Friday, December 20, 2013

Ethics and the Tractatus

Kevin Cahill argues that the Tractatus cannot achieve its ethical purpose. If the resolute reading is right then this purpose, he suggests, must be something like what James Conant and Michael Kremer have said it is. Conant compares the Tractatus with Kierkegarrd's Concluding Unscientific Postscript because both provide "a mirror in which the reader can recognize his own confusions" and have "the reader climb up a ladder which in the end he is to throw away." Kremer connects the Tractatus with Saint Paul and Augustine, suggesting (in Kevin's words) "that one of Wittgenstein's fundamental goals in that book was to expose as illusory all attempts for ultimate justification in logic, metaphysics, and of course, ethics." Both Conant and Kremer, Kevin says, see Wittgenstein as trying to use nonsense to bring about "a change in the reader's self-understanding through a change in her relationship to language" where the change in question is "characterized primarily by how we do and do not act, not by what we know."

He cannot succeed, though, according to Kevin, because "the method in the Tractatus presupposes a view of language and philosophical confusion that is far too narrow." The book is too intellectualist, and tries to do its work by showing us what a sentence is.

If the (relevant part of the) book consists entirely of nonsense, though, then it surely cannot hope to show us what a sentence is. It can at most show us what a sentence is not. That is, if you start with a certain idea of what a sentence is and then follow that through until you end up in patent nonsense then you have shown that the original idea was wrong. But you can't show what we ought to believe instead in this way. Kevin isn't talking about what the Tractatus says about language, though, but about what its method presupposes. If it aims to show that all attempts at ultimate justification in logic, metaphysics, and ethics are illusory then he is probably right. But if the aim is as Conant describes, i.e. if the aim is to show the reader something, not to show something completely general, then whether it succeeds or fails will surely depend on the reader. And Wittgenstein says that:
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. –It is therefore not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding.          
If the reader has the right confusions then I don't see that Kevin has given any reason to think the book cannot work as intended on him (the suitably confused reader). Can a book like this bring about change in how one lives? Well, I don't see why not. If one's problems are intellectualist then an intellectualist book might be just the thing. Of course it might not work. One might give up one kind of intellectualist wrong path only to take up another. But I don't see that failure is guaranteed.


  1. what do you think about the rest of that sentence - the 'with pleasure' part? it's always struck me as noticeably out of pitch with the rest of the preface and much of the book. it's a conventional note to strike in a preface, but less so in one for a book with philosophical aims (seemingly systematic, metaphysical, logical, etc.) like wittgenstein's, where the payoff promised is more like truth or understanding than it is pleasure.

    i've wondered if it should be connected with 6.43 ('the world of the happy'). but 'vergnügen' seems awfully tied to the… sensual, i guess, for that to clearly make sense. i'm not so sure what the range of the word really is in german.

    but anyway, perhaps there's some gesture toward a liberatory effect / side effect of reading the text with understanding, there?

    1. It's odd, I agree. Shouldn't the book's aim be reached if one person (or more) read it with understanding? Why would the book aim to give pleasure? How could it hope to do so, given the kind of book it is? I think you must be right that it connects somehow with liberation and happiness. Even if happiness isn't pleasure, becoming happy, overcoming illusion, would likely be a pleasant experience.

  2. Is it your claim or Cahill’s that if the relevant part of the TLP is nonsense, the method cannot show what a sentence is, but only what it is not? – Either way, I don’t understand the justification for this claim. There seem to be ways of clarifying the criteria for something (sentence in this case) by showing how things fall short of that. – Is this wrong?

    Also, I think your claim against Cahill is good—namely, that if the problem is intellectualist, so must be the solution. But it seems that Cahill is being more charitable than you—namely, in assuming that the book is not intellectualist, and that its aim is wider. Isn’t he? And I guess the book does seem more ambitious. For instance, W said the book has an ethical point. And this seems to go beyond merely trying to explain what a sentence is. Or does it not?

    What do you understand by “Intellectualist”?

  3. Thanks, Reshef.

    Is it your claim or Cahill’s that if the relevant part of the TLP is nonsense, the method cannot show what a sentence is, but only what it is not?

    That's my claim. The justification is simply that I can't see a way that things could be otherwise. Maybe you can help with that.

    There seem to be ways of clarifying the criteria for something (sentence in this case) by showing how things fall short of that. – Is this wrong?

    Can you elaborate? I don't think you're wrong, but I don't know what you mean.

    I might be misunderstanding 'intellectualist.' I take it to mean something like theoretical. Kevin's claim, as I understand it, is very roughly that the book has a non-intellectualist aim (as you suggest) but is bound to fail because its nature is intellectualist. In other words, the book has an ethical point and this seems to go beyond merely trying to explain what a sentence is, and yet that is all the book really does. Hence it fails.

    1. I’m not sure I can give an elaborate account for how the Tractatus explains what a sentence is by employing nonsense. There can be various unclarities about the method here. (1) One of them is not about sentences, but is more general: how can ANYTHING be clarified with nonsense? (2) Another unclarity is about the way one thing can be explained by talking about something else. – Am I missing something?

      The second thing doesn’t seem that mysterious to me. You can for instance explain to me that you are talking about the green ball by telling me that you are not talking about the red, or the blue, or the yellow. I’m not sure however that this is part of the method of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein there seems to be talking about sentences, not about something else.

      So I take it that the real issue is the first one. Here, I think, the Tractarian use of nonsense is a kind of reaction to a certain expectation. The expectation is that the clarification will be given in a certain way—roughly, in the form of a theory. On the Tractatus view, supposedly, that reflects a misunderstanding regarding the KIND of knowledge one needs—the kind of knowledge involved in knowing what a sentence is. The attempt to formulate a theory collapses into nonsense, and THAT reveals that we don’t need a theory, any theory. It reveals that a theory will not give us what we need. But this, as it were, puts us in touch with what we do need; it reminds us of it, as it were, turns us back to it. We are supposed to realize that we have been foreign to what we need—that we have been misunderstanding ourselves. It thereby also reveals what kind of knowledge we do need.

      Is this helpful?

    2. There is an assumption I’m making—a grammatical assumption. I probably should make it explicit. The assumption is that knowing what a sentence is inherently involves understanding what it is to know the meaning of a sentence. So that by explaining what it is to know the meaning of a sentence—what kind of knowledge is involved—Wittgenstein also explains what a sentence is.

      The grammatical point here is like the point Wittgenstein in BB 23, when he says: “It is part of the grammar of the word ‘chair’ that this is what we call ‘to sit on a chair,’ and it is part of the grammar of the word ‘meaning’ that this is what we call ‘explanation of a meaning.’”

      - One does not know what a chair is if one does not know what sitting on a chair is.
      - One does not know what meaning is if one does not know what explaining meaning is.
      - One does not know what a sentence is if one does not know what knowing the meaning of a sentence is.

      I’m saying all this to tie the loose end of explaining how the account that Wittgenstein gives is also an account for what a sentence is.

    3. Yes, this is helpful. Thanks.

      What I was thinking was that you can't tell someone you are talking about the green ball just by telling them that you are not talking about the red ball (assuming that there is also a blue ball and a yellow ball), or that one attempt to construct a theory's collapsing into nonsense cannot show that all such attempts are either doomed or unnecessary. But actually it could convince someone of that, even if it didn't strictly prove it. Especially if the attempt that is shown to fail is a (seemingly) particularly promising one, and if the way it fails is one that can be seen to be likely to be problematic for a range of other attempts.

    4. Yes, I think that’s right. But I think the generality—the sense that NO theory will give us what we need—comes not from the fact that Wittgenstein’s supposed account is promising, but rather from what I mentioned above: the capacity of this supposed account to make us better attuned to the KIND of account we need. Once we see that, once we know what we need, we will supposedly lose the interest in theories in general, because theoretical knowledge in general is not the right kind of knowledge we need.

      I guess this also accounts for why Conant thinks this is a moral achievement: This kind of intellectual achievement, if Wittgenstein really does pull it off, has a sense of depth to it. It reveals something not only about the object of the investigation (meaning, sentences) but also about the subject of the investigation (the philosopher, and her ability to understand her own needs).

      Do you understand Cahill’s argument as saying that since the Tractatus makes us appreciate what a sentence is, it cannot also make us appreciate something about ourselves? – Is it intellectualist in this way? Or is he saying that the Tractatus nevertheless ends up proposing a theory? Or is it that merely by offering something that LOOKS like a theory the Tractatus is already being too intellectualist? – I don’t understand his argument.

    5. I think he's saying that the Tractatus presupposes a theory, a view or idea of what a sentence is (i.e., a statement about how the world is). His main objection to this theory seems to be that it is false (because there are many types of sentences that do different things), but it's not clear to me how that relates to ethics. And I say that this is what his objection seems to be because I'm reading between the lines rather than going by what he says explicitly, which is about being too intellectualist. He probably says more about all this in his book.

  4. failure might be success: