The Problem of Life

Friday December 1, 2006


The other night I was talking Wittgenstein. This, usually, is something that I avoid, largely because I can’t help but find Wittgenstein, particularly early Wittgenstein, one of the most terrifyingly formidable philosophers ever to have lived. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to confront that which we fear most… At the moment we’ve some friends from the USA staying with us, one of whom is a huge Wittgenstein fan. So only an hour or so after they arrived, we had our copies of the Tractatus out on the table and were ploughing through the text.

One of the passages that I have always found striking comes from the penultimate page of the book and it goes like this.

6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

Although Wittgenstein later called the Tractatus into doubt and embarked upon a different approach in his philosophy, it seems to me as if he maintained this general approach to philosophical problems throughout his life. If it were possible to make a distinction between the early and late Wittgenstein in terms of the above statement, it might simply be this: that whilst in the Tractatus he writes of the “solution of the problem of life”, he might in his later philosophy incline more to thinking about the “solutions of the problems of life.”

It seems to me that there are (at least!) two ways of doing philosophy: either seeing it as the solution of problems in some kind of master-scheme or set of propositions; or seeing it as a way of laying to rest the very things that cause us problems in the first place. Wittgenstein is one of the few thinkers who stands uncompromisingly in the latter camp. Similarly, I think that practice can be seen in these two ways: either we can hope that it will lead us to some end point at which we will have solved the problems of existence, or it can go in an altogether different direction and not so much solve as dissolve the problems. After all, what would the solution to the supposed “problem of life” look like? In what sense could one say that life was “solved”?

Dissolving rather than solving… so these are the questions that reading Wittgenstein provokes in me: what if there is no big shining truth that awaits the diligent practitioner at the end of the path? What if there is no secret of the universe to somehow be revealed to us (I am impressed by the bit in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal when the knight asks death what his secret is, and death simply says, “I have no secret”)? What if the path is more a way of patiently – through inquiry, investigation and awareness – seeing through the very things that make us long for such big shining truths, that make us strain towards imagined certainties in this uncertain world, or that cause us grasp after points of fixity in a fluid universe?

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#1 · Garnet David

6 December 2006

John Lennon said, “There are no problems, only solutions”. It reminds me of the Wittgenstein quote.

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