Philosophical Films

"The General"

The Philosophical Connection

In contrast to his later work (as expressed in his Philosophical Investigations), Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1921 espouses a radical worldview. Although this worldview grew out of a rather technical analysis of language as suggested by findings of mathematical logic, it finds surprising parallels in the basic structure of modern art. Such art movements as Cubism and Surrealism, or such classics of Modernism as T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland" and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Chandos Letter," strongly convey the experience of the disintegration of reality--an experience that is also expressed by the abolition of traditional tonality in modern symphonic music. Even works of popular culture, such as the suspense novels by Raymond Chandler or the comedies of the Marx Brothers, significantly involve the principle of radical disintegration. In what follows Buster Keaton's "The General" is analyzed along the line of the same principle.

Much about Wittgenstein can be found on the net. The complete text of the Tractatus, in German and in English, is available at Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. The first essay below is a summery of Wittgenstein's analysis with respect to the principle of disintegration. It is part of a chapter in Jorn K. Bramann: Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the Modern Arts (1985). The numbers after the quotations refer to the numbering system that Wittgenstein used in his book.


The Disintegration of Reality

It is instructive to start the analysis of Wittgenstein's characterization of reality in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with a look at that part of logic which is known as the "elementary calculus of propositions," and which is used and developed extensively in Wittgenstein's book. This calculus is essentially a set of rules which prescribe how propositions (i.e., descriptive sentences such as "The water is clear") can be combined with each other to form more complex propositions. Thus, the two elementary propositions "Agricultural production is mechanized" and "People migrate to the cities" can be combined into the more complex proposition "If agricultural production is mechanized, then people migrate to the cities." The expression "if ... then," by means of which the two elementary propositions are combined, is called a "logical connective" or a "logical constant." (Wittgenstein refers to these "logical connectives" as "logical constants," whereas conventional mathematics would refer to a "connective" as an "operator," while using the word "constant" in a different connotation.) In analogy to mathematical expressions, the connectives are treated as constants, while the propositions are treated as the corresponding variables.

In the calculus employed by Wittgenstein there are four basic connectives. Besides "if ... then" there are "and," "or," and "not." Thus, besides the complex proposition mentioned above one can also form the following ones: "Agricultural production is mechanized and people migrate to the cities," "Agricultural production is mechanized or people migrate to the cities," and "It is not the case that agricultural production is mechanized." (The negation of any elementary proposition is a complex proposition.)

To facilitate statements in the calculus, propositions are replaced by the lower case letters p, q, r, s, etc. Thus, the complex propositions just mentioned are written as:

if p then q
p and q
p or q
not p

For the sake of convenience, the logical constants are also replaced by symbols. Different logicians use different symbols, but Wittgenstein (following Russell's and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica) uses the following (in the above order):

p > q
p. q
pv q

As the elementary propositions p and q can be combined into such complex propositions as p>q, so the complex propositions can be combined, with the help of suitable brackets and parentheses, into still more complex statements. For example:


In terms of the above examples, this statement reads: "If agricultural production is mechanized, people migrate to the cities. Agricultural production is mechanized. 'Therefore, people migrate to the cities." Statements of even greater complexity can be constructed in this manner. It is one of the major theses of the Tractatus that the entirety of meaningful language is ultimately made up of elementary propositions and their various combinations, related by logical connectives. Or, to put the same thing differently, the complex propositions which constitute language can ultimately all be analyzed into so many elementary propositions and a number of "ands," "ors," "if... thens," and "nots." As the truth or falsity of a complex proposition depends ultimately on the truth or falsity of the elementary propositions of which it is composed, complex propositions are called "truth-functions" of elementary propositions (Tractatus, 5). And one of the major purposes of the propositional calculus is to provide a mechanical method by which one can determine the truth or falsity of very complex propositions through analyzing them into their elementary components.

So far the symbolic rendering of ordinary propositions does not appear to be more than the translation of one language (ordinary English) into another (the propositional calculus). But this appearance is deceptive. As in many other cases, things become lost or changed in the translation. The translation of the ordinary "and" into the "." of the calculus does, in fact, involve a significant change of meaning, as does the translation of the other connectives. A closer look at these changes will reveal important aspects of Wittgenstein's view of the world.

In the language of the calculus, the complex proposition "Agricultural production is mechanized, and people migrate to the cities" simply asserts that the two elementary propositions taken together are true--just as the complex proposition "Agricultural production is mechanized, and Socrates was executed in Athens." In neither case is anything said about the real connection between the events in question. The events may or may not have anything to do with each other, it does not make any difference for the conjunction of the calculus.

The same is true with p>q, and here the divergence of the calculus from ordinary English is even more striking. When one ordinarily says "If agricultural production is mechanized, then people migrate to the cities," then one implies, of course, that the one event follows from the other, that there is some kind of causal relation between the two. But again, for the logician's purpose, it is perfectly all right to say something like "If agricultural production is mechanized, then Cuba is an island." For p>q asserts nothing except that if p is true, then q is also true. It does not assert any kind of connection between the events described by p and q. The connection effected by >, again, is not one between facts or events, but between propositions.

This becomes clearer if one reformulates p>q. Since p>q says that if p is true, then q is also true, it says nothing else than that it is not the case that p is true and q is false. This latter formulation is symbolized as -(p.-q). Since the two formulations say the same thing, they can be used in lieu of ea ch other. The new formulation, however, does not use the suggestive expression "if ... then," and therefore has the advantage of diminishing the temptation to assume a causal relationship where none is implied. It helps one to remember, in other words, that p>q deals only with the truth or falsity of p and q, and not with what they describe, or with the actual relation between the described events.

To underline this crucial point still further one can point to the fact that within the calculus of propositions all logical connectives can be replaced by each other according to some fixed rules. In the preceding paragraph it was pointed out that "if ... then" can be replaced by a combination of "not" and "and." In a similar way "and" can be replaced by a combination of "not" and "or." Thus, the expression p.q is logically equivalent to the expression -(-pv-q). Such substitutions show that none of the connectives is really essential for saying what is stated in complex propositions, and that for that reason they cannot signify any specific connections between facts or events.

Wittgenstein states this understanding of the nature of logical connectives (or "constants") in the Tractatus on several occasions:

My basic idea is that 'logical constants' do not represent anything (4.0312).

But that the sign 'p' and '-p' can say the same thing [i.e., depict the same state of affairs] is important. For it shows that nothing in reality corresponds to the sign'-' (4.0621).

And if there were something called '-', then '--p' would say something else than 'p' (5.44).

The last remark presupposes that "p" and "--p" are logically equivalent, that an affirmation amounts to the same as a double negation. ("It is raining" says the same thing as "It is not the case that it is not raining.") But this means that only the proposition depicts something of the world, while negations are operations which pertain only to the level of language or symbolism.

It is not. necessary here to go further into the details of the propositional calculus, for what is important for Wittgenstein's view of the world is already visible. It can be stated as follows. ( 1 ) In the calculus, by conjoining factual propositions, it is possible to juxtapose facts which in ordinary reality have nothing to do with each other ("If agricultural production is mechanized, then Socrates was executed in Athens"). (2) Connections which may actually exist in reality are not conveyed in the language of the calculus. (The proposition "If agricultural production is mechanized then people migrate to the cities" does not say what at first sight it seems to say, namely that the one event occurs because of the other.) This means 'that the world as perceived ordinarily, and as conveyed in ordinary discourse, represents a different order of facts than the world conveyed by the calculus of propositions: what can be combined in one, cannot be combined in the other, and vice versa. While in ordinary discourse, the concept of causality, for example, is understood, in the calculus it does not exist. The two languages do not represent the same world in different media, but represent, as it were, two different realities.

The essential feature of the reality represented by the calculus is the basic and pervasive disconnectedness of all facts. As has been pointed out, the description of the world in terms of the calculus does not convey any of the connections which may exist in ordinary reality. And the combination of facts which are possible in the medium of the calculus, such as the mechanization of agriculture and Socrates' execution, are such that the basic unrelatedness (or mutual isolation) of facts is only highlighted. For the fact that in the calculus everything can be combined with everything else with equal validity demonstrates that there is no inherent connection between facts, that there is no inherent order which structures the world in a coherent way. The reality represented by the calculus of propositions is a world of randomly combined, but basically isolated facts. In comparison with the cohesiveness of ordinary reality, it is profoundly chaotic.

This is not contradicted by Wittgenstein's emphasis of the order of the "logical space" in which the world exists. In section 1.13 Wittgenstein says: "The facts in logical space are the world," i.e., the facts are subject to the laws of logic. But it is exactly Wittgenstein's emphasis of the logical order which permits the disregard for the much more restrictive order of ordinary reality, which is not only subject to the laws of logic, but also to those of causality, gravity, and so forth. In section 6.375 Wittgenstein says: "Just as the only necessity that exists is logical necessity, so too the only impossibility that exists is logical impossibility. In other words, everything is allowed which does not violate the laws of logic. And since the juxtaposition of the mechanization of agriculture and the execution of Socrates, as senseless as it is with respect to ordinary reality, does not go against the rules of the calculus, it is a permissible combination. In spite of the prevailing order of logic, then, the world of the calculus of propositions is a chaos. It is the kind of reality which corresponds to that envisioned by Lautreamont and the Surrealists when they invoked their famous encounter of "an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table."

Ordinarily, logicians do not draw any ontological conclusions from their calculi, and they certainly do not go so far as to talk about "different realities." A calculus, after all, is nothing but a set of rules for the manipulation of certain symbols. In specific cases, a calculus can be used to represent certain aspects of reality in the way in which mathematical equations can be used to represent the orbits of planets or price fluctuations on the stock market, but the suitability of a calculus for such tasks has to be determined from case to case. Basically a calculus is a system which is defined in terms of its own axioms, and thus independently of reality.

In the Tractatus, however, the calculus of propositions (as all of logic) plays a much more eminent role. In this work logic is not just a number of arbitrarily defined systems in the world, but the underlying order of the world. In 6.13 Wittgenstein says: "Logic is not a doctrine, but a mirror image of the world. --Logic is transcendental." The word "transcendental" is used here in the Kantian sense. That logic is transcendental means that one necessarily perceives the world as something which is subject to the laws of logic, that the basic structure of reality is identical with the order of logic. The order of facts as represented by the language of the propositional calculus, therefore, is not just one order among others that are possible, but it is the order of the world. The basic disconnectedness of all facts is, therefore, the true state of the world. Ordinary perception, and whatever is conveyed by ordinary language, can only give a distorted image of reality. The connections which they suggest are not real. A philosophical view of the world recognizes them as illusions.

The world as a conglomerate of disconnected facts is a conception which recurs throughout the Tractatus:

The world divides into facts (1.2).

Anything can be the case or not be the case, while everything else remains the same (1.21).

States of affairs are independent of each other (2.061).

From the existence or nonexistence of one state of affairs one cannot infer the existence or nonexistence of another (2.062).

There is no possible way of making an inference from the existence of one situation to the existence of another, entirely different situation (5.135).

It may not be entirely unimportant that Wittgenstein says in 1.2: "Die Welt zerfaellt in Tatsachen." It is usually translated as "The world divides into facts." This translation is correct, but "zerfaellt" is a much more expressive word than "divides." It literally means "falls apart," or "disintegrates," thus connoting an image of the world which stresses the world's lack of cohesion, its basic state of entropy. "Die Welt zerfaellt in Tatsachen," in other words, may be taken literally, for it conveys well Wittgenstein's perception of reality. It expresses the, as it were, disillusioned worldview of the Tractarian philosopher.

One of the most important implications of this view of the world is Wittgenstein's denial of the existence of causality. Here the divergence of his philosophical worldview from the ordinary perception of reality is most obvious. In sections 5.136 and 5.1361 he writes (continuing the line of thought of the last quotation given above):

There is no causal nexus to justify such an inference.--We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present.--Belief in the causal nexus is a superstition. [Emphases in the original]

According to the ordinary (i.e., nonphilosopbical) understanding of things the mechanization of agriculture, e.g., is the cause of the migration of large numbers of people to the urban centers, because mechanization eliminates traditional occupations and livelihoods. And this urbanization, in turn, is the cause of the disappearance of older values, expectations, and behavior patterns because it implies a breakup of traditional communities, etc. In the nonphilosophical understanding of things, facts and events hang together; they follow each other in a way which is often predictable. If certain things are the case, certain other things are said to follow with necessity. It is this necessity with which events are said to follow each other which Wittgenstein denounces as a "superstition."

The lack of necessary connections between facts can be perceived by comparing the relation between facts to the logical relation between premises and conclusions:

There is no compulsion which makes one thing happen because something else happened (6.37).

The exploration of logic is the exploration of everything which is subject to law. And outside of logic everything is accidental (6.3).

If it is true that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man, then it follows with necessity that Socrates is mortal. The urbanization of society, by contrast, does not follow with the same necessity from the mechanization of agriculture. One can admit to the fact (or facts) that men are replaced by machines, that no new jobs are opening up in the countryside, etc., and still deny that people will migrate to the cities, without committing a logical mistake. And this lack of a necessary connection between mechanization and urbanization is not just due to the complexity of the situation which could allow for intervening factors. Even very simple events, such as the hitting of a ball and the ball's ensuing movement, are not related with logical necessity, according to the Tractatus. If the ball is hit, it does not follow logically that the ball will move. It is imaginable that the ball will stay in its place after the impact. If it does move, its movement occurs "accidentally," i.e., without necessity.

A special case of the disconnectedness of facts is the disconnectedness of the acts of will from what is willed:

The world is independent of my will (6.373).

Even if all that we wish for were to happen, still this would be a favor granted by fate, so to speak: for there is no logical connection between the will and the world, which would guarantee it, and the supposed physical connection itself is surely not something that we could will (6.374).

That the world is independent of my will may seem a trivial observation, as obviously not everything that one wills comes about. The cases which are interesting for Wittgenstein's conception of the world are those where one is successful in achieving what one wills. In such cases, the will could be seen as the cause of what happens. But again, as the connection between the hitting of a ball and the ball's movement is "accidental," so is that between the act of will and any ensuing event. No matter how realistic the object of one's will may be, it is in principle unpredictable what the outcome of one's willing will be. Thus, as all facts are essentially isolated from each other, so is the willing self isolated from the facts of the world. The ontological fragmentation which characterizes the world also characterizes the relation of the willing self to the world.

To appreciate the significance of Wittgenstein's characterization of reality as a conglomerate of disconnected facts, it is helpful to contrast it with the kind of conception to which it is diametrically opposed. Marx's analysis of history and society is a case in point. It is clear that a Marxist description of such events as the mechanization of agriculture and the urbanization of society will not represent them as isolated facts, but will emphasize and explore their connection with their historical context and other events, making extensive use of the category of cause and effect. It is, indeed, one of the fundamental tenets of Marxism that facts are not describable, let alone explainable, except by seeing them as parts of larger developments. History, for Marx, was not an unstructured sequence of isolated facts and anecdotes, but a series of more or less coherent processes with beginnings, middles, and ends. Migrations, wars, or depressions are not whims of an unpredictable fate, but events which follow with various degrees of necessity from certain other events. Individual facts are intelligible only as parts of comprehensive wholes.

It goes without saying that with respect to their conception of facts the Marxist and the Tractatus's worldviews are incompatible. Wittgenstein's attitude toward the world is anti-ideological to an extreme. But Wittgenstein's conception of facts does not only undermine "holistic" theories like that of Marx, Hegel, Toynbee, or Jaspers, but common sense perceptions of reality as well. Common sense, after all, does perceive facts in terms of causal sequences. When Wittgenstein denounces the belief in causality as "superstition," he criticizes the modern everyday understanding of the world. By eradicating this "superstition" from one's mind, by seeing things as they really are, one perceives facts in a highly unusual way. One sees them, as it were, in a frozen frame essentially unconnected to what comes before and after. One sees them "sub specie aeternitatis." And seeing them in this way, seeing them outside of their causal and temporal context, renders them inevitably mysterious--as mysterious as the objects of de Chirico's "metaphysical" paintings. For facts thusly perceived lose the explainability which they have when they can be related to other facts. They turn into objects of a profoundly disinterested contemplation, a contemplation of philosophical minds who in no way partake in the concerns and views of everyday life.

A measure of how deeply Wittgenstein undercuts common sense is his devaluation of science. The prevailing view of the modern age is that science describes the world as it actually is--as opposed to religion, myth, or other nonscientific worldviews which indulge in unverifiable speculations, and which disguise, distort, or omit the facts as they are in themselves. But Wittgenstein suggests that the scientific description of the world represents only one kind of understanding besides several other ones. The scientific interpretation of the world, according to the Tractatus, is not a correction of mistaken views, but an alternative conception which is neither more nor less valid than any other conception. What scientists call "the laws of nature" do not "explain" the facts of nature, but simply incorporate them into a conceptual framework to which scientists happen to be conmiitted:

The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena (6.371).

Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both are right and both are wrong: Though the view of the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained (6.372).

The ancients and science-minded contemporaries are both right in that they are both at liberty to choose a conceptual framework into which they can incorporate their data. But they are both wrong in assuming that their descriptions represent the world as it actually is. Their conceptual frameworks are nothing but constructs which may facilitate the organization of facts by subsuming them to a unified method of representation, and which may even answer to certain aesthetic or emotional needs, but which turn into falsifying ideologies as soon as they are taken to be the means to reveal the true view of the world.

The actual state of the world is as little seen by the scientist as by the faithful adherent to any religion or other Weltanschauung. Nor is it seen any better by those who are involved in the ordinary business of life. The true nature of the world is revealed alone to the philosopher who carefully analyzes language, separating genuine statements from obfuscating gibberish, and who conducts a parallel analysis of reality. By doing so, he separates what there is from all the connections and constructs which people may assume for one reason or another. As the analytic philosopher is not taken in by empty verbiage, so he is also freed of any ontological illusions. To this kind of philosopher, the world appears as what it is: A conglomerate of facts, stripped of all connections, values, and significance, and--paradoxically--"limited" by a transcendence which has no existence.


Keaton: The General

Joseph Francis "Buster" Keaton was bom in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas. From his parents, who were vaudeville actors, he learned acrobatics and mime. In 1917 he made his first film The Butcher Boy. During the twenties he directed and acted in numerous shorts and features. His career declined with the advent of sound movies, which put an end to the production of silent films and de-emphasized the art of mime. He experienced a modest comeback when connoisseurs rediscovered his outstanding talent in the forties. Keaton died in California in 1966.

The General was filmed in 1926. It is a comedy of disconnectedness. Its story is based on an actual episode from the Civil War: A Union spy, with the help of half a dozen men, steals the locomotive "The General" from the Confederates, and flees North, destroying in the process as much of the Southern line as possible. Buster Keaton (without any philosophical intentions) transformed this story into a film in which the world appears as if it were constructed according to the ontology of Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

The ' disconnectedness begins with the film character of Buster Keaton itself. He is a man who displays the same intense, unsmiling facial expression in whatever situation he finds himself, whether he is attacking as an enemy soldier, proposing to his fiancee, or oiling the wheels of his locomotive. There is no correlation between his facial expression and the situation in which he finds himself, and thus seemingly no correspondence between his inner state and the external context. Whatever he is engaged in seems oddly out of touch with his state of mind. That is part of the comic appeal of his persona.

A good many scenes in The General seem to be hilarious illustrations of sections 6.373 and 6.374 of the Tractatus: "The world is independent of my will". . . "Even if all that we wish for were to happen, still this would only be a favor granted by fate, so to speak - - ." For example, at the beginning of the film (and the Civil War) Keaton tries to enlist, and he tries harder than everybody else. But in the end, due to circumstances beyond his control, he is the only one not in uniform, and thus the object of the contempt of his fiancee and her family. Or when the Northern patrol steals his "General," he rushes to another locomotive which is ready to pull a flatbed full of troops into action. He starts the engine and follows the thieves in hot pursuit. But the troop transport is not hitched to the engine, and thus stays behind.

In this way, much of the film's sequence of events is made up of episodes which illustrate the incongruity of will and action. In a situation where time is of the essence, Keaton stops the locomotive to quickly replenish his firewood supply. In his hurry he does not watch where he throws the logs, and thus does not notice that not only do they fail on the other side of the tender, but even knock off logs which are already on it. And in the Battle of Marietta he draws his sword to point out the firing line to the cannoneers The blade, however, flies off the handle and lands, by sheer coincidence, in the back of a sniper who had been picking off his comrades. During the same battle, he finally tries to fire the cannon himself. Inexplicably, the barrel moves upward, and the shot goes straight into the air. Keaton's effort seems to be wasted. By coincidence, however, the shell destroys a dam, causing a sudden flood. The enemy soldiers, who are m me miauic or ioraing mc nver, arc wasnea away, Enus saving the Southerners from a surprise attack.

Many of these scenes are not simply Instances of intentions not being realized. On several occasions things turn out the way they are supposed to -but for reasons totally unrelated to the intentions of the actors. The episodes of the drawn sword and the misfired cannon shot are illustrations of this kind of case. For the sniper is to be incapacitated, and the enemy soldiers are to be prevented from crossing the river. But these tasks are accomplished in a way no one had planned.

One of the most famous episodes of the movie is Keaton's struggle with the mortar which is hitched to his locomotive. It can be seen as a drawn out illustration of Wittgenstein's view that everything Is "accidental." After Keaton has loaded the gun and ignited the fuse to fire a volley at the enemy ahead of him, the barrel suddenly goes down and is now aimed at his own vehicle. AU his attempts to avert the disaster turn out to be futile. just when the shot goes off, his locomotive turns into a curve and is out of danger. At the same time, the enemy engine has completed the curve and is directly in the fine of fire. The booming explosion which almost derails their locomotive creates in the Northern party the (totally mistaken) conviction that Keaton's train constitutes a dangerously superior force.

The way The General represents reality can be described as a joyful subversion of the ordinary connections which hold the facts of the world together. In this film there is no predictable nexus between one event and another: anything can result from anything else. Thus Keaton gathers military intelligence, because he is &Xng from the enemy. Or he sets out to rescue his "General," but In the process rescues his fiancee. He is finally honored and promoted-not for his real valor and exploits, but because coincidentally he stumbles over a Northern commander who had passed out, and whom he can thus take prisoner. Nowhere in this film is there a plausible connection between an action and its results.

Another way in which The General expounds the theme of disconnectedness is by showing displaced behavior. As Keaton's facial expression is only coincidentally in accord with an external situation, so the behavior of the protagonists is often entirely unrelated to the situation in which it is found. When Keaton calls on his fiancee, he stands in front of the door in the expectation that it will be opened by her-after he is done with sickening his hair, brushing his jacket, etc. But all the while his fiancee is already standing behind him on the porch, observing his discreet preparations. Or when he runs after his locomotive with a group of outraged travelers, making menacing gestures towards the thieves, he doesn't notice that after a while he Is all alone, the other travelers having become discouraged by the hopeless pursuit and fallen behind. Under the circumstances, his menacing behavior is ludicrous.

The disconnectedness of the world of The General is symbolized by the incongruous role of uniforms in the film When the locomotive thieves reach Northern territory, Union soldiers shoot at their leader because he is still wearing a Southern uniform. And when Keaton upon his successful return from the North, waves enthusiastically at the first men in gray, they shoot at him because he Is still clad in blue. Such happenings underscore once more that in this film there is no correspondence between inner and outer states, as little as between any other facts. In The General's world, the man in blue may or may not be a Northener, and the man in gray may be friend as much as foe. Since in that world all connections are essentially "accidental," it is ultimately impossible to tell.

Due to the prominence of the railroad in The General, the hitching and unhitching of cars is a highly visible leitmotif the entire film. This motif was certainty not chosen by Keaton for philosophical reasons. But considering the basic structure of disconnectedness in the film it is a fortunate coincidence that the precarious nature of the hitchings symbolizes elegantly the precarious nexus between the facts of this world.

[From Jorn K. Bramann: Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the Modern Arts (Adler Publishing Co, 1985)]


Back to top of page

Back to Philosophical Films