The Man and His Mistress
August 2, 2010 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Please help me understand Wittgenstein so I can understand "Wittgenstein's Mistress."

I'm currently reading -- or rather, trying to read -- David Markson's experimental novel "Wittgenstein's Mistress." It's a tale told by a single narrator, a woman who may be either 1) the last person on earth or 2) crazy. She tells the reader of her journeys across Europe and the Americas amidst the wreckage of civilization, and her account is chock-full of references, allusions, and invocations of touchstones of Western literature and art. The book is designed as a philosophical inquiry: the afterword says that the book is "the best fictional illustration...of Wittgenstein's proposition that "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.""

The main problem here is that I don't have a good grasp of Wittgenstein. I've done a little casual reading on the web, and I still can't quite make heads or tails of how Wittgenstein's ideas shape and inform the book. I'm also not sure I understand his ideas very well. Take the quote from the afterword-- does it mean that language is the tool of bewitchment, or does it mean that language is the tool that we use to battle bewitchment?

I'd prefer not to have to read Wittgenstein at the moment -- I think I'd like to save that for later, once I've finished the book. Rather, I'm turning to you for insights and concise summaries of the man's ideas, particularly in terms of how they might enhance my reading of the book, or how the book (given the sketchy outline I've given you) might engage some of Wittgenstein's questions or answers.

Thank you!
posted by foxy_hedgehog to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Wittgenstein said that language bewitches us. We get confused by language.

Things that we normally think of as "philosophical problems" are actually the result of these language confusions. So, rather than solving philosophical problems in a traditional way, we can free ourselves from them by getting clearer about language. (This is my very rough, off-the-cuff account, not having read Wittgenstein in a while. If it's inaccurate somehow, anyone should feel free to correct it.)

A Very Short Introduction to Wittgenstein is an excellent way to get an overview of Wittgenstein's thought without actually reading one of his books cover to cover. Of course, you will end up reading some Wittgenstein in the form of quotations.

Wittgenstein had two main books: first the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (informally known as the Tractatus), then Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein isn't someone who had a single, clear, coherent theory that can be neatly summarized; in fact, those two books present wildly different worldviews. Tractatus is still regarded as an important work, but he was apparently dissatisfied with it. It sounds like the book you're reading is mainly if not entirely alluding to Philosophical Investigations. So, maybe buy the Very Short Introduction and focus on the part about Philosophical Investigations.

In addition, I recommend the book's conclusion -- a devastating take-down of the notion that Wittgenstein was a great and influential philosopher.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:31 AM on August 2, 2010

Personally, I would wait until I had read some Wittgenstein to read WM, or else let the specifics of W's philosophy go, and just read it as a [meta-] character whose thoughts [and maybe actions, if you think what's going on is more than in her head] are a personification of a particular methodical way of understanding experience (which I suppose you could infer some of the particulars of my analyzing her narrative) and just enjoy the narrative for the fun effects of its own curious structural, rhetorical, and assoc-/dissociative peculiarities. (It had been over 15 years since I had read any W when I read the novel a few years ago, and I still enjoyed it without going back and brushing up on W.)
posted by aught at 9:07 AM on August 2, 2010

My understanding is that Markson hadn't read Wittgenstein until after he had written WM, so don't feel obligated. I believe he said this in an interview on the Dalkey Archive site but I don't have time to check right now and may be wrong.
posted by johnasdf at 9:11 AM on August 2, 2010

My understanding is that Markson hadn't read Wittgenstein until after he had written WM, so don't feel obligated.

Heh... The conclusion to A Very Short Introduction to Wittgenstein points out that it's not necessarily a good thing that so many people use him as source material (using some of his most famous quotes as handy aphorisms, etc.). It's doesn't mean he was incredibly influential -- it could be more that his ideas were so amorphous that they allowed people with a wide range of views to adapt Wittgenstein's pronouncements for their own purposes.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:35 AM on August 2, 2010

For one thing, Wittgenstein's body of work does not form a coherent philosophical position. Some of his later work expressly contradicts some of his earlier work.

One of his philosophic thoughts that might be helpful:
The Limit of my langauge mean the limits of my world.
posted by Flood at 10:19 AM on August 2, 2010

Best answer: Apparently, after Markson died many of his used books (with his annotations and name in the front cover) appeared in used book stores in New York. I don't know if there's a complete list, but I see someone found A.J. Ayer's book on Wittgenstein and Paul Engelmann’s Letters from Wittgenstein with a Memoir. Now, neither of those is in print and I can't saw if Markson used them as reference, but there you go.

Now, you say you'd prefer not to read any Wittgenstein, so I'd recommend not reading any and doing what aught recommends. I've read a great deal of Wittgenstein, and I still would not claim to "understand" him.

However, if you feel you must, I recommend reading some entries from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, particularly the ones on Frege, Russell, Russell's Logical Atomism, Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein's Logical Atomism, in that order. To get the most out of Wittgenstein's work in the Tractatus, it's good to have a good grasp on what was going on in the development of logic in the early 20th century. Frege and Russell corresponded, and Russell was Wittgenstein's teacher at Cambridge. For an introduction to Wittgenstein's thought, I recommend Martin Stokhof's World and Life as One. It's a clear and comprehensive introduction, written for those with no prior background.

One reading of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, one that I feel many use in reading Wittgenstein's Mistress, is that Wittgenstein saw the problems of philosophy as resulting from ambiguities in language. Thus, if we were able to logically break down any of our propositions about the world into their very basic components, or logical atoms, we would erase any ambiguities in language and be able to say whether any such proposition is true or false. We would, in effect, be able to map our world through language, so that anything not able to be judged true or false would fall outside the realm of language and thus thought. Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, presents a so-called "picture theory," which states, in essence, that there is a structural relation between our minds and the world as that of a map and the thing it is mapping. If this is structured logically, then logic is the tool to accurately map our world. If we break down messy natural language into a logical language, we supposedly have accurately mapped our world and any statement can then be judged true or false, if it accurately corresponds to our picture of the world or not. So, in one sense, we are actually creating our world through our language, because what is outside the picture cannot be spoken of, because it is also outside of language. Some have read Markson as showing the logical culmination of such a project, or what would happen if people really thought this way. Is this the correct reading of Wittgenstein or Markson? I don't know, but it's one I've heard. I don't agree with that reading of Wittgenstein, for what it's worth.

I'd like to make two points: firstly, Wittgenstein is an incredibly dense, difficult and abstruse writer. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit. Secondly, he is also brilliant and vastly influential (despite what Jaltcoh says). However, because of his abstruseness, most everyone ends up reading into Wittgenstein what they want, cherrypicking certain ideas, and then claiming that Wittgenstein is really doing this or really doing that. For everyone saying his later work in the Investigations repudiates his earlier work, you'll find someone saying that this isn't the case and he's really just continuing his earlier work. What I'm trying to say is that there's a hell of a lot of writing out there about Wittgenstein, most all of it has some sort of axe to grind, and if you want to really understand Wittgenstein, you can't ignore it. Because of Wittgenstein's obliqueness, you simply can't just read his work and be done with it, you have to deal with the whole Wittgenstein industry. For better or worse, this is the state of affairs (Wittgenstein joke!) as arduous as it may seem.
posted by fryman at 10:25 AM on August 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

This refers primarily to the 'later Wittgenstein' of Philosophical Investigations.

Here, Wittgenstein asserts that there is a common belief that the words in language, and the concepts they can be combined to support, refer to real things that exist independently of us and our language. This btw is the complete opposite to his position in the first two thirds or so of the Tractatus.

However, this is not the case. Some words have relative meanings. This is relatively easy to see in the case of concepts such as beauty, justice, etc. However, Wittgenstein believes that it applies to all language.

This does not mean that language does not have meaning. Rather, that meaning is (solely) constituted in social interactions. What a word means, is particular to who says it and where it is said.

Nevertheless the belief that words do have ultimate referents is very common, including in philosophy. When philosophers discuss something (beauty, justice, etc.) they think that they are talking about the same thing, whereas they are actually talking about their socially embedded understanding(s) of the same thing.

Thus they will never come to agreement. However, their belief that words do refer to something real, leads them to keep trying.

They have become bewitched by their understanding of what they think language is and is for, which leads them to expect that if they talk long enough, and carefully enough, they will come to consensus and agreement. But they never will.
posted by carter at 10:27 AM on August 2, 2010

Damn. Scratch "This btw is the complete opposite to his position in the first two thirds or so of the Tractatus." from above.
posted by carter at 10:29 AM on August 2, 2010

The Wittgenstein name has an air of intellectual mystery/creditability around it that Markson used to market this book.
The book itself (can't call it a story or a novel) takes no great philosophical turn, but then, neither did Wittgenstein, who much much more of a linguist/semiotician than a philosopher. He simply benefited greatly from a charismatic personality and the fact that he surrounded himself with a bunch of suck-ups who were beguiled by his ideas.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:48 AM on August 2, 2010

Is the red courtesy phone flashing?

In any case, I think Markson's later books are better than Wittgenstein's Mistress, and won't require any knowledge about Wittgenstein, but YMMV.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:44 PM on August 2, 2010

It's been a while since I read Wittgenstein's Mistress, but I remember thinking that it didn't owe much to Wittgenstein other than the stylistic choices. (Aphoristic, pithy,and cryptic.)

You might just want to take a look at the Tractatus to get a feel for early Wittgensteinian style. There are philosophical reasons that Wittgenstein wrote in the way that he did, but I'm not sure they're essential to getting a lot out of Markson's novel. I could be wrong... like I said, it's been a while. I remember thinking that it was a great book though.
posted by painquale at 2:51 PM on August 2, 2010

Best answer: A quick glance at the copy of the Markson on google books makes some stylistic things very clear. Wittgenstein's writings are generally divided between his early works and later works, but some things remains the same. One was his terse writing style, and the other was a suspicion about the limits of philosophy. The Tractatus consists of seven propositions - think of them as major claims that for the backbone of the work. Below each proposition are further propositions that either comment on the last big proposition or comment on the comments. (So, proposition 1.1 is a comment on proposition 1, and so is proposition 1.2, but proposition 1.11 is a comment on 1.1, and so on.) The propositions state very general things like "1. The world is everything that is the case." and follow the details out from there. What initially seems like the development of a logical system - apparently a continuation of the work being done on the foundations of mathematics in the late 19th/early 20th century - takes a weird turn at some point and he starts laying bare what kinds of things logical systems and philosophical accounts cannot do. By the end, he wants to say that the whole thing he's just shown you reveals that there is nothing for philosophy to add to your understanding of language and the world. Your comportment, or your practical capacity to deal with it and with other speakers, is all there is to the story.

There are two things that that does not imply. One is that we should then understand ourselves in some other set of theoretical terms - biology or psychology, for instance. Those are ways of asking and resolving certain kinds of questions, and the attempt to stuff everything about our experience into those theoretical confines would end just as badly. Second is that there is nothing for philosophy to do. He did think that the right kinds of philosophical methods could clarify things that we never understood or allow us to see that what we thought of as a problem was really a kind of confusion. The latter was particularly important in his estimate, especially when the heart of the confusion was people claiming to do philosophy. He later compared bad philosophers to slum lords and said it was his job to run them out of business.

So in looking at WM (bear in mind I have not read it) and Markson's apparent affection for the early work, my guess is that in some important sense, the rug is going to be pulled out form under you in the course of the novel. You will have entered it expecting one kind of material or sort sort of outcome, but the whole thing will end up undercutting those expectations. It seems to be a story of one person's journey, told through the language of first-person reports. I would look at what you assume about that kind of first-person narrative and assess that in light of wherever the book finally leaves you. If you can't find something like that, then maybe the Wittgenstein in the novel really is just window dressing.
posted by el_lupino at 2:56 PM on August 2, 2010

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