Saturday, July 30, 2005

The State of the Manuscript

In the introduction to the online catalogue of Wittgenstein's papers at Trinity College, we find the following comment.

Reducing his philosophy for the printed page was difficult for Wittgenstein, and the state of his manuscripts reflect this.

Note that there is something distinctly odd about transposing this statement for poetic purposes.

Reducing his poetry for the printed page was difficult for Pound, and the state of his manuscripts reflect this.

This is back to my old point about there being nothing quite like a "poem" in philosophy. While it does not strike us as immediately odd to hear that there is an important distinction between Wittgenstein's philosophy and his writing, saying that there is a big difference between Pound's poetry and his writing is very odd.

I know there are poets out there who claim that their written work is incidental to their poetic process, and I think this claim actually shows how much a "philosophical" sensibility has influenced modern poetry. It is now possible to distinguish between the poetry and the poems of a given poet.

In the case of Wittgenstein, however, as the rest of the quoted paragraph from Trinity College shows, the writing was exactly identical with the philosophy.

He expressed his ideas in the form of remarks, which he constantly rewrote, re-organised and repeated in manuscripts and typescripts, sometimes cutting typescripts up into individual remarks which could easily be re-arranged.

Here his process looks very much like that of a poet. Wittgenstein finished some of his work, but the unfinished nachlass probably looks a bit like the files of Ezra Pound.

What Wittgenstein's philosophy "was" beyond his most finished works (like the Philosophical Investigations and, before that, the Tractatus) was not "difficult to get down on the page" but simply not yet worked out, i.e., not yet organised and arranged as written remarks. We should really ask, where do Wittgenstein's archivists imagine Wittgenstein's "philosophy" was located before it was so imperfectly committed to his notes? I think Wittgenstein would be the first to insist on the absurdity of this question.

PS. It is especially the idea of a writing as "reduction" that we must be careful with when applied to poetry and philosophy.

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