I remember the strangeness of the thought “The world is all that is the case” when I first heard these words in a Philosophy of Education class, in the nineteen seventies, in England. I had applied to and been accepted at a reputable teacher training college in Exeter after completing my education in a Grammar school and working as an insurance clerk for just over a year.
The lecturer, Jude Sutton, paused upon saying these words and waited expectantly, almost dramatically, for a few seconds before heaving a sigh of abandonment and continuing the lecture.
“The world is the totality of facts and not of things” (Wittgenstein)” was then written on the board, and the lecturer rounded upon us like an animal defending its territory and waited expectantly, again without result, before saying:
“Perhaps people of your generation believe that the world is made of sugar, spice, all things nice, slugs snails puppy dog tails. Or perhaps you all believe the world is made of many things, ships, shoes, ceiling wax, cabbages and kings.”
One of the students attending the lecture felt the need to ease the tension and responded by calling out
“Everyone knows that knowledge can only be composed of facts—facts are what the world is made of. Facts are the atoms of the world”
The lecturer paused to consider what was said and finally responded:
“And what if everyone in the world believing such a thing is confused and what if confusion causes great world catastrophes such as world wars and the young logical atomist Dr. Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Vienna, from the same school Mr. Adolf Hitler attended, was just wrong”
He paused and then continued
“And what would a fact, or this so called atom of the world, look like?”
The student felt the need to defend himself but did not know how, and responded in a less confident voice
“A fact is a fact”
“ Let me ask you all, these questions. Does this world you are thinking about change? If it does, is change one fact or many facts? Does the whole world change when something changes in it or does it remain the same and only parts of it change? Is all change of one kind, or are there different kinds of change? Surely if a change is to occur there must at the very least be something that changes. We talk about the atoms of the world as if they are responsible for the formation of these things and perhaps everything that happens everywhere. But what if there are processes of change occurring, within these indivisibles, which are partly responsible for their behavior when they do whatever they do. And if this is so, does this not commit us to thinking that these so-called indivisibles are in fact divisible. And if this is so, does not the process of dividing up the world seem an infinite one that could never be completed. What, ladies and gentlemen, if the world is infinitely divisible and is therefore infinitely conceptualisable or what if the world is alternately conceptualisable as a particle or a wave and facts depend on the structure of the minds of the humans thinking about them. Or what if facts are formed by many generations of thinkers discussing them?”
I raised my hand to ask a question:
Could one not say that the structures of our minds are explanatory facts which psychologists will discover one day, and could one not say that sociologists or anthropologists will discover the facts of social explanations that explain other facts we claim to know.? I think I agree with Dr. Wittgenstein.
The lecturer, Dr. Jude Sutton, looked inquisitively at me before answering:
Well, let me firstly inform you that Dr. Wittgenstein did not in his later work agree with himself but even in his early work from which I am quoting, namely, the “Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus”, he tried to acknowledge the importance of the mind, the self, and the importance of aesthetic, social, ethical and religious values..”
I raised my hand again to follow up my question, Jude Sutton’s expression changed from an expression of curiosity to an expression of mild amusement:
“What do you mean that he tried to acknowledge?
“I mean that he said that the Self is outside the world and that all other values flowing from the self such as aesthetic, social, ethical and religious values are also outside the world..”
“Surely a value is just another fact reflected in what we say and what we do?”
“That would entail that there two different classes of facts: one for the truthful account of events that occur in the world, and one for the kind of event that incorporates actions and persons who live very concretely in our world and not outside it”
The class looked confused and began to fidget impatiently. Jude smiled and continued:
These ideas are the most difficult and important you will ever encounter during your very privileged and sheltered lives. The kinds of questions I am raising are philosophical questions, what the Greeks called aporetic questions.”
He wrote a-poria on the board and continued:
“A-poria in Greek means “difficult journey”. Dr. Wittgenstein left Vienna and its culture of looking for the facts and made his difficult journey to England, to Manchester University, to study the dynamics of the aeroplane. Perhaps he was thinking that a birds-eye view of the world would reveal the nature of the world. Perhaps he was not thinking at all, some would say. Whilst at Manchester he became interested in the tools he was using to solve concrete engineering problems relating to air-flight. He moved to Trinity College Cambridge to study Logic and Mathematics under Bertrand Russell who was convinced that Logic would solve all the problems of Philosophy. Wittgenstein, under Russell, left the world of concrete problems and became genuinely puzzled by how ideas of the facts, of what is true, seemed to form an idea of the world as a whole, the totality as he called it, and he wanted to investigate this phenomenon. Let me give you an analogy of what he meant when he said the self is outside the world. When we wake up in the morning and open our eyes, a visual field appears. Now to a consistent thinker who has decided for his definition of the world as a totality of facts, and has decided that the truth of the facts are determined by scientific observation, that is, by someone using their visual fields to discover the facts, an obvious problem arises. A scientist is bound by a scientific oath, to use the scientific method of observation to look for the causes of phenomena and the cause of our visual fields are obviously our eyes, which lie outside our visual fields. So unless the scientist is prepared to give up his commitment to observation as the means that he uses to acquire and verify his knowledge, we have an aporetic problem, a logical problem. Some would say the scientist is faced with a contradiction in his reasoning. This problem occurs also at a higher level than that of the analogy of the visual field. If one says that it is a fact that the self and its consciousness lies behind our explorations of the world and our suffering in the world, then I should be able to observe this self and verify this fact. Yet this appears to not be logically possible. Even the Buddhists realized that you would be using your self to find your self and that the suffering self would no longer be suffering if it was exploring the world. You can see that these problems are not easy to solve. “
A student studying History raised their hands:
“But I don’t understand your references to Hitler and the War.”
“That was partly to arouse your desire to explore these issues but it was a serious suggestion relating to the terrible events that have occurred this century: the events of two world wars, the dropping of two atomic bombs on civilian populations and a cold war in which there is a serious threat of a nuclear holocaust between two non philosophical superpowers. I don’t mean to imply that Mr. Hitler was bright enough to formulate a theoretical definition of the world. I mean merely to suggest that he came from an Austrian and a European culture that had influenced the world with its blind faith in science. The assumption that the world is the totality of facts may lie behind everything we have suffered so far this century.”
“Surely the causes are more specific and diverse. Hitler was not sane”, the student responded.
“Perhaps it is a fact that Hitler was insane. Even if that is a truth determined by Psychology on the basis of available historical evidence, this still does not explain the facts, as we know them. Were all of the Germans carrying out the orders to murder the Jews, insane? I don’t believe that we are dealing with the matter of mass insanity and anyone who maintains that understands neither Psychology nor Philosophy. Let me take a concrete example. Eichmann was tried and hanged 14 years ago in Jerusalem. He lied but not compulsively. When confronted with evidence proving that he lied, he acknowledged the truth. Psychologists at his trial noted flat affect in his voice and lack of remorse for what he had done but he was not diagnosed as insane. Hanna Arendt attended his trial and read the 3500 pages documenting his testimony and wrote a book in which she definitely stated that Eichmann was neither insane nor evil. In her judgment, Eichmann had never been taught to think about value. He went to the same school as Hitler and no doubt left with the assumption that the world is merely the totality of facts. For him the world did not contain ultimate values such as “Murder is wrong” and according to Arendt, he did not know how to talk about what he had done. She referred to this phenomenon as the “banality of evil” which angered many Jews at the time.
I raised my hand:
“If Wittgenstein claimed that the self was the source of value and value lay outside the world did he not acknowledge the importance of value?”
“Good reasoning. Wittgenstein had said and believed to the end of his life that an investigation of language is necessary to answer aporetic questions. In the “Tractatus” however, he located the importance of language in the self and claimed that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. He claimed that values could not be talked about but only shown in our language. This appears solipsistic and suggests that our values are not inter-subjective, not objective. It was only in his later posthumous work, ”Philosophical Investigations”, that he realized that the self existed in a public and historical world and that language was public and historical. That is, he understood finally that we could talk objectively about values and claim with justification that “Murder is wrong”.
Jude paused and noted with satisfaction the interest he had aroused and left the lecture room abruptly. The group gradually dispersed leaving me looking transfixed at what had been written on the blackboard: “The world is all that is the case”
I remember feeling that this lecture was different from all the others we had experienced. It felt as if the lecturer had reversed the polarity of the world within the lecture-room and everyone was strangely looking for where north was instead of using it to fly off into their own private worlds. The atmosphere was loaded with anticipation and every thought was like a sudden bolt of lightning striking and splitting our world apart in the name of something ineffable, something which could not be talked about but which everyone mysteriously knew or thought they knew. This experience felt like an awakening, like stepping off from a rolling, swaying ship onto the rough hard ground of real, solid earth.