7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The title of this post is the full text of Wittgenstein’s seventh, and final, proposition. After pages and pages of dense epistemology, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of language — sprinkled with the occasional zen-like pronouncement — we’re left, on the final page, with Wittgenstein at his most zen-like.

The seventh proposition exemplifies the doctrine of philosophy as therapy adopted by the New Wittgenstein school of thought. I see New Wittgenstein as an extrapolation from Wittgenstein’s assertion (back in the fourth proposition) that “[p]hilosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” To the New Wittgensteinians, there are tremendous psychological benefits that come along with eliminating confusion in one’s understanding of the world.

This, a New Wittgensteinian might argue, is why Wittgenstein is so careful to delineate what we can and cannot put into intelligible propositions. Too much of philosophy ties itself into knots trying to put into words that which cannot be put into words. The philosopher creates tremendous anxiety for herself by trying to reason through unintelligible statements, when she would be much better served by the recognition that these subjects are inherently unintelligible.

I have some caveats about this approach,* but overall I think it’s brilliant. And Wittgenstein’s conception of the purpose of philosophy is eminently sensible. Since I first read it, I’ve adopted it as my own.

It’s funny: When the Tractatus was originally published in 1921, the whole notion of philosophy as clarification must have seemed incredibly startling. I mean, we’re talking about a definition of what philosophy is and does which writes off thousands of years of metaphysical inquiry. Yet as devastating as that sounds, the kernel was always there, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks. In Athenian dialogues featuring Socrates — most notably Plato’s dialogues, of course — the insufferable genius would always prevail by asking probing questions of his fencing partners, forcing them to clarify their own assertions until the internal contradictions were inherently obvious. It was only when Socrates took it upon himself to propose positive theories that his acuity took flight and he fell into the same sort of ponderous metaphysical invention he had so effectively demolished in others.

What Wittgenstein proposes is little more than all of what made Socrates great with none of the chaff. And most of his own positive assertions about the nature of epistemology and what he calls “the scaffolding of the world” are beyond brilliant. It’s more like hearing the things you always sort of knew were true yet never had eloquence and expertise to put into words put before you in plain (well, sometimes) language.

In other words, it’s the clarification of statements. Namely the really big, really important statements. And no denying that it’s therapeutic.

I hope you guys had as much fun with this as I did.

*Which I addressed in my last Wittgenblog.

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