Wednesday, May 11, 2005

postal scrotum: Sperwer, Wittgenstein, and the ineffable

Sperwer writes:


RE: "What tools in the philosopher's tool kit deal with ineffability? What can be said about the unsayable? Obviously a historian of religions will note that the world's religious scriptures say plenty about the unsayable; my question focuses specifically on Western philosophers in the analytical tradition, who might be keen to avoid the irony of the Tao Te Ching's claim that the Tao can't be spoken of... immediately followed by a disquisition on the Tao*.

Well, in the Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), Wittgenstein, certainly the most original and arguably the most influential philosopher in the analytic tradition, ends things with the following remark: "Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent" for the purpose of attempting to convey the unthinkable, unsayable notion that there is a realm of reality about which one cannot say anything.

This conclusion "follows" from his picture or propositional theory of the meaningfulness of language, which concludes with the observation that (surely must at least seem to sound strange in the mouth of an analytic philosopher of language) "Propositions can represent the whole of reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it-- logical form." "What can be said can only be said by means of a proposition, and so nothing that is necessary for the understanding of all propositions can be said."

Wittgenstein went on to observe that here are other things that cannot be "said" (i.e. represented by propositional/pictorial language): the necessary existence of simple elements of reality; the existence of a thinking, willing self; and the existence of absolute value. He held such things to be unthinkable, since the limits of language are the limits of thought. [And] therefore his own remark, "Unsayable things do indeed exist," is itself something that cannot be said or thought; it may be a source of insight, but it is propositionally nonsensical and hence must be "thrown away."

In his later work, Wittgenstein turned to explorations of how language nevertheless might be "meaningful" in the sense of giving insight unto things that literally cannot be said.

I had the privilege of studying as an undergraduate with one of Wittgenstein's Austrian colleagues, Max Black, and with his well-known and some would say eccentrically imitative American student Norman Malcolm - both of whom were very long in the tooth by the time I showed up at their doors. I credit my struggles with his work with setting me up to be able to appreciate the zen buddhist invocation of the importance of "realization".



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