What Can Be Said

4.116 Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.

4.12 Propositions can represent the whole reality, but cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it – the logical form.

To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world.

4.121 Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the proposition.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot be said.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it. (Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus’)

Here Wittgenstein makes some interesting observations: namely that proposition cannot picture the pictorial relationship between language and the world – the logical form is the pictorial relationship between language and the world. The standard example: a mother and daughter share a resemblance. You see the mother and see the daughter, but you don’t see a third thing called ‘resemblance’. That has to be shown – not said. To attempt to put into words the pictorial resemblance between mother and daughter (which must be shown) is to speak nonsense. It is something that cannot be said and must be shown.

This comes, obviously, from Wittgenstein’s early period – when he thought of language as strictly representing the world. Language obviously does much more than just represent the world – speech-acts, for example, don’t represent anything in the world – they don’t have a pictorial relationship with the world. Insofar as language does picture the world, as it obviously does, I think Wittgenstein is broadly right.

I detect some form of Kantianism here – we cannot gain direct access to reality through language/propositions because there is an aspect of reality which cannot be expressed by us in language but must be shown instead. This is the unsayable – ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical’, (6.522). The limit to the world of sense is the limit of language – we cannot go beyond language to reality. We seem to be trapped in language.

The obvious problem is that Wittgenstein’s whole project is nonsensical – fascinating, thought-provoking, brilliant, but nonsensical. He later came to realize this, by realizing what I noted above – that language cannot be restricted to only picturing reality. Language is much more subtle, complex and rich than that – it cannot be pigeonholed into such a narrow area without self-contradiction. If language was only used to picture reality, then Wittgenstein would be right:

4.001 The totality of propositions is the language.

4.01 The proposition is a picture of reality

‘…while it has been known for long before Wittgenstein that ‘we make ourselves pictures of fact” or that “the picture is a model of reality”, the real problem consists in the closer determination of the relationship predicated in the aphorisms, and it is at that point that the contentions of logical atomism turn out to be exceedingly restricting. This was recognized by Wittgenstein in his later years. The painstaking gropings of the Philosophical Investigations are a far cry from the self-assuredness of the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed nothing less than to have formulated “unassailable and definitive” truths. As years went by, he came  to see that the full meaning of human discourse far transcends the realm of propositions that, as he put it, can be said clearly. Beyond what he called “surface grammar,” a “depth grammar’ emerged before his searching eyes. It was a discovery that made shambles of the sanguine hopes of his early days. “No wonder,” he remarked, ‘that we find it so difficult to know our way about.”

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