Thursday, December 19, 2013

Useful and harmful animals

Re-reading Kevin Cahill's "Ethics and the Tractatus: A Resolute Failure" I was struck by this passage from Wittgenstein's Nachlass that Kevin translates and quotes:
Why now am I so anxious to keep these kinds of uses of 'Assertions' separate from one another? Is it necessary? Did people before really not correctly understand what they wanted to do with a sentence? Is it pedantry?—It is merely an attempt to do justice to each kind of use. That is to say a reaction against the overvaluation of science. Using the word 'science' for 'everything that can be said that is not nonsense' already expresses this overestimation. Because in reality this means dividing assertions into two classes: good and bad; and therein already lies the danger. It would be similar to if one were to divide all animals, plants, and rocks into useful and harmful. But of course the words 'to do justice to them' and 'overvaluation' express my position.
This brings to mind the Lecture on Ethics, which distinguishes between the relative/trivial/scientific/intelligible and the ethical/religious/absolute/nonsensical, and the Tractatus, which says:
6.53 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. 
So there we have what can be said/natural science versus nonsense/metaphysics. Now what's wrong with this? One obvious complaint, perhaps the obvious one, is to say that it is grossly unfair to at least some of what is categorized as nonsensical. But that isn't what Wittgenstein says. He says that it is unjust because it overvalues at least some of what is categorized as meaningful. What would be wrong with dividing animals into the useful and the harmful is not that we would inevitably make mistakes, labeling useful animals harmful, for instance, but that it is overly simple. The danger lies already in the division into two. We need a higher number (if we are going to divide at all).

Or is it the division into good and bad specifically that is dangerous? Useful animals might be only somewhat useful, after all. Horses can be very useful, but baby pandas are almost completely useless. They might make it onto the 'useful' list (they are valuable for zoo-owners, for instance), but you wouldn't want to confuse their utility with that of horses. Perhaps some harmful animals have their uses: sharks are fun to look at and think about, their fins make allegedly tasty soup, but you don't want them in your swimming pool. If you had to classify them as either useful or harmful, I think it's clear they belong in the 'harmful' category. If they don't then almost nothing does. What seems to concern Wittgenstein most is not this kind of problem, though, but the opposite one: some 'useful' animals or sentences might not be all that great after all.

Surely he doesn't want to reject the meaning/nonsense distinction altogether. It's the equation of the former with science that he objects to. Not all useful assertions are good. And not all scientific assertions are useful.

One last thought: Kevin also quotes the part of the foreword that says, "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive" and 6.54, which says:
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's been a while since I read much work on the Tractatus, but I have the feeling that people tend to think either that it consists entirely of purportedly true thoughts or else entirely of purportedly elucidatory propositions. Can't it contain both? Can't "My propositions elucidate.." refer only to those propositions that do elucidate, i.e. to the nonsensical sentences, and "the thoughts communicated here" refer only to the thoughts that are communicated, i.e. to the meaningful sentences? Unfortunately he connects these true thoughts with the solving of the problems with which the book deals, which suggests that most of the book consists of such thoughts. What, then, would be the propositions that we are to overcome? On the other hand, he doesn't actually claim that he communicates any thoughts at all, does he? And if he doesn't then that might explain his confidence in the unassailability of their truth: their truth can't be assailed because they don't exist.


  1. well, the first paragraph of the preface implies that thoughts are expressed in the book (such that perhaps having those same thoughts is a condition on understanding it). kind of sounds like communication.

    how would the above (your remarks) go if we focused instead on sentences which 'state facts'? martin stokhof's formulation, about the ethics being a matter of making oneself independent of the facts (of how the world happens to be), seems like a useful way of getting the question of over- or under-estimation right. seeing ethics the right way is a matter of not placing too much value on facts being the way that the are. (say, because of the potential for doing nothing in the face of suffering? of leaving oneself unimproved? of pessimistically being resigned in the face of the facts?)

    1. Thanks. You're right, the preface does imply that. I'd forgotten. So how could nonsensical sentences express thoughts? Perhaps the thought is: this is nonsense.

      I think I need to read Stokhof's book again. I don't remember his argument. Making oneself independent of the facts means not over-valuing the facts' being as they are? That over-valuing would be an extreme kind of conservatism, it seems. And that would be bad. But does anyone disagree? I think I'm not seeing the point.

    2. Might it be possible to distinguish between two kinds of “thought”?
      Would that untie the problem J. is mentioning?

      More generally, aren’t we forcing ourselves to attach to words certain meanings (in this case ‘thought’), without taking a moment to look what we really want to do with them? - (And we might want to do different things in different times).

      And by the way, this may also apply to the question at the beginning of this post: The point would then NOT be that two is not enough, and that we need more categories. Rather, it would be that we don’t have a good enough idea about the (two) categories that we already have—that we don’t look and see what WE need those categories for. (And we might need them for different things in different times.)

      I generalize about this some here.

    3. Thanks, Reshef. Yes, I think it's possible to distinguish between two kinds of things that might be called 'thoughts.' And it might help to do so here.

      The more general point sounds right too.

    4. i can't confess to knowing much about what thoughts must be per the rest of the book, but in the past i've kind of imagined that each individual thought had by the reader must be being conceived of as -experienced- in some way, so as to admit enough space for e.g. coming to see some of the sentences as empty or nonsensical (a la the remark about correct method in philosophy). that, despite the related problems in making sense of these as 'thoughts' per all the stuff about nonsense, the factual import of sentences with sense (thus thinkable?) etc.

      duncan, one reason i mentioned resignation is that i think the waxing/waning bits have more to do with that sort of schopenhauerian (and others) view of the world as a (limited) whole. one direction of overestimation of facts would be a highly conservative one, yes, but another might be a deeply progressive one that nevertheless places the emphasis on certain things as if they too were facts, or had to be facts, which i expect could generate all sorts of unhappiness in the face of things-as-they-are. (the disappointments of those seeking change.) does that make sense?

    5. Thanks, j. Yes, I think I'm getting it. I need to think more (and better) before I say anything more in response though.

    6. J.

      I'm not sure this is the best way of putting it. But I think there is in the Tractatus a primary notion of thought, correlated with meaningful propositions. There are, however, in addition, all sorts of secondary kinds of thinking in the Tractatus (thinking as involved in ethics, or in philosophy—therapeutic, or non-therapeutic), which fall short of that primary notion, or are a kind of commentary on it, but at any rate that need to be understood by reference to the primary notion.

    7. that is the impression i have, reshef. i'm just unclear (not nec. because of the tractatus, just because i have no clear idea) on how much i am to order those notions of thought around a primary / etc. scheme. i suppose the extent to which i think that i should, might correlate with the extent to which i accept tractarian doctrine, or at least take it on its own (apparent) terms of requiring such a notion of thought to be the primary one? (this would be a matter of 'immanent critique', interpretive questions, etc.; hasn't kelly written about that?)

    8. The primary/secondary distinction can be used as a scheme, but that is not necessary. The terms sound technical, but—as in the PI—they don’t have to be so used. That is, we don’t have to use this distinction as a set of doctrinal expectations to be laid upon things, and thereby force things into molds. Alternatively, we can use the distinction (to the extent that it is indeed helpful in this way) in order to be better attuned to things, and better pay attention to certain differences—see logical functioning and relations better. And it is not necessary that all primary/secondary distinctions will be exactly the same. One thing that “primary” doesn’t have to mean, and usually doesn’t I take it, is “better” or “more important.”

      I don’t recall something of Kelley’s about the distinction between primary and secondary. I would be VERY interested.

    9. no no, about immanent critique and… the other one. might have been in discussion of 'understanding an author better than he understood himself'?

      how about 'paradigmatic' or 'focal' (rather than say 'central')? etc.

    10. Paradigm for what? Focal of which investigation?

    11. oh, i don't know. i don't meant to imply too much centrality. just thinking of the way in which many words/concepts have one or more paradigms. it may be mistaken to treat one as exclusive, or as predominantly important, but on the other hand, if you want an example of a word, a word like 'dog' is a conspicuous one, e.g. in the same way, perhaps, whatever else can be said about 'thoughts', that (the 'primary' case, or however it's designated) is one sure example of whatever thoughts are.

      is that better?

    12. There might be different reasons for calling something a thought in a secondary sense. But the main thing I guess is that explaining what it was would have to refer to thoughts in the primary sense. This kind of grammatical dependence is what makes them secondary.

      So, for instance, in order to explain what happens—mentally—to someone who says in the midst of a certain philosophical debate “only the present is real,” we would have to use the word thought—even if after we examine the case together with them, they end up saying “I wasn’t thinking after all. I really didn’t have anything in mind.”

      And again, this kind of dependence is not a pattern that we should be able to find in every kind of secondariness.

      Does that make sense?

    13. it does. (i still don't like this secondary sense stuff, but at least 'in order to explain what it is…' seems ok to me in the case of 'i wasn't thinking after all'.)

    14. Can you say something about why you don't like the "secondary sense stuff"? - Is it because it seems to imply hierarchy? - And if so, are you similarly averse to the distinction b/w metaphorical and literal?

    15. no, it's because i distrust technicalia and stipulations in philosophy (besides the usual wittgensteinian concerns, they seem to encourage scholasticism) and never find that discussions of this term are especially illuminating.

  2. So how do you understand the fact that it's Wittgenstein's terminology?

  3. as an unfortunate one, to be overcome by looking for ways to do without the term whenever possible.