Meaning of Meaning
by Todd Walton, September 29, 2010
“A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein
I first encountered the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1967 when I was 19, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. Wittgenstein’s little treatises The Blue and Brown Books were required reading for all freshmen enrolled at Stevenson College, the campus within the campus named after Adlai Stevenson and dedicated to the social sciences. I was a gung ho anthropology major, though my gung ho-ness would soon be replaced by the awareness that anthropology was a deeply conflicted realm best avoided by the already conflicted likes of me.
But in my early weeks on that lovely campus, free for the first time in my life from my parents’ incessant intrusions, the breezes eloquent and optimal for Frisbee, the bevies of braless beauties making of life an erotic potpourri, I was inspired to give academia the old college try. So I dove into my studies with youthful zeal, and things went swimmingly for a month or so, and then Wittgenstein.
I beg the forgiveness of any Wittgenstein devotees who may read this dispatch. My sense of the man, based on a few biographical sketches and the four pages of his work I have labored through, is that he was an intimidating German charlatan for whom Oxford and the higher realms of academia were a field of clover, he a ravenous cow. But I don’t know.
In the introductory lecture on Wittgenstein given by a professor who would soon thereafter kill himself, we teenagers were told that the brilliant German transplant was initially intrigued by the meanings of meanings of words, but soon grew tired of such pedestrian mental gymnastics and was moved to pontificate for thousands of impenetrable pages about the meanings of the meanings of the meanings of words. To which my Jewish grandmother would have retorted, “From this he makes a living? Oy vey.”
Dazed and confused by the professor’s elucidation of Wittgenstein’s multi-layered inquiries into the meanings of meanings of meanings, and being mightily distracted by the nearness of so many outrageously cute and minimally clothed chicks (as we ignorant sexists called pretty girls in those days), I exited the lecture hall stuck on layer one. Woman. What is the meaning of Woman? Look! There goes one now. Okay. Wow. There she is. Woman means that. Her. And the meaning of the meaning? Hmm. What is the meaning of the word that means Her? Well, gosh, so many meanings, let me count the ways. But wait! What is the meaning of the meaning of the word that means woman? My head hurt.
We hoped, my fellow freshmen and I, that our section leaders (philosophy graduate students) would be able to shed some light on the dazzling introductory lecture so we might be able to cobble together passable papers on the subject at hand, whatever that subject turned out to be. I can see us now, a section of ten anxious neophyte scholars, gathered in a little room with a prematurely bald graduate student saying to us, “So… what comes to mind when you hear the word chair?”
To which one of my fellow scholars replied, “A chair.”
“Aha,” rejoined our section leader. “But do you think of a specific chair? Wittgenstein says you don’t. He says that when you hear the word chair, your brain accesses an abstract symbol representing the essence of chair, or what Wittgenstein calls chair-ness.”
A silence fell. I want to call the silence profound, but I’m unsure of the meaning of the meaning of the meaning of profound, but I do know that particular silence spoke volumes filled with blank pages.
“A picture is a fact.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein
Despite the confusing introductory lecture and the confounding discussion with the philosophy graduate student, I clung to the hope that Wittgenstein’s actual writings might burn off the thickening fog swirling about the prolific German of Oxford. So I hunkered down with The Blue and Brown Books and deduced from their brief introduction that these tracts were to Wittgenstein what Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff were to learning to read. That is to say, The Blue and Brown Books were the equivalent of Wittgenstein for Dummies.
Reading every word, and checking them twice, I made my way into the equatorial regions of Page Four of The Blue Book. Up to that point, or perhaps it was not a point but a moment, I thought I kind of sort of maybe sort of partially understood what Wittgenstein was driving at, but then his construct, so-called, fell apart for me and I had to start over at the beginning. I amplified my concentration and focused my entire being on following the steps (or threads) of his argument, and by the time I arrived at the North Pole of Page Three I felt sure that if Wittgenstein were only still alive and I could meet him, I would try to hurt him, though I had not theretofore been prone to violence.
This was my first powerful experience of feeling wholly unsuited to the academic life, and I was bummed because of the aforementioned erotic potpourri and the eloquent breezes, etc. So I wandered despondently across the bucolic campus to the Whole Earth Café (yes, the original Whole Earth Café of Whole Earth Café fame) and ordered a mango banana strawberry and yeast smoothie to soothe my jangled psyche. And as I was paying for my drink, I asked the hippy guy manning the cash register, “You ever read any Wittgenstein?”
And without missing a beat, he said, “The meaning of the meaning of the meaning of a turd.”
“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” — Rumi
Coleman Barks, the renowned co-translator of Rumi into English, traveled to Turkey one summer to soak up the atmosphere in the home environs of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet who is today more popular than Rod McKuen. One very hot day Barks went into a cafÄ and using his rudimentary Turkish ordered a bottle of water. The waiter seemed startled and asked Barks to repeat his order, which Barks did. The waiter hurried away to the kitchen and returned with a chef. Barks repeated his order to the chef, and a heated discussion ensued. Barks eventually got his bottle of water, but why all the fuss? Barks had mispronounced his words. Instead of asking for a bottle of water, he had asked for the secret of the universe.
“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” — Groucho Marx
Once upon a time in Turkey there was a man named Halim who was a waiter in a café. One very hot day, a foreigner, a middle-aged man with curly gray hair, entered the café, bowed politely to Halim, and asked, “May I have the secret of the universe?”
Halim was startled by the foreigner’s request because that very morning Halim had woken from a vivid dream of strolling with a beautiful woman on the shore of a lake in the moonlight. In the dream, Halim and the woman had kissed, and then the woman had said to him, “I will gladly make love with you if you will tell me the secret of the universe.”
And now this middle-aged foreigner had made the very same request. What could this mean, this confluence of identical and unanswerable questions?
Halim rushed into the kitchen and said to the chef, “Toros, help me. An English man, or possibly he is American, has asked for the secret of the universe.”
“Ey Vaay,” said Toros, shaking his head woefully. “No doubt he is another of those blasted Rumi tourists. I’ll give him what for.”
So the chef and the waiter returned to the foreigner, and the chef said in his flawless Turkish, “Why do you want the secret of the universe?”
To which the foreigner replied, “To quench my thirst.”
“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” Mark Twain
In Turkey, in the very neighborhood where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived so long ago, there stands a humble cafÄ. And on the kitchen shelf in this cafÄ there is a bottle of water among many other bottles of water that appears to be no different than the other bottles of water. But there is, indeed, a difference; for the water inside this singular bottle contains the secret of the universe.
“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” — Gertrude Stein
A man, having guzzled a bottle of water on a hot day, wanders onto a barren field to take a piss. His urine rains down on a tiny fig seed that has lain dormant in a little crevice for seven hundred years. A pool of urine engulfs the fig seed, which pool evaporates over the ensuing hours, but not before the hard shell of the seed dissolves, the seed germinates, and tiny tendrils grow out of the seed and delve into the earth.
Some weeks later, a man on his way home from the cafÄ where he works as a waiter, espies the fig sprout growing in the otherwise barren field. With great care, the waiter digs up the seedling and carries the baby plant home to his garden where he will water and feed her so she might one day become the mother of ten thousand figs. ¥¥
(Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)