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Wittgenstein I?

  • motto

Gerben, whom I hold highly, admired Wittgenstein I (or W1). Maybe he still does.

W1 represents an intellectual attitude in which one refrains from speaking about what is not knowable. “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen” is the last proposition (7) from his Tractatus, and can in conjunction with an earlier proposition (5.6) “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt” mean anything , for example that my world grows larger with my speaking more, but also that I should not talk about what is not knowable.

Read in the latter way, W1 is the result of a dedicated tradition thinker (as the future is unknowable). But that is the last thing Bertrand Russell, who guided him in his investigations, observed. Apparently W1 (like the Bible) allows interpretations of a kaleidoscopic nature. The Tractatus dates from 1918. Have we made any progress in the meantime, a hundred and three years hence? Can I, for example, by building a toy world and putting it into action enlarge the world I can speak of?

I don’t think the answer can be found in W1. Not for those who in 2021 must have come to understand that the concept of “knowing” rather than providing clear decision procedures rests at best on a diffuse collection of expectations that are only partly supported by facts. For example, do you know the causes of the Fukushima nuclear drama on March 11, 2011? Or of the differences in – and the relationship between corona measures, numbers of fatalities, the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic over the year 2020? Of the Dutch “virus madness” movement or of climate denial collectives?

W1 doesn’t get us any further here. Worse, it prevents us from moving forward. And with that, dear listeners, we end up in the world of political science. Not with the focus on government practices, but with the focus on the political world in which science is struggling for a place.

When I began to enter academic circles, in 1966, the place of science was strictly out of bounds for politics (at least that would a tradition thinkers make of it today). References to contemporary mottos like ‘funder decides’ were still completely taboo. We have learned by now that the world of science has become a political arena after all, that is partly populated by dream- and partly by tradition thinkers. And it remains to be seen how we will succeed in surviving our transition from enlightenment academia into essential service providers for market states.