Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

Gifts from the Greeks

Does Platonism do more harm, by wounding rather than healing the human understanding, than good? (Kant: "to heal the wounded understanding", and this was Wittgenstein's aim likewise.) The fundamental lesson of Socrates: the distinction between conceited ignorance and Socratic ignorance or wisdom: The standard of being able to explain what you know to others, if indeed you do know, in philosophy (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1).

The background of this page is Wittgenstein's distinction between sense and nonsense in the language used to discuss philosophical questions ("logic of language"). Words that follow 'Query' are Internet searches that were misdirected to this Web site, and to which I have responded on this page.

Topics on this page ...

The title of this page is an allusion to Aeneid ii, 49, although only with respect to Plato (much) and Platonism (all) and Aristotle (most), and certainly not with respect to the fundamental inventions of the philosophers of ancient Greece.


Distinctions with and without Differences

Platonism as a religion has to do with the deliverance of the soul from its imprisonment in the body, Paul looks for the deliverance of the whole human personality. In the one case the antithesis is between soul and body, in the other between the supernatural body and corruptible flesh. Platonic religious feeling desires release from all corporeity, what Paul hopes for is a different kind of materiality. He believes in a resurrection, Platonism in mere [i.e. simply] immortality. (Albert Schweitzer, Paul and His Interpreters, tr. W. Montgomery (1912), p. 97)

Aren't the above examples of distinctions without differences? What, after all, is an disembodied soul (or, disembodied spirit, or ghost without a body) when it's at home? [Remarks on "disembodied soul", as well as the apparently (if even that) opposed concepts 'spirit' and 'matter.] That is, if the expression 'disembodied spirit' is undefined, then it cannot be used to make a distinction; what Paul is saying is clear, but what the Platonists are saying is nonsense ("sound without sense").

Query: distinction without a difference, translation.
Query: from upbringing ethics and values.

For example. The word 'ethics' in contrast to 'morals' -- in common usage (as opposed to in someone or other's jargon). The only difference is that the first word comes from the Greek language, the second from the Latin. If in ordinary speech someone says "ethics and morals" or "ethical and moral", that is a pleonasm, and it is also a "distinction without a difference".

Cf. the words 'class' and 'category' in "classes and categories": these are merely synonyms; they indicate no distinction (i.e. there is no difference in meaning between them).

The expression 'distinction without a difference' is often used to indicate that someone is conceptually muddled -- especially someone who imagines that words have "true meanings" (hovering around somewhere, who knows where), rather than nothing more than the meaning that is given to them by the use made of them by some "community of ideas" or some individual (making jargon by assigning an eccentric definition).

Another example, as in the second query, is 'ethics and values'. It's true that I do make a distinction (in my page Ethics versus Values, where any creature may by its behavior exhibit values, but ethics is the product of a reflective human being), but that is only my jargon. That distinction is not be made by someone who does not that think that ethics is rational rather than an embrace of ungroundable "absolute values".


Forms of Life: "If a lion could talk", it would not understand us.

Note: this supplements the discussion of various meanings of 'understand', as well as earlier discussions about "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him" (PI II, xi, p. 223), "forms of life", as well as "grammarless forms of life".

Do you think we could explain the concept 'humor' to a lion? How would we teach it to use the word 'humor'? We would point to examples. Most humor is absurd situations, absurd behavior, absurd speech. And we could perhaps teach a lion to apply the word 'absurd', and to associate presentations of absurdity with human laughter. But what does human laughter mean to a lion?

"And the things she wrote, Lucetta. Why it would make a cat laugh!" Cats do not laugh. And that is the point of Mr. Farfrae's saying. It is also absurd that a dish should run away with a spoon. But that is not humor. The lion, following your instruction, would think it knows that it should laugh (when it hears "the dish ran away with the spoon"). Which shows that the lion does not understand our concept 'humor'. If it laughs here, then "it plays the game wrong".

Cf. our concepts 'beauty', 'kindness', 'religious practice'; a lion might be taught the rules of the game, but could it ever do more than go through the motions? When the walrus says, "I weep for you ... I deeply sympathize" to the oysters that it and the carpenter are devouring -- is it playing the human language game of compassion? Or the cat that amuses itself by knocking about, torturing, helpless creatures, mice and crickets. Do you think a cat would understand our feelings of compassion? Well, it might regard us as foolish or find us incomprehensible; it is the latter reaction that Wittgenstein is talking about. (Primitive man is indifferent to the suffering of his enemies: "That man is not my brother.")

"If a human being could talk ..." (Humor versus esprit)

Even between human communities (anthropological cultures), however, there may be incomprehension. Our cousin in Geneva told me about the movie Ridicule, set during the French Revolution, in which a French aristocrat is shown not to understand the British concept 'humor'. "I have lost everything in France," the refugee says. "At least you didn't lose your head!" the Englishman replies. "Est-ce de l'esprit ?" the puzzled Frenchman asks. "It's humor!" the Englishman replies. The Frenchman: "Is humor a kind of esprit ?" The Englishman: "I don't know. It's humor."

The Frenchman does not have the concept 'humor', but only the concept 'wit' (biting, wounding wit, as in Voltaire's smile). Our cousin said that British humor is not understood by the French; they call it "British l'esprit".

Cf. Wittgenstein's remark that "the inner life of Englishwomen will always be a mystery to Europeans". Cf. The distinctions 'art' vs. 'entertainment', 'fine art' vs. 'Pop art': for someone like Wittgenstein the distinction between "the higher" and the lower is life's meaning; for others those are "only words".


"Fragments make you think"

Note: the following are more responses to selected philosophical queries. The title comes from Goethe.

Query: there is no question without an answer.

That seems doctrinaire. -- Is it supposed to be an empirical proposition? And again, the conclusion comes at the end of the argument, not at its beginning, and so we must begin by "asking whether", not "asserting that". On the other hand, "if we use the word as we normally use it", then the antithesis of 'question' is 'answer'. However, 'question' is very fluid concept.

Query: why is there something rather than nothing? is a meaningless question.

If it's "meaningless" (You owe me a definition), then it is not a question, but merely an undefined combination of words ... which it does not seem to be ... "My aim is to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense" (PI § 464) -- Does that apply in this case? I don't know. (I tried to show that the question can be given a sense through the use of pictures, that the question itself suggests a picture or pictures, as do many other questions and assertions in metaphysics. Now, I would say that if you claim that the question is meaningless, then you will have to show that my account of its meaning is nonsense. I have, as it were, presented a thesis; now you must accept or refute it, as in Socratic dialectic.)

Query: the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" does not make sense for the Ancient Greeks.

To say that this question has no place in the ancient Greek world-picture is very different from saying that the question is nonsense (meaningless) -- because if the question were somehow (I don't know how) necessarily nonsense to the Greeks, it would also be nonsense to us (i.e. an undefined combination of words: "sounds without meaning"). It is very different to claim that the question "would be regarded as foolish to ask" by the Greeks given their world-picture -- from claiming that the question is an undefined combination of words ('nonsense' in the logic of language sense). If in someone's world-picture (1) the sky is a dome over the earth, or (2) the sky extends indefinitely in all directions, it does not follow that he is unable to give a meaning to the alternative world-picture. And the picture of the world as somehow (I don't know how) necessarily existing does exclude a sense being given to the picture of the world not necessarily existing (indeed, isn't an antithetical picture required if the picture itself is not to be nonsense).

Query: family resemblance, Wittgenstein, rope.

The scarlet thread, if that is the allusion, that ran through British Royal Navy ropes -- thereby giving them "something common to all" (an essential connection) -- to discourage theft is what Wittgenstein did not mean. But since by 'family' we normally do mean a group of people with common ancestry [i.e. descended from common ancestors], then why: "And I shall say: games form a family"? Because Wittgenstein has denied that games have "something common to all" -- e.g. a common ancestor, an Urspiel, an original game from which all other games are descended and share a common characteristic. -- Why call games a "family" rather than "a collection according to varied criteria -- rather than a single criterion", for are they not more like the work of a collector than the off-spring of a patriarch?

Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" is a comparison: whether or not it is a useful comparison is the question: What can you do with it; what work does it do?

Query: do you think Socrates to be persuasive?

Better to ask if you think Socrates is trying to be persuasive rather than trying to examine a proposition that must prove its truth in dialectic, where it must be agreed to or refuted (cf. Diog. L. ii, 22)? And that is a further example of a rhetorical question; it is a rejection of the query -- because the query seems to place Socrates in the wrong role, as if Socrates were the type of Sophist Plato describes rather than a philosopher -- a Sophist who is indifferent whether he persuades to the truth or to falsehood, as in "the promise to make the worse appear the better" reason if persuasion to a false proposition requires it.

Query: "exsample" of statement of fact.

That would be how the word whose etymology were "out of the many examples", where 'example = 'sample', would be spelled. The word 'fact' does not have an essential meaning (There is no one thing in common to all facts); many examples would be needed to describe the variety of propositions to which we apply the expression 'statement of fact'.

The Puzzle of Eddington. The Silence of Wittgenstein.

Query: Eddington's two tables explained.

Rather than two tables, there are two different perspectives. The only philosophical-conceptual-"grammatical" difficulty arises when Eddington says that one of those perspectives is the perspective of reality, the other an illusion.

A further note is that at the atomic level, the word 'table' would meaningless [i.e. undefined language] were it divorced from the everyday perspective in which words such as 'table' and 'solid' have a use.

"Looked at from the particle physicist's perspective, the table is ..." -- That you can say. "The table really is only atoms in space" -- That you can't say. There is Drury's criticism: "At no level of investigation can we say, "Ah! now we have reached the real thing in itself ...""

Query: a tale of two tables, Eddington.

The philosophical-grammatical-logical point is that there are not two tables; there are instead two perspectives, but many others are possible, the botanist's e.g., the saw-miller's, usw. Eddington's is not "a tale told by an idiot" -- It is instead an error of basic philosophical interest: the error of 'two tables' rather than 'two perspectives' here does not "signify nothing".

Query: ideas to develop, Wittgenstein.

I wrote before "You don't go beyond a philosopher; you just go someplace else". However, some ideas to be thought out -- if that is what is meant here by 'develop' -- are, e.g. 'concept blindness', 'forms of life'; however, whether anyone can develop those ideas the way Wittgenstein would have done is, well, a question without defined criteria for answering it, for we cannot know what an original thinker like Wittgenstein might have done.

The idea that I would like to see developed by someone with far greater learning and penetration than I have is: the later Wittgenstein's continued silence about the other two parts of philosophy -- why? As the Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief show, Wittgenstein indeed did have important things to say about aesthetics and religion -- but he chose not to write for publication about these topics? Why? (As if remaining silent really does more good than harm.) Why was it "impossible" for him to say one word in his book about "all that music has meant in my life"? What kind of impossibility was that -- logical, or ethical or ...? ("Cracking Wittgenstein's philosophical code".)


Replies to philosophical queries

Note: because I have no other way to respond to Internet searches that are directed, or as often or more often misdirected, to this Web site (or to the wrong pages within it), I have selected a few and responded to them here.

Wisdom to the Greek Philosophers

Query: Is it wisdom to know nothing? Socrates.

To make the distinction between what you know and what you don't know is the beginning of wisdom -- but it is only the beginning. It is not a place of rest, but a spur to seek to know things that you don't know -- specifically about the "no small matter, but how to live", or, "the specific excellence that is proper to man" (or, in two words, "Know thyself"). Those who speak otherwise, in my view, of so-called Socratic ignorance misunderstand Socrates. (The figure of Socrates in Plato should be contrasted with the figure of Socrates in Xenophon, where Socratic ignorance is not even a theme beyond that thinking one knows what one does not know is akin to madness, because it is being misled oneself and misleading others.)

Query: philosophy as the art of questioning everything.

That is what philosophy is, the art of questioning everything, an art that never comes to an end. Now why is that? One reason: because there is no limit to the number of points of view from which things can be questioned. The only limit is concept-formation -- i.e. imagination (apparently). Another is that existence holds for us a fundamental mystery, which we call its meaning. ("Question everything. But what did that mean -- everything?")

On the other hand, the query's claim is too broad, for philosophy is normally limited to three traditional parts where it asks questions, as well as to asking what the nature of other subjects is (e.g. Philosophy of Science), although philosophy does not ask questions within science (scientific questions). Maybe it would be correct to say that Logic is the art or method/s of questioning everything, while Philosophy uses logic to question everything within Philosophy's subject limits.

Query: what does Socrates mean by wisdom in the Apology?
Query: what does it mean to be wise in philosophy?

We don't use the word 'wisdom' very often, do we? When the Greek word translated as 'wisdom' is used, it means 'knowledge' (maybe of a philosophical topic, although an artisan, a potter, is also "wise": his wisdom is to know how to make pottery). What it does not mean, in philosophy, is Eastern bombast such as Orphism or Eleusinian Mysteries. Greek philosophical wisdom (Greek philosophy) is rational; it must stand up to the tests of reason and experience -- i.e. verification (I don't believe that Plato ever confuses myths with knowledge; he may believe things that he cannot demonstrate, but I don't believe he ever claims to know those things). The thoughts of the pre-Socrates such as Heraclitus, who, like Parmenides, wrote in poetry, must be given a clear sense and demonstrated to be true or false before they are philosophical thoughts (or "Greek wisdom" in the Greek sense); as cryptic fragments they are only suggestions (which Plato and Zeno of Citium make free use of).

Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries

The letter Plutarch wrote to his wife when their child died (that he knew that she did not share the view that "the soul once departed from the body vanishes and feels nothing", but about those who die, "because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries of [Dionysus, we] hold it firmly ... that they pass into a better place and a happier condition. Let us behave ourselves accordingly, outwardly ordering our lives while within all should be purer, wiser, incorruptible"), and what Cicero says about the Eleusinian Mysteries, that they had helped men "to live with joy and to die with hope" (Hamilton, Mythology (1942), i, 2) -- hardly deserve the epitaph "Eastern bombast".

Conceptual fluidity in the case of 'wisdom'. The movement away from myth toward rationality in Greek thinking. Would Plato call the myths he employs wisdom? No. Only gods [-- and the Sophists (so they claim) --] are wise (Phaedrus 278c-d). But trying to get clear about such Greek words as rendered into English is nothing simple; cf. the case of 'beautiful' (The confusing question asked of students at school: "How does Plato's Socrates define the beautiful?" as if the English word 'beautiful' and the Greek word used by translators for it were interchangeable -- i.e. used the same way in the two languages).

Query: how was Socrates a wise man?

According to Plato's Apology: because he did not think he knew what he did not know. According to Xenophon: because he always chose the better rather than the easier (more pleasant) way (and he encouraged his companions to live in the same way). However, Xenophon's account of Socrates's self-defense (in his Apology 16-17) is of interest here for suggesting what Xenophon understood 'wisdom' to mean, namely, 'knowledge of every good thing', and a 'wise man' was the one who sought that knowledge.

Query: what does Socrates mean when he says wisdom is worth nothing?

Plato, I believe, means that mankind is without knowledge both of fundamental and of final things. With respect to those we are, in Schweitzer's words, living in the midst of mystery. And any claim to know about such things, as e.g. whether death is a sleep without dreams or, as some say, there is an afterlife (Apology 40c-41c), is in truth truly worthless. Can any man obey the command "Know thyself" with respect to such things? Plato's Socrates says this in Apology 23b, but when I discuss it on my page I look at this topic more from the point of view of Xenophon than of Plato. Which point of view was Socrates' own? There is no way to know; because the only Socrates we know is a literary figure.

Query: Socrates, human wisdom is to know what you don't know.

This query -- but only if understood the following way (Otherwise, 'what' must be changed to 'that') -- is exactly correct: what man counts as wisdom, according to the Socrates of Plato's Apology amounts to no more than presuming he knows what he doesn't know. Thus, when Apollo's oracle answers the question of Chaerephon "Is any man wiser than Socrates?" by saying of Socrates that "no man is wiser", that does not, of course, equal "Socrates is wise". Socrates does, of course, know many things, e.g. his own name and things like this, but he does not know -- because he cannot give an account of what he knows to others (That is the definition of 'know' Socrates uses) -- what is most important for man to know, namely, how we should live our life. (Of course Socrates believes he has found how we should live and he lives that way himself -- but 'believe' and 'know' are different concepts.) All that according to Plato's Apology and other writings that are consonant [consistent] with that way of thinking (which in many ways much of Plato's later work may not be).

Query: what ignorance does the Socratic method show?

This is it: which kind of ignorance? It may not be what we usually call 'ignorance'; rather it may be what we might normally call 'an ignorant man's denial of his own ignorance'. Or, in other words: Socrates' method shows (uncovers) the "ignorance" of someone's thinking that he knows what he doesn't know.

If Socrates was in any sense wise or the wisest, it was only in this, that: "I do not think that I know what I do not know" (Plato, Apology 21d).

Query: Socrates' method versus Socrates' ignorance.
Query: Socratic method, ignorance.

To invent a sense for that combination of words. Socratic method: to begin the investigation with the presumption that you do not know the answer to your question, but that the person you question may know it (and the standard [or, criterion] is that: If your companion knows, he can give an account of what he knows to others that can be tested in discussion). But according to Plato's Apology, the persons Socrates questioned did not know what they thought they knew (their claims to knowledge were refuted by Socrates in dialectic), or, in other words, the result of Socrates' questioning should have been, as it was for Socrates when he cross-questioned himself, "Socratic ignorance", or: not thinking yourself wise when you are not by thinking you know what you don't know.

Query: Wittgenstein, the meaning of the question is in the answer.
Query: why are there questions with no answers?

As to the first, No, rather the meaning of the question is given when the criterion or criteria for answering it are given, that is before the fact of answering the question, not afterwards. If you must let the answer teach you want the question was, then the question had no meaning to begin with (Of course any combination of words may suggest to you a possible use for them; but that suggestion is not a definition, not their meaning).

The second query may be answered by the reply to the first, namely: because no criteria for an answer are given ... although maybe, or at least we believe or would like to believe, that there is more to this, that there is more to our "eternal questions without answers" than that, that there is more to this than anthropology's "forms of life". And even more so, we want to believe that there is more to these questions than the mistaken following of analogies from other regions of language.

Rhetorical Questions

Query: question without need for an answer.
Query: word for question that shouldn't be answered.

A statement with the form of a question, or, a question that requires no response (because its answer is presumed by the speaker to be something that can be taken for granted), is called a 'rhetorical question'. It is often punctuated with a period rather than a question mark. "Who would doubt that the Samaritan of the Gospel story was merciful?" Mr. Gradgrind asks rhetorically. "But was he a wise economist?" (Actually, both questions may be rhetorical, given who asks them.) Often a rhetorical question can be rewritten in the form of a statement, e.g. "Doubtless [or, No one doubts that] the Samaritan of the Gospel story was a merciful man. But was he a good economist?"

Do rhetorical questions -- i.e. is this a valid comparison -- "beg the question"? For although they appear to ask the hearer to answer True or False, their speaker has already decided -- and assumes his hearers will "of course" agree with him -- before he asks his question. So could we say that 'Is it not true that ...?' = 'It is true that ...' in the case of rhetorical questions, that they assume the answer their form of expression appears to seek? 'Who will deny that the Samaritan of the story was merciful?' = 'The Samaritan of the story was merciful' -- Is that correct? It appears that comparison can be made, but does making it make anything clearer?

"It assumes what it seeks to prove"

Does Descartes' foundation beg the question? I don't think it is meant to prove anything more than that there are propositions it means nothing to say 'I doubt', as Augustine's "If I doubt, then I am, [precisely] because doubting presupposes existence"; likewise Descartes cannot doubt that he exists, because his thinking is impossible if he does exist. (If Descartes asked "Can it be that I think but I do not exist?" that would be a rhetorical question.) Quid vobis videtur?

Query: "Is there life after death?" a rhetorical question?

If it is reasonable to expect [Note that this would be a presumption about a particular "community of ideas"] that the response will be: "Of course neither I nor anyone else knows the answer!" The "of course", the "it can be taken for granted", is what makes a question rhetorical. "Surely everyone will admit that no one knows if there is an afterlife or not." A rhetorical question can be restated as an undisputed assertion of fact, as e.g. "Is the earth flat? [Well, of course it isn't.]"

"Complex questions"

Another type of "question that shouldn't be answered" is called by lawyers a "complex question", e.g. "Have you left off beating your father?" (Diog. L. ii, 135) If you answer Yes, you imply that you used to beat your father. If you answer No, then you imply that you are still beating your father. You should either demand "to divide the question" -- or simply not answer the question you were asked: "Answer the question you wish you had been asked, not the question you were in fact asked." (Paraphrase of McNamara's "very good rule", one he had learned to follow.)

Query: what is it called when there's no answer to a question? Term used for questions without answers. What is a question without an answer called?

Synonyms for 'a question without an answer' are [often] 'enigma', 'conundrum', and maybe 'quandary', 'puzzle' and 'riddle' as well.

Query: questions without answer in this world.

Why -- is there another world? My response is an example of a rhetorical question. (Comment: But is it a good example -- because it could be responded to with: "I mean a question that can only be answered in the afterlife"? But if the picture of "life after death" is intended, then shouldn't the query be: "... without an answer in this life"? On the other hand, we do often say, "What on earth do you mean by that?" when someone says something that strikes us as quite odd.)

Query: when the question itself is the answer.

Then the question is rhetorical, or is that but one possibility? Is every question without an answer either nonsense or rhetorical? But to the person who asks the question, it may not be rhetorical at all: they ask because they want to know the answer to the question (not simply to draw attention to a point of view). The person may be naive in their understanding, but their question is not rhetoric.

Query: why is one point not enough to name a line in the subject geometry?

(In which subject would it be?) In geometry, an unlimited number of lines can be drawn through any one point, but only one line can be drawn through any two points; therefore, to "name a line", it is necessary to indicate more than one point of the line (e.g. 'the line AB', but not 'the line A'. That is "by definition" in geometry, is it not -- by what else would it be? (But then, does 'can' = 'may' here, as in: have permission?) One might reply that even on a map we use the word 'point' that way. Of course, when we look at a map, we want to say: Well, that's just common sense! anyone can see that! (Ought we to say this?) Euclidean geometry is quite similar, if not identical, to map-reading, if the map is laid flat; on a map, we don't need definitions to make clear that by 'line' we mean 'straight line', because the Euclidean geometry of the Greeks was done with straight-edge-and-compass constructions. However, with axiomatic geometry there are no such constructions and there is nothing whatever to look at (The role of drawings in geometry). As to "Through any two points only one line can be drawn", one says: I can't imagine the opposite [or, an alternative], if a line must be straight -- i.e. 'I can't imagine [describe, draw]' means: because we have not defined the combination of words 'Through any two points more than one line can be drawn'; no one can imagine nonsense (i.e. mere undefined combinations of words).

Query: questions that lead to no answer.
Query: what is a scientific question without an answer?

In principle, is there such a thing? If there is no defined technique (because we haven't invented or stipulated one) for answering a "question" -- i.e. a combination of words with the form of a question --, then does that apparent-question belong to science at all? In the example of the origin of natural language which I suggest as a "question without an answer", is there anything scientific about the way I have written about that question there? What are we calling 'science'?

"Is there life on other planets?" may be a question that it is not possible to answer at the moment, but if it is a scientific question, then must not the criterion for recognizing life when we see it be stated -- i.e. what are we calling 'life'? (Someone might say: scientists don't not work that way: they try "to keep an open mind". But in this case, wouldn't that amount to uttering a word without defining it? "Is there life?" -- Is there what exactly?)


Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 14 January 2010 : 2010-01-14

The URL of this Web page:
https://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/logwit77.html

Back to top of page

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