This Astonishment

I came across this quote from Wittgenstein.

“To be sure, I can imagine what Heidegger means by being and anxiety. Man feels the urge to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer whatsoever. Anything we might say is *a priori* bound to be nonsense. Nevertheless we do run up against the limits of language. Kierkegaard too saw that there is this running up against something, and he referred to it in a fairly similar way (as running up against paradox). This running up against the limits of language is ethics.”
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Waismann-Gespräche, ed. McGuinness, Frankfurt, 1967-8; the translation quoted is from Schulte and McGuinness, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, Oxford, 1979, p. 68). In general, cf. K.O. Apel, ‘Wittgenstein und Heidegger’ in Transformation der Philosophie, Vol. I, Frankfurt, 1973 (English translation, London, 1980

It seems he is in deep trouble here because he refers to “this astonishment”. That means that you can use language to pick out the particular astonishment that anything at all exists, as opposed to say, the astonishment that I will someday die, the astonishment that Trump may be the Republican presidential candidate, and other possible astonishments. If you can do that, then it would seem to follow you can talk about the astonishment sensibly and ask questions about it.

Wittgenstein fans — did he just get his wires crossed? Or am I missing something?


12 thoughts on “This Astonishment

  1. Exasperated Existentialist says:

    I am astonished that anything exists at all. The astonishment is wrought with awe and fear.

    I am astonished that I can conceive of things I cannot explain to others, while others tell me I cannot have such conceptions.

    Isn’t art a means of expressing a concept without the use of language?

    Expression relies on and is optional to conception.

    Existential Astonishment: what a concept!

    Being necessarily comprises an astonishment component and it is useless to analyze or describe it.

    • Exasperated Existentialist says:

      To clarify:

      I got no further in “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” than the assertion that concepts are composed of, and/or dependent on words. My mind immediately went into “what am I missing” mode after a simple mental experiment proved this was not true for me.

      Deride them as you may, I credit Ayn Rand et al. with my introduction to philosophy and for that I should be grateful for them. And in particular Galt’s Pledge; I shall never get past that. And leading me to my Blessed Master.

      From “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” by Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff:

      “In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts. This is the function performed by language.”

      “The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word.”

      And to reiterate:

      One wonders if an infant, once self awareness arranges itself amidst its neural network, first experiences a sense of astonishment.

      • Exasperated Existentialist says:

        I will share my mental experiment.

        In your mind’s eye envision a wheelbarrow. Separate the components: a wheel, an axle, etc. What is the thing called which holds the payload? You know it exists, what its purpose is, what it looks like. What is its name? I had to consider the object before I had a word for it and during that time the concept was wordless.

  2. I’ve read that the quote is from a conversation as reported by Waismann and so it’s not improbable that it is paraphrased (like a great deal of Wittgenstein’s writings we have available). In any case, it is certainly ‘Early Wittgenstein’– the language is very reminiscent of the Tractatus– and so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was carefully rephrased elsewhere at a later stage. Language games, family resemblances, etc. aren’t full formulated until a few years later than this. I say ‘rephrased’ because I’m aware that this: ‘Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists.’ Pops up in different forms a lot in the course of his later writings.

    Basically, it’s not that you’re missing something; it’s just necessary to remember that Wittgenstein had a fundamentally different modus operandi at this point in time. His wires are crossed to this extent.*

    When I have time, I’ll try to find out the date of this quote because, interestingly, I’m sure he gave a lecture on ethics in Nottingham in 1929 and I would be interested to know which came first. Parts of the above quote I’m sure appear in that.

    *Although, important to note that I don’t get the impression, at its core, that his conception of ethics altered radically from his view in the TLP.

  3. Hello. Respectfully: It seems to me that Wittgenstein is not saying that “the astonishment” itself is beyond language, but the bare existential fact of being at all that is beyond, or perhaps supersedes, language. I am no Wittgenstein specialist, but that seems to be much more in line with what I understand his point to be, particularly in TLP.

    One swiftly gets trapped in recursion, as any question one could ask regarding the astonishment, or of the existential fact of being, is also subject to this astonishment. That is, there is no way to ask the question in a way that does not similarly provoke (or at least invite) the beyond-languageness of that initial existential surprise. After all, the question itself must have being of some sort, and is thus astonishing – there is no question “outside astonishment.”

    So I think you are entirely correct that one can pose credible and understandable questions about astonishment – but these take place within being, and thus are subject to the astonishment itself, which must forever have a remainder that is not wholly subject to language, as it infects every question about itself.

    For Wittgenstein, this means that such questions are meaningless, as they fail his “everything that is the case,” logically atomistic linguistic conception. For those of a more pragmatic or existential bent, this poses no difficulty at all, which is where I understand your query to be coming from. So although I, like you, disagree with his statement, I believe that on his own terms (logical atomism) he is correct.

    It is also entirely possible that I have drastically misinterpreted the whole point here, in which case I humbly beg your forgiveness.


  4. Isn’t he refering to something like putting consciousness into print? Like, you can write down your conscious experience of that astonishment on a piece of paper, but that’s still just inky paper – the paper isn’t conscious. The conscious experience (or whatever you might want to report about from inside your brain meats) is happening in his/your skull. It’s not really conveyed, is it? Writing and consciousness is kind of like the question of paternity – sure, you can assume the writing is related to the astonishment. But where’s the definite proof?

      • A perceiving, conscious page of paper? Simply for having had ink spilled upon it? I would be surprised!

        I think he has a fair point. He’s not talking about just writing a narrative. We don’t live narratives, in our heads. We don’t ‘walked to the shop to buy some milk’ – that’s not at all what goes on in our head. Instead it’s like trying to write down something you can’t quite remember. How do you investigate a thing you can’t remember – when investigating doesn’t get you any closer to remembering?

      • I like to think I am by describing the incapacity. Where there’s an incapacity of consciousness to self depict, that’s as much a description of consciousness. But it seems I’m not doing a very good job of it!

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