Names and Propositions

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. 


6 comments on “Names and Propositions

  1. Lynette says:

    It’s not the wrong kind of question. You’re exactly at the point where he is trying to make his intervention with the promise that it will make metaphysics dissolve—his counterpart to the claim of the logical constants not representing.

    Except he doesn’t say “names don’t represent.” They do represent (bedeuten) objects—a term used carefully to distinguish how names represent objects from how propositions express sense.

    Names do represent, but what do they represent?

    Your “platonic” image is of facts laid out, corresponding to the book of life, and knowing an object is knowing all statements true about that object—all the facts about it. Both for Plato and for Wittgenstein, the objects are closer to universals than they are to .

    So, what does he say about knowing objects? That it is the same as knowing all the possibilities of occurrence in facts (2.0123–i.e. *not* all the facts in which it occurs); its internal but not external properties (2.01231). We can know objects that never “in fact exist” in the world: 2.013.

    So knowing these objects isn’t knowing a chair and everything that is true about the chair. It’s knowing the system of representation whereby I can assert that there’s an extra chair next to me, and I can take a look and see whether that is true–my system of representation is so prepared that all that is left for reality is for it to say “yes” or “no.” So they’re like universals but don’t exist in a Platonic heaven. (Off-stage, the sound of metaphysics crumbling.)

    Where does this leave the workhorse, “the morning star is the evening star”? Or “Venus is the morning star”? Next post…

    • seancstidd says:

      Having gotten a better grasp on sense now I see where you’re coming from. (I have to get that post finished!)

      There’s still something subtle here that I’m not quite sure of though. I’m going to think out loud without filtering to see if I can get at it.

      Let’s say that propositions are pictures in the way W does. If we understand the proposition we know how to apply it to reality and judge it true or false.

      So let’s say we understand some propositions which contain names.

      There’s a way in which we can’t hear a new proposition that we don’t understand and _know_ that it contains a name we already understand, even where a familiar sign is present. We might adopt that as a working hypothesis to help us understand the new proposition, and if it works then we will say it’s the same name. So that seems pretty good for W as far as it goes.

      Clark Kent/Superman and Morning Star/Evening Star you take up perceptively in your next response, but maybe that’s where the subtle thing I’m not sure of is. There’s a nearly overwhelming temptation for some people, including me in the Clark Kent/Superman case (but not, interestingly, in the Morning Star/Evening Star case) , to say things like: “the two names refer to the same thing whether the speaker knows they do or not.”

      But not everyone knows that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person and it would seem that if you don’t identify them, your different recognition-criteria in a sense make them different people. Which is an undesirable result.

      Now you could say that this is not right because Clark Kent and Superman are both persons. We attribute personhood to both of them and persons are things which obey conservation laws. If Clark Kent goes into the phone booth and Superman comes out and there was no other person in the phone both before Clark Kent went in and none left after Superman came out, then conservation of persons demands that we equate Superman and Clark Kent. At which point our recognition-criteria for them will coincide.

      That last seems OK for Wittgenstein though, because now the convergence of the different names and recognition-criteria on the same object is not based on the features of some unknown reality that lies beyond the limits of our language.

      It’s significant to this judgment that Clark Kent and Superman are fictional characters with a limited history; also perhaps that they are human beings.

      Why am I less settled about the Morning Star and the Evening Star then? Mostly because my knowledge of the people who used, say, ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ is incomplete. What were their astronomical theories? When they used those names, was a certain time of appearance ‘internal’ or ‘external’ to that use? Did they have a certain theory of the heavens that would have unified those uses, or not? These kinds of questions seem relevant to assessing what they meant by these words.

      Of course one does not want to deny that whatever they meant, the light in the sky that occasioned the word ‘Hesperus’ and the light in the sky that occasioned the word ‘Phosphorus’ were both sunlight reflecting off the same planet. But one wants to know whether that would have been a relevant consideration relative to their use.

      This is an extremely hard question to answer because one might think, for example, that given enough time and ability to demonstrate _no_ ancient system of astronomy would have held up to the series of observations that led to ours, so that they _would_ eventually have accepted the identification along with our theory given enough time. That it was intrinsic to their use of ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ that sooner or later they would have been led inexorably to see them as names for what we call planets and to see that they referred to the same one.

      But at least one can make out a difference here. If one encountered a culture where stones were only classified for their building properties and color, say, we might not be right to insist that different formations of stone with the same chemical composition were in fact ‘the same’. They might in that case even be taught chemistry and come to see that the one could be turned into the other with some complicated work, but they could still shrug and say that that was not the relevant consideration for their system of language. My uncertainty about ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ could be read as just an uncertainty about whether or not something like that might have been in play here.

      Whereas I’m confident that nothing like this is in play for ‘Superman’ and ‘Clark Kent’, for cultural, historical, presentational (it’s a fictional story), and also categorical/classificatory sorts of reasons. (Those latter reasons are still bothering me though.)

      As I said, this is just thinking out loud stuff, might be terribly off. But it seems to me that if I’m not willing to write ‘naked’ on a blog there’s not much point in having one. We have conferences and journals for armored writing.

  2. Lynette says:

    There must be multiple treatments in the literature of how Wittgenstein would treat the morning and evening star on the Tractatus account. Off the top of my head I can’t recall what Anscombe or Geach or Mounce say about it!

    So, the world is all out there, Plato-like, if that’s how you describe that kind of independent existence. What we say about it doesn’t change it. But we choose the forms of representation we use to describe it, i.e. to assert things (about it). So Platonism + Constructionism: it’s all true.

    In the TLP sense of objects, you can’t know an object without knowing whether it’s the same as or different from other objects.

    The evening star, the morning star, Venus—these aren’t Tractatus objects.

    Basically, Wittgenstein says that Russell is 90% right about the theory of descriptions, but not right about what the names/objects are (letters? notebook? I can’t remember), and not right about identity (5.5302). So these (morning star, evening star, Venus) are not names, but are, a la Theory of Descriptions, shorthand terms that indicate that the propositions in which they appear are complex, and contain a bunch of propositions that contain real names.

    You can ask, is there such a thing as the morning star? And then give a definition that spells it out in terms of the conditions that would have to be met for it to be true when you say there is or isn’t such a thing. (If you can ask an existence question, you’re talking about TLP-facts not TLP-objects.)

    Let’s say you have a form of representation for stars that has little “geometry” in it. It’s about things that look like bears or archers or what have you, and appear in the night sky at different times of year. In that form, already you have some stars that are different—wandering stars.

    Part of that form of representation will be conditions of identity for theory-of-description-level “objects,” which will play out in analysis in terms of truth or falsity of more fundamental propositions. That’s not the deep stuff. What’s deep is noticing the difference between names you spell out that way, and names you spell out by teaching a form of representation and *contrasting* one statement or fact with another.

    Whether the non-identity of the morning and evening star in early or “folk” system of astronomy is definitional (ToD style), definitional (objects-names style), or contingent is beyond my knowledge of those systems (forms of representation). Perhaps it’s a joke or a reflection on the finitude of human understanding: an idle statement what puts words together in a way that resembles how words are put together elsewhere in the language, but without any substance behind it in terms of how it should actually be treated as an assertion about the world.

    With a little more geometry, a different conception of space and the earth, you have a form of representation that delivers a definitional answer to that question—i.e. if there is such a planet with that orbit, distance from the sun, position relative to earth, there’s only one of them, not two (the possibility of “grenus” so to speak is nonsense too–an idle wheel, but who knows, maybe some day someone will make some application for it).

    “Venus is the morning star,” or “the morning star is the evening star,” are statements that translate between forms of representation.

    On facebook I’ve got a photo from a night Venus was so bright you could see its reflection in Back Bay (at the end of our road).

    • seancstidd says:

      Well, hm.

      I still need to get that post on sense done to respond to this properly.

      I am not sure I have a clear sense of what ‘a Tractatus name’ would be, and it is very natural for me to look at the whole thing in terms of e.g. Philosophical Investigations #48, so that if you can apply a proposition in a sensible way then the names in that proposition refer and they refer to the things that make up the fact which shares its form of representation (as he puts it) with the proposition. So that “The morning star has risen” is in one way a perfectly good Tractatus proposition, if you can apply it, know its truth and falsehood conditions, which you do – and in fact, even a perfectly good elementary proposition, in that it’s not in any obvious way a truth-functional combination of other propositions in the way that “The author of Waverly is Scott” is.

      So “the sense is where you find it.”

      I guess it depends what you take as ground. Do you think that Wittgenstein thought that things were more like the way they were pictured in Philosophy of Logical Atomism? When I read 4.2211,

      “Even if the world is infinitely complex, so that every fact consists of an infinite number of atomic facts and every atomic fact is composed of an infinite number of objects, even then there must be objects and atomic facts,”

      aside from wondering about the coherence of the suggestion I guess I took it that Wittgenstein is saying something like: the way the actual world is is not relevant to logically picturing it, even if it turns out that we are dealing here with infinite complexity.

      So I read the T more like “it doesn’t really matter what the atomic facts are” rather than positing a world of microscopic complexity.

      Will try to move forward with the new posts!

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