Ludwig Wittgenstein

Reticence is often over-determined, so Ian Ground’s explanation of why Wittgenstein’s private notebooks were slow to see the light of day, “that his generation just thought it rather vulgar, intrusive and ugly to publish such personal remarks” (June 10), may not be entirely incorrect. Still, there is more to the story than that. I was at the Wittgenstein conference in Kirchberg am Wechsel in 1977. The stars that year were Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach. Apparently William Bartley’s book, published in 1974, which briefly discusses Wittgenstein’s homosexuality, had recently come to their attention and they were outraged. I heard Anscombe say, “I knew Wittgenstein better than anyone, and he never said he was homosexual.” Had Wittgenstein wanted to confess anything to anybody, it would not have been to Anscombe. In her calmer moments, she probably knew this. For Anscombe and Geach, homosexuality and philosophical genius were obviously incompatible. As a gay man listening to their ranting, I knew it was perfectly possible (leaving genius aside) to like guys and work hard at philosophy.

William James Earle
New York

Ian Ground’s important review of Wittgenstein’s recently published Private Notebooks 1914–1916 takes us back to the philosopher’s root struggle with radical contingency and human identity. A key source from this period Ground does not mention that of Wittgenstein’s friend, Paul Engelmann, whose Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoirwere published in 1967. The letters and Engelmann’s memoir further clarify Wittgenstein’s mystical realism: his early conviction that the meaning of life lay outside the physical and psychological universe, and could only be shown, not said.

Adrian Kuzminski
Fly Creek, New York

In an enthralling review of Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks, Ian Ground remarks on the philosopher’s impact on “painters, sculptors, film-makers, novelists and poets”, but leaves out composers. Some of us first heard of the man, and his dark-magic-sounding title, by way of Elisabeth Lutyens’s choral piece Excerpta Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1953), though whether that constitutes confession or boast is hard to say.

Paul Griffiths
Manorbier, Pembrokeshire

The invention of the blues

In his generous review of my memoir, Just Go Down to the Road (May 20), Brian Morton, from Kintyre, Argyll, refers to the blues as “a Scottish invention”. In response, Thellen Levy of San Francisco writes (Letters, June 10): “My understanding is that the genre originated in the Deep South around the 1860s among African Americans, from roots in African American work songs and spirituals. What is the evidence for a Scottish origin?” Mr Morton answers in turn (June 17) that his suggestion is to be taken “lightly”. He also reassures readers that “No cultural (re) appropriation should be imputed.” In fact, so-called cultural appropriation is at the heart of the blues, as it is of all Anglo-American folk, of jazz, rock and roll and most forms of associated popular music.

The poet and historian Sterling Brown, a professor at Howard University and mentor to Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and others, addressed the Scottish dimension of Black folk music in his monumental anthology The Negro Caravan (1941). He noted, for example, that the lines “Who’s gonna shoe yo’ little feet / Who’s gonna glove yo’ hand”, from the exemplary Negro folk song “John Henry”, “have come down the long years from the old Scottish ballad called ‘The Lass of Roch Royal’. (The lines Brown refers to are “O wha will glove my fair foot, / And wha will glove my hand?”)

What Mr Levy understands as “the blues” is a relatively modern formulation, not untouched by commercial imperatives. One of the greatest of all bluesmen, Big Bill Broonzy, born in Arkansas in 1903, recalled that in his youth he didn’t refer to what he was playing as “blues”, but as “reels”. The music that continues to reflect and enrich our lives came out of that most indispensable of cultural cooking implements: the melting pot.

James Campbell
London W12

Baudelaire and Pound

Aaron Peck, reviewing Baudelaire’s Late Fragments (June 10), writes that they present “a new image of a man who, much like Ezra Pound, failed to ‘make it cohere'”. The allusion is to Pound’s final canto (canto 116), where he does indeed confess “I cannot make it cohere”. But against that he affirms “it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere”.

What is at issue is the coherence, and the splendour, of the cosmic order (which includes natural justice), a coherence that is not made by man, but which must be seen and understood if we are to live in accord with it. Far more significant than Pound’s “failure” is his urgent recognition of the possibility and necessity of that vision, and his effort to achieve it. A life-enhancing and life-directing vision of the cosmos and of our existence in it was never more needed than now.

A. David Moody
Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire

Kurt Gödel’s maths

It seems surprising that in Anna Aslanyan’s review of recent books on mathematics (June 17), she makes no mention of the work of Kurt Gödel, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest mathematician. The reason for this, one suspects, is that she is in tune with the five authors she reviews (David and Ricardo L. Nirenberg, Ian Stewart, Michael Brooks and Jordan Ellenberg). That “tune” is one of materialism and utilitarianism, what Gödel called “the spirit of the times” – see his remark quoted in Stephen Budiansky’s Journey to the End of Reason: The life of Kurt Gödel (reviewed for the TLS by Cheryl Misak, November 5, 2021) – a position Gödel rigorously opposed. “My theory is rationalistic, idealistic, optimism and theological”, he argued, committed, as Budiansky says, “to accessing the immaterial world of higher philosophical truths through the power of abstract reasoning”.

Gödel stated that “There are other worlds and rational beings, who are of the other and higher kind”; that “the world in which we live is not the only one in which we live or have lived”; and that “incomparably more is knowable a priori than is currently known”. He was, in other words, a thoroughgoing Platonist. His outlook is now ridiculed in such a comment as Aslanyan quotes: “’It feels good when people think the mysterious work you do is, eternal, elevated above the common plane,’ [Ellenberg] chuckles”. This remark clearly reveals the “two cultures” dividethat CP Snow observed in 1959, and which the Nirenbergs mention, seemingly unaware that they widen that divide by arguing that a mathematician’s role is simply “to build stable bridges between our minds and the world”. No cognizance is taken of an alternative view, such as Gödel’s, that mathematics is involved in a much wider spectrum. Aslanyan rightly states that Claude Shannon talked down the practical dimension of his work, but even that position is far removed from Gödel’s emphasis on the transcendent. He argued, in fact, that the mathematical spirit accesses that realm just as sufficiently as our five senses access the physical domain. His position obviously does not fit in with “the spirit of the times”.

Sam Milne
Claygate, Surrey

British Isles

Diarmuid Hanifin (Letters, June 3) complains about the “anachronistic” use of the term “the British Isles”. Anachronistic indeed, as the greater part of the island of Ireland became independent 100 years ago and has been a republic since 1949. Why so many slow learners? In short, post-imperial delusion inhibits acknowledgment of Irish independence and the wider decline of the UK’s global status. When Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952, Britain still had seventy colonies, protectors and mandates. Now the empire is essentially reduced to the Falkland Islands and a shaky grip on Northern Ireland. Ignorance and denial characterize the relationship with the latter.

In 2018, when appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley admitted she did not know that “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa” – the most elementary fact about Northern Ireland. Absolutely no thought was given to the potentially dire consequences of Brexit for what was a forgotten place – consequences now playing themselves out.

So what should these isles be called? “The British and Irish Isles” would be a belated but healthy recognition of reality.

Brendan McSweeney
London

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Words matter, says your correspondent Diarmuid Hanifin. But what they mean shifts. Among the first references to the “British Isles” is Aristotle’s ethnographic workDe Mundo. At that time Britons were a more or less interesting curiosity and the islands had no central authority. In the future, who knows what “Britain” will mean, if anything?

Mr Hanifin isn’t very clear what he wants, but seems to be favorite banning “British Isles” as a geographical descriptor. Is this Alice’s pragmatism or Humpty Dumpty’s imposition of his meaning on everyone else?

MJ Taylor
Oxford

Conundrums

In Becca Rothfeld’s review of How to Be Normal by Phil Christman (May 27), the term “conundrum” appears in the plural form “conundra”, as though it were Latin. It’s not. The word is found only in English and dates to the late sixteenth century. Its derivation remains a mystery, but the faux-Latinate appearance may be no accident. As an etymological note in the OED puts it, “Origin lost: in 1645 … referred to as an Oxford term; possibly originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools.”

Benjamin Friedman
New York

Correction

In Michèle Roberts’s article on Colette (June 17), the quotation illustrating Colette’s use of the subjunctive should have been printed as “se fût éloignée d’euxnotse fu …”.

The biographical note accompanying the article was out of date. Michael Roberts’s most recent novel is not The Walworth Beauty (2017), but Cut Out (2021).

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