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Paul Chan “Drawings for Word Book by Ludwig Wittgenstein” at Greene Naftali, New York

More than ten years ago, I heard a rumor about how Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote a textbook for children. I have never felt close to Wittgenstein’s work: too axiomatic, too bloodless. But the more I learned about the circumstances that led to him writing this textbook, which was originally titled Wörterbuch für Volksschulen (or Dictionary for Elementary Schools), the more curious I became. In 2018, I located a copy of Wörterbuch. And I was bewitched. It has never been translated into English. He wrote it in 1925, during a time when he was just beginning to change, as a person and a philosopher. By the early 1920s, Wittgenstein was already famous, for his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He was teaching at Cambridge, and was expected to be the heir apparent to Bertrand Russell. But Wittgenstein was deeply unhappy there. He once said he was “tired of prostituting his mind for smart people.” So in 1921 he abandoned Cambridge and his privileged philosophical career, and become an elementary school teacher in rural Austria. For six years he taught poor kids in grades four through six. During this time, it occurred to him that a good “dictionary” would help his young students learn. There were only two dictionaries available then. But one was too expensive, and the other was too small and badly put together. So Wittgenstein decided to write one. Word Book is the first English translation of Wörterbuch. It consists of words and concepts (5,968 terms in all) chosen by Wittgenstein as part of his curriculum. But it is also a revealing document of Wittgenstein’s own mind changing as a result of teaching (and learning) from children. He reconsidered his entire philosophy after his experience. Word Book is an utterly unique work from a formidable philosopher who ended up learning from his students about what it means to understand the world, and a testament to how a mind is changed, if one is willing to let go of a certain idea of who one happens to be. My left hand is my non-dominant hand. I typically draw with my right hand. I’ve done what I call “left-handed path” drawings before. And it struck me as the way to go in making drawings for Word Book. The spirit of authority is not what motivates the drawings and the book. It’s rather the notion that one’s strength is really one’s weakness, which makes possible the idea that one’s weakness—given the right circumstances or frame of mind—may be one’s real strength. I also like how the concept of the “left-handed path” is synonymous with alternative forms of belief, like mysticism and “black” magic. Or reason today. I like drawing with my left hand because it feels as if different stakes about what matters on paper became visible to me. Maybe that’s all we’re ever looking for in making any work: new ways to see the stakes that matter.

Paul Chan
August 2020

At Greene Naftali, New York
until 19 December 2020

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