Nov 10, 2010

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 007

Wittgenstein's clenched fist

In a kind of crude, reductive way, philosophy is either about supporting or overthrowing the intuitive, common assumptions about the world. A philosophy -- ontology in particular, but also epistemology, for example -- will either tend towards the idea that what we commonly think is wrong, even radically and significantly wrong, or towards that idea that it's basically already right.

Plato's idea about the cave, for example, suggests that we have been wrong about everything. What we think we know, we don't. What seems real to us, isn't.

Descartes' project in Meditations on First Philosophy, on the other hand, attempts to found common knowledge, ascertain the truths we think we know are true, but takes normal, non-philosophical ideas about the world as basically right, if inadequately supported.

This is one of the really, really basic disputes about the Tractatus. It's so basic, but so disputed, there are points where you have to wonder what's going on that we don't even agree on what's being said, much less whether it's right or not. We know, though, that Wittgenstein will, in his later writings, take a position that could be characterized as "the kids are alright." Here, though, it's not so clear. It's a real question: is Wittgenstein arguing that what we normally, naively, casually think about the world is basically right but philosophically unsupported, or does he think that we're all totally wrong?
He develops, for example, what is called the "picture theory of truth." I have read this both ways.
There is a way to read what he's saying as saying we can't, actually, be wrong.

For example, when Wittgenstein says, "That the picture's elements relate to each other in a certain mode and manner introduces that the things are so related to each other," it seems to suggest that the picture -- which is logic, as opposed to "the picture I have in my mind" or something like that -- acts as a guarantee. Where usually the fact that I have a picture (instead of reality itself) is cause for panic, since I could be wrong and my picture could be incorrect, Wittgenstein seems to flip this, giving the picture priority. Since the picture includes both that which exists and does not exist in the world, it's not a question here, anymore, of does the picture act as a good likeness, does it mirror: the picture pictures the possibilities.

Reality can't be real unless it can be pictured.

In an odd way, this works with the ontological argument, where someone like Anselm says a thought of God, because it's a certain kind of thought about a certain kind of "thing," guarantees that God must exist (because if God doesn't exist then that's not what I'm thinking about, since what I'm thinking about has to exist in order to be what I'm thinking about .... ), except that Wittgenstein is making this move in a different and much broader way.

Reality, he says, also includes that which does not "exist." The accidents of existing stuff -- zebras vs. unicorns, bestehen oder nichbestehen, isn't the standard. The standard is logical possibility, which is to say the picture, which "introduces the affair into logical space, the existing and non-existing into states of affairs."

In other words, you can't, in any important way, be wrong (or, at least, not wrong like that).

At least, I think that's what's happening with the picture theory of truth. I can read it another way, where he's saying the pictures we make are only good in as much as they relate to the objects of the world, and then is just talking about what pictures do and what they're supposed to do. I can read this, too, as attempt to change the way we talk about how we think about reality, which would be premised on our confusion. It can be read as simply saying "No, no. It's like this."
I think early Wittgenstein and late Wittgenstein are actually pretty close -- and at the least, there's a clear arc, a through-line, and what's consistent is more important that what changes -- but to a certain extent that's only an intuition. It's a leaning, a theory. I think his basic intuition, though, is that we're really all OK.

Auf Deutsch:
2.063 Die gesamte Wirklichkeit is die Welt
2.1 Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen.
2.11 Das Bild stellt die Sachlage im logischen Raume, das Bestehen und Nichbestehen von Sachverhlaten, vor.
2.12 Das Bild ist ein Modelll der Wirklichkeit.
2.13 Den Gegenständen entsprechen im Bilde die Elemente des Bildes.
2.131 Die Elemente des Bildes vertreten im Bild die Gegenstände.
2.14 Das Bild besteht darin, dass sich seine Elemente in bestimmter Art und Weise zu einander verhalten.
2.141 Das Bild ist eine Tatsache.
2.15 Dass sich die Elemente des Bildes in bestimmter Art und Weise zu einander verhalten, stellt vor, dass sich die Sachen so zu einander verhalten.
Dieser Zusammenhang der Elemente des Bildes heisse seine Struktur und ihre Möglichkeit seine Form der Abbildung.
2.151 Die Form der Abbildung ist die Möglichkeit, dass sich die Dinge so zu einander verhalten, wie die Elemente des Bildes.

Translation: 2.063 The entire reality is the world.
2.1 We make ourselves pictures of facts.
2.11 The picture introduces the affair into logical space, the existing and non-existing into states of affairs.
2.12 The picture is a model of reality.
2.13 In the picture, the elements of the picture correspond to the objects.
2.131 The elements of the picture act as a substitute in the picture for the objects.
2.14 The picture exists in that its elements relate to each other in a certain mode and manner.
2.141 The picture is a fact.
2.15 That the picture's elements relate to each other in a certain mode and manner
introduces that the things are so related to each other.
This combination of the elements of the picture is called its structure, and their possibility, its shape of representation.
2.151 The shape of representation is the possibility that the things themselves relate to each other, as do the element of the picture.


  • vorstellen -- "Stellen," by itself, can be translated as "to position" or "to throw." With that latter translation, this might have a more Heideggerian, phenomenological feeling. As a trennbare verb, with the prefix "vor," it means, in common conversation, "introduce." It is the word one would use, for example, in introducing a friend. It can also mean something like "envision," and in the context of pictures, that might make sense. I chose to go with "introduce," though, since 1) it's the translation I'm familiar with from every day interactions, 2) it gives us a logical function, an action that doesn't imply a conscious, willed agent, and 3) it gives "picture" a primary function that I think, philosophically, is more likely to be what's going on here.
  • sachlange -- The natural translation for this is just "situation," but there is an implicit connection between "sachlange" and "Sachverhalten" that is lost with that translation. The slightly less natural, slightly awkward word, "affair," makes that part of what's going on in this sentence a bit clearer.
  • Den Gegenständen ... -- It's almost impossible to structure this sentence, in English, in anything like the way it's structured in German. Even in the German, this structure, starting with a dative plural (to the objects ...), is very strange.
  • vertreten -- This has the sense of "substitution," of "stand in for" rather than simply "stand for." It's not clear to me that this is an important distinction, but it seems like it's something slightly different than just representation.
  • Sache/Dinge -- I have no idea what is being distinguished by the use of the one word in 2.15 and the other in 2.151.