Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Preface and Table of Contents | Search | Bibliography

Virtue is Knowledge - 'I say I know, but I think I know better'

Topics on this page ...

Preface: on this page are various topics in logic of language and philosophy.

The "Three Laws of Logic"

Criticism often amounts to presenting counter-examples. Hence the importance of imagination to philosophy. But thorough-going criticism also demands the willingness to say that the account of things accepted as a matter of course by a "community of ideas" may be wrong or even nonsense.

The "Law of Identity" (A is A)

This so-called principle of logic ['logic' = 'reasoning'] has no application. Even as a rule of grammar it is never appealed to. One can regard it as a rule of grammar -- i.e. one might say it is implied or implicit --, but a rule that is never applied -- or even worse: always applied -- is it a rule at all (or only nonsense)?

The "Law of the Excluded Middle" (Everything must be either A or not-A)

One cannot say of a statement that it must be either true or not-true [false], because the statement may be nonsense (and nonsense is neither true nor false). Or the statement may be purely logical -- i.e. grammatical analogies may allow its construction -- e.g. 'It snowed in Manhattan on 1 January 1 A.D.', which is neither true nor false (nor can it be either, because no method of verification is defined). A tautology (e.g. 'Either it is raining, or it is not raining') cannot be false [not-true], and therefore it means nothing [it is nonsense] to say that it must be either true or false.

One cannot say of the statement 'The building is tall' that it must be true or not-true [false]; because 'height' is a relative concept, and the building may be tall relative to buildings in its own town, but not tall relative to buildings in the city.

The "Law of Contradiction" (Not-(p and not-p))

This "principle of logic" [of "logical reasoning"] is based on the mistaken view that meaning is determined by form rather than by use. 'This is beautiful, and this is not beautiful' [pointing to different objects] is a contradiction in form, but it has a use; it is not nonsense and it is not necessarily false (It may be true or false). And also "Moore's paradox": a statement may not have the form of a contradiction -- and yet nonetheless of necessity be false, e.g. 'There is a fire is this room, but I don't believe there is a fire in this room'.

One might contrast a contradiction in form with a contradiction in sense. But if we must know whether or not a statement has a use before rejecting that statement as false or nonsense, then the formula not-(p and not-p) fails to be a sure guide to sound reasoning.

Bacon is extremely critical of the Peripatetics' claims for their logic. They stress the unassailability of a "knowledge" derived from their "first notions", the principles of identity, contradiction, and excluded middle, and the certainty of the syllogistic demonstration which is said to follow from the acceptance of these three. Bacon, of course, as a sane man admits that what is, is -- the principle of identity; that the same thing cannot both be and not be what it is -- the principle of contradiction; that a thing must either be this or not this, for there is no middle alternative -- the principle of excluded middle. (Fulton H. Anderson, "Introduction", Francis Bacon, The New Organon and related writings (1960), p. xxiv)

What a "sane man admits" does not determine what is true, but a "community of ideas" determines what a sane man is. [cf. "forms of life".]

Query: death is one of two things either it is annihilation; logic. [Apology 40c-41c]

In this particular case, maybe you can say that the "law of the excluded middle" is applicable. Either death is the end of life (It is the death of both body and soul) or it is not (It is only the death of the body). Is there anywhere in between? [cf. "Either death is to be feared or it is not to be feared" (Plato, Apology 29a).]

On the other hand, the either/or here is dependent on a non-hypothetical picture [i.e. a picture which cannot come into confrontation with experience, to be confirmed or disconfirmed by it, to be proved real or illusion by it] of "the soul", and therefore the either/or possibility here is purely logical possibility; "life after death" is not an empirical possibility. Hence the danger of imagination to philosophy.

There is no application for the excluded-middle rule in cases where a statement cannot possibly be either true or false. But saying that a principle is not universally applicable is not the same thing as saying that it has no applications, but only that it is not a sure [certain] guide to sound [valid] reasoning.

Query: logic metaphysical aspects notes.

If someone says that the three principles [i.e. guides, guidelines] of logic are "laws", he may be saying something metaphysical: "the laws of thought" (or "the true rules of reasoning").

A Hallmark of Metaphysics

... the opinion of Heraclitus, that all things flow and nothing stands ... Heraclitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice. (Plato, Cratylus, tr. Jowett, 401d, 402a)

If one sets a spinning top beside one that is not spinning, then the one is said to be in motion and the other is said to be at rest. -- That is precisely the point: "it is said to be". Anyone who has learned English knows [(and) must admit] that this condition is called 'at rest' and that this condition is called 'in motion'. If someone said that the top that is at rest was in motion, we would say that this person had not learned English. And, therefore, what the philosopher wants to say is that it [the top that is at rest] is not really at rest. -- And that "really" is a sure indicator of metaphysics. Again, if he has learned English, he also cannot claim that it only appears to be a rest -- but must say that it only really appears to be at rest (whatever that may mean).

Query: Eddington we think there's a solid table.

The table isn't really solid, despite what we think. -- Nothing is. And now what is the word 'solid' to mean, because the table was invoked to define that word (The Blue Book p. 45-46: 'solid' must contrast with something; it cannot contrast with nothing if it is to have a meaning). What Eddington says is that the table we perceive isn't really there (That unscientific table is instead what he calls "mind spinning", purely a creation of the human mind): all that is really there is atomic particles separated by vast open spaces, the very antinomy of solid. [Arthur Eddington's Two Tables.]

Query: appearance and reality: eddington's two tables.

This links Eddington to the pre-Socratics: the table we see is appearance; the theoretical construct of physics is the reality. [Drury's fact-theory distinction: "Reality which lies before us at every moment is replaced by the abstract picture we have ourselves created."]

Besides 'really', other common indicators of metaphysical statements are the words 'must' and 'can't'.

Treating all words as if they were names is another hallmark (and source or cause) of metaphysics.

Grammar Stripping

Query: Moore Principia Ethica.

The words 'goodness', 'beauty', are not names of properties. Because if I call A beautiful and explain this by pointing to A's lines and proportions, I am not saying that A possesses another property (one in addition to those lines and proportions) named 'beautiful'. If I were, I could point to that property. This is, of course, nothing more than a grammatical remark, a reminder about the "grammar" of the word 'property'. A property that cannot be pointed to is no property.

G. E. Moore's expression "non-natural property" is an example of grammar stripping -- i.e. of removing [essential] rules -- as is done in geometry when saying "A point is an object without dimensions". As if the grammars of 'object' and 'dimension' could be disconnected without nonsense resulting. As if this were not a question of logic -- i.e. of a verbal definition of the word 'object', but instead of disputable facts. As if an essence could be "reduced" -- i.e. as if x were still x even though we had removed some feature that is essential to x.

Neither when I say 'A is beautiful' am I saying -- i.e. do I mean by that -- that 'I like A' or that 'A pleases me', nor am I making a prediction about the effect A will have on anyone else. -- If I wanted to say those other things, I would say them. But they are not what I want to say -- i.e. they are not what I "really" mean when I say 'A is beautiful'. (So-called theories of aesthetics have the form 'A really means B'; they are metaphysics.)

The grammar of monotheism's 'God' (by any other name) is an instance of grammar-stripping:

The doctrine of a first, uncaused Cause Bacon considers unphilosophical for the reason that the conception first assumes the principle of cause and effect, and then -- when it becomes philosophically inconvenient -- deserts it. (Anderson, "Introduction", op. cit. p. xxi)

The invisible hippopotamus in the room is another example of grammar stripping.

Grammatical Analogies

Note: this continues the discussion Questions without Answers.

Query: why is there something rather than nothing? why am i here? why is anything here at all?

Why am I here -- 'here' as opposed to 'there'? No, as opposed to 'nowhere'. If in biology you can ask why a thing exists, then you can also in metaphysics ask why it exists.

Query: why in general is there something and not nothing?

Well, this is it: if you can ask a question about things in particular, then you can also ask that question about "things in general". That is the grammatical analogy. "Why does this thing exist?" becomes "Why does anything exist?" (where 'anything' also means 'everything' or 'the whole', as in Plato Sophist 233e).

Grammar (syntactic analogy) is also at times dysfunctional. In this dysfunction Wittgenstein saw the birth of metaphysics (perhaps of all philosophy).

If it can suggest new meanings to us, grammar can also suggest nonsense to us.

Everything Functional is also Dysfunctional

In nature, everything functional is also dysfunctional. This applies not only to the human body (Had we no appetite we would starve to death, but without appetite we would not harm ourselves by eating unwisely) -- but also to the human mind, that is to say, to human reason. Everything functional is also dysfunctional -- that is very general fact of nature (Philosophical Investigations II, xii p. 230a).

The expression 'unnatural'. Why is it logically possible (and not nonsense) for us to call some things "unnatural"? Very often (but I don't know if always) by 'unnatural' we mean 'dysfunctional'. If we regard -- i.e. judge (and 'judge' is the operative word) -- something to be dysfunctional, we may also call it an "unnatural" thing (The double quotes mean: we must always question what is meant by the word 'unnatural').

Thus Voltaire could regard religion as something "unnatural" -- i.e. as an instance of the human mind (reason) dysfunctioning. So we could say that in this particular case 'dysfunctional' = 'unnatural', 'unnatural' = 'dysfunctional'. And so, someone could regard cancer as unnatural -- because it is the body turning against itself: the cell that sustains life, the cell that destroys life. ("But what is nature's intention? Is dysfunction a misfiring of that intention? Or is dysfunction part of nature's intention?" But is that not a personification of nature? Of a human being we ask what its intention is (and sometimes, by analogy, of animals as well).

If someone says, "Incest is unnatural, an unnatural relationship", does that person mean that it is a dysfunction? Is that a claim to know nature's intention? "Almost everyone finds incest repugnant" -- is that how this question is decided: by taking a vote (the vox populi)? "Almost everyone finds cancer undesirable" is quite true, but is human judgment a mirror of "what nature says is good or evil, desirable or undesirable"? By 'nature's intention' is 'nature's design' meant, which again is a personification of nature? (Question: is personification ever justified in philosophy?)

When Kant speaks of "healing the human understanding" [as does Wittgenstein: "The philosopher is someone who has to cure many diseases of the understanding in himself, before he can arrive at the notions of common sense" (CV p. 44)], and when Wittgenstein compares language as it is used in metaphysics to an engine whose gears are not engaged [PI §§ 271, 132], are they only pointing to what they regard as (judge to be) a dysfunction of the intellect, a misfiring of nature's design? I would not say that. There is another standard here -- unless man is deluded in his belief that he is endowed with reason [cf. Descartes' "Evil Deceiver"]. If we cannot distinguish between what stands to reason and what does not stand up to that test (but is, instead, refuted by it), then that man is endowed with reason is a delusion (But only a god who sees what we cannot see would know that it is a delusion). Can you say "It is not dysfunctional when a line of reasoning fails the test of reason", or is that nonsense? Cf. If man cannot distinguish between sense and nonsense in the language he uses .... Those are grammatical, not metaphysical (nature's "true intentions"), remarks. (They are tautologies that say something: they point out the interconnection of grammatical rules.) To say that man is always talking nonsense is nonsense. But that is a grammatical remark.

[There is elsewhere further discussion of the topic of dysfunction in the context of "The Argument from Design".]

I say I know, but I think I know better

Query: what does it mean when Socrates say human excellence is knowledge?

"Virtue is knowledge" -- what does it mean? The English word 'virtue' is one translation of the Greek word areté, but it is only appropriate in cases where the particular "excellence" or areté is excellence in ethics (or, knowledge of how we should live our life). If we know what to do, then we practice what we know. But we very often lie to ourselves, saying the words 'I know' while believing that we know something else, something better, something wiser.

The hardest thing is not to lie to yourself, not to believe your own lies. (Dostoyevsky)

That is related to Nietzsche's demand for a unity of thought and deed, that we stop saying that we believe one thing and then live as if we believed something very different.

Note: this continues the discussion Plato's Gorgias: "We are discussing no small matter, but how to live."

He only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know. (Augustine's summary of Socrates' method, after Apology 21-22)

We should, I think, reject the notion of "weakness of the will" altogether. It can only make us lazy, providing an excuse [pretext] for our laziness toward seeking to know. Rather, I would say it is a case of: "You say you know, but [the truth is that] you think you know something better." And this is a case of "thinking yourself to know what you do not know" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iii, 9, 6 and iv, 6, 1).

When the consequence of an action is immediate, such as putting your hand in a fire or walking off the roof of a building, nothing will induce you to do it -- i.e. "You know better than to do that". But when it comes to drinking an extra glass of wine, although you say you know that it is harmful, you think you know that it will not really harm you, that the worst will never happen or that it will happen only at some distant time ... [That is presumption (presuming to know what you do not know), and to act on that presumption is the damaging arrogance of ignorance].

"I say I know, but I think I know something better." I say I know A to be true, but I think I know B to be true. I say I know, but I believe I know something else instead.

The opposing view is that "the will is weak". But I would say instead that the mind is lazy, for the reason that it thinks it knows that it need not trouble itself to seek to know. The disciples in Gethsemane, on one account, could not keep awake, because their bodies demanded sleep and would not let them stay awake, anymore than their bodies would let them fly. -- But that is very different -- i.e. that is not a "weakness of the will". (On Schweitzer's account (Quest (1910), xix, p. 392-393), the words "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" concern the expressed willingness ("the spirit is willing") of the three disciples to undergo with Jesus the trials of the last days spoken of in the Lord's Prayer. Jesus is wiser, however, and himself prays not to face those trails because he believes the trials will be terrible and that many will fail to remain faithful (for "the flesh is weak"); the three disciples, however, do not understand just how near at hand the trials are for Jesus.)

"Virtue is knowledge" -- The one who knows what is good does what is good: the good man is the wise man.

Related pages: Can one become a good man through Socratic "care of the soul"? | If a donkey kicks me, I want to kick it back, although I say I know that this is irrational. | Why self-control is needed to reform bad habits -- because, formed in the time of ignorance, they are akin to instincts. | Whether virtue can be taught or learned. | Is "Virtue is knowledge" a proposition that asserts a fact or is it only a way of looking at ethics?

"I don't believe it, although I say I know it"

The way I live, the things I do, shows that I don't believe x, although I say I know x. Aren't I being truthful (even with myself), then? Is that because I choose to speak of "weakness of the will", because that gives me an easy escape from thinking things through? Or is it instead because: being the creature of a community of ideas, that is the way I have been brought up to think, to use that set of concepts which are our community's common currency. Everyone in our community thinks that way -- except the one who thinks philosophically, and that means: the one who has stepped outside our community of ideas.

I don't believe it (as my actions show), but I say I know it. I may give reasons for saying 'I know', but I myself don't find them (as, again, my actions show) compelling. Obvious question: aren't those reasons compelling, then? Schweitzer: "the stubborn man within". That man does not want to think things through; he does not want to examine the reasons [justification] for, reasons against x. Maybe he believes (a priori, of course) that this would be fruitless (as Plato's misologist believes), or he may fear being convinced that he should not do what, in his condition of ignorance, he wants to do. That is, he has no faith in philosophy as the tool for discovering how we should live our life.

Query: I know what I think because of what I do.

There is a relation here to "... but I think I know better", but it is not always easy to deduce what I think (believe) from what I do -- i.e. to state as a positive proposition, not merely as a negation of what I say I know. Maybe it would be clearer to say: "By what I do, I know what I really think, in contrast to the thought I give mouth honor to" -- depending on the grammar we are applying to [i.e. how we are defining] 'what I really think'.

A Word is like a Tool, an Example

Note: this continues the discussion Wittgenstein's similes.

Query: scientific explanation of how the sun rises.

"That the sun will rise tomorrow, is an hypothesis; and that means that we do not know whether it will rise" (TLP 6.36311, tr. Ogden). This is entirely a question of what you want to do with the word 'know', of what work you want that word -- i.e. that tool of our language -- to do. The concept 'know' is fluid: we can set its limits where we choose for our particular purposes.

[Socrates selected a particular sense of 'know', just as Wittgenstein selected a particular sense of meaning.]

Albert Schweitzer's own Christianity

Note: this supplements the discussion Ethical versus Explanatory Religion.

There are no heroes of action -- only heroes of renunciation and suffering. (Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, tr. A. B. Lemke (1990), Chapter 9, p. 88-89)

I do think that "gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail" and that Schweitzer's youthful correspondence really should not be nosed about in ... if it were gossip. But it is not (Nor is it a case of Richard II's "And must I ravel out My weav'd-up follies?"). Elsewhere I wrote that both Wittgenstein and Schweitzer were Christians -- in some sense of the word 'Christian'. But in which sense? In Schweitzer's case in the sense of: "A Christian is one who has the spirit of Christ. This is the only theology" (The Schweitzer Album (1965), p. 37). And to have the spirit of Jesus far than I have the spirit of the one I would most want to be like (sc. Socrates), because Jesus was Schweitzer's master in both word and deed (Indeed, in Schweitzer there was a complete unity of word and deed). Before they were married Schweitzer wrote to the girl he was to marry:

If I should come to the conclusion tomorrow that there is no god, and no immortality, and that morality is only an invention of society -- that would not touch me at all. (Letter, 6 September 1903) To know only Jesus of Nazareth; to continue his work as the only religion, not to bear what Christianity has absorbed over the years in vulgarity. Not to be afraid of Hell, not to strive for the joys of Heaven, not to live in false fear, not the fake devotion that has become an essential part of our religion -- and yet that one understands the one Great One, and that one knows that one is his disciple.... Yes, I serve him, because of him, only because of him -- because he is the only truth, the only happiness. (1 May 1904) (The Albert Schweitzer - Hélène Bresslau Letters, 1902-1912, tr. Antje Lemke (2001), quoted in Brabazon's Albert Schweitzer: a biography, 2nd ed. (2000), Chapter 9, p. 150-151)

The Effect of Reading Nietzsche

Those who were torn from their false certainty when his impassioned writings descended on the lowlands of the thought of the outgoing nineteenth century, as the south wind sweeps down from the high mountains in spring, can never forget the gratitude they owe to this upheaver of thought, with his preaching of veracity and personality. (Civilization and Ethics, 2nd ed. (London, 1929), tr. C. T. Campion, Chapter 15, p. 175)

What was this veracity? According to Nietzsche, although mankind in words upheld the Christian standard of self-renunciation, of self-sacrifice for the sake of other human beings, in practice mankind upheld the selfish assertion of one's own personality. Man lived in a condition of insincerity (the opposite of truthfulness).

Brabazon writes, I don't know whether or not correctly, as if Schweitzer were as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Jesus (and indeed he notes [Albert Schweitzer, Chapter 8, p. 129] that some critics accused Schweitzer of presenting a "Nietzschean" Jesus in his Quest of the Historical Jesus).

... the lectures of Georg Simmel [Schweitzer attended these in Berlin in the summer of 1899 (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 2, p. 21)] seem to have relevance. Simmel was the philosopher who tried to separate the notion of self-transcendence in Nietzsche from its concomitant arrogance toward others. This would be entirely to Schweitzer's taste as he strove to rise above himself, aiming for greatness, the one who stands alone, yet still a man among men. (Albert Schweitzer, Chapter 9, p. 150)

On the one hand, Jesus teaches self-renunciation, but on the other hand, being truthful with oneself reveals the assertion of one's own personality. How did Schweitzer reconcile these two forces within himself? With his idea of Reverence for Life.

The ethic of reverence for life ... allows to rank as good only the maintenance and promotion of life. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances they take place, it condemns as evil.

[The ethic of reverence for life] bids me think of others, and makes me ponder whether I can allow myself the inward right to pluck all the fruit that my hand can reach. Thus it may happen that in obedience to consideration for the existence of others I do what seems to ordinary opinion to be folly. Yes, it may even show itself to be folly by the fact that my renunciation has not been of the slightest benefit to him for whom it was made. And yet I was right. Reverence for life is the highest court of appeal. What it commands has its own significance, even if it seems foolish or useless. (Civilization and Ethics, Ch. 21, p. 255, 259)

This alludes to when Schweitzer gave up an academic fellowship earlier than required so that another scholar might receive it. Schweitzer thus lost an opportunity to travel more and to study in England. But in the event the scholar for whom the sacrifice was made never claimed the fellowship. (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 3, p. 25) And so Schweitzer's renunciation of it had been "folly" [cf. 1 Cor. 1.23-24, I think].

Final remark. Would Schweitzer have said, as did Dostoyevsky: "If anyone could prove to me that the truth stood on one side and Christ on the other, I would chose to stand with Christ and against the truth"? On the one hand, I want to say: No, Schweitzer was a man of reason. But on the other hand, I would say that Schweitzer's attachment to Jesus was of the same intensity as the attachment of Dostoyevsky to Christ. Both would have said: "In him I have found my master; and I want no other."

Goethe's description of a Christian in Briefe des Pastors (1772) as "one who calls Jesus his master" ... (Werner Picht, Albert Schweitzer [1959], tr. Fitzgerald (1964), p. 178)

"Why question everything?"

Query: quotes question everything.

A better query might be "quotes think for yourself". Question everything is what Socrates learned from the oracle and from the inscription on the temple at Delphi: "Know thyself".

Query: why question everything?

To discover whether or not it is true, because it may be false, only logically possible, or it may even be nonsense. "Why should I want to know whether something is true or not?" -- Is this not like asking, "Why should I want to be happy?" or "Why should I want not to be in unbearable pain"? (If these are indeed questions, their grammar is indeed queer.)

Ought one to reply: "Because it is good to do what is useful to you, and knowing whether something that concerns you is true or not is useful to you"? But what kind of reply is that -- is it a statement of fact?

The command "Question everything" [-- "Know thyself" is likewise a command --] imposes a general skepticism: do not accept anything as true that you have not put to the test. Why? How does one justify philosophical integrity? Socrates could say: without this you will never know [discover the truth about] how you should live your life. (Plato, Apology 38a; Gorgias 472c, 487e, 492d, 500b-d)

Query: without questions there can be no answers?

The philosophical-logical question is: but without answers, can there be questions? Only the latter 'can' belongs to logic [although obviously it is nonsense to speak of 'answers without questions']. The first 'can' is meant to be empirical: we do in fact learn by asking questions. After all, it might not have been that way. The query is appropriate to school children as an answer to "Why question everything?"

Query: Socrates' method: ask, do not tell.

Socrates seeks the agreement of his companion for each step of the argument: he requires his opponent to "question everything" Socrates asserts. If at any point in the argument his companion does not agree with Socrates, then he must demand a clarification, or object and refute Socrates -- i.e. show Socrates that he does not know what he thinks he knows ("Socratic elenchus"). (On the other hand, Socrates does guide the discussion by asking what the law calls "leading questions", which are only permitted on cross-examination, not direct examination.)

Query: a basic undefined term of geometry; they have no size.

This again is grammar stripping: 'a body without size'. ["The essence of body reduced to ..."] There seems nothing so absurd that it cannot be forced down the gullets of young students. If you do not "question everything", you will believe in the ghosts your teacher's language conjures up (PI § 36). Rather than "Question everything!" we could say "Don't be credulous!" George Orwell's "slogan swallowers" question nothing. (An 'object that has no size' is certainly an "undefined term" -- i.e. nonsense.)

Query: why is a geometric point invisible?

Well, isn't the word 'geometric point' a noun, and aren't all nouns names of things; and if a name is not to be nonsense, then, if it doesn't stand for something visible, mustn't it stand for something invisible ... Here is that mistaken picture of the way language works: "Where a word suggests a body and there is none: there, we would like to say, is a spirit" (PI § 36).

Actually, the grammar of the word 'point' in geometry is more like that of a verb than of a noun, as in: 'pointing out a location'. [Philosophy of Geometry.]

Replies to Philosophical Queries

Query: philosophy: the pursuit of wisdom or logic: the art of reasoning?

Do you think there must be an "or" here? Johann Georg Hamann (see the Encyclopedia article by W. M. Alexander) used the word 'philologian', I'm not quite sure how; it contrasts with 'philosopher'. But I think we can give that title to Socrates: "lover of logos", which is both reason and wisdom (Guthrie called the word 'logos' a maid-of-all-work). The root of 'philology' is given as 'love of words', but I think 'word' limits too much the meaning of the Greek word. But I want to say that philosophy and logic are not two [different] things: logic ("the art of reasoning") is an essential part of wisdom.

Query: Wittgenstein unanswerable questions cannot be posed.

Quite. But the question is: what does 'cannot' mean here? [Questions without Answers]

Query: various methods of getting the meaning of a word.

At first blush, that sounds good; but it is wrong/mistaken. What there are, instead, are various meanings of the word 'meaning' (There is no essence of meaning, as the query implies).

We ask: "What does the poet mean by this word?" There is context; there is etymology (in cases where a root word is a reliable clue); there are dictionaries; there is comparison with other texts by the same author; there are commentaries by critics (scholars, historians, translators); there is asking a friend or teacher; there are (in some cases) prefixes and suffixes, parts of speech. But now this is not a philosophical question.

Query: Wittgenstein and family resemblance and rope.

The fine red thread running through? (Ropes issued to the British navy had a red thread woven into their length to discourage theft.) It is the existence of that thread (if it is imagined to exist in all cases) which is a myth, to which is connected the myth of abstraction. Wittgenstein's metaphor of family likenesses is his response to that myth (or "incomparable picture").

[Cf. Wittgenstein, The Brown Book p. 87, about the fibers in a rope, that they make up a rope, and yet there is not a single fiber running the full length of the rope.]

Query: philosophical investigations ungrammatical.

I have tried to define the word 'grammar' as used by Wittgenstein. But, then, how are we to define the word 'ungrammatical'? 'Where is the mind?' -- Why not regard this as an example of ungrammatical language? because what is ungrammatical to mean in logic except 'nonsense'. That is, uneducated English, 'I don't got none' e.g., is of no interest to philosophy (If a given form of expression has a use, it has a use -- i.e. meaning).

Query: making sense of nonsense in philosophy.

Well, that is what I think we do: we invent -- we do not discover -- a meaning for a metaphysical text. (In Wittgenstein's logic of language, the sense of 'nonsense' is 'undefined combination of words'.)

Query: what do people born blind see?

Is this supposed to be an empirical question? How do we apply the word 'blind'? We observe behavior? (Using language too is behavior: "Do you see the tree over there?" -- "No, I cannot see at all; I am blind.") But on the other hand, our instinct says to us "They must see something" (cf. "Objects have color even in the dark").

Query: if there could be nothing, why is there anything?
Query: why should there be something rather than nothing?

This turns Schopenhauer's "There should be nothing" around; cf. 'answers without questions' rather than 'questions without answers'. Question: can one be nonsense without the other also being so, and then why does it not seem that way to us? Pictures are suggested to us by one form of expression, but not by the other. ("Picture serves to explain the meaning of this language" (PI II, iv, p. 178g), but they are like the pictures in fairy tales.)

Query: is there logic in fairy tales?

This is not necessarily the same question as: is there meaning ('logic' = 'meaning'); but if a story, however imaginative, is not self-consistent, we may find it unsatisfying. Obviously 'logical' here does not mean 'consistent with empirical fact' (or why call it a 'fairy tale'), but 'logic' here might also mean: is there a moral to this story?

Query: why is there anything?

Diogenes: "Again I am beaten in simplicity!"

Query: philosophy is the bewitchment of intellect by grammar.

Himself wrote: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (PI § 109). It is a battle against language dysfunctioning. Or is that only a subset: it is not only by following misleading grammatical analogies that we are confounded, or is it? Wittgenstein saw the roots of the "pictures that hold us captive" (ibid. § 115) in our language, but is it always or necessarily there? If one does not imagine that the word 'soul' is a name, will one nonetheless ask if the soul is immortal? "The logic of our word 'soul' is misunderstood." About the grammar of 'mind' I would say this, but about the word 'soul' -- about that picture, I am not sure. When Stanley asks the horse, "Is that you, Ollie?" [The Flying Deuces], does this show that he has been bewitched by grammar? When is nonsense not nonsense? (ibid. § 282)

Query: theory of abstraction.

If it cannot be falsified -- i.e. be found to contradict experience -- then I do not call it a 'theory', but I call it instead an 'incomparable picture' (or 'non-comparable picture'). That is the distinction I want to make, just as in philosophy of science I distinguish between a 'theory' and an 'hypothesis' (In my jargon, an 'hypothesis' must be verifiable, not simply falsifiable).

Query: how many generations can family likeness go back?

If human beings did not ask -- if language did not allow us to ask -- vague (ill-defined) questions like this, a common route to our learning new things would be closed to us. It is by trying to give the "child's scribbling" sense; it is often by seeking without being clear about what we are seeking; that we learn new things. If we follow Waismann's rule "What you must not do with a philosophical question is try to answer it", then to this query I will reply: "What do you mean by 'can' here? What method are you using to answer this question?" In this way, I get rid of the question -- but I also learn nothing new. "I don't know exactly what I'm asking. I have a notion ..." -- We should not discourage this institution-of-language use; it can only lead to sterility.

Query: philosophy mans original state.

How can this be responded to -- not answered -- except with a lot of imagination: here we are asking about: the birth of language, for is that not what differentiates man from beast -- not for biologists perhaps, not for anthropologists perhaps -- but for philosophers? With the Greeks -- re: Prometheus -- is it not: the birth of reason (which cannot be divorced from language)? [With the Old Testament it is: the birth of morality ("You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil").]

Query: is time itself a philosophy?

If we ask an unclear question, then we you are forced to define -- i.e. give meaning to -- the question. This is a good method in philosophy, actually.

Don't be afraid of talking nonsense ... (Culture and Value p. 56 [MS 134 20: 5.3.1947])

But one checks oneself nonetheless from doing so. And this is the danger of Wittgenstein's philosophy -- that one may stop seeing (or indeed looking for) anything new, repeating instead the old formulas of rejection ["grammatical joke", "meaningless (pseudo-)metaphor", "misleading picture"]. Wittgenstein's philosophy: where does it lead? To seeking insights into the logic of language?

Where it does not lead is to the production of new "theories of reality", and if we are not seeking to know the truth about first and last questions, if we are not seeking what Drury called "the absolute", then shall we not come to where Wittgenstein apparently wanted us to come -- i.e. shall we not stop philosophizing (i.e. be cured of philosophy rather than by it, the latter being the Greeks view of things)? But philosophy can no more go away than life can go away: even if every question in logic-of-language were solved, philosophical questions would still await us at every turn in life. The understanding must be cured by philosophy, not of it.

Sceptical habits ... had checked the spontaneous flow of the imagination. Literary criticism was a more characteristic feature of the age than literary creation. (Part of C. E. Robinson's characterization of Hellenistic culture, (Zito Hellas (1946) xii [Hellas, Beacon Press, p. 169])

Max Planck thought that metaphysics -- far from being an enemy of science -- was essential to science, that Positivism is sterile; it does not produce theories of the ground-breaking type that the search/desire for "absolute truth" does.

Wittgenstein's philosophy: great insight, great harm (impoverishment).

[Why should one seek to find what cannot be found -- the absolute perspective, the magic fulcrum? But 'cannot' here can only mean logical possibility (nonsense, undefined language). Remember: the only limit of knowledge is -- concept formation.]

Query: was Socrates a wise man?

If to be wise is to know that you are without wisdom (You 'know', according to Socrates, because you cannot "give an account" or put into words and defend against all criticism), then Socrates was a wise man (in the sense that the Oracle at Delphi called him 'wise' [Apology 20e-21a, 28e]). However, if to be 'wise' means to 'know' the type of thing that Socrates asks Euthyphro about -- namely, about "right and wrong, the noble and the base, the good and bad" (Euthyphro 7d), then, according to Socrates, only the gods are wise (Phaedrus 278d).

Query: Socrates' solution to the riddle.

The riddle posed by the Oracle at Delphi (Apology 20e-21a): what can the Oracle have meant when it said that "no man is wiser" than Socrates, Socrates asks himself, for Socrates knows that he is without wisdom? Socrates' solution to the riddle is precisely that -- that while other men think they know what they do not know, Socrates does not think he knows what he does not know. That may mean that Socrates is as wise as any man can be, or simply that, because no man is wise, no man is wiser than Socrates.:

In his book The Greeks H. D. F. Kitto writes that:

[Socrates abandoned his study of physics for the question] How are we to live? The answer to this question he did not know, but he set himself to find out, by the rigorous examination of other men's ideas [Apology 21d ff.]. This examination showed Socrates, and the eager young men who followed him about, that the traditional morality [i.e. the cardinal virtues [or, human excellences] of Greece: "Justice, Courage, Self-restraint, and Wisdom" (p. 165), to which it seems should be added: Piety and perhaps Modesty] had no foundation in logic [Comment: what could Kitto possibly mean by that? If 'to have a foundation in logic' means 'to name a common nature (or, essence)', then it may be that ethical terms have "no foundation in logic". However, Kitto seems here instead to be contrasting convention with nature, and saying that what Socrates' questioning apparently showed was that traditional morality had no foundation in nature, which is not obviously the same thing as having "no foundation in logic"]. No one in Athens could give a definition [But would this be a "real" (i.e. a proposition stating facts about the nature of something -- although not facts about language usage, because usage is convention) or a verbal (logical-grammatical) definition]?] of any moral or intellectual virtue which would survive [Socrates' cross-questioning]. The effect, on some young men, was disastrous; their belief in tradition was destroyed, and they put nothing in its place. (The Greeks (Penguin 1951) ix, p. 166)

But was Socrates' dialectic the cause of an effect? For may it not be instead that the result of Socrates' cross-questioning was treated by some young men as a confirmation of what they had thought they already knew (-- although indeed they still did not know it)? In Plato's Theaetetus [210a-c] he says that the result of discovering one's own ignorance by being refuted in argument is modesty and gentleness, not reckless arrogance. But if "some young men" did not find the propositions they wished to be true (e.g. 'Morality is mere convention') refuted by Socrates' dialectic, then that might possibly result in reckless arrogance. Xenophon thought it was not a matter of Socrates' companionship at all but simply of some young men having a vicious character:

... it was thus with Critias and Alcibiades. So long as they were with Socrates, they found in him an ally who gave them strength to conquer their evil passions. But when they parted from him ... (Xenophon, Memorabilia i, 2, 24)

If that was the case, then Socrates could not be accused of "corrupting the young", but only with failing to make all his companions or listeners remain virtuous even when they parted company with him.

Query: meaning is put to use Wittgenstein.

"Meaning something" -- i.e. intending some bit of language to mean something -- is to put that bit of language to use. Wittgenstein: look at a word as if it were a tool and the use of that tool its meaning (PI § 421).

Waiting on an Insight

I was asked what I was reading these days and answered philosophy books, the same things over and over again, but I do not understand them. "But you understand a little more each time you read them?" No, it doesn't work that way.

I think this is a good analogy. One may look again and again at a figure, seeking to see a new aspect -- as one does when one looks at the figures which exemplify Gestalt shift. But there is no necessity about the figure shifting for you: you may never be able to see the rabbit no matter how long you scan the duck-rabbit figure with your eyes. And so it is in philosophy. An insight may be needed in order to understand, but it does not follow that an insight will come to you. You ask yourself again and again: Am I looking at this the right way?

The universal Gestalt shift: the new way of looking at language. I am not good at inventing metaphors; nonetheless here is another. Goethe wrote: "You must either be the hammer or the anvil." Now, the old way of looking at language is that language is the hammer and you are the anvil [the helpless victim of language], whereas the new way of looking at language is that language is the anvil and you are the hammer -- i.e. in the new view language changes from having control over you to your having control over it: it becomes a tool in your hands. One has definite answers to questions such as "What is the meaning of a word?" and "What is the meaning of 'meaning'?", methods for arriving at clarity.

The change is as decisive e.g. as that from the alchemical to the chemical way of thinking. -- The new way of thinking is what is so hard to establish [It can only come from thinking about problems in a new way].
  [But once] it is established the old problems disappear; indeed it becomes hard to recapture them. For they go with [or, are embedded] in the way we express ourselves ... (CV p. 48 [MS 131 48: 15.8.1946 §§ 1-2])

Do the old problems disappear because we use a new form of expression? I wonder if Wittgenstein's account is true; because I still use the expression 'in the mind' and others like it, although I no longer construe the grammar of 'mind' as if that word were the name of an object. I certainly, after Wittgenstein, think about the logic of our language in a new way, but I still use the accustomed forms of expression of our language. Maybe an example of what Wittgenstein had in mind is the change from "theory of abstraction" to "family likeness", because we no longer use expressions such as 'abstract object'.

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert Wesley Angelo. Last revised: 19 September 2010 : 2010-09-19

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Search | Bibliography | Site Map