Prof. Stephen Palmquist, D.Phil. (Oxon)
Department of Religion and Philosophy
Hong Kong Baptist University
Thesurprising comment Wittgenstein makes at the end of his Tractatus suggests that, even though the analysis of words isthe proper method of doing philosophy, the ultimate aim may be to experiencesilence. Whereas Wittgenstein never explains what he meant by his crypticconclusion, Kant provides numerous clues as to how the same position can beunderstood in a more complete and systematic way. A clear distinction betweenthe meaning of “silence,” “noise” and“sound” provides a helpful way of understanding how philosopherscan devote so much effort to analyzing words even though their quest isultimately fulfilled only in silence.
“…one can speak far more of that of which one knows nothing than of that of whichone knows something.” – Kant’s Lectures on Psychology, p.78
Philosophyis about understanding words and how words come to have meaning. Thus much ofthe best philosophical thought and writing, especially in the twentiethcentury, has dealt with the analysis of language, perfecting the art andscience of logical clarity and consistency. Nevertheless, one of the mostinfluential linguistic philosophers of the twentieth century, LudwigWittgenstein, ended his first book with the cryptic message: “What wecannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”This tantalizingly mysterious, single-sentence concluding section to a bookthat attempted to provide a highly logical explanation of how words can havethe power to convey meaning has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways.
Could Wittgenstein have been a mystic? This seems ratherunlikely, given the great number of words he wrote on wholly non-mysticalthemes. Yet in the few paragraphs immediately preceding the above quote, hepoints out (§6.522) that somethings “cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” He thenencourages us “to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositionsof natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do withphilosophy” (§6.53) and suggests that we correct a person who hasattempted to speak metaphysically by demonstrating “that he had failed togive a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.” Such a person(presumably Wittgenstein was thinking of his students) would be dissatisfied,feeling we had failed in the taskof “teaching him philosophy;” yet “this method would be the only strictly correct one.”
Not being a Wittgenstein scholar, I shall make no attemptin this essay to explain how (or indeed, whether) these apparently mystical comments can be made consistent with therest of Wittgenstein’s philosophical corpus. However, I do wish to arguethat the prima facie meaning of his words at the close of the Tractatus might be intended with the utmost seriousness.Although the philosophical task involves the analysis of words, the ultimatefulfillment of this task is an experiencenot unlike that described by mystics, wherein the words cease and are replacedby an awareness (sometimes called a “vision” or even,paradoxically, a “sound”) of wordless silence. As Wittgenstein putsit immediately before the famous concluding sentence of the Tractatus (§6.54): “He must transcend thesepropositions”—i.e., the propositions of Wittgenstein’s own philosophy, the propositions whose paradoxicalpurpose is to induce an awareness of the inability of philosophers to gain anyknowledge of anything metaphysical, yet whose status cannot themselves becounted as anything other than metaphysical!—“and then he will see the world aright.” Here Wittgenstein issuggesting that the intended result of this new type of metaphysics is not (asin classical metaphysics) to gain knowledge, but rather, to induce acertain type of experience. Thisexperience, and not the words themselves, constitutes the final goal of doingphilosophy.
Manyother philosophers before Wittgenstein have acknowledged a role for silence asmore than just the potentially-embarrassing space we must leave between ourwords in order for our speech to be understood. Kant, for example, oncedeclared near the end of a book on the structure of the cosmos: “In theuniversal silence of nature and in the calm of the senses the immortalspirit’s hidden faculty of knowledge speaks an ineffable language andgives [us] undeveloped concepts, which are indeed felt, but do not letthemselves be described.”Kant penned this sentence in 1755, when he was just 31 years old and before hehad published any of the works that eventually made him famous. In developinghis Critical philosophy, though, he became suspicious of notions like“hidden faculty of knowledge,” for he recognized that anything“noumenal” (Kant’s mature term for what I think he wasgroping toward in his earlier statement) is by epistemological necessity unknowable. To put it simply, the fact that it is“hidden” (not to mention “ineffable”) already indicatesthat it is (in itself) unknowable.
Evenin the first Critique Kant makes clearthat he does not wish to deny the reality of this ineffable realm.Rather, he (very much like Wittgenstein after him) wants to put metaphysics inits proper place, by showing that any attempt or claim to gain knowledge of this realm is bound to be illusory. Yet, as heargues in the Transcendental Dialectic, our inclination to go on aquest in search of such knowledge is bothinevitable and, in itself, bound to be fruitless. It is, he says, “a natural and inevitable illusion, which rests on subjective principles, and foiststhem upon us as objective.”The subjective principle Kant is referring to here is reason’s tendencyto generalize. It is naturalinsofar as reasoning would be impossible without this tendency; but it becomesillusory when our impulse to generalization extends out beyond the bounds ofpossible experience and attempts to encompass “totality”. Thistendency is what Kant is referring to when he encourages us to become well-grounded in the “fruitful bathos of experience” before we go off exploring inthe realm of metaphysics (pp.B294-B295):
This doman [i.e., experience, as analysedin the first one-third of the Critique,especially in the Transcendental Analytic] is an island, enclosed by natureitself within unalterable limits. It is the land of truth—enchantingname!—surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion,where many a fog bank and many aswiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores,deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging himin enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry tocompletion.
What, if anything, does this have to do with silence orwith the ultimate fulfillment of the philosophical quest? Kant seems here to bewarning us that this quest (our mental voyage out into the “stormyocean” of metaphysics) will not bear the fruit it promises. Like Tantalus in ancient Greek mythology,we will be left forever trapped by the water surrounding us, seeing the fruitof our longing as if it were right before our eyes, yet never able to grasp itor bring it home.
Perhapsthat, precisely, is the point. The point of doing metaphysics, if we are tobelieve Kant and the early Wittgenstein, is to show us this vision of a reality that can be“seen” (as the foregoing quotes from both Kant and Wittgensteinsuggest) but cannot be understood,in the sense of reducing it to the propositions of science. This is whyKant’s second Critiqueshifts gears entirely and adopts an explicitly subjective standpoint to examine the implications ofour moral nature. Perhaps it is not logic, but our moral sense, that canfulfill our forlorn love of Lady Truth, once and for all. Here, Kant argues,the philosopher’s verbal explanations of how and why “ultimatereality” can be a matter of rational belief, even though it isunknowable, bring us closer to the goal than classical(“speculative”) metaphysics ever could. However, even in the realmof morals, Kant leaves us disappointed. For in the Dialectic of the second Critique he likewise concludes that the most we can inferfrom our moral nature is that two of the three most important “ideas ofreason” (namely, God, freedom, and immortality) are no more than“postulates of practical reason”. That is, God and immortality are necessaryaffirmations that must be made (Kantargues) by anyone who wishes both to be moral and to view the choice to be moral as a rational one.However, practical reason does not leave us wholly unsatisfied. For earlier inthe second Critique Kant affirmsthat the other idea, freedom, is thefundamental “fact” of practical reason.
Thisis significant, because Kant devotes very few words to the defense of his viewof freedom in the second Critique.Rather, he appeals to our undeniable awareness of this “something”, and the fact thatthis awareness is the very source of our ability to make moral choices, eventhough (troublingly, for anyone who demands knowledge of a thing before believing it is true) theoreticalreason on its own is powerless to prove we really are free. This awareness ofour own freedom is, for Kant, the first point where reason rests, silentlyaffirming that it has “come home”. Having reached this partialfulfillment of his philosophical longing, Kant is able to muse, in theConclusion to the second Critique:
Two things fill the mind with ever new andincreasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect onthem: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not merelyconjecture them and seek them as though obscured in darkness or in thetranscendent region beyond my horizon: I see them before me, and I associatethem directly with the consciousness of my own existence.
This deep awareness of his own position as a free being inthe natural world then serves as a foundation for the third Critique and the writings on religion,where Kant comes gradually closer to treating the ideas of God and immortalityin the way he treated freedom in the second Critique—namely, in terms of our own subjectiveawareness, rather than as objects we can understand in the manner of scientificknowledge. A concept such as grace, for example, becomes for Kant not atheological doctrine to be defended in the manner of a creed (a belief claimed with the certainty of knowledge),but an experienced hope for “a higher assistance inscrutable tous.”
Whatis noteworthy about the progress of Kant’s philosophical quest—fromthe heady early days (before he became a professor in 1770) when traditionaldebates like the mind-body problem, proofs for the existence of God, and thenature of the physical world held his attention, through the decade of the1780s when the three Critiques weremostly written, to his final decade as a writer, when religious, political, andhistorical issues came to the forefront of his mind—is that Kant’sphilosophizing moved from an almost exclusive preoccupation with advancingmetaphysical theories, through a more cautious stage when his metaphysicalwords tended to be more paradoxical and self-limiting, to a quiet and fulfilledstate where the presence of a transcendent reality (the “noumenal”) can be sensedon almost every page, but is difficult (if not impossible, at times) to pindown to the actual words he is using. Thatis, as Kant grew older, he seemed more and more to be putting into practiceWittgenstein’s concluding maxim in the Tractatus: what he realized he could not speak about, butnevertheless saw clearly beforehis eyes (at least the eyes of his morally-inspired imagination), he eitherpassed over in silence or described in metaphors that would do no more thanpoint in generally the right direction.
IfKant and Wittgenstein are right, and silence really is the ultimate fulfillment of the philosophical quest,then this leads us, as philosophers, to ask: What is silence? And what exactly is its role in the philosophical quest for understanding? Herewe must guard against the temptation to provide a simplistic answer, for any attempt to answer such a question (given that ananswer will be expressed in the form of words) will have the paradoxical effect of blocking the very reality we are seeking to elicit (namely,silence). Our best hope, then, is to embrace the paradox, in the hope that our willingness to hold tightly toboth sides will eventually bear the fruit of a vision of that elusive realitywe are after: silence.
Onthe surface, the word“silence” seems to refer merely to the absence of sound. Thus, forexample, if students are talking too loudly during a lecture, the teacher mightsay: “Silence please!” This would mean something like:“Please stop making those sounds!” However, the word“silence” normally suggests much more than this. For there are somekinds of sound that do notdisturb our silence. Certain types of music, for example, can promote just thesort of deep, reflective awareness that the word “silence” isattempting to convey. Thus, for example, the popular song, “Sound ofSilence,” clearly implies that silence is not the absence of sound, but is itself a (paradoxical) kind of sound.
Noise,in contrast to silence, can be defined as “disturbing sound.” In this sense noise might not actuallymake any sound, as heard by our physical ears. A recalcitrant thought might function as noise, while the birds chirpingaway in a nearby tree might promote silence (in the well-disposed listener)even though they are making quite a loud sound. In the same way, the backgroundmusic in a film makes lots of sound;yet it can actually promote a sense of silence in the film if used in the rightway. But if the music detracts our attention from the action happening on thescreen, then it begins to function more like noise. Music can similarly enhancea conversation between friends; but if the same music is playing while one ofthem is trying to tune a guitar, it will probably function more like noise.
Such examples suggest that the type of silence that servesas the ultimate fulfillment of the philosophical quest is an inner experience, not a scientifically measurable statementabout the decibel level of the sound waves coming into a person’s ears.What then can we do to cultivatewithin ourselves a disposition that enables us to experience silence when otherpeople are being disturbed by the sounds all around us? How can what is noise to other people become like music to our ears? Andin particular, how can doing philosophy move us further along this path, ratherthan driving us crazy with the intolerable noise of its unanswerable questions?These questions are far too complex to answer in this foundational essay, wheremy purpose is not to fulfill the quest, but only to understand what it is.
Ofcourse, even after coming to the realization that our philosophizing isdirecting us toward an awareness of silence, we must use words in order tophilosophize. The point of viewing silence as the goal is that this conveys thenotion that in philosophy (or at least, in any application of philosophy tometaphysical problems) our words will never be anything more than pointers to areality that is essentially unspeakable, knowable in its depth only when we arewilling to “pass over in silence” the experience itself, observingit in such a way that we become aware of it in its depths.
WhenI teach Introduction to Philosophy to students in Hong Kong, I encourage themto be constantly on the lookout for experiences where this inner silence givesrise to what I regard as the single most important component of any goodphilosophy: insight.Insight alone, of course, is not enough to make philosophy “good”,because our insights can be wrong. We must subject our insights to the scalpelof criticism, in order to discover what reasons we can use to support and defend them, before wepresent them as worthy of acceptance by others. All too much philosophynowadays is little more than playing around with this analytical scalpel,without any evidence that the writer has experienced the silent insight thatenriches and enlivens the whole exercise, making it worthwhile to undertake inthe first place.
Whenthe connection between silence and insight is recognized, we can appreciate howit is possible that beginners in philosophy can sometimes experience, even at adeep level, the ultimate fulfillment of the philosophical quest, while seasoned“professionals” might find the experience of such silent wonderfrustratingly infrequent. The explanation of this phenomenon is that theinsight depends more on one’s aptitude for silence than on one’slogical ingenuity. Some philosophers devote so much effort to logic-choppingthat it is no wonder their work never seems to reach any point.
This view of philosophy (or philosophical reflection) asfinding its resting point in a wordlessawareness of “the way things are” is commonplace in manynon-western philosophical traditions. In Indian philosophy, for example, italmost goes without saying that, when we learn to “[a]ppreciate purelythe sense objective world as it is,” then “[w]ords becomeredundant.” Examples ofsuch claims abound in the literature, giving rise to the suspicion among manywestern philosophers that such claims are really nothing but religion indisguise. But what if even Wittgenstein (and Kant before him) shared a similarperspective? What if they, too, understood that our rational analysis of linguisticconstructions, important though this is to the philosopher, reach theirultimate fulfillment only when the analysis comes to an end?
Thestatement of Kant’s, quoted at the very beginning of this paper, may havea similar meaning. At one level (being an excerpt from Kant’s lectures onpsychology), it surely refers to the tendency most people have to talk more about an issue the less they understand it. This is a purely psychologicalphenomenon of compensation. We hide our ignorance by trying to appearknowledgeable. But at a deeper level, that quote may also imply that, if itwere possible to have absolute knowledge, or a genuine knowledge of “ultimate reality,” then bydefinition, we would find that knowledge impossibleto talk about. It would be knowledge; andyet (paradoxically), no word or collection of words could possibly express itto another person.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, tr. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London:Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), §7.
Recently I saw a book advertised with a subtitle that contains a parody ofWittgenstein’s famous maxim about silence. The book, by F. Davoine and J.Gaudillere, is called History Beyond Trauma: Whereof One Cannot Speak,Thereof One Cannot Stay Silent. Obviously,its main theme is that people who have gone through an experience so traumaticthat they are unable to speak about it openly will be impelled to speak about it in subtle ways that reveal,indirectly, what they have suffered. But the subtitle’s allusion toWittgenstein’s maxim also raises (for us) the interesting possibilitythat the position Wittgenstein defended near the end of Tractatus, with its paradoxical need to speak about what one is (according to the maxim itself)officially not even able to speakabout, might indicate that Wittgenstein himself had experienced a trauma thathe had, up to that point in his life, been psychologically unable to face. Ifthis were indeed the case, then one might further speculate that, whenWittgenstein then left his philosophical pursuits for a number of yearsthereafter, he was able to work through that psychological inertia, and thismay be what enabled him to speak about the very sorts of issues (in Philosophical Investigations) that he had barred himself from talking about inthe earlier work. Or, the latter writing might be regarded as a retreat, asfurther evidence that “one cannot remain silent” when one hasexperienced a trauma so great that it disturbs the inner silence that we needto reach a true fulfillment of the philosophical quest.
See Immanuel Kant, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, tr. Stanley L. Jaki (Edinburgh: Scottish AcademicPress, 1981), p.196 (p.367 in the German Academy Edition of Kant’s works). I have revised Jaki’stranslation in consultation with Kant’s original text. Jaki’stranslation is: “In the universal quiet of nature and in the tranquilityof mind there speaks the hidden capacity for knowledge of the immortal soul inunspecifiable language and offers undeveloped concepts that can be grasped butnot described.”
For a concise introduction to Kant’s theoretical philosophy and itsimplications for metaphysics, see my book, The Tree of Philosophy, fourth edition (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press,2000), Lectures 7 and 8. Lecture 16 provides a summary of Wittgenstein’searly (Tractatus) and late (PhilosophicalInvestigations) periods, showing how bothof his approaches to philosophy are consistent with the overall view of“the philosophical quest” I develop in that book and am defendingin this essay.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason,tr. Norman Kemp Smith (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1929), p.B354.References to Kant’s first Critique are to the original German pagination of the second (“B”)edition. References to other works of Kant are to the Academy Edition pagination, provided in the margins of mosttranslations.
See The Tree of Philosophy, Lecture 24,for a more detailed introduction to Kant’s moral philosophy. For a moredetailed, scholarly explanation of all three Critiques, see my book, Kant’s System ofPerspectives (Lanham, MD: University Pressof America, 1993).
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason,tr. Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1956),pp.161-162.
See The Tree of Philosophy, Lecture 29and Lectures 32-33, respectively, for more detail on Kant’s theories ofbeauty and religion. For a far more thorough, scholarly treatment of this areaof Kant’s philosophy, see my book, Kant’s CriticalReligion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000).
See e.g., Kant’s book, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, p.45.
For further discussion of how silence can fulfill the philosophical quest, see TheTree of Philosophy, Lecture 28 and all ofPart Four. In The Tree, Iassociate silence with the philosophical discipline of ontology, where the deep essence of our being is underinvestigation. I therefore examine how philosophers have seen both mystery andparadox in human experiences such as beauty, love, symbolism, religion,anxiety, courage, and death.
See The Tree of Philosophy, Lecture 2,for further discussion of the role of insight in philosophy.
Swami Suddhananda, Defining Austerity—A meditative indulgence, second edition (Chennai, India: SuddhanandaFoundation for Self-Knowledge, 2002), p.141. He goes on to say: “But formy ‘being’, to ‘be’ myself, I do not need athought.” For “to listen to the sound of silence, we do not needany specific decibel because it [silence] does not need any sound to announceits presence, it being self-evident.”
This etext is based on a prepublication draft of the published version of this essay.
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