Saturday, January 22, 2011

How To Live, Part Four: "Next To Nothing Known Is The Last Thing One Learns"

Ludwig Wittgenstein was quite skeptical of science's role in the modern world and in the working out of one's Fate.  One of his classic statements about science is this:

We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.  Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

Proposition 6.52, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness) (emphasis in original).  As I have suggested previously, Wittgenstein can often be mistaken for a Taoist or a Buddhist.  "There are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer" sounds like an answer to a Zen koan, or like something out of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

Wittgenstein's thoughts have to a great extent been corrupted out of all recognition by academic philosophers.  Hence, it is important to recognize that he simply wished to figure out how to get through an ordinary day.  (Which is perhaps why he abandoned Cambridge and other centers of "learning" in order to spend long stretches of time alone in a cabin on a fjord in Norway and in a stone cottage in the west of Ireland at the edge of the Atlantic.)

All of which brings us obliquely to a poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

                         A Belated Discovery

Admitting ignorance, comprehensive and uncharted,
Of all that is beyond my localized concerns,
I come to the conclusion -- cocksure though I started --
That next to nothing known is the last thing one learns.

This world, encyclopaedic subject, for my mind
Remains existent as an undiscovered land:
Therefore the apparition named myself I find
The only matter that I can hope to understand.

Siegfried Sassoon, in D. F. Corrigan, Siegfried Sassoon: Poet's Pilgrimage (1973), pages 45-46.

                                       Norman Clark (1913-1992)
                          "Flying Kites By A Gas Works Near Bexhill"


Mary F. C. Pratt said...

Yes! Thank you!

From My Easy Chair said...

Wittgenstein and Sassoon do seem to be making the same observation: that humans cannot get beyond self. Do flying kites prove or disprove that?

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary F.C. Pratt: Thank you for visiting and commenting again. I'm pleased that you liked the post.

Stephen Pentz said...

From My Easy Chair: Thank you for dropping by again. As for flying kites, how about this: when you fly a kite, there are -- to borrow from Ludwig -- no questions to ask, which is itself the answer. I guess.

zmkc said...

Another lovely poem and, as always, a perfect illustration to go with it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for the kind comment, zmkc. There are many hidden gems in Sassoon's poetry. Unfortunately, most people only think of him as a "war poet", and don't read beyond what he wrote during and just after the War.

As for the painting, I don't know much about Norman Clark's work, but it is a nice image, I think.