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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wittgenstein: a baffling doctrine bafflingly presented

"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate." - Henry J. Tillman


The doctrine of what cannot be said but only shown is, as David Pears has observed, a baffling doctrine bafflingly presented. Bafflement is further increased when the author of the Tractatus, in the penultimate remark of the book, draws the inevitable corollary of his arguments:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak. throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
(Tractatus 6.54)

So the propositions of the Tractatus are themselves nonsense. They fail to comply with the rules of logical grammar—logical syntax (Tractatus 3.325). For they either employ formal concept-words as proper concept-words, and nonsensical pseudo-propositions are the result (Tractatus 4.1272) or they ascribe internal properties and relations to something, which cannot he done by a well-fonned proposition with a sense. For a proposition with a sense must restrict reality to, and allow reality, two alternatives: yes or no—it must be bipolar (Tractatus 4.023). But any attempted ascription of an internal property would not allow reality two alternatives, since it is inconceivable that something might lack its internal properties.

It is not surprising that the early. well-informed readers of the Tractatus greeted this conclusion with incredulity. In his introduction to the Tractatus, Russell wrote, ‘after all, Mr Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said, thus suggesting to the sceptical reader that possibly there may be some loophole
through the hierarchy of languages, or by some other exit’ (Introduction, p. xxi). He clearly felt that it was incredible that so many profound insights into the nature of logic should be intelligibly stated and yet be held to he nonsensical. Wittgenstein’s restriction on what can he said. he confessed. ‘leaves me with a certain sense of intellectual discomfort’. Neurath famously remarked of the closing sentence: ‘one should indeed be silent, but not about anything’. If, as Witigenstein wrote in the preface, what lies on the other side of the limit of language is simply nonsense, then metaphysics is simply nonsense and there is nothing to be silent about. Ramsey remonstrated that if the chief proposition of philosophy is that philosophy is nonsense, then ‘we must take seriously that it is nonsense, and not pretend, as Wittgenstein does, that it is important nonsense”. Elsewhere he observed that 'But what we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either’. Indeed, it is not as if one can even think what one cannot say—for as the young Wittgenstein himself (wrongly) insisted, 'thinking is a kind of language’ and a thought ‘just is a kind of
proposition’ (Notebooks 1914—16 82). So can one whistle what one cannot think, i.e. can one apprehend truths which one cannot even think?

... On Diamond's interpretation, [the Tractatus] was never meant to be a working clock, but a self-destructive one designed to explode as soon as wound up"

--- Was he trying to whistle it? / P.M.S. Hacker in The new Wittgenstein
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