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Wittgenstein and the Global Form of Life

So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” – What is true or false is what human beings say; and it is in their language that human beings agree. This is agreement not in opinions, but in forms of life” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [§241]

1902 – Vienna.

Summer. The streets are filled with the ringing chorus of urban proles, petty artisans, teeming masses of new-Viennese peasants from the countryside, and a host of peoples from across the Empire. Vienna secessionists are bringing forth themes from antiquity in the name of a New World. Vienna mayor Karl Lueger elevates a ‘Catholic-social’ politics that is anti-Semitic and yet holds many Jews close to the levers of power. Emperor Franz Joseph I dislikes the mayor’s chauvinistic Germanism, seeing it as a threat to imperial integrity – the Emperor nearly succeeded in stopping Lueger from acceding to the mayoralty.

Words reverberate from housing on the imperial capital’s fringe. “Czechs and Russians are brothers!”, “Jews shall live in Judea!”, “The Internationale unites the human race!”

The poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal rambles through the streets and takes this all in. ‘How can this be one Society that maintains mutual Understanding?’ he asks himself. From this he pens a letter – not a letter to anyone, but rather between two others. This letter is a fictional one, between Lord Chandos of Bath and Francis Bacon, dated 1603. Lord Chandos declares to Bacon:

I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently.

Lord Chandos is racked by spiritual experiences of the natural world, stating:

Everything that exists, everything I can remember, everything touched upon by my confused thoughts, has a meaning. Even my own heaviness, the general torpor of my brain, seems to acquire a meaning; I experience in and around me a blissful, never-ending interplay, and among the objects playing against one another there is not one into which I cannot flow.

He articulates a retreat from the social world that the Moderns made confused and meaningless.

A miserable thirteen year-old, Ludwig, is ushered past von Hoffmannsthal as he stands, staring at a Linden tree in contemplation. Ludwig’s nanny tells him they will be late to an important social function. Ludwig looks at von Hoffmannsthal and wonders to himself: ‘What is that silent man thinking? Is there some way I can know?’

Some thirty years later, Professor Ludwig Wittgenstein is in conversation with Professor Piero Sraffa in Cambridge.

“A proposition has the same logical form as that which it describes” insists Wittgenstein, “and that which one cannot reduce logically, one must remain silent”. “Oh really?” replies Sraffa. He takes his fingers and strokes the underside of his chin, in a disdainful Neapolitan gesture. “And what is the logical form of that?” Sraffa asks. To this, for a brief moment, Wittgenstein is silent.

What we call the later Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein that was to culminate in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations, represents a profound body of insights that challenged the idea dominant in Anglo-‘analytic’ philosophy that the World is a set of atomic propositions built upon one another, and that everything that lies outside of this system – whether a monosyllabic expression of feigned disgust or Hegel’s Philosophy of History – was logically and philosophically meaningless.

Wittgenstein broke with this, arguing instead that meaning is embedded in social frameworks rather than being atomic and universal. Wittgenstein called these frameworks language-games, to explain that “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” [§15]. These language-games are not defined and demarcated by formal rules per se – rather, “one learns the game by watching how others play it” [§31]. These informal rules are learned through immersion in a given language-game. Nor must concepts employed in these games be sharp and precise – indeed, he claimed that fuzzy concepts whose meanings changed across contexts were “often just what we need” [§71]. The game, Wittgenstein adds, has “not only rules but a point” [§564] – that is to say, a very much unspoken, indirectly articulated subtextual purpose.

Within Wittgenstein, we see a novel early 20th century articulation of the particularity of meaning, one that I believe has a unique political interpretation. Despite its ramifications permeating his later works, it is directly addressed in his Philosophy of Psychology:

We also say of a person that he is transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards our considerations that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. One learns this when one comes into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, when though one has mastered the country’s language. One does not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing that they are saying to themselves.) We can’t find our feet with them. [§235].

What is wonderful about Wittgenstein is that we see with him a unique 20th century articulation of the romantic idea of the Volksgeist, having arrived at it from a particular intellectual valley whose meadows were altogether unsuited to inquiry into the social world as it is experienced.

Wittgenstein, like von Hoffmannsthal, wrote in the context of the morass of confused, chaotic and contradictory meaning in the Vienna of his youth. How the phenomenology of that city, and the broader collapse of the Austrian Empire into a smaller, self-contained systems of meaning through nationalism, directly affected Wittgenstein’s work is to my knowledge not entirely clear. Yet I find it hard to image that there was no influence at play here.

Habsburg Austria was a form of life. In this form of life, the Emperor was the leader of the peoples of the empire, who predicated his legitimacy upon the defence of the Christian faith, made all the more poignant with a hostile Ottoman empire at its frontier. The Emperor delegated spiritual authority to the Pope, and to a lesser extent the national patriarchs of Orthodoxy and important Protestant figures. Temporal authority was delegated to a patchwork of minor nobility who acted as the interface between the ethno-populaces and the German elite. In many respects this form of life transcended the multiplicity of languages in which it was expressed – the closest analogue I can think of is contemporary Switzerland, whose multilingual character rests upon a common Alpinist spirit.

Newspaper-literacy and urbanisation served to weaken the Habsburg form of life, as ethno-leaders on one hand sought to carve out their own nationalistic forms of life, while the metropolis of Vienna also saw seeds of a new modern and self-determining form of life emerge, as it was to manifest in its highest incarnation in the United States of America. This was not inevitable. Franz Ferdinand, prior to his assassination, was actively engaging with scholars who advocated a federal arrangement of the empire. The most preeminent of these, the ethnic Romanian Aurel Popovici, drew up a United States of Greater Austria that promised to solve the under-representation of those who weren’t Germans and Magyars once and for all. Had the Entente won the First World War, this may have been realised. But I digress.

What we achieved instead was a warped interpretation of the German life-form in Nazi Germany that sought to eradicate forms of life of other European peoples, itself defeated by the Global form of life led by America (which saw off the Soviet alternative after long enough).

And here we are. The Global form of life is the destruction of forms of life themselves. Systems of meaning in the world – faith, family, nationality – are to be broken down and integrated into an atomic system in which each of us holds a ‘private language’ of understanding. We are to create virtual worlds for ourselves in which we each establish our own form of life, extrapolating the principle of the open-world role-playing game to our entire existences, as we choose who we are as we would in a start-of-game character creator. We speak to nobody real, only automata. The cardinal virtues of the Global form of life is that this private future is both inevitable and Good, and that any enemy of its implementation must be destroyed. We will each have no meaning outside of what we determine for ourselves, which is itself meaningless.

Bertrand Russell, who was dismayed with Wittgenstein’s later work, would have found that last sentence contradictory and nonsensical. Do you see the meaning?

The fundamental principle of radical-right politics is the restoration of meaning to the world – I can think of no better way of distilling it. The presence of significant numbers of entirely otherly peoples and faiths in European and Eurocolonial states in the context of an underlying Progressive ideology has battered these common frameworks, leading to some combination of societal fragmentation as competing forms of life collide, and lowest-common-denominator Globalising as they come together. We become a unitary huddled mass, yearning to determine our own meanings.

The competing forms of post-Habsburg life were, to varying degrees, at each other’s’ throats in the chaos of the Empire’s disintegration. But this was not inherent to them, as their point of departure with Habsburg Austria was that it was not adequately representative of who they were. The totalising Global form we currently face now is truly one-of-a-kind. It goes even beyond the Nazi-Germanic form of life, which saw to replace the varied forms of life of Europeans with its own. The Global form posits a destruction with no replacement at all, only an eternity of sugar-eating by men without chests. In such a situation, to retreat like Lord Chandos into the transcendental beauty of the world beyond language is not enough to save us, as this but postpones the inevitable; to meld ones consciousness into the natural world is but for ones spirit to die more beautifully. The Global form of life, the Evil that it is, must be fought against in the here-and-now as a principle of existence by the peoples of this beautiful Earth.

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