They say the world was created from nothing, he says. Creation ex nihlio, he says.
But that’s not how the world was created. There was something before there was nothingness. A kind of present absence. Non-non-being. Existence, but without anything in particular existing.
He speaks of a kind of bruise, but without there being any flesh to bruise. He speaks of a kind of ache, but without there being a body to ache. He speaks of a kind of sobbing, but without there being any eyes to weep. He speaks of a kind of dying, without there being any kind of life. He speaks of a kind of ending, long before there was anything to end.
Our sense of entitlement. Our sense that everything must come to us, and in our terms. Our sense that our ignorance should set the standards of teaching. Our sense that we should be reached where we are, and at the level of our ignorance. Our sense that our teachers should bow down to us.
Everything has always come to us on our terms, he can see that. Everything has always reached us at our level. And even philosophy must come to us in our terms, he knows that. Even the very philosophers themselves must duck their heads to enter our Wendy house.
Immanuel Kant must duck his head! Gottfried Leibniz must duck his head! John Stuart Mill must duck his head!
Thinking is no longer an honest pursuit for us, he says. A decent pursuit. There is something covert about our thinking. Something dirty. Thinking has become a private affair. A secret affair.
And thinking is lonely, he says. There’s no one to accompany us as thinkers, he says. There are no fellows, no friends. And there’s no audience, either. There’s no one for whom to write. No one who cares.
Once, thought was also a matter of character, he says. Thought was a matter of living in a certain way. Once, you were judged as a thinker on the way you lived before others. You showed what you thought by the way you lived. By the evidence of your life. And now?
The thinker is a kind of beetle, he says. The thinker is a nocturnal insect. The thinker goes about in darkness. The thinker lives and dies unnoticed. His body is swept away with all the others, like a fly that has died in a dusty corner.
It is as though no one had ever thought, he says. It’s as though everyone had forgotten how to think, and forgotten all the techniques of thinking.
We no longer know how to think, he says. How to tell real from fake thinking. The skill of thinking has gone, he says. The craft of thinking. The honesty of thought, when you could judged what was thought, and what you thought.
The day of thinking has passed, he says. The day of thinkers, working as simply and honestly as labourers in the sun. The day of thinker-fellows, corresponding with one another, addressing learned audiences. The day the thinker was part of a culture, part of something held in common. The day thinkers pressed towards a common goal.
What effect does the sun warming his head have on his brother’s thinking?, he wonders. What effect does the rain pelting his head have on his brother’s thinking? What effect does thick fog have, so thick you can barely seen ten feet in front on your eyes, have on his brother’s thinking? What effect does the crunch of snow underfoot have on his brother’s thinking? What effect does keeping the river on his left have on his brother’s thinking? And on his right?
What was the influence of topography on his brother’s thinking?, he wonders. Of elevation? Of depression? Is the thought of the valley bottom any different from the thought on the hill-crest?
Was his brother’s thought affected by the density of cloud?, he wonders. By different kinds of precipitation? Did he have snow thoughts and hail thoughts? Was the clarity of the sky proportionate to the clarity in his head? Did a windy day mean the thoughts in his head were likewise windy?
Was his brother’s thought affected by the time of day?, he wonders. Were his brother’s morning thoughts different from his lunchtime thoughts? Was there something particular to his brother’s afternoon thoughts, and to his evening thoughts?
He sees things from the perspective of the future. From an unimaginable future. From billions of years hence. Trillions of years. The things of the universe will only fly apart forever, he says. One day, you won’t be able to see the stars. The planets will be detached from their orbits. The stars will slowly exhaust their fuel and die. Black holes will throb in the darkness. And one day, they, too, will disappear. All the nucleons will have decayed. All the protons. And the university will be dark, dark, dark.
The end is endless, he says. The end goes on forever.
His sense of futility. His sense of hopelessness. His sense of the end, that’s already ended, that everything has already happened, that all that is happening has already happened. That nothing is new, or can be new. That it’s all happened before, not once, but a thousand times.
His sense of the hollowness of things. Of the hollowness of the present. That it’s all been hollowed out, cored out. That there’s no centre anymore. That things will soon break apart. Fly apart.
Ede and I saw him on the road to Grantchester, with a short, Mediterranean-looking man, an economist, apparently, from one of the newer colleges. We follow them at a distance. What are they talking about? The economist’s gesticulations. The economist’s flamboyance. Wittgenstein Jr looking thoughtful. Wittgenstein Jr, quiet, and nodding his head.
How much the economist talks! How interested Wittgenstein Jr seems! Ah, if only he were as interested in us! If only he listened to us, as he listens to his economist friend!
And then, on another occasion, Scroggins saw Wittgenstein Jr and the economist walking along the College Backs. The two men stood at the edge of a flowerbed, passing a stick between them, drawing something in the wet mud. Wittgenstein Jr drew something; the economist added something to the drawing – and, then, with an impatient gesture, appeared to draw a line through it. Wittgenstein Jr nodded. Yes, he seemed to say. A pause, Wittgenstein Jr clearly deep in thought. Then, the philosopher takes the stick and draws another diagram. This time, it is the economist’s turn to nod. Then the two men resumed their pacing.
Mathenge and Alice Seddon saw him with a white-robed Dominican, the pair walking along the river, slowly and quietly. They seemed barely to speak to one another, being silent for long stretches. They seemed to be meditating with one another, to be attuned to one another. Wittgenstein Jr seemed truly relaxed with his Dominican friend. His brow was unfurrowed. His face was unstrained. He seemed truly at peace.
Ah, if only we were as spiritually advanced as Wittgenstein Jr’s Dominican friend. If only we could offer our teaching spiritual comfort!
Of course, philosophy is unique among subjects because it does not know what it is, he says. Because no one knows what it is; one philosopher says philosophy is one thing, and another philosopher says that it’s another thing, and no one can convince anyone else of what philosophy is, and no one can be convinced of what philosophy is.
In the end, philosophy is a question-mark rather than an academic subject, he says. In the end, philosophy is only a kind of search for itself, for philosophy, he says. This is why every great philosopher has his or her own version of what philosophy is, he says. Every great philosopher, in doing great philosophy, totally reinvents what philosophy is, he says.
With the great philosopher, the entire philosophical lexicon gains new meaning, he says. With the great philosopher, every item in the philosopher’s vocabulary is subtly altered, he says. With the great philosophy, the very heart of philosophy is remade, he says.
In the end, every debate between great philosophers is a debate about the nature and meaning of philosophy, he says. This is why no such debate can ever be settled, he says. It is why you can’t meaningfully arbitrate in a debate between entirely different visions of philosophy.
Of course, he doesn’t intend remaking philosophy, he says. He doesn’t have any intention of remaking philosophy. He means to bring the endless remaking of philosophy to an end. He means to bring philosophy itself to an end, he says.
We know thought’s cost. We know what thought has asked from him. What it has demanded.
He bears thought’s scars. He bears the stigmata of thought. The nails have been driven through his hands. The transept has been raised. His body hangs from the cross. Thought’s crown of thorns makes his forehead bleed.
He is alone. He must be alone in the final phases. He must preserve himself in solitude. He must not speak, lest he disturb his thought, lest he compromise it by over-simplification, lest he render it with lack of appropriate nuance, of appropriate subtlety.
He is alone. He is the minute hand that moves towards midnight. Soon, the moment will strike.
We, Wittgenstein Jr’s class, spend more time with one another.
The feeling that we’re in on something. Complicit with something. The feeling that we will have to see something through to the end.
The feeling that only we can understand each other. That no one else understands.
The feeling that we’re waiting for something. That our lives are in suspense in that waiting.
The feeling of excitement. Of trepidation. We call one another, but say nothing. We go our walking, saying nothing. We get buses from the city to walk in the Fens. We visit the cathedral at Ely. We wait. We walk. Our waiting, our quiet companionship, is a waiting.
We are reaching greater heights; greater depths. We walk among the stars. True, sometimes it seems we climb too high, that we cannot breathe, that there is no chance to draw breath, that the air is thin, rarefied, but we are closer to the sky here, closer to the stars, closer to the night. And it seems we go down too low, that we come close to where crust turns to mantle, and turns to fire. That we find ourselves close, too close, to the flaming roots of things.
The sense of growing pressure, of growing urgency. The sense of the absolute importance of his ideas. The sense that it will all, very soon, make perfect sense.
A pell-mell of logical symbols, of logical operators. The blackboard on the mantle-shelf written upon and wiped clean. Fewer pauses to think; fewer moments of silence, and those that occur more tense than before.
He speaks more quickly, more intimately, presuming our understanding, our complicity, depending on the fact that we have been following him for some time. He speaks more quietly, his voice becoming sometimes no more than a murmuring, than a rumbling on the edges of sense, his voice becoming noise, becoming hubbub, even as he speaks with more urgency, with more passion, with more of a sense that things are coming to a head.
Wittgenstein Jr’s class. His seriousness. His gravity.
A kind of transference is occurring. We, too, are becoming serious. We, too, feel something of his urgency. We clench and unclench our hands, like him. We furrow our brows, like him. We purse our lips, like him.
We feel his sense of urgency. We feel that something is happening. That something is occurring. We feel that a threshold has been reached. That resolution is close. The end of all labours.
Things will bear fruit! Things will make sense! A Sabbath will follow the days of work. A great Sunday of life. But until then ... more work! More seriousness!
Does he think we are concentrating? Does he think we are able to listen? Does he think we are taking notes? Does he think we are thinking about what he says, and not about the fact of his thinking about them, the fact of his presence before us, the fact that we are here, and that he is here, that we must be here, and that he must be here, that it is Monday afternoon, that this is where we have to be on a Monday afternoon.
Does he think that what he teaches has any relevance to us? Does he think what he says can enter our souls? Does he think that he will shape us by what he says? Does he think we will be formed in some way? Does he think we are capable of learning a lesson? Of taking something in? Does he think that we have any interest in logic? That logic means anything to us? Does he think we have chosen his module for any reason other than that he promised us first class marks?
True, we must admit that there is something interesting about him; that he is a figure of curiosity for us; that his quirks are unusual; that he is a ‘case’. We must admit that we want to see where it is all going, that there is a sense of gathering urgency to his lectures, that the momentum is increasing, that something is coming to climax, that, soon enough, it will reachits head
We must admit that even we are in the grip of his teaching, that we are waiting to find out what happens, that we know the dam will burst, and we are curious to see its bursting, that we are waiting for the release after long weeks of tension.