in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 13 October 2014

Inaugural Lecture: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rabindranath Tagore and the Mystical Turn

Dear All

Another busy week ahead with the initiation of the British Carmelite year of celebrations for the 500th anniversary of St Teresa's birth this Wednesday at Kensington. Next Monday is also my inaugural professorial lecture here at St Mary's. If you want to come and have not booked a place please contact myself or Hannah Bowyer at St Mary's. We are filling up fast so don't leave it too long!
For those who cannot attend the event will be filmed and put on In the meantime here is a small section to whet your appetites.

With all good wishes


Wittgenstein and Tagore: Two Sentinels on the Borderlands of Modernity

In a letter to Paul Engelmann written on the 23rd October 1921 Wittgenstein expressed his disapproval of one of the Bengali’s works – the short play The King of the Dark Chamber, he wrote:


It seems to me as if all that wisdom has come out of the ice box; I should not be surprised to learn that he got it all second-hand by reading and listening (exactly as so many among us acquire their knowledge of Christian wisdom) rather than from his own genuine feeling. Perhaps I don’t understand his tone; to me it does not ring like the tone of a man possessed by the truth


He goes on to suggest in the letter that Tagore may have suffered from a weak translation (something he would correct a decade later by attempting with Yorick Smythies his own translation of the play) or indeed that the fault may lie within Wittgenstein  himself. This letter alone  goes some way to furnishing an explanation of why Ludwig was to inflict the Bengali’s writings on the bemused members of the Vienna Circle a few years later – it was as though Wittgenstein himself was trying to come to terms with Tagore’s writings and make sense of how they should be incorporated (or not) into his own inter-war search for ‘the truth’ (which would include, inter alia, his study of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Count Tolstoy, Oswald Spengler and James Frazer – reflections upon all of whom can be found in the inter-war writings).

     Accordingly, a few months later we find him writing to Ludwig Hänsel to say that he had revised his opinion as ‘there is indeed something grand here’ (See Monk p.408). Within this re-evaluation of Tagore can be seen Wittgenstein’s inter-war (and inter- Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations) search for the meaning of religious truths. So, Having given (as he thought) final shape to his views on logic and propositional structure in the earlier Tractatus it is almost as if he now sought to find similar clarity to these broader religious and aesthetic questions, no doubt spurred, I have suggested in an earlier book, by his encounter in the trenches with, first ‘the nearness of death’(appropriate for this centenary year of the WW1) and secondly the re-working of the Gospels by Leo Tolstoy[1]. From this, what we might broadly term his existential approach to religion, arises one of the observations that occurs in his notebooks at the time, where he writes:

A religious question is either a “life question” or (empty) chatter. This language game, we could say, only deals with “life questions”. (Wittgenstein BEE 183:202) [2]


With this comment in mind it becomes clear which criteria Wittgenstein was applying to Tagore’s play – was it indeed a ‘life question’ or mere ‘empty chatter’ (indeed, we could argue that this became his talisman towards all academic discourse later in life). Initially at first he seemed to think the latter before moving to the former. What was it about Tagore’s work that could have elicited this move? Regardless of the writings of both men of letters, the backgrounds and influences on the two men might immediately suggest a bond, if not, to coin Wittgenstein’s phrase, a ‘family resemblance’.

[1] McGuinness and Monk tell the strange story of how shortly after arriving in Galicia during his war service in 1914 he walked into a bookshop which only contained one book – Tolstoy’s Gospels. At this time he was feeling particularly low and in Monk’s words he was quite literally ‘saved by the word’ (Monk 1990:115
[2] Eine religiöse Frage ist nur entweder Lebensfrage oder sie ist (leeres) Geschwätz. Dieses Sprachspiel – könnte man sagt – wird nur mit Lebensfragen gespielt.

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