Is all theory grey, my friend?

 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-explainexplain.  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!”


8 comments on “Is all theory grey, my friend?

  1. MP says:

    “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.”

    This is nicely said. Thanks.

  2. dmfant says:

    “Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”

    • efmooney says:

      Ah, Emerson’s Divinity School Address; but it might have been Nietzsche, or Kierkegaard, as well!

      Thanks, Dirk!

      • dmfant says:

        you’re most welcome, thanks to you for steering me back to Emerson &Thoreau.

        A boy had stopped his car
        To save a turtle in the road;
        I was not far
        Behind, and slowed,
        And stopped to watch as he began
        To shoo it off into the undergrowth—

        This wild reminder of an ancient past,
        Lumbering to some Late Triassic bog,
        Till it was just a rustle in the grass,
        Till it was gone.

        I hope I told him with a look
        As I passed by,
        How I was glad he’d stopped me there,
        And what I felt for both
        Of them, something I took
        To be a kind of love,
        And of a troubled thought
        I had, for man,
        Of how we ought
        To let life go on where
        And when it can.

        “An Interruption” by Robert S. Foote

  3. Steve says:

    I’m surprised by how often that famous line – “My friend, all theory is grey, the tree of life is golden-green” – is quoted out of context. Coming as it does from the mouth of Mephistopheles – the Devil, lest we forget – I should think people might be a little more cautious in citing it as an expression of wisdom. The phrase is addressed to a young student whom the Devil has volunteered to counsel while Faust hastens away to prepare for his adventure on the wild side. As Faust exits the scene, the Devil expresses his contempt for Faust’s readiness to exchange the highest in human life for a short-lived illusion, one that will inevitably lead to tragedy and the loss of his soul. “Keep it up,” says the Devil, in gleeful anticipation, “go on despising reason and learning, man’s greatest assets. Let me entangle you in my deceits and magic shows, and I’ll get you for sure.” This aside sets the theme for the Devil’s encounter with the young student. As we might expect of him, instead of offering the kid honest advice, the Devil proceeds to mess with his head; and the kid, being too credulous and trusting to register the danger he’s in, eagerly absorbs the Devil’s words as gospel truth. It’s clear in context that the Devil’s malicious intent extends all the way to his contrast between grey and dulling theory on the one hand and the golden-green intensities of life on the other. By sneering at the word ‘theory’ and playing on the youth’s natural resistance to brain-work and discipline – which is what theory’s grey coloration really signifies, it seems to me – the Devil’s line of poetry amounts to nothing less than pulling at the youth’s delicate intellectual roots before they’ve had a good chance to take hold. It’s an enticement of the youth away from intellectual effort, an attempt to weakening his resolve with an image of easy pleasure – the same enticement or longing that leads Faust astray. The wicked intent of the phrase, its function as a temptation, is immediately reinforced by the Devil’s inscription in the student’s book: “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” In other words, “[A]ll theory is grey, the tree of life is golden-green” is the apple that the Devil extends to a fresh young mind in order to spoil it.

    P.S. I haven’t read the whole of “Faust” since I was a college youth myself, and truth to tell the allure of sunshine and deep grass probably kept me from finishing it even then. So I have no idea whether my own grey interpretation of the line in question really fits the play as a whole. Still, I do get the strong impression that the line, like Faust’s impersonator himself, is far from being what it appears. What do you think, Ed?

  4. Steve says:

    Does my main comment above conclude with a non sequitur? Only if you assume that the student doesn’t know where the Devil’s inscription comes from. If you accept that he does know its origin and that it alludes to humanity’s Fall through the temptation to know, then you can see how it might echo the Devil’s earlier, invidious characterization of theory. In both passages knowledge is in some since “bad” and leads to a dimming or constricting of natural life, even unto death. The irony here, of course, is that in the student’s case Mephistopheles inverts the temptation from knowledge to anti-knowledge. Eschew knowledge (theory), he seems to say, and you won’t suffer the scholar’s grey miseries and lose the paradise of immediate sensory life. – Anyway, this is my hypothesis, forced as it may sound. Thanks, Ed, for reminding me to read the play! Now I really must set about doing that.

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