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Tractatus 7.1: Translation and Silence

Peter Caws considers how much is lost in translation.

There’s a story about an American evangelist who was challenged about something in his preaching that didn’t agree with the Greek of the New Testament. He is supposed to have replied “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” Very funny, we all think. But a lot of otherwise well-read people are a bit like that in some ways. It’s not just that pious readers think of the Bible as an English book (the King James Version, after all, is an English book, and a classic at that), but that many people forget – it’s not that they don’t know, they just forget – that Aesop’s fables and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales and so on weren’t originally English books. Philosophy students are particularly liable to this forgetting. It’s surprising how many of them write papers and even dissertations on the assumption that the texts of Plato and Kant, or Habermas and Derrida, on which they base their arguments, are unproblematically English.

In the case of any book not actually written in English, the reader who is not acquainted with the original is at the mercy of the translator. Ideally the original would be available too; and the ideal reader would have enough acquaintance with the original language to be able to see, or at any rate to find out, what the translator has been up to. This is too stringent a requirement for people who read, say, Thomas Mann or Albert Camus for the story, or even the Greek tragedians for the plot. Not many of us are going to know even the elementary structure of Japanese and Finnish: it would be unreasonable to expect this, and silly to say that in that case we aren’t entitled to read or even comment on the Tale of Genji or the Kalevala. But it is not too stringent a requirement for serious philosophers, or for real scholars in any field.

Enough acquaintance with the original language – how much is that? Midway between being able to read a language fluently and not being able to read it at all comes the crib, or the parallel translation. With a dictionary and a rudimentary knowledge of the grammar, it’s usually quite possible to work out what is going on in the translation – what the translator has missed, perhaps, or a point on which two translators disagree. A superb scholarly resource for English-speaking students is the great Loeb edition of the classics. The translations themselves aren’t bad, but the Greek and Latin are invaluable. (You could of course read for the English alone but use the original for purposes of prestige, as Sir Harold Nicolson admits he did when reading Xenophon: “I read the English side of the page, but when I came to a point of interest it was the Greek side that I marked.”) Alternative translations are also a rich source of philosophical stimulation, and may lead to useful discussions about what it’s possible to say in English. A notorious and apparently simple case: there are two major translations of Hegel’s Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, entitled respectively ‘The Phenomenology of Mind’ and ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’. That contrast in itself is enough to keep a Hegel seminar going for quite a while.

Wittgenstein wrote in German, although like the Bible his works have practically acquired the status of English books. The earliest editions in English regularly came with the German on facing pages, but this is no longer always the case.

Like Hegel’s Phenomenology, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus starts to be provocative from its title onwards. The original German was Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung: ‘Logical-philosophical Treatise’, whose awkwardness was finessed by G. E. Moore’s suggestion that the English version should be given a Latin title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. A similar and equally dubious service was provided by Freud’s translators when they replaced his down-to-earth German names Es, Ich, Über-Ich – literally ‘It’, ‘I’, ‘Over-I’ – with their now familiar Latinate equivalents ‘Id’, ‘ Ego’, ‘Superego’. Public schoolboys of Freud and Wittgenstein’s generation in England had been soaked in Greek and Latin, so this sort of thing came naturally, as it did to Moore. The result in both cases has been to render exotic what started out as robust common sense names.

The Tractatus consists of seven numbered propositions, with more or less extensive commentary – or rather, of six propositions with commentary and one without. The best-known of the seven propositions are the first and the last:

1. Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist. (“The world is everything, that happens to be the case.”)

7. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”)

My version of the first of these differs from those of Ogden (“The world is all that is the case”) and of Pears and McGuinness (“The world is everything that is the case”) because these miss a couple of essential features of the original. First, Wittgenstein has a comma, which separates off the main clause of the sentence from its qualifying phrase. The fact that this makes for good style in German does not mean that we are entitled to ignore an important aspect of its rhetorical effect, namely that the Tractatus opens with the statement: “The world is everything”. Second, although the English ‘case’ is from Latin cadere ‘to fall’ it has no echo, as the German does, of the contingency of what befalls, how things fall out – so “is the case” by itself is too thin for Wittgenstein’s thought; “happens” restores the missing nuance.

My English text of proposition 7 agrees with Ogden, but Pears and McGuinness, trying to be helpful, manage to mislead. Their version says, “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence” which lends concreteness to the unspoken and suggests that it is something that can be manipulated: there it is, and we consign it to silence. But the German, as we shall shortly see, doesn’t commit itself to any status for what lies beyond speech; it just says we should shut up about it.

The uncanny appropriateness of the numbers 1 and 7 to these propositions cannot have completely escaped attention, though in everything I have heard or read about Wittgenstein (very far from all of it, to be sure) it seems to have escaped remark. Tractatus 1 is clearly the One, the All, Unity, while Tractatus 7 is the mystical, the unsayable, the perfect. Their numbers have stood for these things throughout the long history of numerology, and Wittgenstein cannot have been unaware of this fact. We can be confident that he knew what he was doing here when he worked out the numbering scheme. It may not even be unreasonable to suggest – and I’m sure many people have done so – ­that the structure of the Tractatus is essentially religious: it begins with the whole world of facts and ends with the mystically felt limits of the world, which make room for das Höhere, ‘what is higher’.

When everything that can coherently be said about everything has been said, there remains the unsayable, or at least the unsaid – and perhaps also the not-to-be-said, whether from disinclination or prohibition. ‘Mystical’ in English and mystisch in German, from the Greek, have all four senses. The root of ‘mystery’ is muo, ‘to close or to keep shut’, used mainly of the eyes or the mouth, and there are obviously several reasons why one might keep one’s mouth shut. On the one hand, one might have nothing to say. On the other hand, having something to say, (a) one might not be able to think of the words in which to say it; or (b) one might wish not to say it on some particular occasion or perhaps ever; or (c) one might be forbidden to say it, or have sworn not to do so. The Greek Mysteries were mainly of this last sort: there was a communicable doctrine, but it was esoteric, and insiders were enjoined not to speak of it to outsiders. (It is said that when one of the Pythagoreans revealed the incommensurability of the square root of two, the others threw him off a cliff.)

Schweigen (‘be silent’) has elements of all these senses in German but, especially in conjunction with darüber, also some additional overtones. One of the overtones is musical: schweigen as used of a musical performance is to end or to cease: it stands for the falling-silent at the conclusion of a work – for completion, for satisfaction, also perhaps for regret. It is a powerful last word for a book whose structure, according to Erik Stenius, is musical. (There is nothing contradictory in the idea that it might be both religious and musical, like a Bach chorale.) Schweigen however also stands for a sort of civilised reticence: there are things one doesn’t say, that one doesn’t draw attention to, that one passes over in silence. And then there is the silence of the Law: darüber schweigt das Gesetz; “about this the law says nothing” – here you are free to draw your own conclusion, to do as you please. Kant’s project in the first Critique seems to have been (among other things) to show that there are limits to reason and hence concepts that escape its law – concepts that we can adopt as regulative, that we can cherish as grounds for hope. Similarly Wittgenstein’s project in the Tractatus is clearly to show that there are limits to language and to its law. Wittgenstein wrote to Ludwig Ficker that the most important part of the book was the part that was not written. As I once put it in another context, “instead of being primarily concerned with what logic and language include, Wittgenstein by this account cared about that only because it showed what they exclude; rather than drawing the outer boundaries of speech, he was drawing the inner boundaries of silence.”

Tractatus 7 is thus a rich closure to the only major work of Wittgenstein’s to be published during his lifetime. The idea of ‘Tractatus 7.1’ – an explanation of Tractatus 7 – seems like a contradiction, or a violation. After proposition 7 there surely is nothing more to be said – much to be seen and felt, the mystical, the higher, the whole domain of the unaussprechlich or ineffable, but nothing capable of expression in language. Wittgenstein himself seems to have meant this quite seriously at the time. He believed that in philosophy at least, he had nothing further to say, and for a time declined to engage himself in the profession. And yet the Tractatus now represents only a small fraction of his available corpus, and all the rest, with the exception of some notebooks, dates from after its completion.

What can possibly be the status of this extra work? It is true that Wittgenstein changed his mind – but that does not necessarily mean that he was altogether wrong the first time. Can some of his later writings at least be viewed as an attempt to say the unsayable – as a kind of extended Tractatus 7.1? Of course Tractatus 7 doesn’t mean we have to shut up altogether. In fact the harder we look at it the less it has to say. What we cannot speak of, in the sense of being unable, rather than disinclined or forbidden, to do so, we have to pass over in silence, not so much because we ‘must’ as because we can’t help it. Pretty obvious. But there still remains all the things we can speak of, about which we can go on and on, and often do. As far as that goes, a lot of people seem to go on and on about what can’t be spoken of (but then they can’t really be speaking of it, on pain of contradiction).

So Tractatus 7 brings the Tractatus to a close, but it doesn’t, unless you’re Wittgenstein at that time, bring philosophy to a close. And I wouldn’t be making such a fuss about it if Wittgenstein hadn’t put it all by itself and left it so pointedly without afterthought or commentary. Viewed simply as the final term in the sequence of propositions that begin with Tractatus 6.4 say, in which Wittgenstein makes a series of more and more audacious and largely unsupported assertions about ethics, the will, death, the mystical, and the eventual transcendence of all philosophy, it seems a natural enough conclusion. Stripped of that anticipatory apparatus, in splendid isolation, clothed in its numerological aura, the proposition takes on heightened significance and offers a more rigorous challenge.

After a period of voluntary renunciation Wittgenstein comes back to philosophy, or eventually at least, to a professorship of philosophy, at Cambridge. His later work, as he puts it, “travel[s] over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction,” but in spite of his suggestion that it might do so, it doesn’t really connect with other work going on at the same time (although it often echoes it). Wittgenstein chose for the most part to ignore the history of philosophy, especially its recent history, leading a philosophical life as deliberately impoverished as his material one. (I don’t say this of his intellectual life as a whole – he seems to have read a lot outside philosophy.) His mind when engaged in philosophy was as sparsely furnished as his rooms, which in no way denigrates the genius that was at work in the former or the wisdom that might be imparted from the latter. It seems he could not do philosophy otherwise, and it may be that the clutter of other people’s ideas would simply have stunted his own.

But – to go back to the leading thought of this essay – what was he not saying all this extra time? And how do we translate that? That’s what we have to look for. For Tractatus 7.1 won’t be said – or to put it differently, anything that is subsequently said won’t refer to what the Tractatus regards as unsayable.

The suggestion I want to put forward is that Wittgenstein’s later work is an elaborate way of avoiding the whole question of what can and cannot be spoken of by concentrating on the speaking – that is, on the practice of language rather than on its meaning: “Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.” This injunction is generally interpreted as suggesting that there’s no point in looking for the meaning, that’s not how language functions – it’s a game and what’s significant about it is the way it’s played, not the content it conveys. But the injunction can be read quite differently: Don’t look for the meaning! Don’t go there! Content yourself with looking for the use! Who knows what you might find, where you might end up, if you insisted on looking for the meaning! It is my impression (subject to correction) that the later Wittgenstein really does shy away from the cluster of speculative issues that lead up to the end of the Tractatus, concentrating instead on what we might call safer puzzles, conceptual and linguistic. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that he was still haunted on a personal level by the yearning for perfection, for the ‘higher’, but he seems to have stuck to the principle of Tractatus 7 in his philosophical work.

Two things strike me as significant, and as poignant, about the later work, and they can be captured by a closing reflection on two lines in German that are regularly left untranslated in the English versions of his books. One is that the later Wittgenstein never achieved the spare and economical expression of thought that he was aiming for at the time of the Tractatus. The ‘motto’ to the Tractatus, from the Austrian playwright Ferdinand Kürnberger, reads “... und alles, was man weiss, nicht bloss rauschen und brausen gehört hat, lässt sich in drei Worten sagen” (“... and anything anyone knows, hasn’t just heard [people] roaring and blustering about, can be said in three words”). It would hardly be fair to characterise Wittgenstein’s manner in the later years as blustering and roaring (though there was some of that, the most famous example probably being the episode of brandishing the poker at Popper’s talk to the Moral Science Club at Cambridge in 1946). But it was insistent, and it certainly used a lot more than three words to say what he had to say. One problem of course is that the epigones and scholars wouldn’t leave any of his words alone – they’ve all been noted, gathered up and published, even Zettel, from the little slips of paper on which he jotted things down. The impression sometimes is of a sort of unceasing repetition of head-banging perplexities and hapless rhetorical questions, certainly stimulating, and no doubt exciting for people who had the privilege of being present, but not leading anywhere in particular.

Not that they were meant to lead anywhere in particular. That wasn’t Wittgenstein’s conception of how philosophy was done. But the untranslated epigraph to the Philosophical Investigations, from a second Austrian playwright, Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, suggests that at least the concept of getting somewhere was operative in the background, along with the realization that wherever that somewhere might be, it wouldn’t be very far. In Nestroy’s words, “Überhaupt hat der Fortschritt das an sich, dass er viel grösser ausschaut, als er wirklich ist.” (“One thing about progress, at any rate, is that it looks much greater than it really is.”) Whether Wittgenstein’s achievements will be looked back upon as representing ‘great progress’ in philosophy is hard to say – certainly enough people already think so. But perhaps the greatest progress due to Wittgenstein is the realization that a certain sort of progress isn’t to be expected.

There’s admittedly something disappointing in that. Bertrand Russell’s judgment may seem harsh, but he has a point: “I admired Wittgenstein’s Tractatus but not his later work, which seemed to me to involve an abnegation of his own best talent.” This however is in the context of a comparison of Wittgenstein’s greatness to that of Pascal and Tolstoy – not bad company!

I have been implicitly suggesting that Wittgenstein’s later verbosity may have been a defence against a fear of the silence that a strict reading of Tractatus 7 would have demanded, something perhaps not so far from what Pascal felt: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” It may not be too far-fetched to regard Wittgenstein as a man intimidated by the implications of his own genius. But, as everyone who knew him was ready to attest, genius it certainly seems to have been.

© Peter Caws 2006

Peter Caws is University Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University, Washington DC.

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