of the way in which Wittgenstein’s rejection of this element of the world-view of the Tractatus is also a rejection of a central feature of much of the philosophical tradition.

3I aim to show that the Tractatus stands, perhaps alone with Spinoza’s Ethics, as the purest and most unrelenting effort to articulate a world-picture in which logic entails a mystical union of the self with the world and with God. As such, the Tractatus, along with the Ethics, stands as monumental evidence that this perspective, worked out systematically and thoroughly, cannot produce a consistent or a liveable conception of the place of human being in the world. The perspective presupposed and worked out in each work is not that of a human being, merely, but of a human being who approaches union with God, a God who is at the same time identical with the world itself. And this is not a perspective a human being can indwell. But showing this will require some discussion. Let us enter the slow cure.

4At a philosophical conference in Louisville, Kentucky, several years ago, a listener to a paper on the Tractatus asked, in a grumpy tone, “Why study something that is clearly wrong?” The answer, surely, is that we can learn from important mistakes. But the notion that some philosophical position could be “clearly wrong” has interestingly multiple senses. A claim could be clearly wrong in being obviously mistaken. We might hold a position to be clearly wrong in this sense without suggesting that we can state how it is wrong. Wittgenstein holds that there is no self, and yet that “I am my world.” Even if we don’t know how to refute him, and can’t say just where his argument went astray, we may say, with justification, “That can’t be right!” Let us call this status “obviously wrong.” Second, a claim could be clearly wrong in the sense that it is perspicuously clear how it’s wrong. When we see that Wittgenstein’s commitment to atomism is premised on the idea that every proposition must have an absolutely determinate sense, and that he adopted this stricture from Frege, we may rightly feel that we have seen just how the position has gone wrong. Let us call this status “perspicuously wrong.” Third, there is a sense in which some claims are clearly wrong in that they transparently and cogently open to our view the way in which other claims — perhaps whole domains of inquiry and explanation — are wrong as well. If we become convinced that the problems of perspective exhibited in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus show — in their clarity — what is wrong with any such attempt, this realization can offer a panoramic view of a whole sea of error. We could call this status “importantly wrong.”

5My claim is that Wittgenstein’s view of God, the self, and the world in the Tractatus is clearly wrong in the first and second senses, and that a due consideration of the character of his great mistake can let us see it as wrong in the third sense as well. Wittgenstein’s mistake is a “great” one in two senses: it is a big, grave mistake, but it is also an important one. There is no put-down in this diagnosis. Some philosophical mistakes are tremendously important, as he acknowledged in Zettel: “In a certain sense one cannot take too much care in handling philosophical mistakes, they contain so much truth” (460). If Wittgenstein is obviously, perspicuously, and importantly wrong, the Tractatus may constitute a reductio argument, the reductio ad absurdum of rationalism. It will, though, show us less how to avoid and disdain an error, than how to recognize and cope with one of the enduring tendencies and most alluring temptations of philosophical reflection. Wittgenstein lived to diagnose his own tendency and to struggle, in his later work, against the temptation. Clarity about the fundamental problem with the Tractatus — its ultimate conflation of God, the self, and the world — is a necessary prodadeutic to understanding Wittgenstein’s later work.

6In his Preface he acknowledges that on the logical side his precursors are Russell and Frege. But beyond that, he gives stark discouragement: “[…] [T]he reason why I give no sources is that it is a matter of indifference to me whether the thoughts that I have had have been anticipated by someone else.” We cannot share his indifference, because the implications of understanding even his mistakes depend on our seeing their relation to the often momentous projects that other philosophers have undertaken. And so the multiple roots of Wittgenstein’s thought in the Tractatus have been amply documented. As is shown in Janik and Toulmin’s Wittgensteins Vienna, he drew, for example, from the cultural milieu of late Habsburg Vienna. In the English-speaking world he drew from Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore, and others. Continental philosophers who influenced him include Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He certainly drew freely from Schopenhauer.

7A closer look at these influences will assist us in grasping Wittgenstein’s conception of his problems. Paul Engelmann writes of Wittgenstein’s “unreserved admiration and respect” for Tolstoy (1967, 79), an admiration manifest in Wittgenstein’s predilection for spiritual simplicity, his tendency to seek out common and lowly positions — cottager in Norway and Ireland, gardener, village school teacher, hospital porter — and his distaste for the trappings of donnish prestige at Cambridge. Georg Henrik von Wright writes of Tolstoy’s “strong influence on Wittgenstein’s view of life” (1972, 10), and Wittgenstein himself wrote to Ludwig von Ficker that Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief virtually kept him alive at points during the war (Monk 1990, 132).

8What does this Tolstoyan influence amount to? Brian McGuinness has noted that the passage 6.4311-6.4312 in the Tractatus closely parallels Tolstoy’s contention that true life is non-temporal and is lived in a continuous present. From Tolstoy he drew the idea that spiritual truth must be simple, that it must be accessible without learning, and that it is most likely to be embodied in the humblest among humanity. This set of ideas strikes, of course, a familiar chord in traditional Christian thought, and with it comes an imperative to regard complexities of thought as obstacles to be overcome. This is one of the roots of the doctrine of ineffability: if the most adequate doctrines are the simplest, ultimately they cannot even be spoken, and thus are not doctrines at all. The best spiritual testimony is to be found, silently, in the good lives of plain people. This lesson must have gained strong reinforcement in Wittgenstein’s affirmation of Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov, whose quiet virtue distinguishes him from his brothers, one lost in dissipated living, the other in philosophical quandaries.

9Russell’s influence was not limited to logic. In 1913, Russell published in The Hibbert Journal, a now-famous article called “Mysticism and Logic.” In this essay, well-analyzed by Brian McGuinness in his article “The Mysticism of the Tractatus,” Russell outlines a particular strand of mystical thought with a long philosophical pedigree. Its distinctiveness is two-fold. First, it is rooted in doctrines of logic, and second, whatever its particular occasion of expression, it has four consistent tenets: (1) the underlying unity of everything; (2) the unreality of time; (3) an overarching absolute value that subsumes all other; and (4) the availability of an experience of insight in which the first three tenets are disclosed. Russell finds this pattern in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions; he published this article shortly after Wittgenstein’s association with him. Perhaps then it is not surprising to find all these tenets in the Tractatus. Russell’s “logical mysticism” is the pattern to which the mysticism of the Tractatus is cut.

10It is also highly likely that Wittgenstein was influenced in the development of ethical themes in the Tractatus by direct or indirect contact with George Edward Moore, the Cambridge philosopher whose Principia Ethica (1903) set the tone of discussion about value for a generation of English intellectuals including most famously the Bloomsbury group — Leonard and Virgina Woolf, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and others, tightly connected with intellectual currents at the Cambridge college, Trinity, where Russell and Wittgenstein collaborated. Michael Hodges has developed this likelihood, pointing out that Moore’s intuitionism called for a wordless, definitionless, immediate recognition of value.

11But of all the influences on the suppressed metaphysics of the Tractatus (as distinct from the logic), the most obvious and direct is that of Schopenhauer. The themes Wittgenstein sets out to develop in the Notebooks are drawn with, initially, little modification from The World As Will and Representation. Wittgenstein undertakes in those Notebooks to explore the problem of the individuation of the self to whom the world is presented, the relation between the will as subjectively experienced in one’s own body and the metaphysical will as the inner nature of all reality, and the sense in which there is truth in solipsism. All of these are characteristically Schopenhauerian versions of common philosophical problems. Even the convergence of God, the self, and the world is already evident in these early thoughts. Taking a page from Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein already articulates the idea that oneself is the microcosm, and “I am my world” (NB, 12.10.16). While at the same time, “my will is the world-will” (NB, 17.10.16). The affinity for solipsism is traceable to Schopenhauer’s influence (cf. NB, 23.5.15), and the dismissal of scepticism about the existence of an external world as a non-question (TLP 6.51) is a virtual echo of Schopenhauer: “After an examination of the [...] real character of sense perception, the question itself was bound to disappear, because there was no longer any meaning in it” (1969, I, 16).

12Despite this clear and immediate derivation of problems and development of strategies from Schopenhauer, it is still the case that the sort of solution the Tractatus embodies takes Wittgenstein into the mainstream tradition of philosophical mysticism, where his great likeness is with Spinoza. That comparison awaits us in a later section of this paper.

II. I Am My World

13Wittgenstein’s solution to the problems of philosophy — all of them — was to show them to be non-problems. A clear view of the logic of language and of its relation to the world would show that the questions of philosophy are pseudo-questions, nonsensical expressions which have no answers because they ask nothing. The vanishing of these pseudo-problems takes away the possibility of saying anything meaningful about philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, value, God, the self, or the meaning of life or of the world. He accomplishes this result between two remarkable bookend propositions: “The world is all that is the case.” (TLP 1), which opens the Tractatus, and “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” (TLP 7), which closes the book.

14In our admiration of the logical elegance of his maneuvers, we cannot forget that the project grew from a sensibility anchored by staunch adherence to the principle that sense must be determinate — that is, that at bottom the world and language must have absolutely sharp edges. It is easy to see the appeal of this commitment: it is the Law of the Excluded Middle, the world of “Yes or No,” “On or Off.” Terry Eagleton’s script of the Derek Jarman film Wittgenstein places the following words in the mouth of a character based on the economist John Maynard Keynes, who says of Wittgenstein,

There was once a young man who dreamed of reducing the world to pure logic. Because he was a very clever young man, he actually managed to do it. And when he’d finished his work, he stood back and admired it. It was beautiful. A world purged of imperfection and indeterminacy. Countless acres of gleaming ice stretching to the horizon. So the clever young man looked around the world he had created, and decided to explore it. He took one step forward and fell flat on his back. You see, he had forgotten about friction. The ice was smooth and level and stainless, but you couldn’t walk there. So the clever young man sat down and wept bitter tears. But as he grew into a wise old man, he came to understand that roughness and ambiguity aren’t imperfections. They’re what make the world turn. He wanted to run and dance. And the words and things scattered upon this ground were all battered and tarnished and ambiguous, and the wise old man saw that that was the way things were. But something in him was still homesick for the ice, where everything was radiant and absolute and relentless. Though he had come to like the idea of the rough ground, he couldn’t bring himself to live there. So now he was marooned between earth and ice, at home in neither. And this was the cause of all his grief. (Eagleton 1993, 142)

15But let us explore that world of ice. The world is all that is the case. What can be the case are facts, and facts have a definable nature: they are composed of objects. Objects correlate with names; names combine into propositions; propositions depict possible facts, and the totality of possible propositions — the exhaustive extent of what can be said — composes the whole of language. Language and the world, then, are two great, articulated systems, each mirroring the other, coextensive in their bounds. Outside those bounds there is nothing, and there nothing can be said.

16Both the propositions of language and the facts of the world are structured according to logical form. To speak of logical form is to speak of the possible propositional combinations of the representatives of objects, and hence, about the possible combinations of objects themselves in states of affairs. This correlation of language with the world must be based at an atomic level, where absolutely simple signs are arrayed relative to each other in elementary propositions in ways that mirror the logical form of elementary facts — the arrangement of their unanalyzably simple constituents, or objects. It is essential to a proposition that it have a determinate sense, capable of being true or false. And if sense is to be determinate, analysis must come to an end: therefore there must be simple constituents of propositions and of the facts they depict.

17A proposition shows its sense; that is, in its form it depicts the fact that is the case if it is true. And it says that “This is how things stand.” Wittgenstein distinguishes clearly between what language says, which is, again, “This is how things stand.” (cf. TLP 4.5), and what a proposition shows, which is how they do stand. This distinction is important because “What can be shown cannot be said.” (cf. TLP 4.1212) And while language is restricted to saying, in effect, “It’s like this,” the “this” being a reference to what the proposition shows, propositional language cannot say how things stand; nor can it say how it shows it. So there is no science of logic, no discourse of philosophy. But the Tractatus itself of course is exactly that.

18So the Tractatus is composed of propositions which are, by its own standards nonsense. But instead of an embarrassment, the self-destructtive bent of Wittgenstein’s doctrines is a touch of consummating elegance. In reaction to the threat of infinite regress of metalogical explanations posed by Russell’s theories of logic, Wittgenstein proposed that logic must take care of itself. And that doctrine itself disappears so that logic may, in fact, do so.

19Like logic itself, all the problems of philosophy vanish into the realm of the ineffable. For example, scepticism disappears: “Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.” (TLP 6.51) And solipsism, with which Wittgenstein toyed for largely Schopenhauerian reasons, is strangely affirmed. But it amounts to nothing other than realism. Since the world is all that is the case, there can be no subject beholding it, so he affirms realism; i. e., the disappearance of the subject. On this reading there is no subject, and solipsism offers no substantive alternative to realism. But Wittgenstein says that what the solipsist wants to say is correct. What does he mean?

20The self, as he describes it, is not essentially correlated with any human body: “[…] [M]y body [...] [he writes] is a part of the world among others […]” (NB, 2.9.16), and “[w]hoever realizes this will not want to procure a pre-eminent place for his own body [...]” The self of this solipsism is a transcendent metaphysical subject — albeit a vanishing one — with which the totality of facts — reality, the world — is coordinated.

21Along with this vanishing of the self, Wittgenstein insists that within the limits of language and the world, everything is valueless. On the linguistic side this assertion means that “It is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics” (TLP 6.42), while in the world “everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists, and if it did exist, it would have no value.” (TLP 6.41) A purported ethical proposition — since it would have to mention a value and since that value could not obtain as an object in a fact — would contain a nonsensical sign. Such a purported proposition could not have a proper logical form, and would be itself nonsensical.

22Having disavowed any special standing or preferential consideration for the human body coordinated with the solipsistic subject, and having banished value from the world, Wittgenstein produces a curious set of remarks about happiness. It consists in a certain attitude toward the facts, namely, the attitude of wonder at the existence of the world. “It is not how things stand in the world that is mystical,” he writes, “but that the world exists” (TLP 6.44). The factuality of the world, then, is the beginning point of the mystical. But for the “fact” that the world exists to have a mystical significance, there must be a substantive solipsistic self outside the world for whom it has that significance, and in whose will — of attunement or agreement with the facts — that significance inheres. There must be a self for whom “the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man” (TLP 6.43). This view of the world sub specie aeterni depends on the status of the metaphysical subject at the limits of the world — the self of transcendental idealism. In this way the whole realm of the mystical depends, for its integration into the mainstream of the Tractatus, on the correctness of this substantive solipsism. This must be what Wittgenstein means in writing: “[…] [W]hat the solipsist means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest” (TLP 5.62).

23It seems as if Wittgenstein’s discussion of happiness pertains to the psychological states of an embodied subject, a human being in the world. But this picture, to which we seem repeatedly driven, is ruled out by his assimilation of the phenomenal self into the world of facts. We then gravitate toward another picture — a transcendent metaphysical self to whom the world appears, capable of an attitudinal will that may affirm or struggle with it. But this picture is also ruled out, because it posits something beyond the facts, and violates the basic dictum that “The world is all that is the case.” Neither picture is consistent with Wittgenstein’s fundamental system, and yet both are apparently required to make sense of what Wittgenstein says about value, the will, and happiness. The combination cannot be reconciled. But Wittgenstein’s vision would be true only for a subject that was the sole observer of the world, and a pure intellect, a subject who was, while retaining an individuated perspective, also, in a sense, the world’s consciousness of itself. If we begin with the individuated subject, everything about it — body and perspective — must get pushed out into the world of facts until we are left with a point of view held by no one — the vanishing solipsistic subject of the Tractatus. And what we are left with is the world — everything. Only the God of pantheism could be construed as the self of Wittgenstein’s mysticism.

24The idea of God is the idea of a standpoint that brings everything into a single field and thus renders an intelligible totality — a whole. This standpoint corrects all partial perspectives by completing them, and in a determinate way fixes every individual thing and the totality as what it is. God is, then, that perspective from which things appear as they are. But a substantive God, regarding the world from the outside, would raise new problems. First of all, an extramundane God, like an extramundane self, would be something being the case beyond the world. Second, we should ask whether such a God has a representation of the world. If so, where is it? If it is in the world, then the world contains a perfect replica of itself — an impossibility. Or if that representation is not in the world, then we have another violation of the basic itself that the world contains all that there is. And if the world is not represented to God, then in what sense does God apprehend the world? God’s representation of the world, and thus God’s own being as an omniscient subject, can only be the very being of the world itself. Just as the self of solipsism collapses without remainder into the world, so the God of the omniscient perspective collapses in — as it were from the other side — without remainder. “The world is all that is the case.” (TLP 1)

25This analysis clarifies the manifold problem of understanding how there is a subject, while at the same time there is no subject, and yet somehow also the subject is identical with the totality of the facts as a whole — the world, while, further, the facts themselves in that same totality are God. The world in its logical order as a whole simply is God and the self is the same. That is why the self — divorced from the body and from an individuated perspective — vanishes, and yet persists as a sole, limiting perspective, and in that role tends toward absorption into both the world itself and into a God’s perspective on the world. Similarly, logical clarity about the order of the world, seeing it sub specie aeterni, as a whole limited by logic, simply is seeing its sense; i. e., seeing what the world shows, which is just that it is there. This awareness solves the problems of the will and of happiness, since there is, from this vantage point, nothing to say about value. There is just the world of facts, laid out in their inevitability.

26It is important to see that this solution is a version of the classical mystical perspective. It entails that the self is one with the world and with God. Accordingly, there is in this perspective the problem how to assert this unity in a way that evades both unintelligibility and falsehood. Beyond that, the mystical solution provides a vantage point from which it is hard to see or explain how we could have been deluded in the first place: who is it who is unclear about logic, in the Tractatus? Finally, the solution, however appealing intellectually and spiritually, leaves the embodied human subject in a position that is very hard to account for conceptually, and impossible to live out. It will be instructtive to compare this philosophical predicament with the view of God, self, and the world in Spinoza’s Ethics.

III. The Very Love With Which God Loves Himself

27The likeness of the Tractatus to Spinoza’s Ethics was first noted by George Edward Moore. In the discussions surrounding the publication of the book in England and its translation into English by C. K. Ogden, Wittgenstein’s advocates in that country discussed various titles. After consideration of simply Philosophy, and Philosophical Logic, the Latin title was suggested by Moore. Superficially, the Tractatus has an organization that is reminiscent of the Ethics. Short, numbered entries arranged in a tightly constructed logical order, using extreme condensation of expression in a style intended, in its rigor, to echo the precision of mathematical reasoning. Each deals with absolutely elemental concepts: substance, attribute, being, and logic, world, object. And each moves from a logical consideration of what — in the most elemental sense — there is, to a set of dicta regarding the relation of the individual to God and the world as a whole, linking logic with mysticism. Both Spinoza and Wittgenstein produce systems in which clarity of logical insight yields an apprehension of ultimate meaning, the sense of things of which mystics have spoken.

28Spinoza’s core thought is that there can be only one substance, an infinitude we call God, or Nature. Mind and body are not substantial categories, but attributes which the mind perceives as constituting the essence of substance. But they are not different orders of being. Spinoza must be taken at his word in remarks like this: “The idea of the body and the body itself, that is, the mind and body, are one and the same individual, which is now conceived under the attribute of thought, and now under the attribute of extension.” (Ethics, Pt. II, Prop. XXI, Note.) This remark is typical of a dominant thread in Spinoza, emphasizing the substantial identity of things perceived under the attribute of thought (as mind) and under the attribute of extension (as body); that is, emphasizing that they are the same thing, perceived under different essences. It is in this spirit that Spinoza can assert the identity of God and Nature. This is the burden of Prop. VII in Pt. II: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” He means not just that there are two isomorphic orders, but that there is only one ordering of things, perceived in one way as bodies and in another as ideas. It is with this in mind that we must approach his account of the formation of adequate and inadequate ideas, the activity and passivity of the mind, and their relation to the emotions and to happiness.

29The aim is to understand Spinoza’s idea of the intellectual love of God which makes it conceptually impossible to hope that God should love in return (Ethics, Pt. V, Prop. XIX), because it is, in fact, the very love with which God loves himself (Ethics, Pt. V, Prop. XXXVI). The route to this comprehension is through the doctrine of knowledge.

30Spinoza holds that there is no contingency in the nature of things, but that all things are determined and necessitated in their being (Ethics, Pt. I, Props. XXIX, XXXIII). Consequently, an adequate knowledge of things must consist in knowing them in their determination and necessity; that is, in relation to their causes. And as this sort of knowledge is an activity of reason (Ethics, Pt. II, Prop. XLIV, corollary), with regard to such knowledge the mind is active. The mind, then, is active in entertaining ideas of things in their necessary causal order (i. e., as eternal); that is, the mind is active in having adequate ideas. Inadequate ideas, on the other hand, are suffered by the mind. So the growth of knowledge in the acquisition of adequate ideas correlates with the growth of the mind’s rational activity. This correlation is important, among other reasons, in its relation to the origins of the emotions.

31An emotion, Spinoza says, is a modification of the body. If we are the cause, it is an action, and a source of joy. If another is the cause, it is a passion, and a source of suffering (Ethics, Pt. III, Prop. I). He passes immediately from this stipulation to this corollary: “Hence it follows that the mind is more or less subject to passions according as it has more or less inadequate ideas, and, on the other hand, to more action the more adequate ideas it has.” The route, then, from the unhappiness of suffering to the happiness of action is the progress from undergoing the passion of inadequate ideas to undertaking the activity of entertaining adequate ones, and since the having of adequate ideas is seeing them according to reason, that is to say, in their necessary and eternal causal order, it follows that the life of knowledge in reason is the happy life. Or to put it another way, happiness is seeing the world sub specie aeternitatis.

32The implication of this scheme emerges early in the Ethics. Already in Pt. II Spinoza writes:

33“The human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God, and thus when we say that the human mind perceives this or that, we say nothing else than that God, not in so far as he is infinite, but in so far as he is explained through the nature of the human mind, or in so far as he constitutes the essence of the human mind, has this or that idea.” The thought emerges again explicitly late in the text: “Our mind, in so far as it understands, is an eternal mode of thinking, which is determined by another eternal mode of thinking, and this one again by another, and so on to infinity: so that they all constitute at the same time the eternal and infinite intellect of God.” (Ethics Pt. V, Prop. XL, Note)

34To sum this up, Spinoza’s system, then, is one in which the individuated mind and the individuated body are substantially identical — the same thing — considered once under the aspect of ideas and once as among extended things. The whole order of things is substantially one, as God or as Nature. And the individual mind, growing in its understanding of the rational order of things, participates in the mind of God. If it could grow infinitely in knowledge, it would be that mind. Thus its love for God cannot be returned, for the love of God is not a different love: “The mental intellectual love towards God is the very love of God with which God loves himself [...] in so far as he can be expressed through the essence of the human mind considered under the species of eternity” (Ethics, Pt. V, Prop. XXXVI).

35The individuated human mind must come to a realization — with the growth of its action and happiness, its entertainment of adequate ideas and its apprehension of the world under the aspect of the eternal — of its identity with the mind of God. What’s the problem here?

IV. Importantly Wrong

36The likeness of this outcome to Wittgenstein’s is too striking to be coincidental. The explanation for the likeness is that both Wittgenstein and Spinoza attempt with exemplary rigor to work out a fully analyzed account of the relation of reason — the mind’s possession of adequate ideas, for Spinoza, and for Wittgenstein, the structure of propositions and their semantic relation — to the world. Both, in so doing, arrive at conclusions which identify the world, in the eternity and necessity of the logical relations of its constituents, with God, and the knowing self, in so far as it achieves adequate understanding, enters into this complex, making it a unified triad of world, self, and God. And for both Wittgenstein and Spinoza the unity of the triad is the fulfilment that resolves life’s problems.

37Spinoza, of course, evoked outrage from the orthodox of all stripes, being expelled from the Amsterdam synagogue with elaborate curses, despised by Catholic and Protestant alike, and suffering the most ironic of indignities — being excoriated as an atheist by David Hume. Wittgenstein evoked only puzzlement, perhaps most of all from the brisk, science-minded philosophers who had expected him to share their atheism and their general disdain for religious thought. But both drew the reactions they did because they articulated the traditional essence of mysticism: the ideas that all — call it world or God — is ultimately one, and that one’s self is somehow identical with that great unity.

38There is, of course, another problem with this mysticism. How can we understand the assertion of the identity of the individual with the world and with God. If the self is unified with God and the world, how is it that we begin with a perspective that is individuated and partial? Why is there unclarity about logical form? How is it possible that there are inadequate ideas? There must be some truth in individuation in order for error to be possible, in order for there to be such a thing as striving toward a realization of the truth. And once truth is articulated and gained, how it is that our perspective remains individuated and partial? How can the world, having waxed with meaning, wane again? How, having seen the world sub specie aeternitatis, can I remain plagued with partial knowledge? I believe that much of the tortuous detail work in Spinoza’s Ethics and in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is the attempt to weave continually back into the individuated perspective from a progression of thought that is headed out toward unity with God.

39That detail work is tortuous because the perspectives cannot be made to coincide. For the perspectives to coincide the individuated perspective would have to remain its individuation (and thus be one perspective among many, a part of the whole) while at the same time being the universal perspective itself. Leaving aside the problem of imagining what “the universal perspective” could possibly be, we can see that for the two to coincide would be this: that the big picture contains itself, in itself, as one part among many. In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein entertains the idea of a city that contains in a central square a map of itself. Suppose that this map contains a depiction of the square, and of the map itself, within which would have to be a depiction of the square and the map again, within which [...], and so on infinitely. What this shows is that under the rigor of fully explicit analysis, the idea of a whole containing itself as one of its parts yields a vicious infinite regress. That is to say, it is logically impossible. And that means that it is incoherent to suppose that a perspective can assume the viewpoint of God while retaining any semblance of individuation as an item within the world that is depicted. The standpoint cannot be attained because it is logically impossible.

40Furthermore, unavoidable facts of everyday life offer constant reminders that the philosopher views the world from a partial, individuated perspective. This problem is insuperable for anyone who attempts to live out the world-picture of either book, as Wittgenstein attempted with the Tractatus. Perhaps the most revealing comment on the unliveability of the Tractatus is Wittgenstein’s confession in a letter to Paul Engelmann: “I am in a state of mind that is terrible to me […] it is the state of not being able to get over a particular fact” (Engelmann, 33). If the self has vanished, and all particular facts are valueless, how could this predicament occur?

41Let me now try to state the problem more generally, and in so doing show that Spinoza and Wittgenstein are importantly wrong in the same way. There is a fundamental conceptual problem: it consists in the attempt to articulate a system in which the perspective from which the system is developed is an item in the system itself. The perspective of the system will be prone to the absurdities of self-reference. It must depict itself as an item within its own act of depiction: it must contain itself. Both Wittgenstein and Spinoza attempt to finesse this contradiction by inconsistently moving from one standpoint to the other and back again — that is, from the standpoint of the individuated human subject, body and all, to the standpoint of the transcendent, non-individuated subjectivity of God, while attempting — both of them — to reconcile the inconsistency by bringing both subjects into identity with the world itself.

42How does this show that they are importantly wrong? The inclination they manifest clearly — so clearly that it becomes actually possible to see how it is wrong — is the inclination to portray our apprehension of the world on the model of a subject who surveys it from no particular perspective — from everywhere and nowhere, a perspective which is not essentially related to a particular, embodied, culturally and historically conditioned human being. It is what Thomas Nagel has called “the view from nowhere”. And its corrective is the perspective of the later Wittgenstein, locating our rationality in the context of “the natural history of humanity,” not in the abstract thought of a lone subject yearning for union with the world and God.



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Hodges, Michael (1990): Transcendence and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Philadelphia 1990.

Janik, Allan / Toulmin, Stephen (1973): Wittgenstein’s Vienna. New York 1973.

McGuinness, Brian (1966): “The Mysticism of the Tractatus”, in: Philosophical Review, Vol. LXXV, 305-328.

Monk, Ray (1990): Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York 1990.

Moore, George Edward (1903): Principia Ethica, Cambridge 1903.

Russell, Bertrand (1914): “Mysticism and Logic”, in: The Hibbert Journal, Vol. 12 (July 1914), 780-803.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (1969): The World as Will and Representation, 2 Volumes, translated by E. F. J. Payne, New York 1969.

Wright, Georg Henrik von (1972): Biographical Sketch, in: Norman Malcolm: Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Memoir, New York 1972.


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