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Wittgenstein : The Man and His Philosophy by A.J. Ayer (Random House: $17.95; 224 pp.)

December 29, 1985|Richard J. Morris | Morris is writing a study on learning to read Wittgenstein. and

Bill Cosby has a much-loved comedy routine entitled, "Why Is There Air?" In it he speaks with mock admiration of his brilliant Temple University girlfriend who spent so much of her time asking deep and awe-inspiring questions. She was, of course, a philosophy major.

Wittgenstein would have revelled in that monologue. Until, that is, he got angry. Not at Cosby but at philosophers who didn't see the joke. And out of the anger would have come a question grimly pursued through a blizzard of crumpled notepaper: Why do philosophers talk funny? And why isn't it funny when they do?

The world first heard of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, with the publication, under the aegis of Bertrand Russell, of his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." A short work of incredibly compressed thinking, it dealt with the foundations of logic, the boundaries of factual language and the main problems of philosophy.

For a variety of wrong reasons, Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" had an enormous impact on philosophers intent on sterilizing human communication in the interest of scientific accuracy. Logical Positivists embraced the oracular aphorisms with which Wittgenstein apparently swept the world clean of God, values and metaphysics. They saw what they wanted to see, choosing to disregard the author's insistence that the divine, the ethical and the real are to be shown, not scientifically demonstrated.

In 1929, 10 fallow years after finishing the "Tractatus," Wittgenstein returned from his native Austria to Cambridge University, where he had been an advanced student under Russell's tutelage. Awarded his doctorate on the basis of the "Tractatus," he shifted his gaze from the neatly defined limits of what can be said to the untidy complexities of what we actually say. Not as a grammarian or lexicographer, but as someone trying to describe the linguistic ways of being human: the expression and pursuit of meanings.

Sometimes the pursuit is a wild-goose chase: something that goes on all too often in philosophy. Why? Wittgenstein set out to find the answers.

In 1939, Wittgenstein accepted the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge, but on the outbreak of World War II volunteered his services as a hospital orderly and laboratory assistant. In 1947, having returned to the university, he gave his last lectures in Cambridge and retired to Ireland, where he worked on the definitive expression of his later philosophy: "Philosophical Investigations."

In the "Investigations," Wittgenstein takes the reader on a journey through the labyrinth of language. It's a strange experience for a philosopher used to the systematic dissection of frozen concepts. Suddenly everything is in motion: Perspectives shift; mirrors distort; pictures change shape; open paths turn into cul-de-sacs. And always, everywhere, there is the constant murmur of society. To keep its footing in 'Wittgenstein' expression, not its clinical explanation.

Fittingly, Wittgenstein left the "Investigations" unfinished, interrupted in 1951 by his death in England at age 62.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was not an easy person to be around. Like his philosophy, he was complicated. Unfortunately, A. J. Ayer sees no complication in either. Whatever he finds uncongenial, he discards.

First to go is Wittgenstein's own estimation of the "Tractatus" as a philosophical heuristic. Whatever there is in it of value, says Ayer, is positivistic in spirit; the rest is to be consigned to the waste-dump of nonsense. It is not even, he says, "important nonsense," a notion he attributes to Wittgenstein, having already identified its sarcastic source as someone else. Ironically, Ayer attributes the work's impact to its mystical qualities of power and beauty.

The Wittgenstein of the "Investigations" is brushed off as obscure, shallow and dishonest, one who "pretends that he limits himself to description" while all the time furiously theorizing. Above all, Ayer holds that Wittgenstein's analysis of how we use psychological language is wrong-headed in the extreme. One might ask, however, if the author's own account is to be preferred. When I tell my dentist where it hurts, do I really "ascribe pain to myself" as I "refer to the feeling"? If I'm Sir Alfred Ayer, perhaps I do.

More so than in his "Philosophy in the Twentieth Century," Ayer portrays Wittgenstein the man as a nasty piece of work. In the earlier book, Wittgenstein merely gave his inheritance away to his siblings. Here, he gives it "not to the poor, whom it might corrupt, but to the members of his family who were already so rich that it would not harm them." Through the eyes of A. J. Ayer, we see Wittgenstein as an overbearing, ungrateful Anglophobe with symptoms of paranoia and megalomania. We are to believe that he got his lucky break by flattering Russell with the "Tractatus," an unoriginal piece that "embroidered themes which he had discussed with Wittgenstein before the war." This is somewhat at odds with what we know from other sources.

Voodoo dolls come in many shapes. This one looks like a book. The features, in caricature, are just recognizably Wittgenstein's. Dead these 30-odd years, he remains a vexatious memory to Sir Alfred, who last saw him slamming his way out of a Cambridge colloquium, dismissing Ayer's paper as beneath discussion. Chapter by chapter the author sticks pins into this effigy in hopes of driving the phantom away. But Wittgenstein remains, an angry ghost.

Anger drives this book; anger, fed by incomprehension. Ayer pelts Wittgenstein's image with straw men, covers it in guilt by association, and all too frequently shoves it aside to venerate the idol of himself. Constantly asking the wrong questions based on mistaken presuppositions, Ayer shows us what philosophy should not be: disputatiously dull.

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