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Questions without Answers

If a question can be put into words, then it can also be answered in words. The riddle does not exist. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.5)

We never conceive a question without an idea that invites an answer ... no matter if the idea be not very clear or well defined. (Claude Bernard)

I do not see this. I do not see that the second remark need be true psychologically nor that the first remark need be a true account of the "grammar" of our word 'question'. On the contrary, does there not exist a collection of questions for which there are no answers, that we haven't any idea how to answer (contra Bernard), and for which we would not accept any answer (contra the TLP)? Questions that we cannot answer -- 'cannot' because of the way they are defined, of course -- but which we do not want to define differently. They are questions that go right to the very foundations of our existence (life).

Questions without answers are often called 'enigmas' (or sometimes 'quandaries' or 'insoluble riddles' or 'mysteries'; the adjective 'problematical' might also be used to classify them). So that the topic of this page could be: Life's philosophical enigmas. It is also possible to regard these questions as rhetorical: they really don't request an answer, but only an awareness of themselves. "Look!", they say. However, even enigmas or rhetorical questions must not be nonsense (i.e. undefined combinations of words).

But there is an immediate objection to this notion: doesn't the word 'question', if it is to have meaning, require the word 'answer' -- that is, isn't the word 'question' without meaning if we try to use it without its antithesis?

In their everyday use 'vagueness' is opposed to 'clearness', 'flux' to 'stability', 'inaccuracy' to 'accuracy', and 'problem' to 'solution'. (cf. The Blue Book p. 46)

For example: it is nonsense to say that all language is vague, none clear. Because 'vague' only gets its meaning by being contrasted with 'clear'.

But perhaps there is a "metaphysical use" of the word 'question'? Consider the following eight or so examples.

A. 'Why is there anything rather than nothing?'

Why does anything at all exist? We don't regard existence as something, as it were, added to an already existent thing. But we do regard the existence of anything at all as something added to nothing. Such that we are perplexed that absolute nonexistence is not, as it were, reality. 'The world ought not to exist. There really should be nothing.'

If the word 'void' contrasts with nothing, then the word 'void' means nothing, not 'nothing'. The word 'void' would contrast with 'everything' in this case. Viewing "the world as a whole -- a limited whole" [and seeing it vanish] is the way Wittgenstein expressed this idea (TLP 6.45).

Seeing the existence of anything at all as a "plus" (Zettel § 128), "something positive", leads us to ask the question: 'Why is there anything rather than nothing at all -- why does anything at all exist rather than nothing?' This is a question without an answer.


This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. (Lecture on Ethics p. 12)

What is this "cage" we try to go beyond? According to Wittgenstein's views at that time (1929-1930), the cage is the world of factual propositions; and whenever we try to make statements (ask questions) about anything except that world, we instead talk nonsense. Therefore, "I wonder at the existence of the world" (ibid. p. 8) is nonsense, because the existence of the world is not a fact; if it were a fact, it would be possible for me to describe what it would be like if the world did not exist (ibid. p. 9), but 'The world exists' is not a statement that can be significantly negated.

Man has the urge to thrust against the limits of language (gegen die Grenzen der Sprache anzurennen). Think for instance about one's astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question and there is no answer to it. Anything we can say must, a priori, be only nonsense. Nevertheless we thrust against the limits of language.... But the tendency, the thrust (das Anrennen), points to something. (LE/Notes p. 12-13)

Wittgenstein said that our "running against the limits of language points to something", that it is a tendency which he deeply respects and would never ridicule (LE p. 12), but he went on to say a year later that "language is not a cage" (LE/Notes p. 16). I think Piero Sraffa's criticism was that those two statements cannot both be correct: because "nonsense" that can convey meaning is after all not nonsense.

I think we can say that we have various pictures (e.g. "existence as something added to nothing"), some sharper, some cloudier than others, but I don't think we can say that these pictures are nonsense. What is the opposite? Imagine a sheet of paper on which there were drawings (or writings), and now image that we erased all of that. What remains is void space. And now it must be asked what would we mean by saying that "nothing but void space exists"? Isn't saying that "There is nothing but void space" the same as saying "There is nothing"? (What is a frame of reference if there are no reference points? It isn't even a frame of reference.)

A "limited whole"; Wittgenstein also expressed the idea -- i.e. offered this picture -- this way: "it seems to me too that there is a way of capturing the world sub specie aeterni ... Thought has such a way -- so I believe -- it is as though it flies above the world and leaves it as it is -- observing it from above, in flight." (Culture and Value p. 5 [MS 109 28: 22.8.1930])

A picture needn't be directly comparable to reality in order to have a sense; otherwise the Greek myths e.g. would be nonsense. It is not always the case that sense and nonsense are a function of a method of verification. On the other hand, however, to know that a picture is not a metaphor -- i.e. not comparable to anything -- is to know something essential about its meaning.

'The world exists', 'The world does not exist'. -- "These words may lead me to have all sorts of images; but their usefulness goes no further.... I can also imagine something in connection with the words: 'It was just 5 o'clock in the afternoon on the sun' -- such as a grandfather clock which points to 5." (Philosophical Investigations § 351) [Philosophy of Time]

From the point of view of "logic of language", one might say: It makes sense -- i.e. there is a defined technique of question-and-answer (i.e. of what is the count as a correct or incorrect answer) -- to ask e.g. why a specific thing exists -- i.e. to ask what is its origin? But it is to follow a false grammatical analogy to ask why does "anything at all" exist, as if the whole must have a common origin (as if there were a class {everything that exists} of which you could ask: what is its origin?).

According to Wittgenstein, such problems cannot be solved, but instead only "dissolved", i.e. shown not be problems at all.

[Leibniz asked the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' in the context of his picture of God the Creator.]


B. 'Is reality confined to what is in principle perceptible to the senses?'

Frederick Copleston asked this question (or as I recalled Fr. Copleston asked that question, for he did not quite do that) with regard to the Logical Positivist claim that if religious statements are not verifiable then they are be meaningless. And in that context we might ask, not whether "to be is to be perceived" (which asks what is actual) -- but whether "to be is to be perceptible" (which asks what is possible and impossible).

Using the distinctions of the Tractatus, the Logical Positivists not only divorced the language of "saying" -- i.e. statements about the world of facts -- from the language of "showing" -- i.e. language "pointing to something" other than the world of facts -- but they also denied that the language of showing could point to anything. Wittgenstein called their demand for universal verification a dogma.

Father Copleston asked: is it necessarily the case that human beings are able to perceive everything real (the whole of reality)?

Before the discovery of harmful microbes by Pasteur (if I remember correctly), doctors killed countless patients because they did not wash their hands (They would go directly from the mortuary to the operating theater): well, if you cannot perceive something, obviously it does not exist. If surgeons before Pasteur had discovered a positive correlation between washing hands and lower mortality rates (which is in fact what Semmelweis did), they would have found a technique to reduce deaths following surgery -- but they would not have known why this technique worked. If microbes were essentially imperceptible, that would answer Fr. Copleston's question -- but we would not know that (Only the eye of God would). Cf. Before the invention in the last century of instruments that made the discovery of the existence of viruses possible, the cause of the influenza pandemic of 1918 was not only unknown but unknowable.

James Jeans described the perception of a rain-shower in two dimensions: the raindrops would appear to be completely random to creatures who could not perceive our third dimension.

Suppose we want to make a prosthetic eye for a blind man. If the essential elements needed to do this are perceptible, then we may succeed. However, if some of those elements are not perceptible, then we cannot succeed -- except by accident; in which case we would have a prosthetic eye, but we would not know how, or, why, it worked.

We say that a blind man's perception of reality differs from that of a man with five senses. By analogy we ask: suppose that a man had six or more senses? We mean: might not a man with six senses perceive something that a man with five senses does not perceive at all? (That is an analogy, but the idea is also of something completely undetectable by someone with only five senses.) Consider the case of the man with absolute pitch: most people do not hear what he hears. Would a born-blind people ever have created mirrors, or a born-deaf people musical instruments?

Maybe only human beings can perceive things the way human beings do [See "forms of life"; and much deeper skepticism]. And perhaps no two human beings perceive them the same way. (Of course, for this conjecture to have a meaning, again we must imagine a god who can perceive what we cannot perceive, namely: any and all differences between species and between individual human beings.) All we know is that there is agreement in the language we use (PI § 241). -- The rest is a "question without an answer".

What the solipsist means is quite correct. (TLP 5.62)


In The Country of the Blind, everything that was invisible to the blind did not exist. All that was not visible to their four remaining senses, that is. E.g. there was no daylight, and there were no stars at night, and there was no night. Since there were no colors their houses were "parti-coloured with extraordinary irregularity, smeared with a sort of plaster that was sometimes grey, sometimes drab, sometimes slate-coloured or dark brown" such that the sighted explorer who suddenly came upon these houses said to himself, "The good man who did that must have been as blind as a bat."

When someone inquired why we spend much time with the beautiful, "That," Aristotle said, "is a blind man's question." (Diog. L. v, 20)

Even if it were the case that all things could be perceived by human beings ("caught in the net of our five senses"), it does not follow that all things are now perceived or that they ever will be perceived. The telescope and microscope e.g. are relatively recent inventions.

If by the word 'spirit' we mean 'something without extension', then the word 'spirit' is not the name of anything. But if by 'spirit' is meant 'an imperceptible being', then asking whether or not spirits exist is an unanswerable question. But our concept 'spirit' or 'ghost' is not a hypothetical construct; it has no role in any hypothesis (i.e. no fact counts either for or against "the existence of spirits"). It is a "picture" to which, by definition, there is no object to compare, but one which may be important to some human beings in some contexts.


C. 'Is there providence?' 'Is there life after death?'

Does what happens in the world -- that is, does what happens to each of us, have a reason, a purpose for happening (Is there an intelligence behind it)? Or is it that the "truth is much graver than that fiction" (CV p. 71 [MS 137 42a: 30.5.1948 § 2]; Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology i § 139)? In other words, does God play god?

Blessed, almighty Zeus! in deep amaze, I gaze upon the world, and marvel at thy ways. (Theognis of Megara, from memory)

The how-ness of the world is no less perplexing than the that-ness of it.

Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have only a dreamless sleep, or, as we are told, it is really a change -- a removal of the soul from this place to another. (Plato, Apology 40c-41c; my summary based on Tredennick's translation)

'Is there a life after death, an afterlife?', like 'Is there providence?', is not a hypothetical question (i.e. it is not a picture that can be compared with what it is thought to be a picture of and, therefore by means of that comparison be, verified by experience). It is a question without an answer.


D. 'Do good and evil exist?'

Are good and evil the same for all human beings at all times and in all places? Or is it as in Euripides, "What is shameful but thinking makes it so?"?

The question is not about what human beings may have said or done here or there, now or then, for that is a question belonging to anthropology, and ethics is not concerned with describing various human customs but with answering the question: what man must do if there is good and evil.

Historically there have been two responses: To ask if there are "absolute values" is to cast this question in a Kantian light, where man is ruled by the irrational force of "conscience" which imposes "categorical imperatives" on him. But the question looks very different when cast in a Socratic light, where the thoroughgoing use of reason finds standards which apply to all mankind by responding to the Delphic precept: "Know thyself!"


E. 'Am I awake or am I dreaming?'

This is the sort of question-without-an-answer or pseudo-question that the Verification Principle was supposed to do away with. And yet the "question" remains. It expresses -- or seems to express -- an insight into the fundamental situation of human knowing (knowledge). Add to this that without memory there is no time -- and that memory is often of things for which there is no evidence beyond memory -- and everything I believe begins to appear uncertain.

"If you say 'I doubt' in such cases, you do not play the language-game or you play it wrong." You introduce -- or try to introduce -- a doubt where there is no (defined) place for one. In the normal game, you don't know, and you don't not know either. 'Am I awake or only dreaming?' -- The only reply is: by what method of verification? But can we then go on to say that the method of verification is the meaning of that combination of words (and that if there is no method, then that combination of words is nonsense)? I don't think so ... but perhaps we can say that without such a method, we have nothing more than "incomparable pictures" (i.e. pictures to which there is nothing to compare), what we call the "idle pictures" of metaphysics, certainly not truth and knowledge. So, then, why do we want to call -- indeed, why do we insist that -- such expressions of doubt (or pseudo-expressions of doubt) express fundamental insights into the human condition? (Which are questions without answers -- insights or delusions?)

Cf. Drury: "our sanity is at the mercy of a molecule" (The Danger of Words (1973) p. 134). But just as it is nonsense to say 'I am dreaming' (if by that we mean: 'I am asleep'), it is also nonsense to say 'I am insane'. It is only when we regard ourselves as individuals, divorced from the community in which our language has its "life" (its uses as various tools), when language thus "goes on holiday" (PI § 38), that these first-person doubts can arise (or appear to arise); Descartes' method was holiday-making. Are they then not real doubts ("real doubts")? Wittgenstein: language is the tool of a community. Is that statement a "theory of meaning" or a (selected) definition of 'meaning'? (According to me in these pages, the latter.)

Can I doubt that I am doubting? I can in the sense that I may be uncertain about -- i.e. I may doubt -- whether I am using the word 'doubt' correctly. But then can I also doubt that I am thinking? The word 'thinking' is used so broadly that it is difficult to see where I might find grounds for doubt.

Doubts can go down to the very foundations, but below the foundations they cannot go (because there is no such place). According to Wittgenstein: "The kind of certainty is the kind of language-game" (ibid. ii, xi, p. 224e).


Because if I am dreaming, then I am surrounded by unreality, so that even if I say to myself that I am dreaming, the words 'I am dreaming' are part of the dream and do not have the consequence that I wake up or stop dreaming. (Cf. If I say 'I am deceiving myself' or 'I am going in the wrong direction' what is the consequence of that?) Asking whether or not I am dreaming undermines the foundations of all my thinking, for if I am dreaming then our "language-games" with words such as 'truth', 'reality', 'knowledge' cannot be played.

Is the combination of words 'I am dreaming', like 'I am sleeping', "meaningless". In Wittgenstein's narrow sense of 'meaningless' it is (because it is not a move in a language-game). But in the present context, it does point out to us the ultimate foundationlessness of believing: bedrock does not itself have bedrock. If I really were unable to decide whether I were awake or were dreaming, that would be madness, which is to say, loss of reason (and a madman does not know that he is mad: 'I am mad' is nonsense). If I can no longer count on objects retaining their weight, there is no point in weighing them (cf. PI § 142; measurement is a "language-game"). 'Am I dreaming?' is a question without an answer.

It is not a move in the language-game of question-and-answer, which is the case with all such "questions". But may it not be that there is another meaning of 'meaning' -- an alternative to the one Wittgenstein chose, but nonetheless objective -- which can be employed to give this form of expression ("questions with no answer") meaning?


F. 'Why does man want to live at all? What is he aiming at?'

The first riddle of existence for Albert Schweitzer is not the existence of anything at all ("the world") but instead of our will-to-live.

One philosophical enquiry begins by asking about "the world", the other begins by asking about our life: What is life's meaning? We might suppose that we must look to the answer to the first question to give us the answer to the second question. But, according to Schweitzer, it is just the reverse: Life's meaning cannot be found in knowledge of the universe ("the world") but only in the nature of our will-to-live. World-view follows from Life-view, not vice versa.

From the point of view of ethics, in the universe we can discern no general purposiveness, because -- as a very general fact of experience -- the forces of nature both create and destroy (and we can discern no ethics behind this creation and destruction), and mankind's continued existence on earth is by no means assured (cf. Schweitzer's Civilization and Ethics, 2nd rev. ed. (1929), p. 206-208; and "Religion in Modern Civilization"). Is it not, therefore, perplexing that human beings, whose reason tells them that existence as such is unintelligible, nonetheless will to live without reason (without an answer)? Why do we not, as reasonable beings, sit down as it were and refuse to move until we have an answer? Why are we willing to exist in the mist of this most fundamental mystery? ("Hunger drives even the wolf from its cave", but man is not simply an animal, for man can be rational.)

There is no defined technique (no defined criterion of sense and nonsense) for answering that question, and so it is in that sense "without an answer".

The only advance in [our] knowledge [of the world] that we can make is to describe more and more minutely the phenomena which make up the world and their course [which is the task of the natural sciences]. To understand the meaning of the whole -- and that is what a world-view demands -- is for us an impossibility. The last fact which knowledge can discover is that the world is a manifestation in every way puzzling, of the universal will to live. (Civilization and Ethics, tr. Campion, p. x)

The formation of drops of rain, of snowflakes, and of hailstones had always been a special puzzle to me. It hurt me to think that we never acknowledge the absolutely mysterious character of Nature, but always speak so confidently of explaining her, whereas all we have really done is to go into fuller and more complicated descriptions, which only make the mysterious more mysterious than ever. Even [in my childhood], it became clear to me that which we label ... "life" remains in its own essential nature for ever inexplicable. (Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, tr. Campion (1924), p. 52-53) [Cf. M. O'C. Drury's notions of a problem to which the notion of a "solution" does not make sense and of keeping wonder secure. (Both Drury and Schweitzer were medical doctors, men of science; neither made an "attack on science" (DW p. 73-4).)]

One cannot explain life. Everything is a mystery to us. All we know is that there is one thing -- to be alive. And another state: not being alive.... All we do know is that life is a great mystery and that we ought to be filled with awe and reverence for this mystery. (The Schweitzer Album (1965), p. 161 [Copenhagen, 1959, tr. Anderson])

"I am a life that [wants] to live in the midst of life that [wants] to live" (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. Lemke (1990), Chapter 13, p. 156). That for Schweitzer was the one irreducible fact of existence. Descartes' "I think, therefore I exist" is, he wrote, a "poverty-stricken and arbitrarily chosen" place for philosophy to begin; it leads "irretrievably on the road to the abstract" and away from living life; "It never finds the entrance to ethics" [to "We are discussing no small matter, but how to live" our life (Plato, Gorgias)]. (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 246)


It may be that the only thing Descartes found no grounds for doubting is a "poverty-stricken" place to start, but it was not "arbitrarily chosen". In any case, Descartes imagined himself cut off from all his senses, that is, from the world, as if he had been so from birth, and thus to examine solely the contents of his own consciousness; but then what right had he to use our common language? Descartes would have been thinking in a "private language", one understood by himself alone, which would be a language without sense and nonsense even for Descartes, because its "meaning" might even be nonsense and there would be no way for him to know that. (There is further difficulty with Descartes' cogito ergo sum.)

Descartes led modern philosophy astray by cutting the world up into objects which have extension [in space] and objects which think ["mind", but note: the word 'mind' is not the name of object of any kind], and by going on, moreover, to refuse to each of them the possibility of influencing the other. Following in his steps, thinkers rack their brains over the problem of these two parallel kinds of existence ... That the world is life, and that in life lies the riddle of riddles [rather than in "the relation of mind to extension (body)", if indeed the Orphic-Platonic division of reality into "spirit" and "matter" isn't simply nonsense], never enters their [heads]. (ibid. Chapter 12, p. 137)

Where we begin in philosophy will affect, if not determine, where we end up. Wittgenstein, e.g., began with the distinction between sense and nonsense, Descartes began "in the mind" (from which there is no exit), Schweitzer with the will to live.

But how are we to discover life's meaning in our will to live? Whether we approach "the riddle of existence" from the question of world-view or from the question of life-view, do we not find an insoluble puzzle?

Schweitzer found the answer to this question in Reverence for Life, that is, in the solidarity of my will-to-live with all other wills-to-live, that is to say, with all life, all forms of which are sacred, and therefore whatever is beneficial to life if good, and whatever is harmful is bad. Due to the principle of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote, we "are no longer obliged to derive our ethical world-view from knowledge of the universe", a derivation which we cannot, in any case, make because whatever "our point of view the [universe] will remain for us an enigma" (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 18, p. 204).

But that answer was as he said, and as he thought it must be, in the final step a subjective answer: "What is rational reaches eventually the nonrational" (ibid).

Comment: The final step is non-rational (or, subjective) because it is the acceptance [adoption] of a point of view, a way of looking at things. "A philosopher says: Look at things this way!" but there are always other ways. (There is no absolute point of reference [view] -- no fulcrum of Archimedes' or, in other words, there is no bedrock beneath the bedrock.)

And as to our first question above:

However we look at it, existence will remain for us a riddle. (cf. Out of my Life and Thought, Campion's translation (1933).)

But again, are the questions of life's meaning and the meaning of the world the same question? It was Albert Schweitzer's view that although the second question cannot be answered, the first can.


G. 'Do wasps have souls?'

My father discovers me killing flies because I'm bored. He becomes angry and tells me that I must not do this. He does not say why, but I am a child and must obey him. When I myself become a man I discover a cricket in the house; I gently capture it and put it out the front door. And, like Schweitzer, I rescue worms that have been washed onto the pavement by the rain and now face death in the sunlight. -- Is our behavior wise or foolish?

Why do we apply the word 'alive' to insects -- for we did that long before any biologist had a say in this? As children we are taught to call (classify) animals -- and also plants -- alive. That is part of our natural history.

'Are wasps alive?' -- 'Why should I say that wasps are alive?' These combinations of words try to use a rule of grammar ('Wasps are living creatures') to ask a question of fact (PP iii, p. 312). And that cannot be done, or, it would be an answer to say: "Why? Because I have learned English" (PI § 381). It cannot be done because our naive way of speaking does not contain an hypothesis, but only a rule for using language (Z § 223). And in that way of speaking, we can only ask if a particular wasp is alive or dead -- and we can only do that in the normal circumstances. (These are all grammatical reminders.)

However, I am not asking here about linguistic conventions (nor about thoughtless instinct), but about the attitude of a reflective adult. Should my attitude toward a wasp -- or toward a plant or an amoeba -- be an attitude towards a soul, as opposed to an attitude toward an automaton, a machine?

'Do wasps have souls?' is not hypothetical-verifiable -- i.e. it is not a question that can be resolved by any investigation of facts. It is a question without an answer.

To understand [conceive] a wasp's "soul" by analogy to our own, that is, to a human soul, is not easy, if at all possible. Words such as 'hope', 'reverence', 'sorrow' and 'fear' have no application [i.e. those words are undefined if applied] to a form of life (life form) that is so different from our own (PI §§ 357, 360). Yet, nonetheless, we do feel a kinship to all life, at least according to Schweitzer.


H. 'What was the origin of human language?'

Note: I hesitate to add scientific puzzles here, because I feel, as if by instinct, that the only limit of scientific explanation is concept formation, or, the imagination of genius. Of course, that suspicion is not an hypothesis, and one might well say the same thing about philosophical explanation. Plato himself was puzzled by the origins of words, however, and so I will consider the related "question" of the origin of natural language per se.

In the context of the world's how-ness there are also questions that are not so much mysterious as just baffling, and the answers to which cannot be known because they concern events of very long ago. (Again, what would count as 'knowing' here is undefined; although scientific theories can of course be invented to explain things, we need never find those theories satisfying and therefore the phenomena may remain "unexplained".)

... the languages of all primitive peoples studied so far show extreme complexities of grammar, declension, conjugation, and syntax. There are no primitive languages, if by 'primitive' we mean something between the cries of animals and human language. [Note 2]

The origins of natural language. Is this a case where we have all the evidence that we are ever going to have, but the evidence is inadequate for the construction of a satisfying theory? (Because that is the type of case I have in mind.) Cf. "Why don't human beings all speak the same language" as a single species of birds does (if birds from a single species all do speak the same language), because human beings worldwide have, by nature, countless things in common? Or did all human beings begin speaking a single language, but as they scattered about the earth, dialects developed and from this distinct languages? -- I.e. did man's language have a single origin? and if so what was that Ursprache? (The existence of the myth of the tower of Babel may show that this is another question that has long puzzled mankind and which is also a question without an answer.)

The textbook-grammar of ancient Latin is very complicated -- i.e. there are many, many rules to learn, whereas a modern language like Spanish is comparatively uncomplicated. The evidence, as I remember it from school, is that as individual languages develop they become less rather than more complicated; the most grammatically complicated languages (such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit) are also the oldest.

That textbook-grammar should become simpler as human beings become less primitive is indeed baffling. Because: Why was it so complicated in the first place? Are we to imagine primitive human beings inventing this grammar? Or did we once upon a time sing as the birds sing -- but with meaning, i.e. distinguishing sense from nonsense? But it appears, from what Jacob Bronowski wrote, that if a human being does not learn a language in childhood, it will never learn one. (So that to speak of instinct here would not be a simple matter.)

Thus remember that we acquire language in childhood from those we live among; man is not endowed with language (as he is endowed e.g. with hearing and sight), but must learn language. That being so makes the origin of language even more puzzling, for who, then, did the earliest human beings learn language from? (Are birds endowed with song, or must they learn from other birds?)

Are the origins of language lost in our natural history, such that only a god who can see things long past could know the origins of human language? (Could those origins be recreated in a laboratory?)

The way children are taught science in school (that is dogmatically rather than philosophically) leads children to assume that science has answered all questions, that scientists know or can know everything. A far better education for children might focus on what scientists do not know and why they do not know it (Plato: "because we only seek to know what we do not believe ourselves already to know").

Hence the question of how language developed from its presumably simple beginnings to its present complexity remains unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. (Hayakawa, ibid.)

But there is no reason to presume that "human song", if we want to imagine such a thing (by analogy to "birdsong"), was simpler in its beginnings than it is now. In the case of human language, we do not imagine that grammar started out simple, became complicated, and now is becoming simpler again, although that is presumably possible. There is nothing "unanswerable" here if a scientific theory (or some other myth) (-- Here is one such possibility, not about the original form but about the original source of human language --) can answer this question for us -- i.e. if we are willing to accept an answer in this case and in others like it.

When Wittgenstein invents or describes "primitive language-games", he is not suggesting theories about the origins of language, even when these language-games describe the ways in which a child is (or might be) taught (or learns) its native language. Logic (philosophy) is not one of the sciences: Wittgenstein's primitive language-games are objects of comparison (PI § 130) -- i.e. models to be compared to the way we actually use our language, in order to throw light on the meaning of that language, and nothing more than that.

"... or did we sing as the birds sing, but with meaning?" Wittgenstein: "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him" (ibid. II, xi, p. 223). But birds do talk, and we don't understand them.


General Discussion

What is the "grammar" (in Wittgenstein's jargon) of these Questions without Answers? What can we do with them?

Do these unanswerable questions have a definite enough sense to allow them to be answered? 'Do dogs think?' We can give a more definite sense to 'think' here -- e.g. give behavioral criteria for the application of that word. But the way we fix a concept may lead us away from what we want; e.g. 'Stand roughly over there' (PI § 71), and 'Bring me a handful of sand' (Z § 392) -- these are examples of where more specificity is not what we want. How many grains of sand are there in a heap, how many raindrops in a shower? We do not define the words 'heap' and 'shower' that way. -- But life's, or, existence's questions without answers do not lack a "definite sense" in that way, for we might indeed if we wished specify numbers for 'heap' and 'shower' to make those concepts quite definite = determinate.

These questions can be given a different form. E.g. Sometimes I suddenly have an experience of being struck by the fact that the world exists, about which experience I want to say, 'I wonder about the existence of the world' (LE p. 8), or, Whenever awareness of the world's existence breaks in on my thinking, 'I find it profoundly disquieting that anything at all exists'. But am I talking nonsense if I prefer to say instead, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'?

Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts. (PI § 79)

Which facts? The facts about what we are trying to do with language here. The form we give these "questions without answers" does not determine their meaning, which is not a question of form. In Wittgenstein's logic of language, words are compared to tools: what work are these tools being used to do here, that is, if this language is not just idling (ibid. § 132)?

What do we want to do with these questions?

What we should have asked is: what use do we want to make of these tools -- i.e. this language (PI § 421)? Do we want to express wonder or bewilderment? Do we want to remind ourselves to be modest in the claims we make for philosophy, to recognize its limits, as in "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of ..."? Or to remind ourselves that there may be far more to reality than the "particles in space" of physics, which is a highly abstracted -- i.e. selective of what it chooses to measure, what ignore -- view of reality? Or to remind ourselves, as M. O'C. Drury does, to be thankful for the miracle of sight and for the miracle of hearing. (But then also for the miracle of eyeglasses, although maybe not of atomic bombs.) To be thankful for the miracle of language. Do we want to remind ourselves of something? Then that is the "meaning" of these "questions" -- i.e. what they amount to.

Suppose someone said that the origin of language was no more baffling than the origin of the oak tree out of an acorn: we just have to figure it out. Should we respond: no matter how well that process is understood, it ought still to be an object of wonder? But if something is understood, then what is there to wonder at -- i.e. what is the word 'wonder' to mean where the word 'mystery' has no meaning? What is the word 'question' to mean where the word 'answer' has no meaning? What is the word 'riddle' to mean where the word 'solution' has no meaning?

*

'There are imponderables.' -- Why shouldn't we say that? But not: 'Because aren't there?' The question here is of sense and nonsense: what do we mean by calling something 'imponderable'? The words 'We can never know' express an attitude towards these cases, not an hypothesis. -- This is an essential distinction to make.

There are more categories than 'Religion' and 'Philosophy'

Are my examples above religious questions? If answers are given to them as in a catechism of religious doctrine, then no. But in a broader sense of the word 'religious' (where wonder at the mystery of our life takes the place of doctrine), they are religious questions, just as they are philosophical questions (But, note: only if metaphysical answers are offered to these questions -- i.e. answers of the form "This is the reality underlying reality" -- are they what we normally call 'metaphysical questions').

But surely we are "not that poor in categories" (RPP ii § 690), not e.g. like Nietzsche's good people who divide life into business and pleasure and then don't know what to do when confronted with religion. Now which is it -- a new business or a new pleasure? (Beyond Good and Evil 58)

Remember that "Questions without Answers" is nothing more than a category name. Countless other categories might be invented, and each new category (conceptual scheme) will suggest different directions for our thinking to take. Not being "poor in categories" amounts to this: not being limited to a few fixed categories, as if they were the true way to divide up reality, for is there such a way?

But some "unanswerable questions" are nonsense.

Not everything that looks like an unanswerable question is one.

"Look at it this way: to exist is not necessarily to exist as an object for an hypothesis." This is a grammatical remark -- if it is anything (i.e. if it is not nonsense).

It is not a something, but not a nothing either ... We have only rejected the grammar that tries to force itself on us here. (PI § 304)

But is that the "only" thing we have done? Doesn't this language suggest the question: if something both is (i.e. of course it is real!) and isn't (i.e. but it is not an object) -- then what is it?

But this is precisely what Wittgenstein did not want to suggest. Both 'the word 'mind' is not a name-of-object' and 'mental phenomena are real' are rules of grammar (in Wittgenstein's jargon).

I ask myself: "Why are you so set against admitting even the possibility that mind may be something other than matter -- e.g. spirit?" What I am against is saying that the word 'mind' is used by us to name any object (whether "material" or "spiritual"), because that would not be a true account of that word's grammar. The question 'What kind of object is the mind?' is not unanswerable, but instead nonsensical; because that isn't the way we use the word 'mind'. [Philosophy of Psychology - The Language of Mind]

Incomparable Pictures

Rather that "Questions without Answers" some riddles of existence might better be called "Pictures that are not Hypotheses".

Bertrand Russell posed questions such as: How do you know that the world and all your memories of it did not spring into existence five minutes ago (PP iii, p. 319-320)? What Russell does is to suggest a picture to you, like a painter working from imagination rather than en plein air. The common characteristic of these pictures is that they are dependent for their meaning -- if they are to have any meaning -- on the inclusion of a god who sees what we do not or cannot see (cf. PI § 346), or, in Drury's words "a mind capable of being a spectator of all time and all existence" (DW p. 109).

There is nothing hypothetical about these "pictures without answers" (they are not hypotheses): there is no way to verify or falsify whether they are pictures of reality. But the only reason for that is that we ourselves have not defined a way to verify or falsify them: we ourselves have made them unverifiable (Z § 259) by means of the rules we have invented for these "language-games".

Russell made assertions such as: "There is a hippopotamus in the room, but it cannot be seen or touched, heard or tasted or smelled" -- in a word, it is in all ways imperceptible. What Russell has done is to define 'There is a hippopotamus in this room' in such a way that it is impossible to verify or falsify whether or not there is a hippopotamus in the room. (cf. DW p. 16; [Russell alludes to this hippopotamus in his obituary of Wittgenstein in Mind, July 1951, p. 297]) Indeed, what Russell's assertion negates are the very (grammatical) grounds for stating that a hippopotamus is not in the room. Again, as in the last case, the impossibility of verification belongs to the "grammar" (i.e. rules of the game) of the language used: verification would require a god who sees what we, by definition, cannot see. [Contrary-wise, the "invisible hippopotamus" is an example of grammar stripping.]

Self-mystification and Logical Possibility

When we draw these pictures we are like children scribbling on paper and then asking ourselves what we have drawn: we use these pictures to mystify ourselves (CV p. 17 [MS 112 114: 27.10.1931 § 2]). We talk about ghosts, angels, elves, and say, "No one can prove that they don't exist!" No, no one can ... but that only means that the word 'prove' is defined by stating a method of proof (verification-falsification). But it belongs to the grammar of words like 'elf' and 'spirit' that we do not allow any such method. That is a rule of this "game" -- i.e. a rule belonging to the family of language-games called 'fairy tales'. And therefore to demand a method of verification here would be to misunderstand the logic of this language, to misunderstand this particular form of human life.

That we do not allow and would refuse to even consider any method of proof that might be proposed is the only meaning that the word 'can' in "No one can prove that there never was a goose that laid golden eggs!" has. It is a question of logical possibility and impossibility, not of empirical possibility.

If someone asked us whether elves exist, we should say that that person did not know the meaning (had not [yet] mastered the use) of the word 'elf'.

Asking for a proof that elves don't exist is like asking for the location of the mind. It is to follow a grammatical analogy that is based on the form rather than on the use of our language; it is a false analogy in this case. And to recognize that is to understand the logic of our language [i.e. the "grammar" of our language (in the sense of the rules of use rather than the rules of form)]; it is to begin "to heal our wounded understanding".

That is the only point or purpose of Wittgenstein's jargon, to make us aware of grammatical differences. [In this one respect his jargon resembles the TLP's ladder.]


Note 1: Quoted by Drury, "Words and Transgressions" in The Danger of Words (1973), p. 7-8.

This page is written from the point of view of my account of Ludwig Wittgenstein's logic of language, and much of it may not be understood without first understanding that way of thinking. [BACK]

Note 2: S. I. Hayakawa. Language in Thought and Action, 2nd ed. New York: 1964. Page 22.

Notes about Hayakawa's General Semantics. Hayakawa quotes his teacher's "The map is not the territory" (p. 31). No, the map is not the territory. -- But neither is the meaning of the map the territory. Because if the territory were the meaning of the map, it would be impossible to say what the meaning of any particular map were if that map did not correspond to any territory -- i.e. any picture that could not be compared with what it was supposedly a picture of would be without meaning. (But that would not be a true account of how we normally use the word 'meaning'.) [BACK]


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