Philosophical Notes: An impossible theft from Wittgenstein

MY SOBER plans for this piece are quite forgotten in the light of momentous news. The Times of 23 June reported that "Burglars Steal Philosopher's Ideas". It turns out that burglars have stolen the hard disk on which 10 years of research on the ill-starred Wittgenstein archive were stored. Amazingly, the archivists had not made a back-up.

Why not, one asks? One of the few personal possessions Wittgenstein left on his death was a waste-paper basket. And although this must surely have been one of the least-used articles in the history of philosophy, ranking alongside Pythagoras's steak knife, Diogenes's tea-cosy, or Russell's wedding ring, still there can't have been that much. True, for many years philosophers have been rendered glum or ecstatic, according to orientation, by the fitful appearance of successive volumes from the Wittgenstein archive - gnomic titles like Spittle and Dottle flit delusively before my mind. But there has to be a limit. The entire corpus must fit into an ordinary zip disk. The editors must have been able to do, once in 10 years, what the rest of us do several times a week.

No, I think the explanation lies deeper, at a more philosophical level. I imagine the editors coming across dark yet strangely pregnant dicta like this . . .

"To steal an idea." What a strange expression (yet it has a use). If M gives C a pig, she is poorer by a pig. But if M gives C ideas, she still has her ideas.

We say, "As I sat here, my ideas took shape." But does an idea have a shape? My ideas are not round or oblong. Can an idea have a place?

"Beethoven's ideas have a place in musical history." Yes, but not in a bag in a bus station, to be found by anyone. A says that we have lost the idea of God and cannot recover it. Here it would be no good calling in the police. To recover the idea would require entering the entire Lebenswelt. We would have to be able to say: "Now I can go on, and on and on." Hence, nobody who has not had my ideas can understand me.

My method in philosophy must be this: to keep the fly in the fly bottle. Fly bottles too are part of a way of life. Here I should like to say: something is better than nothing about which something can be said (this refutes Derrida).

"He said he had the idea that the cat was under the bed, and lifted it out." Scientists might tell us that one side of the brain caused the saying, and another caused the action. Does it follow that he had not got the one idea? No, that is nonsense. The idea is expressed in the action, not in the brain. Suppose my writings were transcribed onto a disk that can be read by a machine. I would like to ask: "How do you know it is right, this machine? It might make me out to be talking nonsense." The scribbles on the disk are not information, for they need interpretation to mean anything. Just as it takes a human being to make dots and spaces into music, so only something that has a face can read a manuscript.

Back up. A queer expression. "Russell said such-and-such, and Moore backed him up." We know what this means. It does not mean that Moore copied R's words. No, a copy is not another idea.

And so on. I think it is all too possible that the raw power of such thoughts gradually, unconsciously wrought upon the poor archivists until making a back-up would seem like a betrayal, a scientistic confusion between the language game of Ideas and that of Things. But I have to admit that this is mere speculation. Wittgenstein may never have said anything of the kind I am imagining. And it looks as though it may be 10 years before we find out.

Simon Blackburn is the author of `Think' (OUP, pounds 12.99)