Wittgenstein’s door handle

Via Dan Wang’s twitter feed, we unexpectedly stumbled upon this insightful but speculative essay by Christopher Benfey in the N.Y. Review of Books. In summary, Benfey describes the beautiful door handles (pictured below) the philosopher Ludwig Wiggenstein designed for a modernist house built in Vienna during the mid-1920s. (As an aside, we have always wanted to visit this house.) Prior to his participation in this project, Wittgentstein had left the world of academic philosophy for good, famously claiming to have solved all major philosophical problems in his enigmatic Tractatus, originally published in 1921. So, why did Wittgenstein decide to return to his philosophical pursuits at the end of the 1920s? According to Benfey, Wittgenstein’s experience with construction tools and his work on door handles may have prompted his return to philosophy. Here is an excerpt from Benfey’s essay, edited by us for clarity:

I prefer to believe that the prompt [to Wittgenstein’s return to philosophy] was in the handle. For when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, the idea that drove him beyond all others was that the nature of language had been misunderstood by philosophers, “including,” he noted winningly, “the author of the Tractatus.” Words did not, he had come to believe, primarily provide a picture of life (the word “snake” representing, or sounding like, an actual snake); they were better conceived of as a part of the activity of life. As such, they were more like tools. (We do things with words, as J. L. Austin famously argued, things like, from a list of Wittgenstein’s, “thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.”) “Think of the tools in a tool-box,” Wittgenstein wrote in his epochal Philosophical Investigations (1953). “There is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” Words may look similar, especially when we see them in print. “Especially when we are doing philosophy!” The analogy Wittgenstein drew was precisely with handles [here, Benfey quotes Aphorism #12 from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations]:

It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.

Image Credit: Studio Herbert Urban

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
This entry was posted in Bayesian Reasoning, History, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wittgenstein’s door handle

  1. CHCollins says:

    I hate to say it but Wittgenstein’s musings (above) are not so different than other cannibis-inspired thoughts I have heard, let alone expressed.

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