Movable Feast #1: Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Mystical

‘Movable Feast’ is a fortnightly philosophy and culture column by Rhys Rushton.

The term ‘movable feast’ is taken from the Hemingway novel of the same name, and references that there are experiences and ideas that you take with you throughout your life and inform how you live. Today we are inundated with information. It’s hard to sift through it all and see what’s relevant.. This column looks to artists and intellectuals to find inspiration and guidance for our day to day experiences. 

Content warning: suicide

You’ve probably heard this name before—unfortunately it’s likely been as a pretentious buzzword. But intellectual dishonesty is a topic for another day, when I’m in a slightly worse mood and can’t sleep. Anyway. Ludwig Wittgenstein, what a lad. 

As a rule geniuses are eccentric, and Wittgenstein was ostensibly so. However, what underpinned his behaviour was ultimately an unwavering commitment to his own philosophy, and it is a partial examination of this philosophy that will make up this piece. 

First, who was Wittgenstein? He was born to one of the richest families in the world. Wittgenstein would become one of the wealthiest men in Europe with his inheritance, but was inspired by a verse from the Book of Matthew, and gave it all away—leading to a state of relative penury with which he lived for most of his life. 

His wasn’t a happy family, three of Wittgenstein’s brothers would kill themselves, and suicide, especially before he’d established himself as one of the most significant philosophers in history, was something that Wittgenstein struggled with too. 

Originally an engineering student Wittgenstein was captivated by the debates in logic going on during the 20th century. He eventually left his career as an engineer—after patenting an aero-engine—and went to Cambridge.

What followed his arrival at Cambridge was The Great War, and Wittgenstein served in the Austrian army. He received one of Austria’s highest military honours for his service on the Italian front, and was also imprisoned; whilst a prisoner he finished the manuscript for his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (‘TLP’), one of the most important philosophical works in the canon. 

Whilst a full account of this text would be fascinating, it is also beyond the scope of my word limit. What follows is an excruciatingly abridged version of some of the most elegant philosophy ever written, specifically his concept of “the mystical”, but if you have the time I encourage you to acquaint yourselves with the text fully. 

So what is the mystical according to Wittgenstein and why does it matter? Let’s establish some ground rules about Wittgenstein’s view of the world as laid out in TLP. The world is “the totality of facts” (1.1), that is, the world is completely made up of facts. These facts according to the TLP are completely independent of our will—i.e. we have no causal efficacy over them. We have no control over the world. Furthermore, facts can be combined to form propositions that will give us a picture of reality. 

Facts have something called “factuality;” this is their essence. A fact’s factuality is what allows for a fact to exist as it is. This factuality is a formal feature of a fact, as such it is ineffable, meaning it cannot be said, it has to be shown. (Don’t worry, I’m getting to the mystical.) 

So what we have established thus far is:

  • that the world is the totality of facts, 
  • these facts can be combined to form propositions which give us pictures of the world,
  • and that the essence of these facts is not expressible in language. 

If facts combine to form propositions, then the world (AKA the totality of facts) is in itself a proposition. This proposition then must have a sense in a similar way to facts, as it is made out of these facts. It is the sense of this general proposition that is the mystical, the essence of the world. It is also what Wittgenstein calls God; Wittgenstein writes that ‘Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is’ (6.44). What this means is that the world’s sense, the fact that it exists, its factuality, is the mystical. ‘The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole. The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical feeling’ (6.45). What this means is that to see the world from without the boundaries of temporal confinement (sub specie aeterni is to see the world from the standpoint of eternity, that is, without reference to the temporal) is to feel the mystical. This view entails an inexpressible appreciation of the world as it is, not how we want it to be. It is the moment in which we stand in awe of  the enormity of the cosmos, when we see huge waves breaking on a beach, or the feeling endowed by the magnificent silence of a forest. 

The mystical feeling takes us outside of ourselves. It provides us with an inexpressible understanding of the world in its totality, it assauges our need to be in constant control of everything, and adjust our wills to be in accordance with the will of the universe. The universe is the totality of facts, and we will never be able to comprehend them all, but we can still appreciate their magnificence, even though we may not be able to express what we feel. 

Further Reading: 
Eddy Zemach: Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of the Mystical
Ray Monk: The Duty of Genius 
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico Philosophicus 
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Culture and Value
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations
Saul Kripke – Naming and Necessity + Wittgenstein Rules and Private Language.
Gottlob Frege – Sense and Reference + Concept and Object. 
David Markson: Wittgenstein’s Mistress
David Foster Wallace: The Broom of the System 
Alain Badiou – Wittgenstein’s Anti-Philosophy

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