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After Wittgenstein - In The Beginning Was The Deed

by Zettel 

Posted: 04 October 2013
Word Count: 502
Summary: Not sure if this will make much sense - experimental: to see whether there is any resonance for non-academic philosophers.

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After Wittgenstein – In the Beginning Was the Deed

Words alone have no meaning no sense
so the proposition is meaningless too
Meaning is the act of making sense
meaning something in using words
Possibilities of meaning are my choice
through action of making sense with them
Action is use
I enter the world
through my acts of meaning,
the sense I create in my use of words
The limits of meaning are set
by the limits of actions through which
I can give them the sense that they might have

Action is meaning
Words represent possible actions not meanings
without action they are just marks on a page
The meaning of life – is life
To live is to act
to act is to mean
therefore to live is to mean
I cannot live without meaning
because I cannot live without acting
There are things I can mean in what I do
but there are possible meanings in what I do
I did not mean

The possibilities of meaning I can create in acting
are the possibilities of my acts being understood
by an other. Taking sense from
a shared form of life.
Language cannot start as private
nor, it now seems can an act.
My action with words can deceive
but to deceive you must believe that they’re true
You will only believe if you trust me
Our respect for the truth
confers the power to lie.
Our secrets can only be private
if what we hide can be known
otherwise why conceal it
to what point and from whom?
Privacy is a social conception

A proposition is an imagined act of meaning with no actor
therefore its sense is imaginary
Imagined actions do not enter the world
so do not have actual consequences
only imagined results
therefore they don’t have real meaning
only imagined sense
We can imagine any action we choose
but we cannot imagine real sense
for that we must act but
an act of the imagination
is a grammatical mistake
that generates philosophical confusion
An imagined act cannot be the same as a real act
A grammatical remark about acting not ‘acting’

The end of Philosophy is the end of Philosophy
the realisation we do not discover
meaning or sense in the world
we create it.
Philosophy cannot show us
how we enter the world, understand it
because we are born in the world
before we begin to philosophise
Being in the world
and sharing it with others
is how we begin all thought
including philosophical thought

In Philosophy we imagine imaginary acts
that create imaginary meaning, imaginary sense
Philosophy is imagined ‘til it enters the world
Only through the act can it enter the world
Philosophy isn’t the discovery of meaning
or of the sense of life
it is the realisation
that we already know it
To know the world is to be in it

“The resolution to the question – what is the meaning of life?
Is to stop asking the question.”

(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 16:13 on 09 October 2013  Report this post
First impression: this poem invites discussion of the ideas more than discussion of verse form or technique. I know much less about Wittgenstein than I would like, but his ideas are always very interesting and challenging. Before commenting at any length, however, I'd like to see what other group members think. Come on, folks - what's your response to this poem?


Dave Morehouse at 16:38 on 09 October 2013  Report this post
It seems clear there are underlying concepts, philosophies - if you will, that will inspire discussion whether it be among academics or friends at the bar. I enjoy that universality in this work.

I am not fond of the delivery vehicle for these ideas. In my opinion it is too prose-like, even bordering on essay, to work well as free verse. The language doesn't feel rich enough for it to be a prose poem. I played with this a bit by removing all the line breaks and popping in a little punctuation. It reads very much like prose. The one exception is the last stanza which is richer and more rhythmic - at least to my ear.

My thoughts? Either write this out as an essay or revise the first five stanzas to look and read more like the final stanza. These are simply my thoughts and poetry is subjective. An important consideration for any poet is the intended audience. This piece may work much better to a specific audience. This is probably true of all poems. Indeed, some highly personal poems are written for an audience of one.

My intent is never to irritate the author or pretend I am an expert so always take what I have written with a smattering of salt. Cheers, Dave.

Zettel at 02:47 on 12 October 2013  Report this post
Thanks guys.

I did label this as experimental.

I wanted to see what responses were before trying to explain a little what the experiment was.

You're right Dave about the prose feel. This started out as notes made at a Wittgenstein Symposium in Vienna in August. I once tried something similar in my 'found' poem Just Words (in my archive). That collected different remarks of Wittgenstein's which I tried to link semantically and to try to create a rhythm with some semblance of poetic feel. It is I think repetition and rhythm Dave that makes you more comfortable with the last stanza.

Wittgenstein had an absolutely unique written style engaging the reader in a kind of question and answer dialogue. It is this very personal style that draws the reader in to the arguments and the ideas.

I have always felt there is something poetic about this style but in a unique way. Poetry uses the multiplicity of possible meanings and tones and rhythms of words both to create a 'pattern' or patterns which find an echo in the reader. Its imagery is I think more perceptual and sensory than cognitive: of course the meanings of the words, especially their undefined resonances are part of what makes a poem work. The tantalising thing about Wittgenstein's writing is that semantically he is very precise yet it is the ideas rather than the feelings his words provoke that resonate. It is the ideas that resonate with one another, with us and our understanding of the world. It is not a poetry of the senses or even the emotions in the usual sense.

This works much better with W's own words as I used in Just Words, than in my more feeble efforts in this piece. I don't even know whether the notion of a poetry of ideas makes sense; though of course ideas within poetry clearly do.

"In the beginning was the deed" is a quote from Goethe and of course contrasts dramatically both from the explicit opposite in Christianity built around the 'word' of God and Jesus as 'The Word'. This reversal of priority also applies in the other Abrahamic religions of the books - Islam and Judaism.

Philosophically, based on Wittgenstein's philosophical account of language and what it is for words to mean he is trenchantly opposed to traditional Philosophical body/mind dualism where we are supposed to have 'internal' images and representations of the world derived through the senses which are then used to label and describe the world. My piece draws attention to one of W's main insights: that words not only don't mean except in the context of conforming to a consistent set of grammatical rules; but also the kind of possible meanings words can have is not derived from them as symbols but the part they play in our shared, social forms of life.

People use words to mean, they act; and the social contexts within which they are used and therefore the possible meanings they can have will be related to the social and cultural practices that are shared. e.g. if want to know what kind of question "what does 'God' mean?" is we must look to the religious practices within which it is used: and then we shall find of course that the 'meaning' will vary greatly from one religion to another or even for a atheist for even the non-believer endows 'god' with a certain kind of sense.

W's view of language is therefore diametrically opposed to a conception like Chomsky's who sees our facility for language as being 'hard-wired' into our brains. A new philosophical theory, based upon W's ideas (though he hated philosophical theories) is called 'Enactivism' which argues that our 'thinking' reasoning begins non-linguistically through actions, movements, expressions, gestures etc etc. It argues that humans learn and develop language initially in much the same way as say animals especially those closest to us genetically like the apes.

This way of thinking certainly seems truer to the experience of watching children develop language.

In the end I think you're right Dave - my piece, though not perhaps W's more evocative thoughts, is best left to prose form. However I am still drawn to the idea of a 'poetry of ideas'. There are parallels: the difference that takes place when one learns a foreign language which is initially secondary to one's native language; yet at a certain point of fluency we have the fascinating experience where the learner begins as we say to think in the acquired language rather than their own.

Sorry this is far too long. But it's an idea that won't leave me alone.



James Graham at 14:38 on 12 October 2013  Report this post
This comment was written before I discovered yours, so doesn’t refer to your comment at all! I’ll add something more, separately.


Sorry to say I can’t get very far with Wittgenstein, and so struggle with a poem that represents his ideas. Worse still, philosophy in general tends to defeat me, though a phrase used by Wittgenstein actually helps to explain why - where he speaks of the philosopher’s ‘craving for generality’. Any writer who seems to deal in generalities, and never seems to illustrate by reference to real experience, or concrete instances of some sort, just loses me.

This is just from the entry in Wikipedia:

According to Wittgenstein, philosophical problems arise when language is forced from its proper home into a metaphysical environment, where all the familiar and necessary landmarks and contextual clues are removed.

If W. means anything like what I mean, that’s why I can’t read philosophy.

Now, your poem. There are patterns in it formed by the construction of the thoughts, e.g.

To live is to act
to act is to mean
therefore to live is to mean
I cannot live without meaning
because I cannot live without acting

and so, in a sense, the poem has one of the attributes of poetry: it shapes language into patterns. Even so, for me the poem doesn’t succeed, and I think it’s because it makes me long for something more concrete - for imagery, illustration, bits of real experience.

Very tentatively, I could suggest that a poem might emerge from this:

"Regular" language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.

(This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. )

I mean a poem that demonstrates, or illustrates, in some way what W. means by ‘language games’. I hesitate to suggest this because it’s something I couldn’t do myself, but you will have much clearer thoughts on the subject.

One more, from the same encyclopedia entry:

There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word's uses through “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66).

Could there be a poem which ‘travels with the uses’ of one well-chosen word? Which explores the contexts in which the word is used? Just the other day, doing a comment on another poem (Dave’s current poem, actually) I happened across a new meaning of a familiar word. A ‘counterpoint’ used to mean a quilt, a bed cover. It’s an archaic use, so travelling with its uses is a sort of time-travelling in this case. Could there be a poem with a well-chosen word as its title, followed by an exploration of several contexts in which the word changes colour, as it were, like a chameleon, according to its surroundings?

Let me know what you think - or maybe I should say, let me know if I’m halfway to making sense!


Dave Morehouse at 15:20 on 12 October 2013  Report this post
Thanks for sharing your thoughts behind this poem, Zettel. One bit in particular taps the nail on the head for me.
In the end I think you're right Dave - my piece, though not perhaps W's more evocative thoughts, is best left to prose form. However I am still drawn to the idea of a 'poetry of ideas'. There are parallels:

I think the closest parallel is music in its many forms. Experimental music rarely compares 'apples for apples' with any of music's forms or genre. Most people will claim it isn't even music. Still, from experimenting some of our greatest musical forms have arisen and become standards. I can go on and on with examples but won't. I think what is important is that experimental music - and poetry - has a niche out on the hard edge far and away from genre. That existence gives it value but makes it difficult to evaluate by form or genre standards. Again, these are simply the humble thoughts of someone who is neither poet nor philosopher. Cheers, Dave.

James Graham at 20:22 on 12 October 2013  Report this post
Well, having read your comment, I begin to think a poetry of ideas is feasible. Poetry is very versatile and doesn’t have to be predominantly sensuous or emotional, but instead can be primarily cognitive. A poem can be made out of a thought process. That is, not necessarily ‘illustrating’ an idea, but following a pattern of abstract reasoning and creating an aesthetically satisfying poem, the form of which is based on the form - indeed the beauty - of the reasoning process. I think that could be a perfectly valid kind of poetry.

Searching for examples, I thought of one of the few philosophies I seem to understand - Stoicism. One Stoic concept in particular - oikeiôsis, homeliness. Oikos - a household. Oikeion - homely, familiar, belonging to me. Whatever is oikeion is in harmony with my nature, I take it to myself.

One of the Stoics, Hierocles, has an image of concentric circles. The innermost circle, the most ‘homely’ thing, is the mind, one’s own consciousness. The next - barely separated - is the body. The next contains parents, siblings, spouse and children. Then more distant relatives, then friends, then strangers. Hierocles’ thought process takes him another step, a real insight: he says we must strive constantly to draw those in the outer circles inwards. ‘For although the greater distance in blood will remove some affection, we must still try hard to assimilate them’ so that ‘we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person’.

(For other Stoics, ideas, beliefs, places, particular works of art etc can also be oikeion - or not, depending on the individual’s disposition. The focus in Hierocles is on people. )

This seems to me a good example of a reasoning process which has an aesthetic quality - which is even beautiful. A poem could come out of it. The same must apply to Wittgenstein and perhaps other philosophers.

In my previous comment I think I was rather dismissive of your poetry of ideas, but as I say I’m more convinced now that it’s a worthwhile path to follow.


Zettel at 11:50 on 17 October 2013  Report this post
Thanks for you very thoughtful and thought-provoking replies.

Music is an apt parallel Dave - Wittgenstein himself often compared language and music both to see connections and differences. One of the fundamental principles of W's philosophy was that language is far more like music than we tend to think: in that it is based upon a 'primitive' responses, unmediated my cognition or 'underlying' or 'real' structure or symbolism. Of course we develop both in language and music a symbolic representation and structure, but his deepest insight, contrary to 2,000 years of traditional philosophy, was that the the primitive, unanalysed, unmediated responses of human beings generates the structure and the symbolism - not the other way around. I'm reminded of an aphorism of George Eliot in Middlemarch:

1st Gentleman: methinks our chains are fetters that we forge ourselves
2nd Gentleman: aye, but methinks 'tis the world that brings the iron

James there are clues in what you say for possible ways to approach a poem that is Wittgensteinian in spirit rather than an effort to express directly his ideas in some kind of 'poetic' form. And the multiplicity of over-lapping meanings of a given word is one possible route. W's key example was of a 'game': asking us what qualities leads us to call something a 'game'. He warns against the philosophical tempation to think that because we call all kinds of things 'games' there must be someone thing they have in common that justifies the use of the word. Here is injunction is "don't think - look". If we do this then of course we find there is no one thing at all - rather what he calls a 'family resemblance'. This insight is at the heart of what he calls 'language games' where the meaning of words and expressions derive their meaning from the nature of the human practice, custom, 'form of life' in which they have a role - a part to play. Hence 'meaning' is use and the link to action. The paradox: we think of 'thinking' as something 'inner' and 'private' for some very special reasons. But follow W's injunction and "look": how do we know that something is thinking; how do judge what they are or might be thinking; how do we have an appreciation of the kind of thoughts that might arise in the infinite number of human situations. How do we judge someone's 'intention' e.g in a court of law, in apersonla relationship etc etc. When we look I think we are struck by how obvious in a sense is W's priority given to action and use and behaviour. W is not a Behaviourist though - but that's another story.

Interestingly James your quote about W's resistance to our 'craving for generality' challenges my piece in Wittgensteinian terms. There is something here but it needs more thought to tease out.

Thanks again - an interesting discussion.



Dave Morehouse at 12:05 on 17 October 2013  Report this post
Hey Zettel. At the risk of sounding base I would say you have had fun with this poem. You have also provoked thought and analysis in at least two readers. That certainly gives it value in my small opinion. Cheers, Dave.

James Graham at 15:11 on 17 October 2013  Report this post
The 'game' idea, and everything that follows from it, does seem promising. It's not something I could do, but with your knowledge of Wittgenstein I'm sure you could. I hope a new Wittgensteinian poem will emerge. The idea of doing one, of following up this line of thought, is very interesting and original.


Zettel at 12:34 on 20 October 2013  Report this post
Something to think about - thanks guys.



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