Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

Who are Wittgenstein's philosophers?

Are they philosophers only who do not understand the logic of our language? When Plato says "we are discussing no small matter, but how should we live our life?" (Ethics), is he not asking a philosophical question? When Plato asks what the essence of man is (soul and body as says Aristotle, or soul only as says Plato), is that because he does not understand our language's logic? And if Plato is discussing philosophical problems which are not mere conceptual muddles, does that mean that Plato is not a philosopher, according to Wittgenstein?

Topics on this page ...

Context: these are more or less ragged logic of language remarks, the question of which is: Is there a difference between sense and nonsense in language, particularly in the context of philosophical problems?

When Wittgenstein says 'philosophers' - What does he mean?

When Wittgenstein says 'philosophers' rather than 'we when we philosophize', there are two things here: one, that "we are taking up a position [far] outside in order to be able to see [the thing] more objectively" (CV p. 37 [MS 162b 67r: 2.7.1940 § 2]); and two, that he himself has stopped being moved by questions [confusions] of this particular sort.

It is also significant that Wittgenstein never refers to himself in his writings as a philosopher; he sometimes calls himself a logician (OC § 68). He is modest; however important he regards his own work -- and he does think that he has changed philosophy forever, he tells Drury that it is only "a small fragment of philosophy": he could not simply title his book 'Philosophy' -- "how could I use a word like that which has meant so much in the history of human thought?" (Recollections p. 160). Further:

Don't think I despise metaphysics. I regard some of the great philosophical systems of the past as among the noblest productions of the human mind. (ibid. p. 105)

But then Wittgenstein said: "For some people it would require a heroic effort to give up this sort of writing." And of course the question then is: why should they? Why indeed.

One says: because it is delusory: because philosophical theories are not insights into reality, but only a variety of misunderstandings of the logic of our language or, at best, pictures which correspond to no reality.

But Wittgenstein meant far more than that. Because he made a quite astonishing claim: "The riddle does not exist" (i.e. there is no riddle of existence) [TLP 6.5].

One thinks: "Who has made this inane assertion? Why was it ever taken seriously? Human beings have pondered these questions for millennia, and here some fellow comes along and says it's all nonsense [sounds without sense]." That doesn't mean he's wrong of course; cf. the word 'point' in geometry, a delusion which has also been pondered for millennia.

Note: words that follow "Query" were Internet searches that directed (or misdirected) visitors to pages of this site and which suggested thoughts to me and to which I have responded.

Query: philosophy is futile.

But, on the other hand, perhaps this is a case where one really might say: "... for the search says more than the discovery." [cf. Paul's speech to the Athenians: "God made all men to seek Him, so that by groping their way toward Him, they might perhaps find Him." (Acts of the Apostles 17.27)]

From a later remark of Wittgenstein's [CV p. 27 [MS 118 17r c: 27.8.1937]], it might be said that "the riddle" belongs to the "all that I have not written" that Wittgenstein spoke of to Ludwig Ficker. But there is a difference between "what is not put into words" and "what cannot be put into words"; if there is such a thing as the latter, it is not part of philosophy. But I -- speaking in the first person -- insist that "the riddle" is part of philosophy, the heart's core of philosophy.

Wittgenstein's Shift from Asking about Truth to Asking about Meaning

Query: is metaphysical language meaningless?

Again, this sounds as if [suggests that] we were already clear about the meaning of the words 'metaphysical language' and 'meaningless' -- and needed only to concern ourselves with the truth or falsity of the proposition 'Metaphysical language is meaningless'.

Query: Wittgenstein's approach to reasoning.

I will take 'approach to reasoning' to mean Wittgenstein's method in philosophy, which was: to question the meaning rather than the truth of what is said in philosophy. In Wittgenstein's "logic of language", the word 'nonsense' does not mean 'egregious falsehood' or 'gross error' as it does in the expression "common sense versus common nonsense". Instead, by 'nonsense' Wittgenstein means "words whereby we conceive nothing but the sound" (Hobbes), as if we were hearing the noises made by foreigners (Sextus Empiricus). By 'nonsense' Wittgenstein means that a word or combination of words is undefined [in the context in which it appears]: it is a "sign" -- that is, the purely physical part of language, e.g. ink marks on paper, spoken sounds -- for which we have no use [as if we were told to measure time with a ruler or cloth with a clock], a "sound without sense" (Aristotle).

Ask about the meaning of the proposition rather than whether it is true or false

This method [my new way of philosophizing] consists essentially in leaving aside the question of truth and asking about sense [meaning] instead. (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 105 46 c: 1929])

The truth of nonsense [undefined language] cannot be determined; even God himself doesn't know what it means, because it means nothing. Which does not answer the question of whether "metaphysical language" is meaningless: the short answer is that: some is and some isn't. [Is there a metaphysical use of language?].

Many philosophers suppose that language is simply a vehicle of thought, and that what concerns them is the thought not the language, as if the language were transparent and one could see through it to the thought. If what they say is difficult to understand, the source of the difficulty lies in the thought, not the language. But Wittgenstein's point of view was just the opposite: the source of the difficulty lies in the language. [In this sense, he might have said that he was leaving aside the question of the "thought" and asking about the language instead.] "The logic of our language is misunderstood" (although now not in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus' sense).

Query: Wittgenstein, ideas on language.

This should be "Wittgenstein's ideas on philosophy": the query's emphasis is incorrect [wrong]: Wittgenstein is concerned with language only in so far as language throws light on philosophical problems. Wittgenstein does not have a stand alone Philosophy of Language: it is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways (PI § 108), not just from the point of view of philosophical problems. Wittgenstein did not have a theory about the essence of language ... although he did have ideas about how language works:

Query: Wittgenstein, nature of language.

A word, a "sign", the purely physical part of language is "nothing but sounds, ink-marks" (PI § 431) -- what gives those sounds or marks meaning? How a philosopher answers that question might be called his view of the "nature of language", or, in my jargon, his "logic of language". [cf. "Philosophy is a critique of language".]

The sun has burned down; humanity has long since vanished. Its writings remain. But its writings are mere signs, ink marks on paper. A bare sign is like a corpse. What then can give it life?

[I want to point to ostensive definitions and play-acted rules of grammar as in picture books and motion pictures. -- But then there is the question of "forms of life" -- will a life form radically different from man understand the "riddle of existence"? Well, it won't, I don't think, anymore than Wittgenstein thought man would understand a lion if could speak.]

"What gives a sign meaning?" -- Or should it be: "What can give a sign meaning?" in the sense of logical possibility (e.g. there is a need for a criterion of identity for 'S'; therefore its meaning cannot -- i.e. cannot logically -- be private)?

The meaning of 'geometric point'

Note: this topic belongs to the Philosophy of Geometry, specifically to geometrical points, and grammatical jokes (PI § 111).

Query: this is a geometric object with no dimensions; it is only location.

Then why call it an object? A geometric point is no more an object than the hippopotamus in Russell's "There is an imperceptible hippopotamus in the room" is an object, or, in a clearer form of expression: the word 'point' is not the name of an object; or in other words, to name an object is not the use 'geometric point' has in geometry.

A point is not an object of any kind. It is not like a bird sitting on a telegraph line [nor is a geometric line like a string of birds (without the string: birds standing in a row)]: rather it is the location [address] on the line where the bird is sitting. In philosophy the meaning is seldom revealed by the metaphor, the picture; quite the contrary: the picture often obscures the meaning. (PI § 425: a picture forces itself on us but does not help us out of the difficulty, which only begins with the picture.)

Query: definition of point in geometry.

This is why you mustn't be afraid to talk nonsense (CV p. 56), because the first search query states a misunderstanding that can be cleared up; whereas the second query is not something we can do anything with: it does not even suggest a place to begin. Rationalism: they let the words speak to them; it is queries of the latter form that prompt us to try to grasp -- i.e. "abstract" out of thin air -- the essence of geometric points (PI § 116). Forms of expression: 'Describe the way we use the word 'point' in geometry' versus 'What is the meaning of point in geometry?' (Any explanation of meaning is a definition).

Query: what does a picture of an undefined term with no dimension represented by a dot look like?

It looks exactly like Russell's hippopotamus.

Lines and dimensions

"A line is one dimensional." -- What this says that the word 'line' is not the name of anything ['A line has one dimension only' is a rule of grammar, i.e. a verbal definition, a rule of the game of geometry]. "Not the name of any natural object?" -- No, not the name of any object! (Break with the "abstract" object pseudo-metaphor, because nonsense-masquerading-as-metaphor is all that it is.) A line is not a one-dimensional object because a line is not an object.

Could we say that "points are the components of a line"? That is to say that "a line is composed of points, constructed of points" as a building might be -- as a wall might be constructed of bricks?

A line that was constructed of points would not be a line. That is to say, it would have no dimensions, not one dimension. It would not, as it were, go anywhere. [On the other hand, if you like this form of expression, you might say that by the word 'line' we [only] mean a set of locations or addresses; and indeed this would be an excellent contribution to the grammar of 'geometric line'.]

Variation. But a point is said to have no dimensions [to be "an object with no dimensions"]. And no dimensions + no dimensions -- or in other words 0 + 0 + 0 + etc. still equals 0. So you would not have a line, because one dimension cannot be constructed out of zero dimensions.

If someone said that "a point must have a dimension of some sort, namely the dimension of location", then I would say that he was only playing with words. Location does not belong in the category "extension in space"; here we are dealing with different parts of speech entirely, and 'location' is a top category, as is 'name-of-object', not a sub-category of {types of objects}. -- An object's location is not another object that stands in [occupies] the same place as the object. That is the wrong grammatical model to try to follow. [The address of your house is not another object standing beside your house.]

One thinks: "What is the location of A?" is like the question "What is the size, color, weight and shape of A?" as if its location were just another property of the object. You might want to say this, until you try to determine the grammar of 'property [of an object]'. -- And trying to determine that will show you that you are off course: the parts of speech to recognize here are: size-words, color-words, weight-words, shape-words, and also location-words, and so-on-words.

If, outside academic physics (where this language is not clear to me, and I wouldn't like to be like the savages in Wittgenstein [PI § 194]), we call time "the fourth dimension", we are not saying that time is another spatial dimension; we are only speaking metaphorically ("Let's make this comparison, introduce this picture"). And something similar is the case with calling location an "object of zero dimensions".

We can draw, we can invent, any picture we like. -- The question is: what do that picture have to do with geometry? Does it have a use in the game? [Does they appear in the account books of mathematics?] Or is it like this:

I want to play chess, and a man gives the white king a paper crown, leaving the use of the piece [i.e. the king] unaltered, but telling me that the crown has a meaning to him in the game, which he can't express by rules. I say: "as long as it doesn't alter the use [i.e. the rules of the game] of the piece, it hasn't what I call a meaning." (BB p. 65; cf. what meaning, in Wittgenstein's sense of the word 'meaning', might be given to the paper crown? how might the crown be used to alter the rules of the game?)

What would be the "meaning" (what the picture amounts to) of this picture then? It might e.g. serve as an overview of the game: "Definitions, even in geometry, are also given for the sake of orientation, and to avert misunderstandings." (Philosophy of Mathematics) On the other hand, it may also serve to disorient and create confusion.

But what do we mean by 'location'? Is that not what we state when we give the co-ordinate values on the three axes {x,y,z}? Are we then saying that, taken together, these co-ordinate values are no dimensional, whereas their whole purpose is to indicate three dimensions? If we begin writing nonsense like this, does not this form of expression -- "zero-dimensional object" -- lose its charm for us? Is there any point (purpose) to calling a location an object [i.e. trying to force the grammar of name-of-object upon the word 'location' as if that were a description of how we use that word]? And a location is all that a point is, an address as e.g. given by Cartesian co-ordinates {x,y,z}: it is not a "geometric object", nor any other kind of object.

If you imagine a house must you also imagine an additional object named 'address of the house' or 'location of the house'? 'Address' and 'location' are not names of objects, although they can be pointed to on a map.

The difficulty here is not to grasp something complicated but to grasp something simple. It is only a matter of looking at the actual use of our language without being distracted by the idle pictures that that language may suggest to us, and of making grammatical distinctions (additional categories for "parts of speech" besides the misleading "A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing" where 'thing' might mean anything).

The Human Imagination and the Origin of Philosophy

Do you think that the Cartesian co-ordinate axes are real objects or "imaginary objects" ["geometric objects"]? Why do you want to say that they are objects at all? "Because you can use objects to represent them" (the objects being e.g. graph paper and ink)?

Philosophy begins in the human imagination. Philosophy is a creation of the human imagination. "Animals and small children are not acquainted with any problems of philosophy" (cf. PG i § 138, p. 191), and yet philosophy is a creation of the child's mind in man.

The role of the human imagination, the human child's imagination, in creating our philosophical confusion can't be overstated. We can conjure objects out of thin air and fill them with souls [like geometric shapes at the same time both solid and invisible], all using our imagination alone. None of it exists, and yet we can create it, -- and then we imagine that we can perceive the imaginary objects which we have ourselves created, although no other animal (a dog, a bird, or a cat, say) can perceive them.

Protagoras of Abdera, 481-411 B.C.

"Man is the measure of all things, both of things that they are and of things that they are not." [Plato's understanding and criticism of this notion is found at Theaetetus 152a and Cratylus 386a.] The human being is like the meter-stick in Paris, the standard of measurement. Here are Wittgenstein's forms of life: "not agreement in opinions, but in form of life". However, if the individual man is the only standard of truth, then there is no standard of truth, because by 'standard' we mean something independent: a ruler cannot be used to measure itself.

"As to the gods, I have no way of knowing whether or not they exist; the subject is obscure, and life is short." [Consequently it is irrational to fear or to worship gods, as the Greeks of his time did.]

Protagoras doubted all the common beliefs of his times, all the accepted wisdom of his age, e.g. "the five cardinal virtues of Greece". And he questioned whether Euclidean geometry could yield what Kant called synthetic a priori truths -- i.e. truths that are prior to experience and yet somehow -- I don't know how -- necessarily consistent with it. Indeed, he asked what has the geometry of the geometers got to do with experience: the tangent, for example, because a circle does not in actual fact touch a ruler at one point only.

It was the Sophists who first made a distinction between physis (from which 'physics': nature) and nomos (from which 'nominal': convention). What would our thinking be like without that distinction? Wittgenstein wrote:

The apocalyptic view of the world is that things do not repeat themselves. (CV p. 56)


That if it had not been for the Greek victories at Marathon, Salamis and Plataea, then philosophy and science would not exist in our world. Philosophy would have been like the ancient books in Alexandria, consigned to the flames, lost forever.

Now, who would wish to claim that such things have never happened on this earth? [Has no philosopher's world changing thought ever disappeared into the desk drawer?] There were many generations of many peoples before the Greeks, and many other peoples on this earth besides the Greeks. Yet, none of these others invented philosophy.

Given that the type of fantastic events narrated in Homer were no longer occurring in the present age, J.B. Bury remarked: "It was inevitable that the question should be asked: can we believe the epic poets and take all they tell us for literal fact?" (The Ancient Greek Historians (1908))

But it was "inevitable" only because it happened. Otherwise the tardiness in the appearance of Wittgenstein's "logic of language" in philosophy would be incomprehensible. All Bury could say was that it seemed obvious to him that this question would be asked; but "seemed" is all (PI § 258). Every great insight appears obvious to us -- afterwards.

So I think that Wittgenstein was wrong -- or that what he wrote could only pertain to one of the origins of philosophy, not to all:

People say again and again ... that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don't understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same .... as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. (CV p. 15)

For if linguistic confusion were the only origin of philosophy, then philosophy would be found in China and among all the other peoples of the world. But it is not. There is no equivalent for the word 'philosophy' as used by the Greeks in any other language on earth, although it is plausible that grammatical confusion arises in all the world's natural languages.

Philosophy is a use of language, but I think there must be more to philosophy than merely grammatical confusion, even if it is the case that grammatical confusion makes philosophy possible, which is something that I don't know. In a sense, of course, the riddle of existence does not exist, because if there is a question then it must also be possible to answer it (because a word divorced from it antithesis is nonsense: Is the combination of words 'question essentially without an answer' not nonsense?). But on the other hand, then why does humanity, as did Wittgenstein himself, spend its entire life struggling with the "non-question" of the riddle of existence? (Maybe that is the profoundest riddle (eternal "question without an answer") of all.)

Protagoras in Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laertius flourished circa A.D. 200-250. Translation by R.D. Hicks (1925).

Protagoras was the first to maintain that there two sides to every question, opposed to each other, and even argued in this fashion, being the first to do so. Furthermore he began a work thus: "Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not." He used to say that soul was nothing apart from the senses, as we learn from Plato in the Theaetetus [152a ff.] ... (ix, 51)

In another work he began thus: "As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life." For this introduction to his book the Athenians expelled him; and they burnt his works in the market-place ... (ix, 51-52)

He too first introduced the method of discussion which called Socratic. (ix, 53)

He was the first to mark off [Note: according to W.K.C. the Greek expression is translated as "define" in English] the parts of discourse [The word being translated may, or may not be, logos] into four, namely, wish, question, answer, command; others divide it into seven parts [adding to the four of Protagoras: narration, rehearsal, summoning]; these are called the basic forms of speech. (ix, 53-54)

"Conventional truth and falsity"

Query: there are no philosophical questions.

The question of whether or not there are any philosophical questions is itself a philosophical question. "Can anyone doubt everything?" -- "Yes, I'm certain that he can." This is not entirely absurd: it is a question of one's attitude toward things: 'I am certain that ...' here means 'I don't feel certain about anything' -- i.e. one takes a stance. But this claim that all propositions are uncertain is not something that can be decided by looking at the grounds for verifying a proposition: the uncertainty is despite knowing the rules of the game -- i.e. knowing how the proposition is verified. The skeptic wants to say: Nonetheless, at a deeper level .... Conventional truth and falsity -- as in my Fable of The Born-Blind People ("co-incidental agreement in way of life": the concepts 'truth' and 'knowledge' belong to the community, not to the individual; or in other words, truth is relative to the community) -- is not what the skeptic is talking about at all.

Relative and Absolute Truth, the traditional question of philosophy

"Truth belongs to nomos (custom) rather than nature." At a certain level that may be true; I say "may" because I don't know the cause of our co-incidental agreement. At the logic of language level: truth, i.e. the concept 'truth', i.e. our use of the word 'truth' is defined relative to the community, not to the individual.

Custom versus nature. But at a metaphysical-ontological level, this may be, or may sometimes be, a question without an answer about the limits of reality, or rather of our limits when wanting to know reality.

If reality is confined to what is in principle perceptible to the senses, then what about the reality of the blind man, or rather, what if we were all blind from birth (as in my fable, as in H.G. Wells' story)? Would light not exist? Certainly it would not exist as colors in the visual sense (There would be no visual sense of anything) any more than if we were all deaf from birth sound would exist in the aural sense (There would be no aural sense).

And what if we all were born both blind and deaf -- would neither visual nor aural reality exist? Suppose that human beings had only one sense (namely touch, like James Jeans' blind worms which can perceive only two dimensions)? If reality is confined to what is perceptible to the senses, then if everyone were blind or everyone were deaf, what part of reality couldn't we know -- because we couldn't even imagine it to exist (Its existence would not even be logically possible)?

And if we had six senses rather than five? So much for human limits and human ignorance, but not human presumption: physics knows things, but how can it know reality as such? (Points of reference.

'Faith in God' - What does it mean?

Note: this continues the discussion But the Symbolism is Important (Philosophy of Religion). Note that 'faith' in Catholic Christianity means 'belief in a set of doctrines' ("community of faith" versus "community of people"), but also that faith may not be in what is comprehensible (e.g. outcomes in this world) but indeed in what is incomprehensible but "accepted on faith" (trust).

Faith in God -- i.e. belief in providence: "things will turn out all right, for the best, in the end": this is like looking for support for your elbow from the flower stand painted on the background canvas in a photographer's studio. Faith in a picture. "Things will turn out all right in the end" although experience has taught you that things very often end in tragedy. Faith in God is never put to the test, as faith in a friend may well be. So then, what does 'faith in God' mean? ("If a father who is not fatherly were not ...")

It seems to me as though a religious belief could only be (something like) passionately committing oneself to a system of coordinates [reference]. Hence although it's belief, it is really a way of living, or a way of judging life. Passionately taking up this interpretation. And so instructing in a religious belief would have to be portraying, describing the system of reference & and at the same time appealing to the conscience. And these together would have to result finally in the one under instruction himself taking up that system of reference. (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 136 16b: 21.12.1947])

Perhaps it is more that a child is (passive voice) committed to a frame of reference by the way it is trained in religion. The introduction of conscience in training children. Children are brought to think of God as a long-suffering father whose love is so great that the believer feels guilty if he later doubts God's existence.

Doubting God's existence is felt to be a rejection of God's love, so that it seems morally very wrong and ungrateful also. So the appeal to conscience is very important in the instruction.

"Hence although it's belief, it is really a way of living, or a way of judging life." It is like a frame though which you see everything, like a pair of glasses that you never take off (PI § 103), even if you are able to entertain contrary hypotheses [theses]. Wittgenstein to Drury: "I cannot help but look at everything from a religious point of view." It is as if when you believed you did not notice the frame around the glass, and that loss of faith occurs when you begin to notice the frame: it becomes oppressive. You can no longer bear it and you take the glasses off. Then later you say that the glass distorted your vision, although you did not feel that way when you believed.

Belief in God. A young girl wrote: "Why I don't believe in God. I don't want to depend on something that won't be there when I need it. Simple as that." On the one hand it is said that: faith is not proof against disaster; but on the other hand that, Ask and you shall receive. Religious "belief in" -- is contradiction accepted. Maybe what that girl wrote really is the sensible reply to her picture of belief in God. But has being sensible anything to do with religious belief, which is belief of another type entirely: "We must have faith in God that things will turn out all right. But if they don't, then we must still have faith in God"?

Adult conversion is something I do not understand at all (although I do know that deep distress -- but not only distress -- may result in deep conviction as well); is that because it is outside my experience? (Two meanings of the word 'understand'.)

It would be as though someone were on the one hand to let me see my hopeless situation, on the other depict the rescue-anchor [instrument], until of my own accord, or at any rate not led by the hand by the instructor, I were to rush up & seize it. (ibid.)

Dogma, the Creed, is a "graven image". Faith is not to be identified with that at all. Or so Wittgenstein says, but Catholic Christianity says just the opposite.

"Doubt on a deeper level"

"Come, come, you know you are going to die. All evidence points towards it, none against. There are no grounds whatever for doubt." Suppose someone replied, "Well, I don't know. Because I have never been in this world -- I have no empirical reason to believe I have ever lived -- before. I believe I am going to die, but I don't know that. Anything might happen, after all. I also believe that no one returns from the dead, but I don't know that." -- I want to call this "skepticism on a deeper level": certainly one "plays the game wrong" when one doubts what there are no grounds to doubt, but does one talk nonsense by doing that? Well, does "the riddle" exist or doesn't it? And if one is not talking nonsense, then ... well, one is inventing a picture, but like all metaphysics, there is no reality to compare it with. Faith in God is also "playing the game (as in "language game") wrong" (cf. OC § 446); the wrong is not playing the game according to our normal rules (of grammar).

Cf. Am I awake or am I dreaming? When you reach bedrock, you have run out of grounds for doubt, and there is no "deeper level" than bedrock. (Absolute skepticism as a "picture".)

Inventing a Sense for the Text

Note: this continues the discussion The Roles of Examples in Logic/Meaning.

Query: taking philosophy notes.)

Now that is an excellent search. It is either a philosophical question or a how-do-I-pass-exams question. Who decides what the important points of a lecture or a philosophical text are? What should the student look for? Is there an authority here (but not in the sense that the degree granter is an authority)?

There is the question: what do you want from philosophy? This is not necessarily the same for everyone: there are many points of view (questions and expectations) from which philosophy can be approached. If you are studying civil engineering, maybe you want to learn how to construct a bridge that will not fall down and maybe there are clear rules to follow so that the bridge you build will quite likely not fall down. But is philosophy like that? Suppose we say: I want to know what so-and-so philosopher had to say. And then the question is: who is to decide this? The problem of authority in philosophy is not a simple one.

Suppose instead of an academic or an historical question, you wanted to ask a philosophical question that mattered vitally to you. Suppose you had lived in the Middle Ages and you had wanted to know how we can know whether God exists; suppose someone had pointed you toward Aquinas's "five ways of knowing" and told you: "These ways are accepted by all scholars; you may accept them on the best of authority" [The judgment of "recognized scholars" would be the alleged authority in philosophy here]. But it doesn't work that way in philosophy: the question is not of whether scholars or anyone else accepts a set of principles, an argument or a point of view [way of looking at things] -- but of whether I accept it; not of whether anyone else is satisfied with it, but with whether I am satisfied with it. In other words, the ultimate authority in philosophy is my own conscience, my own philosophical integrity. (And this shows you that philosophy is much more like a creative art than like a finished science; who do you think Toulouse-Lautrec painted for?) So it is difficult to know what notes anyone should take. Do you think the answer to that question should be the same for everyone?

Who decides the meaning of a text?

Imagine a lecturer were to say, "We must now play an invent a sense for the text game." -- Or do you think the text has a sense in itself, that the language of the text has [must have] [a] meaning in itself. If the author sticks to our common grammar, then you might want to say that it has. -- But if the author varies from our held-in-common-grammar [or, our-shared-grammar], the "common grammar" of words of our [held in common] language, that is the public language, the one that all of us speak [i.e. the grammar, or dictionary as it were, of everyone who speaks the language, or, who belongs to a community of somewhat educated speakers of the language e.g.], then we have no choice but to invent a sense for what the author has written. Unless of course the author explains [assigns a meaning] what he means [using what Kant deprecated as "examples and illustrations", i.e.] by means of definitions ['definitions' understood in Wittgenstein's broad sense [Definitions as rules of grammar or explanations of meaning; philosophers use a conception of definition [i.e. a definition of 'definition'] which is too narrow], explicitly.

The rule of legal interpretation: any reading of the law which makes the law nonsense is an incorrect reading of it.

"Foundational Propositions"

This chart [which I drew for myself in 1983] shows the relationship of foundational propositions to rules of grammar and verifiable statements of fact ("hypotheses" in my jargon [as it used to be]). The chart says that foundational propositions share features of both, but are not identical to either.

The relation between grammar, axioms and hypotheses, 3 KB

Isaac Newton: Hypothesis: "... or very nearly true"

Note: this continues the discussion the Philosophy of Science of M. O'C. Drury ("A theory can never become a fact. It remains a theory to all eternity").

In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined ... (Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy - IV)

"... or very nearly true" -- Isn't that what we do? If we held every proposition to the "proved beyond reasonable doubt" standard, would we be able to get on with life? "Here we are making a philosophical distinction ('true' means ...), although in practice ..." -- Is this what philosophers should do? In a way, yes: what the philosopher must note is the limit (like the comparison to a game played according to strict rules), and then note how practice varies away from it. But in a sense, no: we do not want to misrepresent our life: 'true' means what people do with [how they use] that word in practice (not in the philosopher's fantasy [invented language-game]).

The philosopher says: either a proposition is true or it is not true (It may be false or untested). What is "very nearly true" to mean? Suppose we test the thickness of the ice to see if it is safe for ice-skaters; to this end we may send out many investigators, and if we are asked we may reply: "We are still waiting for some reports, but most of the reports have been received, and it appears from the reports that have been received that the ice is thick enough to allow skating." But permission is not given until all the reports are in: it is only then that we say that the proposition is true. Perhaps we will say at some point: "It appears likely based on the 7 [of a total of 9] reports that have been received" (and if we understand mathematical probability, perhaps we will state a percent). Despite our precautions, the ice may crack open, of course; this will not disprove our hypothesis (which is based only on the designated measurements), although it will falsify the proposition that it is safe to go skating. [It is of course up to us in exactly which way we wish to define the word 'hypothesis'.] -- Is this not also the procedure ordinary people follow in daily life? We do not in all cases set very high standards of proof (Children may test the ice by walking on it e.g.)

The philosopher will discourage the use of the expression 'very nearly true', even if all we mean by that expression is: based on available evidence, quite likely. The words 'very likely' and 'true' are not synonyms. This would be a small point, were it not that:

The importance we attach to the words 'true' and 'fact' is the importance we attach to the words 'truth' and 'knowledge'.

Does 'I believe this' mean 'This is the way I live'?

Note: this continues the discussion Foundational beliefs (Statements-of-fact).

Where I cannot be mistaken about something, neither can I know nor believe it. Rather, as my life shows: I live it. And that is the only sense 'I believe it' might have here.

But is this limited to "foundational propositions"? Is this not the sense that 'believe' always has: a belief has practical consequences, and those consequences show you the statement of belief's meaning, or a necessary part of its meaning. (cf. OC §§ 284-285) Someone may have many reasons for doing something: he may act against his beliefs out of cowardice e.g. or foolhardiness. But he must admit as much: we do not say that a hypocrite believes what he asserts: i.e. that is what we mean by calling someone a 'hypocrite'.

Is there any reason to call a statement-of-belief (i.e. that is its form: 'I believe' plus '[statement-of-fact]') that does not have any practical consequences a 'belief'? Obviously in many cases the consequences may be slight, confined to my answers to a school exam or to the crossword puzzle or if I read something contrary to what I was taught, I may raise an eyebrow. (cf. ibid. § 338)

What does it mean to say that a bee believes something?

Note: this continues the discussion "Forms of life" (ways of life and life forms).

When the beekeeper goes to harvest honey he uses smoke to control the bees. Someone says: "The bees believe, on account of the smoke, that the hive is on fire." What does it mean to say that a bee believes something? Well, what does it mean to say that a human being believes something? If a human being believes that the house is on fire perhaps it will go inside to try to save the children who are inside the house.

Isn't the only difference that we do not have spoken testimony from the bees? We see the way the bees behave and we make a comparison to human behavior. And we apply 'believes' in both cases ... but does the word 'believe' mean the same in both cases? Well, why not?

"But what do I know about a bee's soul?" If we say 'Mr. N.N. believes such-and-such', are we making a statement about Mr. N.N.'s soul? On the other hand, we could say that if you see someone's behavior, you see his mind; and that applies to bees as well. (Must you always [i.e. in all cases] be able to read someone's mind? "I see what he is doing, but I don't know why he is doing it.")

The Acceptance without understanding of the Scientific World-view by Non-scientists

This is indeed remarkable. We would indeed be living in a different world if we lived in a pre-scientific world -- that is, if we did not see nature as something that could be understood and that, consequently, could be [somewhat] controlled; we would be living in a different world if we saw ourselves only as victims of the forces of nature. The remarkable thing is that even those of us who are not scientists see the world [now look at the world] this way.

We no longer have a use for that type of god, the nature-god.

The other questions, the questions to which it seems there cannot be answers [so long as we conceive things this way -- and there is nothing that necessitates our conceiving anything at all (We might not be human without concepts, but we might live with nothing but percepts, as we imagine other animals do): so long as we identify problems while at the same time refusing to identify even possible solutions], that is another matter: providence, life and death, the riddle of existence [whether death is oblivion: death that does not answer the question "why?"].

"From God-reliance to Self-reliance"

Note: this continues the discussion Are the godless not Afraid?. (There is also a discussion of Bonhoeffer's "God as a working-hypothesis" replaced by the cross.)

Schweitzer: "because discovery and invention have given him power over the world", "enhancement of man's self-reliance and the consequent strengthening of his will and his hopes" ... (The Philosophy of Civilization [The Dale Memorial Lectures, Oxford University, 1922], Part II (Civilization and Ethics), tr. revised by "L.M.R.", xi, p. 143, of the "First American Edition" (1945 ?); cf. Part II, 2nd ed. (1929), tr. C.T. Campion, vi, p. 63)

At some point human beings appear to have switched from reliance on nature-gods to self-reliance. And when that happened they no longer felt a need for their gods. That was a huge shift, although it has not completely happened (e.g. even monotheism's God is sometimes appealed to as a nature-god). [How to account for the persistence of belief in gods and God?] But lessened dependence on gods and God, even among religious believers, appears to have occurred to a most remarkable extent.

On the other hand, I don't think you can say that everyone in the ancient world was dominated by fear of gods [or indeed of the caprices of natural forces: storms, drought, cold, darkness] or felt himself to be dependent on [the victim of] gods; -- I don't know that you can say that.

Certainly you cannot say that of Protagoras: "I have no way of knowing whether or not the gods exist; the subject is obscure, and life is short." Obviously human beings were capable of skepticism of this kind (even outright rejection of gods: "fanciful inventions") long before the "Age of Science and Technology".

Do we really control so much more of nature than the Greeks did: we are still subject to floods, blizzards, earthquakes, typhoons and such things? That is, is this attitude of mind really dependent on discovery and invention? Can you really say: electric light bulb, therefore atheism (at least with respect to nature-gods)? But we really do have a confidence that if we don't know something now, we will know it eventually; Wittgenstein called this the "strange attitude that scientists have": "as if that could be taken for granted" (CV p. 40). And yet we do have this attitude. Even if the "we" who will (i.e. may) make these discoveries is not us; -- although we are convinced from our schooling that most any of us can be trained to do scientific work, although there is a tremendous amount to be learned even to understand the simplest demonstration [It is not to be called an 'experiment' if its outcome is pre-determined: not a discovery but a mistake if things don't happen as we expect them to] in chemistry. We really do have that confidence.

So, in that way, things have changed: self-reliance (i.e. reliance on scientists), confidence. -- Obviously this comes to us from our life in a society where water and electricity and food are provided for us with no effort on our part (so long as we exchange money for them): we take these things for granted (as though they were things that we could provide for ourselves if that were necessary, which they are not). We don't rely on gods, but on governments and water companies, and electric companies. -- But we don't regard those services as a form of magic [products of the wills of the gods]. When there is a natural or human-made disaster, we see just how powerless we are as individuals -- but that does not diminish our confidence that things can be put right again.

Natural disasters ... but praying to gods or God doesn't help either. But is that really why people pray -- to have their prayers answered? Then why don't people stop praying when their prayers are not answered? Why should outsiders call ritual empty -- is it because we do not know its meaning? (In what sense of the word 'meaning'?) [Life can educate one to belief in God (CV p. 86).]

It seems that I should have titled this section "From God-reliance to Scientist-Technologist-reliance". Because I think the attitude of self-confidence has always been available to us: "I am not able to control the forces of nature, but I do not offer up sacrifices to nature-gods either."

Ethics and Weltanschauung

Note: this continues the discussion World-view and wandering.

The words 'wandering' and 'drifting' both suggest a movement away from the path, from the correct or the true path. However, if you do not know where this path lies, then you cannot wander away from it: instead there is only apparent wandering or drifting. That is, you have a sense, a feeling, that you are drifting, but you cannot say that you are [i.e. this language is undefined]. It is a feeling, not a reason. You have a sense that there really ought to be a path, a correct path. (But this is like the feeling that really nothing ought to exist.) I believe Schweitzer would regard this as a natural longing for a world-view.

Schweitzer: "My willing and doing have meaning and value only when they are in direct accord with my interpretation of my own and of other life." This "interpretation" is my world-view, a view that must make some sense of the natural world, although it need not answer the question of why the natural world exists [if we recognize such a question, if we regard existence itself as troubling]. Or perhaps it does, but then it would seem that Schweitzer himself did not have a world-view, unless his ethics of Reverence for Life is based on his view of the natural world as "I am a will to live in the midst of other wills to live". (The thing is that Schweitzer developed his world-view long after his ethics; indeed he was already a doctor in Africa at the time when the insight 'Reverence for Life' occurred to him.)

Schweitzer wrote that Socrates had a ethics but he did not have a world-view (a nature-philosophy as the pre-Socratics had had, in which his ethics might have been grounded):

In Socrates the ethical mysticism of devotion to the inner voice takes the place of the complete world-view ...

... the indifference with which Socrates stands outside the philosophic efforts to reach a complete world-view [Socrates "stands aloof from the philosophic endeavour to reach a complete world-view" (revised tr. "L.M.R." (x, p. 117))]. [He does not trouble himself] about the results of natural science ... but is busied simply with man in his relation to himself and to society [but without the requirement that this relation -- i.e. ethics -- be] rooted in a complete world-view ... (Civilization and Ethics, 2nd ed. (1929), tr. Campion, v, p. 34-35. Comment: although not founded in knowledge of Nature (or the mind of God) itself, the source of Socratic ethics is nevertheless found in the nature of man himself; it is thoroughly rational.)

In contrast, Jesus did, I think, have a world-view in Schweitzer's sense: it was a religious world-view (founded in knowledge of the mind of God), but within it his extreme ethics of love made sense, as preparation for the world to come (the Kingdom of God) when the present world passed away, an event which Jesus believed to be imminent. And surely it is historically correct to say that the converts to Christianity were looking for a world-view, an answer to the riddle of existence.

However, Schweitzer writes, when after Socrates the Stoics tried to discover in the natural world purposive activity, all they were able to discover was activity pure and simple. (ibid. p. 37) -- What would the world have to look like in order for us to say that there was purposive activity, non-human (or even animal), or for "the whole thing" to have a purpose, the world considered as a limited whole? Of course we have no idea. [Man A has an intention or purpose, Man B has an intention, etc., therefore mankind as such must have an intention.]

Of course, in ways you do see purposive activity. A seed falls into the ground and a tree grows up. But then, on the other hand, a bolt of lightening sets fire to the forest and the tree is destroyed. We do not find an overall purpose. We find only creation and destruction. Reckless creation and destruction. When would we say that we saw an overall purpose -- when destruction occurred only where it made sense? For example when decay was destroyed to make way for a new creation. But everywhere we find things destroyed in the prime of health.

[But I have doubts about this, strong reservations. In Schweitzer's own case, his ethics preceded his world-view, and he had no need to fear that his nature-philosophy would determine his ethics. And this fear is very real; horrible things were done in the last century when an ethics was based on, on the one hand, "scientific socialism" (historical determinism) and "social Darwinism", and on the other: race and nationality (both secular and religious).

[Is it not a strength of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written shortly after the Second World War, that it is independent of any nature-philosophy (nature-ideology)?

[Can a nature-philosophy ground (justify) an ethics? Is it only a point of view to say: In the natural world we find no values, only facts; we find values only in ourselves, in what Schweitzer called Socrates' "inner voice" (whether we call it a god or conscience)?]

"Synthetic a priori"

"To the extent that a thing is empirical, it is not necessary; and to the extent that a thing is necessary, it is not empirical." Again: If a proposition is empirical, it is not necessary; and if a proposition is necessary, it is not empirical. -- What this says is that the word 'necessary' has not been commonly defined to apply to anything empirical, so that we would not know what anyone meant if he said that an empirical proposition was necessarily true.

"Synthetic a priori" is a matter of definition -- or is it? No one has ever had the expectation that water placed over a fire will turn to ice. No one does. No one ever has done. So that if physicists claim that it is only highly improbable that it will, it might appear to be: so much the worst for physics. (Here you could adopt either attitude [stance], either way of looking at things; is there disagreement here about anything other than forms of expression, however?)

"It may be extremely improbable, but it is not impossible that it will turn to ice." -- But what would it mean to say that it was impossible? We have given no criteria for ruling the event out; we have not defined the word 'impossible' in this context: indeed nothing is allowed to count in favor of the proposition that an event is impossible (Just as the only necessity is logical necessity, so too the only impossibility is logical impossibility). What would it [the world] look like if it were impossible? The word 'impossible' simply hasn't been defined. It is only the triangle in the geometry drawing that cannot be distorted (as [the angles of] a square can be by pushing it into a rhombus): in the world of objects (as opposed to ideas), triangles lose their rigidity at every turn: buildings collapse every day.

We could make the rule that 'empirically impossible' is to be applied to any proposition that no sane man would entertain as a possibility. The water in the teapot never turns to ice when placed over our kitchen fire. Of course, 'empirically impossible' does not mean 'logically impossible' (I see no reason to adopt the Tractatus's rule that "What can be described can happen too"). Indeed, that is a common rule [a usage, custom] for using the word 'impossible': "I placed the teapot over the fire and the water inside turned to ice." -- "Come now, you know that's impossible."

[Someone who "just wants to know whether there are any synthetic a priori propositions or not" must find the above remarks quite pointless, irrelevant and frustrating.]

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 14 November 2018 : 2018-11-14 (Oldest revision 6 October 2006)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

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