Two weeks from today, if all goes well (and what could possibly go wrong?), Dennis Ryan and I will be in Cambridge, England where, at 12:22 pm Cambridge time, July 5, it is 73ºF with 53% humidity.
I am sorry that I didn’t name this blog Cromwell’s Head & Wittgenstein’s Brain. After all, the primary reason that Dennis and I are traveling to Cambridge is to pursue Dennis’s passion for all things Wittgensteinian. Dennis is a philosopher by nature and academic training. His doctoral dissertation explores aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophical works. He’s no Ludwig-come-lately to the subject.
I, on the other hand, am not a philosopher. I am not even sure that I know what it really means to be a philosopher. Ironically, though, I, and several other students with whom I worked during my PhD program in the Department of Communicating Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison back in the early 70s, tried to read Wittgenstein and extract principles from his work that would help us build communication theory. We were not altogether successful but the failure was less Wittgenstein’s than our inability to make sense of his writings. Because Wittgenstein has a good deal to teach those of us who call ourselves rhetoricians or communicologists, we should have stuck with him. We should have labored longer in Wittgenstein’s vineyard and perhaps, in the fullness of time, we could have produced a wine of rare distinction. As it turned out, we only produced a common varietal of whines, more’s the pity.
Had we ears to listen and the minds to make sense of what we heard, what is it that Wittgenstein was saying? And what was he saying that attracted Dennis Ryan and came to play so central a role in Dennis’s life that Dennis was able to convince me, a dedicated non-traveler—must I remind you once more of my prime directive of travel? If you have to pack a bag, it’s too far to go—to pack a bag and travel with him to Cambridge to seek out Wittgenstein’s haunts?
I should let Dennis make his own argument here, but Dennis is not here, and though I do not purport to speak for him, here’s my take on the appeal of Wittgenstein for so many people, rhetoricians and philosophers alike. At the core of Wittgenstein’s work is his “theory” of language. Now look, there have been thousands of articles and books written about Wittgenstein’s philosophy (although not by Wittgenstein who published only one book in his life, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ) so you’re not going to get much out of a paragraph or two written by me. But language is also at the heart of what we were studying in my PhD program, so Wittgenstein was saying some interesting things that could have been useful to us in theory building. For example, Wittgenstein wrote “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” Yes, and in the public arena, problems arise when language goes on holiday. Never more so than in these troubled times does this proposition seem valid. Wittgenstein—and, Boy Howdy, is this reducing his philosophy to cheese and crackers—sought to emphasize the role of ordinary language in describing the world. “What we do,” he wrote, “is bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” So, in some ways I guess, Wittgenstein’s work is a sort of therapy to help us avoid error and confusion as we make our way through the world—a world that is constrained by language: The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Wittgenstein once said that the aim of philosophy, at least his philosophy, was “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” Thus it is that a philosopher and a rhetorician can find common cause in trying to understand Wittgenstein and discovering how he helps us find some of the answers to some of life’s persistent questions.
Now that you have been steeped in Wittgensteinian arcania, let’s get back to Dennis and me and our travel to Cambridge. Cambridge is where Wittgenstein was briefly a student and where, from 1929-1947, he was a professor of philosophy at Trinity College. He is buried in Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge, and his writings are archived in the Wren Library in Cambridge, admission to which Dennis is working on now. So this is a pilgrimage of sorts. Not unlike Elvis aficionados who travel to Graceland, or Teddy Roosevelt admirers who travel to Sagamore Hill, Dennis and I travel to Cambridge. You got a problem with that? (oops, there’s that Gryffindor short-temper coming to the fore)
It turns out that Cromwell’s head is just the icing on the cake. But Wittgenstein’s brain in Cromwell’s skull: What a cake and what an icing!