Jan 19, 2011

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 013


I read a review of the philosopher John Searle, recently, that praised him for his ability to write about the philosophy of mind without using words like "epiphenomenal." Now, I happen to like the word "epiphenomenal" -- it's a word that enables almost just by its existence a whole series of interesting and worthwhile thoughts that would be hard to think without it -- but I take the point. Too often, philosophical terminology sets the bar too high, and the specialized lexicon is a barrier to entry.

It's true, too, that often, in philosophy, certain words are left to do too much of the work of the argument, where the argument is really all about the words. The words are used without definition, as if the definition were agreed upon everywhere and universally known, when it's the definition, really, that's in question.

As the cop in Philip K. Dick's classic work, A Scanner Darkly, says, "Define your terms."

'You know, Fred,' the seated one said, 'if you can keep your sense of humour like you do you'll perhaps make it.'

'Make it? Fred echoed. 'Make what? The team? The chick? Make good? Make do? Make out? Make sense? Make money? Make time? Define your terms. The Latin for "make" is facere, which always reminds me of fuckere, which is Latin for "to fuck"....'

Sometimes, using words like 'epiphenominal,' with all the philosophic weight those words bear on their backs, is exactly what's needed. One word can get a whole debate and an entire philosophical question into a conversation, lodging it there where it can be unpacked, unlayered, really explored. Other times, perhaps most of the time, avoiding those words works to get the philosopher or would-be philosopher to do a better job of explaining the terms, of working out the ideas. The question is always, for me, which word will expand the conversation.

This is a wildly difficult criterion when trying to translate something as rigorously cryptic as Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

Sometimes even simple words pose kind of complicated problems. Here, for example, Wittgenstein uses "bedeutet," which is a pretty simple, pretty common word. We say, for example, "Was bedeutet das wort?" when we want to know a definition, or, "Es bedeutet viel mir," which translates, "It means a lot to me." "Bedeutet" translates really cleanly as "means." Except that "means," the English word, in the context of philosophy, has all this weight -- "means" has all this extra meaning, like it should be italicized or will be read as if capitalized -- and I don't think that's there in the German.

If I translate the word in the way that seems right, I seem to be committing Wittgenstein to being read wrong.

It gets worse than that, though. Take, for example, the word "satz". Pons' Kompaktwörterbuch gives two definitions, the first being something like "a structured, coherent speech utterance," and the second being something like the encapsulation of a teacher's doctrine, as in "der satz des Pythagoras." The first would perhaps most naturally be translated as "sentence," or maybe "phrase" or "clause," depending on how far you were breaking down or wanted to break down the speech-unit. The second use, though, would be much more formal, in English, translating as something "theorem," or "dogma" or "proposition." This is pretty much how leo.org has it, too, along with a number of other options, all of which have the very vague commonality of being a unit of something, along with the not-so-helpful gloss that this word can be used in a nautical sense, a musical sense, a linguistic sense, a mathematical sense, etc.

My first instinct is to translate Wittgenstein in as natural a way as possible, not using the over-weighted philosophical words unless it seems clear that they're necessary. So when I came across this word in the plural in 2.0201, I translated it as "phrases." C.K. Ogden went the other way, though, taking the word as have a primarily mathematical sense, rather than a linguistic one, and translated it as "proposition."

I was happy with my translation until Wittgenstein started using this word, "Satzzeichen," which, if you break it apart, means something like "unit sign," and, in common use, seems to mean "punctuation." That makes no sense in the context, though. "And the phrase is the punctuation in its projective relation to the world" would have been a needlessly weird translation -- fascinating, perhaps, on a poetic level, but misleading, I think, as to what's actually going on in the text. Though, if you think about it, the alternatives, taking "satz" as something mathematical in sense, are not exactly paragons of clarity: I went with, "The sign, through which we express the thought, I call the proposition-sign. And the proposition is the proposition-sign in its projective relation to the world"; Ogden translate this as, "To the configuration of the simple signs in the propositional sign corresponds the configuration of the objects in the state of affairs."

Explicating any of the above versions of what Wittgenstein wrote in 3.21 would be a ridiculously difficult task. I wouldn't point to any of them as being anything close to clear.

But this is the truth of early Wittgenstein. He wasn't clear. Clarity was not one of his values, here. In the text below, he introduces the term einfache Zeichen, "simple sign," without ever actually giving the reading anything in the way of introduction.

"Define your terms," I want to say, like Fred in A Scanner Darkly, and then in my head I go into history-of-philosophy sidetracks, trying to think of what Wittgenstein could be thinking of, of what debate this is he's linking to, if he is, in fact, linking into a debate, and I struggle to make them make sense, which always reminds me of facere.

But what do you do?

Auf Deutsch:
3.2 Im Satze kann der Gedanke so ausgedrückt sein, dass den Gegenständen des Gedankens Elemente des Satzzeichens entsprechen.
3.201 Diese Elemente nenne ich "einfache Zeichen" und den Satz "vollständig analysiert".
3.202 Die im Satze angewandten einfachen Zeichen heiSSen Namen.
3.203 Der Name bedeutet den Gegenstand. Der Gegenstand ist seine Bedeutung. ("A" ist dasselbe Zeiche wie "A").
3.21 Def Konfiguration der einfachen Zeichen im Satzzeichen entspricht die Konfiguration der Gegenstände in der Sachlage.
3.22 Der Name vertritt im Satz den Gegenstand.
3.221 Die Gegenstände kann ich nur nennen. Zeichen vertreten sie. Ich kann nur von ihnen sprechen, sie aussprechen kann ich nicht. Ein Satz kann nur sagen, wie ein Ding ist, nicht was es ist.

3.2 In propositions, the thought can thus be expressed that to the object of the thought corresponds to the element of the proposition-sign.
3.201 These elements I call "simple signs" and the proposition "fully analyzed."
3.202 The simple signs applied in propositions are called names.
3.203 The name means the object. The object is its meaning ("A" is the same sign as "A").
3.21 The configuration of the simple sign in the proposition-sign corresponds to the configuration of the objects in the state of affairs.
3.22 The name represents the object in the proposition.
3.221 The objects I can only name. Signs represent them. I can only speak of them. I can not declare them. A proposition can only say how a thing is, not what it is.