01 April 2011

Ramsey's Testimony regarding the Tractatus

I find I have spent the past four or five hours reading "Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951". I blame the fact that the letters are almost all very short, so it always feels like I can read just one more. I am stopping after 100 of the 439 in the book.

Anyway, I found these two passages striking. They're from a letter of Ramsey's to his mother, p.139:

[Wittgenstein's] idea of his book is not that anyone by reading it will understand his ideas, but that some day someone will think them out again for himself, and will derive real pleasure from finding in this book their exact expressions.
This probably only looks remarkable if you've been spending the past few weeks grappling with Schopenhauer (which I have); it is puzzling what one is doing in writing an avowedly incomprehensible book. This quote doesn't really tell us anything that wasn't already stated in the preface to the book, but I found it noteworthy that he'd repeat it in conversation.
It’s terrible when he says “Is that clear” and I say “no” and he says “Damn it’s horrid to go through that again”. Sometimes he says, I can’t see that now [—] we must leave it. He often forgot the meaning of what he wrote within 5 minutes, and then remembered it later. Some of his sentences are intentionally ambiguous having an ordinary meaning and a more difficult meaning which he also believes.
I don't know quite what to make of that last bit. I can't tell from the context if Ramsey is talking about sentences of the Tractatus or sentences Wittgenstein was using in their conversations about the book. In any case, it's an interesting thing to see said.


Daniel Lindquist said...

Letter to C.L. Stevenson, 22.12.1933: " I’m sorry you must do a lot of reading of the history of philosophy for it will hardly help you to clear up your own muddles. Really to understand other peoples thoughts or to learn from their confusions is enormously difficult, especially if they lived long ago and talked a philosophical language which isn’t your own. The only thing to do is always to tell yourself that you don’t understand what
exactly they were at. If ever you’ve had a real thought yourself you’ll know that it will be difficult for others to understand it exactly, and then you’ll also know that it is difficult for you to understand other peoples thoughts."

Perhaps relevant for what LW was up to in TLP? (That "thoughts are expressed in it" is wherein the first part of its value lies.) Possibly just bromides about how hard philosophy is and how easy to fool oneself into thinking one understands all the problems of the ages.

William of Baskerville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William of Baskerville said...

I just thought that you'd like to know that I ran across your past blog entry on Hegel as Lutheran yesterday. I found it to be delightful, and I made extensive reference to it in my entry of last night. Click here! I trust that I neither embarrassed you nor misrepresented your views. Thank you so much.
Win Corduan

Daniel Lindquist said...

Glad you enjoyed it, William.

Duncan said...

Pretty sure Ramsey means sentences of the Tractatus in his "ambiguous" comment.

Daniel Lindquist said...

That seems most likely to me, too, but I don't really see anything definitive pointing that way. And if Ramsey is talking about Tractarian propositions, then that's pretty strong evidence for how the book's supposed to be read. Which is a really striking bit of information, if true. So I'd like to be able to establish it a little more firmly.

Nikhil said...

"[Wittgenstein's] idea of his book is not that anyone by reading it will understand his ideas, but that some day someone will think them out again for himself, and will derive real pleasure from finding in this book their exact expressions."

We must here be careful with regards to what we are talking about. An important question to ask is "what ideas"? Or, "what thoughts"? Remember that there is a very important difference between understanding HIS ideas and understanding ITS ideas (it = the book). Recall proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus. “He who understands ME finally recognizes THEM as senseless.” Wittgenstein is trying to emphasize the difference between understanding HIM and understanding THEM (the propositions of the book). To understand him is to realize that there is no such thing as understanding those propositions.

Thus, I think that the following would be more interesting than what Ramsey actually says:

Wittgenstein’s idea of his book is not that anyone by reading it will understand ITS ideas, but that some day someone will imagine himself to be thinking them out again for himself, and will derive real pleasure from finding in this book their exact expressions. But after the pleasure comes the pain. He must then go through the pain of understanding the penultimate proposition (6.54) and realizing that there is simply no thought of the sort that he imagined himself to be thinking through.

But perhaps this has nothing to do with what Ramsey was saying. I’m not sure. However, it may also suggest that Ramsey simply misunderstands Wittgenstein. I feel like this suggestion of mine finds further support in his next quote:

“Some of his sentences are intentionally ambiguous having an ordinary meaning and a more difficult meaning which he also believes.”

If Ramsey is talking about the propositions of the Tractatus, then I feel like this quote reveals to us that Ramsey has completely misunderstood Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s point in writing those propositions was to show that although they appear to have meaning, in reality they have no meaning. That’s quite the opposite of having a “difficult meaning.”

Disclaimer: I know nothing about Frank Ramsey. What I have just said is completely based on my reading of those two quotes that you provided (I have never read anything else written by Ramsey). Perhaps I am completely misreading him.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Nikhil: The trouble is, these letters from Ramsey were written shortly after Ramsey had spent a couple weeks visiting Wittgenstein, discussing the English translation of the Tractatus with him (for purposes of revising it -- it was a fruitful discussion, and there are quite a few small places where LW changed the Ogden-Ramsey translation's English). There are no indications in the correspondence that Ramsey misunderstood Wittgenstein during these discussions (or at least not that either he or LW thought this was happening).

Further, look at the preface to PI: "For since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book. I was helped to realize these mistakes—to a degree which I myself am hardly able to estimate—by the criticism which my ideas encountered from Frank Ramsey, with whom I discussed them in innumerable conversations during the last two years of his life. Even more than to this—always certain and forcible—criticism I am indebted to that which a teacher of this university, Mr. P. Sraffa, for many years unceasingly practised on my thoughts."

So, I think it's reasonable to put significant weight on Ramsey's words, and not to just rewrite them to fit a preferred reading of the TLP. The trouble is, I don't see quite what to *do* with what Ramsey says. The remark about double-meanings certainly seems like it should be important in guiding how one reads the book, but I don't know of any readings of the book that have read it this way. Neither the "standard" reading you get in someone like P.M.S. Hacker, nor the resolute readings you get with my favorites in Chicago etc. read the book in such a way that the props have double meanings (both of which LW believes!), nor do any of the stranger readings I've come across (John Holbo's Schopenhauerian reading, the various attempts to read the early LW as a Kantian, etc.). So I'm puzzled by Ramsey's remarks.

Hopefully I can keep some of this clear in my mind while I'm in Chicago this week for the "Wittgenstein, Literature, and the Unsayable" workshop; that's certainly the sort of place to ask about them!

Nikhil said...

What a coincidence! I'm going to be at that workshop myself. If not for the entire workshop, at least for the paper by Professor Conant and the paper by Professor Kremer. I think those will be the highlights of the workshop.

Daniel Lindquist said...

They're certainly a strong start!

Feel free to say "hi" if you figure out which of the 6' white guys with glasses I am.

Nikhil said...

Ok. Maybe you should make a blog entry about one of those papers. It could generate some interesting food for thought.

Daniel Lindquist said...

It is possible I will blog something after the workshop. Until then, I have two term papers due on the 1st, and then I actually need to finish reading the papers for the workshop! Busy times here.

Nikhil said...

I just created a blog so that I could post this: http://resolute-reading.blogspot.com/2011/06/cardinal-problem-of-reading-tractatus.html