Over the years, a handful of books have pointed my curiosity in new directions. But there is one book that is still opening up new areas to explore.
In the late 70’s, after completing my first degree in Agricultural Engineering, there was a sudden drop in the job market as many manufacturers left the UK. I have always, and still do, enjoy mathematics and decided that I had better job prospects building up my mathematical skills. Cranfield University provided a course that took engineers, programmers, and scientists and developed their mathematical skills to Masters level in Applied Mathematics.
The course was full of mathematical terminology that was strange to me and I struggled. Luckily a normal day was structured with lectures in the morning and then we were free in the afternoon to catch up with the work. Most of my fellow students went back to their rooms in the hall of residence but I stayed in the students room at the end of the maths block along with one other, Mike. Mike was much older than me and after a BSc in mathematics had been writing software for the Civil Service. The course was a way to get a better job to support his increasing family. I was sure that I irritated him with my many questions about mathematical problems but with great patience he always had an answer.
During summer, the maths building would get very warm and to cool down I would go to the library situated in the middle of the campus. It had high ceilings and big windows and was well stocked with mathematics books that I could search through to help with the course work. One day I found a copy of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whithead’s three large volumes of the Principia Mathematica which was their attempt to establish the foundations of mathematics. It was notorious in world of mathematics for taking over four hundred pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. I could read the first few pages but my eyes glazed over when logical symbols filled the pages. On returning to the maths department I asked Mike if he knew of anybody who had ever read the three volumes. He replied that there was at least four people: the authors, Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I had heard of Gödel because I attended a seminar held in the department, which was way beyond my comprehension. But not Wittgenstein. Mike went on and described how he came from a very rich family in Vienna, started as an engineer and became interested in mathematics and its foundations. After studying with Russell he produced not one but two great works in philosophy the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. The thought of an engineer turning out to be a great philosopher gave me a some hope with my mathematical struggles.
A few days later I was walking past the campus book shop and I dropped in my my regular visit. It contained text books that covered the wide variety of course that the Institute offered. However, I was surprised to come across a copy of the Tractatus. I read a few pages and, although I didn’t understand, it caught my attention with its short sentences that had the appearance of logical statement yet have a poetic feel to them:
1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.
I bought the book.
Over the months of reading the Tractatus it emerged that it was not a text book about philosophy but a solution to all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein’s approach was to recognise that when we misuse language then words can lose their meaning and when meaningless words are used they lead to problems in philosophy. The Tractatus was an attempt to show when words lose their meaning and when this happens in the case of philosophy the problems disappear.
I successfully graduated in Applied Mathematics, and over the years gathered many books and papers, about Wittgenstein and his work, including his second philosophical work the Philosophical Investigations. The Philosophical Investigations criticised large sections of the Tractatus and developed a new approach to identify when words lose their meaning.
Wittgenstein’s work is full of sharp observations about the use of language in a wide range of subjects ranging from mathematics and logic to music, religion and culture. I continue to enjoy exploring these subjects which I probably wouldn’t have explored if it hadn’t been for a chance conversation that lit my curiosity.