One of the perennial problems of philosophy is the problem of the ‘aboutness’ of thought. When I was a child someone told me that the Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest galaxy to our own. Having read some science books I pictured a sort of vague fuzz of stars that was nearer to our little spiral fuzz than some other fuzzes farther away. Being that sort of child, I would have confidently asserted that the Andromeda Galaxy was the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way to anyone who cared to quiz me on the matter.
The question is: what made my thoughts, my mental pictures, my words ‘about’ the Andromeda Galaxy? Gorgias, as paraphrased by Sextus Empiricus, puts the problem marvelously: “It is evident that objects of thought are not things with being. For if objects of thought were things with being, then everything that one thinks of, however one thinks of them, would have being. But this is nonsensical. For it is not the case that if one thinks of a man flying or a chariot being driven in the sea, there immediately is a man flying or a chariot being driven in the sea. And so it is not the case that objects of thought are things with being.” (R. G. Bury, trans.)
So since the mental representation is not identical with the object it represents, in virtue of what does the representation represent?
The magnitude of the difficulty can be appreciated by opening Book III of Aristotle’s De Anima, in which one of the most sober-minded thinkers in the history of philosophy reads like Hegel. One way of parsing Aristotle’s theory, loosely, is as follows. The mind is a sort of infinitely plastic – something – that can take on any form at all, and what constitutes the aboutness-relation for our thoughts is that the infinitely plastic something that is your mind takes on the same form as the thing out there in the world that you are thinking of. Further, since form is abstract, and since your mind and the thing you are thinking of have the same form, there is a sense in which Gorgias was simply wrong: your thought is in fact the thing you are thinking of, at least when you think of something real – not materially, but formally, just as two matched silver cups share the same formal cause. Thus there is a sense in which, for Aristotle, when I think of the Andromeda Galaxy, my plastic mindstuff has taken on (vaguely?) the form of said galaxy, and because my thought and the galaxy share this form, I am thinking of the galaxy.
This sort of resemblance theory of mental representation got some additional support two thousand years later, when the author of La Géométrie pointed out that owing to the perfect clarity and distinctness with which we can form the idea of an infinitely good, powerful, and knowing being, such a being must exist, and that the existence of such a being is incompatible with wide-scale general failure of aboutness of thought.
These were extremely intelligent people. We are talking about the inventors of formal logic and analytic geometry here. Try to solve the problem on their terms for yourself and see if you do any better.
In the Tractatus Wittgenstein solves the problem essentially by rejecting its parameters. In order to serve as a picture, a thought or proposition does, as in Aristotle, ‘share a structure’ with the fact it represents if it is true. In fact, we can even go farther with the parallel: just as in Aristotle, the true proposition and the fact it speaks of share a common structure.
But it’s not: the fact over there, the proposition which picks it out over here, and some common structure possessed by both which ‘makes it the case’ that the thing over here means the thing over there.
Rather, “The essential nature of the propositional sign becomes very clear when we imagine it made up of spatial objects (such as tables, chairs, books) instead of written signs. The mutual spatial position of these things then expresses the sense of the proposition.” (3.1431)
That is, the way things actually are expresses the sense of what we say. This is an inversion of the usual formula, wherein the sense of what we say expresses the way things actually are, or tries to. The usual formula is also OK by W, I think, but the fact that it goes both ways is highly significant.
Even more clearly: “What the picture represents is its sense.” (2.221)
That is, whatever it is we do to understand “Winnie is on the Tunisian rug” is (one of) the same things we do when we look at the Tunisian rug and see whether Winnie is on it; and (one of) the same things we do when we look at a crayon drawing and see that it’s a picture of Winnie on the Tunisian rug; and so on. To understand the sentence or the drawing is to know how to apply it; to be able to look at the rug and see whether Winnie is on it is to be able to understand the proposition. Likewise if we say it in German, etc. (cf. 4.243).
This is the thing in Wittgenstein which gets turned into verificationism, but it’s not verificationism. Verificationism takes a similar insight and crossbreeds it with empiricism to arrive at the doctrine that (roughly) only operationally defined terms with a clear sensory interpretation are meaningful. I think that in the Tractatus W sometimes leans in a verificationist direction, but even then he can’t have been a verificationist, because this is in effect a doctrine of sense, which we can’t have: what it makes sense to say is primary. At the very most verificationism would be the sort of thing that ‘shows itself,’ not a doctrine that could be directly articulated.
It’s also not idealism. “From what you’re saying, Wittgenstein thinks that there’s nothing more to reality than our true thoughts of it!” In a way that’s true, but you could also just as well say that there’s nothing more to our thoughts then their being true or false of reality. The world consists of facts; facts are what true statements state; understanding a statement just is understanding how the world would be if it were true.
Perhaps another way to put it is that ‘thought’ and ‘reality’ are interdependent notions in the Tractatus. (One of the last classes I sat in on with Peter Winch was a seminar on Spinoza which touched on this theme; I think also here of Cora Diamond’s portrayal of Berkeley as a certain sort of “realist.”) We have no conception of reality beyond our thoughts of it, beyond the propositions that could be applied to it; that’s the Berkeleyan side. But we likewise have no conception of thought or propositions beyond our ability to apply them to the world; that’s the ‘direct realist’ side, if you like.
So it’s not, it’s never in Wittgenstein, the fact over here and the proposition over there. Rather, the true proposition is the fact; the proposition is the sense is the position in logical space. Reality makes our statements about it true or false, and is thus in a sense ‘independent of our say-so’, but we have no conception of reality other than the one we can state.
The nonsense has gotten pretty heavy now, but I think this is the view. “The proposition determines reality to this extent, that one only needs to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to it to make it agree with reality. Reality therefore must be completely described by the proposition.” (4.023)
“Whether or not ‘Winnie’s on the Tunisian rug’ is true depends on whether or not Winnie’s on the Tunisian rug.” Yes, but only in the sense that whether the light is green depends on whether the light is green.
The question as to how our thoughts and statements can be about reality is on this view simply a bad question. It’s like asking how a mountain can be next to a valley. They’re not the same thing, but they are linked to one another at a fundamental level.
Gorgias’ argument is addressed by the intrinsic bipolarity of thought. To the degree that a proposition like “A man is flying” has a clear sense, we know how to apply it to reality; either it applies or it doesn’t. If it does, the “object of thought” is the “thing with being”; if it doesn’t, there isn’t any “object of thought” either – only a projection which doesn’t meet with success, as it were.
In such a framework the Cartesian problem arguably never even gets off the ground. Likewise, there is no gap between epistemic and metaphysical possibility.
(This is a post that would really benefit from some spirited interrogation and challenge, if any students, friends, or casual passersby want to get into it a bit.)