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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A Few Reflections on Language and Reality

I’ve argued before that reality is fundamentally linguistic in its nature – for some more of my thoughts and developments on this theme, head here:

So, what are some of the implications of this viewpoint? To be brief, here are some of the ones that come to my mind (note: this viewpoint is not saying that everything is language, or that only language exists – this isn’t linguistic idealism):

1)      Reality, by virtue of being linguistic, is relational. This works with a realist notion of the universe as the totality of all interacting and relating things. Reality is interactive and relational.

2)      A linguistic reality would point to an objectively existing reality – language always points to a reality outside itself.

3)      It is this relational-ness that allows for scientific study – a relational, interacting objective universe can be studied by relational, interacting humans.

With these points in mind, it seems appropriate to me to tentatively call this idea linguistic realism – to sum up, a conception of an objectively existing reality based on relation and interactive-ness. This account of reality is a whole, coherent and interactive account, which is the kind of account required if there is to be any serious scientific inquiry into the empirical universe (see the numerous quotations of Fr. Stanley Jaki for more on the idea of an objective reality being necessary for science).

These are not dogmatic statements, and no doubt have weak points. My goal here is to work through the issues and implications of this thesis and come to at least some coherent conclusions. Perhaps all of this is worthy to be rejected – I certainly hope that if that is in fact the case, the astute readers of this blog will make it known.

Reading and Context

It is terribly easy to take things out of context – but it seems moreso with written text. While written text seems like it should be more objective, it’s not really. The text is there, on the page – but that’s about the only objective thing about it. It must be read – which involves a host of things that shape how one interprets the text (presuppositions, linguistics, context of the reader, etc, etc). It is sometimes astounding to me that anything can be communicated at all with language, written or spoken.