Therefore Be Ye Silent

I’m listening to Death Cab for Cutie and thinking about my buddy Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ol’ Ludwig is an interesting guy, you should get to know him. When he was 26 or so he wrote a book that changed the course of philosophy. When I’m 26 I hope to have a written a book too, one that will at least have changed the course of my life, if not everyone elses. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – which he rejected almost entirely later on in life – divided the world in three categories: Sense, Senseless, and Nonsense.

Sexy Ludwig said that the category of sense contains all propositions, whether true or false. “My cat is white.” This makes sense – it reflects the world around us. 2 + 2 = 4 is senseless, as is all math and logic. This is the second category, and things here tell us absolutely nothing about the world. The category of nonsense contains everything I love: metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. These are all normative, they talk about what ought to be. The only kind of speech that makes sense is that which mirrors reality – not speaks to what’s beyond it. “God exists” is non-sensical, it’s meaningless.

See now here’s the truly beautiful thing. Wittgenstein was not actually saying God does not exist (substitute “God” with anything else from metaphysics or aesthetics if you wish) but simply that we can’t speak about Him. It’s beyond the realm of language, beyond true and false, beyond propositional speech and logic. This nonsense – the unsayable – transcends the constraints of this sad world.

Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. But… what cannot be said can be shown.” Here’s the crux of the whole thing: live the unsayable. This is genius. “Be ye kind one to another” is a startling significant statement that’s meaningless – a phrase that attempts to speak of that which we can’t. The solution, then, is to be ye kind one to another.

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