Philosophy in a Fallen Language: Wittgenstein, Goethe, Milton

Richard Michael McDonough


Many scholars have found both Wittgenstein’s suggestion in para. 608 of Zettel (hereafter Z608) that language and thought may arise out of chaos at the centre and his remark to his friend Drury that he looks at philosophical problems from a religious point of view to be most puzzling. The paper argues that the language in Z608 illustrates his point in his remark to Drury. For the language of the emergence of meaning from chaos at the true centre is the religious language of creation found in Goethe and Milton—both of whom were much admired by Wittgenstein. The paper refutes the orthodox interpretations that Z608 suggests that language and thought may arise out of chaos at the neural centre. The “religious-cosmological” interpretation of Z608 is sketched. It is shown that the language of Z608 is found in Goethe’s Faust and in Milton’s Paradise Lost. On this basis a, roughly, phenomenological” reading of Z608 is developed. Finally, it is argued that this literary-religious reading of the language in Z608 expresses Wittgenstein’s view that humanity lives, so to speak, in a fallen state, and that, therefore, human language and human philosophizing are limited by humanity’s fallen (from paradise) state—or, as Wittgenstein puts it in the religious language in the Preface to his Philosophical Investigations, that humanity is currently limited by the “poverty and darkness of our time.”


Wittgenstein; Goethe; Milton; Cosmogony; Fallen language; Chaos; Centre

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