Published on December 7th, 2022 | by Conor Hultman1
Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “Tractatus,” by Róbert Gál
by Róbert Gál
How should one read philosophy? There is a school of learning that says one must begin at the beginning (just the first point of contention; the Greeks? If so, which Greek?) to thereby understand each philosopher in a tradition by their influences. This would be, by quantity, the education of a long and confused lifetime. Another school says one should begin with a subject or philosopher who interests first, and work backward or sideways only as needed for reference. This method is a lot like the first, like choosing any point on a circle to start around. The curious autodidact would end up reading outward for as long as they lived. I would suggest a third school. One should read philosophy for beauty, waiting until a book falls into one’s hands that has a page that, regardless of understanding, strikes one as pleasing, true only in the way that good poetry is true.
Róbert Gál’s Tractatus could be that book for anyone. It is at once a completely self-generated language system, an acidic love letter to thought, an easy long poem to the ego, and a send-up of Wittgenstein. You don’t have to have read Wittgenstein to enjoy this book. I haven’t read Wittgenstein, and what I know about him could fit on the head of a pin. Here it is: Wittgenstein was a 20th century Austrian philosopher. He wrote a book called the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which is slim and made of statements and propositions with some logic symbols. It can be read like poetry, but its contents have puzzled analytic philosophers for a hundred years.
Gál takes this form of axiomatic statements and runs with it. There are all manners of expression and reading them in sequential order is like running a mile through a modern art museum. There are axioms that are to be wondered at a long time, the suggestion of a puzzle: “A word is a form in which something that exists comes up against something that does not. Like any form, it, too, likes to demand a content, hence it is predestined to serve communication.”
But then too, there are statements that are as relatable as any strong joke: “If thinking about thinking inhibits thinking, and if thinking about doing inhibits doing and so forth, what, then, does it mean to be thinking about something in relation to something we are thinking about?”
And there are those that strike one as sad, strange poems: “A hope that is not permanent (that is, in terms of eternity) can at least linger (that is, in terms of time). And that is the very difference between eternity and time.”
In all, it is an immensely fun, witty, serio-comic treatise on the limits of knowledge, self- and worldly. Its final statement could just as well serve as an end to this review as the start to the rest of your romance with philosophy: “The purpose of philosophy is not to give us ideas but to teach us to think.”