What did Wittgenstein mean when he said death is not an event in one's life?
It's my understanding that death is not something that applies to the stipulated solipsistic self of his philosophy.
Does that sound about right?
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A tough question but I think I can point towards an answer via an article by James Van Evra:
In a terse comment entirely typical of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says that 'Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limit' (6.4311). The analogy contained in Wittgenstein's remark should be understood as follows: Our visual field has no limit in the sense that there is no seeable bound to the visual field. Try as I may, I cannot see the limit, for to see something is to place it in the visual field, which would necessarily place it within the limits of the field. It could not, therefore, be the limit itself.
Of course, saying that, from the point of view of sight simpliciter, the visual field has no limit is not to say that the visual field is not limited in any sense. I infer, quite consistently with the fact that I cannot see the limit of the visual field, that my visual field is limited in a different sense (hereinafter called 'limited*') by, for instance, making inferences from the manner in which things appear in my visual field, as well as from evidence obtained from the other senses. That is, as things pop into and out of my visual field with some measure of consistency and coherence, it becomes useful to account for such intermittence by holding that, somehow, these things persist outside of my immediate field of vision. And because I can add to this evidence of the existence of such things from the other senses, the firm conclusion that my visual field is limited* is easily drawn.
Pressing the analogy, then, if my life has no end in just the way that my visual field has no limit, then it must be in the sense that I can have no experience of death [as an event: GLT], conceived as the complete cessation of experience and thought. That is, if life is considered to be a series of experiences and thoughts [events: GLT], then it is impossible for me to experience death [as an event], for to experience something is to be alive, and hence to be inside the bound formed by death [as an event: GLT].
Holding that my life has no end in this sense is perfectly consistent with the belief that I will die [that this event will occur: GLT], in the same way that holding that my visual field has no (seeable) limit is perfectly consistent with the belief that my visual field is limited*. For just as I have grounds other then sight for believing that my visual field is limited*, I have grounds other than thought and experience as such for the belief that I will permanently cease to think and experience. I might, for instance, arrive at such a belief by realizing that I experience, from time to time, bodies which have ceased to function physiologically. From this I infer, on the basis of the analogy which I draw to my own (physiological) self, that I too will cease to function physiologically [that this event will occur: GLT][that the event of my death will occir: GLT]. Then on the basis of the belief that certain physiological functions are necessary for the occurrence of thought and experience, I infer that I will cease to think and experience, i.e. that I will die in this particular sense.
In sum, then, Wittgenstein is saying that within the phenomenal frame of reference, death is unexperienceable as the limit of the visual field is unseeable. (James Van Evra, 'On Death as a Limit', Analysis, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Apr., 1971), pp. 170-176: 170-1.)
Note 'GLT' in brackets is merely my attempt, justified I think, to introduce the notion of an 'event' into Van Evra's account. He omits the term 'event' in a way that for our purposes is not helpful. But I still believe his article throws a beam of light.
Here are references to Wittgenstein's mention of death in the Tractatus:
6.431 As in death too, the world does not change but ceases.
6.4311 Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through....
G. E. M. Anscombe writes (page 168)
All that can be found is what consciousness is of, the contents of consciousness: 'I am my world' and 'The world and life are one'. Hence this 'I', whose language has the special position, is unique; the world described by this language is just the real world: 'thoroughly thought out, solipsism coincides with pure realism' (5.64).
Death would not apply to this "stipulated solipsistic self" because the world and life are one, I am my world, and with death the (real) world ceases. Hence death is not something lived through.
Anscombe, G. E. M. An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. 1971. St Augustine's Press.
Wittgenstein. L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translator: C. K. Ogden. Retrieved on September 4, 2019 from Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/WittgensteinLudwig.TractatusLogicoPhilosophicus19222019/page/n119
Here's another view.
Aside from that, there may even be other places in the argument we can make similar inferences.
I think that that contemplation, or "mystical feeling" of the world showing "itself" (6.44), is not limited by the world. When I contemplate, sub specie aeterni, the world as limited (6.45), the world itself can't be why my contemplation has those limits, because under the aspect of eternity there is no world outside its contemplation.
If I see all there is of something, that thing does not limit my perception of it, even if my perception of it is it as limited.
One answer to this potential paradox is that it is the real world only that shows itself and has not limits, And maybe we can't anything from his propositions but an obligation to silence.
But none of that is in the spirit of that book, which I assume is that it (personal mortality) is not a fact of the natural sciences. So there's no argument either way: and people intuit different things.
Just an add on : Wittgenstein's quote makes me think of this famous dictum of Epicurus according to which
“Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not? Long time men lay oppressed with slavish fear. Religious tyranny did domineer. At length the mighty one of Greece Began to assent the liberty of man.”
Epicurus says that death is not something that is part of life : I do not have an appointment with my death, I shall never live the event of my death, my death is a " non event" to me.