Quakers “make use of silence”, but “of little else.” Thus The Economist, in its latest Christmas Edition, misunderstands Quakerism. Their second mistake short-changes Wittgenstein too — misquoting him as saying — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Whereas what he actually wrote [in “Tractatus Logico-philosophicus” §1], was “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent”. In German, it’s even starker — “Was sich überhaupt sagen lässt, lässt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen”. This last word is especially grating — the phrase directed at unruly school boys: “sitzen Sie und schweigen Sie” is unmistakable — “sit down and shut up” — peremptory, authoritarian and allowing no exceptions. Indeed Wittgenstein explicitly sets out to “draw a limit to thinking” — which is precisely the opposite of what Quakerism requires of us.

The word ‘clearly’, or ‘klar’, suggests that really important things can be said clearly, when the whole basis of Quakerism, at least for me, is that they cannot. The tighter you define your words, the less their value. It’s the Uncertainty Principle applied to words. Words such as ‘love’, ‘trust’, ‘things that are eternal’ are the most important words we ever speak — but as you tighten their meaning, the life in them drains, as steadily, away.

Look at where Wittgenstein was when he wrote this desperate sentence — he was battling the forces of human irrationality and insanity in an Austrian trench during the First World War. No wonder he arrived at a strident conclusion.

What he was trying to do is commendable enough — in the mayhem around him, he sought a better way. Perhaps if our language was cleaned up, we wouldn’t squander our treasure on war. Sadly the method he advocated, though sounding well enough, has proved a disaster. Clarity of definition, that was his answer — if you are not speaking clearly, then shut up. Wrong. Speaking the truth is obviously crucial — what betrays Wittgenstein is the fallacy that there actually is a single, simple, quasi-scientific ‘truth’ out there, which people wilfully pollute. There isn’t. It may be painful to admit, but we are on our own with respect to ‘scientific’ truth, ‘scientific Certainty’ (see Carlo Rovelli).

Space here is too short to do justice to the damage done by this oversimplification of words, by Linguistic Analysis, by Logical Positivism — it’s vast. But the remedy is equally challenging, and almost as widely misunderstood, and mis-applied.

In my 1957 Cambridge psychology degree, Wittgenstein’s influence meant we studied rats, not consciousness. Today we have decades dedicated to ‘The Brain’ — not ‘The Mind’. And it shows. As a naïve student then, I knew little — how was I to judge this to be wrong — it sounded ideal, but wasn’t. At the time I was busy correcting ‘mis-teachings’ from my school days — while all the time, from my family background, was this certain knowledge that a group of people — serious people — ran a ‘Society’, with no written creed. What were they playing at?

Surely a Religious Society should, at the barest minimum, define what they meant by ‘God’? How else can it define itself elsewhere? However, in real life, if your definition of this elusive word, or its counterpart ‘Non-Theism’, is not the same as mine, then you might conclude, wrongly, that we don’t belong together. We all belong to all. We each of us have a spark within, possibly labelled ‘divine’, or, if you prefer, that of God, or of Good, or of Grace — this golden insight survives way past more and ever endless words — by the simple, yet ferociously profound — ‘let your lives speak’. What would I do without it?

  • * * * * *

Dr Bob Johnson

Consultant Psychiatrist,

Empowering intent detoxifies psychoses

P O Box 49, Ventnor, Isle Of Wight, PO38 9AA, UK +44 (0) 7976 228 444 –for messages


GMC speciality register for psychiatry reg. num. 0400150

formerly Head of Therapy, Ashworth Maximum Security Hospital, Liverpool

formerly Consultant Psychiatrist, Special Unit, C-Wing, Parkhurst Prison, Isle of Wight.

MRCPsych (Member of Royal College of Psychiatrists),

MRCGP (Member of Royal College of General Practitioners).

Diploma in Psychotherapy Neurology & Psychiatry (Psychiatric Inst New York),

MA (Psychol), PhD(med computing), MBCS, DPM, MRCS.

Author Emotional Health ISBN 0–9551985–0-X & Unsafe at any dose ISBN 0–9551985–1–8

a Happy Psychiatrist ’cos 100% cures available. Sceptic? Take TRAUMA CHALLENGE

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