WAB: "Fragments" | Original publication on WAB's website (2005.1.14, last revision 2006.4.3).
Cameron McEwen: The digital WittgensteinKeywords: Wittgenstein, Tractatus, Beckett, Heidegger, analog, digital, difference
For first principles are not sought, since they are present and to hand; and if what is present is sought for, it becomes hidden and lost. (al Ghazali)Wittgenstein’s nephew2, Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002), was founder and director of the Biological Computer Lab at the University of Illinois. He led the annual Cybernetics Conference sponsored by the Macy Foundation in the years from 1949 to 1953 and edited the five volumes of their proceedings3. In the 1950 conference (volume 2 of the original edition), Ralph Gerard presented a paper on "Some of the Problems Concerning Digital Notions in the Central Nervous System" where he gives the following entirely unremarkable definitions: "an analogical system is one in which one of two variables is continuous on the other, while in a digital system the variable is discontinuous and quantized."4
Αρμονίη άφανής φανερής κρείσσων (Herakleitos, DK 54)1
Everyone is familiar with analog and digital technologies in watches, music recordings and televisions. But analog and digital systems play a remarkable role (sometimes alone, sometimes in combination) also in philosophy and in all thinking and experience, where they function, though seldom explicitly, as first principles (ie, as fundamental architectures or archetypes of thought).
The properties of analogical and digital systems as first principles of thought may be set out as follows:
Samuel Beckett may be read as formulating these multiple difficulties. When the composer Morton Feldman asked him in 1976 for "the quintessence"5 of his work, Beckett gave him (at first verbally, later written out with some small corrections as follows):
TO AND FRO in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable nonself by way of neither
as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close,
once turned away from gently part again
beckoned back and forth and turned away
heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other
unheard footfalls only sound
till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other
then no sound
then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither
What Beckett calls "that unheeded neither", the "way of neither as between two", is the original "unspeakable" difference through which a digital system ("to and fro") functions (but which is fatal to any analogical system).
For Heidegger, similarly, difference is ineluctable, original and unspeakable: "Für uns ist die Sache des Denkens (…) das Sein hinsichtlich seiner Differenz zum Seienden. (…) Für uns ist die Sache des Denkens, vorläufig benannt, die Differenz als Differenz."7 Again: "[D]ie Unterscheidung sei der Steg, der uns überall in allem Verhalten und ständig in jeglicher Haltung vom Seienden zum Sein und vom Sein zum Seienden führte. Das ist im Bilde gesprochen und legt die Vorstellung nahe, als lägen und stünden Seiendes und Sein auf verschieden Ufern eines Stromes, den wir gar nicht benennen und vielleicht ...niemals benennen können. Denn worauf sollen wir uns dabei stützen, was soll noch als Strom zwischen dem Seienden und dem Sein strömen, was weder Seiendes ist noch zum Sein gehört?"8 Therefore: "In dieser Unklarheit des Unterschieds zwischen Seienden und dem Sein steht bis zur Stunde das ganze abendländische Denken."9
The works of Beckett and Heidegger are often said to be illogical and incomprehensible. And they certainly are illogical and incomprehensible if taken from an analogical perspective as analogical expressions. If, by fundamental contrast, their work is digital, the question arises as to how it can be appreciated as such. A series of extraordinary difficulties are knotted at this point.
The analog/digital difference is either continuous or discontinuous, ie, the analog/digital difference is self-referential (a key consideration in the work of Heinz von Foerster on, eg, the cybernetics of cybernetics10). It is therefore not possible ‘to move from the one to the other’ (a phrase with fundamentally different meaning depending upon its analog or digital context) without already instantiating one of them in doing so. Since it is exactly the point of Beckett and Heidegger to put forward the discontinuous, ie digital, thesis, any appreciation of their work must already be digital in order to achieve this possibility (a remarkable enough phrase and suggestion). The same is true of Wittgenstein.
Analogical perception is principially unable to understand the point at issue. As Wittgenstein puts the matter in the first line of his only published book, "Dieses Buch wird vielleicht nur der verstehen, der die Gedanken, die darin ausgedrückt sind - oder doch ähnliche Gedanken - schon selbst einmal gedacht hat."11
A ‘knot in time’ (T S Eliot) is implicated here. What is to be achieved – the understanding of an essential discontinuity – must already be in place in order to start to do this. Any sort of gradual process in this direction would be analogical and therefore essentially incapable of what is demanded. Indeed, contradictory to what is demanded. Thus Wittgenstein is speaking precisely when he says, immediately after the passage from the introductory remarks to the Tractatus just given: "Es ist also kein Lehrbuch." What is at stake cannot in principle be taught or learned (in the usual analog senses of these). Therefore Wittgenstein’s observation concerning Frege in the Tractatus (6.1271): "Aber es ist merkwürdig, daß ein so exakter Denker wie Frege sich auf den Grad des Einleuchtens als Kriterium des logischen Satzes berufen hat."
Since the ‘Grad’ (‘step’, ‘degree’) is necessarily analogical, philosophy as a digital enterprise cannot, in Wittgenstein’s view, be learned or otherwise grad-ually assimilated: "Die Philosophie ist keine Lehre, sondern eine Tätigkeit." (Tractatus 4.112)
In order to ‘come to’ an understanding of digital experience, a Kierkegaardian leap is required from one sort of fundamental system-structure to another: "In der Logik gibt es kein Nebeneinander" (5.454). This possibility is to be achieved - but not achieved through any sort of continuous or gradual process! Since such a leap is already digital, the only means to the end is the end itself…12
It follows, as Tractatus 5.555 has it: "… mit dem muß ich es zu tun haben, was es mir möglich macht, sie zu erfinden." Similarly, from Heidegger: "Weil es vordem das Seltsame gibt, damit wir es finden." (GA77, S 164)
There is no approach to a digital system through a gradual (ie, stepwise) process of, say, education or habituation, since, on the one hand, gradual process is by definition analogical and, on the other hand, digital expression (if it is at all) is always already there – like Athena from the head of Zeus.13
It may be that Wittgenstein’s later work is an effort to exercise and probe this ‘already there’ quality of digital logic and meaning. If the logic of human experience is digital (as the Tractatus argues), and if such logic is ‘already there’ but somehow fundamentally unknown (as the Tractatus also argues), it would be necessary to try to find a (necessarily peculiar) way to them, ie, to where we already are. An ever-renewed reconsideration of the existing practice of human beings in their language and action would be fitting to the thesis of the Tractatus that a kind of backwards leap is to be made (ever-renewed reconsideration and revision) to where we already are (of existing practice).
A recollection of Heinz von Foerster from around 1919 (when Wittgenstein was 30) captures the point at issue: "Und einmal hat er [= der Onkel, LW] mich gefragt: 'Sag, Heinz, was möchtest du denn gerne werden?' Ich war damals sieben Jahre alt und habe geantwortet: 'Ich möchte gerne Naturforscher werden.' - 'Dann musst du aber doch sehr viel wissen.' Da habe ich gesagt: 'Aber ich weiß sehr viel!' Darauf hat er entgegnet: 'Ja, aber du weißt eines nicht - wie recht du hast!'"14
Compare Heidegger: "Wir wollen jedoch nicht weiterkommen. Wir möchten nur erst einmal eigens dorthin gelangen, wo wir uns schon aufhalten."15 "Die verweilende Rückkehr da-hin, wo wir schon sind, ist unendlich schwerer als die eiligen Fahrten dorthin, wo wir noch nicht sind und nie sein werden."16 "Seltsamer Sprung, der uns vermutlich den Einblick erbringt, daß wir uns noch nicht genügend dort aufhalten, wo wir eigentlich schon sind."17
In Vermischte Bemerkungen, Wittgenstein makes the same point in near identical words: "Wenn der Ort, zu dem ich gelangen will, nur auf einer Leiter zu ersteigen wäre, gäbe ich es auf, dahin zu gelangen. Denn dort, wo ich wirklich hin muß, dort muß ich eigentlich schon sein."18
What is at stake here concerns the entire way in which a person is in the world, what Heidegger calls "wo wir uns schon aufhalten", "wo wir schon sind". The claim is that there is a kind of Archimedean lever whereby world can not only be moved, but utterly transformed.19 This lever is the relation of subject to object, or of person to world, whose transformative power is located in the fundamental difference between analog and digital systems. The difference between these modes of system turns on the nature of ‘relation’ itself: is relation primary or secondary, discontinuous or continuous, synchronic or diachronic, etc? And what is at stake between them is nothing less than the nature of world.
Now Wittgenstein and Heidegger were born in 1889, Beckett in 1906 and von Foerster in 1911. It might therefore seem that the idea of digital and analogical systems as rival fundaments to human experience is a new suggestion and, like digital technology, very modern. In fact, however, the idea is as old as philosophy itself (and may be much older20). In his Sophist, Plato sets out the following ‘battle’ over the question of ‘true reality’:
What we shall see is something like a battle of gods and giants going on between them over their quarrel about reality [γιγαντομαχία περì της ουσίας] ....One party is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen, literally grasping rocks and trees in their hands, for they lay hold upon every stock and stone and strenuously affirm that real existence belongs only to that which can be handled and offers resistance to the touch. They define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word. (…) Their adversaries are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality [την αληθινήν ουσίαν] consists in certain intelligible and bodiless forms. In the clash of argument they shatter and pulverize those bodies which their opponents wield, and what those others allege to be true reality they call, not real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming. On this issue an interminable battle is always going on between the two camps [εν μέσω δε περι ταυτα απλετος αμφοτέρων μάχη τις (…) αει συνέστηκεν]. (…) It seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and truth above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions of the forms the doctrine that all reality is changeless [and exclusively immaterial], and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent reality as everywhere changing [and as only material]. Like a child begging for 'both', he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once [το όν τε και το παν συναμφότερα] (Sophist 246a-249d)21.The gods and the giants in Plato’s battle present two varieties of the analog position. Each believes that ‘true reality’ is singular, that "real existence belongs only to" one side or other of competing possibilities. For them, difference and complexity are secondary and, as secondary, deficient in respect to truth, reality and being (την αληθινήν ουσίαν, το όν τε και το παν). Difference and complexity are therefore matters of "interminable battle" whose intended end for each is, and must be (given their shared analogical logic), only to eradicate the other.22 The philosophical child, by contrast, holds to ‘both’ and therefore represents the digital position where the differentiated two yet belong originally together. Here difference, complexity and systematicity are primary and exemplary.
It is an unfailing mark of the greatest thinkers of the tradition, like Plato, that they recognize the digital possibility and therefore recognize the principial difference of it from analog possibilities. From an analog position, by contrast, the digital possibility either does not exist at all or exists only in secondary fashion which is, therefore, deficient and demanding of analysis (in the etymological sense of ‘breaking up’ into its supposedly more basic components).
One of the recurrent problems addressed by thinkers of the first sort is how to speak to those of the second sort without fundamental distortion. The recurrent ambition of ‘thinkers’ of the second sort is the impossible construction of digital realities as analogical systems: Heidegger’s "die eiligen Fahrten dorthin, wo wir noch nicht sind und nie sein werden"23. The former problem is rooted in the latter ambition.
On the basis of this background, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus may be read as setting out the foundations or (in Wittgenstein’s terms) the logic of digital systematicity.
The first paragraph of Wittgenstein’s introductory remarks to the Tractatus has already been cited: "Dieses Buch wird vielleicht nur der verstehen, der die Gedanken, die darin ausgedrückt sind - oder doch ähnliche Gedanken - schon selbst einmal gedacht hat." There is no gradual way to these thoughts because they are already here, indeed, already so well known by us that we exercise them in all that we do and say. Still, we are somehow confused about them and this confusion then breeds philosophical and other problems. The second paragraph therefore reads (to be echoed in the final lines of the work): "Das Buch behandelt die philosophischen Probleme und zeigt - wie ich glaube -, daß die Fragestellung dieser Probleme auf dem Mißverständnis der Logik unserer Sprache beruht. Man könnte den ganzen Sinn des Buches etwa in die Worte fassen: Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen."
Language (and therefore the logic of language) is already used by us and, indeed, properly used: "Alle Sätze unserer Umgangssprache sind tatsächlich, so wie sie sind, logisch vollkommen geordnet" (Tractatus 5.5563). Compare: before the advent of chemistry, humans metabolized oxygen with chemical exactitude. We don’t have to understand what we are doing in order to do it correctly. We can even misunderstand what we are doing and still do it correctly (as the oxygen example shows). However, such misunderstanding can have important consequences. It is Wittgenstein’s contention that our misunderstanding of language provides the motivating context ("die Fragestellung") for philosophical problems24. Proper use, we might say, is not known in its propriety: "du weißt eines nicht - wie recht du hast!"
This misunderstanding of language, hence of the logic of language, is said, in turn, to rest on a lack of knowledge concerning what can and cannot be said, between what is naturally or fundamentally clear ("läßt sich klar sagen") and what is naturally or fundamentally opaque ("wovon man nicht reden kann").
In the terms of Plato’s γιγαντομαχία, the giants, as children of Earth and denizens of the underworld, are champions of the dark: they are the "party [which] is trying to drag everything down to earth out of heaven". By contrast, the Olympic gods, "defending their position somewhere in the heights", are champions of the light. Each maintains that the fundamental relation of the light and the dark is such that only one or the other is "real existence" or "true reality". Both fail to heed another possibility which is exemplified in their existing activity of fighting with one another. This is an activity which takes place at first principle [περι της ουσίας] and is, as Plato says, "always going on" [αει συνέστηκεν].
It is this third fundamental possibility, Beckett’s "unheeded neither", Heidegger’s "Unterscheidung", which the philosophical child sees in the γιγαντομαχία. Plato explicitly connects what is always going on between the gods and giants – εν μέσω δε (…) αμφοτέρων (246c) – with what the philosophical child discerns about reality itself: το όν τε και το παν συναμφότερα (249d). In doing so, the child recognizes a transitive border between the warring champions of the light and of the dark which at once allows their discrete (or quantified) delimitation and their systematic connection: "Like a child begging for 'both', he must declare that reality or the sum of things is both at once."
Now the darkness of this border is of a different order from the dark championed by Plato’s giants. It is the darkness of that original difference which grounds digital systematicity and which first enables, in such a system, the relation of light-dark variables within it. Since this border is deeper than any of the discrete relata held together by it, it is unfathomable and silent by definition. Any attempt to indicate it or to say it (other than allowing it to function in a digital system) unavoidably makes the fundamental error of turning it into exactly what it is not, ie, into analogical difference which is ultimately unipolar.
Beckett treats this second dark in his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape:
…clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most - (KRAPP curses, switches off, winds tape forward, [mechanical with gabble, 3 seconds], switches on again) - unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire.This moment (which may have had some rough equivalent in Beckett’s life) records the differentiation of the analogical "dark I have always struggled to keep under", where either the dark or the light is necessarily more real than the other, from that digital dark of fundamental difference ("in reality my most"), which first allows the formerly only opposed light and dark variables to be seen in their systematic connection ("unshatterable association… of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire"25). Beckett uses the device of the tape recorder with its wind forward feature to show how the switch from analogical to digital perception is no gradual transition, but an "unspeakable" leap between modes of experience. Beckett’s language is explicitly digital here: "switches off…switches on". The whole passsage is a careful and exact construction where even the brackets work to show the essential break which is at stake both in the leap between analog/digital modes of perception and within the digital system itself: "(KRAPP curses, switches off, winds tape forward, [mechanical with gabble, 3 seconds], switches on again)". The stage description, "mechanical with gabble", is a remarkable dramatization of the "unspeakable" nature of the border which is crossed here.
Heidegger described this second dark in his 1957 Freiburger lecture series as follows:
Der Herkunft der Grundsätze des Denkens, der Ort des Denkens, das diese Sätze setzt, das Wesen des hier genannten Ortes und seiner Ortschaft, all dieses bleibt für uns in ein Dunkel gehüllt. Diese Dunkelheit ist vielleicht bei allem Denken jederzeit im Spiel. Der Mensch kann sie nicht beiseitigen. Er muß vielmehr lernen, das Dunkel als das Unumgängliche anzuerkennen und von ihm jene Vorurteile fernzuhalten, die das hohe Walten des Dunklen zerstören. So hält sich das Dunkle geschieden von der Finsternis als der bloßen und völligen Abwesenheit von Licht. Das Dunkle aber ist das Geheimnis des Lichten. Das Dunkel behält das Lichte bei sich. Dieses gehört zu jenem.26Wittgenstein appears to make a similar point in his 1937 diary when he writes (Denkbewegungen, Part 2, p. 223):
Aber mein Glaube morgen kann lichter (oder dunkler) sein als mein Glaube heute. Hilf & Erleuchte! & möge kein Dunkel über mich kommen!If "Himmel" and "Hölle" may be equated with the light and the dark earlier in the passage, it would seem that Wittgenstein is differentiating between a dark that he wants ("wie ich’s haben will"), one that is compatible with the light ("nämlich halb Himmel, halb Hölle"), and a dark which he doesn't want and is incompatible with the light ("Hilf & Erleuchte! & möge kein Dunkel über mich kommen!").
Ich bitte, & ich hab’s schon so, wie ich’s haben will: nämlich halb Himmel, halb Hölle!
The entry which immediately follows seems to confirm this reading:
Die Sonne geht um ca ½ 2 unter geht aber dann dem Rand des Berges so entlang daß man noch längere Zeit ihren äußersten Rand wahrnimmt. Es ist herrlich! Sie ist also doch nicht eigentlich untergegangen. –What Wittgenstein terms "herrlich" is the sight of the rim of the sun just above the mountain (so a sun which can partially be seen, one that is half light, half dark) which he contrasts to the dark of the sun which has fully set ("eigentlich untergegangen"). The difference appears to be just that described by Heidegger between "Dunkel" and "Finsternis": "So hält sich das Dunkle geschieden von der Finsternis als der bloßen und völligen Abwesenheit von Licht." What is different between the two darks is their compatibility or incompatibility with the light, therefore the existence or non-existence of an inclusive border between the two.27
Such a transitive, yet abysmal, border is Beckett’s "unspeakable home", Heidegger’s Strom "den wir gar nicht benennen und vielleicht (...) niemals benennen können". Similarly, Tractatus 6.522: "Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches."28
Like Beckett and Heidegger, indeed like Plato, Kant and Hegel, Wittgenstein locates that of which "man nicht reden kann" in the original border which is fundamental to digital systematicity. The next sentence of his introductory remarks therefore specifies: "Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze29 ziehen…"30