The 12+12 Books of Christmas #22


The first book by Wittgenstein I remember reading was a Finnish translation of Remarks on Colour. His thinking was utterly fascinating even though I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. The book is not  that difficult to follow, but it was difficult for me to understand why this odd Austrian dude was going on about colors. I did not know about the old debates about primary and secondary qualitites, the whole eighteenth-century scientific business about colours, or much else. I was into heavy metal, guitars, novels and short stories. Wandering to the philosophy section of our town library had unexpected consequences.

I did whatever amounted to googling him at the time and discovered that his most famous work was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Our town library was small, but very good. It had heavy metal records, guitar lessons, a decent amount of fiction and a philosophy section. I picked up the Tractatus and was disappointed. It was completely different from the book about colors and incomprehensible. It took some time to understand the importance of the work and even though I now understand why Wittgenstein wrote it, I still cannot follow it. Most of what I understand comes from secondary sources. A friend whom I respect highly said he admired Wittgenstein’s style in the Tractatus. I still don’t know what he means.

The third work of Wittgenstein’s I picked up was On Certainty which I chose because it was shorter than the rather menacing thick volume next to it. It was a bit easier, almost like something in between the Tractatus and Remarks on Colour. It was a difficult book and I still read it occasionally — I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

The thick book next to it, Philosophical Investigations, remained on the shelf for a long time until I happened to pick it up due to boredom or whatever. It is the easiest of his books to understand and to follow. There really is nothing difficult about it. Philosophers have to write papers and debate things, so they make up all kinds of things to say about it. When approaching the kind of reasoning Wittgenstein wants to show you in the Investigations, there is no point in overcomplicating matters. It is a pleasure to read and a pleasure to think through. If someone gives you an abstract explanation about what Wittgenstein is trying to accomplish with his magnum opus, that is fine. Philosophers say all kinds of things about Wittgenstein. The Investigations to me is a self-contained piece of writing that nevertheless branches out into the world outside it. It teaches you to think the way Wittgenstein wants you to think. You can learn to do what he does by going through his thought experiments like you would go through an exercise book while learning a language: the point of going through the exercises is to go through the exercises.

If you have not read the Investigations, I suggest you get a copy and make it your coffee table book. Pick it up when you’re bored or have nothing else to do. Don’t think you’re reading the greatest work by one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. You cannot relax into Wittgenstein’s prose if you are too tense. Even if Wittgenstein himself had a violent temper, his book is a patient teacher. Spend as much time with each page as you like. Or you can devour the book in one sitting, and then do it all over again. It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it.

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