Tractatus 1: The World is All That Is The Case

(This is rough and I’m not satisfied with it, but I have to walk the dog and teach the class.)

At the outset, this looks like a metaphysical proposition. This is a philosophy book, after all; we want to know about how things are with the world, and what kinds of things it might contain. This answer is exhilarating and perplexing: exhilarating because it promises comprehensiveness, inclusion, a world which leaves nothing out: the world is all there is. We have our frame; now on to the details!

But it is a bit perplexing too. What else, after all, could the world be? (Q: “What is there?” A: “Everything.”) Is this actually telling us anything? The world is all that is the case – ok, what’s the case? Facts. The world consists of facts – and of those facts being all the facts.

Is Wittgenstein just defining the term ‘world’ for purposes of his system here, then? That wouldn’t be very interesting: surely his definition is meant to tell us something about what worldhood amounts to. Perhaps he is maintaining something subtle: that the dependence of world-talk on facts is implicit in our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking, or that the dependence of world-talk on facts is the only ‘respectable’ or ‘sensible’ thing left over when you really think through what talk about ‘the world’ amounts to, and don’t get caught up in the kinds of mistakes that Plato, Hegel, Russell, or whoever might have made.

Following this out in one way will lead one to say things like “Aha! So Wittgenstein is committed to an ontology of facts, perhaps also to there being ‘totality facts’ which close off the world-system. Wittgenstein holds that the world supervenes on the matters of particular fact which constitute it.” Treating these as metaphysical theses, you can decide if you think they are true or not, and whether ‘totality facts’ are second-order facts about the membership of the class of first-order facts, and if so whether they count as structural facts, and whether this is the only sort of higher-order structural fact that exists (as Wittgenstein seems to hold) or whether there might not be others – perhaps set-theoretic ones?

But there’s a second kind of reading and thinking that can emerge here, pointed to in the idea of the world’s ‘supervening’ on matters of particular fact. If that’s all there is to world-talk, what is Wittgenstein saying here? Well. We talk, assert such-and-such to be the case or not, all the time. Ultimately, ‘the world’ is just the total collection of all these particular matters of fact. There’s nothing more to being a world than that: the sun is yellow, the breeze is cool, my friend is coming over, and all the other true propositions.

Now. If we want to indicate ‘the world’, how do we do it? We can’t point to it; we can only state various facts. And this isn’t a matter of the world’s size; if it was coherent to imagine a world that contained only a few facts, and which was thus thinkable-as-a-whole by an entity like us, there’s a sense in which we still wouldn’t be able to point to ‘the world,’ just to the various facts. If we were to speak like the metaphysicians, we might agree that ‘the world supervenes on matters of particular fact’; but the important thing to note there is that this is not anything like saying that there is one thing, the world, which depends in any interesting sense on these other things, the facts. Rather, there are just the facts.

So “the world is all that is the case” doesn’t exactly say anything: analyzed further it turns into something trivially true like “all the facts are all the facts,” or else nonsensical because “the world” doesn’t really signify, doesn’t really point to anything on its own. But it does, the thought goes, actually show us something critically important: what world-talk amounts to. You can’t talk about the world directly, or show how the world emerges out of matters of particular fact, since there isn’t any ‘world’ in that sense to talk about or to emerge. But you can appreciate that the sense of world-talk depends on the factual-propositional structure of thought and assertion in general, and thus come to see something about the structure of our discourse which can’t be stated directly.

At 4.461 Wittgenstein characterizes tautologies and contradictions as sinnlos, without sense. In 4.4611, his comment on this, he clarifies: “Tautology and contradiction are, however, not nonsensical (unsinnig); they are part of the symbolism, in the same way that “0” is part of the symbolism of arithmetic.”

It could plausibly be maintained, against the ‘ineffabilist’ second reading I have been laying out above, that to read “the world is all that is the case” as not telling us anything about the world and yet as showing us something about the overall structure of factual discourse, showing us something that cannot be said, is to read “the world is all that is the case” as sinnlos rather than unsinnig, as a kind of tautological higher-order appreciation of something about the overall structure of factual discourse, which can’t be stated directly (perhaps because in stating it our language has no recourse but to treat it as another matter of particular fact, which it is not), but which nonetheless one can be brought to see by careful consideration of what factual discourse as a whole amounts to.

But now fatigue is setting in. This second kind of reading seems to collapse under its own weight. At 6.1 and 6.11 Wittgenstein offers the view that analytic propositions are propositions of logic, that propositions of logic are tautologies, and that tautologies say nothing. Leaving aside the issue of whether there even can be any tautologies for Wittgenstein that are not of forms like (p → (q → p)), ‘the world is all that is the case’ is not like ‘it’s raining or it’s not raining.’ Neither says anything, but ‘it’s raining’ does say something, and ‘it’s raining or it’s not raining’ is something like a corner case of the ordinary ways we have of employing and reasoning from propositions like ‘it’s raining.’

‘The world is all that is the case,’ by contrast, doesn’t say anything at all. It first appears as a metaphysical claim; but upon consideration we see that it can’t be that because it’s not saying anything about the world. So then we might think, well, it’s showing us something important about what ‘worldhood’ amounts to in terms of the facts of which we can speak, but not something which can be said per se.

But: What can be said at all can be said clearly. Propositions are what is said and the thought is the significant proposition. ‘The world is all that is the case’ neither says anything nor expresses any thought; it is not sinnlos but unsinnig. It traces out a path of thought, one filled in by the comments on it and by proposition 2 and the rest of the book; but that path leads, not to a higher-level appreciation of the fact-structure of the world, not to some quasi-tautological residue of our ordinary use of ‘world’ and ‘fact’, but to the absurdity of the original claim. The thought here would be that in this statement we have not even given the sign ‘world’ any meaning in the first place (6.53), and thus that Tractatus 1 is itself, like “most propositions that have been written about philosophical matters…not false but senseless.” (4.003) Nothing at all is being said here.

Then what are we doing when we reason through to this conclusion? I suppose the thought on this style of reading would be that we are performing a kind of reductio ad absurdum on the original claim. We’re showing that the hypothesis that it has sense breaks down under scrutiny. But that’s just employing the logic that we already have and using the terms of our language as we already have them. We’re not learning anything except that the attempt to treat this particular statement as meaningful fails. It’s not a philosophical tautology, a corner-case of some minimal logical residue left over when metaphysics has failed; it’s just plain nonsense. Our reasoning isn’t showing us anything important, but only that nothing here was being said in the first place.

If that third reading is right then the Tractatus can’t be a complete or exhaustive work. There are an arbitrarily large number of ways for us to go wrong with philosophical words. (What was Wittgenstein doing when he came back to philosophy?) Rather, the thought would be that the reader of the Tractatus might come to see her own philosophical impulses and beliefs as of similar character, work through the flawed assumptions behind them, and eventually come to see that she hadn’t actually been thinking anything at all.

This is one reason that some philosophers hate Wittgenstein. It can be upsetting to suggest to someone that their whole enterprise is wrong from the get-go. On the other hand, getting upset about this seems like a failure of character, for a philosopher at least. We should just consider the arguments for and against and weigh them the best we can. Or isn’t that the deal?

It is sometimes observed, in relation to proposition 2 (“What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts”), that Wittgenstein doesn’t give any examples of atomic facts. Various discussions of why this is so are offered, and there are some standard examples of what an atomic fact might be that one hears (e.g. ‘red-at-x,y,z,t’ – this is standard metaphysics stuff, a world of properties and spacetime points).

But it may be that the search for an examples of atomic facts in the first place is just a mistake; it may be that there aren’t any and that Wittgenstein never intended there to be. If it is right that “the world is all that is the case” is not really any sort of statement at all in the end, then it should also be right that “what is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts” is not any sort of statement either. And one way of thinking about this might simply be to point out that just as ‘the world’ is a sign with no meaning attached in 1, so too ‘atomic fact’ is a sign with no meaning attached in 2. After all, if nothing is being said, then nothing is being said.

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10 comments on “Tractatus 1: The World is All That Is The Case

  1. Lynette says:

    This is so much fun–I can take part in a virtual Wittgenstein class with the fantastic philosopher Sean Stidd!

    Here are a few thoughts. I like the way you work through the discussion of what it is to talk about “the world.”

    “Pointing to facts” is loose talk, but I’m sure you know that. It’s loose talk just because it might muddle the distinction between facts and things/objects. (Queue longer conversation about whether that distinction gets thrown away with the ladder and/or is a rung on the ladder.)

    Also, it’s interesting that he actually suggests that, in tautology and contradiction, the constituent propositions lose their sense (4.466 and 4.4661). I.e., if something that looks every bit like a sentence isn’t in fact being used to assert something about the world, then it looses its sense–an apparent sentence can fail to have sense not just by having undefined constituents (a Conant and Diamond favourite, 5.4733) but also by having applied to it logical operations to the point that it renders nonsense.

    You’re contrasting the metaphysical, the ineffabilist, and the resolute readings of 1, and of 2. Without talking about saying and showing yet, which is an interesting approach.

    I must confess to the intellectual laziness of never having cared too much about sinnlos vs. unsinnig, and never having worked out why I don’t care. Since much of the ineffabilist vs. resolute reading is framed around sinnlos and unsinnig, I ought not to have been that lazy. To think more carefully about it, maybe I can connect what people think about with the sinnlos/unsinnig distinction with what I focus on.

    Will we come to see (A) that 1 is really just fancy words for “p” (i.e. the most general form of the proposition, 4.5, “such and such is the case.”)–an insight shaped by all the rest of the book? Or will we come to see (B) that all we did wrong in 1 was that we failed to give meaning to the word “world”?

    I think we come to see (A), and another route to the same insight would be that we try to give meaning to the word “world,” and see that we fail and how we fail over and over again when we try to give it substantial meaning that satisfies us.

    So there aren’t two kinds of nonsense but two paths to seeing that something is nonsense.

    Contrary to resolute folks, even though I’m almost entirely a resolute reader, I think the logical rules can make you make nonsense, on Wittgenstein’s view in the TLP. Logical operations on sentences can withdraw the butterfly feelers (2.1515) within propositions (4.466 and 4.4661). That’s why, for me, (A) and (B) are more similar than different, particularly given that I think one can’t get away from rules making things make not make sense, in some sense (Reid 1998!).

    To my ear, some of what you attribute to the ineffabilists sounds like my version of the resolute reading (you can try to talk about the “world” as a whole, but you’ll find the only sense in what you say is the particular things you say about the world, and as for whether you’ve got the whole world by the tail, well, you’ll just have to let that emerge/be—1.11), so I’m confused.

    It’s very worth thinking about that comment about 0. What a transformation in practice it is to have 0 in your number system, what a fundamentally different take on what numbers are and what you can do with them! It doesn’t make you an ineffabilist about the meaning of 0 to point that out and discuss it, describe the differences between systems in which there is a 0 and ones in which there is not.

    Much more to be said about atomic facts.

    Is this at all helpful? I’m having fun.

    Footnote Peter Winch for everything here. I’m just channeling. He’s not here to defend himself, so on his behalf I should say he thought I was saying my own things, so I can’t ascribe it all to him.

    Back to private MRIs and queue-jumping in a universal health care system…

  2. seancstidd says:

    Lynette! Wonderful to see you here.

    With respect to the fact/thing distinction getting thrown away, I’m honestly not sure. The picture in 2 – with the fact as a chain composed of objects as its links – is interesting. I think that what is going on here is easier to see at the level of the proposition. I think the proposal here is something like: “The cat is on the mat” includes some particular cat and some particular mat, which stand to each other in a certain sort of relation which the proposition, the picture, and (if true) the fact itself all share. We can use the words ‘cat’ and ‘mat’ independently all right, but ‘cat’ rightly understood is just a grasp of other objects (such as mats) and the kinds of relations cats can stand in to those other objects, or something like that.

    There’s a question about how we could know this without knowing in advance all the possible relations of cats to all other things though. In fact this part of the text is pretty difficult. My most natural way of making sense of it is backwards through the propositions: pretend all the facts are stated by true propositions of the form aRb. Then we can say that to understand ‘a’ just is something like understanding all the propositions of the form aX (where X is the various different Rb’s that stand in). The object is what is in common between all the facts that share that object, say; an abstraction from the realm of facts.

    If you were to take this as a ‘straight’ view there might be some epistemological problems about how we learned any object-terms. It could at least give the illusion that you had to know everything in order to know anything, especially if we reject the idea that there is some ‘intension’ or the like associated with our relation-terms by which we grasp which objects ‘fit into them’, etc.

    There’s a sense in which the Tractatus actually needs to support all three readings to work properly. That is, if the views in metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, etc. have apparent problems before they dissolve, we don’t ever get to imagine that we glimpse a truth they fail to express, or have that truth vanish in a puff of nonsense, down the line. Because in that case we just start arguing about philosophy again instead.

    Lots more to say here….will come back in a bit.

  3. seancstidd says:

    I think maybe to get clear on what’s nonsense and what’s not we have to remember that ‘ordinary language’ or ‘the propositions of natural science’ are just fine as they are – the Pyrrhonean dimension of the view, as it were – and try to assess what Wittgenstein’s view of what isn’t nonsense is.

    I will come back to some of your more substantive points later tonight or tomorrow.

  4. Lynette says:

    Great…you said something about logical form, facts and propositions, on facebook but I didn’t see it in the post.

    Think of logical form and method of projection as the practices of measuring and asserting things measured or measurable about the world. (Yes, shades of verificationism I know, but there they are.) That’s the Peter Winch trick for making many obscurities of the Tractatus come clear.

    The only sense in which you can “know” all the possible relations of cats, and all the possible relations of mats, is that you speak the language and live in the world, e.g. you’re able to distinguish cats from dogs from children etc., and able to distinguish mats from floors from sofas etc; you look for cats around the house, and put mats out for airing etc.; able to distinguish on from under from in from above from beneath etc..

    We can only foresee what we construct (5.556)—there he is speaking about logical operations (truth functions) but also holds for ways of describing and measuring the world.

    They’re sharing a form may mean that e.g. what we measure (tables) and what we measure with (rulers) are all objects in 3-D space; or, more likely, it may mean that we treat them in certain ways—they have the same logical multiplicity in how we treat them, what we distinguish as important, i.e. as pertinent to the truth value of the proposition describing them. We distinguish as many elements in the fact as in the proposition…indeed the proposition is how we state the fact.

    Must walk dog before spectacular sunset is over!

  5. seancstidd says:

    “The only sense in which you can “know” all the possible relations of cats, and all the possible relations of mats, is that you speak the language and live in the world, e.g. you’re able to distinguish cats from dogs from children etc., and able to distinguish mats from floors from sofas etc; you look for cats around the house, and put mats out for airing etc.; able to distinguish on from under from in from above from beneath etc..”

    This is the sticking point though. Say our grasp of these things comes from application of the name or relation-term in particular cases. Then we have a rule which we can apply in a universal or open-ended way from a finite number of cases. This seems like an interesting or special sort of mental content that goes beyond the distinctions we can actually make – and one which is not just an artifact of the universe being always-already-sorted for propositional logic due to propositional logic’s emptiness, but one which involves a grasping of particular terms and how they fit, not just into the facts we know them from, but into any possible fact, etc.

    Hypothesis: this might be a better place to look for a difference between ‘early’ and ‘late’ Wittgenstein than some which are suggested. We don’t have an enumeration of facts; we do use particular terms in sensible ways in particular contexts. If making-sense is as it were prior, then we can’t necessarily generalize from one use to another, or one cluster of uses to another.

    And so in the Lectures on Religious Belief we get stuff like this (paraphrase): one person says he believes that at the end the dead will be resurrected into eternal life. W says that if someone asked him if he believed this, he would say no, but if that person then asked him again if this contradicted the believer, he would also say no. The thought here I guess is that an expression like “the resurrection of the dead” has different uses in different contexts and while it might be correct to say that W doesn’t share the belief of the first person, he also doesn’t contradict it, because presumably the two of them are applying the words in entirely different ways. Or is that too clumsy?

    There’s a nice novel by Par Lagerkvist called Barabbas about the famous thief who was let go. He keeps trying to be a Christian but just doesn’t get it – he’s a very literal-minded sort of person, which fits right in, because Jesus died for his sins in a totally different sense than (the Christian says) Christ died for many. This might be a case where you get people saying the same thing, not just for different reasons, but out of a totally different understanding of the underlying terms.

    Different reasons? Yes and no. Different yardsticks attached to the same words in the same world. But it’s too simple to say that we all agree on the same facts and just weight them differently.

  6. seancstidd says:

    I still have to respond to the points you made in your first note, also. 🙂 Good discussion.

  7. Lynette says:

    “grasp comes from…”

    So, without claiming that it all adds up to a coherent and complete view, this is where showing-talk comes in.

    It’s not that I have some grasp of this rule, which has strange powers (takes me from the finite to the infinite!) and which arises somehow out of my application (there it is in my head–how did it get there?): my grasp is shown in the application.

    The TLP has a nice story about the content-less-ness of the logical constants, i.e. the proposition prepared for the world to be other than it says it is, prepared to be false; and there already you have all of logic, which has no more content than…the world could be other than we say it is.

    What’s the story about the content-less-ness of statements attempting to describe (vs. demonstrate) grasp of the internal constituents of the simple proposition? Not tied up with a bow the way the contentlessness of propositions of logic is.

    The emphasis from Lecture on Ethics forward is that you can’t resolve the mystical, the ethical use of language by saying “they’re just using the words in different ways.” If they were, you could just replace the word with another. But you want–need–to use exactly this word that in other contexts is used so differently. An interesting feature of our life with language. Yadayada.

    The Kripke-ish formulation doesn’t grab me. But there is an issue there that is real. The procedural “how do I go on” framing makes it look like some mysterious causal mechanism, vs. a perspective on the whole. You could also imagine two sets of applications of a given term in the past, and ask what makes them application of the same or different rule.

  8. seancstidd says:

    I made a new post pulling out the name/proposition issue for discussion.

  9. D K Levy says:

    Hello Sean, I’ve just found your website via Lars Hertzberg’s reference to you on his site.

    With regard to this post, I think you may have missed some of the point of §1ff.

    Wittgenstein remarks in his 1930-32 lectures that the reason he put things this way is to make it clear that what we are given is facts, not things. It is quite natural to think that what appears to us in experience are objects or things. Wittgenstein wants to disabuse us of that straightaway. The talk of ‘that is the case’ is simply modal talk, saying that we are interested in actuality not possibility. And, not actual objects, but actual states of affairs, which is to say configurations of worldly constituents, themselves to be defined logically in §2. Worldly constituents are not what we experience when we experience the world as comprising medium-sized dry goods.

    These are important distinctions to get clear at the outset. There are important distinctions to be made between, let’s say, the world and totality. Totality I take to be the all possibilities, whereas the world I take to be those possibilities that are actual around here. The work of Parmenides and the early Greek metaphysics is at root concerned with this kind of distinction. So it is ur-philosophy. It is one of the places where Wittgenstein goes wrong early in the Tractatus, giving us an account of thought that is, as he put it later, like a film strip, with each frame a potential target for a thought.

    It is also worth noting that §§1-2 are in some sense inessential to the Tractarian project. First, we know from study of the Notebooks and the proto-Tractatus that the ideas in these sections came very late. More, Wittgenstein flirted with not giving these sections a metaphysical reading of this kind, but rather a more phenomenological treatment, in which the constituents of reality were defined as the limit of discrimination in experience, the ‘minima visibile’.

    When I teach the Tractatus, my tip to them after reading §§1-7 and no subsections is to read §§3-4 first, then §§1-2, then §§5-6.0xx, then §6.1-7. §§3-4 contains the true heart of the book that could have been called The Proposition.

    • seancstidd says:

      Thanks for posting!

      I agree with most of what you say here, I think. So I’m curious where I slipped up. (I’m sure I did, I just don’t see where we disagree from your remarks.) I have another post coming on sense that may or may not give some grounds to deepen the discussion.

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