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Two for the price of one.  A concept familiar to buyers of fabric softener, but to followers of twentieth century philosophy...? Perhaps less so. 

But that's exactly what you get with Austrian born philosopher Wittgenstein. The product of a hyper-rich but neurotic family in the iron and steel business, Wittgenstein was later to inherit a fortune.  Sadly, he frittered this away. For his mind was on Higher Things.

After becoming fascinated by flight and experimenting with kites, Wittgenstein then got bitten by mathematics, and then, ultimately, philosophy. He went to study at Cambridge where he spontaneously became "The Earlier Wittgenstein", and proceeded to write an elegant, pithy and enigmatic book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. After its publication in 1922, he decided to leave philosophy behind him, having single-handedly solved all its problems in one hit.  

He returned to Austria to mess about, and become a stern and unpopular schoolteacher. Ultimately, he got a bit bored of teaching, dabbled in architecture, and then back to Cambridge.  Here he became -- pow! --  The Later Wittgenstein, who, funnily enough, took a dim view of the Earlier Wittgenstein.

To get to the point, however One of the most interesting things The Earlier Wittgenstein ever said was this:

"Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death." Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Generally speaking death is not something we look forward to. In fact, many of us greatly fear it. But as Wittgenstein points out, the fact is that you can never actually experience your own death. For at no time when you are alive can you be dead. 

Like many truly great philosophical insights, it sounds fantastically obvious.  But many people's fear of death is the result of imagining that when they are dead, they will actually be alive.

Ideas of justice, religion and so on are founded on the idea of some kind of afterlife in which we wander about being more or less the same as we are now. Even humour. Take for example the jokes about bargaining with St.Peter at the Pearly Gates. In our imaginations we are behaving in exactly the same manner as when we were alive.  But of course, this makes no sense at all.  According to Wittgenstein, our deaths are something we cannot logically experience, because death (as we've already said) is simply something that cannot happen to you in your life. 

Whenever I think of this quotation, it makes me feel empowered and less afraid. For if life has a point, it is not that it should be an antechamber in which we idle away our time, waiting to experience an afterlife, likely to be similar except only slightly better or worse. Our life is to be lived. For whatever death holds for us, it is something that we as living beings will never experience, and is therefore should not be alowed to influence us.

According to Early Wittgenstein that is.  And quite often I agree with him. 
 
(c) Peter Kenny 2001



Reasons to be cheerful 1a:
On not fearing
death

by Peter Kenny
The boy Wittgenstein