Expressing the Inexpressible: One More Try

Wittgenstein in the Tractatus maintained that the only sensible propositions were ones that stated facts, and drew the conclusion that the philosophical statements in his work were nonsense, since they did not state facts.  They were only, in a famous image, a ladder that would be thrown away once used.   He ended the work referring to silence: that which we cannot talk about we must remain silent about.

Academic interpreters of Wittgenstein have argued about whether Wittgenstein was somehow trying to get out of playing by his own rules.  When he said we must remain silent about it, was he trying to say something by remaining silent?  Was he claiming to have a special kind of nonsense that somehow communicated important deep things about reality but not by means of meaning?  Was he “showing” something deep which it was impossible to “say”?  Was he, as Frank Ramsey suggested, trying to whistle what it was impossible to say?

The so-called “Resolute” reading of Wittgenstein (James Conant, Cora Diamond, to some extent Stanley Cavell) says no to all.  Wittgenstein has no special kind of nonsense, he is not gesturing at an ineffable truth, like a mystic.  He is just using “garden variety” nonsense to let us know that we shouldn’t use language in illegitimate ways.  When a proposition is senseless it does not have a special sense that is senseless.  It just doesn’t work.

Yet I find myself wondering: how can nonsense let us know that?  And if the “Resolute” readers of Wittgenstein are able to say what Wittgenstein was up to — holding a mirror up to the reader’s illegitimate use of language maybe — how are they able to do that?  In one of Conant’s articles he shares his pain — he wants to say that it’s a mistake to think that Wittgenstein is saying what can’t be said, but he’s worried that (he, Conant) can’t say that either.

(Sometimes people try to clarify this by using spatial metaphors.  Wittgenstein, they say, teaches us that there is no way to stand outside of our language and see its limits.  Wittgenstein, they believe, shows us that we can only see the limits of our language from the inside, by banging our noses against those limits.  If you can make sense of these spatial metaphors as applied to thought and language, bravissimo.  Please let me know in the comments section — to me they seem like nonsense.)

And yet we all know there are millions of things we used to not be able to say and now can.

And we all know that there are lots of people to whom we cannot express what is important to us.

So there should be no problem with accepting that there are now things that we cannot express, and people to whom we cannot express them.

What Wittgenstein and his resolute interpreters seem to be looking for is a clear rule for what can never be said — not that is what cannot be expressed right now to a specific audience but what can Never Successfully Be Said, Ever, to Anybody.   It is as if we find ourselves tempted to talk but upon studying philosophy can examine our temptations and know when it is okay to give in to the temptation and talk, and when we should be “resolute” and be silent.  But it seems to me that they are in error to hope for such a rule or such a procedure of self-disciplining.  They want to punish themselves first so It does not punish them by revealing them to be fools.  For myself I don’t imagine there is any rule or philosophy I could follow to keep myself from being a fool or saying foolish things.  No philosophy other than the scary and exciting Try It and See.

I have said a lot of sensible things in my life and a lot of nonsense, but I don’t see why I should expect myself to ever know which was which.

As for leaving things unsaid, and passing them over in silence, we do that whenever we employ a comma or a period.


9 thoughts on “Expressing the Inexpressible: One More Try

  1. Wittgenstein later regarded the Tractatus as an immature work, but he was groping toward ideas that he began to understand only toward the end of his life. In particular, he struggled to break free of the notion that statements were always, or even mainly, for stating facts. He knew they did other things, but within his conceptual system, those things had no place. To make sense, something must be connected by explicit or implicit rules to other things in a system: that’s what it means for something to make sense. If something has no place in one’s system, then within that system, it is nonsense: it is not connected to anything.

    The system defined by our experience, concepts, and the structure of our minds is limited by the very things that constitute it. Some of the things we do with statements are non-propositional, pointing to realities we cannot articulate within our system. Kant knew that, but he said it in a different way: in order to know the limits of our knowledge, we would have to know both sides of the limits, but we can’t.

    My opinion. It might be nonsense. It wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂

  2. I feel that this part of the Tractatus did survive through to his later thoughts. I think that things being defined ‘negatively’ for L.W. is an important notion; even if my phrasing here might be too restrictive. The value he placed in Weininger’s S&C, the ethical importance of Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn, ‘showing as opposed to saying’, etc. etc.; I think he did feel that, in a sense, we ‘talk around’ what is essential, what is important.

    I also feel Noah’s points are good ones.

  3. Mikey says:

    I don’t understand Wittgenstein. Is he basically using an argument against philosophy like the argument in Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy about the Babel Fish? “Oh dear,” says philosophy, `I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.

  4. Pingback: Contradictory feelings and music | ZETEO

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