True but Nonsensical

(1) “[T]he truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive.” – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Preface

(2) “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.” – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

(3) “The applied, thought, propositional sign is the thought; the thought is the significant proposition.” – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 3.5 – 4

Wittgenstein can be plausibly interpreted here as asserting an inconsistent triad. (‘Plausibly’ doesn’t mean ‘correctly’, but simply that a non-stupid person could read what Wittgenstein says, think about it for a while, and come to believe that there was a conflict between these claims without seeing how Wittgenstein thought to resolve it.)

Inconsistent triads are something regular old philosophy is good at, so let’s use this to demarcate some things to think about.

Interpreters of the Tractatus often proceed by rejecting one of these three propositions. The so-called ‘ineffabilists,’ people who form the perfectly reasonable initial hypothesis that if the thoughts are true and the propositions are senseless, there must be some non-propositional thought that the book is communicating and defending, ignore the deep connection between fact, thought, and proposition that constitutes one central line of thought in the book. In so doing they are in effect rejecting (3) above.

The ‘resolute’ readers of the Tractatus, who believe that the whole text is on a par with saying “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” and I suppose that its main goal is something like getting us to recognize that saying “to be is to be the value of a bound variable” and the like isn’t significantly different, would seem to be rejecting (1), the proposition that the thoughts it contains are true.

And the ‘metaphysical’ readers of the Tractatus, those who have been inspired by its thoughts to write books like The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, would seem to be ignoring (2).

I am tempted here, at the beginning of the course and not having thought about these things systematically for a while, to think that the ‘resolute’ readers of the Tractatus have the easiest path to escape. For there is a thought that the book could express even while being nonsense from beginning to end, and that thought is this: “There are all these people, many of them perfectly decent in ordinary contexts, who spend a good deal of their lives exercised over questions like whether one can distinguish reference to rabbits from reference to time-integrals of temporal rabbit-parts, or whether all the facts about the parts of a whole plus structural facts about how those parts stand in relation to one another are equivalent to the whole or not, or whether some beliefs can be at the same time both unassailably foundational for all inquiry and refutable by evidence, and so on. And all of this talk is nonsense. Maybe, by going through the main areas of philosophy one at a time and illustrating that there’s really nothing there beyond what there was to say and think about ordinary garden-variety facts to begin with, we can show people why that’s so, including the people who persist in doing it.”

So then the thought expressed is that all the things philosophers say qua philosophers are either nonsense or disguised ordinary discourse, and that thought can be true without violating the strictures of the Tractatus, because it’s a “proposition of the natural sciences” in the broad sense, that is, a first-order factual assertion about the noises some people make.

Having thought this, in addition to seeing “how little has been done when these problems have been solved,” we might even put down our copy of the Critique of Pure Reason, go for a walk, enjoy the sunshine, fly a kite. Or we might dedicate our lives to serving God or go and actually seduce the person we fantasize about in our idle moments. But in any case we would have turned off the television and gone outside.

I would be interested to know about ways to resolve the triad in favor of the ineffabilist and metaphysical readings as well.

There are some puzzles that the resolute reading construed this way has to deal with. One is that Wittgenstein is happy enough to recognize things like structural facts (2.0201) and the possibility of truth for various physical theories (6.34 and sub-propositions), which he analyzes as analytic a priori. Isn’t there room then for something like naturalized metaphysics here, perhaps Aristotelian formal causes in the style of Carnap’s Aufbau? Hasn’t part of the project of philosophy been to guard the world’s actual level of complexity against those who would oversimplify it on the one hand and overcomplicate it on the other? The criticism here would be something like: maybe Wittgenstein intended the resolute reading, and it’s an interesting idea, but isn’t there quite a lot of philosophy, even some metaphysics and epistemology, already embedded in those very same first-order facts that Wittgenstein thinks we can say and think meaningful propositions about? The move here would be the one which runs, any attempt to reject metaphysics will always wind up doing so on the basis of hidden metaphysical assumptions. We will discuss this move when we get to proposition 6, and probably before that. I suppose this objector would be a ‘metaphysical’ reader who thinks that Wittgenstein was mistaken to regard ‘transcendental’ and ‘nonsensical’ as coextensive, or something like that.

A second would be, why is the book so interesting if it’s all “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”? We sure seem to do a lot of thinking when we read this book, given that these words don’t signify anything. How can we recognize our own thought and our errors of thought in a text in which no thoughts are directly expressed? This objection would likely come from an ‘ineffabilist’.

A third, similar to the first in some respects and perhaps more serious, is that nearly everything in the Tractatus depends on Wittgenstein’s deflationary interpretation of propositional logic. This is a serious contribution that Wittgenstein made to the philosophy of logic, that hooks up not only with Frege and Russell before him but with Tarski after him, and it is one which he develops and argues for in great detail – it gets far more text than any other subject in the book. A great deal hinges on the plausibility of his ideas about propositional logic – that the propositions of logic are contentless, that logical constants do not represent, that “all logical operations are already contained in the elementary proposition” (5.47), etc.. So we need an interpretation of his arguments on this subject which (A) is plausible, (B) reduces the assertions and metatheory of propositional logic to some combination of self-repetition, triviality, and senselessness, and (C) really is an adequate response to the relevant issues in Frege, Russell, and the broader tradition of logic and philosophy of logic he is addressing.

This objection comes from someone willing to take the resolute reading, and the understanding of Wittgenstein’s project that goes with that reading, as prima facie plausible, but wondering whether Wittgenstein has really earned it.

I suspect this post has been pretty heavy going for some, and I don’t want to scare anyone off, but as we read through the Tractatus and consider these general interpretative questions I think this discussion will be a helpful jumping-off point for your own reflections. Students needn’t get hung up on this one now, but just keep it percolating in your brain and come back to it in a few weeks once we’ve gotten into the heart of the text.


We’re discussing Wittgenstein here. All questions, thought, spirited criticism, etc. eagerly solicited.

Here is the course description for the class which ran concurrent with this blog when I first started it:

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a major twentieth century philosopher who made important contributions to the philosophy of logic and language and to metaphilosophy. He wrote in a wide variety of other areas as well, perhaps most successfully in the philosophies of mathematics and psychology and in epistemology. His contributions in those areas are harder to assess, however, because their relevance to ordinary philosophical discussions of those subjects depends on the adequacy of his views in philosophy of logic and metaphilosophy.

If the metaphilosophical position of Wittgenstein’s later work is correct, our powers of understanding and reasoning function in a far more ‘local’ and context-bound way than is sometimes supposed. To the degree that this is so, Wittgenstein can be plausibly interpreted as one of the great skeptical philosophers as well.

It is sometimes hard to understand Wittgenstein because his work is quite radical. The Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations doesn’t have a position in the philosophy of mind as most of us understand that field, for instance. He’s neither a behaviorist nor an identity theorist nor a dualist: rather, he thinks that in general once you’re asking questions like “is there such a thing as ‘the mind’, and if so is it the same thing as or something different from the brain or body?” you’ve already gone wrong by pushing these concepts (mind, brain, body) in directions where they have no obvious application, and which blur out the many and non-uniform connections between the phenomena which we categorize in a rough-and-ready way as bodily and cognitive. (Daydreaming; scratching an itch; getting drunk; solving a math problem; praying. “I’m of a mind to eat dinner” ; “Mind the store”; “Body up on him”; “Her body lay there lifeless.” The ideas of ghosts and telepathy. What in all these is ‘physical’, what ‘mental’? Within a given experience, are we clear where the bodily shades off and the mental begins? Must there be some general pattern or framework?)

We will get clearer on how Wittgenstein approaches this kind of issue as we read through his books.

Wittgenstein was also an extreme personality with a keen sense of aesthetics and culture, and an excellent writer, so he has become something of a cult figure in philosophy and beyond.

I studied Wittgenstein for many years with Peter Winch, one of his literary executors, at whose U.S. funeral I was a pallbearer. This study was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and while a good deal of that was due to Peter’s friendship and guidance, a good deal of it was also due to the tremendous intellectual force of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. His views are really quite different from almost anything else that you will encounter in philosophy, and for that reason alone, even if they turn out to be wrong, they are definitely worth contemplating.

In this course we will read through Wittgenstein’s two major works, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations, and see if we can figure out what they have to say and whether it is true.