The meanings of primitive signs can be explained through elucidations. Elucidations [Erläuterungen] are propositions which contain primitive signs. They can thus only be understood if one is already acquainted with the meanings of these signs.This sounds like a joke or catch-22. It might not be, if the signs being explained are not the only such primitive signs in the elucidations. (Or if, as Wittgenstein suggested, you can know a thing without knowing about it: in that case one might be acquainted with the signs' meanings but still have something to learn about these meanings. I'm not sure what to make of this idea, though. Partly it sounds like nonsense. Partly it sounds like a reference to the need to remind ourselves of the grammar of words whose use is familiar to us but forgotten or obscured in philosophy.) But it certainly sounds like a joke. It also sounds like the first sentence of the book's foreword:
This book will perhaps only be understood by one who has himself already at some time thought the thoughts that are expressed herein – or at least similar thoughts.Primitive signs sound as though they cannot be explained (since their "explanations" can only be understood by someone already familiar with their meanings). But if one is acquainted with their meanings, then one can perhaps understand the "elucidations" that contain these signs. (Although it isn't immediately clear what that would amount to.) Similarly the Tractatus can perhaps only be understood by someone already acquainted with the kind of thoughts it contains. It isn't going to explain itself. So how will it get anything across at all?
6.54 My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical, when through them – upon them – over them, he has climbed out. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed out upon it.)
He must overcome these propositions, then he sees the world rightly.It won't, in other words. The propositions don't elucidate. Or, if we want to say that they do, they elucidate passively, by being perceived in a certain way (as nonsensical) by a certain kind of person (one who understands Wittgenstein) at a certain kind of time (in the end, after a process of overcoming).
This is all hard to understand, so it's worth gathering other clues. Also relevant, surely, is this:
This suggests that the time to throw away the ladder is when one's thoughts, or certain of them, have been logically clarified. The thoughts in question are seemingly those that contain meaningless signs: meaningless because the relevant propositions are nonsensical, and signs because what elucidations are is explained in terms of "explaining" primitive signs.4.112 The end of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.Philosophy is not a subject but an activity.A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.The result of philosophy is not “philosophical propositions” but the clarification of propositions.Philosophy should make clear and distinct thoughts that, without it, are, as it were, unclear and indistinct.
Terms that might helpfully be defined or explained: 'primitive,' 'sign', 'nonsensical.'
On nonsense we might look to 5.473:
5.473 Logic must take care of itself.
A possible sign must be able to signify. Everything that is possible in logic is also allowed. (“Socrates is identical” therefore denominates nothing [heisst darum nichts] because there is no property that “identical” denominates. The proposition is nonsensical [unsinnig] because there is some arbitrary definition that we have not made, but not because the symbol in and of itself would be forbidden.)
We cannot, in a certain sense, go wrong in logic.4.4611 implies that what belongs to the symbolism is not nonsensical, but what does not so belong, by 5.473, is. And this depends on arbitrary stipulations.
What Wittgenstein says about "primitive signs" is that they are names, and that they cannot be analyzed further by a definition (see 3.26 and 3.261). And a sign is a perceptible potential bearer of meaning.
In short, the Tractatus aims to be an aid to the reader's coming to see that he or she has been having nonsensical thoughts. 6.53 is relevant to this:
Max Black says of this: "It will be noticed, of course, that the method pursued in the Tractatus is not the ‘correct’ one." But this seems to be only half right, or all right but potentially misleading. The book certainly does not limit itself to propositions of natural science. But it does present itself as pointing out (in a peculiar way) to those who want to say something metaphysical that they have given no meaning to certain signs in their propositions. It takes the approach that it does presumably in order to be satisfying, to give the reader the feeling that he is being taught philosophy, despite the book's open (and opening) insistence that this is not the case: "It is therefore not a textbook," sentence two of the book's foreword.The right method for philosophy would properly be this: To say nothing other than what can be said, thus propositions of natural science – thus something that has nothing to do with philosophy –, and then always, if another wanted to say something metaphysical, to point out to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying for the other person – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – but it would be the only strictly correct one.
What's the point of this? Wittgenstein told Ludwig von Ficker:
The book’s point is an ethical one. I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you. What I meant to write, then, was this: My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it.I don't know what counts as all that Wittgenstein did not write in the book. It could be just things he thought of writing but decided to leave out, like the sentence he refers to above. But it could be literally all that he did not write, i.e., presumably, everything that can be said. And that would be the propositions of natural science referred to in 6.53. Why would these be so important? Because, I take it, they are all that can be said. Writing out all these facts would be to draw a limit to the sphere of the ethical from the outside, because it would not contain anything ethical. It would make no reference to the subject (see 5.631), nor to value or the meaning of life (the "sense of the world"--see 6.41). Indeed, these two go together. According to 5.631 it is precisely of the Schopenhauerian thinking, representing, metaphysical (see 5.633) subject alone of which there could not be talk in The World as I Found It. But ethics doesn't get in either:
6.4321 The facts all belong only to the assignment, not to the correct response to it.So ethics and the subject seem somehow to be one. I don't know what to make of that.
Let's go back to the ethical from the inside. Why would that be the only rigorous way to draw the limits to the sphere of the ethical? And what does drawing such limits mean?
A possible reason for thinking that from the inside is the only way to draw the limits is that they can only be drawn from the inside or the outside, and the outside way involves writing down every single proposition of natural science. It's hard to imagine that being done without a few etceteras here and there, which would not be very rigorous. So maybe that's why the limits of the sphere of the ethical must be drawn from the inside.
Now, what does that mean? It might mean simply to define the ethical, or it might mean to put a kind of protective fence around the ethical. I imagine it's kind of both. When Kant limits reason to make room for faith he doesn't dictate the limits of reason. He means simply to show where they are, so that people can see what room there is for faith. Kant does not create this room. Nor does he demand it. And I would think the same should go for Wittgenstein on the limits of the ethical. After all, how could he create the limit of the ethical? And what right could he have to dictate where it lies?
So, it seems to me, Wittgenstein means to show the limits of the ethical. And he means to do this by not gassing but by being silent. I think the following is relevant, from December 1929:
the urge to run up against the limits of language. Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer whatsoever. Anything we might say is a priori bound to be mere nonsense. Nevertheless we do run up against the limits of language. Kierkegaard too saw that there is this running against something and he referred to it in against paradox). This running up is definitely important to put an intuitive knowledge exists, whether values exist, whether the good is definable. In ethics we are always making the attempt to say something that something that does not and priori certain that whatever definition of the good may be given--it will always be merely a misunderstanding to say that the essential thing, that what is meant, corresponds to what is expressed (Moore).Now, Wittgenstein is talking about Heidegger just before this, and it's possible that the start of this passage is meant to be a paraphrase of his ideas. But at least by "I think it is definitely important to put an end to all the claptrap about ethics--" Wittgenstein is surely giving his own view. Just before that, and so in a position that makes it hard to interpret, he says that This running up against the limits of language is ethics. That's a striking definition of ethics, if that's what it is. But that is what it looks like. And it seems to fit the idea of the Tractatus as a work that draws the limits of the sphere of the ethical from the inside. On the other hand, it doesn't seem to fit Heidegger's ideas well at all. It's been a while since I read Being and Time, but this sounds much more like Wittgenstein to me.
How could running up against the limits of language be ethics? Because doing so is attempting to go beyond the world, into the supernatural? Because in ethics we do not only stray into nonsense but run into it, it being the essence of what we want to say (by which I mean its being a priori certain that anyone who tries to speak ethics will end up speaking nonsense)? Something along these lines seems to be the idea. So an investigation in ethics has to be an investigation of language, of the limits of language. And that is what the Tractatus seems to be.
Hmm. More to follow.