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Wittgenstein on getting lost November 15, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, philosophy.
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Paul Klee's "Highways and Byways," 1929
“Highways and Byways”  (Paul Klee)

Most people navigating off trail have moments of realizing they aren’t on the right track, such as: “If I don’t angle more to the right, I’m going to run into a line of bluffs.”  Slightly losing a bearing can have serious consequences, but it pales by comparison with true disorientation—a very strange feeling, for sure.  In my post called Map, Compass, and Altimeter, I mentioned an experience I had when it was very hard for me to trust my compass— but as it turned out, the compass was right, and I fortunately stuck with the course.  That occurred when I had reached the summit of East Kennebago in western Maine on an overcast late October day with snow squalls.  The summit is on a long anonymous ridge with fairly thick spruce and balsam growth.  When I found the PVC summit canister, I signed in and sat down for a bit of lunch.  It was when I got up again to start my descent that I became disoriented.  It was the strangest thing—my compass seemed to be telling me to head into trackless woods instead of back to the logging road where my car was waiting.  (In fact, if I had gone the way I was convinced I should go, I would have ended up on a logging road, all right—one that would have taken me down to the Tim Pond road and the Kennebago Lake area, many miles from where I wanted to be.)

It was as if the whole idea of the mountain that I had in my brain had risen up in the air, turned around 180 degrees, and then come back down.  Very unsettling!  Thank goodness I had trusted the compass.

After I had this experience, I remembered that Wittgenstein had described something like this in the Investigations.  As a student of philosophy, I always loved that book.  It was the second of the two great books that he wrote.  The first one was the Tractatus, in which he created a complex and impenetrable fortress out of logical positivism, decided that he still couldn’t explain everything, and ended with a statement of pure mysticism:  “What cannot be said must be passed over in silence.”  The second was the Investigations, written many years later, in which he turned to the everyday use of language as a guide for philosophy.  It is full of weird and interesting explorations of the realm where language, meaning, and psychology come together.

He said, “Think here of a special kind of illusion…. I go for a walk in the environs of a city with a friend.  As we talk it comes out that I am imagining the city to lie on our right.  Not only have I no conscious reason for this assumption, but some quite simple consideration was enough to make me realize that the city lay rather to the left ahead of us…. But though I see no reason still I seem to see certain psychological causes for it.  In particular, certain associations and memories.  For example, we walked along a canal, and once before … I had followed a canal and that time the city lay on our right.”

So associations and memories can lure us away from the needle of the compass.  When I sat down for lunch on East Kennebago, perhaps the look of the tree with the canister unconsciously reminded me of another summit in which I should turn to the left instead of the right when I stood up from my lunch.  But does that mean that we should never base our navigation on associations and memories?  No, because it might be very helpful to remember that this was the big square boulder that we passed on the way up.  And deciding when to rely on memory is a huge part of off-trail navigation.

I like thinking of Wittgenstein walking beside his canal, lost in thought.  Right after the observation about disorientation, he races off towards another comparison that could only occur to such a strange and original mind.  “‘I feel as if I knew the city lay over there.’—‘I feel as if the name “Schubert” fitted Schubert’s works and Schubert’s face.'”  He’s saying something about the subliminal way that we sense what is accurate and what is not.  If you dip into the Investigations, you find many wonderful pronouncements.  “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

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