Lynette and I have been carrying on a discussion under the “Tractatus One” post that has been nicely wide-ranging. I wanted to pull out a few different themes for separate treatment:
1. The general question I’ve focused on, possibly too quickly, is – how do we understand the propositions of the Tractatus, and indeed the Tractatus as a whole, as – for lack of a better term – a ‘speech act’? What is Wittgenstein up to here and what is he trying to do philosophically?
2. What, if anything, is the Tractatus’ doctrine of ordinary assertion/the propositions of natural science? This is where the saying/showing distinction comes in, which needs more discussion, and probably what will be taken up in the next series of posts (although I still have four planned to get on here).
(1) and (2) are both more central than an issue which has come up in my conversation with Lynette, which is
3. Is Wittgenstein’s view of the relation between names and propositions, and the corresponding relation between objects and facts, coherent?
That’s what I want to discuss here, touching on (2) and (1) only where necessary.
Wittgenstein says that atomic facts are composed of objects (2.01) and that elementary propositions are composed of names (4.22). He also says that knowing an object is knowing the possibilities of its occurrence in atomic facts (2.0123), and that names only have meaning in the context of a proposition (3.3). There are many other passages that restate these points in slightly different ways.
The question I have about this runs like this. If we held to a kind of ‘Platonism’ about the world, so that as it were all facts are just laid out there, corresponding to a Book of Life which contains all true propositions I suppose, then we would, by reading this book, be able to have a complete grasp of all the names by way of our understanding of all the propositions in which they occur; and likewise we would know all the objects completely by knowing all the facts in which they were involved.
Lacking that, however, it might seem that our ability to use old names in new propositions and to ask new kinds of question about the objects they name (e.g. questions about chemical composition) suggests some kind of grasp of the name which is quasi-independent of the _actual_ propositions one understands antecedent to the new use.
I have a sense that this is the wrong kind of question to be asking relative to the Tractatus, but this is what I was trying to get at in the exchange with Lynette in the comment thread. The formal issue is that given a complete specification of a ‘language’ as a set of propositions constructed out of names, one can indeed ‘reduce’ the names to classes of propositions that contain them. But our language is not completely specified in this way, which leaves the question of how names and propositions relate to each other, whether they can really be perfectly interdependent in the way that Wittgenstein wants to say, a little bit unsettled in my mind.
I think that talking about saying and showing in significant propositions (e.g. Miriam is watching a movie on the couch) may help bring out whether there is a serious issue here or not. But the work that Wittgenstein uses our grasp of names to do e.g. in ruling out the significance of the equals sign makes me wonder a bit. Do ‘evening star’ and ‘morning star’ name the same object or not? I am not sure I want to give a univocal answer to that question.