Saturday 1 September 2001

Philosophical Poems as Caricatures of Thought (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 1 Spring 2001


By Chengde Chen  

I have changed my way of doing philosophy since the mid-nineties, from writing papers to writing philosophical poems, with the conviction that philosophy can be made more interesting and accessible. It is reality that the academic style of writing scares off many who would otherwise be interested in reading philosophy. Can literature help? (There are at least twenty times more people who read poetry than those who read philosophical papers.) The answer may be inferred from the fact that in the 20th Century there were two, but only two, philosophers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature - Russell and Sartre.

Understandably, writing philosophy in the form of poetry is unlikely to be recognised as either philosophy or poetry. However, whether this is something that can be done is not a matter that can be concluded by debating, but should be judged by the works that have been written - to see if they are philosophically valuable as well as poetically worthy.

The Editor of The Philosopher, has asked me to write an introduction to explain briefly how philosophical poems can have a place in philosophy as 'caricatures of thought'. Hegel once said 'architecture is frozen music'. How would this poetic expression be compared with a usual academic statement like 'architecture entails similar aesthetic features as art'? Is it like a concise caricature compared with a realistic painting, being more imaginative, more vigourous, more profound, and therefore, more accurate?

Beyond analysis

Philosophy, as intellectual inquiry, pursues the truths beyond common sense through rigourous logical analysis, appearing as an abstract reasoning process. Poetry, as a literary form, is used for describing feelings or stories, presented through images and imaginative language. It is generally held that the two cannot go together because poetic language does not have the logical rigour that is vital to philosophical inquiry, whilst the abstraction of reasoning will cost poetry its vividness.

Does this inevitably abstract nature of philosophy mean that images should therefore be excluded - or the opposite: that images are hence a more valuable supplement? The answer, I believe, is the latter.

Many philosophical theories are remembered through their vivid images. For Plato's theory of the truth of ideas, we remember the image of the 'cavemen' watching shadows on the wall, while for his theory of motivation and the reason/ will/ desire trinity we remember the image of a 'carriage' with two horses and a driver. From Zeno's Paradoxes, we recall how Achilles failed to catch up with the tortoise, as well as the 'flying arrow' being at rest; for the paradox of set-theory, we remember how Russell's 'barber' became puzzled; for Popper's falsificationism, we recall the one black swan contrasted with the many white ones; and finally, for Rawl's theory of justice, we remember how people in 'the original position' were covered by 'the veil of ignorance'.

And so on. The importance of an appropriate image to an abstract theory cannot be overestimated. Like images, imaginative language is also not only acceptable but indispensable to philosophical thinking. It is those well-refined and imaginative expressions that are most memorable in philosophy, such as Pythagoras 'All things are numbers', Protagoras 'Man is the measure of all things', Descartes 'I think, therefore I am', Kant's 'Man is an end', and Nietzsche's 'God is dead'. Do such powerful expressions give the impression that philosophers should also be poets?

If poetic language is not an enemy but an ally of philosophy, can poetry be used for writing philosophy? Poetry is a powerful literary form that can do many things, from expressing love, declaring war, to advertising toothpaste (some say that the best of modern poetry is in advertisement, and this is not entirely a joke). The tradition that poetry does not engage in reasoning is based on the understanding that logical rigour and poetic vividness are undermining each other. But, does poetry have to be image after image, all the time, so as to exclude reasoning? There is no such a literary rule, and what is required is that the reasoning involved should be so interesting that it can be appreciated poetically. In fact, the shared interest of pursuing profoundness does provide the potential for poetry to marry philosophical reasoning, so as to make poetry deeper and philosophy more lively.

There were philosophers who wrote philosophy through poetry successfully. Xenophanes and Parmenides were two famous ones in ancient philosophy, and the latter's On Nature is a very serious philosophical inquiry written as a long poem. So Aristotle, the man who started the scholastic style of writing philosophy, reckons that 'poetry is more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history', because 'poetry is concerned with universal truths' (Poetics).

In the modern age, if Goethe was counted as a great poet with philosophical thinking, then Nietzsche was a great 'poet-philosopher' - his poems form an important part of his main contribution Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the 20th Century, T. S. Eliot, as a philosophical poet (who was a student of Russell), discussed metaphysics through his very imaginative poems (The Four Quartets). As for why imagination can help in understanding the world, Sartre explained that imagination is an alternative mode of consciousness, and is addressed to the same objects as perceptual consciousness but to these objects 'as they are not' (L'Imaginaire). Architecture is indeed not music, but the imaginative expression 'frozen music' does tell us a lot about it. This 'unreal perception' is more profound than many real ones, because it is revealed through an 'inner link' , which so-called philosophy is about.

My experience of writing philosophical poems has made me believe that poetry can deliver philosophical ideas and make them more powerful. Compared with a philosophical paper, a philosophical poem is simpler, but more striking, somehow like 'a caricature of thought'. A caricature seems not as lifelike as a realistic painting, but it is its simplification and exaggeration that highlights features, and so guides viewers to appreciate the essence more 'accurately'. Here are few examples to illustrate such efforts:

´ To argue that religion is a man-made institution: 'We like to be praised so we praise God. We like big houses so we build churches. What runs through God's veins, is the blood of human beings'.
´ To explain the market and technology through human nature: 'Human beings are intelligent, human beings are competitive. The intelligence of competition is the market, the competition of intelligence is technology'. 
´ To reveal psychological similarities between love and religion: 'Love needs longing, just as a deity must be distant. Marriage deletes space, just as there is no religion in Heaven'. 
´ To state the precision of thoughts: 'Writing can be precise because thoughts can be. When reaching the level of no explanation, it is the water that can't be washed by water'.
Why should such writing be taken as philosophy?

Firstly, the issues are philosophical, in the sense that some hidden conceptual links which are generally significant can be revealed through reasoning. If a poem has achieved this, it has accomplished a task of philosophical inquiry.

Secondly, the tension between logic and literary needs requires that logic comes first. It may sacrifice certain literary attraction to maintain logical clarity and consistency (including using the means of definition, proposition, and inference), but never sacrifices logic for literary gains, nor takes advantage of language ambiguity to achieve false reason.

Thirdly, although reasoning in poetry may not be as rigourous as in philosophical papers, sensible use of poetic language can make it logically sufficient for delivering philosophical ideas. Logical precision is something acceptable within a range, just as most philosophical writings are not as rigourous as those written in formal language, as some logical formalists insist.

Finally, I would add that because it is philosophy, it makes poetry. When a poem is arguing philosophy, its literary loss, caused by abstraction, is compensated by the beauty of reason: the forcefulness of logic and the attraction of exploration. With the help of powerful images, metaphors, associations, humour, antithesis, and other rhetorical or structural means of poetry, a reasoning process can be presented beautifully as well as powerfully. But this is hardly a mission for those who lack imagination.

There can be many kinds of philosophical poems, from long pieces of serious investigations on big themes to short pieces of enlightening discussions. One of the advantages of short or medium pieces is that they can be welcomed not only by journals, but also at poetry readings, as I have experienced at various such events. This is most encouraging, because communicability is part of the philosophical process.

To the poems... 

Address for correspondence: 


In recent years, Chengde Chen's works have been accepted by publications in both philosophical and poetic fields, including: Five Themes of Today (Open Gate Press, London).

Caricatures of Thought (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 2 Autumn 2001

Philosophical Poems as ‘Caricatures of Thought’
by Chengde Chen

On High-heels and Foot-binding
  The heel of a high-heel shoe is the binding of foot-binding 
It has been the same road under different feet 
The footsteps of the hundred year women's movement 
is merely an aesthetic change from the Chinese to the Western - 
turning a compelled two dimensional restriction 
into a freely chosen three dimensional bending 
The social status is raised for a shoe-heel 
while the price is walking on tiptoes for life 
Oh, the ever-suffering feet, no matter how innocent you are 
the definition of 'feminine beauty' is to deform you 
Because this is the base enabling men to stand firmly 

On Love and Religion
  When I am in love 
it is like worshipping 
Longing is the temple 
Kissing is Heaven and Earth 
When I am worshipping 
it is like being in love 
Praying is sweet whispering 
Enlightening is the climax of the soul 
Being in love is deifying the object 
beautifying, privileging, and immortalising 
Man and deity attract as opposite sexes 
Life is ruthless medium for both 
Love needs longing 
just as a deity must be distant 
Marriage deletes the space 
just as there is no religion in Heaven 
A deity is an eternal lover 
A lover is a temporary deity 
So, some who have failed in love 
turn to religion, which is nearby 
Love plants seeds 
The deity becomes seeds himself 
The soul is conceived 
What follows nine-months pregnancy is faith 

How to Prove 'Doctors are Lower than Prostitutes'
If we agree on two seemingly reasonable assumptions 
we can prove the morality of doctors is lower than that of prostitutes 
The first assumption is: 
in a fully commercialised society everything is a commodity 
so all professions are businesses for making money 
The second assumption is: 
making money from agony and from pleasure are different - 
the higher the degree of compulsion, the lower the morality 
Then, it follows that a doctors morality is lower than a prostitute's 
Because when a doctor says "no money, no treatment" 
he is blackmailing a person in crisis 
While when a prostitute says "no money, no sex" 
she is merely trading goods for goods 
So, a man in a white coat is not necessarily an angel 
and a tall hospital can be lower than a brothel 
Is this strange? 
But this is the new ethics of a fully commercialised society 


On Boxing
  The madness of the thousands around the boxing ring 
is civilisation's sincere appreciation for barbarity 
Hit him! Hit him! Hit him again! 
Let the skull be smashed by the heaviest blow 
so that the plasma bursts out at body temperature 
If the ancient fight between gladiators and lions 
had some solemn heroism of competing against nature 
then men destroying each other in modern boxing 
is only a business of turning blood reeking into profit 
But the spectators then and now belong to the same civilisation 
- enjoying others expressing your own brutish nature! 
Roars delivered by language are still roars 
Barbarity transmitted by television is still barbarity 
Cruelty with regulations is still cruelty 
except that it can be more cruel! 
When a sport is destroying 
the competition is war 
All those condemnations of violence and sympathy for the injured 
including the noble talk of the Red Cross and RSPCA 
are merely putting on an act 
The seething excitement over the boxing ring has declared loudly: 
civilisation is a false appearance, as we are still what we were!

Aphorisms in Lyric (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 2 Autumn 2001

St. Matthew Writing from a Medieval Book of Hours (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A Christian Sense in Philosophy   

By Zura Shiolashvili  

Aphorisms can be seen as an art: making the best connection between existing knowledge so as to reveal some truth through the shortest expression. There seem to be two conditions for achieving this: first, the aphorism must be both profound in the thought that it expresses (not just a commonplace or triviality) and the language used must be strong yet terse. If all of these are achieved, the aphorism can be both enlightening and memorable.

Very few philosophers have tried to use this approach in their philosophy, although it was certainly there in the Ancient tradition of the Chinese sages, as well as in the writings of Parmenides and other Ancients. More recently, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein seemed to write almost in aphorisms. Here Zura Shiolashvili sets out to prove the case.

A word is like a brush that paints a picture, and its creator tries to breathe heart and a soul into it, whilst simultaneously expressing the sounds of nature, philosophy, music... An aphorism is seen then as a merging of art and philosophy - the separation of which, one from the other would leave just small pieces, devaluing that eloquent picture intended to guide us towards the truth.

Or an aphorism can be characterised as being like a valuable stone. The purer a stone is, the more precious. The same too, with the thought. But thoughts from the top of the true art have to captivate us not only with the beauty of their summits - but with the depth of their precipices as well. And these are precipices that should be filled with love - for the more saintly the basis of thought is, then the more brilliance its fruit will display, and it is the brilliance of the colours of this very fruit that represent philosophy. The fruit is its wisdom, the sainthood, its truth.

The free body with its instinct is the same beast that fights for existence. As the equilibrium of life is in pleasure, the beast is excited towards a pleasure by that bestial part which is within it. For the gained freedom is the loveliness of its passion, in this loveliness it gratifies the whim and finds its equilibrium.

It is difficult to be heartless by bewitching senses and allowing their jollification in the vivifying world. To go deeper - is it worth sacrificing ourselves for the pleasure of such attractiveness if it betrays the genuine essence - betrays the beauty? And when the glamour of body subjugates us, displacing that love which embodies our second source of cognition, our conversion into mere animals is happening.

To be insatiable with brutish passion is to be similar to the swine. Yet, in spite of that, the symbol of the swine's freedom is dirt . . . life is pleasant even for the swine. In the end, to close the book, we can give to all colourations of these views another face with the same meaning. If we tie together these points in one bunch of ideas, and then model a little sculpture from them, like a sample of art, indeed this should not be named prose, poem or wisdom, but merely the sculpture that it is. But its philosophical idea will be common for all of them . . .

Embroidery of each word with the thread of truth provides us not only with a supply of meaning to mediate on, but physically impacts on our feelings, making us more humane. In the emptiness of consciousness with the image of thoughts, it sparks such a beauty that before it the whole brightness of materialism is seen to be worthless.

Answers to questions connected with the spirit and its values too often leave a distinct emptiness in the heart, and the reason for this emptiness is the superficiality of these answers. Imperfect, they are unable to exist long. In this way aphorisms claim to be to be the beautiful answer for the replenishment of this emptiness.

One of the main functions of the frame by which they are styled is the personification of the punctually exact thought. On the one hand, as the complicated solution of an equation, which always gives our consciousness a possibility to breathe out, on the other, this solution reveals a grain of the new thought that is by now philosophy in itself. The content of wisdom could be called a key to a science of the soul, the science through which we shall create and conceptualise ourselves. For if we cannot conceive ourselves like this, what are we? Where are we from?

Scientific research about the universe is unconsummated - a frame made for the picture and not vice versa. The limit that divides and connects the soul and material world is that miracle we call God - and for believers the belief in this miracle will lead to a solution to the equation - to the questions science and philosophy generate.

One of the main reasons for matter's formation is in the emptiness in which it is yielded up, and without which it could not exist. So, it is that with the blend of the matter and emptiness, existence springs up this is where the thought builds its nest. If we recognise that this world embodies the little fruit of cosmic energy in which the thought exists, how much more real is the existence of such an element? And then the Questions: What is thought? From where has it been originated? Through what kind of nature do human minds mediate ?

Philosophy is unimaginable without wisdom, or is it that wisdom could not be without philosophy? The essence of both is truth, and their indivisible connections may be the only true art - so without this art both wisdom and philosophy are unimaginable. With it, their harmony is like the perfume of that fascinating garden which makes us drunk with the hope of eternity. And to be fully sober in such a garden is not only the negation of their beauty, but a kind of blindness too.

True words always charm and stay invariable. Through their thoughts we go somewhere far away, and not only to this extent. And the beauty of that perception which only human nature can neither imagine nor create nor conceptualise...

To the aphorisms...

Address for crrespondence

Zura Shiolashvili, email:

For publication of my writings my special thanks to:

The editorial board of The Philosopher;

Martin Cohen through whose efforts many versions for this publication have been done;
the online magazine New York Review
and Janice Curran-Koppell;
to Dawn A. Phillips,
S. Rebecca Bamford,
Simon P. James,

– at Philosophical Writings.

The Aphorisms (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 2 Autumn 2001

Aphorisms in Lyric
- A Christian Sense in Philosophy

by Zura Shiolashvili

1. Music is not just that which you listen to - it is also that which you see.

2. You search and cannot find, you eat and cannot be sated - this is to live in gloom!

3. A beast does not suffer bestiality but the human has to.

4. Everyone will receive the sacrament with death, just a handful, with life.

5. It is thought that beautifies a human being.

6. Through the thought, a part of matter and emptiness is personified it is the thought in itself, there is left neither the matter nor the emptiness.

7. The mystery of life's composition is in the unit of the fleeting moment. Its whole essence is in prolongation of this moment.

8. The greater the height you conquer, the lower you stand. Just because of this modesty, the blind trample you.

9. Life kills harder than death.

10. The future is the yoke for those who can not see.

11. When asses are in council, a pooch is howling all the time.

12. The beasts have their leader as well, but through that barbaric choice that is called brutality, and its essence is fear. (Is it not more dreadful to be a beast?)

13. You stand on the peak, the bottom of precipice moves your soul even there - this is the emptiness.

14. Who opens an eye, it burns the hardest of all.

15. Sometimes the heart treasure turned into a stone, holds dear much more, than the days it had been the treasure.

16. A cock who looks down on hens pecks just as a hens do! If you cannot bow, don't dream about height.

17. The value of hope is equal to immortality.

18. To be abandoned does not mean, as yet, that you are forgotten.

19. Buried and unconquerable is the one who fights in loneliness.

20. Thousands lament over you - this love is great, you lament over thousands - this love is greater.

21. A body is the fruit of the ground - the word is the fruit of heaven.

22. Science is the body of thought, philosophy is the spirit of thought.

Back to main article

Sunday 15 April 2001

Wittgenstein Tolstoy and the The Gospel in Brief (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX No. 1 Spring 2001


and the
By Bill Schardt and David Large

There are some striking parallels between Wittgenstein's life and that of Tolstoy. Both were born into extremely rich families, yet both subsequently gave their property away, and tried to live simple and humble lives. Both valued manual labour as something spiritually uplifting. Both underwent some sort of religious conversion to a form of Christianity. Yet neither, despite their evident high-mindedness, seems to have treated other people particularly well!

And Tolstoy's religious writings, such as the
Gospel in Brief and A Confession, clearly had an enormous influence on Wittgenstein especially at the time he was writing the Tractatus. Strange then that so few commentators have even acknowledged, let alone attempted to account for, Tolstoy's influence on Wittgenstein's philosophy. It is therefore especially worth considering the extent to which the Gospel in Brief specifically influenced the outlook of the Tractatus. Indeed, as his friend and correspondent, Paul Engelmann put it, out of all Tolstoy's writings Wittgenstein had an especially high regard for the Gospel in Brief. Yet it often appears to be simply assumed that the Gospel in Brief had a profound effect on Wittgenstein. Why this might be so is never clearly explained. That the book does not seem to be readily available or very well known in the English-speaking world may partly explain why its influence on Wittgenstein may have been neglected. But in this article we attempt to explain the impact of the Gospel in Brief upon Wittgenstein's philosophy (especially the later passages of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), and his general view of ethics.

Although the Gospel in Brief was not published in Tolstoy's lifetime, it clearly comes from the period of his religious and moral writings between 1879 and 1902. It is a fusion of the four Gospels, the purpose of which is to seek an answer to the problem of how we should live. It is both philosophical and practical, rather than theological and spiritual, in its intention. Tolstoy believed that the existence of God could neither be proved nor disproved and that the meaning of life lay beyond the limits of our minds. (And compare this with Wittgenstein's conception of absolute or ethical value as expressed in his 1929/30 ‘Lecture on Ethics’ (Philosophical Review, 1965.) Tolstoy further believed that the Church itself, as a body, interfered with one's ability to live a peaceful, everyday life, free from significant pain and suffering. This too can only have appealed to a restless soul such as Wittgenstein.

The Only Book in the Shop 

How Wittgenstein came by his copy of the Gospel in Brief, and the importance he came to attach to it, is almost a parable in itself. At the time in question Wittgenstein was serving with the Austrian army at the start of the First World War. These circumstances were very different from those of Edwardian England let alone the blissful solitude of a Norwegian fjord. Wittgenstein discovered a small bookshop in Tarnow, a town then under Austrian rule but now in southern Poland. It is said that the shop had only one book (Tolstoy's) and that Wittgenstein bought the book because it was the only one they had. Some have suggested that he saw this as a sign, though we shall leave that supposition there. In any case, he started reading the Gospel in Brief on September 1st 1914 and subsequently carried it with him at all times, memorising passages of it by heart. He became known to his comrades as the man with the gospels, constantly recommending the book to anyone who was troubled. Wittgenstein himself said that the book essentially kept him alive.

It seems fairly sure that at this time Wittgenstein underwent some kind of religious conversion, though not in the conventional sense. The Russellian logicist emerged as a man with strong spiritual if not actually ascetic leanings. It is less certain, however, that this experience changed the way he treated ethics in the Tractatus. It is rather that reading the Gospel in Brief led Wittgenstein to add a new element to the Tractatusand indeed to his already formed conception of ethics. That additional element is usually referred to as the mystical. Wittgenstein would still have, we would argue, dealt with the subject of ethics, as transcendental, by passing over it in silence. Furthermore, Wittgenstein had already been influenced by Schopenhauer, especially his conception of the will, and that while his sense of the transcendental or other-worldly may have been deepened by the influence of Tolstoy's work, it was not originated by it.

The Gospel According to Tolstoy 

By 1879 Tolstoy, then aged 51, had become very depressed, and in order to find a solution to his problems he studied Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in some depth. He came to believe that he had found the answer to his problem, that is, the problem of how we should live, in the teachings of Jesus, but that these had to be sifted out from the accumulated dogma of the churches. To this end he formed, from all four gospels, a single account of the life and teachings of Jesus. In the Gospel in Brief (which is extracted from a larger work) Tolstoy omitted the accounts of Christ's birth and genealogy, the miracles, and the resurrection. He also left out most of the material about John the Baptist. He removed all the supernatural events and everything he found difficult to believe or which he regarded as irrelevant. His concern was how we should live and how Jesus' life could help explain that to us. He thus omitted all the key points that make Jesus necessarily different from us, in other words, all that requires faith in the divinity of Jesus. In short, Tolstoy portrays for us Christ 'without the Christianity'.

What remains is supposed to be the pure teachings of Jesus, or as much as can be recovered or reconstructed after so many centuries. It is true that most of the account is very familiar to anyone who has read the gospels in the Bible. It is, however, evident that Tolstoy, as well as removing material from the accounts, went so far as to add a certain amount. This is, presumably, an attempt to insert material that he believed should have been there; material that was perhaps omitted by oversight or even excised at a later date. Tolstoy must have felt that he had come to understand the character of Jesus well enough to know what he must have taught, even when it is not explicitly recorded. This would be as a consequence of his understanding Jesus' answer to the question of how we should live. The additions are done very elegantly, so that it is hard to tell where Jesus ends and Tolstoy begins. The effect on the reader is to exaggerate the ascetic aspects of Jesus teachings so that the balance is shifted from the theological to the philosophical. Explicitly in his introduction and implicitly in the text Tolstoy is very critical of organised religion and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular. Indeed, in 1901 he was excommunicated for his unorthodox views and activities.

Tolstoy says that he discovered to his astonishment that the whole of Jesus' teaching is summed up in the Lord's Prayer, (which is conventional Christianity) and each of the twelve chapters takes its title from a phrase of the prayer. In the chapter entitled 'Thy Kingdom Come', Tolstoy attributes five commandments to Jesus. Not all of these are stated as such in the Bible, and not all of them are implicit in the original text. Tolstoy's commandments are: 
i. Do not be angry, but be at peace with all men. 
ii. Do not seek delight in sexual gratification. 
iii. Do not swear anything to anyone. 
iv. Do not oppose evil, do not judge, and do not go to law. 
v. Do not make any distinction among men as to nationality, and love strangers like your own people. 
Tolstoy came to believe that complete sexual abstinence too should be practised. Most Christians would regard this as rather extreme. (It does however concur with several reports of Wittgenstein's life.) The third of these commandments, against the swearing of oaths (for example in court) is, although ignored by most churches, clearly stated in the Bible. The Quakers, however, do take the same view on oaths as Tolstoy's Jesus. Another parallel occurs where Jesus says do not oppose evil. Both Tolstoy and the Quakers take this to mean 'do not use evil means to oppose evil' and this view leads them to adopt pacifist views.

Wittgenstein and the Nature of Ethics 

Readers of the Tractatus will not find any moral injunctions of the sort present in the Gospel in Brief there. In considering the possibility of an ethical law Wittgenstein says:
When an ethical law of the form, 'Thou shalt ... [do such and such]', is laid down, one's first thought is, 'And what if I do not do it?'. - Tractatus 6.422 
He goes on to say that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the usual sense, but asserts that there must be some kind of ethical reward and punishment lying in the action itself. There is then a paradox. While Wittgenstein asserts that nothing can be said about ethics, the Gospel in Brief says a great deal about how life should be lived, and, furthermore, what it says seems to have had a powerful influence on Wittgenstein. The solution to this problem lies in the distinction between saying and showing, as expressed in the Tractatus; because although there are no ethical propositions - the Gospel cannot say anything about how we should live - yet Wittgenstein must have believed that it did show the way to live.

The statement 'It is wrong to kill' can be said, in the minimalist sense that it can be spoken, but in 'Tractarian' terms it cannot be said in the sense that it expresses a particular moral imperative. People say things like this all the time, and other people understand them. It is, however, possible that someone may disagree with this statement, and there is ultimately no way of resolving the dispute by reference to states of affairs or facts about the world. This is because the statement does not express a fact, and this is what is meant when Wittgenstein asserts that ethics cannot be put into words. If I say it is wrong to kill, do I, thereby, show that it is wrong to kill? In some cases I do and, in some cases I do not. There is no way of proving that it is wrong.

Such remarks as: 'I am my world' (Tractatus 5.63), and 'For what the solipsist means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest' (Tractatus 5.62), provide a key to Wittgenstein's view. In these he directs us to the actual experience of living. The person whose moral outlook, i.e. their way of living, is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief has not been convinced by logical arguments or matters of fact. They have, rather, been shown, the way that they should live.

We must, however, be aware that the Tractatus appears to disagree with itself. The philosopher Caleb Thompson takes other remarks in the the work as implying that coming to see meaning in life is just a matter of living.

Wittgenstein says: 
We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer. (Tractatus 6.52)
 and then:
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Tractatus 6.521 
For Wittgenstein, someone who realises that there cannot be scientific answers to the problems of life will then find that these problems vanish. But can he really mean that? Surely it was not as easy as that for Wittgenstein himself and cannot be as easy as that for anyone else.

When understood in the light of the Gospel in Briefthis interpretation presents only part of what Wittgenstein was saying: the person looking for the meaning of life will stop looking to science as they will appreciate that they are looking in the wrong place! As the answers are not ones science is able to give, they cannot, in Tractarian terms, be said. It is in this sense only that they may be said to have vanished.

Wittgenstein is also committed to a notion of the ethical in which ethical notions are expressed, and in which we may receive responses to our wonderings about the problems of life. This notion of the ethical is the same as that displayed by Tolstoy through the figure of Christ in the Gospel in Brief. To disregard this work's influence is to miss this further point, vital to the understanding of Wittgenstein's thinking about ethics. The very same notion indeed recurs some ten years later in his notebooks and in the 'Lecture on Ethics'.

For the ethical teaching of the Gospel in Brief had a profound effect on Wittgenstein. He felt deeply that what it showed (if not said) was right. Here indeed was the answer to the question of how we should live. An effect such as this is personal; the book need not change the life of everyone who reads it. Perhaps Wittgenstein is the only person to have been affected by it in this way. In any case, an argument with someone who was unmoved by the book could not come to any conclusion over its efficacy. The ethical import of the book is not a question of what the book says. If this is correct, it takes us some way towards a developed understanding of the distinction between saying and showing.

The Impossibility of Ethical Facts

The Tractatus opens with the statement that 'The world is everything that is the case'. This is immediately followed by the comment that 'The world is the totality of facts, not of things'. Wittgenstein is referring to the philosophical use of the word 'fact' whereupon a fact is to be thought of as the worldly correlate of a true proposition. A proposition, in turn is a 'truth functional' item, i.e. it must be either true or false. At the time he wrote the Tractatus Wittgenstein believed that the world could be completely described by a finite number of such true propositions. This implies that that which cannot be described by the propositions is not in the world. Hence at Tractatus 6.41, Wittgenstein states that the sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, no value exists, for if it did it would have no value.

The above argument means that there cannot be ethical facts because the rightness or wrongness of an action cannot be determined by any examination of the world. Hence the truth or falsity of a statement such as 'it is wrong to murder people ', cannot be determined in this way. Ethical or moral statements are not propositions; they are not truth functional in the way that real propositions must be. As ethics is not propositional it cannot, therefore, be put into words. It is, instead, transcendental (Tractatus 6.421), and as such must be passed over in silence (Tractatus 7). Propositions can express nothing that is higher than themselves, i.e. nothing beyond states of affairs of the world (whether true or false), and so there can be no propositions of ethics.

In his 1929/30 'Lecture on Ethics', Wittgenstein used the metaphor that if a man could write a book on ethics that really was a book on ethics, this book would with an explosion destroy all the other books in the world. In a more restrained mood, we may say that a book that showed, in a logically rigorous fashion, that from any particular state of affairs in the world it followed that there was a particular right course of action that must be followed by a moral individual, would make physical, if not material, that which could only previously have been conceived of as transcendental. For it to be possible to write such a book, there would have to be propositions in ethics.

This does not mean that Wittgenstein regarded ethics as unimportant. On the contrary, almost all the really important things, things of value, cannot be said, though Wittgenstein intimates that at least some of them may be shown. In his preface to the Tractatus he suggests that when he has achieved his aim of saying what can be said at all, very little will have been achieved.

Because of his philosophy, Wittgenstein could not put the ethical position expressed in the Gospel in Brief into the Tractatus as propositions, let alone statements of fact. The thoughts contained therein when stated as putative facts could not have been true. He did, however, do the only thing he could do and showed how the ethical position of the Gospel in Brief was possible. In so doing he allowed us to have an answer to the question of how we should live our lives. As he wrote later:
What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics.
- Wittgenstein, Notebook, 1929.

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Saturday 7 April 2001

Possible Worlds (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX No.1 Spring 2001

Stars coming into existence in a nebula


By Stuart Cooper

One cause always begs another cause. This is true whether the cause is supernatural or natural. A question similar to 'if God created the world who created God?' could be asked of a natural origin to existence. Except if the world is wholly natural its cause must lie within it rather than outside it. Anything outside the natural realm must be defined as supernatural. So an entirely natural world could not have been formed from nothing by anything but itself.

However, self-propulsion from nothing is hardly plausible. It is plausible, though, for existence to form a natural contrast, a contrast not from but with nothing. In so doing it looks only to itself and its counterpart, not to anything beyond. It is this that breaks the sequence of cause and effect. No question is begged. Existence and nothingness - 'non-existence' - give and take meaning from each other. Neither can be defined without the other. They are bound together in an inescapable relationship. In support of this is the fact that we have a concept of nothingness. If it had never occurred to us that instead of what exists there might have been nothing, then undoubtedly existence would have been of a different kind from what it is. But the concept has occurred to us and that in itself points to an association between being and non-being.

Yet it is often said that there might have been simply nothing. The statement suggests that existence and nothing are not inseparable. Existence might be dependent on nothing, but nothing is independent of existence. What, though, if there had been simply nothing? Of the impossibility of anything existing? It means there must be two kinds of nothingness: one that does not allow the possibility of something existing and one that does - from which our world gained its actuality.

It might be thought that there is little to be gained by conjecturing two types of nothingness, but it is a way of questioning the nature of possibility. Is it all pervasive or can there be a condition without possibility? If the latter is the case, it implies that where possibility does obtain it has been made to do so, in some way. Is there anything to say about the progenitor of the notion of possibility? There is one thing. And this is that a characteristic it cannot possess is possibility. A conceiver of the notion cannot be dependent of it and, at the same time, responsible for it. Something which generates the notion of possibility, is not itself a possibility. And can a notion that is not made be un-made? More likely, it has a buoyancy that cannot be suppressed. Consequently a nothingness that excludes the possibility of something existing, is not feasible.

In the same way if we conjecture a state of existence which disallows the possibility of there being nothing, we create an identical situation but in reverse. Possibility's buoyancy prevents it from being discounted from any condition. Existence without the possibility of nothing is no more feasible than nothing without the possibility of existence. We are left with just two possibilities and brought back to the natural contrast discussed earlier. Effectively this is a contrast between two alternative possibilities. One: for there to be existence in some shape or form; and two: for there to be nothing. In seeing that we are seeing what cannot be otherwise. Which, of course, is not the case with a supernatural creator who might or might not exist. Nor is it the only thing we are seeing. We are seeing too the world of our experience.

Not surprisingly, for something founded on a contrast it has contrast ingrained into its fabric: light and dark, wet and dry, soft and hard, good and bad, happy and sad. But there is one contrast that stands out above the rest: life and death. Everything that lives, plant or animal, also dies. The universe itself, if we listen to the cosmologists, had a birth in the Big Bang, and will eventually die, even if the manner of its death is not as certain as that of its birth.

It appears to us as though the rival possibilities of existence or nothingness have been resolved in favour of the former. But it might be a deceptive appearance. Death accompanying life enables one possibility to be poised against the other without either ever being the one that obtains. It is as though the world asks the question we have always imagined God must have asked: creation or nothing, which should it be? Only the world is the question's manifestation, not its answer. Things existing do not cancel out nothingness. Our world is not one possibility, existence, and nothingness the other. The world incorporates both. It might be described as an instrument that examines the two possibilities.

For this examination conscious thought is required, but conscious thought is not required to conceive what is being examined: the ineluctable contrast between there being something and there being nothing. A phenomenon embodying that contrast will unfold by way of an evolutionary process, much akin to the biological evolution we observe on our planet. Emerging from the process will be the mental and emotional life - fettered, of course, to death - capable of apprehending and contemplating the irreducible nature of something juxtaposed with nothing, life that can absorb and come to terms with what it means for there to be a symbiosis between things existing and nothing existing. In such a world we see ourselves differently. Instead of being a feature of creation, each one of us is an instance of the very thing that creation is founded on. There is existence or there is nothing. In our lives we are the exponents of the former: in our deaths of the other.

So there is no escaping mortality; immortality breaches a truly natural world. But in our mortal lives we can ask this question: in what form would the contrast with nothing be worthwhile despite the fact that by its nature it cannot endure? Then we can try to shape existence in the way that we answer the question. Obviously we cannot change the physical structure of the universe, or only in a very limited way, but we can map out the landscape of thoughts and feelings which that physical structure sustains. It is what we have done throughout our history, in fact, even if we have not had quite the purpose in mind that is a part of this world-view.

Nothing comes from nothing. Taken at face value this statement, whether or not it is seen as such, is a paradoxical one. Did something not have to come from nothing for the statement to be made? But in the view presented here making the statement does not undermine its meaning because the point is never reached where something coming from nothing is an issue. Existence and nothing are complementary possibilities. Existence accommodates the idea that it is not the only possibility, nothingness is the other. The world encapsulates the idea, makes it tangible.

However this may be, the fact remains that the experience of living in the world has not attuned our minds to thinking of it in this way. Perhaps one beginning does beg another, but the phrase 'In the beginning ... ' still has a powerful resonance. It suggests there was a point where existence and nothing were at issue, and in what has followed the nothingness there might have been is not the actuality. Against this it can be argued that how things look is not necessarily how things are. The sun looks as though it goes round the earth. Perhaps existence and nothing have not been seen for what they are: two possibilities, the only possibilities, each one incomplete on its own. Possibilities so basic, so elemental, as to be impervious to any determination that there should be the one rather than the other. If this is so, then what else but that the world is the means by which they are expressed - and life and death are the means by which they are experienced?

Friday 6 April 2001

Time On Our Hands (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX No.1 Spring 2001


By Andrew Porter

Questions about time tend to create the embryos of their own answers. Is time's rate relative until universalized? Will the present always be subject to the past as the future is to the present? Things move in a direction, so does time? Is time a formation of intuition, as Kant believed, or an idealization of existing relations between things, as Leibniz defined it? How could absolute time 'flow,' as Newton said, without relation to any moving thing or any motion whatsoever?

Today I was holding a pencil that had been given to me, which had a plastic hourglass sand-timer on the end in place of an eraser. The little vessel was only an inch high, with bright red micro-sand in it, which only took about seven seconds to run from whichever was the uppermost compartment to the lower one. On the side of the pencil was printed: 'Times Up'. I turned the hourglass pencil over in my hand as I talked on the phone, unconscious of the lapse of time or that it was the exceedingly narrow waist that made its measure.

The tiny grains whidded from one end to the other by gravity's rule-but then, unexpectedly, little red grains started coming out of the 'glass,' out the bottom, and I saw its constitution was broken. Out of the blue the red left its seat, depending on how I turned it. If I tilted the hourglass away from the break it would approximate its time-run back through the scant neck, but the grains made a concerted effort to spill out.

Time as there measured had lost its structure and the red dust on my desk marked a different moment-or no present, rather, that was fathomable. Time is more estimable than this, I thought, and dropped the thing in the wastebasket. The hourglass symbolized for me the dependency of time, or at least of its calculation. Without a sound and reliable structure it spills out, unpredictable even to itself, and wholly unappreciable to us. And without turning it over, as we might do with eggs, it doesn't have a chance to mark its significance, to pour as it is supposed to. Its structure, concretely manifest, is important-it was not made to drain out while we are or are not looking.

Thus we should give sufficient weight and respect to the present instant. As we have it to work with, we can honor its intimacy with eternity, as well as that larger sphere's intimacy with it. If we think about it, there is something short and long about the present instant. We seem most in possession of it, not when we forget about or annul the past and future, but when we bring them full, like baskets of fruit, to the table, without our attention being on them.

But the lines are wavy and particle-like-blurred, if you like. The present is always packed with the clarity of something that is not a nanosecond long. We imagine correctly that an entire life could be the present instant. Yet the flash of the present instant separates it from everything else; it is experienced as a Now, shoving it off from the bulk that went before it. The past is a hulk, which does not have the photon electricity of the present instant. The present says of the past, 'Kick it back, now the fiery fuse sends itself away from that block!' In a small or large space, we cannot get away from the impression that there is something short and long about the present instant.

How long can the liveness of the present be? It is the instantaneously inclusive nature of the Now that pulls us up short and seems like a revelation, but such a quality really means 'timeless,' and has the flexibility to be short or long. The present is quick, quicker even than time. It can jump over time, come up behind it, run circles around it, and play with it head on. The instant that we think the present is short, we fall into a situation that makes it so.

Is that old and new thing called the present built on the coral reef of the past, or does the present just happen to leave its trail that shows the previous living motion? However broad you want to make the present, it does follow on the heels of itself in a sense, not on the heels of a past as solidified. Hardened lava is not hot magma. The present develops, grows, and burgeons out of itself, leaving behind, as far as being is concerned, nothing at all. And yet something is built; there is a progression. The front of the flash flood roars down the dry riverbed, but the absolute newness and difference of the water, like the present, has its roaring impetus from like waters, not from 'the past.'

All relations and interdependencies of being establish relations and interdependencies of time. The star we see now is connected continuously with the star then, when the light we receive was sent, and though the light sent now does not touch us, the energy between the near and distant body refers, perhaps not so obliquely, to an organic unity. Time seems to be particular only if we are a party to isolation, which, we have good evidence, takes the reality away. Motions are not in a vacuum; because they are intimate they intimate that there is a joint and comprehensive time.

The present instant, then, might well be defined as eternity on the scale of being, and being on the scale of eternity. In no time at all it can show itself to be immense and tiny. A moment ago it existed; in this moment it exists; is there anything in between? Was there anything in the interim? Moments of tranquillity let us experience its nature, which is certain but cannot be pinned down. We are at times the focus of its subatomic and cosmic quickness. We are quick because of it.

What, if we believe this, is the eternal? The eternal, we might say, is the subsuming of the past and the present into a continual present. This single, continuous present cuts across time; it ropes the past and the current moment into a monadic whole. A mayfly experiences its whole day as a present, but within the span of its day there is a past and present for its being. The span of time called a day has a past, present, and future, given any being within its parameters. But eternity is that span from the forefront of being, back through its being. It is a past and present as one, and thus has nothing to do with time. A person may live eighty years, but at any given forefront of life, eternity would be a present that had duration from that advance-point back some span of being. The life, however, cannot be divided by the time-compartments of past and present. Eternity can be called a duration of being that is a full present without past, and without the divisions and constraints of time and time language. We think of the present as an infinitesimal blip, but a present that lasts through the past and includes 'the present' without subdivision is the reality of eternity.

Eternity can last a minute or a hundred centuries. That which spans across time and actually retains it as a present is eternal. Must being experience that spanning in order for the eternal to be genuine? The future is open, and for being cannot be entailed in the eternal. For the mayfly or the Maker of the universe, eternity is an expansion and growth of the present into the near or distant past, transforming that history of being into a patulous present, conjoining disjunctions into valid oneness.

What does this mean for us? Most people feel very squeezed for time in modern society. They feel that society has certain expectations for them, and they have lost their expectations for themselves. Modern western societies, like the factories of old, cannot run unless many keep up the pace, but the cost is rising, in health, life, and happiness. Some have come to realize that the great capital of life is time, not money. Affluence has no advantage in gaining its possessors the luxury of time: they do without it just like everybody else. The squeeze for time has become acute, and both the individual and society suffers where and when the bind is daily reenacted.

I wonder what time-lapse cinematography would show if in concept you ran the history of life through it-how would our day look so speeded up? Meetings, walking, going to the post office, etc.-we would look most active, faster than the clouds overhead, gesticulating and jittering back and forth-each of us a fool, and yet a fool with a purpose. If we were filmed in time-lapse, like a seedling growing, a flower flowering, or a set of tadpoles hatching, what would be revealed that our normal pace could not reveal? The day would lose its meaning, as would our grace-it would be a disarticulation and a farce.

This is suggestive of the fact that the more we speed up our day, the more we lose our chance for meaning, the less life is articulated, and the less interesting it is to observe. We do not in time-lapse see ourselves; we do not, in speeding up our time, see our optimal selves. We and the elements of our environment are a mere flying then, without reflection or poise. We are a joke. But return our day to the natural pace and you take more time in than you did before. You have made time-lapse lapse, and you have re-mobilized the gait appropriate to the value of life. You can take the long view, see things in proportion without a distortion of time, capture a bigger chunk of what human time is about, and see the growth concurrent with it as you are there, within the scene.

It is funny that when time is least slack we are most remiss, and when it is lax and loose we are most rigorous, even religious, in our attentions. The more we learn, the more we see that time is the most elastic of things. Try and find one for whom it does not flow, fast or slow. It is like a waterfall over which we will be carried, and we decide the size of our bark. We make what we can of life in the moving eddies, gathering our size and thus our speed. Then we embark on the faster journey with the roar just ahead of us, seeing that edge as we become a part of it, with a glimmer that time and eternity meet at the long intersection all of us in the flow make as we start our plunge. If we fall at the same speed despite our weight, it is a certain kind of physics. If we and the water fall at exactly the same rate, that is another kind of physics. Time will accommodate them all. But at whatever speed, we have felt the roar, unsure whether we are surrounded by or actually are the liquid, ready to meet what we are becoming. We are always before a falls and always in one, but in fact it is all luxuriant, a flow of rich liquidy life, finding time to suit us, as we, so buoyant, suit ourselves.

It is true that sometimes we spin like a crocodile to wrench off a meal from time, and sometimes time is the spinning crocodile to wrench a meal of us. It comes down to whether, as zebras crossing a deep river in Kenya, we can be at the right angle so time's jaws cannot get a hold of us. We may see waves of attack, but our strength is in keeping our neck down and not turning our throat in the direction of the jaws. The river carries us downstream from where we hoped to land, but as long as we land, that's all we care about.

Our relationship with time is a question of a foot one way or the other. We say we've seized our opportunities, but often our opportunities have seized up. Each of us is a zebra, and to striped time a crocodile as well. What happened to the land under our hooves that seemed so forever sure? What does it mean that other crocs baked and died in the cracked mud? We're in a rush now, a thick surge, but can we buck the idea that it's to our disadvantage, whether we are zebra or crocodile? Is there something in this river that is life, even with the hatred of death? The river trial is wave next to wave next to wave. The peculiar structures of each make the vehement conjunction. And if we were wise, we would not want it any other way. Time, like the croc, has survived for tens of millions of years; time is also as short as the bray of a zebra. We have narrow slits in our eyes or large dark eyes between black nose and mane; what do we see to do? Is our triumph the quick avoidance or the eon-long clutch? It becomes acute quick. The river has brought us together and separated us as well.

More often, time is the beach that we walk on. It is bordered by dunes of moments that rise and fall on one side and by the eternal pounding surf on the other. We range along the sands of time, leaving our footprints behind us, though they are washed away by new waves that roll in from the uninterrupted ocean and thinly reach their foam ceaselessly toward the dunes. Our footprints may crisscross with others, but we cannot retrace our steps. We can only make new ones. The beach itself is narrow and all sand, with its past in stone and its future in glass; but in the present we feel the sand between our toes. In our hands we hold sand dollars that we must spend; we cannot save them. Each grain of the beach is a part of the whole vast unbelievable span, forever footprinted and blurred by the tides of change. And though we and our efforts do not last, the steady beach curves on, as real in the beginning of our walk as it is in the end.

We admit, a bit under duress, that time is of the essence. As we look out to the vanishing point of the beach, we see forever and a day meet and mingle in the haze. It is the place we are walking to, but in the meantime we have a fair exchange for our sand dollars and we are kings, and queens, of every castle we build.

Plunged into our own measurement of time, we tend not to explore, or understand if we do, the range of time beyond us. We know time's passage is relative, but seem to be more comfortable in the middle kingdom both of the present and of the range of speed with which time can progress. But if we work to acquaint ourselves with the 'range' of time-and take that plunge-how far can we go? That is an endeavor worth embarking on, and though it will necessarily take time, we may find that there is nothing else necessary in the process.

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