#226 | Main | Updates.

May 16, 2005


"114. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.5): 'The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.' --That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it."

--from Philosophical Investigations

I recently asked Shane what his favorite passage was. A loaded question, of course, too broad to have a real answer. If I had to answer it for myself, though, I might do so with this passage. It succinctly connects his two major works, and describes the change he underwent between them.

Cavell has suggested that the many passages in the Investigations that consist of a series of questions and answers (cf, for example, #303) can be seen as conversations Wittgenstein is holding with himself, one-person dialogues that reflect both sides of Wittgenstein's philosophy. This passage is a concrete example of a confrontation between those two sides.

To hardcore analytic philosophers, the quote from the Tractatus expresses an axiom so basic that it needs no defense (read: goes unquestioned). "There is a book on the table." This is how things are. From this the idea develops that, as Wittgenstein writes, "the general form of propositions" is to express the way things are.

But what about: "Put the book on the table!" Or: "Why is there a book on the table?" Declarative and conditional sentences do not comprise the whole of language. "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature..." Even in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein recognized that there was a problem with this view of language.

You might explain what you see using a sentence, and it was (he believed, circa Tractatus) a logical relationship between your words and the actual state of affairs that gives meaning to the sentence. So far so good. But what about my investigations into this relationship connecting words to world? Will I explain this, too, with words? And will my explanation here have the same structure as my other statements? It cannot, in order to serve as an explanation. But it must, or it is false.

Why is this a problem? asks the Wittgenstein of Investigations...we use language, and it's logical inconsistencies are not problems as long as it works. More importantly, if it is a problem, it is not a philosophical problem. Perhaps it is a problem for computer science, the field of natural language processing, and such.

Too many words...when I began this entry, I told myself it would be short because the passage was so self explanatory.

One last thought: "the frame through which we look at it" references the "it". What was a thing's nature to Wittgenstein, then? Why not: "the frame through which we see"? Troubling.

Posted by tiet0024 at May 16, 2005 1:07 PM | Investigations


Haha, a plug.

Much appreciated :)

Question on the last thought. Do you mean to ask why he did not just say "the frame through which we see" in the sense that you are suggesting that it might make more sense for him to suggest a limit to our language use that is in the same vein as what current constructivists and anti-realists (Putnam, Dummett, Maturana, Rorty, von Glaserfeld etc) do when they reject metaphysical explanation.

Although now that I think of it, Wittgenstein would probably laugh at the idea that we have any more of an access right to our visual field (for purposes of pure explanation) then to the world supposedly veiled behind it.

Posted by: Anonymous at May 16, 2005 4:50 PM

Anytime. Thanks for making your journal public.

Re: the last thought--yes, that is exactly what I meant. It seems strange for him to at once reject the idea that we have access to the "it", and still reference it. The philosophers you mention (at least the ones with whom I am familiar) would likely cringe at the ontological implications.

But, that is just my first reaction. After thinking about it a bit more, I realize that I understood perfectly well what Wittgenstein meant when he said "the frame through which we look at it", and this is all that matters. The kind of pedantry upon which the concern is based is exactly what Wittgenstein wanted to reveal as unimportant.

Still, I am intrigued by his choice of verb: "to look (at)" instead of "to see".

Posted by: tiet0024 at May 16, 2005 6:08 PM

Could we perhaps say that the "nature" of the "it" is something that is simply "open to view" when we investigate the grammar of our descriptive language-games -that it is not something that we can, or even have to, explain metaphysically? (This obviously refers moreso to the concepts of the Investigations)

I tend to take the position that Wittgenstein is a realist, not in terms of metaphysical theory (like one of Dummett's main critics Michael Devitt), but instead as a matter of commonsense.

The realism/anti-realism debate does fascinate me. If you want to see a really bizarre anti-realism, read the constructivist Humberto Maturana's "The Ontology of Observing." He is a biologist who tries to show that the ontology of biological observation is all that we can know or even really talk about. In the end though he probably takes the "we are trapped in language" idea way to far, even moreso then Derrida. It is a very interesting, and different read though.

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