The loneliness of Ludwig Wittgenstein

The decision Wittgenstein made to give away his family fortune and take up primary school teaching mystified his siblings, leading his eldest sister Hermine to express dismay at his philosophically trained mind being put to such a purpose. His response illustrates something important about the character of Wittgenstein’s loneliness, described by Wolfram Eilenberger as “an unsettling feeling of fundamental difference” in which he was “separated somehow from the world of his fellow humans by an invisible barrier, or pane of glass”:

You remind me of someone who is looking through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passerby; he doesn’t know what sort of storm is raging outside and that this person is perhaps only with great effort keeping himself on his feet.

Time of the Magicians: The Great Decade of Philosophy, pg 64

Heidegger uses similar imagery to describe the indifference he feels towards people he meets: “they walk past outside as if on the other side of the window” (pg 79). I’ve often wondered how common this feeling is amongst philosophers, as well as the implications it has for how philosophy relates to the life world. Do alienated philosophers inevitably produce alienating philosophy? I suspect the tendency to see philosophical reason as a means through which we can resolve our existential questions, rather then the cause of those questions in the first place, can be explained in these psychobiographical terms.

Heidegger’s philosophy of relations can be seen as an attempted antidote towards this individualised alienation, albeit one which predicated upon what Sloterdijk describes on pg 240 of the first volume of Spheres as a “lonely, weak, hysterical-heroic existential subject” that remains “pitifully uncertain of the more hidden aspects of its embeddedness in intimacies and solidarities”. There can be consolation in philosophy but so much of that which is explicitly existential risks the elevation of one’s own predicament into something heroic, as if a sufficient intensity of reason will break the window pane which is separating us from others.

It’s occurred to me recently that I’ve encountered two types of people who have an existential interest in philosophy. Firstly, there are those who hope to find meaning through practice, seeking a way to live which might provide lasting answers to the questions which philosophy has helped frame and thematise. Secondly, there are those who want to escape the search for meaning through practice, finding projects which allow us to go in sufficiently rewarding ways that we’ll no longer be plagued by existential questions.

My journey down the ladder of abstraction, from philosophy through to sociology and now education, helped me move from the first category to the second category. It feels to me like a much better way to live, in which I’m more attuned to the things which I do, not least of all the joys which can be found in them. I don’t think existential questions have discursive answers and increasingly suspect a lot of smart and creative people suffer unnecessarily because they believe they do.

There’s inspiration and its absence. There’s self-understanding and the nihilism it inevitably grapples with. There’s how we grapple with the mess of life, coming to terms with our mistakes and the possibilities of avoiding them in the future. There’s the practical challenge of how to spend the brutally finite time available to us, to the extent this is something we’re able to exercise an influence over. There’s thought required for all of these and learning to think well in this sense is something philosophy can help with, even if it often doesn’t. The point is the thought is a condition for answering the question through action, as opposed to being an answer in its own right.

If we don’t treat abstraction with caution there’s a risk we remain caught behind that window forever, thinking furiously about our own sense of isolation when all we really needed to do was reach out.

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