Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

From a Provincial Monk to his Friend in the Capital

Related to the question of whether there can be verification in ethics is Wittgenstein's remark that "the type of certainty is the type of language-game", and ethics.

Further about philosophical ethics: is Wittgenstein's silently perceived "the mystical" or is Socratic discourse of reason man's guide in "no small matter, but how to live"? (Socrates and Kant, ethics contrasted.)

Topics on this page ...

Context: these are logic of language remarks, many now in need of thorough revision (Thinking in philosophy is not static). The title alludes to E.T.A. Hoffmann's Letter of a Cloistered Friar to his Friend in the Capital City (Hewett-Thayer (1948), p. 30). And the capital here? I don't know -- the City of God, or the first circle of Dante's Hell more like. (How quotation marks are used in philosophy.)

Certainty in Ethics

Note: the following remarks were an early exploration of their ideas, and they are quite ragged. "A philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about." (PI § 123)

Background: Wittgenstein used his jargon expression "language-game" in three ways, one being the comparison of using a primitive language to playing a game (where what defines a game is its rules), another being in the sense of "parts of speech", where 'ethics-word' would be a "grammatical" category. But there is also a third sense ("proposition types"), which was, it appears, the topic of the present page.

Propositions are not used in ethics as they are used in the sense-perception activities of weighing objects and measuring length, which is how Plato imagined that they are (Euthyphro 7c), because he followed a misleading analogy between different regions of language. (Ironically, Plato did not see that the analogy to calculating in maths (ibid. 7b-c) is appropriate in the case of his own method of tautologies in ethics in Republic Book One (332a-335e), for pure mathematics is also tautological.) The rules of the "language-games" (in the sense of 'proposition types') are different.

The kind of certainty is the kind of language-game. (PI ii, xi, p. 224)

And, I think, it is also correct to say that "the type of verification is the type of language-game" (Ethics and Verification). That is the context of this discussion.

About Albert Schweitzer's "fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain", i.e. about the obligation of those whose suffering has been eased by medical care to make provision for the medical care of others, Werner Picht wrote:

... the moral obligation which is advanced here as matter of course proves on closer examination not to be so matter of course at all. On its own it is not universally compelling even though it may seem obvious enough to nobler souls. Schweitzer himself regards it as an idea which must conquer the world because of its "inexorable logic" [My addition: which "carries with it the intellect as well as the heart" On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, tr. Campion, p. 117]. Here too we once again recognize the urge which is in him to present those things he regards as obvious with the authority of "intellectual necessity" [as the outcome of "thought" (My addition)].

Now although the obligation certainly makes a powerful appeal to heart and conscience, it is not all that obvious and matter of course to rational thought. (Werner Picht, Albert Schweitzer [1959], tr. Fitzgerald (1964), p. 163)

How does Dickens' hard-fact man respond to Schweitzer's Reverence for Life? "I paid for my medical care out of my own funds. Let the African pay for his; and if he hasn't the wherewithal, then he must go without. I certainly have no obligation to pay for him."

Mr. Gradgrind was at home for the vacation. He sat writing in the room with the deadly statistical clock, proving something no doubt -- probably, in the main, that the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist. (Hard Times, xii, "Down")

Picht writes: "obvious enough to nobler souls" ... But isn't that what concerns ethics -- "the life that is noblest" (Epictetus)? Isn't the subject-matter of ethics, not merely a possible way of life, but the way of life that is in accord with the moral virtue (areté or "excellence") that is proper to man?

It is not often that the secularized expressions used by Schweitzer (Work of humanity! Human civilization!) so transparently reveal the background of Christian belief on which his thought is based. (Picht, p. 164)

(1) What does Picht mean by "Christian belief" -- i.e. what does 'belief' mean here? For Schweitzer, Jesus is "the Master", the one who calls "Follow me" and Schweitzer answers -- but not because this belief is Christian dogma. (2) Is the claim that "humanism is little more than secularized Christian ideas" really historically justifiable? Is free speech (Gorgias 461e) -- indeed, free thought -- really a Christian idea, pace what Schweitzer wrote about the Apostle Paul? Are there not humanist ideas in Greek and Roman Stoicism -- indeed, wasn't our concept 'humanity' invented by the Roman Stoics -- as well as in Chinese thinkers who also knew nothing of Jesus, e.g. Mo Tzu? And it cannot be said that the Greeks thought nothing of compassion (mercy), because Aristotle's definition of 'kindness' belies that claim.

At the same time it is not often so clear that the real significance derives from this origin; and that it can, in fact, not be replaced by any supposedly compelling logical argumentation. (Picht, ibid.)

Is that using the correct "logical" yardstick? Or does Picht show a fundamental misunderstanding, not of Schweitzer as such, but of the language of ethics, or better: of the "language-game" (in the sense of "proposition type") of ethics? Well, but Schweitzer does say that there is a subjective element in what he calls "thought". (By 'thought' Schweitzer means thinking that is independent of tradition and received doctrine, neither silencing thought nor conforming to the spirit of the age. He means acceptance or rejection of ideas only after deep reflection about them.)

Schweitzer writes that "if rational thought thinks itself out to a conclusion, it comes to something non-rational which, nevertheless, is a necessity of thought" (tr. Campion), and so Schweitzer's thoughts are not "necessary" in the sense that "other conclusions are not logically possible". But isn't that what we mean by 'necessary', that 'no other conclusion is logically possible'?

And so in this particular case, from Wittgenstein's grammatical point of view ("The kind of certainty is the kind of language-game"), I do not think that Schweitzer has given a correct account of the "proposition type" of ethics -- as if by 'certainty' in ethics we meant subjective rather than objective certainty.

"When I have followed my thoughts to their end, then I say that my conclusions are necessary." The trouble is, that is not what we normally mean by 'necessary'. At the same time, if what Schweitzer says is "necessary" is indeed subjective certainty instead, it is not arbitrary rather than thoughtfully based on experience and reasoning.

In contrast to Etienne Gilson's principles, without which, he says, "one cannot think at all" (If there are such things, they might also be called "necessities of thought"), Schweitzer's "thoughts" come at the end of his thinking not at its beginning, as a conclusion comes at the end of an argument not at its beginning (if the argument isn't circular).

The foundation of Schweitzer's ethics is compassion (Civilization and Ethics 2e (1929), tr. Campion, xv, p. 169). Compassion is a uniquely human form of life, but it is not the specific excellence (areté or "virtue") proper to man according to Socratic ethics (which identifies reason as that excellence). Does Schweitzer say that compassion is defining of man -- that without compassion man is not recognizable as man (except e.g. in appearance)? But if he does, then is Schweitzer wrong to found his ethics on compassion?

Is this a question of points of reference? or are Schweitzer and Socrates in disagreement about a proposition that can be agreed to or refuted in dialectic (thesis and cross-question)? Is there no disputing "bedrock"?

If we ask about "the type of certainty is the type of language-game" with respect to ethics, shall we say that type is subjective or objective? I think Wittgenstein will say it is subjective, whereas I, following Socrates, will say that it is objective (Certainly Plato's tautologies in ethics are objective, as are arguments about the results of "the good is the useful"). (Note: by 'ethics' in philosophy is meant not a mere collection of values, but orderly reflection about values, and in this sense "categorical imperatives" and "absolute value" are not ethics. And thus -- I think "thus" -- I don't know whether Wittgenstein would have said there are any propositions of ethics.)

I want to say, and that means that it may be unclear or false, that, despite what he says in the Philosophical Investigations (ii, xi, p. 224e), by using the standard of propositions of sense experience, Wittgenstein is following a misleading grammatical analogy, just as does Plato in the Euthyphro. Using sense-experience that is measurable ("the propositions of natural science"), they both try to apply the method of one "language-game" to a different type of language-game (namely, ethics). And that is a grammatical category mistake, like asking how to use a tailor's tape-measure to measure time.

If indeed "the type of certainty is the type of language-game", then the meaning of 'certainty' will be different in ethics than in things like weighing and measuring.

In Schweitzer's ethics, unlike in Socrates' ethics, there is subjective certainty (and 'objectivity' is undefined), whereas in language-games of measurement there is objective certainty (and 'subjectivity' is undefined) .... Which is an interesting thought, but it may well is wrong. For if compassion is indeed the foundation of ethics (because it is the specific excellence that is both defining of and proper to man), then does nothing objectively follow from that?

Can you say that by choosing not to investigate or give an account of the vocabulary of ethics (of that grammatical category or part of speech), Wittgenstein avoided the difficult problems in philosophy that Socrates confronted? But if we look back to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, it seems that Wittgenstein never wanted to talk about ethics. But remember that he did later give his "Lecture on Ethics" (circa 1929-1930), and he did lecture about aesthetics and religious belief (circa 1938) -- so he could have chosen to write about ethics in what he referred to as "my book" (i.e. the Philosophical Investigations), and yet he did not. Why (because it cannot be only because the subject of ethics would be, according to Wittgenstein, "absolute value", which philosophically looked at is nonsense)?

But is an investigation of that grammatical category that same thing as an investigation of the "foundations of ethics" or of "ethical questions"? It seems so.

I just do not understand why Wittgenstein devoted his last years to the philosophy of psychology, that is, to that grammatical class of words, rather than to our life's most important questions. Did he believe that there was no need to talk about them, or that he had nothing worthwhile to say about them, or that talking about them would do more harm than good? (And yet he did talk to his friends about them.)

Is "about what we can't speak, we must be silent" (Wittgenstein) a guide to "how we should live our life" (Plato)?

Did Wittgenstein pass ethics over in silence, or did he put what, according to the TLP, "cannot be put into words" into words? Yes and no. In his Lecture on Ethics (p. 11) he said it was impossible to say what he meant by 'absolute value', and if that is what the TLP says cannot be put into words, then Wittgenstein did not speak about ethics. But maybe there is an "on the other hand" here?

Ethics as exhortation rather than argument (Wittgenstein)

With respect to "no small matter, but how to live", Wittgenstein did not simply give practical advice, for when he told a young student at Cambridge, "Take life seriously!" that was not a statement about how best to reach an agreed-upon goal (cf. OC § 611) -- it was a statement about "absolute value" (although not a definition)? Wasn't it like saying "The higher exists" in Engelmann's context?

Of course, what Wittgenstein said to the student was an exhortation, not an argument. Wittgenstein did not say, "Here are the reasons that demonstrate that the good for man is to take life seriously." Nonetheless, an exhortation is not silence.

But is that really all that philosophy can say? [Exhortation as a grammatical category (proposition type), as a "form of life".] According to some philosophers exhortation to goals and discussion of how best to reach those goals is the sum of the subject of ethics: they agree with Hume's claim that "It's not possible to derive an ought from an is". But neither Socrates nor Plato agreed. They did discuss the correctness of the goals themselves: they did discuss how we ought live our life based on what is. (Know thyself: life in accord with the excellence that is proper to man is the good for man, and what that excellence is, is a question of fact -- or, in other words, of an is.)

But suppose someone says, "It may well be that the specific excellence [areté] that is proper and unique to the human form of life is intelligence (the exercise of reason); however, calling life in accord with that excellence the good for man is quite arbitrary: there is no reason why one ought to live a life of reason, an examined rather than an unexamined life. Is philosophical reason logically obliged to accept that, saying, "Quite right! There is no disputing ethical points of reference? There is no real definition of the essence of man, of the that without which man would not be man"?

"Why ought I to live a life of reason?" I want to call self-refuting, because the question sets reason as the standard of judgment: It asks "why", meaning it asks for reasons why man should be reasonable rather than unreasonable. But that can never come to an end, because it is a philosophical investigation. Thus reason cannot with finality ever be used against reason.

Exhortation is not philosophy (although see the exhortation to philosophy in Plato's Euthydemus 278d-282a). Philosophy -- what we mean by the word 'philosophy' -- does not issue commands: Reason must prove ... or fail to prove. (In contrast, religion -- although not as conceptualized by Albert Schweitzer -- does command; it exhorts and demands obedience to its exhortations without proofs, even despite any proofs of reason, much less any proofs of experience that run contrary.)

The missionary, known for his deep evangelical faith, wondered aloud about taking a manuscript on philosophy [for safekeeping. But he agreed] to take charge of the writings, "although he admitted to me, he would have liked best to throw the heavy packet into the river, because he considered philosophy to be unnecessary and harmful". (Marshall, Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography (1971), p. 144; Schweitzer's full account in Out of My Life and Thought)

Was that Wittgenstein's view -- that philosophy is "unnecessary and harmful"? He wrote in 1947: "I am not certain I would prefer a continuation of my work by others to a change in the way we live that would make all these questions superfluous" (cf. CV p. 61). The words 'superfluous' and 'unnecessary' are equivalent. The following remark is not an example of "passing over in silence" (Is the remark an expression of an elementary and ultimate value about which no argument is possible logically according to its author? because it surely doesn't concern how to reach an agreed-upon goal, but concerns instead how man should live his life):

The people now making speeches against producing the bomb are undoubtedly the scum of the intellectuals ... (ibid. p. 49 [MS 131 66c: 19.8.1946])

Winch later changed his translation to "the dregs of the intelligentsia", but either way the metaphor alludes to a presumed worthless byproduct of fermentation. Wittgenstein's words would apply to Bertrand Russell, and, I imagine, after Wittgenstein's death, to Albert Schweitzer who, because he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1952) and what he believed went with it -- namely the obligation to be a spokesman for peace -- spoke out against nuclear bomb testing. In his Goethe address of 1928, Schweitzer wrote: "Before us, Goethe worried about and worked for his time" (tr. Neugroschel). Russell and Schweitzer did too, but what would it mean to say that Wittgenstein did? There is of course his contribution of philosophy -- although it was given only to those who attended his lectures.

Wittgenstein was by my not very bright lights a brilliant logician -- but of what philosophical worth is his work: "What has it to offer us when we demand from it those elemental [fundamental, basic] ideas which we need if we are to take our position in life as men who are growing in character through the experience given by work?" (Civilization and Ethics, tr. Campion (1929), p. v) Well, it has nothing to offer; Wittgenstein's investigations are silent on this topic, although Wittgenstein was very angry at the suggestion that this was because contemporary philosophers were neglecting or dodging it (although he did not explain his anger).

Schweitzer, on the other hand, with his philosophy of Reverence for Life does respond to Plato's question of "no small matter, but how to live" our life, regardless of whether it is accepted or refuted in dialectic. If philosophy (or, "the pursuit of wisdom") is not, as Socrates said when he "made ethics part of philosophy", the guide to living our life, then whatever is it? Logic? Well, understanding the logic of language is of course part of the good for man, as is metaphysics when it's not conceptual muddle, but they are not a guide to how we should life our life.

Often, too, our own light goes out, and is rekindled by some experience we go through with a fellow man ["such people, with whom I have, perhaps, never exchanged a word, yes, and others about whom I have merely heard things by report, have had a decisive influence upon me; they entered into my life and became powers within me." (p. 67)]. Thus we have each of us cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flames within us.

Impart as much as you can of your spiritual being to those who are on the road with you, and accept as something precious what comes back to your from them. (Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, tr. Campion (1924), v, p. 68-69)

Wittgenstein was given a great gift -- but what did he do with it? "No one lights a candle in order to put it under a basket", but maybe Wittgenstein did. The Philosophical Investigations were only published two years after his death and almost ten years after they were written. Is what I have called his "logic of language" not a light to guide the way out of the darkness of "vagueness and confusion" that surround us? But if that is so, then why hide it for so many, many years? On the other hand, what do I know of what Wittgenstein's inner problems were or what he had to do about them? Nothing at all I think.

"Think about things for yourself!" Wittgenstein wrote to Sraffa: "Every way of thinking is all right as long as it isn't stupid." But thinking and thinking worthwhile thoughts are not the same thing: without Socrates (ethics), Wittgenstein (logic), and Schweitzer (philosophy of religion), I would be truly lost. For as high as I regard the Gospel according to Luke, it is not by itself a guide to how to live, which for me must be a philosophical guide, a thoroughgoing use of reason.

Wittgenstein and presumptuous ignorance

Who of us nowadays has any idea of what a Bach fugue really meant at the time in which it was composed? (Recollections p. 132; Drury dates this conversion as from 1936)

Albert Schweitzer, Orfeo Catala, 1911
Albert Schweitzer, organist, L'Orfeó Català, 1911

Albert Schweitzer had, of course, and not only an idea of what it "really meant", but an idea grounded in thoroughgoing scholarship. (Wittgenstein is not an easy man to think well of: he could be arrogant and judgmental about things he had no knowledge of (His world-view and ethics were as well irrational rather than philosophical). Almost as if to say, "I don't need facts: I have preconceptions, pictures of how things must be." (Cf. Phaedo 99d-100a) Or again, "Who needs facts when they have ideology.")

Schweitzer, Albert [1875 (Alsace) - 1965 (Gabon)]. Philosopher, theologian, medical man ..., organist, and leading authority on Bach, editing his organ works (with Widor) and writing important biographical and critical study (1905). (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Scholes [1952], 2nd ed. Ward [1964])

What makes a human being into a philosopher? (Albert Schweitzer)

Note: this alludes to the discussion: the philosopher is not a member of any community of ideas.

Some human beings want -- above all else -- to know the truth. Some human beings "take life seriously", as a philosopher takes life. But not all human beings do -- now, why is that?

Between my fourteenth and sixteenth years ... On everyone who met me in the street I wanted to inflict thoroughgoing and closely reasoned considerations on all the questions that were then being generally discussed in order to expose the errors of the conventional views and get the correct view recognized and appreciated. The joy of seeking for what was true and serviceable had come upon me like a kind of intoxication, and every conversation in which I took part had to go back to fundamentals.

... it was not in the least any egotistic disputatiousness which made me so; it was a passionate need of thinking, and of seeking with the help of others for the true and the serviceable. The light and truth-seeking spirit ... The conviction that human progress [improvement] is possible only if reasoned thought replaces mere opinion and absence of thought ... (Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, iv, p. 54-55)

Philosophical Replies to Philosophical Queries

Note: Words that follow "Query" are Internet search that were directed to the wrong pages of my site.

Wittgenstein, definition, comparison, metaphysics

Query: Wittgenstein, metaphysics is meaningless.

But you owe us definitions of 'meaningless' and 'metaphysics'. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, if for a proposition [or, statement of fact] to have meaning = for it to have the form: 'This is how things stand' [or, 'Such-and-such is the case' [4.5] ... But how do you know how things stand (i.e. whether a proposition is true or false e.g.)? Wittgenstein does not say. "How does one know or verify what is the case [how things stand]? Surely it goes without saying that you look and listen." But the TLP does not say that. And, indeed, how could one see or hear a "constellation of absolutely simple objects" ("atomic fact")? [According to Wittgenstein's later criticism of this notion in his Philosophical Investigations, 'absolutely simple' is nonsense, an undefined combination of words.] In any case, the TLPgives no examples of "atomic facts". Wittgenstein does no more than vaguely allude to "the propositions of natural science" [The example Wittgenstein gave Franz Parak is not an atomic fact], saying that they are meaningful, and that any other form of language is not. Those other forms include the propositions of logic, as well as "the propositions of metaphysics", which concern things that are not seen or heard such as "God" or "the really real" ["the what cannot be perceived behind the perceptible"] (but also ethics, the statements of which apparently have no connection whatever to seeing or hearing). Yet, if the propositions of logic are "meaningless", then how is it that they communicate a meaning (They are not mere noise)? In a word, the TLP is extremely vague about all this.

Query: is it possible to give a definition of game?

Again, you owe us a definition of 'definition'. If to "define the word 'game'" is to state what all games have -- and, indeed, must have -- in common [a defining common nature], then no it is not as a matter of fact possible. And indeed you could say that this is an instance of "real possibility": we have looked at the facts and seen that there is no common nature. (That is the first part of Socratic definition, which according to Aristotle is empirical.)

Query: Wittgenstein, picture theory versus tool theory.

But there is a profound difference between saying that a proposition is a picture of the "really real" (as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus does), and saying that words are like -- i.e. that it makes philosophical troubles clearer if we make this comparison -- a tool (as the Philosophical Investigations does). There is a "picture theory", but there is no "tool theory".

Physical and Logical Atoms

Query: Socrates and early Wittgenstein.

For the TLP words are names and the meaning of a name is the object the word names. -- But the TLP's objects are "concrete", unlike Plato's abstract Forms or essences, which would presumably be the meaning of a word according to Plato's account: words are names and the meaning of a names is the Form it stands [in] for.

Those "concrete objects" of the early Wittgenstein are logical atoms -- i.e. their existence is known by reasoning to it, not by experience; -- but ask yourself, is not the notion of indivisibility nonsense from a logical (or, as it were, mathematical) point of view: we never reach a point at which x/2 is not possible? (Can you say, as Saint Thomas says, "But this can't go on forever"? How does Wittgenstein justify that "can't", for why else would he posit "logical atoms"?) That is a different question from: is it empirically possible that there are objects that are, so far as we know, uncuttable (For the Greek philosophers 'atomic' = 'uncuttable'), empirical atoms? Yes, but of course all this was known to Wittgenstein, and therefore that is not what he means by 'logical atom'.

But particles of what?

... to use the phrase of the great Sir Isaac Newton ... 'little particles of matter so hard as to be indivisible'.

[But the atomic physicist replies to that notion:] "Little hard particles of matter? My dear fellow, don't you know that we exploded that theory long ago; one fine day over Hiroshima." (Drury, The Danger of Words (1973), p. 69)

So it would seem that not only is 'logical atom' nonsense but that apparently there are no "uncuttables". Does the latter fact, if it is a fact, affect the world-picture of the TLP? No, but doesn't the former? You know, I don't know.

The mathematical principle -- and it is on this principle that logical atomism is founded (I think) -- is that we can always divide by two. But then the logical atomists want to say: that you can always divide by two -- until you reach the ultimate -- i.e. indivisible -- unit. And this is like Bacon's criticism of Aristotle: that as soon as the principle that everything that moves is moved by something else becomes inconvenient -- i.e. when the Aristotelians want to introduce an "unmoved mover", they drop it, and it is the same with the logical atomists. There is no ultimate -- i.e. indivisible -- unit, which is another way of saying that the combination of words 'ultimate unit' is undefined (It is "sound without sense"): there are no logical atoms.

What is matter?

Apropos of "atomic particles", Drury asked what are they "particles of"? (ibid.) I think this means: "What is matter?" (cf. Eddington's "scientific table") What are examples of 'matter' [These are examples that define a word]? But (1) we don't use the word 'matter' outside physics except e.g. to ask "What is the matter?" or to speak of "the matter at hand"; and (2) in physics 'matter' contrasts with 'energy'. That is, the question 'What is matter per se?' is nonsense [undefined speech]. Is the word 'matter' in physics, as is the word 'energy', meaningless apart from how matter is measured, i.e. is the word 'matter' in physics only defined by how physics measures matter?

Is time discrete or continuous?

Aristotle's reply to Zeno of Elea's paradoxes [cf. Copleston, History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome (1947), II, xxx, 6(b), p. 324] is that time is a "continuum", that although we can divide events into parts in thought, that does not mean that time itself consists of parts (i.e. if I know what Aristotle is talking about, which I don't imagine I do). Time does not consist of "independently-existing parts". But if we use the analogy of changing stage-sets, it appears as though we might say that time does consist of discrete parts; it does not appear to be only "in thought" that time consists of parts (But not as if there were anywhere else for it to appear!).

Now we would need examples to illustrate where the parts of a whole cannot exist independently (or, stand on their own) of a whole (but can exist only in a state of unity), and use those as an analogy to explain the meaning of 'Time is a continuum'. But since we can't divide an essence into parts (because, presumably?, an essence is atomic: it has no parts), it seems difficult(!) to think of an example.

A 'continuum' is 'that without perceptible parts or divisions'. Then, are there any continuums? Would the water in a glass be an example -- or maybe better: a single drop of water? But, what has that "tangible object" to do with the "abstract object" time?

If 'continuum' means 'non-discrete', then Aristotle does not refute the Eleatics, he simply contradicts them (and so I don't think that I know what Aristotle means).

These are of course grammatical questions. And as always they show is the absurdity of trying to treat a conceptual problem -- namely a clarification of how we use the word 'time' -- as if it were a factual-metaphysical problem, namely "what is time itself?", as Aristotle and Augustine do (Philosophical problems present themselves as if they were questions about reality). (The question of "what time is" is not among the questions without answers" unless we confuse imaginative pictures (in which we may depict time as either discrete or continuous) with actual grammar: Time is no more or less mysterious than the rest of our existence.)

Eddington's One Table

Query: philosophy, two tables, scientific table.
Query: Eddington two contradictory tables.

There are not two tables; there is only one table, but looked at from two different points of view. There are not two waters, the water we see with our naked eyes, which from a fountain springs clear and clean and lifeless, and a scientific water, the water we see under our microscope that is teeming with life and all manner of impurities. One water, two different points of view, or, two different instruments of perception [investigation] (if we wish to call the human eye an instrument). cf. the moon we see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a telescope. [Aside: note that in my examples the eye plays an essential part, regardless of which instrument (microscope, binoculars, telescope) is called on to augment it; however, in Eddington's case, no one has ever seen his "scientific table"; no one has ever seen an electron, which is at least so far only a scientific construct, or, model, theory -- i.e. summary of the data, not a datum itself.]

The word 'table' has no meaning at the atomic level; if an electron could speak, it would not understand us: our word 'table' would have no meaning in its language. What you cannot say, because it is nonsense, is that Eddington's "scientific table" is not solid. That lack of solidity -- that picture -- is the false inference Eddington's readers draw when they say that "The table we see is, therefore, not really solid".

Query: Wittgenstien, semantic rules, games.

Well, yes, this is good, 'rules of sense and nonsense' = 'semantic rules' ... except you must be careful because the word 'semantic' may carry a lot of baggage, baggage which suggests a meaning that you do not want to suggest.

Wittgenstein versus 'infinity'

Query: Wittgenstein, if someone asked you which was the last house in the village.

I don't understand Wittgenstein's criticism of the concept 'infinite' ['infinity'] ... What is meaningless [incoherent] in saying that: "There is no last house in our village; you can keep walking and walking and walking and you will never come to a last house: our village goes on and on indefinitely ['on indefinitely' = 'to infinity'] -- i.e. without ever coming to an end, to a "last house". There is always a next house"? (Is that a prediction that there will always be a next house?)

That is of course a picture, and one can ask: Has it an application anywhere -- i.e. is there a reality to compare that picture to? I don't know. But the absence of a reality ("The map is not the territory") does not render a picture meaningless [at least in the logic-of-language sense of 'meaningless']. Cf. "Where does the universe end?" And what if the universe is circular?

What this picture does show, however, is that the word 'infinity' is not the name of a place, but of a procedure. And so you could say that the word 'infinite' is an adverb, and that there is no noun 'infinity', unless it is as the name of a procedure. (Instruction in how to follow a particular rule.)

Is asking for "the last house in the village" in a fairy tale different from asking for the last [largest] whole number in maths? For in both cases the answer is the same: there is no such house; there is no such number. But not as if that were a prediction!

Query: Wittgenstein, bad infinity.

As I wrote, I don't understand this question -- but I don't know what is meant by 'infinity' in maths either. Is there any reason to believe that the n + 1 rule for the series one, two, three, etc., will at some indefinite [undetermined] point in the series stop being followable? I am not saying [can't say?] that it won't, only that I see no reason to say that it will. (And what would it look like if it did? A possibility that cannot even be described is no possibility, not as we have defined 'real' and 'logical' possibilities.)

Query: logic is a description of our language, Wittgenstein.

But if you say that, you are using Wittgenstein's jargon, his definition of the word 'logic'. It is not a "real definition of logic" (whatever that is when it's at home).

Query: logic in language.

The rules of the game (as in "language-game") are/is the logic in language. Meaning (the "rules" of sense and nonsense), however, overrules syntax (the rules of form/sentence structure). In Wittgenstein's jargon 'grammar' = 'logic'.

Query: rules that give the meanings of the words of the language.

In Wittgenstein's jargon, those rules are called "grammar". In everyday English, they are called "definitions", I think.

Query: did the Seven Wise Men think Socrates was the wisest?

The seven sages lived a bit more than a bit before Socrates was born. But note: the question is: apparently Apollo's oracle did not think that "the seven wise men" were wiser than Socrates was. Why was that?

Twenty-five years ago I proclaimed that the world was unknowable and it that it was impossible to base a philosophy on knowledge of the world. (Albert Schweitzer, Letters 1905-1965, ed. Bähr [1987], tr. Neugroschel [1992], Lambaréné, 4 January 1951, July 1950, p. 216)

Or, indeed, on an understanding [knowledge] of "the logic of our language"!

The Limit of Sense

Note: these are comments apropos of The Fable of The Born-Blind-People.

If all human beings were color-blind (as are dogs, which supposedly see everything in gray-scale, being physiologically unable to see colors), then words such as 'blue' and 'red' would have no place in our language. ("What work can these tools be used to do?" -- "Well, none. They are like gears that do not engage other gears" [PI § 271], non-functional, idle -- or, in linguistic terms, nonsense (i.e. [a combination of words] without work to do.) Nonetheless, or so we say, red and blue would exist in any case. [Indeed, some instrument, say a color-scope, might be invented which would allow us to see them; that would then give color-words a place in our language, if we wished to give them a place.]

And that is the point or one point of the fable: in philosophy the young student yearns for "absolute knowledge", for "the Truth". That is one thing that "makes a man into a philosopher". -- But the notion of "absolute knowledge" does not reflect how our language works. The word 'know' is a tool like any other; it has a use or uses, nothing more.

A fable may have many meanings, however. Another is a simple thought, a thought that is not original to Wittgenstein (Indeed, he nowhere mentions it; nonetheless his notion "form of life" surely presumes it). Voltaire wrote a story in which he described a man who had, if I remember correctly, some 172 senses rather than our five. The idea here is a very simple one, but it is profound.

I think that [or, so far as my work and study is concerned] philosophy can [and must] be written in simple language [if it is to be understood at all]. But that does not make its ideas simple [easy] to absorb.

"The peace that surpasses all understanding"

Albert Schweitzer wrote to a crippled woman in the Rhineland:

Do not quarrel with God, do not quarrel with man; leave all incomprehensible things alone, seek only one thing: the growth of the spiritual person, so that you may achieve peace of mind ... and so that you may give people something of the spirit of peace.... I have experience in struggling for stillness in God. That is why I can talk to you about it. (Lambaréné, 1954, Letters 1905-1965, tr. Neugroschel [1992], p. 254)

"Do not quarrel with God, do not quarrel with man; leave all incomprehensible things alone ..." Schweitzer does not mean not to think about the "riddle of existence", but not to dwell on the injustices of this world that you cannot put right -- because it is that dwelling (cf. Wittgenstein's metaphor: if you stare at a black door long enough you become convinced that it is the door rather than your fixed focus that is causing your unhappiness) that disturbs peace of mind and the spirit of peace. The way to peace is simple (as simple as turning your head to look elsewhere), but it is profound, and difficult.

And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4.7, tr. Douay-Rheims)

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 10 July 2015 : 2015-07-10 (Original version: Spring 2009)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

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