Wittgenstein what? Wait, what does he have to do with diving or how a philosophy conversation leads me back to diving?

I suppose it should not surprise me that a conversation, well, more an exchange about philosophy should lead me back to diving, but after reflecting on it, it did. In my daily quest for science news for my other effort in posting way too much about water news and science, I happened upon an article about Wittgenstein being a mystic in Scientific American. It is titled Was Wittgenstein a Mystic?: The philosopher’s greatest work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, only makes sense in the light of mysticism? Don’t click on the article yet. I will suggest a process in just a moment.

It is written by John Horgan. My first thought was what is this doing in Scientific American? My second thought was wow, I do not see Wittgenstein come up in everyday life very often. I should at this point explain I was a philosophy minor as an undergrad. Wittgenstein is my favorite modern, well semi-modern philosopher. Plato is my favorite, let’s call it classic, philosopher.

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I will talk about the article itself more further down. But, I was inspired to add a comment to the article page. Then, I sent a note to the author on Twitter. If you feel incline, I would suggest reading my comments first then going and reading the article. This order might help with background so it is a bit easier for the less philosophical of us here. My comments are below for easy access or should be up top on the bottom of the article.

My comments on the article to the author.

Interesting piece. I applaud the effort as I rarely see Wittgenstein addressed. 

I think most people take Wittgenstein’s work out of context and the time it was presented. It stands on its own but needs to be understood in context of why he produced the work.

At the time Russell and Whitehead were powerhouses and symbolic logic was the soup de jour of the time. The quest for a perfect language was a real effort and math was thought to be the road to that answer. Wittgenstein’s time in jail gave him some time to think a lot and he wrote the Tractatus as a reply to this dominance of symbolic logic and the work of Russell and Whitehead. What better way to argue against something than to begin by using what you are arguing against to build the case for it? A bit of pseudo Socratic method ish.

Wittgenstein makes a very strong argument for symbolic logic and the quest for the perfect language. A belief that is a sort of reductionism that all things could be explain if only… If only there was the right language. The idea that some things or experiences are not possible to explain was not seen as true, but rather an exercise in the failings of humans to construct the right mechanism of explanation. 

So, many people have a very hard time with the first half of the book. Which is largely the defense or buildup of the for argument for symbolic logic and the idea that math is the most likely perfect language needed to explain all. 

Wittgenstein flips the script after building up this argument and uses his own argument to destroy this notion that all things can be explained. To the conclusion that there are things beyond language. That not everything can be explained. That experiences and certain aspects of existence are literally unexplainable. Not because they are beyond comprehension, but because they have to be experienced to be known fully and there is not a way to produce a form of communication that captures that full experience. 

So, if you want to call this mysticism, that is fine. Or you can simply call it by what Wittgenstein likely meant that humans have internal experiences that transcend language and the construct of language is limiting and not encompassing enough to capture or share these experiences. That does not necessitate doing acid, it can be any experiences that brings more to the experiencer than can be explained or that language allows to be shared. 

Take, for example, love. I believe that love is an action not a feeling. It is why it is so difficult to define and why there are so many issues with the discussion of love. To fully know love you need to experience it and it is in context of an object of focus for that love. Even if that is toward one’s self. It is why we have art and a lot of energy in art goes to the subject and topic of love. Because it is an experience beyond language. So, art and the expression looks to inspire feelings or aspect of the love expression and experience, but will never fully provide it, but gets closer than language is able to. 

So, perhaps it is better to say Wittgenstein was an artist. His medium was philosophy and language. Ironically, to point out that his medium is not enough to fully explore experiences that are beyond the medium. 

So, the beauty of Wittgenstein’s revelation is that there are aspects of life that have to be experienced to be known. There is no other access to it other than living it. In this context, what is lived is real and whole in its own context of experience. Not to complicate it with metaphysical arguments that would confuse the matter further. 

In an extension beyond his work, this means we can trust in our experiences to hold a truth that we may never have language to describe and is known in their experience making sense that we may never be able to share fully. Going forward does hold as much truth as things we could explain in the traditional sense. Or perhaps even more truth for the person with that experience. Perhaps this is what we call a gut reaction simply for lack of a better explanation for it. Or a gut feeling that is not the same as feelings but tied to them. But, live a much bigger part than just that.

The distant time suspended experience you mention is known outside of mysticism and often called flow or being in the zone in a sports or activity context. There is pretty good science that this is a function of right brain activity where the time center is suspended, and the brain is functioning from its less dominate side. I digress, but it is worth considering and exploring if you care to try to have these experiences without the drug induced requirements. 

So, the confusion that reaching for this or knowing this arena is a place of silence is true but confusing for people. It is not that it is so mystical that it is inaccessible or foreign to all but a tiny few, it is simply a different experience that is not based in language and has to be experienced to know and there is not an adequate way to share in it without experiencing it because it is beyond a way we have yet to communicate it. It may be outside our ability to communicate it to others in a way that matches each person’s experience simply because the transformative experience is individual and why transformative experiences are never the same twice because the person is literally changed through the process. So, even the same experience the next time has a different outcome because the person going into it is not the same person that entered it the first time. 

Even Plato addressed similar aspects when Socrates in the Apology speaks to philosophers being closer to the one or death. That there was a place through experience that led to a space beyond language. Not in those exact words, but the idea that the more you learn the less you know was a common theme of Plato. This can be seen as an extension of some areas of life being beyond language. 

Wittgenstein gets a bad rap, not because he is a mystic or hard to understand, but because symbolic logic can be tough to understand and the context of his one book is not understood about what he was trying to address. He essentially destroyed Russell and Whitehead’s approaches in this area with an argument so solid there was really no response. Both were established and become huge icons in foundational mathematics and math philosophy, but the perfect language work pretty much died with this work. 

In this context you can understand Russell’s amazement and his desire to sponsor Wittgenstein. Whitehead was not as warm to the idea. This work alone basically got Wittgenstein his PhD. Also, it needs to be understood that Wittgenstein wrote it well before his arrival and sponsorship by Russell. It is an amazing story and a hugely powerful moment in philosophy. 

Since the final conclusion is that there are aspects of life beyond language it means many views are possible for who Wittgenstein is and for what all of this means. So, mystic is fine to decide fits the person, but we could easily say he was an early student of flow and performance philosophy too. Neither is complete enough alone to cover the full impact of the work and what it means.

Yes, way too much use of so. I was tired and it was late, what can I say. Okay now go read the article if you like.

Since making the comments I heard back from the author, which is cool. He felt the comments helped him learn more about Wittgenstein. A high compliment and I appreciated that.

Now, a few days removed, it dawned on me that once again diving is a perfect illustration or application, if you would, of what I was discussing here. I did not use it as an example in my comments because I kept my reply to big general ideas. Love being the main example. But, my well duh moment today snapped the connection to diving.

Feel free to comment if you find a connection to diving before reading on for my feelings about the connection.

Wittgenstein, as I explained, can be considered a mystic in the context of the article, but this removed and often esoteric position suggests a remoteness or special access to a process unfamiliar to most of us. The work of Wittgenstein is not an easy text to get through. Which I address in my comments. But, if you take the main conclusion and the revelation he makes that there is life and experience beyond language, you might begin to sense the connection to diving.

Diving is transformative. I think any of us that dives that has had issues trying to explain why we love it so much or telling a great dive story understands the conclusion well. There are experiences in diving that are beyond language. This is why it is tough to share with a non diver just how awesome a dive experience that changed us is. It is why divers at different levels of accomplishment may not be able to have a conversation about the differences they experience. A dive together might do more than a conversation.

Okay great you might say, that was an obscure way of getting at that. There is a deeper importance to this. In teaching diving or continuing in diving, we need to think about this and how we try to talk to students about diving. Precision Diving provides a way to mentally approach diving, but you will never fully understand or “get it” unless you dive it. Diving it out, given this idea that it may be beyond language, is a better way than talking it out. Talking has a place, but perhaps it is far less important than we truly believe.

Likely, Wittgenstein’s conclusion explains why we have a tough time in marketing and promoting diving. Our words and images are just too far removed from the experiences and internal processes the experiences bring, leaving those experiences beyond language. As I mention in my comments, this is true of love and why love is such a large topic in creative expressions of all sorts and so poorly worked out by language. It means looking to a silver tongued bullet that makes the magical connection we all struggle to find might be a fruitless search. Perhaps, even our approach to the experience parts are still too connected to language.

Additionally, a warning to those that want to race forward and believe they know enough to be diving beyond their experience and/or certification. There are a lot out there who race up the tech/rebreather/cave/wreck/sidemount/freediving etc routes, even recreational levels. This likely makes sense for those who do it. It is enabled by the instructors and ITs that allow it to happen.

However, if you connect with this idea that there are experiences and parts of life that are beyond language, Then, no matter how well you think you know, in an academic sense, you are ready or know enough to be doing X like so and so, you are relying on the wrong evidence to make that decision or shall we say the wrong pieces to justify you are correct.

There are components of diving that you will not learn from a book, or a lecture, or from researching the internet, or having a conversation, or by faking it, or talking yourself into it. Just like love. You have to have the experiences. You have to take it diving. You have to have a strategy to apply your skills and bring them together in an integrated way  applying them in the water. While, doing so enough times to have different conditions and challenges in your applications to have those experiences to truly be competent at your current level. Each new application/level of diving has a similar growth curve. There is no substitute for it.

It is beyond language.