In February, 1919, the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell received a card from his former student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was at that time in an Italian prison camp. “I’ve written a book which will be published as soon as I get home,” he would say in subsequent correspondence. “I think I’ve solved our problems finally.”
The “problems” he spoke of had to do with a foundational crisis in mathematics and logic that defied the efforts of the world’s greatest minds. The book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was an attempt to engineer a perfectly logical language from first principles. It would become enormously influential, leading to the Vienna Circle and the logical positivist movement of the 1920s.
Yet Wittgenstein would later disown the idea and it was, in the end, found to be unworkable. There are limits to what we can engineer. The world is a messy place. Rules inevitably have exceptions, which is why every system will always crash. That’s why we need to think less like engineers making machines and more like gardeners that grow and nurture ecosystems.
The Death of the Secular Gods
The problems Russell and Wittgenstein were working on were part of a larger paradigm shift. By the late 19th century, many intellectuals had begun to question ideas passed down from the ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle’s Logic, Euclid’s geometry and the miasma theory in medicine, overturning two thousand years of conventional wisdom.
It’s hard to overstate the seismic shift that this represented. Aristotle’s use of the syllogism, in which conclusions necessarily followed premises, Euclid’s postulate that parallel lines never intersect and Hippocrates theory that bad air causes disease, were considered to be the basic foundations upon which western thought was predicated.
Yet as human knowledge advanced, people began to see flaws in these precepts. Strange paradoxes called Aristotle’s logic into question. Mathematicians like Gauss, Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Riemann began to imagine curved spaces in which parallel lines did, in fact, intersect and scientists such as Robert Koch, Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur established the germ theory of disease.