Monday, August 31, 2015

Wittgenstein and the First World War

View on the Italian Front, where Wittgenstein has fought during the First World War

Once I wrote in a blog (dated March 10, 2014) that I was surprised that Wittgenstein said nothing about his war experiences in his Notebooks 1914-1916, although he wrote them during his service as a soldier in the First World War. It was not true: he did write about it. As so many soldiers Wittgenstein kept a diary, which is now known as the Secret Notebooks. What is strange, however, is that in volume one of the collected works of Wittgenstein published by Suhrkamp Verlag in Germany, so in the volume that contains the Notebooks 1914-1916, there is not any mention at all of the existence of these Secret Notebooks. This is also strange since these personal notes have been written in the same notebooks that Wittgenstein used for his philosophical notes, namely on the pages opposite to these philosophical notes. Moreover, the personal notes clearly help understanding the development and explanation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Therefore it is a “must-read” not only for those interested in Wittgenstein’s war experiences but also for those interested in his Tractatus.
I “discovered” these secret notebooks on a website with new publications in philosophy. They have been published (in German) by Wilhelm Baum in a book on Wittgenstein in the First World War (see the reference at the end of this blog). Baum presents there not only the Secret Notebooks but he gives also much information about the history of the notebooks, about Wittgenstein’s participation in World War One, his relations with other people in this period of his life, the philosophical meaning of the notebooks, and so on. It’s a pity that Baum could publish only a part of Wittgenstein’s notes, for most of them have been lost.
For an interpretation of the Secret Notebooks I refer to the work by Baum. I want to make only two comments. The first is that religion and a religious view on the world were for Wittgenstein more important than many people know. Wittgenstein was a religious person, as it turns out. My second comment is that this allows a religious interpretation of a famous statement by Wittgenstein: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (Tractatus 6.52). This is especially so, if one relates this statement to a remark by Wittgenstein in a letter to Ludwig von Ficker: “The meaning of this book [the Tractatus] is an ethical one. ... [It] exists of two parts: the one that you see here and everything that I haven’t written. And just this second part is the most important part. For the ethical is so to speak bounded from the inner side by the book...” (Baum, 120). It is possible to give this passage a religious interpretation, as Baum does, in the sense that in fact most important in the world are not the facts but our view on the facts, and for Wittgenstein this view was religious. This reading by Baum is possible and at first sight his argumentation is convincing, but a more general ethical interpretation of this passage remains possible.
Since I am very interested in the First World War I was curious to know Wittgenstein’s war experiences. As for that the value of the notebooks is limited. They tell us a bit about what Wittgenstein did during the war, his relations to other soldiers, how much he worked on the Tractatus, when he was under fire, and so on, but the notes are short – often too short– and it is difficult to relive Wittgenstein’s war on the basis of these notes. Many other war diaries and novels written by soldiers give so much more insight in the personal experiences and feelings of the authors (cf. the diaries by Maurice Genevoix and Charles Delvert, to mention only two of them). The notebooks have hardly any value for military history, but the more important they are for understanding Wittgenstein as a person and for understanding the Tractatus. Therefore I wonder why it took so long before they have been published and why they haven’t been published in Wittgenstein’s Collected Works. They are essential for understanding a great work in philosophy and a great philosopher.
I want to end with a quotation from the Secret Notebooks:
“When one feels that one gets bogged down in a problem, one must not think about it any longer, for otherwise one stays stuck to it” (November 26, 1914). It’s a lesson a lot of us should take to heart.

Reference: Wilhelm Baum, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tagebücher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918), Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Space and time in society

Actually the intrusion of the private into the public, but also of the public into the private, is remarkable. Not the fact that it happens but it points to some interesting aspects of social life. As a sociologist I am used to think about society in terms of social relationships, so in terms of the way we connect with others and what these connections mean to us. However, actually society is not only a matter of relations but the way social life takes place has also something to do with where relationships are entered into. Moreover, social relationships are also temporal in some way. Now I am the first to deny that this idea is something new. There are other sociologists and philosophers who have written about it before. Nevertheless, the aspects of place and time are often ignored when society and social relations are studied and that’s why I want to talk about it here.
Take for instance the separation of the private and the public discussed in my blog last week. It is not without reason that Žižek and others don’t talk simply of the separation of both spheres of life as such but that they talk of the separation public space and private space. In other words, the private and the public are spheres that are not only characterized by distinctive manners but also by the geographical areas where they take place. The private is typically the sphere of life at home where the walls of your house protect you against the look of others, while the public is typically the sphere of life in the street, where everybody can see what you do. Therefore it’s not weird to say that the private intrudes the public or the other way round, for it is a bit the same as if a burglar breaks into your house: boundaries are exceeded (in fact, that is what happens when someone talks too loud when calling in a train and others feel disturbed).
Usually it takes some time to go from the private to the public space: You have to open the front door of your house and maybe walk through your front garden, before you are really in the public space. In the front garden you are still on your private property but nevertheless you cannot do there everything you like (by law, you are not allowed to go naked there, though you are allowed to do so in your back garden, especially when there is a wall around it).
The separation in space and time is not only characteristic of the spheres of the private and the public. For example, we meet some friends only in the sports field and maybe we would never get the idea to invite them for a birthday party, even if we feel very close to them when we go along with them as team mates. As soon as we leave the stadium, each of us goes his own way. And it is the same for the people we meet at the work place: Our colleagues are usually not our friends and, even if they are, during the working hours at the workplace we treat our friends not as such (which may be a reason for conflicts between us, however).
In his An ethnologist in the metro Marc Augé says about the same: “In order to go from one activity to another one needs time and space.” This is what we use the underground for and “when we change our activities at certain hours, we change also our locations. These changes of activity are not simply technical changes; they can go together with real role changes, for example when they go together with a passage from the life that we call professional to the life that we call private. The contrast private life / professional life as such does not comprise all kinds of changes of activity: there are forms of life that are more or less public that are not professional – it happens that one goes, alone or with friends, to public places in order to relax; that one goes to the stadium; to a parade; to a display of fireworks; to the theater; or to the cinema – and multiple forms of private life, official or secret, with family or alone, juridical or religious ...” (2013, 95-96; translated from the French edition)
Many of our activities based on social relationships are place bound and time bound, or at least in modern contemporaneous society they are, which can make our life rather compartmentalized.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Public and private

Recently I have read Event. Philosophy in Transit by Slavoj Žižek (Penguin Books, London etc. , 2014). I have some doubts about the book, but I’ll not write a review. Here I want to limit myself to discussing a passage that casts an interesting light on modern society. In this passage Žižek points to the changing status of public space: “ ‘[The] street is an intensively private place and seemingly the words public and private make no sense.’ ... [B]eing in a public space does not entail only being together with other unknown people – in moving among them, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with or recognition of them. In order to count as public, the space of my co-existence and interaction with others (or the lack of it) has to be covered by security cameras.” (p. 176; the first sentence is a quotation from the Chinese People’s Daily)
According to Žižek the public space is becoming smaller while the private space is growing: Actions performed only at home in the past, or in places where they couldn’t be observed by others now often take place also “in the street” without the feeling of any shame that everybody can see them. Indeed, I can remember that when I was a child, kissing in public between lovers “was not done”. Now nobody cares. Today, it even happens sometimes, so Žižek, that fully erotic games take place in “heavily public places” like beaches, trains, railway stations, shopping malls, and the like, and most people passing by do as if they don’t see it. In other words, the private intrudes the public. People check themselves only when surveillance cameras are present, and this is not so, I think – Žižek doesn’t explain it – because people can be seen, for in public spaces people can always be seen, but it is because they can be punished for what they do. Only Big Brother can make that people behave themselves, or so it seems.
How about the private space? Does it become larger, because it simply absorbs parts of the public space? This would fit into the modern trend of increasing individualism. Žižek seems to think it does: “It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others” (pp. 178-9; italics Žižek).
Although this is true as such, I doubt whether it is only the private space that extends at the cost of the public space. It’s not a development only in one direction. For why else, for instance, are we advised to cover the webcam of our laptops or PCs? Just because otherwise our private actions can become public we are said to do so. Or take the activities of the secret services that try to find out what government leaders do, but also the laws that prescribe that data once considered private, like e-mail data, calling behaviour and data on other activities you do via the  modern media are collected and stored. I can see this only as an intrusion of the public into the private, and so do national committees that have been established by governments (!) for protecting the private. And once people become aware that their private behaviour can be seen by public agencies, albeit secret public agencies, it’s quite well possible that they are going to behave accordingly, so that they restrain themselves in what they say and do on line (like people in a dictatorship do).
What we see here then is both an extension of the private at the cost of the public and an extension of the public at the cost of the private. The development is not one-sided, as Žižek seems to suggest. Even more, I think that the idea that there is a distinction between the public and the private is at stake. Rather than that one sphere of society intrudes the other, or that one (the private) expands itself at the cost of the other, maybe it will be so that the separation of the private and the public will fade away and that both will mingle so that we’ll gradually get one single common sphere with more public and more private corners at most. Will it be worrying? Given our present way of life it will. Nevertheless, such a mixture of spheres is not new. It’s what you find in small isolated societies and, I guess, what you found in “primitive” prehistoric societies, so in societies where more or less direct relations prevailed. But just that is a reason to be worried, for nowadays we do not live any longer in such small-scale societies but in mass societies. Just in mass societies, in which direct relations are mainly absent, keeping the two spheres apart is important for protecting us against the arbitrariness of Big Brother and our fellow man.

Monday, August 10, 2015

On commemorating

Monument for the victims of the terror attack in Bodø, Norway

The day I arrived in Trondheim Norway commemorated the terror attacks of July 22, 2011, when 77 people were murdered. Exactly four years ago I was travelling somewhere north of Oslo. Since I avoid the news during my holidays, and also because my knowledge of Norwegian is only basic, it took some time before I knew what had happened. It came as a shock. Now I had been travelling around in the country again and one of the things I noticed were the local monuments remembering the calamity.
Commemorating impressive events of life with monuments, especially when there have been many victims or when these events have changed history in a significant way, is a normal aspect of life. Maybe some readers know that I make pictures of monuments and sites related to the First World War, which I publish on my main website (see A century after its end commemorations are still held. The more so this happens for more recent events like the Second World War, 9/11, or the shot down of the Malaysian airliner of flight MH 17 last year in the Eastern Ukraine. Remembering seems to be a basic act of life, not only for individuals but also for whole societies. Has it always been so?
My answer to this question can only be a try and please correct me if you know more about it. Anyway, I have a strong impression that it has to do something with our view on history and the way we place facts and events in life – as individuals and as society. And so I think that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. I don’t want to say that remembering the victims of a war, a violent event or a tragic incident did not happen long ago but then it had always been private or limited to small circles of people. Through the years, I have seen many monuments for the First World War – of course – and for the Second World War as well. You find them everywhere in this part of Europe and a lot of them outside this region, too. I have also seen monuments for other wars and human catastrophes like the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), or for victims of traffic accidents along roads, and so on. What strikes me is that they date from the middle of the 19th century or thereafter. Of course, there are many older monuments, like the Roman triumphal arches, but these monuments do not remember victims but victories in war. Or you find religious crosses on crossroads or chapels that have been built on memorable sites – and I think that it is the same so in non-Christian countries and regions – but they are anonymous in the sense that a casual passer-by does not know what happened there. They remember only for those who know what happened and they don’t tell you about it and just that monuments invite the passer-by to stop and to read what occurred and that they remember who died – indeed, “modern” war monuments are often full of names – is a phenomenon of relatively modern history, I think.
Why just now? As I see it, it has to do with a new idea of history called “historicism”, which developed in the 19th century and stressed the significance of the context in which things happen, and also with the rise of psychology at the same time, which stresses the importance of remembering and contending with traumas for a balanced inner life. It is not that such scholarly ideas explicitly made us build monuments but they stand for a new view on society and the way we deal with what happened to us. Once I thought that many monuments – especially monuments remembering wars – were only an expression of nationalism, so just the kind of feeling that also caused the wars that such monuments were erected for. Later I learned that nationalism is only one aspect of such monuments and often it is only a minor aspect. For monuments, like so many symbols, express especially an inner emotion and they try to summarize what many people feel and want to share with others.