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Why did Wittgenstein come to call the propositions of his Tractatus “senseless”(6.54)?
The conclusions and final philosophical position of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus undermine and deny the possibility of his methods and objectives. Namely he concludes that metaphysical conjecture and the attempt to answer unanswerable questions is senseless. Since the Tractatus throughout posits solutions to the questions of reality, the meaningfulness of language and the possibility of human knowledge it has to all intents contradicted itself and rendered itself a senseless philosophical aberration. This is not to say however that it has become useless or invalid as a philosophical investigation. The aim of the Tractatus is to show “the only strictly correct method” of philosophy, which conversely destroys the orthodox remit of philosophy. As many of his contemporaries believed, Wittgenstein saw philosophy as been cluttered by a jumble of groundless metaphysical constructs, entities proposed to exist only to provide a foundation for various theories. The logical positivists, the Vienna Circle and an assortment of schools of philosophical thought saw these as the main stumbling block to obtaining the progress of philosophy. Wittgenstein uses the Tractatus to eliminate these entities from philosophy by showing that their creation is illegitimate and senseless. This is underlying intention and reason why he comes to make this claim (6.54). We must also understand the strategic reason why he does this, how this claim is used to develop an instructive picture of his method. Finally as we shall see although this conclusion is reached to undermine metaphysical philosophical investigation it is vital to the coherence and the credibility of the final step (denying the validity of this type of metaphysical method) that the logical processes of the Tractatus are valid. Why within the context of the Tractatus’s investigation is Wittgenstein led to this denial and how does it technically fit into what he has said?
Wittgenstein compares the Tractatus to a ladder that must be climbed, only to be thrown away once it is used. The Tractatus is supposed to show us the error of traditional forms of philosophical enquiry and provide an example of how if philosophical problems are addressed in the correct, rigorous manner they are not solved but dissolved. This is the motivation and the object of such a statement. It is vital to understand what Wittgenstein is trying to achieve and to understand the larger vision of what is being shown. Once this understanding is reached such a preposterous claim as 6.54 can make perfect sense. Of course whether this project was a success or not or whether it is even comprehensible is open to debate, but we must understand how Wittgenstein comes to this conclusion in such a way as to prove what he claims to be unprovable.
There is a symmetry and form to the Tractatus which is not coincidence. Each elucidation relates to others in such a way that the work is best viewed as an organic whole, not a progressive argument that uses certain premises to argue from a basis towards a conclusion. Wittgenstein is not a foundationalist philosopher establishing arguments and assertions on which to construct a system or theory. Wittgenstein’s objectives are implicit in every elucidation (or at least collection of elucidations). Wittgenstein does not attempt to develop a concrete argument to demark the limits of philosophy, knowledge and what we may speak of. Instead he demonstrates through the description of logical theory of representation how these boundaries are overstepped and hence where they lie. This aptly mirrors the essence one of Wittgenstein’s central ideas, that the form of representation (the way logical form is shared between representation and what is represented) cannot be described or said but only shown. Wittgenstein is trying to show that we cannot talk of what we cannot know and that to do so is senseless. Realising that it is self-contradictory to attempt to prove this he instead shows it. Wittgenstein does not as such come to the view that all the propositions of the Tractatus are senseless but rather leads us there progressively; the idea that the propositions are senseless is however there throughout, an inherent part of the work. It is stated explicitly at the end to clarify what has been inbuilt all along and to tie the project together. The circularity of the Tractatus is entirely deliberate, Wittgenstein begins by stating that ”The world is everything that is the case” and his penultimate proposition is the one that is at hand claiming the senselessness of all that has been written. He starts by stating what can be said and after 70 pages or so of elucidation returns to this by stating what cannot sensibly be said- namely anything that is not the world and hence not the case, i.e. the contents of the Tractatus. Was the Tractatus to contemplate any other question of philosophy it would fail to say anything with any guarantee or certainty. To be entirely accurate it does fail to say anything with any guarantee and in doing so proves it’s initial premise. To dismiss his own work as senseless may first seem strange but when seen in this light, as an integral part of a demonstration in a work that consists of interrelated and interdependent facts, it becomes coherent.
I would venture though that his last remark, matrix 7, the only matrix to stand alone, is a different case. The reason it has no elucidation is precisely because it is an evident fact (in the view of Wittgenstein) that we cannot speak of what we cannot know. To elucidate further would be to explore into the realms of metaphysics, to vainly attempt to discover something of which we cannot speak and to find the unfathomable reasons for this. To do so would be to step into the realm of what Kant describes (and dismisses) as “transcendental reality” the impossible position of viewing the world from without in an overview that is distinct from ones own point of perception. As it was to Kant (albeit for different reasons), to Wittgenstein this is a paradoxical idea and the attempt to do so is the very folly which leads us to many of the mistakes of metaphysics. Hence this is merely a statement of what can be known, unsullied by investigation, which is the only way it can retain its validity. Of course, as with the rest of the Tractatus, this phrase echoes with the thought of the all the other matrices in the work. The point has already been demonstrated but demonstrated though negation, marking the boundries of human knowledge Wittgenstein has over stepped them. This detached phrase is the positive affirmation of what has been proved, the valid conclusion to all that has been said before but unencumbered by the impossible and misleading burden of proof.
Wittgenstein does not come to this statement at random merely because it happens to suit his purpose. Within the investigative structure of the Tractatus statement 6.54 is a logical if not inevitable result. As has been said the Tractatus consists of series of statements or elucidations which clarify Wittgenstein’s arguments. These elucidations are broken into seven sections each one containing an integral argument or position. The further statements in each section (other than the seventh) serve to expand, refine and reiterate these positions. In this way the argument develops whilst always being interlinked.
“The world is everything that is the case”(1) Wittgenstein is here saying what there is that can be pictured. He expands this to explain that what is the case are “facts, not things”(1.1). It is the arrangements of things that are facts and the objects of picturing. These facts are independent and can be non existent or existent.
This brings him to the concept of “atomic facts”. These are the building blocks of existence- the facts that exist and hence constitute reality- “What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts”(2). These atomic facts are combinations of objects(2.01) and are objects are linked together within these facts(2.03) and the form of this combination is structure(2.033). In perceiving we make ourselves pictures of facts(2.1) and these pictures are a model of reality(2.12) Here Wittgenstein is saying that our pictures share the structure of reality, the structure in which objects form facts. This is the form of representation. –“the possibility that the things are combined with one another as are the elements of the picture”(2.51). This is how what we perceive is linked with reality. The crucial statement is that “the picture cannot place itself outside of it’s form of representation”(2.174) That is to say that the picture must share the form of what it represents and cannot represent it’s form of representation.. Regardless of how we look at them we will be unable to see what makes these alike. The principle that a form of representation cannot be represented in the sense of described, only represented in the sense of shown, is very important as it is this premise that leads to statement (6.53). For a proposition to represent of itself would lead to paradox, such as Russell’s barber paradox.
It is this picture which we have in our minds so “the logical picture of the facts is the thought”(3). When this thought is “expressed perceptibly through the senses” we have a proposition represented through a “propositional sign”. This is elucidated throughout the third section and leads to the statement that “The thought is the significant proposition.”(4). This progression essentially describes these pictures as having logical form which can be is the basis of the sense of thoughts and propositions and how they can communicate something new to us. They all share a logical form that can convey meaning to us. Logical form is the state of affairs in logical space that is, rightly or wrongly, represented by logical pictures. Wittgenstein also discusses in detail how this affects logic and language, what roles names have in language and their relation to propositions and the nature of tautology and contradictions. His investigations into this area are quite involved. For this reason it will be beyond the scope of this essay (and the scope of its author) to assess them properly. However it is enough to recognize that Wittgensteinhas found with the bounds of logic that the limits can only be dicovered from without as all logic leads to tautology and “all propositions of logic say the same thing.That is, nothing.”(5.43) Furthermore language limits the world to being “my world”, the world of the I. For this reason it is impossible to assert that “this and this there is in the world, that there is not. This would require one to step outside the limits of this personal world. Hence it is that when we talk of metaphysical issues or doubt the existence of the world that we are addressing questions without answeres and thus meaningless questions. It is also why the propositions of the Tractatus are senseless. It is precisely because the actual argument can lead to this conclusion in this way that Wittgenstein is able step outside his argument whilst retaining it’s relevance. This technical aspect is critical to the overall coherence of his work.
Wittgenstein’s argument’s are not without fault. They are idiosyncratic in both content and presentation as well as deeply involved and complex. Therefore there are many subtleties which have not been fully investigated or understood (certainly not in this essay but maybe not by anyone). Some of the statements appear to be contradictory and many appear to be insufficiently justified. However when read as a whole and the implications of each claim seems to support the others and the work seems to become axiomatic. None more so than the final claim that to speak of areas of ‘knowledge’ that we can have no justification of is invalid. This is proved by the action of logical proof and the refutation of that logical proof on it’s own grounds. The argument shows the “strictly correct method” of philosophy and the limits of
Kenny, A-The Wittgenstein Reader,-(Oxford,Blackwell,1994)
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