I begin my explanation thus. In recent years there has raged in the scholarly teapot of Wittgenstein interpretation a bitter tempest indeed. Like many twentieth-century philosophers, including especially his logical-positivist followers, the early Wittgenstein rejected "metaphysical" questions as nonsensical pseudo-propositions. This much is clear; but how exactly does his argument go, and what exactly is it supposed to do? This is an important question even if one's main concern is with the later Wittgenstein, as it affects one's account of the continuity, or lack thereof, in the transition to the later view.
Nowadays, "metaphysical" is not the dismissive term it once was, at least to my ear. Any time you're talking about objectivity or truth or reality or reference or any kind of mind-world relation, you're "doing metaphysics"; and of course this is something everyone has to do, even if what you say about these things is that we should reconstrue them completely in order, well, not to "do metaphysics" in (what continues to be) the "bad" sense (for philosophers of certain persuasions, including but not limited to mine). What sense that is we can infer from the famous lines by Hilaire Belloc, who extols (extols, mind you) those Dons
With hearts of gold and lungs of bronze,... as opposed, that is, for the record, to the dyspeptic nobody who "dared attack [Belloc's] Chesterton." Dyspeptic or not, those of us who reject "metaphysics" in this sense are put off less by shouting and banging (or, again, with truth and objectivity properly construed) than with what Kant called the "push to the unconditioned," i.e. positing (and attempting to describe, by means of a priori philosophical reflection) an Absolute Reality underlying or "grounding" or transcending the ("mere") contingency of our worldly experience.
Who shout and bang and roar and bawl
The Absolute across the hall ["Lines to a Don"]
Even after Kant's attempt to cut metaphysics down to size, in Russell's time the halls of Cambridge still rang with such bawling, e.g., in the voices of the British Hegelians and their followers (not sure which of them were at Cambridge exactly, but we speak here of the likes of McTaggart, Bradley, and T. H. Green). To Russell, the refugee from Hegelianism, this was all pretentious nonsense; but how can you prove that something is nonsense? It seems, as Kant had noted, that in order to draw a line between sense and nonsense one would have to be able to think both sides, which is supposedly just what one can't do (which leads Kant to take a different tack in his rejection of "transcendental illusion" – but we're not here to talk about Kant).
Russell's "young engineer" Wittgenstein took on this task with a vengeance. Convinced by Russell and Frege that "whatever can be said at all can be said clearly," in the Tractatus Wittgenstein lays out a theory of meaning and reference which delineates, from within as it were, the limits of intelligibility (c.f. the preface: "it will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and what lies on the other side will simply be nonsense" (p. 3)). The book ends with the famous pronouncement that "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent."
Here's where the trouble begins. For one standard translation (i.e. of Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen) reads instead: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." This translation of the enigmatic sentence implies that even if language can describe only the world of empirical contingency, there are mystical truths which transcend our language – truths beyond its reach, yet no less real and pressing for all that. The point of saying this, presumably, is that when metaphysics tries to articulate these truths, it necessarily fails, so it should stop trying; yet, again, they remain truths all the same. On this reading, Wittgenstein is saying that metaphysics is nonsense (non-sense), but it's "substantial" nonsense, not gibberish: it gestures at important truths beyond the reach of our cognition (they're there all right, but we must "pass over" them in silence). Indeed, Wittgenstein explicitly and repeatedly (although not so much in the Tractatus itself) proclaims his conviction that the "ethical" (by which he means concern with value) is intensely important for him, and it is not the ethical itself, but only philosophical pseudo-inquiry thereinto that he rejects.
One side of the scholarly controversy accepts this reading, but the other side regards it as committing Wittgenstein to exactly that which (on this alternate reading) he was concerned, in the closing sections of the Tractatus, to reject: the idea of ("ethical" propositions as) "substantial" nonsense, as opposed to mere gibberish. Instead, say these "New Wittgensteinians" (led by Cora Diamond and James Conant), nothing "transcends" our language in this sense: there's what we can say, and that's it. "Beyond" language there lies nothing over which we must (perhaps wistfully) pass in silence, and sentences which purport to describe "the transcendent" (in this sense) are nothing but mere nonsense: "the essence of any entity resides in its substantial form" is no different from "karvo sotok skebanzulane." It's not that they (necessarily) fail to capture the thought at which they aim, but instead that there is no thought there in the first place to be captured. There's sense and there's nonsense. The former describes the world; the latter does nothing except sow confusion (sense talks; nonsense walks). If that were all there were to it, this reading would leave Wittgenstein sounding like a positivist (and of course the Vienna Circle positivists took themselves to be avid Wittgensteinians, with the Tractatus as their bible); but of course there's plenty more, most of which we won't get into. (Short version: there's no reason to see this "Jacobin" view of nonsense as, for example, in any way downplaying Wittgenstein's sense of the importance of ethics.)
Our concern here is the characteristic metaphilosophical strategy Diamond et. al. find in the closing passages of the Tractatus. Statement 6 gives "the general form of a proposition," and in the subsequent commentary Wittgenstein explains how we can see the propositions of logic as tautologies without content, and thus as saying nothing about the world. This means that (6.13) "[l]ogic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental." 6.42 tells us that "it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics. Propositions can express nothing that is higher."
So far, there's no reason to think anything is amiss with the traditional interpretation. Wittgenstein is summing up his conclusions about the limits of language and the status of ethical pseudo-propositions. Even as late as 6.522, he says that "[t]here are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." A mere half-page later comes the fateful statement 7, and the book is over.
So why do the NWs read the Tractatus in the way they do? Consider what Wittgenstein has to say about philosophy. 4.003 reads: "Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical." This is just what we might expect him to say, given his rejection of "metaphysics." But isn't the Tractatus itself a work of philosophy? After all, it's hardly a work of natural science (or any other worldly inquiry). But this means that since the propositions of the Tractatus itself do not simply (as a proposition must, if it is to have a sense) picture states of affairs in the world, they too must lack sense. If so, then they can't be true; and if they're not true, then what good are they?
The threat of self-refutation looms. Let's pursue it a little further. At 4.112, Wittgenstein tells us that philosophy is (or should be) "not a body of doctrine but an activity." 4.114 elaborates, in familiar terms: "It must set limits to what can be thought; and in doing so, to what cannot be thought" – which is of course what the Tractatus says it's doing. That the Tractatus is not a body of doctrine might mean that it doesn't matter that its propositions can't be true, as their importance lies not in what they say, but in what they do. But if they don't say anything – if they are utter nonsense, the equivalent of "karvo sotok skebanzulane" – then how could they do anything, except puzzle you? After all, this applies even to (pseudo-) statements like 4.112, philosophical as they are. That something is meant as an "elucidation" (4.112) rather than as a statement of doctrine cannot save it from meaninglessness. It looks like the strategic retreat from doctrine to elucidation cannot help.
The last few remarks of the book (except for 7) are comments on 6.5, which reads: "When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it." So where there can be no "answer," there can be no question either – leaving no unanswered questions. The trick, then, is to see this – to overcome our feeling of dissatisfaction with the actual, intelligible questions available to us (answered or not).
6.52: We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course then there are no questions left, and this itself is the answer.We must move from seeing the world in one way to seeing it in another – from seeing it as concealing something essential behind the appearances, to seeing it as it is, i.e., as complete in itself, even if not fully known, given the existence of unanswered yet intelligible empirical questions. When we do this we will cease to scratch where we come to understand that it cannot really itch. But then comes 6.522 (quoted above), in which, as if anticipating the subsequent positivist misunderstanding of what he is doing, Wittgenstein affirms the "mystical" and its importance. We must not confuse hard-won understanding with tendentious and unconvincing behaviorist denial (i.e., of such things as "itches").
So now we know where we're supposed to end up. But how to get there? Even the statements which tell us our goal are still unintelligible by their own lights. As already suggested, the answer has to do with the difference between philosophy-as-doctrine (i.e., as argument) and philosophy-as-elucidation. We think of philosophical arguments as "moving" or "taking" us from one "place" (the premises) to another (the conclusion), by means of the license (or force) provided by logical (deductive) inference. But all they really do, as we shouldn't even need Wittgenstein's analysis of the sense of propositions to tell us, is bring out the implications of what we were already committed to in believing the premises (which of course we then leave in place). In adding a new belief, we merely come to see a new detail in what was already present; or perhaps we find that our commitment to these premises requires that we give up (as unwarranted) some other belief less firmly entrenched than they. In either case (as well as in cases of empirical or inductive inferences) we see our resulting view as an elaboration or correction of our doctrines, such that they now do better what they were already doing: mirroring reality. Thus is philosophical progress made.
But Wittgenstein explicitly denies that this is what he is doing (i.e., what "philosophy [as opposed to science] does"). By doing so even as early as 4.112 (i.e., not simply springing it on us at the end), he has carefully maneuvered us into a position where seeing what he is doing and understanding how he is doing it (that is, how to understand the self-referential nature of his procedure) is the same thing. And to see this is to see how the self-reference of his claims, while it does indeed result in their undermining as claims, is nothing to be feared, but instead holds the key to understanding. We're used to thinking of self-reference in terms of things like the Liar (and the supposed cure for these things, Russell's "theory of types"), i.e., as manifested in sentences like "this sentence is false" – a strict contradiction (for Wittgenstein's response to Russell see 3.331-2). That's not what we're talking about here.
The problem is this. The (sentences of the) Tractatus tell us that certain forms of words have no sense (are nonsense). Yet they themselves seem to be of that very form. This would be a strict contradiction only if – as in "this sentence is false" – we read them as assertions. But they themselves, taken together (not each by itself, as the Liar), tell us not to do that. Of course we still have a puzzle – a tension between what the sentences (seem to) say and what that which they (seem to) say tells us, about whether that appearance of sense is misleading – but a puzzle is not yet a contradiction. (The "puzzle" of the Liar is that it is a (seemingly sensible) contradiction.)
Turn back again to what the sentences in question say/seem to say. We are to move from seeing the world in one way to seeing it in another, even while recognizing that nothing has changed. It was something we felt to be missing that we must learn to see as – not present, of course, but not "missing" either. What we are actually looking at – (the truth about) the world – remains unchanged. The change is in ourselves, not the world (and not our knowledge of the world). When we see this once, we can see it again (whichever way we see it first). Just as we move from seeing the truth about the world as (empirical/scientific propositions plus philosophical/ethical/transcendent propositions) to (empirical/scientific propositions only), we move from seeing philosophy-as-establishment-of-doctrine to philosophy-as-elucidation. It is obvious how the latter two are different; indeed, most philosophers see the latter as some kind of nihilism and not philosophy at all. But how (as they must be if the parallel is to hold) are they the same? How is the change in ourselves and not in philosophy?
To ask is to answer. The former, while it seemed to move us from one place to another (by forcing on us a belief we didn't already have), actually left us (in simply revealing what was already implicit in the premises) with a new understanding of the status quo ante. The latter, on the other hand, in dealing only with nonsense, seemed instead to leave everything in place, while actually moving us from one way of seeing to another. When we put it like this, the answer jumps out at us: in each case the change is in us and not the (truth about the) world. Let's see how Wittgenstein himself puts it, in the decisive proposition, immediately preceding 7. If 6.54 works, 7 will then strike us in just the right way: as summing up the book – as telegraphed in the Preface, no less – but as not saying anything at all. After all, unlike most "philosophical propositions," it is openly tautologous: what we cannot speak about, we cannot speak about (duh). It is when we do not understand that we look behind or underneath it for some deep meaning – which is of course the point of the entire book. So, finally, here is 6.54:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)Wittgenstein has not mentioned "elucidations" since 4.112 (and the only other reference is 3.263, which in retrospect can be seen to make the same familiar point, only at a different level; (intelligible) propositions "elucidate" the elementary propositions which (conceptually speaking) make them up – but they can only work that way
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Yet once the propositions have been "transcended," Wittgenstein tells us, we will then be able to "see the world aright." We know now, though, what this can only mean. It's not that we now see the truth where before we were ignorant or mistaken (i.e. our views are "right"). We saw the truth already (that is, to the same extent that we do now, given our continuing non-omniscience about empirical matters); what we now do is understand that that's what we're doing, and that that's all there is to do. That is, now we see rightly what has not changed.
This is tricky, so let me say it again. Before we read the Tractatus, we saw our knowledge of the world as incomplete, and not only in the sense in which it always must be (given our permanent non-omniscience). We wanted answers to our deep questions about (I can't resist) Life, the Universe, and Everything. So we read the book; but it doesn't really give us an answer to our question. It led us on, implying that something in the nature of logic and language and meaning would tell us how to do metaphysics properly, as Kant does (or tries to); but then right at the end it pulls the rug out from under you. Nothing has changed; all we learn is what we already knew. But things are supposed to look different. So we look again.
We look again at ... what? At the only thing we can look at, because it's the only thing there is: the world. If we have understood what (Wittgenstein's) philosophy has done, we will be able to overcome the lingering feeling that something is missing, both in it and in our knowledge, in their joint failure to tell us what we thought we wanted to know, about "the transcendent" or whatever. That is, what is indeed missing from even a complete description of the world is not to be found in a further description of a transcendent reality, to be supplied by "metaphysics" (for this is what it seemed that we needed), but is instead that which we can now see to be implicit in the very idea of a description of the world (i.e. the facts). Keeping in mind its fundamental importance (rather than dismissing it as positivists do), we must now learn to look for it (if that's even how we still want to say what we're doing) in a different way: by seeing the (one and only) world differently. That is, seeing it rightly ("aright") – which of course means that if we see "only" the entire truth about the world, we won't have seen the world "rightly" at all.
Now after all the heavy technical weather of the preceding pages, this moral (that we need to learn to see the world "rightly") may, like that tautological final sentence, seem like not much help. But this is of course Wittgenstein's own verdict as well. Return to the preface:
[t]he truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive. [... and the] second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.Yet if we don't learn to see the world rightly – or, that is, if we continue to look for "ultimate reality" either in (i.e. as constituted by) the facts about the world or beyond them, then everything we do do, in philosophy or not, will be futile. So even if "little is achieved" in one sense, it's still something that has to be done – or we will continue to search blind alleys for an "answer" which does not and cannot exist.
So, does this mean the "New Wittgensteinians" are right? Not so fast. While the NWs have performed an important service in focusing our attention on the metaphilosophical strategy of the Tractatus as manifested/addressed in 6.5 through 7 (especially 6.54), the battle is far from over. As the traditionalists, led by Peter Hacker, point out, there's plenty of evidence, within the Tractatus as well as in other writings, from before, during, and (importantly) after the period when he was working on the book, that Wittgenstein intended his admittedly nonsensical propositions to communicate several centrally important yet unfortunately incommunicable truths (incommunicable because of what they themselves say about language) – rendering this admission of nonsense disturbingly paradoxical once again. In his contribution to Crary and Read (The New Wittgenstein), sportingly appended to the other contributions as "a dissenting voice" to the NW view, Hacker begins and ends, as we might expect, by stressing 6.522 as an undeniable commitment to the idea of "substantive nonsense" – nonsense that reaches at something transcendent and (necessarily) fails to do so. This renders the threat of self-refutation not merely apparent, but actual – and fatal. Realizing this is what eventually led Wittgenstein to change his views.
My own view ... will be the subject of some other post. Now that I have made it impossible to do so, let us finally laugh together at the knee-slapping irony of the following. It's an excerpt from a reader review at Amazon.com. The book in question is The Sokal Hoax, which is a collection of writing about (drum roll) ... the Sokal hoax, including the original article, the unveiling of its hoaxitudinal nature in Lingua Franca, and part of the subsequent donnybrook. As does a good deal of the book itself, most of the reader reviews chortle at the postmodern folly which was Sokal's target, but some are unamused. The review in question actually seems to be reviewing not The Sokal Hoax at all, but Sokal's later collab with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense, with which our reviewer is unimpressed. He decries the method whereby they "cut and paste some random excerpt" of the target writer (say Deleuze) in the hope that out of context, sans explanation, it will look ridiculous – which proves nothing.
You can see where this is going. To show that turnabout is fair play, our reviewer picks a random excerpt of some supposedly rigorously logical analytic-philosophy writing to see how we like it:
Let us apply this operation to a random writer who penned the following statement:Isn't that great??
"The elementary proposition consists of names.
Since we cannot give the number of names with
different meanings, we cannot give the composition
of the elementary proposition. Our fundamental
principle is that every question which can be decided
at all by logic can be decided off-hand."
This excerpt -- which any man in the street will tell you is just as nonsensical as any of the excerpts Sokal cuts and pastes from other authors -- was written by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the _Tracticus Logico-Philosophicus_. According to the Sokal/Dawkins argument, this proves that the _Tracticus_ it complete and total nonsense, and that anybody who claims Wittgenstein writes anything more than meaningless gibberish is simply lying.
Speaking of "cutting and pasting," that's what I did here – so "sic" the whole thing ("Tracticus"? "Dawkins?"). This is glorious on so many levels. That it sounds like an excerpt from a parody article which some joker tried to sneak into Crary and Read is rich enough, but the implicit idea that self-appointed science 'n' rationality defenders like Sokal et al would be at all reluctant to put Wittgenstein, of all people, in the same category (re: nonsense) as Derrida: priceless. The reviewer thinks that the verdict of the "man on the street" about these lines – that they are "nonsensical" – is a reductio of Sokal & Bricmont's method; but they would turn the tables on him and agree with that verdict ... for the wrong reason! And to top it off, so would Wittgenstein himself, for another reason still! And what that reason is is itself a hot topic of debate in the Wittgenstein community! You can't make this stuff up. Or at least I hope you can't.
For the record, our man may be taking a few liberties here. That is, that excerpt seems to be a bit more random than he lets on. I don't have a machine-searchable text of the Tractatus, and I didn't search exhaustively by hand, but I can't find that selection in my copy, at least as is. The first sentence is from 4.22 (although Pears & McGuinness have "An" rather than "The"). I can't find the other two sentences at all, although they do sound like things the early Wittgenstein would say, esp. the third one (depending on what "off-hand" means).