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‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’

This is the declaration with which the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein ended his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. You can read as many interpretations of it as you like, but for me it does not mean that one should be silent when things are difficult to talk about, rather it means that there are some experiences in life that exceed the limits of language. It is difficult to think, let alone write, about the events that took place in Newtown last week; my sense of it is a slowly unfolding horror, the magnitude of which the mind cannot fully comprehend. It has struck me that whilst the internet continues to buzz away with all the possibilities for the world ending on this Friday, the 21st December, in line with Mayan predictions, the world ended in its usual form a week earlier for the families in Newtown.

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

The limits of our language are no more evident than in the pictures of the influx of media from all around the world to Newtown. Of course the crews should leave because there is nothing more to be said, in that place, at this time, except in private. Hanging around in the hope of an interview or a development is a crass depiction of the consumerist nature of today’s media.

The difficult conversations that can be had, seem to be starting with regard to gun control. Difficult because the right ‘to bear arms’ is enshrined in the constitution. Difficult because there are around 300 million firearms legitimately owned by Americans. Difficult because, in the past, the American public’s response to a massacre has been to buy more guns. Still, cultural change on such a scale can only be driven by legislation and reinstating the lapsed ban on owning assault rifles would be the tip of the iceberg for the country, but it would be a good start.

America was founded on a mentality that placed primary importance on defending oneself and one’s property from attack. It is now time to consider not just the rights of the individual, but the safety of the whole community; communities where easy access to deadly weapons puts the means to kill literally within arm’s reach. I only hope that for the sake of the children and adults that were lost in Newtown those with the power to speak, do, and the urgent change that is needed finds it way into legislation soon.


Back to Wittgenstein’s lion

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations p.223

‘Mind’ by Richard Wilbur

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

I got up this morning wondering about Wittgenstein’s idea that if a lion could speak we couldn’t understand him. This makes sense because, sometimes, when humans speak my own language I can’t understand them either. It seems that Wittgenstein meant we could not begin to conceive of a lion’s experience of life and the older I get, the harder it is to conceive of another human’s experience of life, unless it is a sort of metaphysical understanding – something beyond words. I wonder if I could apply that to a lion, despite Wittgenstein.

Thus, you will see that Richard Wilbur’s poem gave me some small clarity for the day; although I did wonder if language, rather than the mind, was more like a bat. I do not believe all thought is language-based…which brings me to another of Wittgenstein’s ideas which was that language is the cage whose walls we keep climbing. Whichsoever, the cave is dark enough for silent contemplation.