The Sayable and Unsayable—The Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein1
Voices: First Speaker, Second Speaker, Reader of Quotations (Wittgenstein), A DETRACTOR
WITTGENSTEIN: “The world is everything that is the case.”2
“The world is the totality of facts…”3
“The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.”4
FIRST SPEAKER: Thus begins the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein—a not very lengthy philosophical work that was published in Vienna in 1921. Anybody who immerses himself in it will initially be struck by its terse, standoffish style. And he will be struck by the fact that it is not a systematically constructed philosophical treatise but rather a loose succession of consecutively numbered aphorisms. It does not always follow a chain of thoughts through to its conclusion; it does not always provide a helpful link from one thought to the next. This is why despite its clear, precise formulations the Tractatus has often been described as an obscure book, an esoteric book accessible only to initiates, in other words, scientific specialists. But we happen to believe that it is quite an essential and important book for everybody interested in philosophy and modern science, and that it can teach us to see the world in the correct way.
SECOND SPEAKER: Within the first few sentences of the Tractatus Wittgenstein has already established his starting position. He speaks of the world as the totality of facts. In philosophical terms this is a thoroughly simple and uncritical statement, a statement that he borrowed from his friend the English philosopher Bertrand Russell. Russell takes as his starting point the thesis that the world consists of mutually fully independent facts. And the world above and beyond the totality of facts is—nothing. Accordingly, our knowledge of the world—knowledge that is a reflection of these mutually fully independent facts—can only ever apprehend portions of it.
FIRST SPEAKER: But we often formulate our knowledge of the world in universal propositions. For example, we can say, “All men are mortal.”
SECOND SPEAKER: When we closely scrutinize this “general” proposition, we discover that it has the same meaning as such statements as “Peter is mortal” and “Hans is mortal.” This “and,” which binds these two individual statements together, has the function of guaranteeing the truth of the universal proposition “All men are mortal.” The universal truth that we believe we have acquired is determined solely by the truth of the two individual statements “Peter is mortal” and “Hans is mortal.” And yet a new, universal truth does not emerge. This small, innocuous example of logic demonstrates that logic—understood in entirely verbal and banal terms—conveys absolutely nothing. It has, to echo Wittgenstein, a purely tautological character. All its statements are empty; they cannot impart to us any information about reality.
FIRST SPEAKER: Working with reality, with the totality of facts, is the business of the natural sciences. They describe the facts and share insights with us. Philosophy, on the other hand, is not a natural science, and like logic—its instrument—it can teach us nothing about reality; for all propositions that have reference to reality are propositions belonging to the natural sciences, and the generalizing propositions that we encounter in traditional philosophy, propositions like the previously adduced “All men are mortal,” have meaning only because they rest upon empirical propositions, and they impart no new specifically philosophical insights.
DETRACTOR: If philosophy can share no insights with us, if only the natural sciences can do this, what work of any value whatsoever can philosophy still perform?
FIRST SPEAKER: In the form of “logical analysis,” it can carry out a kind of inspection of the natural sciences’ propositions about experience; it can expose sources of error and eliminate the errors themselves. But it must completely relinquish the processing of this reality to the natural sciences. The relinquishment of the investigation of reality to the various specialized departments of the natural sciences, a relinquishment that was already effected long ago, is here being corroborated in German philosophy for the first time ever.
SECOND SPEAKER: Wittgenstein’s mode of philosophizing, “logical analysis,” is not so new as it would seem. Indeed, in this mode we rediscover the analytic method of rationalism and empiricism, a method that is almost as old as philosophy itself. That this method has been forgotten by German philosophy is owing to the fortunes of that philosophy in the nineteenth century.
The systems of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel had completely displaced it, until it resurged in a new form in the twentieth century and entered the vanguard of the history of philosophy as neopositivism, this at least partly at the impetus of Wittgenstein. But the actual cause of the comeback was the revolution in mathematics and logic—when the fruitfulness of applying the analytic method to these fields became newly apparent towards the end of the last century. It was discovered that mathematics and logic are riddled with so-called paradoxes that are disruptive of the fundamental principles of those two disciplines. To be sure, a few logical paradoxes were already known of in antiquity. Most of us are familiar with the story of the liar; the Cretan Epimenides says, “All Cretans are liars.”
But now paradoxes were also being found in mathematics, and these were far more alarming, because they threatened to neutralize the entire field of mathematics. And because logic and mathematics were threatened by these paradoxes, our entire system of representation—our language in the broadest sense, and not merely this or that proposition within our language—was effectively impinged on by them. What was to be done now? How could these problems—these fundamental problems—be solved?
FIRST SPEAKER: The philosophers who recognized the extraordinary importance of concentrating on logic—Bertrand Russell in England and the neopositivists in Vienna—alighted upon quite an obvious but altogether new idea; the idea that these paradoxes had to be rooted in the fact that for centuries in philosophy—and likewise in our everyday language—we employed propositions that looked as though they had meaning but actually had none whatsoever in reality; that we fell victim to a mystification of our language without realizing it, because we blindly trusted in language. To be sure, Plato and other philosophers after him had already tried to assess the truth of propositions via the application of a rigorously analytic method. Descartes famously even resolved to regard as false all propositions whose truth was not absolutely transparent. But nobody had ever asked the question whether certain questions were inherently meaningless in their formulation.
SECOND SPEAKER: So in the work of Wittgenstein and his kindred the neopositivists, the meaning of propositions and formulations of questions moves into the foreground of philosophical activity and becomes more important than the question of truth. The hidden nonsense—the nonsense hidden in language—would have to be sounded to its uttermost depths. And this mistrust of language suddenly swelled to such proportions that Moritz Schlick, one of the leading lights of the Vienna School, once proclaimed that what philosophers feared most at that time was not that they would be unable to solve the problems confronted by philosophy but that philosophy would never even come up with a genuine problem; he proclaimed that by that time most of philosophy’s problems were already debunkable as pseudoproblems.
FIRST SPEAKER: Because the philosophical difficulties were discovered to be rooted in language, we understand why Wittgenstein’s work contains a theory of language. It will show us how the world can be “depicted” in correct and meaningful propositions; how we can “speak” about the world and what philosophy can achieve as a critique of our language about the world.
Moreover, Wittgenstein is said to have called his first book Tractatus because he wanted to preside at a “trial,” in the juridical sense,5 of philosophy and our philosophical talk. In his preface he writes:
WITTGENSTEIN: “The book deals with the problems of philosophy and shows, as I believe, that the method of formulating these problems rests on the misunderstanding of the logic of our language.”6
FIRST SPEAKER: So the investigation of logic became the natural starting point for Wittgenstein’s philosophical activity, for as an aphorism in the Tractatus reads:
WITTGENSTEIN: “Outside logic all is accident.”7
FIRST SPEAKER: And everything outside logic must be accident, for the world is replete with logic:
WITTGENSTEIN: “…the limits of the world are also its limits.”8
SECOND SPEAKER: Let us try to follow this train of thought: Wittgenstein speaks about the world, with whose objects and circumstances we have dealings.
This world and its circumstances are depicted by us in propositions that are assessable—
FIRST SPEAKER: —namely, propositions belonging to the natural sciences—
SECOND SPEAKER: And in another passage, he adds that we are also capable of representing the total reality by means of our propositions.
FIRST SPEAKER: His points of reference are always the sciences that investigate reality and incorporate it into a system of representation.
DETRACTOR: So what prompts Wittgenstein to speak of the “limits of the world?”
FIRST SPEAKER: Now he takes a step back and says that we cannot represent a single thing, least of all exactly what our propositions that represent reality have in common with reality.
SECOND SPEAKER: In saying this he touches on quite a remarkable phenomenon that we never give a thought to either in practical everyday life or even in the practical side of science. For example, we represent a certain natural process by means of the proposition “It is raining,” or, in the natural sciences, we express a so-called natural law, for example the law of acceleration, by means of a formula. Both the proposition from everyday language and the mathematical formula represent reality, even though they obviously have nothing to do with this reality. They are merely signs that signify something and that have nothing to do with what is signified by them. How, in spite of this discrepancy, do we manage to operate with these signs, with our language itself in in its broadest sense?: that is the question!
FIRST SPEAKER: And Wittgenstein answers this question thus: it is their logical form that the two of them must have in common, for otherwise propositions would never be able to represent reality at all. And this logical form is the “limit” about which our detractor was asking a short while ago, for it makes representation possible, but only at the cost of being subsequently unrepresentable in its own right. In this form is manifested something that points beyond reality. It points beyond reality inasmuch as within the logical form there arises something that we find unthinkable, and because it is unthinkable, it cannot be spoken of.
WITTGENSTEIN: “What we cannot think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think.” 9
FIRST SPEAKER: Thus does Wittgenstein formulate the “limit-situation” by which science is confronted in the matter of representation. And in this treatise or “trial” that is the Tractatus logico-philosophicus he subsequently investigates the “sayable” propositions and stipulates the conditions in which those propositions are sayable, and hence also “meaningful.” He dubs these propositions “models” of reality.
SECOND SPEAKER: The term “model” incidentally happens to be one that we encounter in modern physics, whenever, for example, the model of the atom is being discussed; and in physics the term has likewise been chosen in order to make it clear that the description of the atom has nothing to do with the atom itself, that the logical form corresponds merely to the representation and not at all to what Wittgenstein would call the incomprehensible underlying reality.
FIRST SPEAKER: But let us once again recall Wittgenstein’s thesis that the logical form itself, by the aid of which we can describe the facts of the world, does not belong to the facts of the world, that while by its aid something meaningful can indeed be said, it marks the limit of the sayable and is coextensive with the limit of the world.
SECOND SPEAKER: --but not with the limit of reality as a whole.
FIRST SPEAKER: And “the limit of my world” signifies “the limit of my language.” For our reach extends only as far the reach of our language, by means of which we accurately represent and depict how the world is.
DETRATOR: Allow me to synthesize the theses that have been propounded so far: I believe that we are dealing here with a strictly empiricist, positivistic, rationalistic philosophy that is working with one of the analytic methods developed by modern logic. Its theses mainly illuminate the relationship between philosophy and natural science. In the history of philosophy since antiquity we have repeatedly encountered similar currents, but whereas in earlier centuries a clean and decisive split between philosophy and the natural sciences had not yet been effected, in our century such a split has supervened almost as a matter of course thanks to ever-increasing specialization in the natural sciences. An array of questions that people used to try to solve using philosophically speculative methods have long since been eradicated. Psychology, physics, and biology have provided the definitive answers to them. This was tantamount to a progressive erosion of the very foundations of philosophy, but by no means did all philosophers take cognizance of it. But for all that, the erosion has undoubtedly been taking place. And quite deliberately and radically picking up on the logical consequences of it, at this moment a neopositivistic school appeared on the scene, declared that what we had gotten used to calling philosophy was on the one hand natural science incognito, and on the other either the lingering remnant of psychology unmasked as an anthropological hoax or something that the methods of the new system of logic could readily unmask as grammatically or syntactically meaningless twaddle.
Within the “Vienna Circle,” the group of neopositivists active in Vienna, historical and current systems of metaphysics alike were indeed greeted with such expressions as “meaningless twaddle” and “pseudo-propositions.” But it is to say the least highly debatable whether Western metaphysics in its all its undeniably multifarious and mutually contradictory forms can be consigned to the filing cabinet overnight simply because certain people regard it as preposterous on account of the unanswerability of the questions it poses.
FIRST SPEAKER: The neopositivists never maintained that metaphysics was preposterous on account of the unanswerability of the questions posed by it. That sort of assertion was characteristic of the old-school empiricists and positivists, who fell prey to the error of making empiricism into a worldview in which there continued to lurk a certain kind of metaphysics, namely the kind that allowed us to absolutize the empirically given world as reality. By contrast, in neopositivism or logical positivism, an attempt was initially made to formulate in meaningful terms the questions that had arisen in philosophy since its inception, and when this proved impossible, to eradicate the questions. For it will fundamentally never be possible to give a meaningful answer to a question that cannot even be formulated in meaningful terms. In attempting to answer such questions within the context of metaphysics, philosophers ran into “pseudo-propositions,” “pseudo-problems,” problems such as that of the ideality versus the reality of the world, the problem of the nature of the soul, the problem of the nature of God, problems that were fundamentally unsolvable. And these problems were eradicated from philosophy. A proposition that maintains, for example, the reality or ideality of the world represents no state of affairs of any sort; like all other sentences of this kind, it has an entirely different function. It gives expression to a certain attitude towards life. It is pregnant with its propounders’ emotional and volitional dispositions towards their immediate surroundings, towards the cosmos, towards their fellow men and women, towards their missions in life. This is why metaphysics has attached so much value to so many of these kinds of propositions. But the attitude towards life can also find expression via artistic production. When it does, metaphysics is transformed into a work of art. But in this work of art the attitude to life comes to be expressed in a nexus of propositions that seem to be logically interconnected with one another, that seem to be mutually logically derivable; and in the process a simulation of theoretical content is generated. An artwork does not expound an argument. Metaphysics, on the other hand, does expound arguments and prides itself on imparting knowledge. But the only thing capable of yielding knowledge is a scientific proposition, even when it appears on the scene in metaphysical disguise.
SECOND SPEAKER: Wittgenstein’s stance is also hostile to metaphysics. In one proposition after another, the Tractatus insistently advocates a sharp, clear-cut distinction between genuine propositions and pseudo-propositions: the representation and depiction of the world are to be left to the natural sciences, and wherever vagueness, lack of clarity, subsists, logical analysis must intervene to procure clarity. This is what philosophical activity is now going to be all about. And this is no longer classical empiricism-cum-positivism with its naïve faith in science and the world and its embodiment of a synthesis of a worldview with a method, but rather a method plain and simple. There will not even be any further attempts to interpret the world or what have you; reality will deliberately be left untouched and “undetermined,” for it does not lie in our power to determine its character. When we can represent things properly and usefully, there is no need for questions about “essence” and “appearance”; asking such questions has never taken us so much as single step forward in our representational endeavors; indeed, it has often been merely obstructive, and in the empirical sciences it has even led to results that are useless or downright false. Nevertheless, for Wittgenstein, who shares this neutral stance towards the world—which might also be termed an unphilosophical stance—with other neopositivists, one question remains worth asking: What have we actually achieved by means of a proper and useful representation and depiction of the world? And he gives us an answer on one of the last pages of the Tractatus, an answer that allows us only then to comprehend what a bold, what a daring, leap of faith this book is making: “absolutely nothing.”
WITTGENSTEIN: “How the world is, is completely indiﬀerent for what is higher. […] Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”10
SECOND SPEAKER: In this aphorism Wittgenstein alights upon a new tone, a tone that he sustains through the end of the book and that unveils the actual problematic of this body of thought that is so hostile to problems. His assertion of the worthlessness of our knowledge of “how the world is” is just as pointedly directed against positivism, and hence against his own philosophical activity, as it is against metaphysics, which strives to ascertain the essence of things, the absolute, actual character of the world and of the objects behind its outward forms. This assertion both draws our attention to the incomprehensibility of the very fact that the world exists at all and explicitly gives this incomprehensibility a name, “the mystical,” a word with a limitless semantic field, a word encumbered with indubitable and dubious experiences.
DETRACTOR: May I be permitted to ask what specific accent the mystical has in Wittgenstein’s work? Isn’t this proposition suspiciously reminiscent of a question that is meaningless in a Wittgensteinian sense, namely Heidegger’s question, “Why is there Being at all rather than nothing?” Is Heidegger’s speechlessness vis-à-vis Being not the same as Wittgenstein’s speechlessness? Don’t the positivist and the philosopher of Being end up in the same cul-de-sac?
SECOND SPEAKER: The experience that underlies Heidegger’s mysticism of Being may indeed be similar to the experience that allows Wittgenstein to speak of the mystical. But Wittgenstein would find it impossible to pose the Heideggerian question, for he denies what Heidegger presupposes—namely, that Being can find utterance in thought. Where Heidegger begins to philosophize, Wittgenstein ceases to philosophize. For as the last proposition of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus says:
WITTGENSTEIN: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”11
SECOND SPEAKER: According to Wittgenstein’s theses, it is impossible to speak of “meaning,” for there is no meaning in a world that is representable, describable—but not explicable. In order to be able to explain the world, we would have to be able to put ourselves outside the world, we would have to, as he puts it, “be able to utter propositions about the propositions of the world” as the metaphysicians fancy they are able to do; in addition to propositions that speak about facts they have propositions of a second order, propositions that speak about the propositions that speak about facts. They solemnize the ascription of meaning. Wittgenstein decisively rejects these attempts. If there were meaning in the world that meaning would have no meaning, for it would then constitute one of the facts, a representable entity among other representable entities, and of equal rank with them, an object of science like other objects and therefore worthless for:
WITTGENSTEIN: “How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher…The meaning of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen.”12
DETRACTOR: If we do not receive an answer to this question, a question that we are accustomed to address to philosophy, the question of the “meaning of being,” when we are referred back to ourselves by this question, because thought and language fail us, how will the questions of ethics, which are closely connected to it, be answered? For of course both ethical norms—which are propositions hinging on “ought”—and the values towards which we orientate ourselves, are also questions of a second order and anchored in metaphysics. But if a reality of a second order, a reality to which the ascription of meaning and the moral legislation of our life are indigenous, is being rightly gainsaid by this neopositivistic philosophy, then the entirety of ethics has been abolished; and with this abolition we have reached the actual rock-bottom of Western philosophical thought, the fulfillment of an absolute nihilism, a nihilism that not even Nietzsche, the great demolisher of traditional Occidental value-systems, was capable of devising.
FIRST SPEAKER: Naturally, Wittgenstein’s philosophy is a negative philosophy, and he could quite plausibly have given his Tractatus the same title as that of Nikolaus Cusanus’s De docta ignorantia. For what we can speak of is of no value, and we cannot speak of the word’s indigenous habitation. Therefore—so he infers—we cannot utter a single true or verifiable proposition of ethics:
WITTGENSTEIN: “Ethics are transcendental.”13
SECOND SPEAKER: By this Wittgenstein means that the moral form, which has nothing to do with the facts of the world, is not analogous to the logical form.
It can no longer be represented, but it still manifests itself. Like the logical form, with whose help we depict the world, it is the limit or border of the world, a border that we cannot cross. And he continues:
WITTGENSTEIN: “The solution of the riddle of life in space and time can only lie outside space and time.”14
SECOND SPEAKER: And we come back to the decisive proposition:
WITTGENSTEIN: “For how the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher.
God does not reveal himself in the world.”15
FIRST SPEAKER: It is the bitterest proposition in the Tractatus. It is reminiscent of Hölderlin’s “How little do the heavenly powers heed us!”; nevertheless, it states much more, namely, that this God remains the hidden God, the deus absconditus, who does not manifest himself in this world, which we can depict by means of a formal schema; that the world becomes speakable—and hence depictable--that the sayable is possible, only thanks to the unsayable, the limit, or whatever we choose to call it.
SECOND SPEAKER: In our treatment of Wittgenstein’s theory of language, which is concerned with the representation of the world, we have pointed out the connection between the empiricist and rationalistic features of his philosophy and the analytic methods that have been influential in Western thought since its inception. And today we are learning what a major influence this “positive” portion of the Tractatus has had on the development of modern thought in the past few decades, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries; learning, indeed, that it has become the Bible, so to speak, of the scientific method-orientated thought of our age.
But in what context are we to situate the other component of Wittgenstein’s thought, his despairing effort on behalf of the inexpressible, the unsayable?
FIRST SPEAKER: On account of these efforts, Wittgenstein should perhaps be termed the great representative thinker of our time, for in him the two extreme tendencies of the intellectual currents of the West find expression. He stands at the pinnacle of the scientific thought of his age; the thought that accompanies the development of technology and the natural sciences and antedates him; and yet he quotes to us Nestroy’s maxim, “It is generally characteristic of progress to look much greater than it actually is.” This is why we are so deeply moved by the other component of his thought, the mystical component, which yearns to surmount the limitations of scientific thought.
SECOND SPEAKER: We believe we won’t be erring if we identify Pascal as a predecessor of a thinker who similarly embodied both components. Probably unlike any other post-Pascalian philosopher, Wittgenstein with his austere twentieth-century style idealization of science would probably be credited by Pascal with possession of l’esprit de la géométrie. But can we also attribute l’esprit de finesse to him? In Pascal it is the combination of these two forms of intellect that distinguishes the great thinker; he is of the opinion that in the absence of the “mysticism of the heart,” the mystical experience of the reality of the entire person, who stands either before or behind thought, a philosophy is “not worth a single hour of effort.”
FIRST SPEAKER: A harsh judgment, which Pascal recorded in the course of a reading of Descartes.
SECOND SPEAKER: In order to comprehend and render comprehensible Wittgenstein’s mystical traits, we must perhaps take a step beyond his own miserly outlay of words expressive of this tendency:
WITTGENSTEIN: “God does not reveal himself in the world.”16
SECOND SPEAKER: These are words that are to be found towards the end of the Tractatus. What do they mean? They mean that the world as the totality of facts, the only world allowable by scientific description, does not reveal God, that we cannot prove the existence of God as a limited being in a limited world, for God is manifestly not one of the world’s facts. And to extrapolate a conclusion about the higher world from the facts of the lower world is impossible; for every conclusion is perforce a logical conclusion—hence devoid of content; in other words, a tautology.
WITTGENSTEIN: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”17
FIRST SPEAKER: And it is in these terms that we must also understand Wittgenstein’s treatment of ethics. Values are things of a “higher” order; therefore they are not of this world. Let us listen closely to his formulation:
WITTGENSTEIN: “In the world there is no value, and if there were, it would be of no value.”18
SECOND SPEAKER: In other words, the world is value-neutral; it consists of facts of mutually equivalent status; they, like us, are incapable of being transformed by our will, which we term the standard-bearer of the ethical domain. But ethical values figure among the central problems of our life, for they impart the accents of good and evil, of merit and demerit, to our actions. This is undeniable, and Wittgenstein has no wish to deny it. But he makes it perfectly clear that science can contribute nothing to the solution of such a problem. With all existential questions we are thrown back onto ourselves. Indeed, he does not believe that there are no values, that it is impossible to believe in God—he merely believes that it is impossible in a strict sense to speak about any of that. Language can only speak of facts and constitutes the limit of our—your and my—world. The limit of the world is stripped away when language is insufficient and therefore thought is also insufficient. It is stripped away when something “manifests” itself, and that which manifests itself is the mystical—the inexpressible experience—
FIRST SPEAKER: --the experience not of the empiricist but rather of the mystic.
SECOND SPEAKER: So Wittgenstein’s credo is negative, because he cannot express it. But the final proposition of the Tractatus suffices to give us an inkling of it.
WITTGENSTEIN: “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. 19
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.
(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the meaning of life became clear, could not then say wherein this meaning consisted?)”20
FIRST SPEAKER: And thus does the book arrive at the logical implications that have provoked so much head-shaking from other positivistic scientists.
WITTGENSTEIN: “The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no significance to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method.
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as meaningless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.”21
FIRST SPEAKER: Doesn’t Wittgenstein effectively come to the same conclusion as Pascal? Let us listen closely to what the author of the Pensées says three hundred years before him: “The last step of reason is to recognize that there are an infinite number of things that surpass it.”22
SECOND SPEAKER: Wittgenstein has taken this last step of reason. Anyone who like him says, “God does not reveal himself in the world” also implicitly says, “Vere tu es deus absconditus.” For what ought one to be silent about if not the world stripped of its limit—about the hidden God, about the aesthetic and the ethical as mystical experiences of the heart that are fulfilled in the unsayable? All of this is fully comprehended by his “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Of course being silent about something does not entail simply and solely being silent about it. Negative silence would be agnosticism; positive silence is mysticism.
FIRST SPEAKER: This interpretation of Wittgensteinian silence admittedly goes far beyond anything he ever said; but we believe it is permissible to pursue it for the sake of making the Tractatus intelligible, and also because Wittgenstein’s life provides us with a key to understanding everything that he regarded as being only silently fulfillable.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrapped himself in silence all his life; there is scarcely any other way of putting it, given how astonishing it is that a man assured of public prominence, fame, and distinction managed to withdraw from his age so thoroughly that he genuinely evaded it. In 1921 he published the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in Vienna, where a few years later Moritz Schlick was inspired enough by his thought to bring into being the “Vienna Circle." While the Viennese neopositivistic school, which based its own work almost exclusively on Wittgenstein’s sublime intellectual efforts on behalf of modern logic and scientific theory but gave his mystical “whims” the cold shoulder, was winning ever greater international distinction, Wittgenstein never showed his face; he kept his distance from all discussions, declined to take up an academic teaching post, and eventually moved to a village in Lower Austria where he lived for years that nobody can give an account of. He “exited” philosophy. In 1938 he had to leave Austria for “racial” reasons and turned to England and the University of Cambridge, where he acceded to the professorship of philosophy that G.E. Moore had just resigned. Of these last years we know that during them he acquired a small circle of disciples; they recount that he lived in a cottage and hadn’t allowed it be furnished with anything but a simple chair. Thus even during his lifetime his life had already been replaced by a legend—a legend of voluntary privation, of the attempt to hearken to the proposition that concludes the Tractatus:
WITTGENSTEIN: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”23
SECOND SPEAKER: Only after Wittgenstein’s death in 1951 did people really begin to preoccupy themselves with his life and work in earnest. In Germany it was Ewald Wasmuth who drew everybody’s attention to him and in an inquiry expressed his hope as a Christian philosopher that Wittgenstein had crossed the threshold separating silence from confession in his final writings, word of whose existence was then leaking out of England. Those were the days when people talked of a Blue Book and of the Philosophical Investigations [Philosophischen Untersuchungen], of an extensive collection of posthumous papers that would give us a complete picture of his corpus of thought. And last year did actually see the publication in England of a posthumous work—Philosophical Investigations [here Bachmann gives the English title (DR)], a large portion of which he had lived long enough to edit himself. He explains this “reentry” into philosophy in a preface:
WITTGENSTEIN: “Up to a short time ago I had really given up the idea of publishing my work in my lifetime. It used, indeed, to be revived from time to time: mainly because I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty in quieting it.”24
FIRST SPEAKER: And with regard to the Philosophical Investigations themselves, he says in a later passage:
WITTGENSTEIN: “I make them public with doubtful feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely. I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own. I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.”25
SECOND SPEAKER: Whether this book might have turned out better is a question we must leave unanswered. In the form in which it has reached us, that of an agglomeration of illustrated thoughts, it presents a number of difficulties. Once again there is a lack of systematic coherence. We are drawn into a Socratic dialogue with the author, a dialogue that touches on numerous things; thus the author’s intention is never directly disclosed to us. Indeed, he is seems to be proceeding in the absence of any premeditated intention, and says, for example:
WITTGENSTEIN: “I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say ‘I know what you are thinking,’ and wrong to say ‘I know what I am thinking.’”
SECOND SPEAKER: We have chosen this illustration because it is paired with a crucial comment, an exclamation that could just as aptly follow all the other illustrations:
WITTGENSTEIN: “A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar!”27
FIRST SPEAKER: And in this comment we have discovered his intention, the same intention that openly manifests itself in the Tractatus: to show that the problems of philosophy are problems of language, that, as it were, the misfires of language create philosophical problems. This is why in the Philosophical Investigations he proceeds to expand the Tractatus by giving us examples of right and wrong thinking. For:
WITTGENSTEIN: “Language itself is the vehicle of thought.”28
SECOND SPEAKER: In the Tractatus it is already stated that:
WITTGENSTEIN: “The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions,’ but to make propositions clear.”29
SECOND SPEAKER: In the Philosophical Investigations this clarification of propositions is to be established on a broader foundation. Now he begins by scrutinizing the propositions of everyday language in the light of his own philosophical idea: complete clarity. Let us hear how he himself conceives of it:
WITTGENSTEIN: “But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.”30
FIRST SPEAKER: It is Wittgenstein’s conviction that we must bring philosophy to a standstill so that it is no longer “plagued” by questions that call philosophy itself into question, and he believes that we will be able to silence these questions when our language is functioning well and meaningfully, when it lives and breathes in the course of its use. It is only when language, which is a form of life, is taken out of use, when it runs idle—and it does this, in his opinion, when it is employed philosophically in the traditional sense—that problems arise. These problems must not be solved but rather eliminated.
Thus these investigations move within the ambit of the Tractatus, but they expand it through detailed investigations in every direction. They abandon abstraction and provide illustrative examples. Language is now no longer termed a system of signs—although it obviously remains one—but rather likened to an ancient city in virtue of its multifariousness. And thus it may be regarded as:
WITTGENSTEIN: “[A] maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.”31
FIRST SPEAKER: And as language is a labyrinth of paths, philosophy must take up the struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the ruses of language. It must raze castles in the air and lay bare the foundation of language; it must be like a kind of therapy, for philosophical problems are illnesses that must be cured. He demands not a solution but rather a cure.
Consequently philosophy has a paradoxical task to carry out: the elimination of philosophy.
DETRACTOR: And so exactly like the Tractatus, the Philosophical Investigations effects a certain very remarkable result. Both books would have us put an end to what we have been practicing as philosophy for millennia and in the most varied forms—and therewith to install positivism qua deliverer of a valid description of the world in the judge’s seat, but also to throw positivism qua worldview and world-explaining philosophy onto the scrap heap along with all the other philosophies seeking answers to the questions of Being and existence. But this recommendation seems to contain a crux, a crux consisting in the fact that after this elimination or shutting-off of the problems that are described as “existential matters” nowadays, these problems will stubbornly continue to exist, for it is in the nature of human beings to ask questions and to see more in reality than the positive and rational, which of course does not constitute the whole of reality even in Wittgenstein’s own opinion. And there will be a good many of us who will be dissatisfied with this admittedly irreproachable definition of the distinction between the knowable and unknowable, of positive science and the limits that crop up in a logical and ethical form in the metaphysical subject, but that can no longer be spoken about. If Wittgenstein may have also effectuated silence in a positive sense, perhaps he has already made the positive acts visible in his own work, in that he possessed the great virtues of a thinker—intellectual probity and reverence for reality divested of the human understanding: he has bequeathed to us a vacuum—the metaphysical realm emptied of all contents.
FIRST SPEAKER: This is undoubtedly the case. But what you call a vacuum is ready to be refilled by authentic beliefs. To be sure, there is no longer any place for the struggle of the Western metaphysical systems, for the struggle between various philosophical creeds each armed with logical arguments. But the fact that Wittgenstein does not make the expected profession of Christianity should not blind us to the essential character of the “limits,” which are not only limits but also holes in the apparent, in the mystically or piously experienceable that has an effect on our doings. A confession has no place in his work, because a confession is not amenable to utterance; if it were uttered it would be simultaneously recanted. Moreover, as passionately as Spinoza before him, Wittgenstein wished to liberate God from the stigma of addressability.
SECOND SPEAKER: We must seek the foundation of his attitude in the historical situation in which Wittgenstein found himself. His silence is most certainly construable as a protest against the version of anti-rationalism specific to his age, against its metaphysically polluted Occidental thought, in particular against the German version thereof, which delighted in bewailing the loss of meaning and in enjoining passive reflection, in forecasting the degeneration, transformation, and ascension of the West—a stream of anti-intellectual thought mobilized against the “dangerous” positive sciences and “unfettered” technology in order to leave humankind languishing in a primitive intellectual state. And his silence is also construable as a protest against this age’s tendency towards a naïve adulation of science and progress, against the ignorance of the “total reality” that frequently infests both the thought of the neopositivistic school that took his work as its starting point and that of their fellow-scientific thinkers.
A Viennese philosopher once called Wittgenstein Janus-faced, and it is true that more than anyone else he recognized the perils of the indurating intellectual antagonisms of his century; in his work he both endured and overcame the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism. To be sure, he did not manage to come up with a simple prescription for attaining the oft-longed-for synthesis, but he did produce a prescription, a prescription for effecting a cure through a long course of therapy.
WITTGENSTEIN: “We feel that even if all possible scientiﬁc questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.”32
Source: Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke, edited by Christine Koschel, Inge von Weidenbaum, and Clemens Münster (Munich: Piper, 1978), Vol. IV, pp. 103-127.
1. Bachmann’s editors report that this essay was written in 1953 and that it was broadcast only once, on Bavarian Radio in Munich on September 16, 1954.
2. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1). With the exception of my treatment of a single word, Sinn, which I have rendered as meaning rather than as sense, because the former sounds much more idiomatic in the context of Bachmann’s own use of the word, all quotations of the Tractatus are taken verbatim from C. K. Ogden’s translation except when Bachmann has taken liberties with the text, in which cases I have approximated her alterations.
3. Ibid. (1.1)
4. Ibid. (1.11)
5. “Trial”: not Prozess, as in the title of Kafka’s novel, but Verhandlung.
6. Ibid., preface, second paragraph.
7. Ibid. (6.3)
8. Ibid. (5.61)
9. Ibid. (5.61)
10. Ibid. (6.432) and (6.44)
11. Ibid. (7)
12. Ibid. (6.4312) and (6.41). The romanization of how is either Bachmann’s or her editors’.
13. Ibid. (6.421)
14. Ibid. (6.4312). Can is Bachmann’s addition.
15. Ibid. (6.432). For in the first sentence and italics in the second are Bachmann’s.
16. Ibid. (6.432).
17. Ibid. (6.522)
18. Ibid. (6.41). Bachmann’s only translatable change is the substitution of world (Welt) for the pronoun unambiguously referring to it.
19. Ibid. (6.52)
20. Ibid. (6.521)
21. Ibid. (6.53 and 6.54)
22. Pascal, Pensées, second (1670) edition, Chapter V., par. 1. Translation mine from the original French.
23. Tractatus (7)
24. Philosophical Investigations [Philosophischen Untersuchungen], preface, par. 4. Punctuation aside, all quotations of the Philosophical Investigations are taken verbatim from G.E.M. Anscombe’s translation.
25. Ibid., preface, final paragraphs (8 and 9)
26. Ibid., Part II, ch. xi.
27. Ibid., Part II, ch. xi. The exclamation point is Bachmann’s.
28. Ibid., Part I (329)
29. Tractatus (4.112)
30. Philosophical Investigations, Part I (133)
31. Ibid., Part I (18)
32. Tractatus (6.52)