Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his life and work, is one model for how “spiritual nomadism” might root itself in sedentary societies. He is like a tight-rope walker balancing between two poles of consciousness.
One pole holds to the Paradoxical mode of consciousness. This is the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer experience of a “mature ambiguity that grounds itself in immediate world presence.”
The other pole holds to the Sacred Authority Complex (SAC) mode of consciousness. This is the Neolithic agricultural experience of an obsession with certainty that finds meaning in non-immediate world views.
Both Nomadic cultures and Ludwig Wittgenstein balance between the two poles.
Paradox in the Twentieth Century
The paradoxical mode of consciousness largely goes underground as the Neolithic revolution transforms the above-ground. Though weaker, the underground stream still flows alongside the SAC, most notably in nomadic people’s who move between sedentism and what Morris Berman calls our “genetic mobile heritage.”
This tradition, directly or indirectly, spreads into 20th century sedentary culture. Here we see an “emergence of nomadic consciousness” in the creative output of Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Franz Kafka and others.
“For if there is such a thing as genetic memory” as Morris Berman writes in Wandering God:
“… it is not surprising that the nomadic world view would inevitably find its way into our most sophisticated sedentary musings. Our genetic mobile heritage, as I said above, does not simply vanish with the advent of sedentism. Rather, it takes other forms; and one of these forms is in our thinking processes, such that a ‘rogue element’ shows up, a mocking rhizome to our established tree.”
Rhizomatic Thinking and Arboreal Thinking
That mobile heritage helps move our thinking down from the “grand images” of the eternal tree and into the mycorrhizal networks that give it nutrients and connect it with the surroundings. Although a “lot less romantic” than the trees, this is exactly where the power of Rhizomatic thinking lies.
“… their power lies precisely in being anti-Platonic, anti-Jungian, nontranscendent, for the heart of rhizomatic patterning is immediate interconnection and heterogeneity, dialects and argots, not a universal language. This patterning is not composed of centers of significance and subjectivization, as arborescent systems are. And whereas the tree, which has dominated Western thought, is about transcendence, the rhizome, the steppe, is about immanence.”
Arborescent thinking tries to transcend the pain of existential awareness by climbing through elaborate world views. Platonic language composes these worldviews and imparts them with a feeling of absolute certainty.
Rhizomatic thinking is more in line with a “mature ambiguity” that lives with the pain of existential awareness. It leans more toward world presence than world view.
In the freely available (thanks archive.org) introduction to Wittgenstein with the helpful title Introducing Wittgenstein, John Heaton and Judy Groves write:
“Language games and family resemblances are central notions in Wittgenstein’s later thought and make his thought rhizomatic rather than arboreal. Most traditional philosophy is like a tree. It seeks the roots from which its object is constructed. It wants to find the founding principle of things, and so account for the different and irregular in terms of the same or regular, to bring the unruly under one rule. A rhizome (bulbs and tubers), on the other hand, is more like a network, a multiplicity, which has diverse forms ramifying in all directions.
Any point on it can be connected with any other. There is no ideal point closed on itself that serves as a foundation. It changes its nature as it increases in connections, but follows lines. It can be cracked and broken, but it starts off again following another of its lines. It is not answerable to any structural or generative model.”
The Two Wittgensteins
Wittgenstein’s thinking on matters of logic, language, mathematics and mind encompass both the tree and the rhizome. This seems contradictory, paradoxical even. Morris Berman writes:
“On the surface of it, we have a man who lived the first half of his life in a severe, totally vertical, scientific-mystical/transcendental world and the second half in a horizontal, rhizomatic, contextual/hermeneutic one.”
The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus supposedly solves all the problems of philosophy according to Wittgenstein. It’s a short but dense book written in an austere manner centering around 7 propositions that is “about universal knowledge and transcendent truth” as Berman writes.
Wittgenstein finishes the work in 1918. Then we enter the 1920s, when he gives away enormous inheritances and decides to live on what he earns. He earns that largely through being a schoolmaster in rural villages. Some call it his “lost years.”
Wittgenstein’s thinking and writing during these “lost years” takes place in the filling and refilling of notebooks. This in itself signals a shift toward rhizomatic thinking. It is in line with the nomadic sentiment that “truth is a verb, something you live. No sooner are you at one point than an elaboration or revision suggests itself.”
From Introducing Wittgenstein:
“He constantly changed his text, reformulating his remarks, putting them in different contexts to test their meaning. When he reached a conclusion he would often start all over again, re-exploring the topic from a different point of view. It was as if he wanted to keep everything in flux, to show work in progress rather than grand philosophical conclusions.”
His book Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously, is all about local reality and language games.
Life Between The Acts
Wittgensteins “real nomadism” as Berman sees it, emerges from his understanding “that there finally is no way of jettisoning the transcendent, that is, the vertical/universal, without drifting into incoherence (at least, not within the world of civilization).”
Like nomadic people shifting between the paradoxical mode of consciousness and the SAC mode of consciousness, Wittgenstein shifts between rhizomatic thinking and tree thinking. This delicate balance is what makes his work is what is so grounding and relevant about it.
Morris Berman writes:
“… to live with any degree of reason at all — that is, both from a logical and from a human point of view — the transcendence of the Tractatus (or any similar vertical/rationalist outlook) is absolutely unavoidable. For without some degree of verticality or objectivity, the language games and the tribalism of various thought communities cannot even be discussed because one would not be able to get outside of them to discuss them.”