Home | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map

Questions without Answers

Alice sighed and gave it up. "It's exactly like a riddle with no answer!" (Through the Looking Glass, ix)

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 Bernard's remark need be true psychologically nor that Wittgenstein's remark need be a true account of the "grammatical logic" of our word 'question'. On the contrary, doesn't there exist a collection of questions for which there are no answers, at least not answers knowable by the natural light of reason, 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 existence (our life).

Outline of this Page

Enigmas and Logical Paradoxes

Questions without answers are often called 'enigmas' or 'mysteries', 'riddles' or 'puzzles without solutions', 'imponderables', or 'conundrums'. The description 'essentially problematical questions' could also be used to classify them. So that the topic of this page could be called The riddle of existence or The philosophical enigma/s of life.

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, expecting agreement to the rightness of asking them. However, even enigmas or rhetorical questions must not be nonsense (i.e. undefined combinations of words).

The word 'grammar' in Wittgenstein

There are also "logic circles" (paradoxes), questions that it seems cannot be answered correctly, such as the question of whether the statement of the ancient Cretan who said 'All Cretans are liars' is true or false (Diog. L. ii, 108), because: If it is true, it is false, and if it is false it is true, and so on and on. That is a circle of sorts, a conjuring trick of syntax that sets the intellect chasing its own tail (PI § 109).

But words are tools, and for what work in the language would we use the combination of words 'Everything I say is false'? Words (sounds, marks on paper) do not have meaning in themselves, but only when they are given a use in the language. Note: as Wittgenstein used the word 'grammar' (revised that concept), grammar DEF.= everything needed to describe the use of language, and, because meaning is use in the language rather than form: logic = that part of grammar concerned with language sense and nonsense (in contrast to syntax).

Antithesis and Meaning

Questions without answers ... 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. BB 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'.

Mysteries or self-mystifications?

On the other hand, there is a difference between saying that Some questions cannot be answered and saying that All questions cannot be answered (Note that this "cannot" must be logical impossibility, not simply practical impossibility). The second statement is nonsense, but is the first statement nonsense as well? Compare the difference between 'Some language is vague' and 'All language is vague'. Is that a valid comparison? But no concept is essentially vague: where boundaries are indefinite, we can always set boundaries that are more definite; and the same is true of the questions without answers -- we can always redefine those questions in a way that makes them answerable ... if that is what we want to do.

For we ourselves made them unanswerable. (Z § 259)

But did we ourselves make them unanswerable -- or does the nature of our existence make them unanswerable? If the following eleven questions (A-H) really are mysteries rather than muddles, they belong to "the eternal questions" of man, and the answers to them are, in Plato's words, "important to know", not "worthless" (Apology 23b, Euthydemus 293b), and even if there are no answers, the questions themselves are important to know. And maybe there is a "metaphysical use" of the word 'question'.

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 (Sophist 233e-234a). Viewing "the world as a whole -- a limited whole" [seeing the world as 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.


"The limits of language"

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 statements of fact (sense perception); 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 (It is only within the world that there are facts); 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.

"Astonishment that cannot be put into words"

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)

Through the Looking Glass, v ('Wool and Water'), the White Queen, 17 KB
God Himself cannot understand nonsense, because there is nothing there to understand

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 conveys meaning is after all not nonsense ("When a sentence is called meaningless, it is not as it were its meaning that is meaningless").

We can say (I think) that we have various pictures (e.g. "existence as something added to nothing"), some sharper, some cloudier than others, but these pictures are not nonsense. What is the opposite of "anything"? Imagine a sheet of paper on which there are drawings (or writings), and now image that we erase 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.)

"Well, if that's what you mean -- why was something drawn or written rather than not. But isn't that asking who or what wrote it? Indeed, didn't Leibniz answer his own question with: God wrote it? And now you will ask Why is there God rather than not, and why did God write rather than not?"

And in this way we create through grammar, as with riddle of The Owl and the Egg, a question without an answer. But is it self-mystification when there is not an answer that would be acceptable to us? Are we wrong to be mystified; is our mystification a mistake? [Cf. the word's Isaiah has God speak, "My ways are not your ways. My thoughts are as high above yours as the heavens are above the earth" (55.8-9) -- the picture being that not only are there things we don't understand, but there are things we are without the capacity to understand, things Isaiah [55.9] calls "the thoughts of God" and we call "the eternal questions". Indeed, 'God' is the name we give our ignorance.]

The picture is there ... But what is its application? (PI § 424)

Maybe we could say that "Why is there anything, not nothing?" assumes "Because God has made it?", and that therefore "Why is there God, not nothing?" is the same question as "Why is there anything, not nothing?"


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." (CV 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]

Maybe, 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 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.

"It is there -- like our life"

... those who speak of things as being "gratuitous", de trop or "just there" [cf. OC § 559] betray by the very phrases which they use the fact that their reason is not satisfied with the idea of a finite thing as "just there". (Frederick C. Copleston, Religion and Philosophy (1974), p. 177)

From the grammatical point of view, our life is "just there". That's all we know about it. But of course metaphysics isn't about what we know but about what we wish to know but seem unable to know. I think those who deny or avoid the ontological question do so because they want nothing to do with the concept 'God' (Leibniz asked the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' in the context of his picture of God the Creator), which is the tautological answer to the question. But God is not an explanation, for the answer must not be less clear than the question. The significant difference is between saying that there is no answer to the question and saying that there is no question at all (because it is nonsense). But proving that the question is a meaningless combination of words, i.e. nonsense, does not seem possible.


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

Frederick Copleston asked this question (or as I mis-recalled Fr. Copleston asked that question, for he did not quite do that) with regard to the Logical Positivist claim that, because religious statements are not verifiable, they are without meaning (the "verification principle").

In this context the question would be -- 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.

But which kind of possibility is being asked about? It is not "real possibility" because it is unverifiable, and it is not "logical possibility" because it cannot be described beyond the proposition 'There is an x that it is impossible for man to perceive' or 'There are xs that are not detectible by the senses'. Is the kind of possibility, then, "metaphysical possibility"?

The proposition 'Things don't just disappear into thin air' is neither a statement of fact nor of metaphysics. Rather it sets the rule for our investigations; cf. 'Everything that exists is perceptible to the senses'.

To roughly adapt a distinction made in Wittgenstein's TLP -- because that book uses the word 'nonsense' eccentrically (We don't normally say that language that can convey meaning -- i.e. that has meaning -- is meaningless) -- the Logical Positivists not only divorced the language of "saying" -- i.e. propositions about the perceptible world and thus verifiable and falsifiable by sense perception -- from the language of "showing" -- i.e. language about anything else -- but they also denied that the language of "showing" has any meaning. (This was their "verification principle of meaning".)

Wittgenstein called Logical Positivism's demand for universal verification a dogma, saying that, on the contrary, if you know that a proposition is unverifiable, you know something important about its use in the language (i.e. about its "grammar"), not that the proposition must be meaningless.

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

[Aristotle devotes] the whole book [Metaphysics Β] to the setting out of some fourteen major problems, for instance: ... "Does anything exist apart from sensible objects?" [997a34-35] (Guthrie, Aristotle (1981), p. 90; W.D. Ross' translation: "... must we say that sensible substances alone exist, or that there are others besides these?" As to the "others" Aristotle means such things as Plato's Forms, which are not perceptible to the senses.)

If I correctly remember, before Pasteur's discovery of harmful microbes, doctors killed countless patients because they did not wash their hands: they would go directly from the mortuary to the operating theater and the maternity ward: If you cannot perceive something, then it must be that it does not exist (How else was natural science to free itself from what Newton called "hypotheses"?) If surgeons before Pasteur had discovered a positive correlation between washing hands and lower mortality rates, which is in fact what Semmelweis (1818-1865) did, they would have found a technique to reduce deaths following births and surgery -- but they would not have known why this technique worked. If microbes were essentially imperceptible to man, that would answer Fr. Copleston's question -- but we would not know that they were essentially imperceptible (only the eye of God would). 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.

The limit of dimensions

Imagine a creature that exists only in the geometrical plane: it perceives only two dimensions, as James Jeans describes. From time to time the creature perceives that the plane becomes wet, but because it cannot perceive the third dimension, it does not know that the wet patches are raindrops. Similarly, by analogy, if knowledge of a phenomenon requires perception of a fourth dimension, then a creature that perceives only three dimensions, namely man, cannot know the cause of the phenomenon. (This does not, of course, prove that there is a fourth dimension and therefore that reality is not confined to what is in principle perceptible to the human senses. Whether there really are only three dimensions is the question without an answer.)

Scientific theories and Reality itself

The description of the perception of a rain-shower in two dimensions suggests that scientific theories are and ever will be theories, not only because they are a selection of the conceived facts plus imagination (i.e. chosen data organized or arranged -- i.e. conceived -- by man into maps, models, pictures), but because they are not about reality in itself -- if there even is a single reality, a free-of-conceptions reality in itself -- but only about a reality perceptible to our senses.

If we want to make a prosthetic eye for a blind man and if the essential elements needed to do this are perceptible, then we may succeed. But 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 -- if 'knowing' = 'being able to trace a mechanism' -- how it worked.

The limits of an individual's world

We perceive three dimension with five senses ... but ex hypothesi it might be otherwise. Indeed there might be many more dimensions than three for a being possessed of the senses necessary to perceive them.

The blind man's perception of reality differs from that of a man with five senses. By analogy we ask: suppose 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 analogy's idea is also of something completely undetectable by someone with only five senses.

Absolute pitch

Consider the man with absolute pitch in music: most people do not hear what he hears; contrast that with the tone-deaf man: most people do hear what he doesn't hear. Would the born-blind people of my fable ever have created mirrors, or a born-deaf people musical instruments? The language in The Country of the Blind would have no color-words, as The Country of the Deaf would have no sound-words. Drury ask if the blind man understands what the sighted mean by 'light' or the deaf man what the hearing mean by 'sound'?

The color-blind man does not see any gaps in his color system (Z § 257). Nonetheless, compared to the system of the man who is not color-blind, the gaps are there. And so may there not be many gaps in the picture of reality of the man of only five senses?

In H.G. Wells' story, 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." (H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind)

It may be that only human beings can perceive things the way human beings do (forms of life and life forms). And perhaps no two human beings perceive them the same way (This is a much deeper skepticism). Of course for this conjecture to have a meaning, again we must imagine a god who sees what we cannot see, namely: all the differences between species and between individual human beings.

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

All we know is that there is agreement -- and here is meant coincidental, not contractual, agreement -- in the language we use and the way we act (PI § 241). -- The rest is a "question without an answer".

Perceptible but not Perceptible (Perceived)

One possible answer is that there is no "inexpressible", that "what cannot be put into words" (TLP 6.522) does not exist, that Wittgenstein's "the mystical" is simply self-mystification.

But even were it 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 recent inventions, and they might not ever have been invented. We should not take them for granted, nor ever presume that all of perceptible reality -- much less all of what is most fundamental to reality -- is now available to us (or necessarily ever will be).

It was modesty invented the word 'philosophy', and we should never lose sight of this, even in, or even especially in, what Isaac Newton called natural philosophy.

"Percepts without concepts are blind"

"There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses." How do you know, for that is the very question we are asking now? According to Plato, and in a quite different way Kant and Fichte, the truth of that proposition is doubtful. Why not "There is nothing in the senses that was not first in the mind" instead or as well? (Rationalism, Empiricism, Idealism)

If only what can be conceived can be perceived, then "The limit of empiricism is concept formation". And that means that even if everything is perceptible, we may not perceive all of it, if we are poor in concepts (and is it plausible that we are not?) And it also means that our concepts of today may not be our concepts of tomorrow.

The limit of the empirical -- is concept-formation. (RFM iv § 29, p. 237)

That is the answer to the question "Why investigate words rather than the phenomena they name?" Because the concept says what the phenomenon is -- and if there is a "vice versa", it's not one we can know: "percepts without concepts are blind" means that we can't explain concept-formation (PI II, xii, p. 230) by "the percept in itself" (if there is such a thing, and if there is, we certainly don't know that there is).

The "conceived facts", and the Questions without Answers

About Wittgenstein's account of language ("grammar"): "If we are happy to go no further than the public facts of our language use" ... But the facts in plain view -- i.e. what is perceptible -- do not answer philosophy's deepest questions, and this is why Plato and many others have sought insight through metaphysical speculation, to cure their perplexity -- i.e. ignorance of what they want to know or understand but recognize that they do not.

Spirits and Ghosts

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.

Can a ghost see itself, its face at it were, in a mirror?

If by 'ghost' we mean an object that is invisible to our senses but not invisible to its own, then surely a ghost can. But is that what we mean by 'spirit' or 'ghost' -- or do we mean by those words "something non-material", something "as intangible as a thought or idea". But is this a metaphor: "A spirit is an object of zero dimensions, an existent that occupies no space" -- or is it nonsense?

When the spirit of God hovers over the waters (Genesis 1.2), does it see its reflection in the waters? Can the invisible spirit of God cast an invisible shadow?

The discussion thus wanders off into metaphysical pictures -- and not a little nonsense (undefined language) as well. But the fundamental question without answer simply is whether everything real is also perceptible or whether there may not be things that are essentially imperceptible to man (their imperceptibility belonging to man's essence, not as it were to theirs).

Are the limits of human sense perception also the limits of reality? That is not of course a question natural science can answer. Not that philosophy can answer it either. It is a question without an answer.

Related question: Is reality confined to what is conceivable? This question tells us at least as much about natural science as the other does.

'Are there innate and inescapable categories of thought, that limit man's concepts as man's five senses limit his percepts?'

This was Kant's notion, and why he believed metaphysics to be impossible, because reality can be known only within the innate categories man is limited by -- man cannot know absolute reality (which is what metaphysics seeks to know), things in themselves apart from man's conception/perception of them.

Are there categories that we cannot think without making use of? Examples might be 'object' and 'space', 'cause and effect', 'sense and nonsense', 'one and more-than-one', 'true and false', 'sound and silence'. (Note: save 'causality', those are not Kant's own categories, and those I have listed may all be disputed.) The notion of necessary-if-man-is-to-think-at-all categories of thought is found in Thomas Aquinas, who called these "first principles".


C.  'Is there Providence or a meaning to our life?'

Does what happens in the world -- that is, does what happens to each of us as individuals -- have a reason, a purpose for happening ... or is "the truth is much graver than this fiction", i.e. that it is only nature's blind laws (or random quanta) that rule our life?

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.  (The allusion is to TLP 6.44.) And contrariwise.

What do we mean by 'Providence'? -- Divine Providence (an intelligently guided world)? "Is there Providence?" -- is this an empirical question (hypothesis)? If God is benevolent (which if he is intelligent he will be -- the rational seeks only the good) rather than malevolent, should we expect to find a world in which there is life but no death, health but no illness, goodness but no evil, virtue but no vice, indeed Christianity's Kingdom of God? But this world is not that kingdom (Christianity's answer is that the kingdom belongs to an afterlife: the purpose of this life is to seek the kingdom by loving God and one's neighbor as oneself) -- and therefore does the existence of evil, both natural and man-made prove that Providence = God does not exist (Christianity does not answer the question of why there is evil)? But men have always known of the existence of evil -- yet nonetheless they have believed in Providence -- and this seems to be because their belief presumes that God understands what man cannot understand (Isaiah 55.8-9), as indeed man cannot understand the God of Nature from man's ethical point of view.

It seems that either the answer to this question is that there is no Providence, or that this is not an empirical question. As a non-empirical question it is without answer (Providence is counter-factual -- it cannot be described in such a way as to fit the known facts -- although many logically possible answers may be imagined), but unanswered it makes our existence a quandary, a riddle without solution.

Each life, even despite the acknowledged facts, thinks itself the center of the universe, existing for a reason, its life and death not without meaning (even if that meaning is unknowable). That picture is found e.g. in Christianity, where the Lord dies crucified for the sake of every individual man, thereby making man the center of God's universe and giving his individual existence (life and death) meaning. (Religion cannot, of course, answer philosophical questions, because philosophy is seeking to know by the natural light of reason alone, which religious faith is not. What religion can offer philosophy is pictures, models, of what solutions to particular metaphysical problems might look like. Like scientific discoveries, religious answers "lighten the philosopher's task, [namely the task of] imagining possibilities" (Wittgenstein, Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, tr. Luckhardt and Aue (1982) i, § 807).)

Note that there are at least two general pictures of Providence, for it is possible that our life may have an overall meaning without every particular event in our life itself having a meaning. Of course, another possibility is that "The whole affair is utterly senseless ... There is no meaning to it."

'Is there life after death?'

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 transfer of the soul from this place to some other. But which it is, God alone knows. (Plato, Apology 40c-41c, 42a, tr. Tredennick abridged; the Greek word rendered here as 'soul' is 'psyche'.)

The picture of an afterlife is not an hypothesis. But neither is the picture of a sleep without dreams. Both show only logical, not real, possibility. And that is why the outcome of death is a question without an answer.

Materialism is metaphysics

There is a common inclination towards belief in the picture of death as a dreamless sleep (oblivion), which seems to be founded in a stubborn materialism (Plato, Sophist 246a-b, 247c). But that inclination is a "thinking oneself wise when one is not, thinking one knows what one does not know" (Plato, Apology 29a), for note that material-ism ("All of reality is perceptible to the senses") is just as much metaphysics as "spirit-ism" is.

The Homeric picture of the shades in Hades (Od. 11, tr. Fitzgerald: "the region of the Men of Winter", figures as "impalpable as shadows, wavering like a dream") would be an example of "a transfer from this place to some other". Of course there are many others. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come".

What is the essence of man -- is man essentially mind (Plato) or essentially mind and body (Aristotle)? Does the answer to that question affect the answer to the question of life after death? (This is a metaphysical, not a scientific question. -- Why?)

Note.--By 'hypothesis' I mean: a picture that can be compared with what it is imagined to be a picture of, and, therefore, by that comparison, be verified or falsified by experience. It is characteristic of metaphysical pictures that they are not hypotheses. (Cf. "Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through" (TLP 6.4311, tr. Ogden) -- i.e. only where both sides of an event occur in this life/world is verification possible. And that is why neither picture of the outcome of death is an hypothesis.)

We use what we do know to find answers to what we don't know, namely what lies beyond what we can see. But only in this world (We don't say of a corpse that it perceives). We can't do that for death: l'au-delà here is "the beyond sense perception", if there is anything beyond what can be perceived by the senses.

Omnia exeunt in mysterium: all things vanish into mystery. Here all things vanish into death. From the point of view of our life in this world, all things vanish into sleep, the unknown, the mystery. (Wittgenstein and Plato: the riddle and the afterlife.)


D.  'Do good and evil exist?'

Are good and evil the same for all human beings at all times and in all places, as Sophocles' Antigone says, "not of today nor yesterday, but fixed from everlasting to eternity"? 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: How must man live his life if there is good and evil?

Socrates and Kant

Historically there have been two basic responses: To ask if there are "absolute values" is to cast this question in the non-rational light Wittgenstein saw it in (cf. Kant's light of categorical conscience). But the question looks very different when cast in a Socratic light, where the thoroughgoing use of natural reason responds to the Delphic precept "Know thyself" by discovering what the specific excellence proper and unique to man is.


E.  'Am I awake or am I dreaming?'

The kind of doubt, and whether doubt is possible, is the kind of language game. (cf. PI ii, xi, p. 224e)

'Am I awake?' is the kind of question without answer (or apparent question) the Verification Principle was thought to do away with. And yet the question remains or seems to remain. 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, either you are playing the "language game" or you are not playing it at all (OC § 446). Because you are introducing -- or trying 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 with which there is nothing to compare, or which can only be compared by a god who sees what we cannot see), which we call the "idle pictures" of metaphysics, certainly not truth and knowledge.

And so then why do we want to call -- indeed, why do we call -- such expressions of doubt (or apparent expressions of doubt) express fundamental insights into the human condition? (Which are such questions without answers -- are they insights or delusions?)

Our sanity is at the mercy of a molecule. (Drury, DW 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 works (its uses as various tools) -- when we take language "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's ways of life. 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. What I cannot doubt Augustine says is that if I am doubting I exist.

Doubts can go down to what rests directly on the foundations, but below the foundations they cannot go (because there is no such place). Nevertheless, that is what metaphysics wants to do when it tries to undermine or overthrow those foundations with its questions without answer.


Death and Sleep

What is the difference between death and sleep? If someone said sleep is a form of death, that would be metaphorical: what comparison is being made between sleep and death, between sleeping and being dead. Again, this is not a grammatical question, but metaphysics' "deeper level": if death is oblivion and sleep is oblivion, what does that say about oblivion? ("Death is the final oblivion, the sleep without end." What is the prose form of that metaphor?)

"Am I dreaming?"

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. (If I say 'I am deceiving myself' what is the normal 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', without meaning. In Wittgenstein's narrow sense of 'meaning' 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: the bedrock does not itself have bedrock. If I really were unable to decide whether I were awake or were dreaming, that would be madness (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, it is meaningless to weigh them (cf. PI § 142), and if I am awake it is meaningless to ask if I am dreaming.

"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?

[Sleep-walking and language]


F.  '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. Is that 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, when we learn language, we are taught to call (classify as) animals -- and also plants -- living things (life), to say they are alive, as we too are alive. That is part of the natural history of man.

'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 (PI II, iv, p. 178), in contrast to an attitude toward an automaton, a lifeless machine?

One cannot "explain life". It will always be for us an enigma. (Schweitzer | Drury and clarification by full-stop)

'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. If a branch is cut away from a bush, the bush is alive but now is the branch alive? Is an individual leaf alive, on the bush? cut away?

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' are undefined if applied to a life form that is so different from our own (PI §§ 357, 360). Yet, nonetheless, we do feel a kinship to all life, animal, plant, insect. We may even feel a sympathetic kinship, as Schweitzer did.


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

Note: I am wary of scientific puzzles because, as far as I can see, the only limit to scientific explanation is concept-formation, the imagination of genius. Of course, that suspicion is not an hypothesis, and maybe we could say the same thing about philosophical explanation. Plato himself was puzzled by the origin of names (Cratylus 439b-440c), however, and so I will consider the related, apparently unanswerable, question of the origin of natural language in man.

[Maybe the scientific question would be: What is the origin of natural language? because the question "What was the origin?" may be answered by natural history hypotheses, which are speculative, in contrast to propositions of experimental science which can be verified by being reproduced without exception in the laboratory. "Without exception", because otherwise mightn't language have been an accident, rather than a biological necessity, in human development? Is the scientific question, "If an identical species of man emerges, how must natural language arise and develop in it?" But what is "biological necessity" when it's at home? So simply calling the origin of natural language a "scientific" riddle doesn't make anything clearer, for to say that every question about the natural world is a scientific question is to say nothing at all.]

Mystery of Natural history

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

The cries of animals and human language

... 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, it seems by nature, countless other 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 (protolanguage)? 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.

Why simpler forms of expression?

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 (Sanskrit, Greek, Latin) are also the oldest.

That textbook-grammar should become simpler as human beings become less primitive is baffling. Because: Why was it so complicated in the first place? Did primitive human beings invent this grammar? A scholarly class? Or did man 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.)

Learning versus Endowment

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? The riddle, non-riddle of the owl and the egg.)

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? Or is there work yet for anthropology to do among the living? (Studies are made of developing children, but these seem to suggest only how a language is acquired or learned, not the origin of language.)

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

But why 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 presumably is possible.

Birds and Man

"Or did we sing as birds sing, but with meaning?" Wittgenstein: "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him" (ibid. II, xi, p. 223), nor would he understand us. And birds do talk (if indeed that is what they do), and we don't understand them. (The universal loss of language can be described.)

If we pictured a step-by-step build up of language as in Wittgenstein's primitive language games (PI §§ 7, 23), each arising naturally in answer to the particular needs of a community, would that be a plausible picture of the origin of language? But if it is plausible, it is nothing more than plausible; plausible = plausible, nothing more.

[Note that when Wittgenstein invents "primitive language games", it is not to speculate about the origins of language, even when the games describe ways in which a child learns its native language. Wittgenstein's games are objects of comparison (PI § 130) -- i.e. models to be compared with our actual use of language, to make that use clear, for the sake of resolving philosophical problems (ibid. § 109).]

But on the other hand Wittgenstein's model of primitive language games does seem to show that a primitive language need not consist of squawks and screeches, to which human language has no resemblance. (Did man's earliest speech discuss our Questions without Answers? Those discussions are not primitive language games.)

The question of the origin of language is not impossible to answer if we are looking for a scientific theory -- because the only limit of science is hypothesis-formation (and, it appears, the net of human perception). But any scientific theory shares this quality with all other kinds of myths, namely that its basis is natural phenomena plus imagination: imagination creates the way of looking at and organizing phenomena. But imagination can create other ways as well. And that is why a theory should never be mistaken for the phenomenon it seeks to understand. It is the phenomenon itself that poses a "question without answer".

Companionship is a human concept

Only of a human being and what resembles one do we say that it thinks. (PI § 360)

Late one evening as I went outside to the chair on the steps, I saw a rabbit on the lawn a few yards away. It did not move, not when I went out, not as I sat there, but after a while it went back to eating the grass of the lawn. And I wondered if the rabbit was as happy for my company as I was for its company. It might easily have moved away: there were many other lawns, more protected spots. But it did not. Why? That is an impenetrable mystery (There is no scientific answer to this question), the thoughts of that rabbit, of whether a wild rabbit can be happy for companionship, even if it is only of a man sitting quietly nearby. And what of the moth flying around my lamp this evening?

Animal appearance or behavior that resembles human appearance and behavior. Do rabbits think? What do their thoughts look like? Thoughts without language. All we know is that their appearance and behavior resemble human being appearance and behavior -- nothing more.

A possible origin for human language

An example of an answer, not to the question of the original form, but to the question of the original source of human language, is suggested by Helen Keller's story of how she herself learned language.


What is the origin of our thoughts?

Another question that appears to be a scientific question, but is instead a question without answer, is: What is the origin of our creative thoughts?

About a metaphor I used -- had I invented it myself? If asked, I could only answer that the idea suggested itself to me. "Out of the blue?" Where else would it have come from (i.e. does the combination of words 'Where did the idea come from?' have an application here if its answer isn't e.g. So-and-so writer or Such-and-such book)? It's true that I have been thinking about these things for more than forty years -- but is that the cause of my idea, 'cause' in the scientific sense?

What would a scientific explanation look like -- tracing a mechanism? What would that mechanism look like in this case? For creative thoughts, could a mechanism be traced in the brain? "Here are the words 'lassoing a nebulosity' in the brain, and --."

The picture is absurd. Will it always be? Will the origin of natural language always be unanswerable? I don't know. But if we cannot even say what a plausible logically possible explanation would look like, is that not an indication that we are asking what I have called a question without an answer?

[Wittgenstein said to Drury, "Sometimes my ideas come so quickly that I feel as if my pen was being guided" (Recollections p. 153). Compare: Plato and the poets: "inspiration" versus discourse of reason.]


Existence is superfluous to need. Nothing need exist. It if did, it would not be possible to imagine [picture] the contrary. And if existence is unnecessary, then the essential relationship is between existence and -- not need -- but want. And that is the basis of Schweitzer's question.

H.  'Why does man want to live? What is life aiming at?'

The first riddle of existence for Albert Schweitzer is not the existence of anything at all ("the world") but instead of our innate "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 may think that we must look to the answer to the first question ("the world") to give us the answer to the second question ("life's meaning"). But in Schweitzer's view it is just the reverse: Life's meaning is not be found in knowledge of the universe (the world) but only in our will-to-live. World-view will follow, if a worldview can be found at all, from Life-view, not vice versa.

If looked at from the point of view of ethics, which is the human point of view, in the universe we find no overall purposiveness, because -- as a very general fact -- nature both creates and destroys what it creates (and we can discern no ethics behind this creation and destruction), and in the midst of this creation and destruction mankind's continued existence on earth is by no means assured. (Cf. Schweitzer's Civilization and Ethics xvii, and "Religion in Modern Civilization").

Is it not, therefore, perplexing that man, whose reason tells him that existence as such (both in its that-ness and how-ness) is unintelligible, nonetheless chooses to go on living without reasons (i.e. without an answer to his perplexity)? Why does he not, as a rational being, refuse to move until he has an answer? Why is man willing to exist in the mist of this most fundamental of all fundamental mysteries?

Rather than a willingness to live, there is an inner compulsion to live. The word 'will' suggests a choice, but that choice isn't chosen, except by nature itself for man. And so it appears that --

I am an compulsion to live in the midst of other compulsions to live.

The body, source of endless trouble that it is to man (Plato, Phaedo 66c-d), forces man to live: "Hunger drives even the wolf from its cave." But man is not simply an animal: man is half-rational: he is not "a beast wanting discourse of reason". He can reason his way to self-destruction: "The door is always open" (Epictetus).

Albert Camus thought the first question in philosophy is "Should I kill myself?" Well, if life is "meaningless" -- and what else does 'unintelligible as such' mean? -- then why not? What do we do with meaningless things if not discard them? [On the other hand, Beethoven's instrumental music is metaphysically meaningless, and we don't discard that. This sense of 'meaningless' or 'pointless' ≠ 'worthless' or 'uninteresting'.]

What would an answer look like to the question of why man wills to live? That the animal impulse is stronger than the rational impulse of the rational animal is apparent, but how it can be stronger is not -- That is what "astonishes", to use Wittgenstein's word -- and in that sense the question is "a question 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 [i.e. of all living things] will to live. (Civilization and Ethics, 2nd rev. ed. (1929), tr. C.T. Campion, p. x)

The mystery of nature

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 writing about "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, and their ideas are not an "attack on science" (DW p. 73-4))

"... in every way mysterious of the will to live." This shows that metaphysics is, or is always, "on a deeper level". Because a botanist might say in response, There is no mystery about it that natural science has not solved or will not solve: we can show how this flower develops from a seed; we can describe its whole life and death cycle. There is nothing mysterious here. And if you ask "Yes, but why all this?" then the answer is that the question you are trying to pose is merely an undefined combination of words, the result of following a false grammatical analogy: man acts with purpose, assigning reasons for what he chooses to do -- and therefore life itself must have a purpose, a reason for being as well. But there is no "therefore" here; language-meaning is not created by syntax alone (cf. "Where is the book?" On the table. "Where is the mind?"). Nevertheless! metaphysics says.

Schweitzer: all we know

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])

Put out the light, and then put out the light. If I quench thee ... I can again thy former light restore .... But once put out thy light ... I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume. When I have plucked the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again. It needs must wither. (Othello v, 2)

"I am life that wills to live in the midst of [other] life that wills to live" (Out of my Life and Thought (1931), tr. Lemke, Chapter 13, p. 156). "I am life which wants to live, and all around me is life that wants to live" (The Problem of Ethics in the Evolution of Human Thought (1952), tr. John Russell). 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" (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 246), to "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live" (Plato, Republic 352d, which is the topic of Plato's Gorgias).


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", a language essentially understood by himself alone, which would be a language without a distinction between sense and nonsense even for Descartes, because its "sense" might even be "mere sound without sense" and there would be no way for Descartes to know that (PI § 258).

[There is further difficulty with Descartes' use of language: Pascal criticises Descartes' failure to distinguish between verbal definitions and physical hypotheses, as Giambattista Vico criticizes Descartes' "New Way of Ideas" for failing to distinguish between the propositions of maths and physics. There is as well 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" ... Note that the word 'mind' is not the name of an object], 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" is not nonsense], never enters their [heads]. (ibid. Chapter 12, p. 137)


Where we begin in philosophy will affect where we end up. Wittgenstein, for example, 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 (i.e. overwhelming desire) 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? From the point of view of World-view, yes, it seems. But from the point of view of Life-view, the question of how we should live our life, maybe not.

Schweitzer found the answer to that question in "reverence for life", by which he meant the solidarity of my will-to-live with all other life, all forms of which are to be regarded as equally sacred, and therefore whatever is beneficial to life is good, and whatever harms life is bad. (But as Schweitzer's dilemma of the fish and the pelican shows, that general principle may be impossible to apply to the particular case.)

Due to the principle of Reverence for Life, Schweitzer wrote, we "are no longer obliged to derive our ethical world-view [i.e. life-view] from knowledge of the universe", a derivation which we cannot, in any case, make because -- both with respect to the study of natural science and of trying to understand it ethically -- whatever "our point of view the world will remain for us an enigma" (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 18, p. 204).

Schweitzer was not alone in deriving ethics ("no small matter, but how to live") solely from the nature of man himself. As a Greek thinker, Socrates held that the good for a thing is existence in accord with the specific excellence that is proper and unique to it (i.e. for man: rational moral virtue).

The final step is the acceptance of a point of view

But Schweitzer's 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 because it is the acceptance [adoption] of a point of view, a way of looking at things, a reference point treated as if it were absolute. A philosopher says: "Look at things this way!" But there are other ways. (There is no absolute reference point -- no "Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move the world!" in answer to Archimedes -- or, in other words, there is no bedrock beneath bedrock.)

As to the first question above:

Whichever way we look at it, existence will remain for us a riddle. (cf. Out of my Life and Thought in Campion's 1933 translation; The riddle (TLP 6.5) does exist, Wittgenstein later acknowledged)

[The materialist will say that proposition is false. But materialism itself cannot be demonstrated.] But again: From the point of view of ethics, are the questions of our life's meaning and of the meaning of the world the same question? It was Albert Schweitzer's thought that although the second question (Nature-philosophy) cannot be answered, the first question (Life-philosophy) can.

["... to ask nature questions of ethics, because that is the human point of view." But it is not Socrates' view, which contrasts ethics with meaning of life, and does not assign an ethical meaning to the latter question (although there are non-ethical things worth knowing, or that would be worth knowing, about our life, that it seems we cannot know).]


Four catechism questions

"A simple story in words of one syllable", as they must be if they are to be eternal questions of all mankind.

"What are the most important things in life?"  "Why are we born?"  "What is the meaning of suffering?"  "What lies beyond death?" ( Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki (1988), xi)

Clearly these questions are not asked as if man by himself could answer them. The author says these are simple catechism "questions posed rather naïvely", but they don't seem naïve to me. What are the equivalents to the questions I have asked? The "most important things" is the question of ethics (What is the good for man? Of course in Christianity there is a metaphysical world-picture behind this, answering that question; but in Socratic ethics there is not). Both "why we are born" and "the meaning of suffering" seem questions of whether there is Providence (Is there a plan?), and "what lies beyond death" seems equivalent to is there an afterlife?

Was the firmament that he once thought so beautiful just a never-ending void of meaningless? (ibid.)

To Kant's "the starry sky above" may be added "and the atoms below", their distances from man well beyond vast [The size of an apple relative to the earth is the size of an atom relative to an apple (ibid. xvi)], because, like "the moral law within", both fill us with awe -- and puzzlement ("Philosophy begins in wonder," Plato said).

But what is the meaning of the starry sky above, and is there a universal moral law within [Is that supposed to be an empirical question? and so it seems that Kant must mean "the moral law within me"; cf. the "love man finds within himself" of which Schweitzer spoke]?

If the word 'God' is somehow (I don't know how) a name, then it certainly is not the name of anything comprehensible to man. A strange, singular tool. But why shouldn't a concept exist, as apparently the eternal questions without answers do, for just this purpose?

Socratic questions without answer (Plato)

Socrates looked for definitions of the essences named by moral terms, Plato says in order to find standards of measurement for all circumstances in which ethical judgments are required. Thus: What is piety (correct conduct towards God)? What is justness (correct conduct towards human beings)? What is courage? temperance? etc. But those are not necessarily unanswerable questions. We have, instead, to look to see whether there is some quality "in which they do not differ but are all alike" or not (Meno 72c).


General Discussion

What is the grammar (in Wittgenstein's jargon) of these Questions without Answers?

What is the source of the unanswerability of the eternal questions? Has it any relationship to "general facts of nature that can explain concept-formation" (PI II, xii, p. 230)? But if it has, are those facts about the nature of the world -- or only about the nature of man?

Do we not want answers to the eternal questions? That you can't say. What you can say is that we are in a queer place here, away from our normal language games of question and answer: These questions "rob us of our orientation" (Z § 259); "A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about" (PI § 123).

The questions recast as propositions

These questions can be given a non-question form. Wittgenstein: "When I suddenly have an experience of being struck by the fact that the world exists, I want to say, 'I wonder at the existence of the world' (LE p. 8: astonishment that anything exists).

Variation. When awareness of existence breaks in on my thinking, I want to say, 'I feel profoundly disquieted that anything at all exists'.

But is it nonsense if I say 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' instead? But is that saying the same thing? If I ask why, is it not because I think there should or must be a because?

What work is done with this tool?

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

The facts about what we are doing 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 (PI § 421: "Look at the sentence as an instrument, and at its sense as its employment"). What work are these tools being used to do? or is this language just idling (ibid. § 132)? These are problems without solutions, but are they also without resolution (i.e. work to do)?

What is our aim with these questions?

What we should have asked is: What use do we want to make of this language?

Karol Wojtyła called language a mystery, related to "the inscrutable mystery of God himself". And indeed without language not only the words on this page, but also the ideas the words on this page express, including the idea of God, would not exist. "Discourse of reason" really is discourse (i.e. language).

I want to say that every time you open your eyes a miracle occurs.... Every time you wake up in the morning and return to consciousness a miracle occurs. (Drury, The Danger of Words (1973), p. 73)

It is not now as it hath been of yore; -- Turn wheresoe'er I may, By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more. The rainbow comes and goes ... (Wordsworth)

What becomes of the child's vision, of "the freshness and the glory of every common sight", when with age we prefer sleep to life, silence to reason? Why do we cease to wonder? (That question is not answered by pointing to "learned ignorance" as if the case were not the same for the conceitedly ignorant.)

Or does the mystery of existence not exist (TLP 6.5)?

Do we use these questions to remind ourselves of the fundamental mystery of our existence? Then that is their "meaning" -- i.e. what they amount to. But is that also their grammatical meaning? Is there a proposition type question-of-the-elementary-and-final?

Someone maybe will say that the origin of language should be no more baffling than the origin of an oak tree out of an acorn: Science will someday figure it out. But is that inconsistent with the reply: No matter how well they are scientifically understood, these phenomena 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, the word 'question' where the word 'answer' has no meaning, the word 'riddle' where the word 'solution' has no meaning? This is the question.

Work or Wander

"I think you might do something better with the time," she said, "than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers." (Alice in Wonderland vii)

If existence is without meaning -- (Is there a difference between saying that existence is 'a mystery' rather than 'without meaning'?) -- by what criterion do you decide what is and what isn't "wasting time" (which is a moral fault)? Is asking the eternal questions, which are "riddles that have no answers", wasting time?

The question returns to the distinction between "meaning of the world" (nature philosophy) and "no small matter, but how to live" (life philosophy). As Socrates and the Greeks looked at things (and also, although very differently, Albert Schweitzer did), even if we cannot explain either the "that-ness" nor ethically account for the "how-ness" of existence, we can know how we should live our life -- and that knowledge is the criterion by which to decide what is and what isn't wasting time.

What can one do if one does not see the whole plan? Work on that part of the plan that one does see. (Lichtenberg, quoted in DW p. 115)

For Socrates and Schweitzer this is possible, but for someone who demands an answer to the riddle of existence before he can know how we should live our life, it is not. If the demand is made that Life-philosophy follow from Nature-philosophy, then aimless wandering through life will be the only path open to man.

[If asking unanswerable riddles is wasting time, then philosophy is wasted time, since that is what most of philosophy is (Plato, Apology 37e-38a).]

A question must have an answer?

Questions that we ourselves have made unanswerable (Z § 259)? What is the value of PI (π = C/2r)? If this can only be answered: "To which decimal place?" why? Because of ourselves (mathematics is a human invention) -- or because of the nature of things?

Is the origin of the questions without answers (otherwise known as philosophy) concept confusion or existence itself?

Statement of logic versus Statement of fact

"There are imponderables." Shouldn't we say this? But not "Because aren't there?" The question is of sense and nonsense: what do we mean by calling something 'imponderable'? The words 'We can never know' here express a way of looking at things; they do not state an hypothesis (statement of fact). That is an essential distinction for logic of language to make.

Categories 'Religion' and 'Philosophy' and 'Questions without answers'

Are the unanswered questions above religious questions? If set answers are given to them in a catechism of religious doctrine, then no. Philosophy only asks these questions; it does not answer them. Religious revelation has answers to the questions, but the answers either don't make sense (because they contradict experience) or they cannot be proved to be anything more than fanciful pictures, mere logical possibilities, with no more substance than a fairy tale, in the eyes of philosophy (cf. the tales of metaphysics about "absolute reality", as if the metaphysical thinker could see the light before it passes through the prism, as Plato would see the light that casts the shadows (Republic 515c), although the shadows are cast by our concepts, concepts without which we are blind).

But in a broader sense of the word 'religious' -- as in Kant's "Two things fill us with wonder: the starry sky above and the moral law within" -- they are religious questions: Isaiah 55.9 imagines God as saying "My thoughts are as high above yours as the heavens are above the earth".

But we mustn't allow ourselves to be limited only to the categories that are at present common currency (RPP ii § 690), as were "the good people" of Nietzsche's day (Beyond Good and Evil § 58), and thereby "poor in categories".

New Categories

DRURY: Kierkegaard seems to me to be always making one aware of new categories.

WITTGENSTEIN: You are quite right, that is exactly what Kierkegaard does, he introduces new categories. (Recollections p. 88)

The expression 'questions without answers' or 'eternal questions' is a category name, one possible classification. Different categories might be invented (which replace it), and each new category (conceptual scheme) may 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 only, the true way, to divide up reality (because is there such a way?)

"Important nonsense" isn't nonsense

Philosophy can only ask life's deepest questions; it cannot answer them. But to pretend that these are not questions at all, because questions have answers and problems have solutions (antithesis and language meaning), as Wittgenstein does -- "And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems" (TLP 4.003c, tr. Ogden) -- is an example of a way of reasoning contradicting experience (because "the riddle" is problematical in many, many ways). And philosophy must pass both Socratic tests.

Who, or is it what, creates the riddles?

"Have you guessed the riddle yet?"

"No, I give it up," Alice replied. "What's the answer?"

"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.

"I think you might do something better ... than ... asking riddles that have no answers."

Well, I don't agree. Neither all tautologies nor all riddles without solutions are idle. Asking them is the difference between man and beast.

We don't say that a riddle that has no solution is therefore not really a riddle. Or do we? Concept-fluidity: the indefinite limits of concepts. But then are we going to talk about "the indefiniteness of meaning"? Against that is the Socratic ideal of a strict distinction between sense and nonsense, between what you know and what you only think you do (but do not). (We want to put an end to "vagueness and confusion" -- not foster it!)

"For we ourselves made them unanswerable" (Z § 259). Or did we? Or does the nature of our existence make them unanswerable? (Wittgenstein always wants to say there is no problem, even though he recognizes there is one, whereas we'd want to say there are philosophical problems and these are those problems.)

"Theory like mist on eyeglasses: obscures facts" (Charlie Chan in Egypt, 1935). Theories are eyeglasses: but it is not possible to even try to see without them (PI § 103). Wittgenstein's theories about the origins of philosophy are eyeglasses, but as is also the classical view of philosophy's origin (Theaetetus 155c-d). (Preconceptions, ibid. § 107. Pretensions, OC § 549. Thinking you know what you don't know.)

Wittgenstein doesn't want to solve philosophical problems; he wants to explain them away as not problems at all. He says that a philosopher is a man with a confused mind, bewitched or mystified by his own language, not by existence itself. Then is this a question of choosing a way to look at things? "Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts" (PI § 79). Which are?


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 could argue with myself: "You refuse to admit even the possibility that mind may be something other than matter, for example, spirit." What I am against is saying that the word 'mind' is used by us to name any object (physical or "intangible"), 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 nonsense, i.e. an undefined combination of words. (And by saying this, I am not saying anything about life after death.)

That is not a "theory of mind" but a description of the public rules for the use of a word. The word 'mind' is not used -- i.e. that is not its function -- in our language to name an intangible object (whatever an "intangible object" is when it's at home, for it is logically possible that there are no such objects at all).

[Related discussions: Misleading grammatical analogies | The language of mind (Philosophy of psychology)]


Incomparable Pictures

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

Bertrand Russell posed questions like: 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).

Unverifiability and Grammar

These "pictures without answers" are not: there is no defined way to verify or falsify whether they are pictures of reality. But the only reason for this 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 this "language game" type.

Russell made the assertion: "There is a hippopotamus in the room, but it cannot be seen or touched, heard or smelled" -- in a word, the hippopotamus is in all ways imperceptible. What Russell has done is to define the sentence 'There is an hippopotamus in the room' in such a way that it is impossible to verify or falsify (whether there is a hippopotamus in the room). Wittgenstein was unconvinced. There might nonetheless be an hippopotamus in the room, he thought. (Russell alludes to this story in his obituary of Wittgenstein in Mind, July 1951, p. 297; cf. DW p. 16)

What Russell's assertion about the hippopotamus negates are the language-meaning 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. to the rules of the game, as in "language game") of the language used: verification and falsification would require a god who sees what we -- because of our chosen definition -- cannot see.

[The "invisible hippopotamus" is an example of grammar stripping, the removal of defining rules: the word remains, but its meaning is lost.]

To draw is to imagine

Imagine/picture an elephant with no legs, no tail, no trunk, no ears, no head, no body. It is impossible to draw such a thing because there would be no difference between such a drawing and a blank page (A blank page cannot be drawn; that is not what we mean by the word 'draw'). "Try harder!" There is no difference between the elephant being there and not being there -- and therefore the elephant is not there (That is a grammatical, not a metaphysical, remark).

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 naively use these pictures to mystify ourselves. We talk about ghosts, spirits, 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), and no such method is defined for this grammatical category of words; we don't use those words (PI § 43) that way.

For we ourselves made it unverifiable. (Z § 259)

We see that someone has written the words "Prayer changes things", about which some wiseacre says, "How do you verify that?" because that fellow has only a single model of how language works, that propositions are statements of fact to be verified or falsified. And that is a far too simple picture of the logical grammar of our language.

The proposition 'Prayer changes things' is not a proposition of fact. It is not an hypothesis. That is not its grammatical category (proposition type).

The TLP's model of language is likewise far too simple: that book is poor in categories -- in categories of proposition types.

That we do not allow and would refuse to consider any method of proof that might be proposed is the only meaning that the word 'can' in 'No one can prove that ghosts don't exist' has. It is a question of "logical impossibility".

If someone asks whether elves exist, that person does not know the meaning (has 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 the wounded understanding".

That is the only point or purpose of Wittgenstein's jargon ("We wouldn't naturally call this a 'rule of grammar' ... we would be using his "jargon""), to make us aware of grammatical differences.


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 "Wittgenstein's logic of language", and 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 Alfred Korzybski's statement "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 a map that did not correspond to any territory was -- i.e. such a picture of would be without meaning. (But that would not be a true description of how we normally use the word 'meaning': language that conveys meaning is not meaningless.) [BACK]


Site copyright © September 1998. Please contact Robert [Wesley] Angelo with corrections or criticism of this page. Last revised: 22 November 2022 : 2022-11-22 (Original revision October 1999)

The URL of this Web page:
https://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/logwit12.html

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Map | Site Search