Do theory and counter-theory go hand in glove? And are both mistaken and opposed to life? These terse thoughts, far too condensed to mean much on their own, bring to mind Goethe, who has Faust bewail, “I am the spirit of perpetual negation.” And Goethe then has Mephistopheles’s famous “consolation” — “All theory is grey, my friend, but ah, the glad golden tree of life is green.”
A recent magazine piece (maybe in the Guardian?) by Wittgenstein’s biographer, Ray Monk reflects on Wittgenstein’s collection of photographs. The photos are interesting, but Monk along the way says something about Wittgenstein generally, not just about the book he reviews. There’s a connection between looking at the photos collected and Wittgenstein’s emphasis on looking, rather than explaining. In a parody with a point, we could say that philosophers (and academics generally) explain-explain–explain. They can forget to just look at the world, or flow with it, or listen to it (like listening to music). Wittgenstein thinks that philosophy is not a set of theories, one of which may be correct. Nor is it a set of theories that grows and thank God, we enlightened ones are — I as enlightened am — about to stop this proliferation. In blissful assurance, we know that the next theory – ours — will finally be correct, and halt the profusion of error. It’s nice to fantasize omniscience.
Wittgenstein had a deep interest in religion, in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Kierkegaard: he wrote, echoing a bit of Kierkegaard, “faith is a passion; wisdom, like cool grey ash.” He carried Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief to the trenches during WWI, and read from it every day. The Investigations is like a maze or storm at sea or series of unsolvable puzzles, full of almost biblical enigmas. You might say it holds both that human life has no Ground, no big foundation in logic or a rock-solid God, science or reason, and that nevertheless it has all the (God-given?) ground it needs — in overlooked aspects of life: the smile of a child, the rise of the sun, the sound of a clarinet or a call to prayer from a minaret.
To feel that, to live from it, would be something like leading a life of faith, being grounded in it. “All theory is grey . . . but . . . the glad golden tree of life is green.” Yes, good, but not quite Wittgenstein. Theory might be ‘cool grey ash’ but life was too polychrome, including shades of black, to qualify as golden or green. (It’s not just too much theory that makes for the darkness of the times – his and ours.)
In his 1929 Notebook Wittgenstein writes enigmatically, “What is good is also divine.” And he refused to swallow ashes. He could imbibe good. “Tell them I’ve had a good life!”