Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: A response

It is certainly not as bad as I had been lead to believe.  From the descriptions I had heard prior to reading it, I was unsure what to expect.  Wittgenstein’s critics have concerned themselves with a fairly limited number of his philosophical conclusions.  Although after reading the text, I can say that I still agree with their criticism, he is by no means without substance.  Here is a consistent and ambitious formal semantic system.  Ambition may well be the source of the problems that it has.

My reading has made it clear to me that Wittgenstein is a nominalist.  This is made plain in his rejection of logical objects.  If the operators of logic, ~, ->, & etc. had their own sense, then when combined with propositions in various forms of expression, they would grant a sense beyond that of the proposition.  Therefore, logical operators are without sense.  What they actually serve to represent is the structural possibilities of propositions themselves.  Possibility is defined as everything contained between the two limiting conditions of contradiction and tautology.

Therefore in Wittgenstein’s formal system, two things immediately become clear.  The first is that logic can possess no rules which dictate substantive conclusions.  The second is that such rules as can be modelled through logic (induction, gravity, etc.) become disassociated from any formal structure of logic itself.  This feels intuitively appropriate.  The word Wittgenstein uses to describe such laws is “accidental”, although it is clear in this context that “synthetic” would suffice for a synonym.

I cannot accuse Wittgenstein of a lack of clarity either.  Early on in the text, I began to wonder based upon his description of relationships, how he would handle such questions as the nature of gravity.  It would appear to be a relational property.  Yet it became obvious in time that Wittgenstein’s discussion of relationships concerned language and not anything past that.  Thus when he describes physical laws as accidental, he is drawing boundaries on language rather than making any statement about reality, and now that I think about it, anything else would have been inconsistent.

So it is not consistency that is an issue with Wittgenstein.  The problems of the philosophy stem from the unacceptability of the implications of the formal system.  Towards the end of the book, we are treated to a form of solipsism.  Wittgenstein uses the boundaries of his semantic system to put certain common sense ideas outside the realm of discussion.  The result is peculiarly reminiscent of continental philosophy, while lacking the associated statements about the nature of being.  Of course it is; this too is outside the system.

Suddenly, present day philosophy appears in context.

With Wittgenstein’s insistence upon the emptiness of logical relationships comes his associated rejection of all of metaphysics.  In his view, all of philosophy is effectively an attempt to speak platonically about logical operators, as if they had a substance.  Dualism is falsely conceived, because it is a platonized conception of negation.  Yet negation, as we learn from Wittgenstein, only makes sense if we first have the proposition being negated; and then the logical operator ~ is still a purely linguistic artifact.  It has no substance.  Therefore the error of dualism is two-fold.  What is being negated?  Why does this negation mean something?

Thus Phenomenology is immediately dismissed as nonsensical.  The attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from observable phenomenon is also dismissed as nonsensical.  Because logic properly used can only model synthetic truth, it cannot be used to derive metaphysical laws.  In order to be laws in the manner traditionally conceived, metaphysical laws would have to model their subjects in an analytic relationship.  Yet this would put these laws outside the boundaries of language, because if the laws themselves were within the domain of logic, they would themselves be synthetic.  Of course, this puts any discussion of language itself outside the boundaries of language, which has almost universally been noted as Wittgenstein’s sole inconsistency.

Thus Wittgenstein’s system encounters the traditional philosophical difficulties.  It is a “solution” to the problems of philosophy only insofar as it unflinchingly accepts traditional and somewhat dogmatic methods of proof.  Effectively, it separates reality from language, regards language as the sole knowable domain, and treats the structures of logic as if they are tautologies.  His formal semantics are circular, and his justification for staying within them is, ironically, a set of negative axioms; the boundaries of language, about which one cannot speak.

Which is not to say that he is a poor philosopher, but simply to say that he is a philosopher.  Karl Popper, the fierce critic, is not much better.  His system is regressive.  Whereas Wittgenstein tried to create a system which would make discussion finite by drawing boundaries, Popper tried to create a system which would make infinite deliberation into something benign.  Both are honest approaches.  To the extent that such problems have been consistent, trying to account for them certainly seems more appropriate than trying to disprove their existence.

Whether or not Wittgenstein’s approach works on any level depends upon how correct he is about the semantics of logic.  His so-called picture theory of language has received much criticism.  This is appropriate.  Whether or not Tarski or any other logician can provide a better account of matters is, I fear, beyond my present knowledge.  I only know of Tarski what Popper has said of him and I do not know if it is correct.  Truthfully, my own understanding of matters of logic is quite limited.  I have a decent grasp of programming, but this entails a wholly different use and understanding of logic than philosophy.  Whether or not mathematical objects exist is not a question which gets much discussion in my C++ textbooks.

With this in mind I can only say that certain arguments offered by Wittgenstein are intuitive, while others are offensive.  The vacuousness of equivalence comes to mind.  I would agree with the assertion that it is absurd to say two distinct things are identical and vacuous to say one thing is self-identical.  In his general outline of logic, I find nothing to object to.  I think that a sufficient treatment of such matters is perhaps 4 or more years of education away from me.  At present, I can say little more than that I agree with the criticisms given by Popper, even though I am now able to recognize a few commonalities between him and his opponents.

Wittgenstein may well have provided a good way to use language, but he has not shown that the boundaries of philosophy are the boundaries of language.  No more than did the Phenomenologists show that the boundaries of consciousness were the boundaries of the world, although they may well have provided a good account of psychology.  I cannot go in for any of this reductive business.  It is too strongly anti-humanistic, and at any rate, there is still too much I haven’t read.  I will return to this text sometime in the future, though, if it proves to be appropriate.


~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on January 23, 2010.

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