Wittgenstein on Scepticism

‘6.5 For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed.

The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.

6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked.

For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’)

This, to me, is one of the most brilliant lines Wittgenstein ever penned, if only for its rhetorical effect. There is more here, however, than brilliant prose. There’s a lot going on in these few lines – the most obvious question provoked here is simply. Is this correct?

What does Wittgenstein mean when he says ‘only where something can be said’? Reading through the Tractatus it becomes apparent that Wittgenstein intends for all speech to be reduced to an atomic language; that is, a language which does nothing but picture reality in a one-to-one ration of propositions/words to ideas. This left no room for any ambiguity in language (which is one of the things Wittgenstein realized in his later period, and can be seen quite clearly in his ‘Blue’ and ‘Brown’ books). Anything that can be said is a picture of reality – therefore, for Wittgenstein, anytime anything could be said (that is, word used in his atomic way) it would be a propositional picture of reality, and if it wasn’t, then it couldn’t be said. This left no room for scepticism in language.

While I would 100% disagree with his logical atomism (as would most folks, I would hope), it is a fascinating way to attack scepticism, and despite logical atomisms failure, Wittgensteins points made above provide some interesting brain food. Broadly speaking, I actually think it makes a decent point: a lot of scepticism is, in fact, senseless.


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