Wittgenstein’s Tractatus deals in immense and strange detail on how our representations of reality (which he refers to as “pictures”) map onto reality-itself (which he deems to be the totality of facts, which along with our pictures of facts, exists in the domain of logical space). One of the most fundamental ways in which we can come to represent reality is through language. Propositions — which, Wittgenstein understands as a linguistic representation of facts, the constituent elements of which are nouns (or, as he calls them, “names”), adjectives, verbs, etc. — are one of the most fundamental ways in which we come to represent reality. Propositions are the primary method by which we communicate thoughts to one another and in turn, compose the bulk of intellectual life. In the context of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the particular aspect of bulk of intellectual life that is most important when speaking about propositions is that of philosophy. This is because Wittgenstein is of the opinion that all propositions are not equally epistemically sound; that is to say, some propositions represent reality, some are false, and some simply represent nothing. The lattermost idea — that some propositions represent nothing — Wittgenstein attributes to most philosophers and their ideas. In turn, the consequence of this is that Wittgenstein conceives philosophy throughout history as having been, for the most part, nonsensical. Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy as nonsensical seems to have been the impetus to his conclusion that the Tractatus has solved philosophy itself; hence its significance: it purportedly allows us to see clearly the nonsensicality of philosophy. But more so, it allows us to see, through such nonsensicality, the utility of philosophy as an activity. (4.II) “The totality of true propositions is the totality of natural science.” The fundamental essence of the Tractatus is that we fail to communicate clearly. The utility of philosophy is logical elucidation and clarification of thoughts — when it is framed correctly (i.e., as an activity rather than a framework by which we create theories of reality, as, the latter is the job of science). And in turn, philosophy has its significance as a communicative aid to science: scientists are notoriously bad at articulating their theories: the utility of philosophy, even in light of its nonsensicality, can help alleviate this tortuousness. In light of this, however, Wittgenstein in chapter 6 of the Tractatus goes on to make his own set of strictly philosophical claims that exceed mere elucidation, which contradicts his dictum of philosophy’s actual utility and contradicts his logical-metaphysics.
Prior to getting into what the terms “sense” and its counterparts mean to Wittgenstein, it is important to delve into his ontology briefly. This is due to the fact that, for Wittgenstein, there is a necessary relation between our manners of representing the world and the world itself. The “world” for Wittgenstein is not planet Earth or any planet. Rather, it is more akin to the term “Being”; the world is the totality of facts or things that are the case. If you gathered every single fact in the universe, and could linguistically articulate all of these facts, you would be capable of describing the world. The space in which all of these facts occur is referred to as “logical space.” Our conception of these facts is what Wittgenstein calls pictures. For instance, there is a remote on the table beside where I am typing: the image of that remote in my visual field is a picture of it; any sort of representation of facts is a picture of it. So, in a sense, the previous sentence’s explanation of my visual field’s representation of the remote is also a picture of the remote. What is important to keep in mind here, is that Wittgenstein believes that there is a necessary connection between pictures and facts, and this connection is a logical one. Which is to say, the logical structure or form of facts is the same as the logical form or structure of pictures; this is to such an extent that Wittgenstein claims that pictures are themselves facts. To go back to the remote example, the logical structure of the remote itself is the same as the logical structure of the representation of the remote in my visual field or in my writing about the remote. That is to say, my experience of the world and my linguistic representation of the world, have the same logical structure as the world itself.
For pictures, Wittgenstein pays close attention to its linguistic form. To simplify things, propositions are expressions that represent facts. For instance, “the book cover is orange” is a proposition. Propositions say something about the world, and in doing so, explicate its logical structure. Saying “the book cover is orange” is to show that orange is a color. Which is to say, that we can’t just say that “orange is a color” but in utilizing orange in a proposition to describe something, we show that it is a color, via elucidation; the way in which “orange” is used in the proposition “the book cover is orange” allows us to see the orange is a color. This maps on well to the logical structure of the world, as, “orange”, unattached from concepts, logically speaking, when viewed is self-evidently a color that is shown through experience; even if we did not know which color it is, or even — linguistically speaking — what a color was, the logical form of the world entails color, and we’d be able to extrapolate from our experience of other colors [showing themselves] that orange is indeed a color.
Propositions either truly represent reality, or they do not. For instance, I am currently looking at a blue sock; if I then proceed to make the proposition, “I see a green sock” that is a false proposition. If I say “I see a blue sock”, conversely, then I am making a true proposition. The truth value of a given proposition is where we run into whether or not a proposition has sense — or, in how we ordinarily speak, “makes sense.” A proposition that has sense is one that is logically sound, and has the logical possibility of being true — and a true proposition is one that is in accordance with the facts/what is the case. An example of a proposition with sense is my above proposition, “I see a blue sock.” Likewise, even though the proposition “I see a green sock” is false, it still has sense, in that, it is logically possible for me to see a green sock — there are possible states of affairs where this could occur. Propositions that have sense, are sensical because they are true or false depending on how the world and the facts which compose it are. Where propositions of sense are most significant here, are the propositions of science. As Kierkegaard rightly noted, “[Scientists] master a great wealth of details [regarding the nature of reality] and have discovered many new ones, but no more than that. They have merely provided the substratum for the thought and elaboration of others.” In the context of this work, this quote from Kierkegaard has a twofold significance, the first of which is the fact that the subject matter of science, when translated over to language, must have sense. Science at bottom deals with what Nietzsche called the will to truth: the facts of existence, their meaning aside. Given that if a proposition is true, its content can only be with reference to what is the case, a scientific proposition cannot be nonsensical or senseless. This will tie into the second-fold significance of Kierkegaard’s words momentarily.
There are two forms of propositions that Wittgenstein deems to be senseless. The first are tautologies. These are propositions that are true no matter what. Many of the examples he gives of tautologies are mathematical. For instance, “x=x” is a tautology. Tautologies are senseless because no matter how the world and the facts which compose it are, such propositions will always be true. Statements of ambivalence are considered senseless tautologies as well: (e.g. “I am happy or I am not happy.) Contradictions are also senseless, as they are false no matter what. These are usually propositions with two opposing elements that are conjoined by “and”. For example, “I am a homo sapiens and I am also not a homo sapiens.”
Senseless propositions in the Tractatus are far less important than nonsensical propositions. These “propositions” are those which fail to represent anything. For instance, (credits for this example go to Professor David Egan from Hunter College) “The sky is five.” This doesn’t represent anything. Non-sense propositions, Wittgenstein posits, compose the bulk of what has passed for philosophy throughout its history. This is primarily due to the fact that philosophy attempts to deal with problems of inarticulable magnitude. The word “inarticulable” here is meant quite literally. Ideas like “wholeness”, “Being”, “essence” or “God” are concepts of such enormity, that speaking about them in their entirety is quite impossible. The claims such philosophers make are not false according to Wittgenstein, but simply meaningless and derive from a misunderstanding of the logic of languages. One might take Spinoza’s Ethics as an example of this: in it, Spinoza tackles questions regarding God and Being, among others. Spinoza’s answers to these questions are articulated as if the entirety of the answers to such questions is being offered. Wittgenstein would posit that such answers are meaningless because we can’t answer questions of such unutterable largeness through language. At best, all Spinoza is doing is describing constituent parts of these enormous concepts, because that is all that he can do; language does not permit us to speak about concepts like God or Being in their fullness.
The nonsensicality of philosophical propositions seems to be where Wittgenstein got the idea after completing the Tractatus, that he had “solved all the problems of philosophy.” That, he essentially declared that all or most philosophical propositions were meaningless. This is to the point where such propositions can hardly even be called “propositions”; what expresses/represents nothing, is not a proposition. It is simply a string of symbols (words and letters) which amount to nothing; sometimes such strings of symbols sounds like something, and in other (e.g. Heidegger or Hegel) such strings of symbols are so far away from sounding like anything that such strings of symbols are patently meaningless. One can immediately see the significance of this: supposing that Wittgenstein is correct, philosophy — an endeavor that is at the center of all intellectual life across all cultures — has been a colossal waste of time. Indeed, such a waste of time, that it is odd that Wittgenstein claimed that he solved all of the problems of philosophy with his Tractatus: what is it exactly to solve meaningless problems, but to solve nothing?
Assuming Wittgenstein is correct, one aspect of philosophy that has been solved is its — at times — posed parallel significance to the natural sciences — which is often framed as philosophers doing the same thing, or, contributing to the domain of knowledge in the same way that scientists do. Throughout history, philosophers have attempted to devise theories of existence. In other words, they have attempted to be scientists in their thought, by supposing that they are in possession of the facts of the world, and in turn, concocting a theory of the world with such facts. This, however, is not the same thing as a scientist doing science. Philosophers have derived their “theories” not by empirical means, but by deliberation. And when such “theories” do amount to true propositions, it is usually by means of science — for instance, we can make a differentiation between Aristotle the philosopher (ethics) and Aristotle the biologist, whereby the former is simply deliberating to themselves, and afterward, making pseudo-propositions which do not amount to facts in the world, and the latter is gathering empirical data, and making [true] propositions about such data. The mistake, Wittgenstein supposed, — continuing on the Aristotle example — is to conflate the ethicist and the biologist as doing the same thing and to call this conflation a philosopher. Philosophers have tended to make this conflation, and it is this conflation which Wittgenstein finds problematic: science deals with the facts of the world, and philosophy simply does not; philosophy is not a knowledge-generating endeavor, according to Wittgenstein, as, it does not unveil previously unknown facts to us the way science can.
This seems to be a big blow to philosophy, and one which — at least throughout its history, and not necessarily contemporarily (e.g. philosophers of mind collaborating with cognitive scientists and psychologists) — seems to be quite accurate in many ways [though, as we will see later on, not all]. Students of philosophy will take great comfort in the fact that [some of] what they have been assigned to read is meaningless garble. Others, however, might find such a conclusion rather forlorn with respect to themselves and their career. Indeed, what this means is that millions of students today are taking out completely meaningless degrees. Getting into student-loan-debt in order to read texts that are nonsensical. Things are not that hopeless for students of philosophy, however. Philosophers are in great need. One can confidently make this conclusion — one which the Tractatus fails to make, but ought to — in light of Wittgenstein’s proposition of philosophy’s fundamental utility:
The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred. (4.112)
Given what going through a philosophy degree entails — namely, attempting to make extremely obscure texts clear — this is quite right. Referring back to Kierkegaard, scientists do a good job of compiling facts. Scientists are the reason why, as a species, we simply know as much as we do about reality. The fundamental problem with scientists for the most part, however, is that such compiling is all they are good at. Which is to say, while scientists are great at gathering facts and understanding the nature of reality, they are not very good at communicating such facts and understanding clearly. This is a problem, as, unless science can be communicated clearly — and given that it deals with the facts of reality, it by nature, according to Wittgenstein, can be communicated clearly (4.116) — it will be poorly understood by most; hence, leaving most people in the dark about the nature of reality, coloring scientists with a shade of esotericism, which, amongst the lay populace, simply serves to brew resentment and fear towards science.
This is where philosophers become useful. The skill of clarifying thoughts and propositions through the activity of philosophy can be readily applied to the thoughts and proportions of the natural sciences. “The totality of true propositions is the total natural science.” (4.11) We cannot overlook the fact that many of these true propositions are extremely “opaque and blurred.” Philosophers, in turn, have their utility in modernity not in concocting theories that will ultimately boil down to nonsense, but rather, in assisting scientists in making their thoughts, propositions and theories comprehensible to most people. In part, the consequence of this is also better science. For instance, Newtonian physics was posed in a manner that suggested that it was a comprehensive theory of the wholeness of existence. As we already have seen, logically speaking, such a theory cannot exist; it is impossible to express a comprehensive theory of the wholeness of existence — a theory which states, “all other theories that exist, have their grounding in this theory, which is a grounding in itself” cannot exist, simply due to our cognitive and linguistic limitations as finite beings. We can see with newer theories of physics — like that general relativity — are more modest, and rightly so; Einstein was in many ways philosophically minded, making general relativity a clearer and more delimited theory than Newtonian physics — Newton himself, being more preoccupied with alchemy than philosophy, hence, Newtonian physics’ lack of delimitation.
Given Wittgenstein’s clear narrowing down of what philosophy is capable of doing — as is evidenced above — it is quite curious that he closes the Tractatus with a number of philosophical claims; many of which defy claims that appear earlier on in the Tractatus. As was stated earlier in this analysis, Wittgenstein makes it clear early on in the Tractatus that the logical form of reality is the same as that of the logical form of our representations of reality. Which is to say that our experience and reality itself (i.e., the facts) exist in logical space. Such an ontology seems to be refuted towards the end of the Tractatus and it is in Wittgenstein’s refutation of logical induction. Logical induction is the sort of logic that requires evidential support, which is to say, a premise does not logically entail the conclusion. Inductive logic is the basis for science. Induction deals with probability, not necessity. Take the law of gravitation for instance: the most accurate way to describe it is that it is extremely improbable that the law of gravitation will be refuted (the probability of the gravity of Earth spontaneously shifting tomorrow is extraordinarily low, to the point where one might as well say that it definitely will not happen.) Wittgenstein states:
The process of induction is the process of assuming the simplest law that can be made to harmonize with our experience. This process, however, has no logical foundation but only a psychological one. It is clear that there are no grounds for believing that the simplest course of events will really happen. That the sun will rise tomorrow, is a hypothesis; and that means that we do not know whether it will rise. A necessity for one thing to happen because another has happened does not exist. There is only logical necessity. (6.363- 6.37)
In other words, we have no reason to believe any proposition that has been made on the basis of induction (e,g. Earth’s gravity will not spontaneously change tomorrow), because induction does not have its basis in logic. This, however, is false. Much of what we count as inductive knowledge — i.e., the claims of science — is indeed deductive. This is due to the fact that mathematics is a form of deductive logic (Wittgenstein agrees on this point at 6.2 & 6.234) and the most consistent of scientific claims have their consistency and accuracy in their grounding in mathematics. Before getting into scientific examples, let us take an example of Wittgenstein’s: music. Music is a good example of how our pictures of reality and reality itself have a logical parallelism:
In the fact that there is a general rule by which the musician is able to read the symphony out of the score, and that there is a rule by which one could reconstruct the symphony from the line on a gramophone record and from this again — by means of the first rule — construct the score, herein lies the internal similarity between these things which at first sight seem to be entirely different. And the rule is the law of projection which projects the symphony into the language of the musical score. It is the rule of translation of this language into the language of the gramophone record. (4.0141)
Musical scores have their fundamental basis in mathematics — as, Pythagoras even knew, utilizing ratios to concoct musical harmonies. In the scientific domain, we do know the sun will rise tomorrow and that the Earth’s gravitation will not spontaneously change tomorrow, precisely due to logical necessity; such logical necessity is explained by the rigor of the mathematical formulas that have proven such occurrences to be logical laws, not merely psychological phenomena nested within mere probability. That the sun rises each morning, is not simply because we observe it through our subjective (psychological) lense: but rather, because logical space necessitates that the sun rises each morning (explained by the mathematics of the phenomena). Even if we did not have the math to vet such scientific phenomena, Wittgenstein himself claims that our picture of reality and reality itself share the same logical structure. In turn, wouldn’t it be safe to say that in the morning, when I view the sunrise, and do so every morning ad infinitum, that there is some sort of logical necessity to such occurrences? And if the sun does not rise tomorrow? It seems that there is a logical/mathematical explanation for such a change that humans simply have not grasped yet — i.e., we have made a mistake in our logic — , rather than a lack of logical necessity, if we are going to speak about the world as existing on a plane of logical space.
Wittgenstein seems to say the same thing with regard to the mind, in asserting that there is no logical connection between the world and the will (i.e, the facts and the mind’s capability of volition). To that, one simply needs to extrapolate the logical foundation of computer algorithms to biochemical ones (i.e, brains). The former clearly utilize logic in order to make decisions. To the extent that computers have volition (which they increasingly are capable of having), it is permitted only by their logically predicated algorithms. One can infer the same process as it pertains to the brain. It is simply the case that the logical foundation of the brain is something that is probably so complex that humans will never be capable of grasping it. This doesn’t mean, though, that no such foundation exists. Wittgenstein in this instance seems to be falling into a trap that has been referred to as the “fill in the gaps” argument. Where we do not understand something, therefore it must be something else. Usually, we see this with theologians who plug God into the gap; what Wittgenstein seems to be plugging into the gap, is the idea that there is no gap to be filled, or, that whatever might fill the gap is simply a manifestation of a psychological delusion (namely, logical induction).
Scientists, however, are more modest than this, which is for the better. While they would certainly posit that if the mathematics is correct, the theory will stick and not be disproven, they understand that they could have had a fault in their own logic or math, and in turn, the empirical data might turn out to be different. If, for instance, physicists have botched the mathematics of the theory of gravitation, and Earth’s gravitation spontaneously changed tomorrow, that is not because there is no logical foundation to gravitation, but rather, it is due to the fact that scientists were mistaken in their logic/calculations (and they would be the first to admit such a mistake). Wittgenstein seems to think, however, that scientists — as opposed to theologians/religious types, who Wittgenstein supposed were modest — believe that they have all of existence explained. This seems to be the inverse of what is actually the case. The bedrock of science is incredulity, as Francis Bacon wrote,
Now what the sciences stand in need of is a form of induction which shall analyze experience and take it to pieces, and by a due process of exclusion and rejection lead to an inevitable conclusion. And if that ordinary mode of judgment practiced by the logicians was so laborious, and found exercise for such great wits, how much more labor must we be prepared to bestow upon this other, which is extracted not merely out of the depths of the mind, but out of the very bowels of nature. (Great Instauration)
In other words, the power of science is in its capability to criticize itself. Science is in perpetual revisal. The continuation of science depends on the capability of new evidence superseding previously held theories. This is the opposite of religion, where what is written in a book is forever what is deemed to be the truth. Hence, it seems rather obvious why prior to making the claim that scientists are immodest and the religious are modest, why Wittgenstein holds science up as the generator of knowledge. However, it seems, again, a rather curious mismatch to deem science the arbiter of knowable things, but also to call it immodest, whereof the former characteristic must depend on the absence of the latter.
At the very end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein begins making various mystical claims about the nature of the mind, death and eternity. Without getting too deeply into them (as, Wittgenstein himself simply posits them, and himself does not get deeply into them) — a few of them are, briefly, as follows: there is no “self” (the world and “I” are identical), it is impossible to talk about ethics because it is transcendent to our world, the notion of “time” passing by is illusory, living in the present moment brings about a feeling of eternity/timelessness, science cannot say anything about values/ethics (an ethical claim itself), the nature of death etc — the fact that they have been posited seems to be in direct contradiction with the whole idea that philosophy is nonsensical. Especially given the subject matter of the above mentioned ideas — topics which are notoriously difficult to speak clearly about — it is difficult to say whether or not Wittgenstein was a true mystic, or sought to exemplify the extraordinary limits of language and philosophy by posing as a mystic. Indeed, directly after making all of these mystical claims, Wittgenstein writes,
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless 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. (6.54)
In this lattermost quote, it is difficult to parse what exactly he is alluding to. All of his propositions or some of them? In any case, this seems to be an extraordinarily self-undermining notion. Given Wittgenstein’s belief that the Tractatus had solved all of the problems of philosophy, it seems more appropriate to apply his self-undermining proposal to his more traditionally philosophical claims (i.e., his mystical claims). It seems that it is the case that he would be right to call such claims nonsensical. The topics he is speaking about (subjective experiences of the mind, ethics, death, and temporality) are so out of the bounds of our language capabilities that he barely says anything about them. However, what he does say makes one thing clear: these topics are to be understood most comprehensively through experience. In conjunction with this, “What can be shown cannot be said.” (4.1212) Mysical topics are notoriously obscurely spoken about, and it is for precisely this reason: they are topics that are shown. This is fundamentally the reason mysticism/spirituality is looked upon with a skeptical eye. Its practitioners have experienced physical phenomena, and think that it can be taught to others by speech. Hence, it is entirely possible to be on board with the fact that Wittgenstein’s mystical claims are senseless, all the while crediting him as a mystic of sorts — having wrote vague scribblings (which, in terms of understanding them, truly amount to nothing) on experiences that can only be known through being shown/experiencing them.
The nonsensicality of Wittgenstein’s mystical closing remarks in his Tractatus might not be as nonsensical as he thought. In particular, regarding his claims about the experience of the mystical (timelessness, eternity, presence, etc), this precise experience is something that is being studied by scientists in the domains of neuroscience and psychology. Insofar as these experiences can be explicated via the natural sciences, under Wittgenstein’s logic, it is safe to say that it is possible to have sensical propositions about them. Which is to say, at bottom, insofar as science can substantiate philosophical claims, philosophy does have things to say which are sensical. An instance of this might be Epicurean metaphysics, whereby the composition of the material world is that of atoms. Hence, it seems to be the case that philosophy is not a wholly meaningless endeavor. Wittgenstein was right to say that philosophy has its utility in its capability to clarify and elucidate propositions, but that is not all it is capable of. Bertrand Russell once equated philosophy to the hypothesis phase of the scientific method. This seems to be quite right, especially in light of the Epicurean example above. Most tangible theories that exist in science, which we can say amount to facts, have their roots in philosophical ideas. Hence, philosophy not only has the merit of assisting scientists in the clarification and elucidation of scientific propositions, but it also has the utility of bringing about the impetus towards investigating certain questions through science. Without the natural curiosity with the questions and answers of philosophy, there would be far less in the way of questions for scientists to work towards answering through investigations into reality. Indeed, as Wittgenstein stated, philosophy is not a theory, but an activity; what Wittgenstein missed, however, is that philosophy is the activity by which theories are made from and when science proves or disproves such theories, philosophy is also the activity whereby such truth or falsity is made clearer through rigorous application of logic towards language.