Sep 29, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 002

Wittgenstein, the crazed
from Logicomix, by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou

Auf Deutsch:
1.2 Die Welt zerfällt in Tatsachen.
1.21 Eines kann der Fall sein oder nicht der Fall sein und alles übrige gleich bleiben.
2 Was der Fall ist, die Tatsache, ist das Bestehen von Sachverhalten.
2.01 Der Sachverhalt ist eine Verbindung von Gegenständen (Sachen, Dingen).
2.011 Es ist dem Ding wesentlich, der Bestandteil eines Sachveerhaltes sein können.

1.2 The world disaggregates into facts.
1.21 One can be the case or not be the case and all that remains stays equal.
2 What is the case, the fact, is the existence of states of affairs.
2.01 The state of affairs is the connection of objects (entities, things).
2.011 It is to a thing essential that it can be a component part of a state of affairs.


  • "zerfällt" -- This word is quasi-apocalyptic, it has such forceful negative connotations. The idea is about the basic components of the world (e.g. atoms), but "zerfällen" doesn't have the sense of a mathematical word like "divides," which is what C.K. Ogden uses, but can mean "decay," "collapse," "come assunder," "come apart,""degrade," and "degenerate," and is used, sometimes, in the context of atomic decay. I went back and forth, here, between "comes apart" and "disaggregates." The former is simple and non-technical, but still has the sens the German word has of imagined world disintegration, but "disaggregates" works better, I think, becaue it gets across this idea of irreducible elements out of which the world is made and this idea that these are the building blocks, the atoms or nucleotides.
  • "Sachverhalten" -- I suspect this is kind of a specialized word. Neither the little Pons bilingual dictionary I have nor the larger monolingual German Pons dictionary I have has this word. translates this very generally as "circumstance" or "situation" but then says therer are three specifically legal contexts for "sachverhalt," meaning something like "the facts of the case." In English, what's stardard here (and what I was expecting to find) is "atomic facts." The German doesn't seem to support this translation though. German Google sent me to German Wikipedia where the bulk of the entry for "Sachverhalt" is about ..... Witgenstein. The rest is about law and has the word delegating "aller juristisch relevanten Tatsachen/ all legally relevant facts." Interestingly, the Stanford Encyclopeida of Philosophy's entry for "States of Affairs" suggests this is something Wittgenstein was working on with Bertrant Russell, and suggests Russell was working on it as far back as 1904 when he wrote a letter about it to Frege (the German who sent Wittgenstein to England to work with Russell) and was writing about it in the books he published in 1959. Which makes me wonder if Wittgenstein, here, wasn't attempting to translate an English phrase into German with "sachverhalt," which would make me lean towards the translation (back into English) "state of affairs" rather than "atomic facts," since I can't imagine a German would take the latter and come up with "sachverhalt." On the other hand, the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy totally has "states of affairs" and "atomic states of affairs." This is one of those places where I think my translation works, I think it's right, but then I also wonder if this isn't the detail where everything will fall apart.
  • "Gegenständen" -- The normal word for "object" would be "objekte," or "sache" or "dinge," the last two of which are actually used in the sentence as types of "gegenständen" (giving us a word followed by two synonyms in parentheses). I think what's going on here is that the idea is being used in a weird way. At very least this should be understood as an overarching term, so that "objects" includes various types of objects or kinds of objects.
  • "wesentlich" -- I'm biased against certain words that carry or can carry too much philosophical baggage. E.g., essential. There's just so much weight with that word. I couldn't find anything else that worked here, though. There's a little logic trick to this sentence, and the other words wouldn't quite keep that there, unless I went with a much looser translation, such as "it is necessary to the thing ...." or, even, "it is the sine qua non of a thing .... "


Philip K. Dick, in one of the crazier of his crazy moments, gave a speech with the title, "How to build a universe that won't fall apart two days later." This is the challenge of all metaphysicians, of course, but Wittgenstein is more aware than most of this challenge.

He is very careful here, building this world.

In the very first sub sentence, 1.1, he made a very radical move, building his world, his model of the world out of facts instead of things. This is an anti-realist move and a realist move two, it's a linguistic turn but not like we'd normally, historically understand that term, but Wittgenstein has turned away from a world made out of objects because objects are unstable. They fall apart two days later.

In this chunck here we see Wittgenstein thinking about different types of things, different synonyms of things, "sache," "dinge," "Gegenstand," so it doesn't seem like it's just that he has somehow misconstrued "things" or had a limited idea of "things," but that he has considered "things" and has decided that's not what he's going to build his world out of.

We get, here, a bit of a list of the material of the Wittgenstein world. We get the atoms.

It's interesting though that he doesn't just go down to the component parts -- philosophers, metaphysicians often have a tendency to want to talk about the smallest thing, the most basic part, the simplest concepts, and to insist that we must start from there. Wittgenstein doesn't even do that, though, and it seems to me the second really radical move he makes is right there: first he said the world is made up of facts and if we take it apart, as philosopher's do, what we're left with is facts, but then, second, he says the facts don't add up to the world, to the "all that is the case," like some kind of mathematical equation. Particular facts, he says in 1.21, "can be the case or not be the case and all that remains stays equal." I assume there's supposed to be a simple and obvious way in which this is true, so that, say, a fact about how much the leaning tower of Pisa leans which was true in 1961 and isn't any more does not, by no longer being true, change the world in a fundamental way, but there's also something complicated (I think) going on with the idea of relationships between parts and wholes. The whole, the entirety, the world, should not be thought of as the sum of facts.

It's the relationship between parts and whole that explains why "things" of any sort can't actually constitute the world -- and give us this wild and really interesting sentence: "It is to a thing essential that it can be a component part of a state of affairs."

Which means, a thing can not be a thing unless it can be a part of the whole.

Or, a part can only be a part if it's apart.

I'm tempted to think of this as a Sassurian revelation, or even as a phenomenological move, but I don't know if that's right. I think what we have here, though, is the idea that a thing only exists as a thing because of its relationship. Being a component is the sine qua non of things, the thing without which a thing is not a thing, but this means the part is the logical contingency of the whole, rather than the other way around. This is a fascinating flip, with some interesting outcomes:

For Wittgenstein, the world doesn't come apart or decay into things, and even when you pull the things out (by dint of logic) the things go back together again, so the world can't fall apart into things, because that's not what things are, which is one way his world is being built so it wont' fall apart two days later.