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The Tractatus

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Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism

Stuart Greenstreet explains how analytical philosophy got into a mess.

This year’s centenary of the First World War coincides with Ludwig Wittgenstein beginning writing his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Latin for ‘Logical-Philosophical Treatise’), the only book the Austrian philosopher published in his lifetime. Not the least astonishing fact about it is that, as we shall see, most of it was written between 1914 and 1918 by a brave young soldier fighting at the front line.

In July 1914, when the whole of Europe suddenly found itself at war, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a son of one of the richest men in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was twenty-five years old. He had spent the previous two years (1911-13) at the University of Cambridge, studying philosophy with Bertrand Russell, who was a lecturer there. But he happened to be at home in Vienna on 28th July 1914, when his country declared war on Serbia. A week later, the day after Austria had declared war against Russia as well, Wittgenstein volunteered to join the Austrian army as an ordinary soldier, even though he was exempted from compulsory service by poor health.

He was assigned to the artillery and posted to a unit fighting on the Russian front. Once there, he volunteered for that most dangerous of places (since it was the target of enemy fire): an observation post in no-man’s land, from which he directed the fire of his own guns.

Wittgenstein showed exceptional courage throughout the war, and was promoted first to Korporal then trained as an officer. He was cited for bravery in June 1918: “His exceptionally courageous behaviour, calmness, sang-froid, and heroism won the total admiration of the troops,” and was recommended for the Gold Medal for Valour, the Austrian equivalent to the Victoria Cross, and eventually awarded a medal just below this top honour, the Silver Medal for Valour. He was at this time working as an observer for the artillery attacking French, British and Italian troops in the Trentino Mountains. There in November 1918, just days before the end of the war, he was captured by the Italians and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Como. It is hard to take in how anyone who had risked losing his life day after day could at the same time be writing what became a classic work of philosophy that is still admired today and has never been out of print.

Austrian artillery unit, Eastern Front 1915

Philosophical Journeys

Before I touch on the purpose of the Tractatus, I need to say how Leo Tolstoy affected it, and therefore comes to feature in this piece.

In September 1914, Wittgenstein, off duty, visited the town of Tarnow, then in Austrian Galicia, now in southern Poland, where he went into a small shop that seemed to sell nothing but picture postcards. However, as Bertrand Russell later wrote in a letter, Wittgenstein “found that it contained just one book: [of] Tolstoy on the Gospels. He bought it merely because there was no other. He read it and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him, under fire and at all times.” No wonder, then, that Wittgenstein became known to his fellow soldiers as ‘the one with the Gospels’. Tolstoy’s book, however, is a single Gospel: hence its name: The Gospel in Brief. It is, as Tolstoy himself says in his Preface, “a fusion of the four Gospels into one.” Tolstoy had distilled the four biblical accounts of Christ’s life and teaching into a compelling story. Wittgenstein was so profoundly moved by it that he doubted whether the actual Gospels could possibly be better than Tolstoy’s synthesis. “If you are not acquainted with it,” he told his friend Ludwig von Ficker, “then you cannot imagine what effect it can have on a person.” It implanted a Christian faith in Wittgenstein. Before going on night-duty at the observation post, he wrote: “Perhaps the nearness of death will bring me the light of life. May God enlighten me. Through God I will become a man. God be with me. Amen.”

Now about the Tractatus. In March 1919, when Wittgenstein was still captive in Italy, he wrote to Bertrand Russell asking him to come to see him at his prison camp, now at Cassino. He said that he had written down the results of five years work in the form of a treatise. Although it was impossible for Russell to go, Wittgenstein managed to send him the manuscript. With Russell’s help – which crucially included writing an Introduction – the Tractatus was published in England in 1922, with the German text facing an English translation.

Put simply, Wittgenstein’s leading idea in the Tractatus was that propositions – that is, statements asserting facts, such as ‘it is raining’ – are a picture of what they describe. This is Wittgenstein’s ‘Picture Theory of Language’, or as he himself called it, his ‘Theory of Logical Portrayal’:

“We can say straight away: Instead of: this proposition has such and such a sense: this proposition represents such and such a situation. It portrays it logically. Only in this way can the proposition be true or false: It can only agree or disagree with reality by being a picture of a situation” (Notebooks p.8).

He added later:

“The great problem round which everything I write turns is: Is there an order in the world a priori, and if so what does it consist in?” (Notebooks p.53)

By “an order in the world a priori,” Wittgenstein meant an order that we could know to exist in the world without reference to our experience of the world. He felt forced to conclude that there is such an order, for it is this order that is pictured or logically portrayed by the relations between the symbols of a proposition.

We don’t need to pursue this mysterious idea because Wittgenstein himself later rejected the Picture Theory as a huge over-simplification of how language works. In his Preface to his Philosophical Investigations published thirty-one years later in 1953 (two years after his death), he admitted that “since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize great mistakes in what I wrote in the first book” (i.e., the Tractatus). In the Philosophical Investigations he argued virtually opposite to what he had claimed in the Tractatus: he now recognised that language is a vast collection of different activities, which he called ‘language games’, each with its own logic.

A Circle In Vienna

Logical Positivism was a theory developed in the 1920s by the ‘Vienna Circle’, a group of philosophers centred (unsurprisingly) in Vienna. Its formulation was entirely driven by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which dominated analytical philosophy in the 1920s and 30s. The Circle itself owed its existence primarily to Moritz Schlick, who came to Vienna in 1922 as Professor in the Philosophy of Inductive Science; besides Schlick, the Circle included Rudolph Carnap, Otto Neurath, Friedrich Waismann and other very able thinkers – but not Wittgenstein himself, who could not be persuaded to attend their meetings. The Circle had a programme of research and a journal, Erkenntnis, to publish its results. Waismann defined the hallmark of Logical Positivism – namely ‘the principle of verification’. As Waismann explained this principle:

“If there is no way of telling when a proposition is true, then the proposition has no sense whatever; for the sense of a proposition is its method of verification. In fact whoever utters a proposition must know under what conditions he will call the proposition true or false; if he cannot tell this, then he does not know what he has said” [My italics] (from ‘A Logical Analysis of the Concept of Probability’, Erktenntis 1, 1930-1).

So the principle of verification was supposed to be a criterion to determine whether or not a sentence is literally meaningful: and the criterion was that the user must know the conditions under which the sentence’s assertions are verifiable.

Vienna fin de siecle
Vienna in the early twentieth century, when the Vienna Circle was formed

This doctrine drew a line of demarcation between science and what the Circle’s members pejoratively called ‘metaphysics’ – a word they used as a synonym for ‘nonsense’. Their principle of verification meant that only propositions concerned with matters of empirically-verifiable fact (‘It is still raining’), or the logical relationship between concepts (‘A downpour is heavier than a shower’) are meaningful. Propositions that fall into neither of these camps fail to satisfy the principle, they argued, and consequently lack sense. It follows, therefore, that the propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and religion, are meaningless nonsense. The same would be said for any proposition that expressed a judgement of value as distinct from propositions solely concerned with facts.

One Englishman attended meetings of the Vienna Circle: A. J. Ayer, who in 1936, at the age of twenty-six, published a book called Language, Truth and Logic. This brought the ideas of the Vienna Circle to the attention of the English-speaking world. The title of the first chapter of this dogmatic, even arrogant, book, is ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’. Here’s how to do it, according to Ayer:

“We may define a metaphysical sentence as a sentence which purports to express a genuine proposition, but does, in fact, express neither a tautology nor an empirical hypothesis. And as tautologies and empirical hypotheses form the entire class of significant propositions, we are justified in concluding that all metaphysical assertions are nonsensical.”

Poor Immanuel Kant – all those years of effort on metaphysical analysis wasted! His analysis of the concept of free will, for example: meaningless! For the sentence ‘I chose freely’ is neither a tautology nor an empirical hypothesis (for it is incapable of being either proved or disproved empirically); therefore it must be nonsense. Isn’t that shocking?

It never seemed to occur to the Vienna Circle that the proposition ‘the sense of a proposition is its method of verification’ is itself a metaphysical assertion that cannot be verified by its own test: their doctrine is self-contradictory, and therefore must be false.

The Mystical Logician

We have seen that when Wittgenstein risked his life in battle day after day, he found solace in Tolstoy’s version of the Gospels: hence his prayer ‘May God enlighten me’. By 1916 his experience of war had made him a different man to the one whom Russell had met in 1911.

The scope of the Tractatus, too, had broadened: it was no longer just about the possibility of language being logically and pictorially connected to the world. Wittgenstein had begun to feel that logic and what he strangely called ‘mysticism’ sprang from the same root. This explains the second big idea in the Tractatus – which the logical positivists ignored: the thought of there being an unutterable kind of truth that ‘makes itself manifest’. Hence the key paragraph 6.522 in the Tractatus:

“There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

In other words, there is a categorically different kind of truth from that which we can state in empirically or logically verifiable propositions. These different truths fall on the other side of the demarcation line of the principle of verification.

Wittgenstein’s intention in asserting this is precisely to protect matters of value from being disparaged or debunked by scientifically-minded people such as the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle. He put his view beyond doubt in this sequence of paragraphs:

“6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is value which is of value, it must lie outside of all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.”

In other words, all worldly actions and events are contingent (‘accidental’), but matters of value are necessarily so, for they are ‘higher’ or too important to be accidental, and so must be outside the world of empirical propositions:

“6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.”

(‘Transcendental’ here is not to be confused with ‘transcendent’. ‘Transcendental’ is used here in a technical philosophical sense to mean that which is incapable of being experienced by any of the senses – and is therefore beyond the reach of science, which deals in what can be observed.)

Young philosopher Frank Ramsey, who helped to translate the first English edition of the Tractatus, remarked that to describe ethics as ‘nonsense but important nonsense’ is too much like having one’s cake and eating it. This is surprisingly glib coming from Ramsey, whom we can assume had read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (as Wittgenstein certainly had), and would know the famous line in its Preface: that Kant had “found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” By this Kant meant that he denied an exclusively scientific worldview – a worldview that the Vienna Circle, including A. J. Ayer, had taken for granted. Kant’s purpose was to justify our conceiving of ourselves as rational agents who can through free will freely govern ourselves by the moral law. For Kant, for free moral choice to be possible, our will must not be constrained by the deterministic grip of the laws of nature that apply to the physical world. So our moral choices must be made independently of nature. So for both Kant and Wittgenstein, ethics is definitely transcendental. There are mysteries beyond the reach of human reason – totally beyond it, so that even all theological explanations are necessarily wrong. The most we can hope for is that our words may make our ignorance known to ourselves.

Philosophy Is Not Science

To the question ‘What is your aim in philosophy?’, Wittgenstein replied, “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” By this he meant that the work of philosophy “consists essentially of elucidations” (4.112). This provokes the further question ‘Why then are the ideas of the Tractatus so obscure and controversial, as for instance in paragraph 6.522 quoted above, which says values “make themselves manifest”?’ A. C. Grayling, for instance, has complained:

“If it were true that value somehow just ‘manifested itself’, it would be puzzling why conflicts and disagreements should arise over ethical questions, or why people can passionately and sincerely hold views which are quite opposite to those held with equal passion and sincerity by others.”
Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction

On the contrary, I don’t find the idea of different manifest values being held by different people at all puzzling. It is in the very nature or essence of values (as distinct from verifiable facts) that they are contentious. There is simply no objective truth to be had about a judgement of value. So it would be extremely odd if the values – be they moral, aesthetic, religious, or whatever – that manifest themselves to us as individuals were to be the same for everybody. In such a weird case they would cease to be ‘values’ as we understand them.

The declared aim of the Vienna Circle was to make philosophy either subservient to or somehow akin to the natural sciences. As Ray Monk says in his superb biography Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990), “the anti-metaphysical stance that united them [was] the basis for a kind of manifesto which was published under the title The Scientific View of the World: The Vienna Circle.” Yet as Wittgenstein himself protested again and again in the Tractatus, the propositions of natural science “have nothing to do with philosophy” (6.53); “Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences” (4.111); “It is not problems of natural science which have to be solved” (6.4312); “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all” (6.52); “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical” (6.522). None of these sayings could possibly be interpreted as the views of a man who had renounced metaphysics. The Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle had got Wittgenstein wrong, and in so doing had discredited themselves.

© Stuart Greenstreet 2014

Stuart Greenstreet earned his living as a business manager and writer and was awarded a diploma in philosophy by Birkbeck College. London. After graduating from the Open University he did further philosophy at the University of Sussex.


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