Wittgenstein's Searchlight

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You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.

There are many other literary treatments besides the four freakishly similar titles above. Ludwig Wittgenstein appears as one of the key signifiers in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, a novel I didn't like very much. He also shows up in a new collegiate novel by Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr, a comic whirl about a professor who is not Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unruly students who mock his lectures. I've just started this one and I'm at least enjoying it more than the David Foster Wallace.

But the best stuff I've been reading lately about Wittgenstein is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day, a serious and well-researched Facebook page that tracks Wittgenstein's diary entries as they were written 100 years ago. I've liked this project since its inception, but I began to feel riveted by it when we reached the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One in August. In the autumn of 1914, young Ludwig did the same thing most of his proud fellow young Austrians did. He signed up immediately to fight for his country and his emperor.

This required him to leave England, where he had been carrying on an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Bertrand Russell, because England was now Austria's enemy. The 25-year-old logic prodigy found himself on a guard boat called the Goplana on the River Vistula in September 1914. Wittgenstein: Day-by-Day narrates a short daily summary of his daily observations as these new surroundings begin to sink in.

Thursday 17th September, 1914: In his private diary, LW records that the previous night passed quietly, and that he had been on guard duty. The Goplana has sailed up the Vistula to Krakow, whose outskirts, he fears, will be ‘completely occupied by Cossacks’. He also reports that yesterday morning the Lieutenant left the ship and didn’t come back until noon today. No one knows what to do, and they don’t even have money to buy food. Nevertheless he finds himself still in good spirits. ‘Keep thinking about how I can maintain myself’, he finishes.

The young philosopher's format is consistent: he notes the military developments and actions of the day, along with his personal activities and emotions. He tries to find time to "work" -- that is, to indulge himself in his favorite hobby: the analysis of language and meaning, and the attempt to discover the logical foundation of logic itself.

Saturday 19th September, 1914: In his diary, LW records that yesterday evening he had to work up to 11pm on his searchlight. In the night it’s extremely cold, and the men have to sleep in their boots. LW slept badly. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his boots for four days. He worries what will happen to him in Krakow.

LW notes that a proposition like ‘this chair is brown’ seems to say something enormously complicated, since if we wanted to express it in such a way that nobody could raise objections to it on grounds of ambiguity, ‘it would have to be infinitely long’.

(The idea here seems to be that everyday propositions must have a single complete analysis which respects the ‘requirement that sense be determinate’ (Tractatus 3.23), this being equivalent to their being *wholly* unambiguous. Any temporary incompleteness in the specification of a determinate sense can only mean that the end of the analysis hasn’t yet been reached. It’s notable that LW prefers to imagine that the analysis might be infinitely long rather than contemplate the possibility that there’s no single correct analysis, or that the correct analysis represents the proposition as being in *any* respect ambiguous).

If young Ludwig is unhappy about his sudden change of circumstance from Cambridge to the Eastern Front, he barely shows it in this journal. Occasionally he expresses feelings of stress. He consoles himself at times with religious homilies.

Monday 21st September, 1914: In his diary, LW reports that this morning the Goplana arrived in Krakow. He had been on searchlight duty all night. Yesterday, he records, he did a lot of (philosophical) work, but he isn’t very hopeful, ‘because I lacked the right overview’. He also had a discussion with his platoon leader, which cleared the air a little. But today he is a little out of sorts, being still ‘so TIRED’ from many emotions. He notes that he has heard nothing from Vienna, but that he did receive a card from his mother, sent on August 20th. In the evening, though, he received the depressing news that the Lieutenant who had been his commanding officer has been transferred. ‘This news depressed me deeply. I can’t give an exact account, but it’s a compelling cause for despondency. Since then I’ve been deeply sad. Although I am free by the Spirit, the Spirit has left me!’. He ends by recording that he found himself able to do some (philosophical) work in the evening, and that this made him feel better.

From the calm tones of the journal entries up to October 17, 1914, it appears possible that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself did not even know how perilous a position he was in as he stood searchlight duty on this rickety guard boat.

The Vistula River was a hotspot in the autumn of 1914, and I'm not talking about wi-fi. He and his boat the Goplana were right in the middle of the Russian invasion of Galicia, a brutal and massive offensive that completely overran Austria's defensive position on its own territory. The Battle of Galicia in 1914 will go down in history not only as a bloody massacre, but also as a failure of management and planning that would crush the confidence of the Austro-Hungarian army, foretelling years of disaster still ahead.

Today, it's commonplace to ridicule every aspect of Austria's entry into World War One, since we know how the war will end. But in 1914 Austria-Hungary had not yet been crushed, and its a notable fact that a young man as bright as Ludwig Wittgenstein would join its army unthinkingly to defend the society that had raised him so well. He was in the First Army, under the leadership of General Viktor Dankl, who would be briefly celebrated on the home front as a hero for this army's early exploits before it became fully clear that the 1914 battles in Galicia had been a Russian rout.

As his journal entries made clear, Wittgenstein manned the searchlight on the Goplana -- almost too perfect a metaphor for a philosopher on a boat! We know that he was thinking about logic as his light beam pierced the dark skies over the gloomy Vistula. Was he also thinking about the decisions his army's leaders were making? Did he feel confident in Austria's fate, or had he begun to question the foundations of the military logic that had put him on this boat?

Wittgenstein's hopeless adventure with the anguished Austro-Hungarian First Army will presumably be continuing to play out as the centenary of the First World War proceeds on Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. This excellent Facebook page is the work of John Preston of the University of Reading's Philosophy Department. Preston also maintains an informative Wittgenstein Chronology.

I don't know if John Preston is thinking about turning these wartime journal extracts and summaries into a book, but I hope he does. It's a no-brainer what the book should be called: Wittgenstein's Searchlight. At least it'll sell.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is What We're Creating Next. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: From Chaos.
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