Wittgenstein Jnr by Lars Iyer isn’t Sophie’s World 2. Or is it?

October 22, 2014

Wittgenstein jnrBook Review

It is quite appropriate that I obtained a copy of Wittgenstein Jnr under the mistaken impression that the book is a follow-up to Jostein Gaarder’s classic Sophie’s World. It isn’t. Written by that Norwegian philosopher. But by the English one with a Norwegian name. Who writes campus philosophy books among which Dogma is my favourite.

My false premise

My false premise was at least in keeping with one of the themes both of Sophie’s World and Wittgenstein Jnr: the nature of reality (of course). Gaardner charms us into an overview of Western philosophy through a story of young Sophie and her journey of discovery through a world of the imagination. Iyer draws us into the world of undergraduate Peters, and his journey of discovery through a world of the imagination, set in the context of the simulacrum Cambridge (about as real as the Oxford in the Morse stories, which come to think of it is very real for a generation of admirers of the TV versions of the stories of Colin Dexter).

Wittgenstein Mark 2?

The central character of Wittgenstein Jnr is a philosophy lecturer who is referred to by his students as a latter-day Wittgenstein. This Wittgenstein Mark 2 indeed resembles the character portrayed by Monk in his biography of Ludwig the first.

The obsessive search for philosophic closure through symbolic logic or its destruction is here. The larger than life student characters of earlier work are here, but reworked away from hapless but cheerful inhabitants of a philosophic underworld to an equally hapless and cheerful bunch of privileged inhabitants of Camalot / Cambridge.

Ludwig is here, although Ludwig the second is even more clinically depressed and doomed than Ludwig the first

Highly readable in a creative slippery literary way

There is much to enjoy about the book. It is highly readable, and stylistically creative in a subtle slippery literary way. Lyer has honed his prose into a tight personal style. It works, like many works of art, by concealing the labour that goes into final text. when I tried extracting an example, it became clear to me just how crafty the writing is.

Crafty writing

Here’s an example chosen selected almost at randomm, a scene in which EDE, one of students announces his split with his girlfriend Phaedra. Lyer sets the scene in two one-line paragraphs. It might have been four or five lines of poetry.

Saturday Night. Ede texts. You up? I split with Fee.

Ede, in the communal kitchen, emptying a tub of mushrooms onto the counter.


A cautious endorsement. I enjoyed it. When I tried explaining it to a friend, my description left him unconvinced. Which suggests the test might follow a visit to one of those old fashioned pre-Amazon  book vendors,  and a quick scan of the book’s contents.

Germany v Brazil. A Hegelian nightmare of momentum and demoralization at the Football World Cup

July 9, 2014

Last night, a shocked global audience watched Germany defeat and humiliate host nation Brazil in The 2014 World Cup. Can the German philosopher Hegel offer insights to the astonishing happenings?

Searching for sense after the game [July 8th, 2014] I remembered the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The philosopher remains influential for his system of thought which considers the nature of contradictions and how they become integrated.

Triumph and its contradiction

So Germany whacking in seven goals suggests the presence of triumph and its contradiction, disaster.

Or maybe it was through the energized performance of the German team and the defeated efforts of the Brazilians which produced the 7-1 scoreline. Some would describe what happened in terms of momentum and demoralization.
Any which way, Hegel invites us to seek a synthesis emerging from the thesis and its antithesis in seeking understanding.

Demythologizing the game

Without synthesis the story has no satisfactory closure. A focus on a crushing victory and defeat risks the stabilizing of beliefs of superiority and inferiority in cultural terms. It may be better to recognize the events are in a limited time and space. We should beware of y wider stereotypes, of German efficiency and Brazilian creativity crippled or destroyed by the loss of key players.

At a stretch, I can just about reach a Hegelian synthesis in which the story of the specific and spectacular game tonight is demythologized. It is important to appreciate the power of myths and myth making.


It is not destiny that will permit Germany to win the 2014 World Cup, it will be the interactions between two teams which have each earned their places in the final.

Note for fellow pedants
See this beginner’s guide to Hegel for an introduction to his logic. Note also that the three step process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is widely used, but was never specifically characterized in these terms by Hegel.

What happened next …

Holland beat Brazil in the decider for third place no-one wants to play.

Germany and Argentina play a close final, and a brilliant goal by Gotze wins the World Cup for Germany and illuminates a drab game.

Scolari and his coaching team resign before they receive any more public humiliation.

Germany, spiritual home of Hegelian philosophy, welcomes its heroes with promises of redoubled efforts to retain world supremacy in Football.

Triumphalism, Humiliation, Rebirth. The cycle of thesis, antithesis and synthesis continues for Brazilian German football.

The public use of reason: a reflection on Kant’s essay “What is enlightenment?”

February 17, 2013

Immanuel KantTudor Rickards

In 1794, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant [pictured] entered into public debate about the nature of state control and individual freedoms. His ideas are important today for an understanding the deepest dilemmas of leadership in public life

Two hundred years later, the issues raised by Kant remain with us. We are familiar with the dilemmas of unthinking acceptance of authority. Debates rage over individual rights of women to aspire to religious roles, gay couples to marry with the approval of the state or religious leaders, and the rights to free speech.

The nature of individual freedom

Kant was writing within a public debate over the nature of freedom. The ‘German enlightenment’ had defined enlightenment as the emergence of a society through reason from a condition of self-inflicted intellectual immaturity. He used a German term which has been translated as ‘nonage’ or a pre-adult condition. [These days we might consider immaturity or adolescence as related terms.]

He argued that in an Age of Enlightenment, there a possibility for human progress from nonage through the application of reason. Kant was no utopian believer in the emancipation of the human race from its largely unreasoning condition. He drew attention to several difficulties. Specifically he examines the roles of ‘Guardians’ who have a designated public role in which they sustain the institutions of state, including the established social order, [the monarch, or tyrant] the military, and the government officials.

Public roles and public duty

Kant illustrates how such public roles come with public duties: A military officer obeys orders, a cleric accepts doctrine, a tax collector has no right to challenge the principles behind the demand to the citizens to pay taxes. The public official thus has restrictions imposed on the application of reason to challenge publicly the offices of state. However, he sees how without reason and challenge, the institutions will ossify. He argues for the right of such individuals in public office to exercise reason privately to explore how the systems may adjust to changes over time.

Kant concludes that the state is advised to permit the exercise of private freedom to test and challenge the institutions and their functioning. An enlightened ruler permits freedom of articulating religious, as well as artistic ideas, as falling into the processes for sustaining the viability of the State.

The limits of revolution

The age of enlightenment gave intellectual impetus to radical and revolutionary disruptions of the old order [the ancient regime in France; the British rule in America]. However, Kant notes that any revolution will not sweep away restrictions to personal freedom, although they may replace a more repressive regime with one more prepared to grants to individuals to think what they like, as a Fundamental human right. He points out that such freedoms have mostly been feared by unenlightened rulers who have not seen that repressing such freedoms will eventually be counter-productive.

Meanwhile, today…

I find the ideas expressed by Kant more than relevant as I listen to the contemporary discussions raging over individual freedoms, the appointment of women priests and bishops, and the legitimacy of marriage granted by religious and political institutions.