Trainspotting sacrifices

Image result for trainspotting betrayal

The concept is pretty common.

We, humans, fuck each other. Not in the pleasurable way. I betray you. You betray someone else. They betray us, and so on. Most times it’s not even symmetrical, not even eye for an eye kind of thing. ‘First, there’s an opportunity. Then, there’s betrayal’. Yeah, I recently watched Trainspotting 2. I hate spoilers, so I’m not going to get into the details of the movie plot. Though I liked it in most part, I definitely disagree with the line (roughly put):

‘Why? (did he betray us). – Because he could. Why wouldn’t he?’

In my thinking, it would be: ‘Why? Because he couldn’t do otherwise’

For some time now the concept of responsibility has been bothering my thoughts. I spent a good deal of my lying time on beautiful, yet windy Greek beaches chasing around the printed sheets of ‘The Gift of Death’. Yeap, it’s Mr. Derrida again. I swear, I didn’t mean to this time. But he found me. I need to write about a hundred articles, one for each shade of light he sheds on the concept of responsibility. But I am a big girl, I’ll restrain myself..

One of the central themes is the story of Isaac’s sacrifice by his father Abraham. Remember? The Good God asked him to kill his son. No reason, just like that. Derrida analyses this in many levels, I just want to stick to a specific aspect, and I’ll give it all at once:

‘The story is no doubt monstrous, outrageous, barely conceivable: a father is ready to put to death his beloved son, his irreplaceable loved one, and that because the Other, the great Other, asks him or orders him without giving the slightest explanation. […] But isn’t that the most common thing? What the most cursory examination of the concept of responsibility cannot fail to affirm? Duty and responsibility binds me to the other, to the other as other, and ties me in my absolute singularity to the other as other. […] I am responsible to the other as other, I answer to him and I answer for what I do before him. But of course, what binds me thus in my singularity to the absolute singularity of the other, immediately propels me into the space or risk of absolute sacrifice. There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility (what Kierkergaard calls the ethical order). I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others. […]

As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to others. I offer I gift of death, I betray, I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, I am raising my knife over what I love and must love, over those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably.

I am responsible to any one (that is to say to any other) only by failing in my responsibilities to all the others, to the ethical or political generality. And I can never justify this sacrifice, I must always hold my piece about it. Whether I want to or not, I can never justify the fact that I prefer or sacrifice any one (any other) to the other. I will always be secretive, held to secrecy in respect of this, for I have nothing to say about it. What binds me to singularities, to this one or that one, male or female, rather than that one or this, remains finally unjustifiable (this is Abraham’s hyper-ethical sacrifice), as unjustifiable as the infinite sacrifice I make at each moment.”

Ooooh! That’s why we fuck up?

We have to choose. Every day, every single moment. Whom to kill, whom to save. “Choose a sacrifice.”

But hey, don’t kid yourselves. It’s not ok to get away with the 16.000 pounds to buy nice gifts for yourselves. The human finitude only reveals us (or does it?) from the fact that we have to choose someone to share it with.

 ‘First, there’s finitude. Then, there’s betrayal’.


Hannah, the Little Red Riding Hood

Supposing you are familiar with the famous tale, please fast forward to the scene where the Big Bad Wolf, having already taken care of the grandma, has now cornered the Little Red Riding Hood. The hunter shows up – because women need always to be rescued by a man in the fairy tales, do not get me started on the gender issues…. – and saves the Red Riding Hood. The minute he is about to shoot the Big Bad Wolf, the Red Riding Hood jumps in to stop him: ‘Wait! What if someone ordered the Wolf to do this evil thing? Shouldn’t we first try to understand why he did it?’


Now replace the grandma with 6 million Jews, replace the Big Bad Wolf with Adolf Eichmann, replace the hunter with the Jerusalem District Court and pretty much all the internationally community, and finally replace the Little Red Riding Hood with Hannah Arendt. Who?

As it is more often the case than not, I run into this woman’s mind while I was going for something else. Hanna Arendt was a political scientist and philosopher, renowned for her work on totalitarianism among other things.  Arendt, a German Jew that had herself fled from the concentration camps at the last minute, volunteered to cover for the NY Times the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem after the Mossad captured him. Eichmann was the Logistics Manager of the SS, i.e. responsible for the transportation of Jews in the ghettos and camps. During the trial, Eichmann consistently argued that he was just following orders he was obliged to follow, that he didn’t take any initiatives and showed almost no signs of confusion or second thoughts implying a bad conscience. The NY Times published her report (more of a philosophical essay) on the trial and the response was just a tad far from loving. She received tones of threats, lost some of her Jewish friends and she was asked to resign from her lecturing position in the university.

All because Arendt asked us to try and understand the Big Bad Wolf:

“Is evil-doing, not just the sins of omission but the sins of commission, possible in the absence of not merely ‘base motives’ (as the law calls it) but of any motives at all, any particular prompting of interest or volition? Is wickedness, however we may define it, this being ‘determined to prove a villain’, not a necessary condition for evil doing? Is our ability to judge, to tell right for wrong, beautiful from ugly, dependent upon our faculty of thought? Do the inability to think and a disastrous failure of what we commonly call conscience coincide? The question that imposed itself was: Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent from results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evil-doing?”

In her article ‘Thinking and moral considerations’ which I came across to, she mostly deals with defining thinking, namely as an opposition to knowing. Knowing is the intellectual activity that seeks verified knowledge, one that it is useful and can be put into practice. On the other hand, thinking seeks meaning, thinking is satisfied only within thinking itself, it is never-ending and does nothing but perplexing us. She analyses this duet by bringing in – who else? – Socrates. The guy thought all day long and knew nothing. Socrates’ analysis leaves us with the unfruitful tautological conclusion that those who seek good, justice and all these nice things are the ones who think. However, in the process a very interesting correlation emerges: the relationship between thinking and conscience. Provided the latter splits the one into two:

“For Socrates, this two-in-one meant simply that if you want to think you must see to it that the two who carry on the thinking dialogue be in good shape, that the partners be friends. It is better for you to suffer than to do wrong because you can remain the friend of the sufferer; who would want to be the friend of and have to live with a murderer? Not even a murderer. What kind of dialogue could you lead with him?”

Truth be told, Arendt perplexed my mind in about a zillion ways. For example, I had a hard time finding a thinking process that did not aim at knowing. How is thinking, i.e. understanding yourself, others or the world different from knowing about them, especially if we suppose that there is no true world but only the apparent one? Is not Socrates’ way of exposing the limitation of knowledge nothing but another route to knowledge? And so on.

Nevertheless. The whole point is merely asking the question about the Big Bad Wolf. However, how would that make any difference? The grandma may have escaped out of Wolf’s belly, but the ending for the 6 million Jews was not as lucky. Since you either have conscience or not, since there are people who think and people who don’t, there will always be Big Bad Wolfs.

Well, not quite. You may not be able to identify with Eichmann, but evil is in us all. We are all capable of bad deeds, worse than we may imagine, and we are mostly committing them when we are doing what we must do. So I’ll leave you off with a classical philosophical puzzle. Imagine you are the captain of a boat. There is an accident and the boat starts sinking. On the boat, there is a person you love and some other guy. You only have one life vest for the two of them. What would you do? Who would you pick? Oh, I thought so..And you think that’s ok?

Chapter 3: The slavery of Romeo and Juliet. What comes first, the line or the dots?

Even done unwillingly, even done as a ‘failure’ in the system, we will burst out of the custom we ourselves have made to fit in.

In the previous parts, I briefly presented the argument that romantic love is a necessity for our society and how this is coupled with the notion of love as a knowledge system, as sharing information. In plain words, you need Cubic to spare you from choosing between a million people and you invite him in, by sharing things you don’t share with anyone else.

Despite the fact that what brought the partners together may be a social or biological mechanism, they are at least free to exchange personal information about themselves so as to create a unique system with the other person. Not really, says Mr. Gell:

“If the structural essential, but individually arbitrary, relations between modern couples repose on mutual confidences and shared indiscretions, what are the raw materials for these histories? Are they as individual and personal as they seem to participants? Here we have to introduce a fresh scheme […]. This is the fictionalization of love, the fact that the confidences that couples exchange are provided for them structurally, because it is structurally necessary that this confidences be exchanged. Modern love would be unthinkable without fiction, romantic fiction in particular. [..] Each modern couple has to device for itself a history that will justify its existence as a couple on the basis of zero personal experience.” (emphasis added)

And he goes on to say:

“It is not a condemnation of modern society to remark, as often has been done, that popular fiction proceeds and guides the actions of real-life lovers, rather than representing real life after the fact. […] Fiction is, where modern societies are concerned, what genealogy is in those societies which have marriage rules, i.e. the means of producing relationships on which social life depends. […] Thus, despite the apparent arbitrariness of modern love, and the theoretical substitutability of lovers, in the end modern love is no more generated at the level of individual and the personal than marriage is in Umeda.” (emphasis added)

Ouch. And to think that our society praises the freedom of the individual. It is harsh, isn’t it? To say that all we do when we think we are pouring ourselves out to a person so special to us, that has shaken our soul, is nothing but playing a role, reading a script that someone else has given us. Be aware, we are prone to defend any attack to romantic love’s sacred nature, because as Roberto Unger has remarked, the ideal of romantic love ‘is the most influential moral vision of our culture’. Personally I recognize that I have a tendency to defend it too, a personal interest if you like. However, I will pose that this view of love is limited because of real life, and not because some idealistic dogma dictates so.

It is true that our ideals and fantasies about love are largely shaped by fiction: novels, movies, poetry, you name it. When two people first meet, it is their fantasies that meet. These ideal prototypes haunt us and determine by a great extent how we play our part in romantic interactions. But what this analysis fails to show is that during our exchange of fluids, information, experiences, we can’t adhere to a prototype role perfectly, even if we wanted to. Finally our own truth, our own self emerges. For some this takes days, for others takes years. Even done unwillingly, even done as a ‘failure’ in the system, we will burst out of the custom we ourselves have made to fit in. If we are to see love as a knowledge system, then this moment of ‘bursting’ is of the essence. Even when people are not aware of this as a system failure, they see that they need to change, or adapt to something that doesn’t fit. In this way our own experience in romantic love may lead us to change: our perceptions, our hopes, our image for the other, our self-image. So that the next time we fall in love, we are not quite the same anymore – or are we?

Easier said than done.

Needless to say, we are far from capturing love in all its aspects here. There are many other notions for love: love as power, love as a means to perfect ourselves, love as surrender and sacrifice, love as a disease, an agonizing painful emotion and so forth. However, there is some light shed I think in considering love as knowledge, as secret sharing of information. There’s a final point I want to make in this view. In the end of the first part, I mentioned the hypothesis that as two people:

spend more time together and they get to know each other, they grow – if they’re lucky enough – another kind of love, more grounded on the ‘real’ qualities of their partner, more informed, more knowledge-based. Now their actions- maintaining the relationship or not – is based on rationally evaluating the other person according to the information they receive.


Imagine now that there are two kinds of love-growing processes. The first would be the Cubid one, where people flirt, exchange secret information about themselves, create the history to base their choice upon etc., as discussed. The other end is the love-after-marriage. Many couples, from couples in India to my parents, never got the time to fall in love before marring. Nevertheless, they grew love for each other, as they share their lives, kids, experiences, and the unique fact that each one is the partner of the other in this. Lots of couples have a mix of this two love growing processes, starting with the first and moving on to other.

Returning to the aforementioned hypothesis, is moving from one into the other and maintaining a relationship really a decision based on rationally evaluating the information received about the other person? In both cases, pre- and after-marriage love, we find a process of sharing and exchanging, though it’s about very different things, done in different ways. Maybe what matters for generating and sustaining love is not really the experiences themselves, the information and bits of knowledge people share, but the very flow of it. The bond lies not at the ends, on what the lines connect; rather it’s the line itself.

But is it that the line connects the dots, or the dots that draw the line? Do we share therefore we love or the other way around? Perhaps both..go figure.

Chapter 2: Romeo & Juliet University – Love as knowledge

E. Hopper, Summer Evening
E. Hopper, Summer Evening


Mr. Alfred Gell’s analysis (see part 1 first) is based on the notion that love is interlinked with, or grounded on, a secret, private sharing of information between the two partners. He starts way back, from chimpanzees:

“The exchange of these [precopulatory] messages (which consist of physical gestures, furtive genital displays etc.) must be covertly done, or more dominant animals will intervene. Here we do not just have communication between partners, but exclusive, ‘confidential’ communication. Then the copulation itself is conducted out of sight, a second type of socially strategic information control, and of course the phylogenetic origin of human unwillingness to indulge in public copulation except in special circumstances”

In any society, says Gell, ‘there is the stock of information everybody has, that most have, that only a few have, and that only one or two have’. It may be argued that there is an increasing value in information known by lesser people, and that a tie is formed between those people sharing it. In the case of Umedas who, as discussed, experience romantic love in adultery relations:

“Love consisted of the generation, at the margins of society (in the bush, away from other people) of lethal knowledge, and the creation of pacts between those who generated and exchanged this knowledge, to preserve secrecy and discretion.”

This may also be the case for adultery, or otherwise prohibited relationships in our society. The lovers are bonded, if anything else, by the very secret of their relationship. But what about standard, ‘lawful’ romantic love?

“In Umeda as Strathern (1990) has suggested in relation to Melanesian societies more generally, who you marry is part of your personal make up, just as much as your red hair or snub nose, or the fact that you have a brother called Amasu. [..] In the absence of this structural predestination, modern couples have to convert abstract, generic relations between categories of persons into specific, grounded, historically embedded relations which will bear the structural loadings that will be imposed on them. Courting and falling in love provide the means for endowing relationships with histories which make subsequent commitment to their consequences more or less secure. They obviate the spectrum of opportunity costs that choice of partners implies. A married B, while C and D were also possible partners. A must have access to a kind of knowledge that, in retrospect, shows that C and D were not really possible at all, were only generically possible, but not specifically possible. Through the reciprocal exchange of a graded series of indiscretions, the courting couple converts a relation for whose existence no particular reason exist, into one which must be preserved because knowledge has come into existence which necessitates the lover’s pact, not to be incontinent, sexually or verbally.”

If you ask me, so far so good. On  comparison, we Westerners have it much better than the Umedas. We get to create our own personal stories, our own histories to base our romantic relationships on. Despite randomness, despite the fact that B could as well have been C, given Romeo happened to be there first, we are at least then free to create a secret A-B universe that is unique. In other words, namely Lincoln’s words, A and B build a knowledge system of, by and for A and B.

Well, not so fast..says Mr. Gell. I’m not so sure I’m gonna agree with him this time though.

Coming up, the slavery of Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: (some) light in the tunnel.


Chapter 1: Shakespeare’s Fabrizio and Juliet

Shakespeare’s most famous play could well have been entitled ‘Fabrizio and Juliet’ if Fabrizio had showed up a minute before Romeo.


We all pursue our own goals, our own ideas of happiness, of ‘our best self’, or just follow our obsessions if you like. People we meet and fall in love just happen to be at the right place, the right time (or wrong, you pick the word): the place and time we need to fall in love.

By no means do I intend to underestimate Romeo, but in order to be realistic, one has to acknowledge that chances are there were many other bold, handsome young men whose noble families were keen to eliminate other noble families. Randomness plays a big role in defining what the name next to Juliet’s will be, and it is only our a posteriori deterministic need that makes us neglect this, the need to find meaning through idealization. Quoting from one of Mr. Pamuk’s books:

‘Many people know that no life is predetermined and that, in reality, every story is a sequence of coincidences. Despite the big number of those who know this, when, at some point in their lives, they turn and look back, they reach the conclusion that the situations they lived through as coincidental, they were -in their present view- nothing but necessities.’

Indeed. What love would be like if Juliet was all: ‘Oh Romeo I love you! But in case you don’t make it tonight, I’ll call one of the other 999 Romeos out there’. No, no. It is a fact that the person is randomly picked in that sense, and it is a necessity to neglect this fact. Unless…well, unless things don’t go well, in which case we suddenly remember the randomness factor. But doesn’t this switch make us look fool or at least inconsistent with our very ideal of love that we were so keen to follow to begin with?

According to many, romantic love in modern Western world is what we use to make a once-in-a-lifetime choice, a choice that it’s too risky to make without Cubic’s help. Alfred Gell makes an interesting analysis on his article ‘On love‘. Take for instance this tribe in New Guinea, called Umeda. They live in villages of max. 750 persons. The Umedas marry cross-cousins, i.e. the person whom they will marry is pretty much predetermined, often before they hit puberty. There are really no ‘singles’ available to mess around and fall in love. Yet they do. Mostly through extramarital relationships of women with younger unmarried men, that must remain secret at all costs. Pure Umedas, you think, what a lack of freedom…Well, not so fast…Let’s move to ‘our’ society, shall we?

“Here people are taught to believe that one day they will discover, through elective affinity, out of the indefinite number of social others of whom they have generic knowledge, some particular one to love, with whom they will live in predestined harmony, have children and so on. I do not need to say that this idea is as arbitrary, as fantastic, as anything Umedas believe on the subject of sorcery. It is, however, necessary, given the fact that in modern society choice of mates is not institutionalized at the level of individual (though it is highly institutionalized in other ways, i.e. class, locality etc.)”

And he goes on to say:

“Because, pecuniary advantage aside, there are no really good reasons for committing oneself to one person rather than another, and very good reasons for fearing the worst, the essentially arbitrary choice is rationalized as fixed in advance by the wiles of the love-god, whose intervention relieves us from the burden of responsibility for our actions, which, in fact, is necessary for us to act at all, rather than hover interminably in a state of radical indecision. Whereas in Umeda love is outside the social system, in our society love has license and is supposed to make the world turn around, to be the very principle upon which society rests’.

I find this ‘functionalistic’ view to be quite grounded. However, one could as well argue that this only applies to the initial stages of a romantic relationship, when two people first meet, flirt and grow intense feelings without really knowing the object of their affection. As they spend more time together and they get to know each other, they grow – if they’re lucky enough – another kind of love, more grounded on the ‘real’ qualities of their partner, more informed, more knowledge-based. Now their actions- maintaining the relationship or not – is based on rationally evaluating the other person according to the information they receive. This must be the real thing then.

Well, not so fast…Coming up next, love as a system of knowledge.

Oliver Twist’s twist

When I was a child books were like candy: there were not in abundance and I took a lot of joy in them. Each one uncovered a new world, far beyond the walls of my small bedroom: Duma’s Black Tulip, Verne’s Mysterious Island, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and so forth. After my mother would turn the lights off because ‘that’s enough, you have to sleep now’, I would read below the blanket with a torch. Stubborn little bastard.

A few decades later, reading again I was, this time about the real world. European history, in particular Britain’s industrialization. The working class (not yet recognizing themselves as class) was not having the best of time. Packed in the cities, no decent houses to live in, no toilets, no running water (a tap for a whole neighborhood), all kinds of diseases and safety at work standards summed up at ‘no one can fit inside the factory’s machinery to clean it? Let’s have a child do it!’.

In contrast to the liberal theorists of the time supporting the economic developments and helping cleanse the consciousness of the bourgeoisie, critical voices were raising. Cited among the latter, there was Mr. Dickens.

So I learn that as a child he had to work in factories and his father was arrested for debt. He grew a strong sense of the precariousness of life and a big compassion for its victims. His ambition was to educate society about its failings via an entertaining way. His strategy was to grow sympathy in the people who had the power to change things towards people who were suffering. That’s why he sends Oliver Twist to an orphanage who actually belongs to a well to do family from which he was separated by a series of tragic accidents. To say: hey wealthy guy, this could be you.

I use my memory and go back in my bedroom, under the blanket with the torch, reading Oliver Twist. I remember two things: First, I am feeling a great sympathy for the boy’s suffering. The injustice of life is penetrating my childish mind. Then, I remember the happy ending of someone poor suddenly discovering he comes from a wealthy family. Now everything is great, all is good. Because we are rich.

So Mr. Dickens unwillingly plants a seed in my head: anyone can become rich at the blink of an eye.  What is more, for me, a child from a lower class family, being rich becomes the definition of the fairy tale, becomes the happy ending. It is a concept so often found in fairy tales, movies and literature.



For better or for worse, this seed did not grow. But the first one did. Among all other influences, Mr. Dickens contributed -by a very small percentage, still he did – to me wanting to make things better, to ‘change the world’, to make it less injustice. And it is mind-blowing for me that this same seed led me to study history, to rediscover him, find out his intentions and understand why Oliver had to be rich in the end.

Cheers, Mr. Dickens.

Treating Tractatus

What’s the difference in climbing the ladder? Do we have to abandon philosophy since we don’t understand it or precisely because we do?

I didn’t enjoy reading Tractatus. It’s a pain in the a**, especially for someone like me with no strong background in logic. But how can one neglect a piece of writing that concludes that logic has limits, such that it cannot be used to say what is ethical, or to solve the problem of life?

I don’t consider myself to be dogmatic in general, but I do have a dogma regarding books. I *never* whatsoever read the introduction, the back cover or anything of the like before reading the actual text of the writer. The dogma lies in the belief that any such ‘pre-treatment’ will put glasses on me, through which I am bound to interact with the text, it will predispose me in a certain direction. And who needs another pair of glasses?

If you are now expecting to read ‘But..’, you got it right.

But.. when I started reading Tractatus, I got stuck right from the first two sentences.

“1 The world is all that is the case.”

“1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”


I don’t think of myself as philosophical literate, but c’ mon! Where did this come from? Why the world does not consist of things, or why not of little atoms, or of blue butterflies? Is it an axiom?

So I cheated, admittedly. I browsed all the way to the end, to see where he is getting at.

“6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps- to climb up beyond them. (He must, show to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

That’s seems promising, I thought, and rolled up my sleeves (well, there are no sleeves in fact, it’s like 40 degrees in Athens now).

[Teaser: In the next paragraphs I’m going to attempt describing an oversimplified version of climbing on the ladder. For anyone who is not interested in the procedure, yet is interested in the outcome, I suggest to scroll down. ]

Kadinsky, Yellow Red Blue


In Tractatus, Wittgenstein constructs a theory based on logical concepts to explore the relation between the world, language and thought. He starts by defining what makes up the world. What are the ultimate constituents?

For Plato these are the forms. For Russel these are the sense data, the very small bits of experience. For Wittgenstein these are the facts, which he defines as relationships (existing states of affairs) between objects.

To completely describe the world, we need to list all the facts (which are probably infinite) and also at some point we need to say: that’s all the facts. So the world is made up by all the facts plus the fact that these are all the facts there are.

Nowhere in the Tractatus does Wittgenstein defines what objects really are. For the shake of discussion, I suggest to think of them as just elementary bricks, which, by relating to one another, they form reality (the world). ‘Objects’ is an abstract concept of what constitutes the world, in order to pose the question: can we explore the world through logic?

So he says…

2.02 Objects are simple.

2.0201 Every statement about complexes can be resolved into a statement about their constituents and into the propositions that describe the complexes completely.

2.021 Objects make up the substance of the world. That is why they cannot be composite.

2.0211 If the world had no substance, then whether a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true.

2.0212 In that case we could not sketch any picture of the world (true or false).

Wittgenstein uses sense with the meaning of determinate sense. For a proposition to have sense (i.e. definite sense) it needs to have one -and only one- truth pole and one -and only one- falsity pole.

Suppose A is composite object, composed by simple object c in an R-relationship with simple object d. Then A = c R d.

Suppose now proposition A R b, A bears a relationship R with b.

  • Truth pole: A does R b
  • False pole: A does not exist (c does not R d) OR A does not R b.

The proposition leaves something indeterminate, because if you know it’s false, you don’t know whether it’s because c does not R d or because A exists but does not R b. For this proposition to have sense, it depends on the truth of proposition c R d.

If there were only complex objects, then anything we could say about them would depend on something else been true, and this on something else and so on. So, he says, in order for us to be able to say anything (a proposition with sense about the world, a picture about the world with sense whether true or false), this loop must end somewhere, and in order for it to end there must be simple objects, since a proposition containing only simple objects would not depend on other propositions – end of loop.

So since we are able to make propositions with sense, there must be simple objects, and we then are able to construct ‘atomic’ propositions and then built up using logical operations to more complex ones with sense. And indeed, Wittgenstein shows the logical method of constructing all other propositions given the atomic propositions.


So far so good, so what’s the problem? Well, there are actually two.

 First, Wittgenstein claims there is no way to speak about the totality of things. There is no way to speak about ‘objects’ (remember, their relations to one another is the fundamental element of the world) as a totality. Russel says another way to put this, is to say that object is a pseudo-concept. If we are to speak about objects, we need to assign them a property, e.g. all objects that are green, or objects that relate to other objects in X way. A proposition like ‘I love objects’ would not bare any sense (and, in my case, would also lack truth :)). It follows that we can’t speak (make propositions) of the world as a whole, we are bound to say something only about a part of it, only for a part of the objects and their affairs.

The second limitation refers to the relationship between language and the world. When we form a logical sentence in a language, we draw a picture. “The elements of the picture are the representatives of objects” and the relationship between the elements in the picture depicts the relationship of the objects, the fact in the world.  For language (the proposition) to be able to depict the world (the fact), they must have something in common, they must have the same logical structure. But here comes the limitation:

2.174 A picture cannot, however, place itself outside its representational form.

Language cannot ‘speak’ about its own structure, so we cannot use it to actually say what we want to say about the world. We can only show it, the structure can only manifest, but it can never be said, we cannot ‘say the structure is such and such’.

Hence, there are limits to what we can say in strict, accurate logical terms and:

“What we can’t speak about we must pass over in silence.”

and my personal favorite:

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.”

That is pretty much in line with the legend that Wittgenstein in a philosophy conference turned his back on the speakers and started reading poetry.

So, where does this leaves us? How are we to just vanish the problem of life? I find Alan Watts view on this very enlightening. He says that there is an astonishing similarity of it to Buddhism in general and zenism in particular.

“The idea of throwing the ladder after having climbed up on it parallels the Buddhist doctrine to be a raft to cross a river from the shore of life lived as a vicious circle to the life of liberation. The whole task of philosophy is to get rid of itself, like a doctor.

There was an old master called Goso and one of his students came to him and said ‘how am I getting in my study of Zen?’  ‘You’re alright, but you ‘ve talked too much of it.’ ‘Isn’t it that natural, when one studies Zen to talk about it?’  ‘Yes. But when it’s like an ordinary conversation is somewhat better.’

If the most spiritual discourse that one can have is ‘Good morning, how do you do, nice day, isn’t’..doesn’t that reduce all the great speculations of human intellect, all the great quests to everyday matters?

The man who has been through all the philosophy quests, the whole wisdom, ends up deceptively like a stupid man who has heard nothing of philosophy. When I knew nothing of Buddhism mountains were mountains and waters were waters, but when I had studied them a great deal, mountains were no longer mountains and waters were no longer waters, but when I had thoroughly understood the whole thing, and arrived at peace, mountains were again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Oh, I love that..but then, what about progress? What about change?


I see others trying to understand every word in Tractatus and I’m thinking ‘come on, you are now just puzzling over something for no reason’. But there is someone else reading this right now and thinking the very same thing for me. Each one’s ladder is different. Does it make any difference? What’s more, does it make any difference at all to climb it if at the end you are gonna end up at the ground again?

Oh horror of horrors, I am afraid it does for one. If one can see the ladder in the first place, if the ladder exists for one, one can’t help but climbing it.