7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
December 3, 2010

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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Wittgenblogging: The Sixth Proposition, Part 2
November 30, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

(Part 1 is here.)

Okay. So. In the last few pages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein finally gets around to tying up some of the nagging loose ends. Stuff like ethics, aesthetics, God, life, and death. As far as the first three go, whether or not you think Wittgenstein believes they exist sort of depends on what you think “exists” means. Are they a part of the world? No. Do they interact directly with the world? No. (“God does not reveal himself in the world.”) However, they seem to interact in some with the will. (Which, itself, doesn’t really interact with the world except to the extent that it influences your body’s behavior. “[T]here is no logical connexion between the will and the world,” says Wittgenstein.)

That doesn’t mean that these matters are irrelevant. After all, the will — the self — is the “limit of the world,” as we discovered the last time around. What changes the limit of the world, Wittgenstein writes, makes it “an altogether different world. […] The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” This fits in with his earlier expressed affinity for solipsism, compounded when he says that, “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.”

So what are ethics and aesthetics, exactly? To Wittgenstein, they’re transcendental properties that are “higher” than logical propositions. That’s why neither ethics nor aesthetics can actually be put into words or logical propositions. It’s also worth noting Wittgenstein’s construction of how good is good and bad is bad: “There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but they must reside in the action itself.” Skepticism of the existence of God or ethical laws is “nonsensical,” because “it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.” Asking a question requires being able to formulate a proposition.

For Wittgenstein, that’s pretty much it. There is no discussion to be had about the nature of God, or beauty, or right and wrong. And that’s where I hesitate to jump aboard. It seems to me that these things aren’t so much transcendental properties that act upon the self as properties of the self. We build them as much as they build us, and as such it is within our power to change them. Therein lies the value of asking questions about these things and formulating propositions: we can refine those questions and propositions. We can make them more internally consistent and we can make them better for us. The questions may not strictly have what Wittgenstein would call sense, but they do have some utility.

Wittgenblogging: The Sixth Proposition, Part 1
November 24, 2010

I went into the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus expecting more or less what we’ve got over the last five propositions: a lengthy meditation on epistemology, philosophy of language, logic, and metaphysics (mostly how it doesn’t make any sense). What I didn’t expect: grand, zen-like pronouncements over the riddles of life and death. But in the latter half of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein goes there. Who woulda thunk that a proposition that starts with “The general form of a truth-function is [p, E, N(E)],”* would end with “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”?

But we’ll get to that in the next post. The first portion of the sixth proposition is all about the role of logic and its relationship with mathematics and empirical science. Logic, Wittgenstein writes, is what gives everything else structure. There is nothing in the world that is outside logic because it is “the scaffolding of the world.” Elsewhere: “Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental.”

As a result, there’s no need to demonstrate logic as a proposition. In fact, trying to do so doesn’t make any sense. “The propositions of logic are tautologies.” Remember when I brought up the Cartesian Circle? Turns out Descartes’ first mistake was trying to construct a proof demonstrating the validity of the only tool one can use to construct sensible proofs. “Clearly the laws of logic cannot in their turn be subject to laws of logic.” Logic is true but unprovable.

So logic is self-demonstrating and self-affirming. “It is the peculiar mark of logical propositions that one can recognize that they are true from the symbol alone,” Wittgenstein writes, “and this fact contains in itself the whole philosophy of logic.”

So what is math? Or physics? Wittgenstein writes that mathematics is “a method of logic.” Physics — mathematics and inductive reasoning applied to the physical world — “imposes a unified form on the description of the world.” Wittgenstein compares Newtonian mechanics to an attempt to measure the size of black blotches on a white surface by placing a grid-patterned mesh over the surface “and then saying of every square whether it is black or white. […] The form is optional, since I could have achieved the same result by using a net with a triangular or hexagonal mesh.”

As for causality and induction themselves, Wittgenstein seems to recognize their necessity while also expressing some skepticism. In Proposition 5, he wrote that there is no causal nexis — no metaphysical property that connects a cause to its effect. Here, he says that there is no “law of causality” (it is “the form of a law,” not a law itself), but that if there were, “it might be put the following way: There are laws of nature. But of course, that cannot be said: it makes itself manifest.” In this sense, it is like logical expressions and mathematical equations. “[W]hat the law of causality is meant to exclude cannot even be described.”

“The procedure of induction,” Wittgenstein writes, “consists in accepting as true the simplest law that can be reconciled with our experiences. […] This procedure, however, has no logical justification, but only a psychological one.” As an example, he adds: “It is an hypothesis that the sun will rise tomorrow: and this means that we do not know whether it will rise.”

Then he takes it a step further: “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.” He compares this to the belief of prior generations about God and Fate. However, there is no necessity that makes these laws as “something inviolable”: “The only necessity that exists is logical necessity.” The laws of nature are the mesh, our rough approximation of what the world is. That we can use it with some reliability to extrapolate what the world will be does not mean that we have stumbled upon eternally unyielding principles.

I’m going to stop here, before Wittgenstein gets into ethics, aesthetics, mysticism, and the other seemingly transcendental vagaries of the human condition. That’s a whole other epistemological clusterfuck, and I will do my best to tackle it soon. Probably after Thanksgiving weekend.

*And no, I don’t really know what that means either. Did I mention that I just barely passed my First-Order Logic class?

Wittgenblogging: The Fifth Proposition
November 17, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

Way back in my post on the second proposition (which, wow, was over a month ago — I didn’t realize Peter and I had been Wittgenblogging for that long), I asked whether or not Wittgenstein believed that a priori reasoning was possible. In the proposition 5.133, we finally get an answer: “All deductions are made a priori.”

But that’s hardly Wittgenstein’s most interesting assertion as we near the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Now that he’s thoroughly laid the groundwork for his conception of logic, he’s starting to go further out on a limb regarding its implications. For example, I don’t really know what to make of this section:

5.541 At first sight it looks as if it were also possible for one proposition to occur in another in a different way. Particularly with certain forms of proposition in psychology, such as ‘A believes that p is the case’ and ‘A has the thought p’, etc. For if these are considered superficially, it looks as if the proposition p stood in some kind of relation to an object A. (And in modern theory of knowledge (Russell, Moore, etc.) these propositions have actually be construed in this way.)

5.542 It is clear, however, that ‘A believes that p’, ‘A has the thought p’, and ‘A says p’ are of the form ‘“p” says p’: and this does not involve a correlation of a fact with an object, but rather the correlation of facts by means of the correlation of their objects.

5.5421 This shows too that there is no such thing as the soul — the subject, etc. — as it is conceived in the superficial psychology of the present day. Indeed a composite soul would no longer be a soul.

I’ve puzzled over this as much as anything else in the Tractatus, and I still can’t quite figure it out. I think he’s arguing that the subject I is the sum of my beliefs and thoughts, and not a different entity that produces and possesses those thoughts. Since the soul is supposed to be one unified entity, distinguishable and discrete from those beliefs and thoughts, it’s a linguistically incoherent concept. This reading is born out in 5.631, in which Wittgenstein says: “There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas.”

So what is the self? Wittgenstein calls it “the limit of the world.” It is the one thing that we cannot speak of, and since “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” that means it is not a part of that world. Wittgenstein again: “You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye. And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is seen by an eye.” Similarly, nothing in our thoughts allow us to infer that they are being thought by a self.

Unless I’m grievously misreading here, Wittgenstein’s interpretation of the mind-body problem actually lends some credence to Sartre’s conception of a division between being-for-itself and being-in-itself (which I’ve previously argued for as the criteria by which to separate persons from non-persons). I think Sartre sees this as actual metaphysical categories, which is a bridge too far for me, but I think Wittgenstein might join me in comfortably describing the difference between -for-itself and -in-itself as a meaningful phenomenological distinction.

Wittgenblogging: Proposition 4 and the Cartesian Circle
November 11, 2010

Meditationes de prima philosophia - Renatus Ca...
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Peter highlights one of the more intriguing findings of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ fourth proposition, regarding the slipperiness of trying to describe or prove logic itself. Logic is the underlying framework of the universe; you can’t construct a proof to demonstrate the validity of logic, or precisely describe logic itself, because doing so would require stepping outside of logic. That’s not something we’re capable of. Peter has a good analogy:

Sort of how I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be alive, because both you and I would have to be dead first to actually comprehend the contrast.

I first encountered the problem of how to demonstrate that logic or reason were useful tools for understanding the universe in Descartes’ Meditations. Early on in the Meditations, Descartes decides that if he can’t be certain of the validity of his perception, then reason is all he has to rely on. But then he starts asking himself why he has any reason to think that reason itself is reliable, and the result is the painfully contorted piece of reasoning we call the Cartesian Circle.

It goes like this:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive (meaning, essentially, can hold in my mind and understand wholly from a mental picture) is true.
  2. I know that my clear and distinct perceptions are accurate because they are given to me by God, and God is not a deceiver.
  3. I know God exists because I can clearly and distinctly perceive Him. I just imagine a perfect, infinite being, and understand that it is more perfect for something to exist than to not exist.

I don’t think I need to spell out the problems here. And it shouldn’t be hard to see why I prefer Wittgenstein’s far more elegant answer to the question: “How do we know reason itself is valid?”

Wittgenblogging: The Fourth Proposition
November 9, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein in his youth.
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This section of the Tractatus is the first in which Wittgenstein addresses the matter of philosophy and its uses directly. First, he writes: “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical.” I think this corroborates and goes back to what I’ve been arguing since the beginning: that arguments over the relationship between the soul and the body, or the possibility of omnipotence, or the existence of anything beyond the physical world don’t have right or wrong answers. They don’t have answers at all, because they’re not really proper questions. To pose the question, in Wittgenstein’s view, is to misunderstand what both language and philosophy are there and for, and what they are capable of.

So what are language and philosophy for? To Wittgenstein, language exists to express sense — that is, a representation of something that either agrees or disagrees with observable reality. In other words, language exists to express thoughts (Wittgenstein: “A thought is a proposition with a sense.”). But language also obscures thought. Listening to the spoken expression of a thought is entirely different from perceiving that thought, and it is in the gap between the two where much of our philosophical confusion lies. Wittgenstein writes: “Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers raise form our failure to understand the logic of our language.”

He sees the goal of philosophy as the eradication of that confusion. “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” he writes. Its end is not “philosophical propositions,” but “rather in the clarification of propositions.”

This is the essence of Wittgensteinian philosophy. To see how that plays out in the modern era — especially with regards to neuroscience — I recommend checking out this interview with leading Wittgensteinian Peter Hacker.

Wittgenblogging: Proposition 3.5
November 2, 2010

Peter’s all caught up on the Wittgenblogging, and pretty close to outstripping me. I’ll admit I haven’t started on the fourth proposition yet; the third sort of took the air out of my tires, and besides that I’ve got a list of philosophy texts I want to read that’s thiiiiis big. But I will get to it soon; this week, hopefully.

Anyway, Peter raised some issues with my last post on the subject that I think I should address.

For example:

First, I would hesitate use “mental pictures,” as the litmus test for the logicality of a statement. There are plenty of statements that I can not picture, but that are almost certainly true. Examples of these include, “People with synesthesia can taste music,” “Bees can see ultraviolet light,” “When in a state of dreamless sleep, you experience nothingness,” and “The universe is infinite.” I can also picture things that, while I guess they don’t contradict logic, are physically impossible*. For example, I can imagine ashes burning.

Peter may be right here, but I think he’s actually being a little over-literal when it comes to the idea of “mental pictures.” While you might not be able to take a literal snapshot of how a synesthesiac (that’s a word, right?) perceive music, you can certainly imagine what it would be like to experience a certain coppery taste when one hears a high C-sharp. I think that when Wittgenstein talks about mental pictures, he just means imagined sets of data that it is within our capability to perceive.

As for the ashes burning thing, I think Peter’s right there. “The ashes are burning” is a phrase that obeys a certain logical form, and you can imagine how one might perceive it. As a result it has some truth value (likely negative). 

Peter also writes:

Second, Wittgenstein directly says, “It is as impossible to represent in language anything that ‘contradicts logic’.” Language is inherently logical. A statement may be meaningless, but it can never be illogical. Therefore, when somebody says “We are all one, because spirit is everything,” they are speaking a logical statement. I think that Ned is confusing the colloquial idea of “logic” with the philosophy of language idea of “logic.”

Right. The “spirit is everything” example clearly obeys the form of a logical statement. When I suggested that it doesn’t express anything, I meant that I have no idea how one would form a mental picture corresponding to that sentence. I think the spiritualist would tend to agree, arguing that these things are beyond our perception — but I think the Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus goes a pretty long way towards establishing that if there’s no faculty we can use to perceive something (even with artificial enhancements to our perception), then it’s unlikely that we can legitimately call it a part of the world.

Wittgenblogging: The Second Proposition
October 10, 2010

Here we go. Right around halfway through the second proposition—which is a good eight or nine times longer than the first—things start to get complicated.

Here Wittgenstein introduces several new concepts into his list of the constituent parts of the universe. In the last proposition we got facts and things (AKA objects). Now we also have:

  • States of affairs: Arrangements of objects in some definitive relationship to one another. All possible states of affairs are encoded into the relevant objects regardless of whether or not those states occur.
  • Form: ”The possibility of structure.” I think of form as the distinguishing characteristics by which we can organize objects. So for example, color is a form because we can identify commonalities between different objects based on their proximity on the spectrum of color. Time is one because it is one of the major organizing principles of our experience, but doesn’t appear to have any substance to it. Speaking of which:
  • Substance: ”What subsists independently of what is the case.” Also: “Objects make up the substance of the world.” I think substance is that which is empirically observed and not really open to interpretation.
  • Pictures: Models of reality we construct in our heads, be they accurate or inaccurate.
  • Sense: That which a picture represents. “The agreement or disagreement of its sense with reality constitutes its truth or falsity.”

But what strikes me most about the second proposition isn’t what Wittgenstein identifies as constituting reality, but what he  excludes. For example, Wittgenstein writes that, “It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents of states of affairs.” And also: “The sum-total of reality is the world.” This “reality” doesn’t include anything like values, God, or any other sort of metaphysical propositions.

And here’s something else: Wittgenstein argues that pictures, even if they are not intended to correspond with the world as it actually is, most still borrow some form from them. So, as he says in the last line of the second proposition: “There are no pictures that are true a priori.” That leaves me with the question: Does Wittgenstein think all a priori reasoning is impossible? Or just pictures?

Wittgenblogging: The First Proposition, Cont.
October 7, 2010

Peter’s first post is up with some reflections on how Wittgenstein expresses his ideas. It’s something I hadn’t given much thought to, but Peter’s right to pay it some attention; there’s something strangely compelling about how the first proposition consists entirely of spare, almost zen-like expressions. There’s not a wasted word, and the reflection you have to give to puzzle out their meaning makes their impact even greater. It feels less like Wittgenstein is telling you something, and more like he’s pointing you in the direction to discover it yourself. This has always seemed to me like the best way to practice philosophy.

One last thing: To answer homebodybuddy’s question, neither Peter nor I have any immediate plans to blog Philosophical Investigations, but if we enjoy working all the way through the Tractatus, and get a good response from our readers, then it’s definitely something we’d consider. I’m pretty intrigued by Investigations, since I’ve read that Wittgenstein goes back on a lot of claims he made in the work we’re currently Wittgenblogging; it would be interesting to see what objections we end up raising, and if Investigations answers any of them.

Wittgenblogging: The First Proposition
October 6, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein 2
Image by Christiaan Tonnis via Flickr

Just started last night on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which, as I mentioned before, Peter and I will be working through together in its entirety. So why should you non-philosophy majors care? Because Tractatus is one of the classics of the philosophy of language, seeking to, in the words of Wittgenstein (pictured), “Tractatus is intended to define the outer parameters of human inquiry, and expose why seemingly intractable philosophical problems are based on simple misunderstandings in “the logic of our language.”

He does this by building seven propositions on top of one another. In this post, we’ll look at the first one, which is, in its entirety:

1. The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

1.2 The world divides into facts.

1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

Seems relatively straightforward so far. The only assertion in this proposition that didn’t seem immediately obvious to me was 1.1—that the world is the totality of facts, not things. After a little work, though, I decided that Wittgenstein was correct.

I worked it out using the language of first-order logic (philosophy majors, it’s been almost a year since I’ve had to work in FOL, and it was my worst subject in the department, so feel free to check my work here). Basically, I conceived of a universe that is a 2 x 2 two-dimensional grid, on which there exist two three-dimensional objects: A and B. Both A and B are cubes of the same size. It looks a bit like this:

x         x

A         B

Where the x’s mean unoccupied squares on the grid.

So if we’re to think of this world as the totality of things, then you have basically described all there is to say about this world just by saying “A and B” (or, if you prefer, A ^ B). But that’s clearly not true. You can also say:

Cube(A)

Cube(B)

Adjoins(A, B)

SameRow(A, B)

LeftOf(A, B)

RightOf(B, A)

SameSize(A, B)

SameShape(A, B)

Only now have we exhausted all the facts about this world. Or maybe we haven’t—maybe we’ve just exhausted my limited FOL vocabulary. But even then, you get the point, which is that there are apparently a finite number of factual claims we can make about this world. Put all these claims together, and you have a complete picture of the world—far more complete than if you just listed the objets within it.

One more thing: 1.21 might seem incorrect based on the list of facts I’ve provided, but that’s only because there’s some overlap between a lot of these facts—many of them are different ways of expressing the same propositions, so of course making one of them not the case would render its cousin also not the case. If we were to make a list of facts that don’t overlap, then 1.21 is certainly correct.

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