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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
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The Mystical

“There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”
–Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, §6.522

Is this something that cannot be put into words, a state of affairs (Sachverhalt), a term that is closely associated with 19th century Austrian philosophy from Bolzano to Meinong? If it were an atomic fact or a more complex situation (Sachlage), then we could still describe it, therefore, within the discursive function of language. This curious notion of the mystical from Wittgenstein seems to be a counter argument to the possibility for reducing the world to facts, descriptions, and propositions. The mystical functions between the expressible and the inexpressible (unaussprechlich). One could certainly talk about it, but the way it is said never captures it in its totality, and will never do justice to it. The whole is always more than the sum of its parts as Aristotle already said, but it is probably even more dramatic in Wittgenstein, since the whole may not even come from any part, as he says in §608 of the Zettel (1967), a plant comes from nothing of the seed, but the history of the seed.

It is also with the notion of the mystical that we can understand Wittgenstein’s defense—at least on this occasion—of Heidegger against the attack of the Vienna Circle philosophers. Wittgenstein expressed his sympathy for what Carnap has mocked, in reference to Heidegger, saying: “anxiety reveals the Nothing,” “the Nothing itself nothings.” Wittgenstein wrote: “I can very well think what Heidegger meant about Being and anxiety. Man has the drive to run up against the boundaries of language. Think, for instance, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer to it.” This astonishment is like the mystical, which doesn’t have an answer, and which may only be expressed as an exclamation: “the rose is without ‘why’; it blooms simply because it blooms.” The state of affairs may imply immediately a limit, which is restricted to the experience of the phenomena, like what Kant says regarding the limit of rational knowledge of human beings; it is also a limit of the discursive function of language.

What lies there in the “vast and stormy ocean,” which surrounds the land of human cognitive faculties? Is it mere Schwärmerei? Or, is the mystical nothing mysterious or mythical, but concrete and real? One tends to renounce it since it lingers on the edge, somewhere between the rational and the irrational. It is neither rational nor irrational; nonetheless, it is effective (wirklich). We may call it non-rational. The non-rational is one that constitutes the question of Being for the Greeks and Nothing for the Daoists. This is best illustrated, probably not in exact sciences (except in the astonishment of their breaking down), but in art and religion. One may argue that a work of art of whatever kind could be reduced to states of affairs or a set of propositions, which could be effectively done with technologies of computer vision today. However, this reduction may fail to achieve a sense of depth, which, in the same words that Maurice Merleau-Ponty once attributed to Paul Cézanne’s paintings, cannot be reduced to factual data. It is true that a painting is always limited in time and space, but also regarding its content, since it is, first of all, a constellation of forms; and when one analyses it, these forms could be classified according to variant styles and facts; and with such classification, one can easily use TensorFlow to turn any photo taken by anybody into the style of a Cézanne, Klee, or a Kandinsky. However, a great work of art—if it deserves such a name, is not limited by forms; in its depth it manifests the force of formation in the sense of Paul Klee, or the mystical, in the words of Wittgenstein.

Today, artificial intelligence (AI) is able to capture more and more of the world, largely due to the increasing capacity of storage and to the speed of microprocessors. Wittgenstein’s statement on states of affairs may find its perfect agreement: digital objects are re-constructed and determined by algorithms after the collection of various states of affairs in the digital form of data (datum originally means “a given”). We may imagine that one day, this will be able to describe all states of affairs, which the human senses cannot capture, and that the mystery of the universe will be revealed through calculations. AI is for sure not the first thing that challenges human senses in the history of technologies. The five senses are limited, because they rest on one single order of magnitude of the phenomenal world. The microscope and the telescope in the time of Kant already opened up worlds that exist beyond our human senses. The microscope exposes a world of invisible organisms, and the telescope reveals that an infinite universe made up of gigantic planets exists with no God in sight so far. Instruments augment our senses and they extend our mind; phenomenology is studied according to phenomenotechnics; but the augmented senses are still limited when it comes to the totality of the world as facts or states of affairs.

AI combined with data science is able to show us facts that are hidden, facts that escape the limits of our human senses. However, what remains to be asked, is apart from mere facts, what kind of truth will become available to us? Art provides another model for augmenting our senses. Modern paintings want to overcome the exactness of cameras after Paul Delaroche’s outcry about “the end of painting,” by furnishing a depth beyond geometrical realism; Nietzsche pursues it through the Dionysian intoxication, attempting to return science to art, and art to life. A century later, we are confronting the same question, though machines have already triumphed over mechanism, the mystical has only become even more mystical.


Yuk Hui

teaches at the City University of Hong Kong; his latest book is Recursivity and Contingency (2019).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues