Was Ludwig Wittgenstein a Mystic?

Was Ludwig Wittgenstein a Mystic?

The philosopher's greatest work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, only makes sense in the light of mysticism

If you bring together two enigmas, do you get a bigger enigma, or do they cancel each other out, like multiplied negative numbers, to produce clarity? The latter, I hope, as I take on Wittgenstein and mysticism.

I've been puzzling over these topics since my philosophy salon met to discuss "The Mysticism of the Tractatus," written in 1966 by B.F. McGuinness. The salon consists of eight or so people, most with graduate degrees in philosophy, who gather in the salon-runner's living room to jaw over a paper. Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Bertrand Russell described as "the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived," published only one book during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. First issued in German in 1921, Tractatus is a cryptic meditation on what is knowable and unknowable.

"Mysticism" is often used as a derogatory term to describe obscure, fuzzy thinking, or woo. But in "The Mysticism of the Tractatus," McGuiness uses the term to refer to an extraordinary form of perception described by sages east and west. In Varieties of Religious Experience, still the best scholarly treatment of mysticism, William James notes that during a mystical experience you feel as though you are encountering absolute truth, the ground of being, God. These revelations are laden with spiritual significance and accompanied by intense emotions. You often feel a sense of blissful timelessness and oneness with everything (although the experience can also be hellish).

The knowledge imparted by the vision seems to transcend philosophy, science and reason itself. James calls mystical experiences ineffable, which means that they cannot be expressed in ordinary language. The author of the mystical ancient Chinese text Tao Te Ching expressed this idea when he wrote, "Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know." The author violates the rule in stating it.

The Tao Te Ching and other mystical tracts seethe with these sorts of Godelian, "this-sentence-is-false" paradoxes, and so does Tractatus. Wittgenstein writes, "Not how the world is the mystical, but that it is." He elaborates: "We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem." Even when the world has been thoroughly explained by science, Wittgenstein seems to be saying, it hasn't really been explained at all. The answer to the riddle of life is that there is no answer.

In his 1966 paper, McGuiness notes that in a "Lecture on Ethics" published after his death in 1951, Wittgenstein described personal experiences with mystical overtones. In one he felt "absolutely safe" and "in the hands of God." In another he was filled with astonishment at existence and saw "the world as a miracle."

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