Monday, December 26, 2016

How to celebrate Christmas: Wittgenstein

There is hardly any western philosopher who writes about Christmas. It’s a bit strange, since Christmas is the most important holiday in the western world, even though for many people it’s no longer celebrated because of its religious meaning. It has turned into an important secular holiday, especially to be celebrated in the family. In this way Christmas is gradually becoming important all over the world, also in non-Christian countries. Therefore, it’s remarkable that all major (western) philosophers philosophically ignore it, although much can be said about it. Even such a devote roman-catholic like Montaigne usually kept away from writing on Christmas, probably because he didn’t want to be involved in the religious conflicts of his time. He was afraid of being accused to support the Reformation, if he would present a moderate point of view.
It’s true that Sartre wrote a kind of Nativity play, when he was interned as a prisoner of war in Germany during Christmas 1940, but actually it was an act of solidarity with his fellow prisoners and a rejection of Nazism. But it is an exception and in fact only Wittgenstein devotes occasionally some words to Christmas. We know that he often celebrated it with his family – anyway before he definitively moved to England – but that he didn’t like it. However, during the First World War, so exactly hundred years ago, he was not at home, since he was a soldier. Wittgenstein wrote a diary during these years, and it would be interesting to know what he did on December 25 or 26, 1916, but alas, this part of his diary has been lost or he didn’t write about it. What we do know is what he did during Christmas two years before. These were the days that soldiers on the Western Front fraternized and celebrated Christmas together with the enemy, to the great annoyance of the generals, who succeeded to suppress this fraternization in later years. But in December 1914 Wittgenstein was in Eastern Europe and his post was behind the front line at a quiet place. So even if he would have liked to fraternize with the Russian enemy – which I doubt – he couldn’t do that.
Wittgenstein tells us that on Christmas Day 1914 he takes the midday meal in the officers’ mess. Was it special Christmas dinner? I don’t know, for he doesn’t mention what he ate. And Wittgenstein tells us that “he worked a bit”. The next day, on Boxing Day, he “hardly worked”, so he writes, and in the evening he went to a coffee house with a young man whom he had met, and he had an interesting discussion with the guy.
It needs some explanation what Wittgenstein means when he writes that he “worked”. He doesn’t mean that he did his tasks as a soldier, but that he worked on the manuscript of what would later become his Tractatus logico-philosophicus. We know even exactly what he wrote then:

“The proposition says something” is identical with: It has a particular relation to reality, whatever this may be. And if this reality is given and also that relation, then the sense of the proposition is known, "pvq" has a different relation to reality from "p.q", etc.
The possibility of the proposition is, of course, founded on the principle of signs as going proxy for objects. [Cf. 4.0312.]
Thus in the proposition something has something else as its proxy. But there is also the common cement. My fundamental thought is that the logical constants are not proxies. That the logic of the fact cannot have anything as its proxy. [See 4.0312.]
[from Notebooks 1914-1916]

In the Tractatus (4.0312) this would become:
The possibility of propositions is based upon the principle of the representation of objects by signs.
My fundamental thought is that the “logical constants” do not represent. That the logic of the facts cannot be represented.

So, during Christmas 1914, four months after he had voluntarily joined the army, Wittgenstein was working on the most fundamental thoughts of his early philosophy, namely that a language represents the world it depicts. This idea would become one of the basic ideas of analytical philosophy. Even though today we will not take it in a literal sense any longer, isn’t it still considered true that the words we speak represent at least our view on the world and how we want that others – the persons we are speaking to – see it?

Source, besides Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916, Wilhelm Baum, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tagebücher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918), Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.


Jens Oliver Meiert said...

As a Wittgenstein student this is very interesting to learn about; thank you for sharing!

HbdW said...

Thank you for telling me, Jens. And then you must certainly read the book by Baum mentioned in the blog. As far as I know Wittgenstein's personal diary hasn't been published elsewhere. Also the other content of this book presents an interesting light on Wittgenstein and the publication policy by the editors of his work.