Wittgenstein without tears

Neven Sesardic
(Lingnan University, Hong Kong: sesardic@ln.edu.hk)

What a great country, Austria!

Yet what is its real forte?

Ha! I know what you’re thinking,

but it's not the Sacher Torte!


Though its Alps are awesome,

and Mozart’s music is divine,

pride of place still goes to—

that fellow Wittgenstein.


He didn’t speak a word

before the age of four,

but later he talked and talked

until his throat was sore.


Torn between logic and suicide,

he came to Russell for advice,

who said “You’re a splendid chap,

or genius, to be precise.”


The war interfered with his studies

but he wrote a book in the trenches,

which threw into philosophical debates

some nasty monkey wrenches.


All the book’s main propositions

numbered from 1 to 7

were presented as final truth,

or like a word from heaven.


He called his sentences nonsensical,

yet some meaning they seemed to convey.

Afterwards, no longer useful,

this ladder could be kicked away.


To render his famous punch line

in a language somewhat fowl,

his message was that after Tractatus

philosophers should halt das Maul.


He then himself abandoned

these futile and barren disputes,

making a radical turn

and following other pursuits.


As a teacher in an Austrian village

he regarded its people as bad.

They did not like him either,

in fact he often made them mad,


because his way with children

was harsh and even severe:

a boy he once struck collapsed,

and a girl bled behind the ear.


His later return to philosophy

was something of an earthquake;

Tractatus was now declared

to be a huge mistake.


New slogans were introduced

in the Blue as well as Brown Book:

“The meaning is language use!”

and “Do not think, but look!”


He solved that old question:

“How should one follow a rule?”

Well, if it’s your form of life,

any way you proceed is cool.


His fans busily took the notes,

trying to fathom what he meant.

He judged they comprehended—

at most five to ten percent.


He said if a lion could talk,

we would not understand him,

yet the chance of his own thought being grasped

was also pretty slim.


Many fell under his spell,

their worship made people cringe,

especially when British dons

spoke English with an Austrian tinge.


Here is how he explained

what philosophy is all about:

it’s about a fly in the fly-bottle

and showing it the way out.


All philosophical puzzles

resemble a kind of disease,

which has a cure that, oddly,

leaves everything as it is.


But then what’s the point of all this,

if it only keeps things the same?

The answer is: hey, take it easy,

it’s all just a language game!