Wittgenstein 7. Tragedy
All the last three weeks, I have worked (programming) non-stop from dawn to the late evening with minimal breaks and all the weekends. It started as a seemingly simple task.
We have an automatic system that assists customer service folks in making decisions. It used to provide crude and simple messages, heavy on technical jargon, and often quite repetitive without adding new information. Yet, it was apparently useful enough to gain popularity among a wider audience, so we were asked to improve on the quality of the messages — to add more details, while describing the current status of the order, and to explain what caused it to be this way. It looked easy to do, and I thought I would knock it out in a couple of days.
I quickly developed the first version and realized it is not better and maybe even worse than the original system. The messages became much more verbose and convoluted. Before, they were not very human-friendly, but the person familiar with the technical aspects of the process could interpret them unambiguously. My new interpretation, in many cases, did not fit the business context. The problem was that, before, the messages did not pretend to match the business context, so nobody judged the system this way.
Well, I reprogrammed the system again. It has improved significantly overall but failed in quite a few situations.
Only after another re-write, it seemed good enough to be released to production.
I was caught by the “apparent simplicity” of the challenge. Simplicity is often confused with the ease to solve, while in fact, the most simple basic questions baffle us all the time.
It also demonstrated the significance of the context in the meaning of the sentence. That was exactly what Wittgenstein advocated. That’s how I was able to achieve success too — only after thoroughly learning the context in which the messages I tailored were appearing. Was I forced to learn the business side? You bet!
And, by the way, it also confirmed my long-term observation: the success of the software system depends not as much on the technical skills of the programmers, but on their understanding of the business — the context, where the system is going to work.
Also, nothing better brings you up to speed to understand the context than a real-world problem and pressure to solve it “right now!” Programmers — especially beginners — do not like to “waste time” on production support. They rather dive into technical intricacies of the software, learning about new languages, methods, and libraries. But production support is where you learn what is actually needed and how the system you develop can be improved. After going through this painful but instructive experience, one learns to love it. Because that is how you grow as a programmer : by solving real-world problems. And you pick up necessary technical skills by the way, not the other way around — by looking where can you apply the technical skills you possess.
Well, there are times when one has to go deeper into technical aspects in order to enhance the tool kit and maybe even to develop new tools. But by the end of the day, these are just tools to solve the specific problem. And the higher the stakes, the deeper you are going to dive in both — the business side and your technical arsenal.
This brings me to the considerations about Wittgenstein I would like to share with you today. It seems that his life was filled with the highest possible stakes — the existential problems. We all experience them, but very few of us get them as many and as deep as Wittgenstein.
To start with, he came from a very refined family exposed to the best achievements of the time. They lived in Vienna, which was at the beginning of the XX century (when Wittgenstein was a teenager) the world cultural center. It was time and place of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music, Adolf Loos’s innovative (no decoration!) architecture, Sigmund Freud’s unconscious forces.
Gustav Klimt painted Wittgenstein’s sister Margaret. She was on friendly terms with Sigmund Freud, who her over the course of two years.
Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler gave regular concerts in the Wittgenstein’s houses (they owned 13 mansions in Vienna alone). Musicians Bruno Walter, Clara Schumann, and Pablo Casals were close to the family too. All family members were talented musicians.
So Wittgenstein got art in his blood with his mother’s milk. His Cambridge recalled hearing him whistling the solo part of an entire concerto while a pianist played the orchestral part.
At that time the leading thinkers discussed the relation between art and science. They seemed complimentary but the exact border was elusive. Art was showing the truth, while science was describing it. Could maths capture the resemblance between two people or any objects for that matter? Wittgenstein thought it was impossible. But nowadays, we big data analysis does it routinely, proving that maths can show. But I digress.
One of the inspirations of his approach to solving problems came from the book “The Principles of Mechanics,” by Heinrich Hertz. The author offered a way to approach an understanding of force in Newtonian physics, trying to restate Newton’s theory without any reference to force: “the question as to the nature of force will not have been answered; but our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask illegitimate questions.”
Similarly, Wittgenstein, in his “Tractatus,” tried to show that some philosophical questions were senseless (illegitimate) because they tried to express the inexpressible. Later and to the end of his life, he studied how language was used in everyday life in order to learn how words and sentences acquired their meaning from the context. For him, that was what had to be the primary focus of philosophy — to rid of questions that do not make sense.
But back to Wittgenstein’s family. His brother Hans was a talented pianist. He ran away to the US and disappeared from the boat in the Chesapeake Bay at age 23. The event was interpreted as a suicide.
Another brother Rudolf had great interests in literature and theater, but was psychologically unstable and suffered from the thought that he was homosexual.
He was a 22-year-old chemistry student in Berlin when he walked into a bar on a May evening in 1904, ordered drinks, asked the pianist to play “I am lost”, and then mixed potassium cyanide into a glass of milk and died in agony. The suicide note left for his parents said that he had been grieving over the death of a friend. A more likely explanation is that he thought he was identifiable as the subject of a published case study about homosexuality.
Yet another brother Kurt killed himself in 1918 on the Italian front because his soldiers (he was an officer) deserted him.
The brother Paul was a talented pianist as well but lost the right hand in WWI. He managed to continue his concert career by playing with one hand only. His determination to succeed on the concert stage was, in part, inspired by the example of Josef Labor — a blind organist and composer — who was a favorite of the Wittgenstein family. Géza Zichy, a one-armed Hungarian count whose pianism had enthralled Liszt, was another encouraging model. Zichy wrote a self-help book for amputees, which explained, among other things, how to eat a crayfish and remove one’s underpants with only one arm.
Paul followed the lead and developed the technique that would enable him to perform. The training began while he was still recovering from the amputation in a Russian prison hospital, tapping on a dummy keyboard that he had etched in charcoal on a crate. Later, on a real piano, he often practiced for up to seven hours at a sitting. He even commissioned music works from Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith. Maurice Ravel wrote for him, “Concerto for the left hand” (1932).
Paul was also an eccentric, which is not as unusual among wealthy people (and his father was the richest man in Austria). Even while traveling with his family, he booked an entire railway carriage for himself. His wife was half-blind. She used to be his pupil and bore him two children in Vienna before their marriage; the elder child had been conceived shortly after their first piano lesson when Hilde was eighteen years old and Paul was forty-seven.
I re-tell it not for a gossip sake, but to convey the atmosphere of high stakes, in which Wittgenstein was raised and lived all his life.
One of Wittgenstein’s closest friends in Cambridge was David Hume Pinsent (they both were then in their twenties). On May 8, 1918, Pinsent was the co-pilot in a two-seat biplane bomber when it suddenly nose-dived and fell to pieces. Wittgenstein was so depressed that he contemplated killing himself somewhere in the mountains in Austria. But at a railway station near Salzburg, he bumped into his uncle Paul, who talked him out of the suicide he was planning.
Another close friend (and crucial for Wittgenstein’s career as a thinker) was Frank Plumpton Ramsey — a British philosopher, mathematician, and economist who made major contributions to all three fields. Ramsey was instrumental in translating “Tractatus” into English, as well as persuading Wittgenstein to return to philosophy and Cambridge. When he died from jaundice at the age of 26, Wittgenstein was still in his impressionable twenties.
Finally, Sidney George Francis Guy Skinner — a friend, collaborator, and lover of the Wittgenstein — died from polio in 1941
That is three deaths too many for one to bear.
Add two wars, including active duty, and imprisonment.
That is why it is not a surprise that Russell found Wittgenstein to be a tormented soul.
A tragedy “helps” to look deeper. It is hard, but strips from stereotypes and preconceived patterns (expectations). Maybe that’s why it was the first theatric form developed by Ancient Greeks.
Tragedy can be devastating but can bring catharsis — the aim of tragedy according to Aristotle — the sensation that heightens the understanding of the ways of gods and men.