Wittgenstein on death


One of the most unclear passages of Tractatus logico-philosophicus is thesis 6.4311 where Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) claims: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” These two clauses are spoken to be both an accurate expression of Wittgenstein’s view on death and a symbol of the mystery of death. Commentators on the Tractatus emphasize their vagueness and similarity to Epicurus’s thesis that as long as we exist, death is not present, and when it is present, we are nonexistent. I will question the similarity to Epicurus and claim that Wittgenstein is a transcendental idealist. My analysis of the title sentence shows that according to Wittgenstein death is not an event in life (in the world) because: (1) it is the death of the subject, and the transcendental subject does not belong to the world, (2) the transcendental subject is a condition of the world, so the death of the subject is the end of the world (death is an event that annihilates both the subject and the world). The thesis “death is not an event in life” occurs in the same wording in both the Tractatus and in the Notebooks. In the Notebooks it is accompanied by the sentence “death is not a fact in the world,” while in the Tractatus, we fi nd: “we do not live to experience death.” In both we can read the sentence “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.” I will try to analyze the title sentence using those three additional sentences that constitute a negative description of death: death is not a fact in the world, death is not lived through, at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.

Ireneusz Ziemiński, Idealistic Studies, Volume 37, Issue 1

PHILOSOPHERS as far back as Socrates have spoken about death and what meaning one might give the phenomenon of death. Socrates suggests that death might be a great blessing and not a curse. The entire history of philosophy is packed with discussions of this topic and related topics like the mind/body or the problem of immortality. Theologians have also discussed them but often from a somewhat different perspective. Present philosophers of the so-called analytic tradition have raised some serious and often fatal questions about the intelligibility of such discussions-both those who favour immmortality and those who argue against it. Although it is true that Wittgenstein is greatly but not solely responsible for such a movement in philosophy, it is not at all clear that what he has to say about the intelligibility of such discussions is correctly understood. Anyone familiar with his Lectures and Conversations quickly realizes that Wittgenstein had tremendous difficulties in understanding God-talk and immortality-talk. But it is also clear that he obviously understood what people were saying when they talked God-talk or immortality-talk. On the one hand, he says ‘I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures’.! On the other hand, he says ‘In one sense, I can understand all he says-the English words “God”, “separate”, etc. I understand .. . Being shown all these things, did you understand what this word meant?” I’d say: “Yes and no”. I did learn what it didn’t mean. I made myself understand. I could answer questions, understand questions when they were put in different ways-and in that sense could be said to understand’. There are a number of ways in which God-talk, immortality-talk, or deathtalk can be intelligible. Wittgenstein suggests that the words used are English words and that presumably no syntactical errors are involved and thus what is said is intelligible to that degree. We can add that if one has been brought up in a particular religious persuasion one can understand questions and understand what answers are appropriate and which are not. As Wittgenstein might put it-having been trained in a certain game, one can make the moves that are legitimate in that game. Nonetheless, there is something problematic about this type of discourse and Wittgenstein expresses a number of difficulties with these language-games. It does not follow from this that such language is nonsense it la logical positivism. But if it does have some sense or some meaning, it is imperative that one articulates what that meaning might be. This paper attempts to discuss what Wittgenstein said about death and why he thinks that death has some meaning, that death-talk has a meaning. The contention is that such discourse has existential meaning and as such has a bearing on the meaning of life.

William Bruening, Philosophical studies, 1975, Volume: 25

And a contemporary philosopher, Jeff Mason’s, ruminations on his own mortality: Death and Its Concept and Close Encounters of the Cancer Kind: Is Philosophy a Preparation for Death?


Philosophical Literature

H/T to a kindred spirit “Infrequent literary reflections by an analytic philosopher” for bringing the slowly but surely growing secondary literature to my attention. Since it was through Kafka that my latent philosophical impulse was first generated, I’ve always wanted to write a piece on some aspect of his work. I have however been granted an opportunity to write on Musil for an upcoming conference – that will be this summer’s project. Paul writes:

I linked in my previous post to some items that connect Wittgenstein to literary themes.

Duncan Richter has a post about Wittgenstein and Kafka. In the comments to that post, there are recommendations of some additional work that involves Kafka and Wittgenstein. Richter refers to Rebecca Schuman’s paper, ‘”Unerschütterlich”: Kafka’s Proceß, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and the Law of Logic’, which has now appeared in The German Quarterly. I know of one fictional work that puts Kafka and Wittgenstein together (very briefly). It’s a story by Guy Davenport called The Aeroplanes at Brescia.

Last fall, Ben Ware published ‘Ethics and the Literary in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the Journal for the History of Ideas. Ware there ‘explores the connections between the literary and the ethical in the book,’ and argues that ‘Wittgenstein hoped to achieve a practical rather than cognitive transformation in his readers’ lives.’

On another German lit front that involves Wittgenstein, Gwyneth Cliver’s 2008 dissertation, Musil, Broch, and the mathematics of modernism, has two chapters on Wittgenstein.


Hume and Wittgenstein

Born on this day

Hume [O.S.]

The most important philosopher ever to write in English, David Hume (1711-1776) — the last of the great triumvirate of “British empiricists” — was also well-known in his own time as an historian and essayist. A master stylist in any genre, Hume’s major philosophical works — A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740), the Enquiries concerning Human Understanding (1748) and concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), as well as the posthumously published Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) — remain widely and deeply influential. Although many of Hume’s contemporaries denounced his writings as works of scepticism and atheism, his influence is evident in the moral philosophy and economic writings of his close friend Adam Smith. Hume also awakened Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” and “caused the scales to fall” from Jeremy Bentham’s eyes. Charles Darwin counted Hume as a central influence, as did “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley. The diverse directions in which these writers took what they gleaned from reading Hume reflect not only the richness of their sources but also the wide range of his empiricism. Today, philosophers recognize Hume as a precursor of contemporary cognitive science, as well as one of the most thoroughgoing exponents of philosophical naturalism.


Considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein played a central, if controversial, role in 20th-century analytic philosophy. He continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture. There are two commonly recognized stages of Wittgenstein’s thought—the early and the later—both of which are taken to be pivotal in their respective periods. The early Wittgenstein is epitomized in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. By showing the application of modern logic to metaphysics, via language, he provided new insights into the relations between world, thought and language and thereby into the nature of philosophy. It is the later Wittgenstein, mostly recognized in the Philosophical Investigations, who took the more revolutionary step in critiquing all of traditional philosophy including its climax in his own early work. The nature of his new philosophy is heralded as anti-systematic through and through, yet still conducive to genuine philosophical understanding of traditional problems.