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Oct. 13, 2006

Little Theater, Quad 346, SJU

Brian Armstrong
The Stain of Transcendence in the Early Wittgenstein

In 1921, the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein published an esoteric little text titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Although it mystified people at the time (and still does today), it had a profound impact on the future course of philosophy. One of Wittgenstein’s most striking claims was that the philosopher should aim to say only what science allows. Another was his claim that what we commonly refer to as “ethics” is something mystical that exists beyond what science allows us to say. Yet Wittgenstein insisted that this mystical something exists: it can be seen but not said. In my presentation, I will attempt to clarify this confusing stance (and its impact on the practice of philosophy) through the use of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Birthmark.” My argument will be that, for Wittgenstein, the mystical is an ineradicable aspect of human existence, and, although it cannot in the end be articulated, the one decidedly unethical act is to deny this aspect of existence.

No previous acquaintance with Wittgenstein’s philosophy or Hawthorne’s story is necessary.