Saturday, 27 September 2008


[This and the following two pieces on Wittgenstein and the language of religion were given as lectures at the Volos Theological Academy in May 2007.]

I want to begin by drawing to mind the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, born in October 1891 and killed on the Western Front on 5 June 1915, at the age of twenty-three. Before joining the British Army, Gaudier had lived in London, where he had known Ezra Pound. He lived in conditions of extreme impoverishment, and for his sculpture used what oddments of stone came to hand, such as remnants left over from the monumental tomb carvings supplied by the undertakers of the time. One of his major sculptures, ‘The Cat’, came from just such a broken and left-over piece of marble. ‘He was definitely a visionary,’ Pound records, ‘and “saw” both in waking and in sleep’. (Pound places quotes around ‘saw’ to emphasise the word.) He writes of Gaudier in Canto 27:

as the sculptor sees the form in the air
before he sets hand to mallet,
and as he sees the in, and the through,
the four sides
not the one face to the painter

In ‘The Cat’, ‘lifeless air became sinewed’, as Pound has it in Canto 2: Gaudier could see the cat in the contours of a marble fragment, in the same way that he could at once see the horse in a Chinese ideogram he came across for the first time in a Chinese-English dictionary he opened when visiting Pound’s flat in London. [See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1975), p. 250.] I emphasise this matter because what Pound called Gaudier’s ‘vision’ is closely related to what Wittgenstein was to consider under the heading of ‘aspect seeing’, and his discussion of aspect seeing is crucial for a grasp of his way of doing philosophy, what he calls his ‘method’. Clarification concerning his way of going about philosophy is indispensable for getting to grips with how he saw the language of religion.

In the main, Wittgenstein discusses the seeing of aspects in relation to visual perception, and his interest here, for example in the second part of Philosophical Investigations, is to point out the differences between the concept of seeing and the concept of aspect-seeing, or seeing-as. His famous example of aspect-seeing is that of the duck-rabbit, a figure that seen under one aspect is seen as a rabbit, and seen under a second aspect is seen as a duck. There are, of course, many other examples: the Neckar cube, that flips flops back and forth, so that no sooner has one side appeared as the leading or front edge of the cube than the rear edge comes to the fore, replacing the first one. Seeing of aspects is also evident in how we respond to the expressions on faces, so that one may be struck by a look on someone’s face: ‘I suddenly saw great deceit in the way he looked at me, he suddenly struck me in that way.’ One may suddenly be struck by the resemblance between two faces; ‘I had never noticed how alike those two are’. Aspect-seeing enters fundamentally into aesthetic judgement also. In any event, it is in relation to the distinction between seeing and seeing-as that I wish to clarify a second distinction, that between the concept of describing concepts and the concept of proposing conceptions (the distinction between Begriff and Auffassung). In drawing attention to this latter distinction I should make it clear that I am following Gordon Baker, whose article ‘The Grammar of Aspects and Aspects of Grammar’, has made, I believe, a fundamental contribution to our understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. [See Gordon Baker, Wittgenstein’s Method: Neglected Aspects (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp.279-293.]

Wittgenstein’s account of aspect-seeing starts from what seems to be a paradox: when an aspect dawns on me, nothing has changed in what I see, and yet everything looks different. In the shift from duck to rabbit, or vice-versa, the figure on the paper does not alter, and yet what I see has altered radically. ‘I contemplate a face and suddenly I notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently’ [Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 193. Hereafter cited in the text as PI]. ‘The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged’ (PI, p. 196). In one sense, what I see is unchanged (the diagram or drawing), while what I see (for example, a rabbit as opposed to a duck) is wholly different. One might be inclined to say that there is a sense in which the aspect is not there and a sense in which it is very much there. There is ‘a sense in which to speak of ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ with respect to it is to miss its point and yet another sense in which seeing it and giving it expression you are truer to the object than if you stick to objective terms – the terms, that is, of what Wittgenstein calls “the language-game of reporting”, or “the language-game of information”’ [Avner Baz, ‘What’s the Point of Seeing Aspects?’, Philosophical Investigations 23:2 (April 2000), 106].

It seems clear that one can recognise a closely analogous puzzle in respect of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the grammar of our language. I should perhaps make clear that by ‘grammar’ Wittgenstein does not mean the declension of verbs, nouns and so on, as in what we usually refer to when we speak of the grammar of English or Greek, say. For him, a grammatical investigation, which is what a philosophical investigation essentially involves, is a matter of presenting different ways of seeing the use of our words, that is, the roles our words have in our lives with language. His principal goal in his descriptions of the workings of our language was not to establish any facts of grammar, but to reveal or bring to the attention of willing readers neglected aspects or unnoticed patterns in what we say. His intention is to leave language just as it is. Philosophy, on his conception of it, has no authority to interfere with the actual use of language (PI §124). What he is really after, I want to say, is to reveal aspects of things that are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. ‘The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’ (PI §109). ‘It is of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand’ (PI §89). What we are concerned with – and by we here is meant Wittgenstein and those philosophers who also seek to practice his methods – is not the essence of language, an essence hidden from us, lying beneath the surface, but with ‘something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement’ (PI §91). The approach Wittgenstein is trying to get us to turn us away from can be characterised in the following way:

‘The essence is hidden from us’: this is the form our problem assumes [when we look at it from this point of view]. We ask: ‘What is language?, What is a proposition? And the answer to these questions is to be given once for all; and independently of any future experience (PI §92).

What can be said of visual aspect-seeing can also be said of Wittgenstein’s approach to language: nothing is changed, yet everything appears differently.

As Baker makes clear, the best way of making good sense of these remarks about Wittgenstein’s method of philosophising is to recognise the pivotal importance to it of conceptions (Auffasungen), or ways of seeing things in the activity that he calls ‘describing grammar’. Wittgenstein suggests that philosophical problems are an impression of disorder in our concepts which is manifested in our not being able to find our way about: ‘A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about”’ (PI §123). Wittgenstein’s remedy is, according to Baker, to seek for what he calls the liberating word (das erlosende Wort) in the form of exhibiting an order which, as if by magic, transforms what seemed chaos into something that is intelligible. He tries to present language in such a way as to make his interlocutor see things in a new way, as though coming to see a particular ‘physiognomy’ in our use of words, rather as one might see a particular face, a particular physiognomy, in a new light, under a new aspect. Success here is not a matter of imparting new information or conveying an opinion, and it is certainly not the construction of a theory. What is now to be grasped is not a discovery, since it was always in plain view, though previously unnoticed. In accepting a new conception, everything stays the same, and yet everything undergoes a metamorphosis.

Here are some clarifications offered by Wittgenstein of the logic (or grammar) of purely visual aspect-seeing:

1) When we see something to be red or square, this excludes the possibility of our seeing it to be green or triangular. But when we see a picture as a duck, this does not exclude the possibility of our also seeing it as a rabbit (on another occasion). Aspects do not exclude one another. To acknowledge one way of seeing something does not make a different way of seeing it illegitimate. In this sense, then, aspects can be said to be complementary. They are, so to speak, essentially plural: to speak of one way of seeing something presupposes that there are other ways of seeing it.
2) It is impossible to see a picture simultaneously as a duck and as a rabbit. As Baker insists, following Wittgenstein, visual aspects are in essence non-additive. That is, there is no way of combining two ways of seeing something to produce a single more comprehensive way of seeing it. If one sees something as a duck, then this is going to interfere with one’s seeing it as a rabbit. To put this more generally, and with reference to the overall argument, an entrenched way of seeing something is going to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to see something in a new and unfamiliar way.
3) Aspects don’t teach us about the external world, if by ‘teaching about the external world’ we mean giving (objective) information about the external world (RPPI, 874). Wittgenstein says that an aspect is not ‘a property of the object’ (PI, p.212a). He also says that the criterion for what you see, when seeing in the sense in which aspects are seen, is your representation of what you see. If I say to you that I see a resemblance between two faces, I may be lying to you (for whatever reason) but I cannot be mistaken. That aspects don’t teach us anything about the external world hangs together with another feature, which is that aspect-seeing is, in contrast to seeing, in a certain sense voluntary. The aspect is subject to the will. This dependency on the will is not psychological, but grammatical. What makes aspects subject to the will is not that we can see this or that as we wish to (consider a puzzle-picture), but that it makes sense to say: ‘Now see the figure like this’. It makes sense for me to ask you to see the likeness between two faces. I can ask you to look for it, and give you hints as to how to go about it. The same holds for aesthetic judgements. As with aesthetic insight, an insight which requires the exercise of one’s imagination, no information is acquired in the dawning of an aspect. Nothing is discovered. Hence there is a sense in which aspects are not subject to dispute. They are not open to rational support or to discomfirmation by appeal to the facts. One might say that aspects are cognitively empty.
4) Much aspect-seeing presupposes the mastery of concepts. The dawning of an aspect is, one might say, half thought, half experience. We cannot see something as an X unless we have the concept of being an X. Wittgenstein’s example refers to a triangle, and is as follows: ‘In the triangle I can now see this as apex, that as base—now this as apex, that as base.—Clearly the words “Now I am seeing this as an apex cannot so far mean anything to a learner who has only just met the concepts base, apex, and so on.—But I do not mean this as an empirical proposition’ (PI, p.208e). It is only if someone can use, is master of, such and such a technique, here of language, that it makes sense to say that he has had this experience.
5) An aspect can only be displaced by another aspect. As Baker indicates, seeing-as belongs, as it were, to another dimension than seeing. It is the different aspects of the duck-rabbit that exclude each other. By contrast, no feature of the drawing (nothing to be seen in it) can logically exclude my seeing it as a duck, or a rabbit. Furthermore, nothing but seeing it as something different (a rabbit) can interrupt my seeing it as a duck.
6) There is the possibility of what can be called ‘aspect-blindness’. An aspect may be invisible to someone, even though what has this aspect is open to view. It may be seen by one person, but be invisible to another. One may think in this connection of someone who is colour blind, or tone-deaf, or who lacks a ‘musical ear’. There is also the case of what Wittgenstein calls ‘meaning-blindness’. To take an English example, what would you be missing if you did not understand the request to pronounce the word ‘till’ and to mean it as a verb—or if you did not feel that a word lost its meaning and became a mere sound if you repeated it ten times over? (PI, p.214d) Only someone who sees a particular aspect can ascertain that another is blind to this aspect of what is in plain view, and nobody can establish by himself that he is blind to an aspect (or aspect-blind). I cannot say of myself that I see the duck-rabbit as a duck unless I can also see it as a rabbit.
7) A crucial aspect of the discussion is this: I cannot demonstrate to someone that there is a possibility of seeing a particular aspect of something, of seeing this as that, without getting him actually to see this aspect.
8) There is a question that is likely to arise at this point: why not say that the aspect is purely subjective? Here one might follow Stanley Cavell, who addressed a similar question about ‘beauty’ (and one should note the pertinence of considerations of aesthetic judgement to the understanding of aspect-dawning). If we say that aspect-dawning is subjective, we need still to register our sense that aspects seem to force themselves on us (PI, p.204g), that the different aspects are out there to be seen, open to view, and that if someone cannot see it then there is something he is blind to. To say ‘now it’s a duck for me’ is not the same thing as saying ‘now it’s a duck’, and in many cases to say ‘Well, I can see the resemblance’ is not to repeat my original statement but to withdraw it, withdraw its claim. Aspects are not imaginary, or mere creatures of the mind; unlike perceptual experiences, they are, as I have mentioned, subject to the will. For this reason, aspect-dawning might be said to be half perception, half imagination. An aspect is, one might say, neither subjective nor objective: the language of subjectivity and objectivity is not quite adequate to the experience of aspect-dawning.
9) Solving a picture puzzle, or engaging in aesthetic appreciation or judgement, may depend on getting someone to see an aspect to which he is now blind. For example, coming to see the significance of Eliot’s use of the fragment and syntactic rupture in The Waste Land may require the reader to change his whole attitude to literature, and to read in a new way. But what would be involved here would be distinctive: it would involve a form of rational discussion without the possibility of proof. This may involve various methods, none of which can be laid down in advance, such as the use of comparison with other writers, of analogy with writers from earlier periods and from Eliot’s contemporaries and immediate predecessors (such as Mallarmé), of getting the reader to listen, to hear, the poem’s language in a particular way. The general heading for all of this might be: suggesting objects for comparison. None of them guarantees success. None carries ‘the force of argument’.

What has been said above about the concept of visual aspect-seeing would seem to hold also for a wider sense of ‘aspect’ or ‘aspect-seeing’ when applied to the idea of conceptions (Auffassung) in philosophy. A conception is a way of conceiving, a way of looking at, concepts.

1) As with visual aspects, no one conception, no one way of seeing or thinking about language in the activity of describing grammar, can claim to exclude another. No one can claim that only his conception is the right one. We can see language on the basis of what Wittgenstein’s commentators often call ‘the Augustinian picture’, and which Wittgenstein describes in PI §1 thus: ‘Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands’. This view does not exclude the possibility of our seeing things differently, for example, the possibility of our looking at language as use. The fact that we acknowledge one conception of meaning does not make a different conception of it illegitimate. On the contrary. To speak of one visual aspect is to presuppose that there are others. So with conceptions: to speak of one conception is to presuppose that there are others. Conceptions, like visual aspects, are essentially plural.
2) As I noted above, it is impossible to see a picture simultaneously as a duck and as a rabbit. If one sees something as a duck, then this is going to interfere with one’s seeing it as a rabbit. Visual aspects are in essence non-additive. That is, there is no way of combining two ways of seeing something to produce a single more comprehensive way of seeing it. So with conceptions: it is impossible to see thinking simultaneously as an inner accompaniment to speaking and as operating with signs. One can’t add conceptions together, any more than one can add visual aspects together. The result is not a more comprehensive vision of things, but a muddle. This is of major significance for the conduct of philosophy as Wittgenstein practices it. As Baker makes clear, when a philosophical conception becomes entrenched, it affects the whole of one’s way of thinking, and so one’s conduct of philosophy. Wittgenstein sees something of this in the hold that dogma can have over men’s mind. He writes:

Dogma is expressed in the form of an assertion, and it is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be made to harmonise with it. . . . It is not a wall setting limits to what can be believed, but more like a brake which, however, practically serves the same purpose; it’s almost as though someone were trying to attach a weight to your feet to restrict your freedom of movement. This is how dogma becomes irrefutable and beyond the reach of attack (Culture and Value, p.28e).

3) Like aspect-seeing, ways of conceiving are in a sense voluntary. Thus it makes sense for Wittgenstein to advise his readers: ‘Try not to think of understanding as a “mental process” at all.—For that is the expression that confuses you’ (PI, §154); or ‘Don’t say: “There must be something in common, or they would not be called “games”’ (PI, §66). Hence, to think of things differently is not to discover something. Or perhaps one should say, that if it is a discovery, it is not the kind of discovery we thought it was. To speak of language as a game, or to use the phrase ‘language-game’ is not to state some hitherto unknown fact about language: it is to propose a new way of speaking, a new comparison or analogy. Wittgenstein puts it this way: ‘The language-games are set up as objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities’ (PI, §130).
4) Conceptions are, so to speak, ways of looking at concepts. He says: ‘We want to establish an order in our knowledge of the use of language: an order with a particular end in view; one out of many possible orders; not the order’ (PI, §132). This means that, even more clearly than is the case with visual aspects, the proposal and acknowledgement of conceptions presupposes the mastery of concepts. A conception can only be displaced by another conception. So, for example, no feature of our actual use of a word (such as ‘meaning’ or ‘thinking’) can logically exclude my ‘seeing’, say, meaning as naming on the Augustinian model or thinking as an inner process. It is only if I come to see the concept under another conception that my seeing it in this way be can be interrupted. Here is another example, cited by Baker, this time not from Wittgenstein but Friedrich Waismann: someone might be inclined to say that every sentence, every statement, must be made up of parts. That is, if one believes that the individual words in a language name objects, then it will seem that sentences must be made up of a combination of such names; sentences must be composite (PI §1). (This picture derives from Augustine’s picture of the essence of language, addressed by Wittgenstein in §1 of PI.)
5) And even in the case where a single word functions as a sentence, it might be maintained that here, too, the information must be conveyed, not by a single symbol alone, but by something which has at least two parts—namely, the single word and the situation in which it is embedded. One might try to refute this by a ‘counterexample’ such as the word ‘Restaurant’ on a sign above the entrance to a building. But the person gripped by this conception might reply, justifiably, that it is not the word alone but the word together with the whole situation in which it is integrated that makes up a sentence [See The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy, ed. Rom Harré (London: Macmillan, 1997), p. 317]. Waismann offers various examples whose purpose is to get the person in the grip of such a view to see where it goes wrong. But, clearly, such a conception cannot be refuted by pointing to any fact of the matter, nor does Waismann do so.
6) As with visual aspects, there is the possibility of blindness. Conceptions may be visible to one person, invisible to another. Indeed, conceptions may be visible to one generation or culture, and invisible to another. Thus there can be conception-blindness, as well as aspect-blindness. ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.—And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful’ (PI, §129). Making such a conception visible requires waging war on the habits of a lifetime, and, as Wittgenstein emphasised again and again, probably against the spirit of the culture in which one lives. We need, for example, to mount a resistance to our preoccupation with the method of science. We need to stand against the force of Western civilisation and its fascination with the ideal of progress. Wittgenstein’s goal was nothing less than effecting a radical conversion, a transformation in our ways of thinking.
7) As seems to be implied by the foregoing, and as with visual aspects, I cannot demonstrate to someone that there is a possibility of seeing a conception in a particular way without getting him actually to see it in this new way.
8) The same issues concerning subjectivity and objectivity that were raised with respect of visual aspects apply to conceptions also. One might say, adapting Stanley Cavell on aesthetic judgement, that the problem of the philosopher, as understood here, is not to discount his subjectivity, but to include it; not to overcome it in agreement, but to master it in exemplary ways. The philosopher is looking for agreement in patterns (of support, objection, response), rather than of agreement in conclusions. The question being put is: don’t you see?
9) The possible conceptions of this or that concept cannot be exhaustively enumerated – anymore than all the possible objects of comparison can be enumerated.
10) The methods for getting someone to see things differently are similar to those needed for getting someone to see visual aspects. That is, emphasis, rearrangement, offering new objects of comparison, and so on.

These, then, are some of the similarities between visual aspect-seeing and conceptions. But there are also vital differences.

1) Any conception can be articulated. It thus makes sense, as Wittgenstein does in PI §81, to speak of language as a calculus, so that anyone who means and understands it must be operating a calculus according to definite rules.
2) A philosophical conception may be unconscious yet operative. That is, a conception may be operative in the way someone thinks, and yet that person may be unaware of it. Unconscious conceptions may need to be brought to the subject’s awareness – perhaps despite resistance (the echo of Freud here is deliberate). This will require the articulating, the making clear, of what the unconscious conception is, and, just as importantly, it will require the winning of the subject’s acknowledgement that this picture has indeed been operative.
3) To develop this point. Conceptions are also comparable to pictures, and are capable of exerting great influence over how we think of things. As Wittgenstein puts it: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably’ (PI, §115). It is part of the effect of pictures to hold us in thrall, and to have power over how see we things, of how we understand our concepts, particularly if they are unconscious, unacknowledged. The influence they exert is prior to argument or investigation, and they are, like shadows, unshakeable, unassailable. ‘For we can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)’ (PI, §131). Pictures can become so entrenched in our ways of thinking that replacing one picture by another may well require great determination and effort. And the reward may be uncertain. Wittgenstein said of himself: ‘Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me. . . . I squander an unspeakable amount of effort making an arrangement of my thoughts which may have value at all’ (CV, 28e).
4) It is also the case that we may wish to be enslaved to a particular way of thought. ‘These [problems] are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognise those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them’ (PI, §109). What is involved in getting free of such enslavement is nothing less than implanting a whole new way of thinking. It is a kind of conversion, a turning of ourselves around the axis of our real need.
5) One may offer reasons for trying to see something in a particular way. But nothing is proved; rather, a discussion is undertaken, and it may be that the questions that obsessed us vanish. In lectures delivered in 1946-7, Wittgenstein gave a summary of his procedure by drawing attention to ‘how I reacted to the question with which we started this term: “What is thinking?” In a way I tried to change your point of view: look at it this way. We are inclined to compare some phenomena with something: I ask you to compare them with something else. The question vanished when we classified phenomena not with something happening. We change the concept we have’ [Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Philosophy of Psychology, 1946-7, ed. P.T. Geach (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988), p. 168].

Wittgenstein’s method here is not to pinpoint a mistake in seeing thinking as an activity. Nothing is claimed to be discovered, but an alternative viewpoint is offered, a comparison put forward so that the question vanishes. That is, those troubled by the question no longer feel driven to ask it. They no longer want to ask it or to try to answer it. It seems to be what Wittgenstein had in mind when he originally chose as his motto for Philosophical Investigations a remark from Hertz: ‘our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask [the question as to the nature of force]’. In Waismann’s words, in the practice of ‘our method’, ‘the discussion brings [someone] gradually to see things in a different light. . . . [He] comes to see that something is wrong with the way he put his question, that the attainment of his object is no longer satisfying. . . . he gives up because he ‘sees’ the questions differently’ (HISP 20.

I will now put forward an example derived from a recent book by Stephen Mulhall that may go some way towards giving a summary of what I have been saying about aspect-seeing and conceptions. [I refer to Stephen Mulhall, Wittgenstein’s Private Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 1-9. In this book, Mulhall employs to decisive effect the so-called ‘resolute’ or ‘therapeutic’ approach to Wittgenstein.]

It has been argued that, by deliberately constructing nonsensical propositions, the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus means to direct our attention towards metaphysical insights which cannot be expressed in genuine propositions, but which genuine propositions nevertheless show by virtue of their intelligibility. According to the Tractatus, genuine propositions are composed of names that refer to objects. The way the names fit together in the proposition is the logical form of the proposition. Propositions have the same form (the same logical form) as the reality they depict or picture, and they depict this reality either truly or falsely. A genuine propositions is true if and only if there is a fact whose objects are named in the proposition, and which has the same logical form as the proposition. On this view, then, the proposition has a one-to-one isomorphism with what it represents. Propositions thus are either true or false (bipolar). It follows from this that any attempt to talk about logical form will result in nonsense (Unsinn): as Wittgenstein has it, ‘Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent’ (TLP 4.121). (Wittgenstein was to make a very similar point in his lectures shortly after his return to Cambridge in 1929: ‘that p or q follows from p and q is not a proposition: it has no use. What justifies the inference is seeing the internal relation. No rule of inference is needed to justify the inference, since if it were I would need another rule to justify the rule and that would lead to an infinite regress. We must see the internal relation’ [my emphases].)
Now let us suppose that someone claims that the author of the Tractatus advances bipolarity as a condition for the sense or meaningfulness of a proposition, and so licenses us to say that any proposition that is not bipolar is nonsense. (It has often been argued that what we are given by the nonsensical propositions of the Tractatus is an ineffable insight into the nature of the relation between language and reality, and it is this ineffable metaphysical insight that the Tractatus aims at getting us, in some almost mystical sense, to understand, to see.) However, there are other conceptions possible. We must carefully distinguish between what, in the idiom of the Tractatus (3.33-3.321), we are to call signs (understood as orthographic units) and symbols (logical units, signs in use—items belonging to a given logical category). The question now arises: what is it that lacks bipolarity? A string of signs or a complex of symbols? Clearly, no mere string of signs could either possess or lack bipolarity. But if we are in a position to treat some given string of signs as symbolising, then we must have already construed it as symbolising in a particular way, and hence assigned specific logical roles to its components. If so, the question of bipolarity comes too late; and if not—if we have not settled on a particular construal of it—then the question simply does not arise. In effect, all the work is being done by the clarification of meaning, and not by the application of a general doctrine based on bipolarity (or anything else) to whatever is thereby clarified. As Juliet Floyd has put it: ‘one aim of the Tractatus is to depict such notions as ‘the inferential order’, ‘the logical grammar of language’ and ‘the logical form of the proposition’ as chimeras. . . Frege and Russell write as if . . . there is a single context of expression within which we may discern the structure of thought . . . within which we can use logical notation to make perspicuous the logical order. In contrast, I have emphasized Wittgenstein’s insistence in the Tractatus that no single imposition of a logico-syntactic order on what we say is or can be the final word, the final way of expressing or depicting a thought. On the Tractatus view (as I interpret it) there is thinking without thoughts, thinking without an inferential order’ [Juliet Floyd, ‘Number and Ascription of Number in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus’, in From Frege to Wittgenstein, ed. Erich H. Reck (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 340].

To think without thinking, to think without an inferential order, is what it is to come to see the Tractatus under a new aspect. Indeed, it is to see the Tractatus as both being about, and enacting, that reorientation of perception and understanding that philosophy – as Wittgenstein presents it – aims at being. Thus, if there is anything to this account, then the relation between philosophy and logic may well appear in a new light. What Wittgenstein is doing, here in his early work, the Tractatus, as in his later, is, in part, bringing us to see the difference between drawing a conclusion and seeing, or bringing one to see, a new aspect. He is attempting to disabuse us of the assumption that our everyday abilities to distinguish sense from nonsense require a philosophical foundation or grounding. It is a project, one might say, of acknowledging our finitude.

To put this another way, in contrast to the presuppositions of Frege’s concept-script or of Principia Mathematica, the Tractatus shows that the analysis of language it presents in the form of an argument is not deducible from a single, authoritative law, embodying some homogeneous structure of representation, such as one based on a fundamental equivalence between the logical form of reality and the logical form of the proposition. The relation in Wittgenstein’s text between the experience of the limit—the meaningful proposition—and the limitlessness of experience—the recognition of nonsense—makes any such structure untenable. What Wittgenstein would have us recognise, when we come to understand him (TLP 6.54), is the unintelligibility of the attempt to subordinate our lives with language, whether that involves statements of fact, tautology, contradiction, ethical discord or difference, to any single, totalising concept whatsoever, whether of logical form or of the general form of the proposition. What his method aims to bring us to see, here in the Tractatus, and also in his later work, though in a very different manner, is that any such attempt to establish an authoritative law in this sense involves us in an experience of the interruption of representation as such. In showing us such an attempt for what it is, the text of the Tractatus brings into play what one might call a vacant interval, a syncope, that suspends representation in order that we may respond to what might appear to be a law beyond the law, a law that enables but also disables representation as such. In our coming to see Wittgenstein’s proposition as nonsense, we are brought to respect, to see, both the limits of sense and the unintelligibility of the idea of going beyond those limits, that is, the unintelligibility of a step beyond into what one might call the limitlessness of the limit. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (TLP 7).

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