Wittgenstein’s Preoccupations and OCD

by Matt B. on March 13, 2015

Just finished Ray Monk’s preoccupying biography of Wittgenstein. The book ends with a graceful, English-minimalist take on Wittgenstein’s death – a quietly moving tribute to a man so suspicious of what language could really say.

I want more, so I dive into the appendix. This, I quickly realize, is an analysis of some other writer’s speculations about whether Wittgenstein had a bunch of sex with young guys in a Vienna park in the 1920’s. First thought: Oh god who possibly cares?

But I’ve got momentum – the end magnetizes -and I keep going. More: I find myself getting caught up in the questions. Did Bartley have access to Wittgenstein’s coded notebooks? Did he interpret them correctly? If not, did he have another source for his speculations?

At some level, I realize, this whole line of inquiry is silly. An hour from now, I won’t care about these questions; they’re of no interest to me on their own, and I’m not sure they shed much light on Wittgenstein’s philosophy, either.

So why do I keep reading (and re-reading)?

Because I’m absorbed. Because there’s a question at hand. Because the question – there, right in front of me – has taken on outsized importance. It isn’t an option; it’s an imperative – asserting itself, blocking my view, making me forget all the other things I could be doing with my time.

This is how OCD works, too. My mind constantly generates new questions: Did you bump your fingers against the table when you stood up? Should you avoid holding this handrail, to compensate? What if you stumble? Will you have to use your hands to break your fall?

And in my most lucid moments, I know that this is just the standard output of the OCD factory. I can sense the conveyor belt, can feel it, and I know that there’s nothing behind this question except another one just like it.


Note: as readers may have noticed, these posts are becoming shorter, more casual, more impressionistic. This isn’t laziness (or not only). It’s an attempt to combat my own perfectionism – to allow myself to say things quickly, to put more out there, to try to control stuff a little less. If you like, let me know how it’s working.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Singer March 15, 2015 at 9:56 am

Great post, Matt, and I do like this format. I don’t typically have time to read longer in-depth posts on the spot, and then I sometimes never get back to them. This is shorter but still meaningful and insightful.

Matt Bieber March 15, 2015 at 6:24 pm

Oh, I’m glad! Thanks, Janet.

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