Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 4,b) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 30th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: The ‘Picture theory of meaning’ and the limits of language

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) was written based on notes that he wrote while serving in the trenches as an Austrian soldier in world war one, and is in many ways influenced by the works of two important logicians and philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege (both of whom he acknowledges in the book). It marks an important turning point in the history of the philosophy of language that is dubbed ‘the objective turn’; that is, when Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein re-asserted the primacy of the world (as it is experienced) and argued that for language to work it has to correspond/mirror the world around us and not the ideas we have of it.

This is an advance from the theories of language that we get from Hobbes and Locke, both of whom were nominalists who argued that signification involves a corresponding signifying relationship between linguistic elements (words/signs) and extra-linguistic elements, namely ideas/experiences we have. But as we have seen last week, to take such a view and to push it to the extreme leads us to a narrow solipsism where we cannot claim knowledge of anything about the world save our own subjective ideas/experiences of it. It also meant that both Hobbes and in particular Locke ended up with a private language theory where words were meaningful to each individual speaker on the basis of his/her determination of its meaning; and worse still – for Frege – this meant that all of language was no longer communicative about the world but only about the internal psychological states of the language-users. (What Frege dubbed ‘psycologism’)

Wittgenstein’s aims in the Tractatus were manifold:
  • To show how ordinary, everyday languages work and why they work as means of communication;
  • To show how ordinary language has a limit (in the sense that it can do certain things but not others);
  • To assert the primacy of the world of objects as the concern of language and to maintain that we can talk about the world without having to go through the mediating medium of ideas.

(It is important to note that the Tractatus doesn’t give any account of word/sign accumulation and language-learning, and starts from the basis that language-users have already learned words/signs and begun to use them.(1))

Wittgenstein’s concern in the Tractatus is to identify the limits of language; as he puts it: ‘to draw a limit… to the expression of thoughts’. As he elaborates in his preface:

‘The whole sense of the book may be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass in silence.
Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts; for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable. (i.e. we should be able to think of what cannot be thought)
It will therefore be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense.’ (italics mine, pg.3)

The Tractatus itself seems deceptively simple. It contains seven key propositions that Wittgenstein himself elaborates into sections and sub-sections, with only the 7th proposition standing alone as his conclusion. They are, in order, as follows:

  1. The world is all that is the case;
  2. What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs;
  3. A logical picture of facts is a thought;
  4. A thought is a proposition with a sense;
  5. A proposition is a truth-function of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself);
  6. The general form of a truth function is [p, E, N(E)]. This is the general form of a proposition.
  7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Despite the economy of language in the text, the Tractatus is a difficult text to read as it is cryptic and in it Wittgenstein admits that he is trying to push language to the utmost limit to communicate things that are difficult. But for the sake of this course, and for the use of discourse analysis, we need to focus on only one idea in the text, which is his theory of language known as the ‘picture theory of meaning’, which is what we will turn to now.

A. The ‘Picture theory of meaning’: Sentences as pictures/models of reality.

From the outset let us remember that Wittgenstein totally rejects the psychologism of Hobbes and Locke. Like Frege and Russell, he does not believe that language works on the basis of a corresponding/referential relationship between linguistic signs/words and extra-linguistic private ideas/experiences. In the preface to the Tractatus he makes the bold claim that he thinks he has discovered ‘the final solution’ and the ‘unassailable and definitive’ truths to the problem of how language works.

In brief, the picture theory of meaning can be summarised thus: Language is made up of word/signs that can be combined in an infinite variety of ways to produce an infinite variety of propositions, but each word/sign refers to a thing which has its own logical possibilities and which determine how they exist in the world and how they can be depicted/pictured in language. All propositions are therefore pictures/models of the world as it is, made up of real things that can be spoken about in a plain and clear manner. Propositions/sentences thus depict/picture/model reality.

(This is marks the ‘objective turn’ and is a rejection of Hobbes’s and Locke’s account of the unity of sentences being based on a corresponding unity of ideas (2))

He then takes the argument further by arguing that once we understand the range of logical possibilities of things and the logical possibilities of the signs/words that depict/picture them, then we have understood the workings of grammar and language can get off the ground. This allows language-users to understand sentences/propositions concerning things that they have not experienced and to construct sentences/propositions about things they have not experienced that nonetheless make sense – provided the sentences accord to the range of logical possibilities of the things depicted/pictured, according to the rules of logic.

Sentences/propositions are therefore linguistic pictures/models that have the same form as the reality they picture/model.

How are we to understand this? In order to make sense of this claim, we need to understand what Wittgenstein means by ‘picture’ and ‘to picture reality’.

Note that in the German original version of the Tractatus the word used is ‘Bild’, which in German has a richer range of meanings and connotations which alludes to depiction via recourse of pictures and/or models. Morris (2008) argues that Wittgenstein’s picture theory is better understood if we read ‘Bild’ as to read as model, and cites the instance in Wittgenstein’s notebooks to the Tractatus where he uses the German term ‘Modell’ as much as ‘Bild’. A sentence/proposition therefore is a picture-model of reality, and it makes sense when it pictures/models that reality as accurately as possible and captures its form. [In his notebooks to the Tractatus which he wrote in 1914, he explicitly makes this comparison thus: ‘In a proposition the world as it is were put together experimentally; (As when in a law court in Paris a motorcar accident is represented by means of dolls, etc.) (NB:7)]

Here is an example: I may be asked later to describe my experience in this lecture room and I can describe what I saw in two ways.

Firstly, I might answer with the sentence/proposition: (S1): “There were twenty chairs and twenty people in the room”.

Or, I may – if I have time to kill and nothing better to do – take some cardboard and a pair of scissors and build a cardboard model of what I see: (M1) I cut out a square piece of card to represent the floor; then I cut out some cardboard tables and chairs; and then I cut out some cardboard representations of the students in the class. I then arrange the cardboard figures, tables and chairs according to consistent rules of scale, placing and positioning, and then say to my friend: “This is what it was like in the classroom”.

Now for Wittgenstein, both the proposition S1 and the cardboard model (M1) are picture-models of the reality I experienced. But crucially, Wittgenstein also insists that the proposition S1 is the same (in terms of its function) as the model M1. Wittgenstein is not saying that written/spoken propositions are like cardboard models in the way they depict/model reality: He is saying that written/spoken propositions ARE models in the way they depict/model reality.

Wittgenstein admits that such a claim might sound odd at first, and he concedes that many of us might object to it on the grounds that a proposition (S1) – being a string of words/signs – is different from a cardboard model (M1). Yet as he notes:

4.011. At first sight a proposition – one set out on a printed page, for example – does not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is concerned. But neither do written notes seem at first sight to be a picture of a piece of music, nor our phonetic notation (the alphabet) to be a picture of our speech.

But in the same way that musical notes do not seem – at first sight – to be a picture of a piece of music but indeed is, likewise Wittgenstein wants to argue that a string of written signs serves as a picture of a given reality in the same way that a cardboard model can depict/picture reality. In the case of both the written sentence/proposition and the cardboard model, the main condition for signification is that both the sentence and the cardboard model has to represent the form of reality as it is.

This, then, is the kernel of Wittgenstein’s picture/model theory of language, as he puts it:

4.021. A proposition is a picture of reality: For if I understand a proposition, I know the situation that it represents. And I understand the proposition without having its sense explained to me.

The second part of proposition 4.021 (‘I understand the proposition without having its sense explained to me’) effectively means that once I understand how words/signs work according to the range of logical possibilities they have, then I can understand propositions about things I have not even experienced before. Understanding how language works and how propositions can picture/model reality (even reality that is not yet experienced) means understanding how the logical possibilities of words/signs correspond to the logical possibilities of things in the world.

So to go back to Wittgenstein’s example of musical notes and musical scores: If someone knows the logical possibilities of musical notes and can read musical notes, then we can give the person a musical score which contains a musical piece that he/she has never heard performed before, and the person would still be able to understand/read the music.
[*Note again that this is a refutation by Wittgenstein of a priori claims to knowledge, be it in the ideational or essential form.]

Now if this is the case for musical notes, written/spoken propositions and cardboard models, then how do these words/signs and models depict reality at all? Wittgenstein argues that to model/picture reality is to create a representation that is similar in form to the reality it represents, in the same way that my proposition (S1): “There were twenty chairs and twenty people in the room” and my cardboard model (M1) have to be similar in form to the reality in the room. In the case of cardboard models the model-maker will have to take into account the rule of scale (say, adopting a scale of 10:1 for his models) while in the same of the language-user he/she will have to conform to the logical rules of grammar which are determined by the range of logical possibilities of the things being modelled/depicted in the sentence/proposition.

Making propositions about the world therefore involves the language-user in the process of picturing/modelling that world to himself/herself. But in order for that picture/model to make sense, it has to reflect/mirror the logical order of things and their range of logical possibilities in the world. This is summed up by Wittgenstein thus:

2.1. We picture facts to ourselves.
2.11 A picture represents a situation in a logical space, the existence and non-existence of a state of affairs.
2.12. A picture is a model of reality.
2.13. In a picture objects have elements of the picture corresponding to them. (emphasis mine.)

Later on he returns to this assertion again thus:

4.01. A proposition is a picture of reality. A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it. (emphasis mine.)

Now of course because sentences/propositions are pictures/models of any reality at any given moment, they cannot represent that reality in toto. There can never be absolute, total representation of a thing by its model/pictorial representative, as the whole point about any representation is that it is always partial and never complete. (Like any photo can never capture the object of the photo is 3-D and from all angles)
Wittgenstein is not concerned about the economic loss of representation in models/pictures, but what he insists on is that any model/picture has to at least depict some reality in representative form. If it does so, then it has ‘captured’ reality so to speak, and become ‘a model of reality’. (2.12)
Models and pictures are, after all, precisely that: they are models of and pictures of things, but not the things themselves. For if a model/picture is entirely identical in every aspect to the thing, then it is no longer a model/picture: it is the thing, and we no longer have representation but rather identity.(3)

Further on Wittgenstein continues to emphasise this point about pictures/models being a depiction/representation of reality thus:

2.1511. Thus the picture is linked to reality; it reaches up to it.
2.1512. It is like a scale applied to reality.

2.1514. The depicting relation consists of the co-ordinations of the elements of the picture and the things.
2.1515. The co-ordinations are as it were the feelers of its elements with which the picture touches reality. (emphasis mine.)

So Wittgenstein seems to be saying that for a propositional picture/model to ‘touch’ or ‘reach up’ to reality, all that is required is that some elements of that picture/model correspond to the reality it tries to represent. Propositions/sentences as pictures/models therefore do not have to picture/model reality in toto, but simply have to correspond to that reality in parts, in approximation, and accord with the logical possibilities of the real objects they try to depict.

Sentences/propositions as well as models therefore help us make sense of the world and allow us to speak of the world as long as they represent the form of reality, and this happens when they reflect the range of logical possibilities of the things in the world. The picture theory of language is therefore a theory about how language allows us to make sense of the world, but also which allows us to recognise the limits of language and where/when we slip from sense to nonsense.

B. Sense, Nonsense and the logic of things in the world:

Now it is important to note that for Wittgenstein sentences can have sense or be nonsensical, and be true or false. Let us start with a simple two-place predicate sentence in the form of AxB (A and B referring in this case to two objects and x referring to the relation between them.). It could be in the form of:

John loves chocolate

Now this sentence makes sense for Wittgenstein because if we understand the range of logical possibilities of the two objects (a person and chocolate), then we know that the two objects have their respective ranges of logical possibilities that allow such a sentence to be put together in a sensible/meaningful way: People have a range of possibilities, including the possibility that they may love things; while chocolate also has a range of possibilities that include being edible, it can be cooked, it can be kept, bought, sold etc.

Note that the sentence may be incorrect; for it is one of the logical possibilities of John that he may actually hate chocolate with all his heart. In such a case the sentence ‘John loves chocolate’ would simply be false/incorrect; but it still makes sense to us.

Note also that the sentence AxB still makes sense for Wittgenstein even if the A in question is replaced with a person-subject that is fictional, such as:

Superman loves chololate

Here Wittgenstein (like Frege) would insist that the sentence ‘Superman loves chocolate’ still makes sense in the absence of their being a real person called Superman. For even if Superman is a fictional entity, we know the range of logical possibilities of Superman the fictional character and one of the logical possibilities of Superman is that the super-hero may indeed have a taste for chocolate.

However let us try to reverse the order of the nouns in the sentence thus: from AxB to BxA and we end up with this:

Chocolate loves John

Now this sentence, for Wittgenstein, does not make literal sense; and by virtue of being nonsensical it can be neither true nor false, but is just literally nonsensical. Why? Because while chocolate has a range of logical possibilities, loving someone is not one of the logical possibilities of a food-substance like chocolate. Here the sentence ‘chocolate loves John’ cannot make literal sense because it does not picture/model reality as it is: In reality, lumps of chocolate do not go around confessing their love to human beings. To know what chocolate is, is to know its range of its logical possibilities, and loving people is not one of them. As a model, this sentence does not picture reality, and does not convey/depict any sense of the world-of-things.

The sense of a sentence, and its potential to be understood/meaningful therefore depends on the range of logical possibilities of the objects it pictures/models; and this again re-asserts the primacy of things in the world and their range of logical possibilities which determine how we can speak of them. We are back to Wittgenstein’s ‘objective turn’ and the claim that objective reality determines the rules of grammar, reminding us again of Wittgenstein’s claim that grammar has to picture/model reality around us. Grammar therefore pictures/models the objective reality of the world and the range of logical possibilities of the things/objects in the world.

‘Logic’, for Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus at least) is not part of the objective reality of the world, but rather a mirror image of the way the world is, and how it works. As he puts it:

6.13. Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. (emphasis mine)

Thus for Wittgenstein logic has to be mundane (like mathematics and calculation, which he insists are never accidental or experimental – we are never ‘surprised’ by the results of mathematical calculations because their results are logically fixed/determined and mundane.) This brings us back to Wittgenstein’s claim in his preface that ‘what can be said at all can be said clearly’ as the objective world is a matter-of-fact and whatever is, can be spoken of. Earlier he alludes to the everyday-ness of logical possibilities of things as something that is mundane and matter-of-fact about the world and the things in it:

2.012. In logic nothing is accidental: if a thing can occur in a state of affairs, the possibility of that state of affairs must be written into the thing itself. (emphasis Wittgenstein’s)


6.1251. Hence there can never be surprises in logic. (emphasis Wittgenstein’s)

And also:

6.1261. In logic process and result are equivalent – Hence the absence of surprise. (emphasis mine)

(Thus in our example above, the logical possibilities of chocolate are mundane too: chocolate can be eaten, kept, cooked, bought, traded, etc. And the fact that chocolate cannot ‘love’ is not a shock to us, because we know that that is not one of the logical possibilities of chocolate, that’s all. In the same way that we are not surprised or shocked to be told that a can of Coke cannot speak – for that is not one of the logical possibilities of a can of Coke either.)

But how and why is the world the way it is? Wittgenstein would argue that to know what is chocolate entails knowing its range of logical possibilities, but what accounts for its logical possibilities? (i.e. Why cant a lump of chocolate love a human being?) Such questions, for Wittgenstein, are misleading as they take us down the path of essentialism and non-sense. The ‘way the world simply is’, is, for Wittgenstein, mundane and the mundane nature of the world and the objects in it makes itself manifest to us. This is the closest that Wittgenstein will get to any suggestion of causality in the world, as he notes:

6.36. If there were a law of causality, it might be put in the following way: There are laws of nature.
But of course that cannot be said: it makes itself manifest. (emphasis mine)

To talk about the laws of nature – in the sense of ‘laws’ as separate things that govern the workings of objects – is impossible and nonsensical. The world is simply the way it is, made up of objects that have their own ranges of logical possibilities, and all language can do is picture/model that reality as best as it can try. To try to go beyond that would be akin to stepping into metaphysics again, which would be nonsensical. Language cannot be used to talk/explain to us the ‘essential qualities’ of things, etc. but all it can do is logically mirror the logical possibilities of things.

Any attempt – for Wittgenstein – to go beyond the logical possibilities of things as they are and to seek ‘essential’ causes for their range of possibilities leads us to essentialism and metaphysics, which for Wittgenstein is beyond/outside language and therefore extra-linguistic and nonsensical. Thus all we can know/say is that chocolate has logical possibilities such as having taste but not the ability to love someone, and that coke can be drunk but it cannot speak. There is no essential reason why this is so, it just is. That’s just the way these things are. This is why Wittgenstein accepts the claims of natural sciences – but only as long as these claims are based on observations and calculations of the logical possibilities of things as they are in the world, and not based on any essentialist/idealist conception of some extra-worldly substratum of ‘essential laws’ that govern them.

B.2.: ‘Philosophy’ as an exercise in the clarification of the use of language.

Taking into consideration the statements above, we return to the aim of the Tractatus – which is the clarification of the way language works – and what Wittgenstein means by ‘philosophy’.

Wittgenstein’s realism is one which posits that the world can be spoken about but only if our speech (sentences/propositions) make sense in the way that they depict/model the logical relations and possibilities of things in reality. The consequence of this approach is that it reifies the purpose of philosophy as something more focused that speculation about essences, etc.

This is why, again, we need to note that Wittgenstein accepts the claims of natural sciences (as long as these are claims about things in the world) and argues that philosophy’s role is to help clarify the use of language in Sciences. He elaborates on this in proposition 4 thus:

4.112. The object of philosophy is the clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions’, but to make propositions clear.
Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred. (Emphasis mine)

This call for the clarification of the use of language in its application in/by natural science is further developed thus:

4.113. Philosophy limits the disputable sphere of natural science.
4.114. It should limit the thinkable and thereby the unthinkable.
It should limit the thinkable from within through the thinkable.

Leading to:

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

C. Ethics and Aesthetics as beyond language: The Tractatus’s implications on ethics and politics.

If all we can speak of clearly and sensibly about is the world, then what about propositions that contain ethical/aesthetical claims?
Let us return to Wittgenstein’s preface, where he states: ‘What can be said at all can be said clearly’. So what is unclear for Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus), and therefore cannot be spoken about? Well, for a start: ethics and aesthetics.

So can a proposition like ‘murder is wrong’ make sense? Wittgenstein in the Tractatus is trying to explain what language can do and what it cannot do (its limits), he also touches on the impossibility of talking about ethics in the literal sense. But this is not simply a neat rejection of ethics/aesthetics on the same grounds as Hobbes who regarded all ethical/aesthetical claims to be nominally subjective statements of tastes and preferences. For in Hobbes and Locke, the denial of the extra-linguistic reality of ethics/aesthetics still assumes that there is a thinking/conscious Self/I that is the seat of mental experience.

Wittgenstein’s rejection of ethics/aesthetics goes deeper because he questions the very notion of a mental Self/I and as a result denies the possibility of an ethical subject. He begins with this claim:

5.631. There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas.
If I wrote a book called The World as I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body, and would have to say which parts were subordinate to my will, and which were not, etc, this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather showing in an important sense that there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book. (Wittgenstein’s emphasis)

5.632. The subject does not belong to the world, rather it is a limit of the world.

Why 5.632? Because Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus) holds that our only knowledge of the world is communicated via language and that:

5.6. The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (Wittgenstein’s emphasis)

That is, whatever cannot be spoken off sensibly is non-sense in the extra-linguistic sense, and this includes any essentialist notion of the Self/I that stands at some archimedian point outside the system of language and linguistic representation/picturing/modelling. In answer to the question he poses: 5.633. Where in the world is the metaphysical subject? – his own answer would be not in the world as we know it. Wittgenstein is saying that we cannot speak of our own Self/I as it is not a knowable object in the world: We can experience the world, but we cannot experience ourselves experiencing the world. (This, as we saw in the previous weeks, was the basis of Russell’s objection to Descartes’s Cogito ergo Sum: that it implies a duality between thoughts and a thinking Self/I (4))

He then elaborates this point further thus:

5.633. Where in the world is the metaphysical subject to be found?
You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual field. But really you do not see the eye.
And nothing in the visual field allows you to infer that it is being seen by an eye. (Wittgenstein’s emphasis)

The Tractatus therefore does not even delve into the question of who/what/where is the Self/I as Wittgenstein maintains that it is beyond language’s capacity to try to speak (i.e. to form modelling/pictorial propositions/sentences) about such a thing that is not in the world. This then is the basis of Wittgenstein’s solipsism – which is not the same as the everyday solipsist claim that there is only the Self/I that cannot know others. Rather, Wittgenstein’s solipsism is one that is based on the argument that all we are, are our experiences; but we are not distinct from our experiences. And because we are what we experience, the experience of the world is co-ordinated with us. This is what he means when he says that solipsism (on his definition) and realism coincide:

5.64. Here it can be seen by solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to the point of no extension, and there remains the reality that is co-ordinated with it.

5.641. Thus there really is a sense which philosophy can talk about the self in a non-psychological way.
What brings the self into philosophy is the fact that ‘the world is my world’.
The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world – not a part of it.

(*Note that ‘philosophy’ in 5.641. is best understood in Wittgenstein’s sense of being a way of clarifying the use of language, and not philosophical ‘speculation’ about essences etc.)

Seen from this angle, Wittgenstein’s rejection of the Self/I has less to do with the denial of its possible existence/non-existence and more to do with his claim that it is literally impossible to speak about the Self/I in the first place. Interestingly, if we were to read the works of the Indian historian of philosophy S. Radhakrishnan’s account of Buddhism and Buddhism’s conception of the Self/I we end up with a similar conclusion: that the Self/I is not something that can be talked about and to assume the identity over time of a singular Self/I is itself an error.(5)

On the same grounds that Wittgenstein believes that language has its limits in signification/picturing/modelling he also argues that all other metaphysical things that do not exist in the world cannot be spoken of (in the sense of being beyond representation). This argument he also applies to the notion of ‘value’, as he argues that values are not things in the world. (On the grounds that everything in the world is accidental. 6.41.)

Because Wittgenstein also maintains that value/s does not exist in the world as a thing in the world (6.41), then values cannot be things that we can talk about (in the sense of picturing/modelling) too. From this, he proceeds to argue that:

6.42. So too it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics. Propositions cannot express anything that is higher (than/of the world). (My brackets.)

6.421. It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.
Ethics is transcendental.
(Ethics and aesthetics are the same). (Wittgenstein’s brackets)

6.423. It is impossible to speak about the will in so far as it is the subject of ethical attributes.
And the will as phenomenon is of interest only to psychology.

Proposition 6.423 suggests that for Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus at least) any talk of a Self/I as a moral agent is pushing the limits of linguistic representation (picturing/modelling the world) too far, and forcing language to do what it cannot. He maintains that the purpose of philosophy (as he understands it) is not to ask ‘transcendental questions’ about what is good/evil or beautiful/ugly, but rather to teach language-users to make logical statements that mirror/model the logical reality of the world as we can know/represent it in language. As such propositions concerning ethics and aesthetics take us beyond where language can signify meaningfully. And this is his position at the end of the Tractatus where he sums it up thus:

6.53. The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural sciences- i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy – and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he has failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – this method would be the only strictly correct one. (Wittgenstein’s emphasis)

Leading Wittgenstein to his famous concluding proposition:

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

So where does all this leave us? What does the Tractatus say about our everyday language-use, and specifically about the use of language in/about politics?

Well Wittgenstein (in the Tractatus) would argue that we can indeed talk about politics as politics has to do with the real world as we experience it. Thanks to the objective turn taken by Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein we are no longer encumbered with all sorts of metaphysical speculations about ideas and essential values to politics. The real world is the only world that we can talk about, and we can talk about everything that happens/exists in that world, including abstract/compound general ideas like ‘democracy’, ‘totalitarianism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘society’ and the ‘state’.

BUT the curious form of solipsism that Wittgenstein ends up with also entails that we cannot talk about ethical subjects and values, for as he asserts, ethical/aesthetic values ‘cannot be put into words’. (6.421.)

Thus while we can talk about politics and political systems and arrangements in a sensible way and make truth claims about them (because political systems are, after all, logical arrangements of things in the world), we cannot make sensible value judgements about them such as ‘good/better/best’ or ‘bad/worse/worst’. This leaves us with an oddly nihilist vision of the world where values are beyond speech and representation; and as such makes it impossible to recommend one political system or ideology over another. But surely this goes against commonsense and intuition, and surely we can make sense of statements like ‘democracy is better than totalitarianism’? And surely we can see that when someone articulates such a proposition/position it is not merely like saying ‘red is the colour of my car’ or a statement of preferences like ‘I love chocolate’? Moral actors and agents make moral judgements and value judgements with absolute conviction and hope to ground them on something; otherwise the statement ‘child abuse is wrong’ would have the same value as any other mundane proposition. (Yet this is the awkward position Wittgenstein gets himself into when he states: ‘6.4. All propositions have equal value’). To get around this mess we need to look at how Wittgenstein would later re-think some of the arguments in the Tractatus in his other influential work, the Philosophical Investigations.


(1). The Tractatus says nothing about how we come to learn words and has no account of the beginnings of the naming process. It seems as if Wittgenstein was less interested in how we begin to learn to name things, and more interested in how philosophy (in his sense of the word) should focus on getting our language-use right so that we can speak ‘clearly of the world’. Compare this to Hobbes’s account of language-use and language-learning, for instance, which begins with the foundational myth of the first act of naming, where God teaches Adam the names of things in the world and by doing so teaches Adam how to name things he encounters/experiences. Such a narrative device would be rejected by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus for sure, for he argues that word/signs – to serve their purpose as pictures/models of the world – have to correspond to the logical possibilities of things and not to ideas in the minds of individual language-users.

(2) In both Hobbes’s and Locke’s account of language-use, they take the view that the unity of sentences has to correspond to a unity of ideas or what Hobbes’s call a ‘train of thought’ in the mind of the language user. This leads us to solipsism and a private language theory where all compound/composite sentences are just compounds of words/signs that correspond to a compound of ideas. Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein rejected this view entirely as it leads us to psychologism and the view that compound sentences are not about the world but rather about compounds/combinations of ideas in the mind of the speaker instead.

(3) Consider this example then: Say I wish to build a model of a pyramid. The model I build will be based on some scale of representation, say 20:1 or 10:1. But if my scale model is built on the scale of 1:1, then I have not built a model of a pyramid, I have actually built a pyramid instead.

(4) Russell argues that Descartes’s Cogito Ergu Sum can better be stated as ‘there are thoughts’ rather than ‘I think (therefore I am)’, for to suppose the latter means already entertaining the notion that there is a separate Self/I that is doing the thinking. But where, as Russell argues, is this ‘thinking Self/I’ that is doing the thinking in relation to the thoughts? Russell concludes that Descartes is not entitled to such a conclusion as he has not proved it. (Russell, pp. 547-550.)

(5) In his History of Indian Philosophy (Vol.1) S. Radhakhrisnan attempts to explain the Buddhist doctrine of Pratityasamutpada or the doctrine of dependent organisation, in which the subject of the Self/I is addressed. Now conventional everyday accounts of Buddhism continue to see Buddhism as a philosophical system that addresses the question of the Self with the aim towards ‘self-liberation’, as if the Self/I was a thing that could be saved from the endless cycle of pain and life’s tribulations. Radakhrisnan argues that this would be a misunderstanding of Buddhism and what Buddhism was trying to say about the Self/I. He maintains that the aim of Buddhist aesthetic practices are not to liberate any particular Self/I, but rather to inculcate and generate a specific mode of being whereby we can come to understand (in a non-analytic manner) that the Self/I is precisely a fiction that has to be overcome. Buddhism, for Radhakhrisnan, is therefore not about Self-liberation, but rather liberation from the illusion of there being a Self/I to save in the first place. For what he argues is that there is no Self/I that endures and persists over time and space, but instead ‘life is nothing but a series of manifestations of becomings and extinctions. It is a stream of becoming.’ (pg.367) Later he elaborates thus: ‘The vanity of existence should be understood before the pain of existence can be abolished. …The persistence of ignorance is indicated by the persistence of individuality. It is not the individual who is manufacturing his sorrow: he is himself a form of sorrow. The sense of ‘I’ that generates the illusion is itself an illusion. Individuality is the symptom as well as the disease.’ (pg. 415) [Re: S. Radhakhrishnan, History of Indian Philosophy, Vol.1. ‘Buddhism’.1923.]

Further reading:

For those who wish to read more I would suggest the Pears and McGuiness translation of the Tractatus: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, London, 1974.

In particular, seek the following:

On the picture/model theory of representation/signification: Proposition 2. (From 2.01 to 2.1515) and 4 (from 4 to 4.021)

On the question of solipsism, the self-effacing nature of the Self/I as not in the world but rather the limit of language/experience and its consequences on ethics/aesthetics:
Propositions 5 and 6, esp: 5.631- 6.3.

Perhaps the best commentary remains volume I of David Pears, The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987.

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