The notion, shared by Blanchot, Bataille, Lacan and others drawing on the tradition of Hegel, that a conception of naming can provide a sound basis for the explanation of meaning in language is seriously flawed. The opening of Philosophical Investigations is aimed at precisely this question, and the implications of that opening are drawn out by G.E.M. Anscombe, in her essay ‘A Theory of Language?’, published in 1981 [see: I. Block, ed., Perspectives on the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp. 148-158]. Professor Anscombe is concerned here with Wittgenstein’s remarks in the first section, about naming, and with subsequent remarks in sections 2 and following that make use of a primitive language whereby builders call out to each other for materials, such as slabs and beams. She summarises the main purpose of these opening sections as being ‘to persuade us not to look at the connection between a word and its meaning either as set up or explained (a) by ostensive definition, or (b) by association, or (c) by mental pictures, or (d) by experiences characteristic of meaning one thing rather than another, or (e) by a general relation of reference or naming or naming or designation which has (logically) different kinds of objects as its terms in different cases’ [p. 154]. In order to see what Wittgenstein was fundamentally about here Anscombe believes that we must turn our attention to what he means by ‘grammar’. It has been frequently urged by commentators that what for Wittgenstein belongs to grammar differs in significant ways from what grammarians would see as their field. Anscombe argues, on the contrary, that the difference in opinion about what belongs to grammar ‘arises from belief in and practice of a “formal” science of grammar on the one hand, and a study of what a given use of words amounts to or achieves or tells us on the other’ [p. 156]. This latter idea sees grammar as an expression of the roles words play in our lives, of the place our diverse concepts, of pain, colour, truth, doubt, fear, naming, and so on, have within our forms of life. Whereas the first idea of grammar results in an account of how rules operate to determine patterns and structures of language, an account given in terms of a purely linguistic structure, the second works rather differently. For example, in the latter case, Anscombe argues, one might consider contrasts between say ‘For how long did you forget that?’ and ‘For how long did you reflect on that?’, or between intermissions of intention and intermissions of attention. There is, she makes clear, nothing odd about applying the word ‘grammatical’ to the observation of the different temporalities involved in these different cases. Another example, addressed by Wittgenstein, is the difference between the first-person avowal of pain and the ascription of pain to others. There is similarly nothing strange about describing as ‘grammatical’ the very significant differences involved here. As Anscombe points out, this is not the kind of observation that we expect from traditional grammarians, whose attention is turned elsewhere, to the structures of language considered essentially on their own terms and for their own sake.
The nature of Wittgenstein’s interest can be seen from the following passage, cited by Anscombe from Philosophical Investigations, section 240:
The agreement, the harmony, between language and reality consists in this: if I say falsely that something red, then, after all, it isn’t red. And if I want to explain ‘red’ to someone in the statement that this is not red I do it by pointing to something red.
What is of immediate significance here is that ‘The harmony between language and reality is found in the false statement no less than the true. This false statement says (of what is) something that it is not — but something nevertheless, which is. Here we can point to that which the thing is not’ [pp. 156-7]. This, for Anscombe, shows how close Wittgenstein is to Plato on this issue, a point she clinches by citing Sophist (262-3B):
A statement does not consist of names spoken in succession or verbs apart from names . . . it does not merely name something, but gets you somewhere by weaving together verbs with names . . . those that fit together make a statement . . . stating something of something (of you, say) . . . the false statement stating of you, as being, things which are different from the things that are of you, and so things which are not, but all the same things which do exist.
The matter comes to a focus by way of Wittgenstein’s remark: ‘if I say something falsely that something red, then all the same it isn’t red’. If I am able to change a false statement to a true one by negating it or by negating a negation this is ‘because of the distinction of the different kinds of words which fit together to make descriptions’ [p. 157]. It is not merely experience of the colour that determines the grammar of ‘red’, but its place in our lives with language. Anscombe cites Wittgenstein once more:
If you trained someone to emit a particular sound at the sight of something red, another at the sight of something yellow, and so on for other colours, still he would not yet be describing objects by their colours. Though he might be a help to us in giving an description. A description is a representation of a distribution in a space (in that of time, for instance).
If I let my gaze wander round a room and suddenly it lights on an object of a striking colour, and I say “Red!” — that is not a description. (Philosophical Investigations, II, ix)
For Anscombe, to say of the object that it was red, or to say that my visual field was not suffused with (or that it did contain) red, would be to give ‘a representation of a distribution in a space’. What we can say is that the act of conferring or citing of names has meaning only within our grammar as a whole.
This suggests that notion of naming found in Blanchot and others, that is, the idea of the power of the word, the name, to found language by an act of negation, of ‘murder’, requires to be significantly redescribed in the light of Wittgenstein’s thought, who in the examples cited uses negation (the negated or false statement) to show how it is that meaning may not intelligibly be thought to derive from names. Names act as names only in the context of a statement, description or other kind of utterance: only in the context of the language-game, of our life with language, as a whole, do names have their part to play. That is, names function as names only insofar as they have a place within our grammar. Because names are simply part of our grammar, they are not privileged over other parts of that grammar, and hence it makes no sense to see them as the unique foundation of it. The same holds for negation: since negation is an operation within our use of language, any attempt to found language on it would require the removal of negation from language as such, in order to establish it outside language, as the condition of its possibility. To do so would result in negation acquiring a meaning other than the one under consideration, so that ‘negation’ would undergo an alteration such that, if it meant anything at all, it would no longer mean what it formerly meant. This latter point will become fundamental to the case I will seek to present later, concerning the seeing of aspects. Wittgenstein has himself addressed this area of thought, and it is a concern that continues to engage him from his earliest thought, in the Tractatus, to his last reflections, gathered together in On Certainty.
In order to draw out the implications of Wittgenstein’s earlier approach to language for my larger argument, I will now turn to the Tractatus. It would seem that, in the Tractatus, there is a decisive statement of what it is for language to have meaning based on the correlation of name and object. In giving his picture theory of the proposition, he gives an explanation of how propositions have sense, i.e. are true or false, which invokes ontological categories. ‘The possibility of propositions is based on the principle that objects have signs as their representatives’ (4.0312). Or again: ‘One name stands for one thing, another for another thing, and they are combined with one another. In this way the whole group — like a tableau vivant — presents a state of affairs’ (4.0311). A proposition or picture is the fact that its elements are combined in a certain way. In a proposition that has been fully analysed the elements are names. Their meaning (Bedeutung) is identical with the objects they stand for (vertreten). The proposition says something because the elements that are combined within it are correlated with objects in the world. Part of the significance of this for what Wittgenstein is interested in dealing with in the Tractatus has to do with the determinacy of sense. He writes in 2.0211 and 2.0212: ‘If the world had no substance, then whether or not a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true. In that case we could not sketch any picture of the world (true or false)’. If in the analysis of a proposition we could not finally reach rock-bottom, that is, symbols whose meaning is determined by their immediate relation to reality, the analysis would be interminable. Meaning would under these conditions be indeterminable, unfixed. As Wittgenstein puts it in 3.23: ‘The requirement that simple signs be possible is the requirement that sense be determinate’. What this approach seems to be presupposing is, then, according to Brian McGuinness, ‘a magazine of objects which form, in one sense, the realm of Bedeutung’ [see: ‘The So-called Realism of the Tractatus’, in I. Block, ed., Perspectives on the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp. 61-62]. The objects being thus presupposed are described as being simple, in the sense that they cannot be further analysed. They belong to all possible worlds: they are, so to speak, the possibilities of the world. They form the substance of the world or the form of the world. McGuinness writes: ‘They are what is unalterable and persistent (bestehend), while the configuration of objects, the states of affairs, are what varies from one possible world to another. These configurations of objects, these states of affairs, give objects what material or external properties they have. Naturally, there is only one set of configurations that is actually realised, and this is what we call reality or the world. The internal properties of objects are their possibilities of combination with one another, and the possession of these properties is necessary, not a mere matter of fact’ [p. 62].
McGuinness then raises the question of what is meant by assuming a magazine of objects of this kind. It is not that something exists which might not have done: ‘All unrealised possibilities are simply dispositions of objects different from that which actually obtains’ [p. 62]. The objects themselves are, so to speak, prior to the possibilities within which they are disposed. This means that all questions of existence are questions about what dispositions of objects actually obtain. When Wittgenstein writes: ‘The world is a totality of facts, not of things’ (1.1), he is expressing this view. All existence is a matter of fact, a matter of what is in the world. This seems to result in an ontology. As McGuinness puts it, ‘the world or reality consists of facts, that is to say in the Bestehen (in one sense), the obtaining, of states of affairs. States of affairs themselves, on the other hand, are combinations of objects, which bestehen or exist (subsist) in another sense. Existence as normally spoken of is equivalent to the Bestehen in the first sense of a certain state of affairs’ [p. 62]. Now the attraction of these opening pages of the Tractatus seems to be that they derive certain metaphysical results on the basis of some simple and natural assumptions about propositions being true or false. Nonetheless, it is essential to see that Wittgenstein had no intention of building a system of metaphysics or ontology on logic or the nature of language. As with his later work, so here: he rejected the idea that there is something by which our grammar is determined, and he did not, at any juncture, attempt to infer features of the external world from that grammar. It may seem as though he argued that ‘propositions with sense are possible only because some more primitive operations are possible — notably the correlation of names with simple objects, and it may seem that he goes on to argue that these more primitive operations are possible only because the world possesses certain characteristics’ [pp. 62-63]. However, these are the kinds of idea to which Wittgenstein applies the term ‘nonsense’ (Unsinn).
So how are we to approach the ontological parts of the Tractatus? McGuinness cites 2.0121 as an example: ‘Logic deals with every possibility and all possibilities are its facts’. What we have here is a transferred and illegitimate use of the word ‘fact’, and one might say that the whole seeming enterprise of ontology in the Tractatus is a similarly illegitimate and transferred use of words like bestehen. In using language in this way, Wittgenstein is showing us the nature of language and its limits, and it is this that constitutes philosophy as a critique of language—it is the activity of making clear the limits of language, which are identical with the limits of thought. What philosophy is concerned with, then, cannot be said, stated directly, but it can be shown: ‘What philosophy tries to make clear is not sayable, but it is shown by ordinary propositions that can be true or false’ [p. 64]. Philosophy goes wrong when it tries to say what can only be shown. This indicates what the importance of logic is for this undertaking. Logical propositions say nothing but they do show something: they show ‘the formal – logical – properties of language and the world’ (6.12). Wittgenstein’s aim in the Tractatus is to bring out that ‘philosophy and logic have to do not with a special realm of objects but with the necessary features of language – that is to say of any language whatsoever. This happens most clearly in the case of logic. The propositions of logic, the tautologies, are by various devices shown to be inevitable offshoots or by-products of saying something true or false. As such they show us something about what it is to say something true or false’ [p. 64]. Tautologies and contradictions say nothing, being true or false in all circumstances, and as such are described by Wittgenstein as senseless (sinnlos), a condition he differentiates from the nonsensical (unsinnig) (4.461-4.4611). ‘They do not represent any possible situations’ the way propositions with sense (those of science, for instance) do (4.462). ‘Tautology and contradiction are the limiting cases—indeed the disintegration—of the combination of signs’ (4.466). They are not nonsense, however, for they are revelatory of the logical form that does allow intelligible propositions to picture possible situations in the world (4.611). Gordon Bearn has made the point clear: ‘“p or not-p” is a tautology that is clearly related to the law of the excluded middle [i.e. that any statement is either true or false], but it says nothing. Rather it is a condition of making sense at all that all sensible propositions say nothing when put into this schema. It is not the pure foundation of sense. It is the first glimpse of the opposite: senselessness. And that the opposite of sense is first glimpsed in this way makes manifest the limits of any world we might know or imagine, dream, or dread.’ [See: Gordon F.C. Bearn, Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein’s Existential Investigations (Albany: SUNY, 1995), p. 58.]
Fundamental to this approach is Wittgenstein’s idea that, as McGuinness has it, ‘in order for there to be propositions that may be either true or false, but must be one of the two, there will have to be a possibility of expressing those propositions by means of signs which of themselves will serve to express a proposition independently of what is the case. A state of affairs cannot be designated independently of whether it exists or not unless signs can be used whose significance could be given and understood and determined without reference to the obtaining or non-obtaining of that state of affairs’ [McGuinness, ‘The So-called Realism of the Tractatus’, p. 64]. This means that, for Wittgenstein, as McGuinness reads him, it is possible to make statements knowing them to be either true or false whatever the state of the world is.
He therefore thought that we were committed to the possibility of those propositions being expressed in such a form that all the constituent signs used could function in that particular combination whatever the case in the world was. [McGuinness, p.65]
These signs (these supposedly possible signs, reached only by analysis) would therefore be ‘possible constituents in propositions or possible contributors to producing a true or false proposition, regardless of what was the case in the world’ [p. 65]. Here, then, we have reached what in Blanchot’s idiom might be called the impossible conditions of possibility, the impossible origin anterior to writing. Wittgenstein attempted to rephrase language in just such terms, using what he called the simple signs or names alone. These are names that could not lack a bearer, and, although no actual example can be given of such a name, McGuinness cites a hypothetic example from Hidé Ishiguro that suggests what Wittgenstein may have had in mind: ‘Let a be the centre of a circle . . .’. In the discussion that follows, the question of whether a exists cannot arise. The point, then, is to consider what it would be like for names of this sort to form the whole substructure of a language.
Every proposition we utter is either true or false, whatever the case may be in the world. This requires that every proposition be capable of analysis in just one form, irrespective of whether or not any such analysis has been reached. In Wittgenstein’s vision of things, at least as McGuinness presents it, ‘if we imagine the totality of all propositions, true and false, in their fully articulated, fully analysed form (a form that is possible in principle), then we know that every element in this articulation, every sign, every name, has meaning in the sense that it contributes to the truth-value (whatever it is) of any proposition in which it occurs’ [p. 69]. To understand these elements does not require any experience of what is the case, since the proposition is (by definition) fully analysed, and hence the objects exist independently of what is the case. In that case, how do we understand a proposition? To have in mind a structure conforming to that of a possible state of affairs is to understand the proposition. As McGuinness sums it up: ‘It will be seen at once that this amounts to saying that there is no proposition to be understood until there is an understanding of a proposition’ [p. 69]. Thus the question is: how do we understand a propositional sign?
We use the perceptible sign of a proposition (spoken or written, etc.) as a projection of a possible situation.
Thinking the sense of the proposition is the method of projection. (3.11)
For McGuinness, this means that ‘Thinking the sense into the proposition is nothing other than so using the words of the proposition that their logical behaviour is that of the desired proposition’ [p. 70]. He argues that for Wittgenstein the realm of reference is thus not some mysterious, infinitely extended magazine of things. There is already contained in language, as the Tractatus presents it, the possibility of all objects that are possible. Language is the site of its own (impossible) possibility. All logical forms are logically possible within language, within thought, or so McGuinness contends. ‘No separate investigation or exploration of ‘reality’ is conceivable’ [p. 70]. This leads him to insist that when the learner, the child, learns language he learns complete propositions or thoughts. He has to grasp these as a whole, and when he has done so he will have an understanding of the primitive signs contained within those propositions. The primitive element, the name, has its place in the proposition. ‘Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a proposition does a name have meaning’ (3.3). This remark follows another one (3.263), which prepares the way for it: ‘The meanings of primitive signs can be explained by means of elucidations. Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive signs. So they can only be understood if the meanings of the signs are already known’. The point of this remark is made clear by Peter Winch: ‘one cannot learn the meanings of names separately from each other; to learn their meaning is to learn how they combine in sentences. In order to distinguish that, one has to be presented with sentences and learn to distinguish them from senseless strings of words. To have come to grasp the sense of a sentence is to have come to grasp the meanings of the names of which it is composed’ [Peter Winch, Trying to Make Sense (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 10]. Not only that, but grasping the sense of the one sentence also involves grasping the endless other combinations into which the name might enter: in other words, grasping something that comes only with the mastery of a whole calculus, a calculus it is one of the main concerns of the Tractatus to describe. (Logic exists only in its application. If there were no such thing as the application of logic there would be no such thing as logic. Another logic would be required to determine the correct application of the original logic.) Given this point of view, it becomes clear why McGuinness wants also to say that the processes of explaining the truth-conditions of a proposition and of determining the truth-value of a proposition cannot be broken down into any simpler operation than that of grasping the proposition or expressing the proposition. All these are operations possessed of the same degree of multiplicity or complexity. These considerations lead, finally, to the question as to what kind of object Wittgenstein’s simple objects are. The answer must be that they are not concrete objects at all, and that there is nothing intelligible to be said concerning their existence or non-existence. We can grasp only concatenations of objects, facts in the world. Hence, no example of such an object can, or could, logically speaking, be given.
Certainly our propositions in the last analysis are not about the workings of our own mind. What Wittgenstein is trying to convey is a point of view according to which what they are about is not in the world any more than it is in thought or in language. Objects are the form of all these realms, and our acquaintance with objects (our contact with them, to borrow a metaphor from Aristotle) is not an experience or knowledge of something over against which we stand. Thus it is not properly experience or knowledge at all. Objects are eti epekeina tes ousias (beyond being), and it is therefore misleading to regard Wittgenstein is a realist in respect of them. [McGuinness, ‘The So-called Realism of the Tractatus’, pp. 72-73]
The objects are beyond being and beyond non-being. The objects are outside of the world, and outside of the world there is nothing to be said. Bearn comes to the same conclusion:
So although the elementary propositions are introduced as pictures of simple objects, this is not something that—if we get the point of the Tractatus—we will find understandable, at all. . . . The book is metaphysical poison (nonsense/Unsinn) to end the explanatory metaphysical impulse. [Bearn, p.58]
The ‘metaphysical poison’ of which he speaks is that which Derrida has called the pharmakon, a drug that is both fatal and a cure. From this point of view, what Wittgenstein has brought to light is an object without object, a pure object where no object is and which no one could or ever will encounter. This strange quasi-object is what is to inaugurate language and to determine meaning, and yet it seems to resemble a fiction, something called up by the writing of the Tractatus and in the same gesture annulled, and it is to this impossible and undecidable object that the origin of meaning and language are to be referred.
There is a curious and uncanny logic at work here, one which it would seem to be a major purpose of the Tractatus to make clear: the things, the simple objects which the text appears to offer as the ultimate and originary foundations of sense, are in effect produced retroactively by the very process of symbolisation itself, by the process of making sense. The simple objects emerge only as a consequence of their loss. What the Tractatus brings us to see is that any attempt to conceive of the objects as having substantial being, or to think of them as ontologically prior to the states of affairs into which they enter, is to succumb to an illusion: the objects are a mirage of metaphysics, retroactively invoked by the propositions of the text, propositions which are nonsensical, and which are to be recognised as nonsensical. The significance of this for an understanding of language based on naming, or ostensive definition, has been made clear by McGuinness, in a second essay on the matter. As he argues, ‘TLP does not rest understanding of propositions on a process of ostensive definition. It does not suppose that the elementary propositions in which use is made of certain names are connected with reality by the correlation of those names with objects independently identifiable. This is because the notion of independent identification of objects in the TLP sense is an incoherent one. Only in a proposition does a name have meaning, so that there cannot be a pre-propositional act of giving meaning to a name by, for example, pointing to an object’ [McGuinness, ‘Language and Reality in the Tractatus’, Teoria 2 (1985): 136]. One can get at this another way, by saying that whereas in the ordinary world one can point to an object and give it a name this cannot be done for the objects of the Tractatus. To name an object requires the existence of that object as a matter of fact, but the objects of the Tractatus exist independently of what is the case in the world. As McGuinness points out, it is a crucial insistence of the book that the ‘experience’ necessary to understand language (the experience that there is a world) is very different from the experience of what there is in the world. ‘The former is not an experience of facts and confrontation with a concrete object is an experience of fact’ [‘Language and Reality’, 136]. What Wittgenstein is saying is thus to be seen as nonsensical. No meaning has been ascribed here to ‘object’ or to ‘experience’: language is, so to speak, outside or beyond itself, and to that extent beyond sense also.
This has the further consequence that, as McGuinness argues, mentalist accounts of meaning simply dissolve. We do not think sense into propositions by mentally associating the words (and so the elementary names that would occur if the proposition were to be fully analysed) with objects. To argue in this way is simply to return to notions of ostensive definition, but performed this time privately or internally. Wittgenstein makes the point explicitly in 3.11: Thinking the sense of a proposition is identical with the method of projection: ‘the use of the proposition is what gives meaning to its names, not some additional act of mental dubbing or intending’ [‘Language and Reality’, 137]. This is the point that the so-called picture theory of meaning is meant to elucidate. The picture-theory and the account of language associated with it is less a theory than an account of mental phenomena: no further mental power, the power of thinking, is required. One cannot explain what pictures are by introducing human agency. ‘Rather, you explain human agency by the notion of picturing. It is not man that makes pictures, so to speak, but pictures that make a man’ [‘Language and Reality’, 137]. Someone who learns a language is confronted by a whole language in use, a language consisting of propositional facts or pictures. Each one of these possesses a complexity, which, so the learner comes to understand, can have only one meaning, can only indicate or affirm one state of affairs. The point at issue here is clarified, McGuinness believes, by reference to one of Wittgenstein’s most subtle and important distinctions, that between showing and saying. According to 4.022, a proposition shows its sense, shows how things stand if it is true, and it says that they do so stand. The thought here is that the complexity or organisation of the proposition, once fully understood, shows what state of affairs is involved, what state of affairs either exists or does not exist: at the same time, a further function of sense must be understood within the proposition. In other words, sense here is to be understood as something like direction (a proposition is like an arrow, not a point): we have to understand what way the proposition is to be taken, in what direction it is aimed. Is it to say that p or that not-p? It must be determined which is the p that it states, and which is the not-p. Wittgenstein argues that, if we think only in terms of complexity or structure, p and not-p are equivalent. It is possible for p and not-p to say the same thing, so that what they each show is the same thing. For example, suppose a situation in which we communicate with one another by means of pictures. In that case, if we wish to say that the book is on the table, we hold up a picture of this state of affairs. But how do we communicate that the book is not on the table? We can hold up the same picture and then, say, turn it back to front. The picture and the same picture turned back to front have opposite senses, opposite directions, but which sense is which is given by the use of the proposition. If one has understood a proposition one has already discriminated all the facts necessary to understand its negation. McGuinness concludes from this that reference is a function of fact-stating, and not vice-versa. Reference is given retroactively, in the very act of formulation. The proposition itself shows us what fact it refers to (that is, what fact it states or misstates). There is no separate act of correlation between the language and reality: there is only the act of acquiring the language, i.e. of using pictures as they are used in the language. That facts are taken in such and such a way is thus something manifest within language. ‘The use of language shows that something is taken as a true elementary proposition, in that the other things that are then unhesitatingly said reflect its being so taken’ [‘Language and Reality’, 137]. For one thing, inferences are based on it.
But if this is so, facts drop out of the account. There are instead verification procedures, which correspond to the analysis of a proposition into elementary propositions, for which no examples can be given. This is to assert both the principle of bivalence, namely, that a proposition is either true or false, and that no grounds can be given for the principle. One might say that the principle and its lack of foundation are what is shown in the logical form of the proposition, a form which is both interior to the proposition (inasmuch as analysis leads back from the given proposition to the elementary propositions contained with in it and of which it is a truth function), and exterior to it (inasmuch as the proposition is connected to propositions outside or beyond it by similar relations of inference.) Every proposition contains, and is contained by, the whole of logical space, which is given immediately, in our grasping of the proposition. There is therefore an excess of syntax over semantics, in that logical form is always already beyond the proposition: the senseless, because tautological, propositions of logic do not coincide with the positions of sense, propositions that are either true or false, nor can the propositions of sense be reduced to, or expressed in terms of, the logical system. This is evident from the use Wittgenstein makes of the Sheffer stroke, and of recursion, in what he calls an operation, in order to show the general form of the proposition. At the time of writing the Tractatus, it had been shown that all the logical constants (negation, disjunction, implication, and so on) could be replaced by a single constant, the so-called Sheffer stroke, whereby p|q, for example, is equivalent to ‘neither p nor q’. Using this notation, one can eliminate all the constants, used in Principia Mathematica, for example, and bring them under a single form. Wittgenstein describes this at 5.1311: ‘When we infer q from p v q and ~p, the relation between the propositional forms of “p v q” and “~p” is masked, in this case, by our mode of signifying. But if instead of “p v q” we write, for example, “p|q.|.p|q” and instead of “~p”, “p|p” (p|q = neither p nor q) then the inner connection becomes obvious’. Further clarification is given by H.O. Mounce:
‘p v q’ and ‘~(~p.~q)’ can now be written in the form ‘p|q.|.p|q’. This means: neither, neither p nor q, nor, neither p nor q. It has to be written in this somewhat artificial way to preserve the neither . . . nor form. But all that is in fact happening is that one is ruling out the possibility of neither p nor q, which can be seen on reflection to be equivalent to asserting ‘p or q’ or ‘It is not the case that not p and not q’.
Since the logical constants can all be defined in terms of one another, there is one fundamental operation that underlies them all, an operation of iterated negation. It is the fundamental operation by which all propositions are produced out of elementary propositions and Wittgenstein calls it the general form of the proposition. To see exactly what Wittgenstein has in mind, we need to see more clearly just what he means by an operation:
5.2 The structures of propositions stand in internal relations to one another.
5.21 In order to give prominence to those internal relations we can adopt the following mode of expression: we can represent a proposition as a result of an operation that produces it out of other propositions (which are the bases of the operation).
5.22 An operation is the expression of a relation between the structure of its result and its bases.
5.23 The operation is what has to be done to the one proposition in order to make the other out of it.
As Mounce points out, an operation is performed on base proposition to produce a different proposition as a result. But what Wittgenstein has in mind is a particular model of the way this done. At 5.2521 he writes: ‘If an operation is applied repeatedly to its own results, I speak of successive applications of it (‘O’O’O’a’ is the result of three successive applications of the operation ‘O’ζ’ to ‘a’)’. And at 5.2523 he says ‘The concept of successive applications of an operation is equivalent to the concept “and so on”’. To apply O to a one gets Oa; repeat the operation, applying O to Oa, and one gets OOa; and so on. In other words, an operation, as it concerns Wittgenstein here, is a procedure that takes its own results as a base. An example is doubling: 2 doubled is 4; take the result and double again [H.O. Mounce, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 50]. The fundamental operation by which all propositions are generated from elementary propositions is an operation of this type. At proposition 6 and onwards, the general form of the proposition is represented in a way such that every proposition is to be seen as the result of successive applications to elementary propositions of an operation of negation (N). Any proposition whatever will be the result of the iterated application of this procedure. The negation in question is the operation of joint negation (neither . . . nor) represented by the Sheffer stroke. The successive applications of this operation of joint negation to the elementary propositions will produce all other propositions [Mounce, pp. 52-53]. As Mounce makes clear, this, then, is how the complex propositions of ordinary discourse are produced, and he gives as an example the way ‘p v q’ is produced from p, q, two elementary propositions. If we apply the operation of joint negation to p, q, we get N(p,q) – i.e. neither p nor q. Apply the operation that, and we get N(N(p,q)) – i.e. neither, neither p nor q, nor, neither p nor q, which is equivalent to ‘p v q’. Wittgenstein goes on to show how this same operation of joint negation can account, not only for the propositional calculus, but also the predicate calculus, the logic of generalisation, thereby opposing the accounts given of these matters by Frege and Russell, by proposing a logical operation that does not rely for its articulation on the use of metalanguage.
This brings us to an issue crucial to Wittgenstein’s enterprise in the Tractatus, the nature of the text of the Tractatus itself. As we have seen, the operation must always be able to be applied to its own result. The iterability of this application to its own result is the principle of recursion, by which succession is presupposed. This is what operates the series, as we have seen, the ‘And so on’. To say, therefore, that one proposition is first or elementary (primordial) is to presuppose the temporal series of propositions of which this proposition presents itself as first. The implications of this are spelt out by Vincent Descombes, writing, not of Wittgenstein, but Derrida:
[I]t must be said that the first is not the first unless there is a second to follow. Consequently, the second is not that which merely arrives, like a latecomer, after the first, but that which permits the first to be the first. The first cannot be the first unaided, by its own properties alone: the second, with all the power of its delay, must come to the assistance of the first. It is through the second that the first is the first. The ‘second time’ thus has priority of a kind over the ‘first time’: it is present from the first time onwards as the prerequisite of the first’s priority without itself being a more primitive ‘first time’, of course; it follows that the ‘first time’ is in reality the ‘third time’. [Modern French Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 145]
Derrida’s ‘non-concept’ of différance, based on the iterability of the trait, has certain features in common with Wittgenstein’s account of the repeated operation of joint negation. One such point of comparison can be seen to emerge here: Descombes’ account of the ‘logic’ of originary delay, an idea of fundamental significance at least for Derrida’s earlier thought, also provides a way of drawing out the consequences of a tenet central to the Tractatus, that only in a proposition does a name have meaning. As the Tractatus presents logical form, the ineluctable temporality internal to that form and so to language means that no sense can be given to the idea of a primordial relation between language and reality, between names and simple objects, which language may be thought to originate from. For reasons such as those Descombes lays out, and those we have already seen McGuinness demonstrate in some detail, it is nonsensical to think to look outside language in order to give for language or for the truth and falsity of propositions any account (any theory) that depends on describable features of the world. The temporality of discourse, on Wittgenstein’s showing, means that the propositions formulating the general form of passage from one proposition to another are themselves subject to that same operation of passage, as is clear not only from the general form of the proposition but also from the following series: ‘the world is the totality of facts’ (1.1), ‘a picture is a fact’ (2.141), and ‘logical pictures can depict the world’ (2.19). To think of language as somehow able to reach outside itself and so to ground sense in anything other than the movement of its own operations is nonsensical (unsinnig). Not only this, but to pose the question of the logical form of the proposition is, at the same time, to pose the question of the status and meaning of the very text, the Tractatus, whose propositions we are in the process of trying to comprehend.
What Wittgenstein shows in the Tractatus is that sense does not need to be validated by logical theory. The intelligibility of the proposition is rather the primary datum on which the logical theory grows, by analysis. The network of necessary relationships between meaningful propositions is also the logical framework of the world. There are no intermediaries between the proposition and the represented state of affairs. As Alberto Emiliani has argued, in a commentary on McGuinness’s two articles, this is the crucial insight of what might be called the immediacy of semantic agreement. [See: Alberto Emiliani, ‘What Nonsense Might Be: The Metaphysical Eye Opens’, Philosophical Investigations 26:3 (July 2003): 205-229]. Language is fundamentally intentional: the proposition reaches right up to reality. In order to be able to represent a state of affairs a proposition must have something in common with it and that something is form—that is, the possibility that their elements combine in just that way. To make the point again, we don’t start in the Tractatus from features that symbols must have in order to combine with one another in meaningful propositions: we start from the propositions and proceed to the properties of the constituents. ‘An object can only be designated qua part of a state of affairs; a symbol only has meaning qua part of a proposition’, a point Emiliani makes in order to emphasise that the meanings a symbol can be assigned in such and such a combinatorial context are necessary and show a logical feature of the world . If ‘a is red’ and ‘b is green’ are meaningful, then so is the combination ‘a is green’ meaningful. According to this view of the Tractatus, the articulation exhibited by a proposition is not reducibility to simpler and independent elements (the simple objects); it resides in the interchangeability without loss of meaning of its parts or constituents with the part of constituents of other propositions . It is the network of these relations of interchangeability that is given by the general form of the proposition, the recursive operation of the iterated neither . . . nor. As Emiliani makes clear, similar remarks apply to the form of the world: objects, as presented by the Tractatus, are not determinate entities that, in addition to their peculiar or individual features, also possess combinatorial possibility (perhaps engendered by their individual features). ‘They are instead interchangeable parts of possibilities states of affairs, and so, their possibilities of occurring in states of affairs constitute them as objects’ [216-7]. The form of world of the world thus exhibits a mirror image of the form of the proposition, of the context principle mentioned earlier. A proposition is internally related to a (possible) state of affairs; it is this relation that makes it into a determinate proposition and thought. The radical nature of this thought is made explicit by Emiliani: ‘the possibility of a state of affairs is the possibility that the elements of a proposition meaningfully combine with one another. The form of language and the form of reality do not merely “match”, but they are one and the same. It is the form of reality that is present in language, by being mirrored in it (4.121). Logical form is shared by language and the world (it is what they have “in common”: cf. 4.12, 2.18)’ . Emiliani concludes that, for the Tractatus, pictorial form just is the possibility that things are related to one another in the same way as the elements of the picture. A picture contains the possibility of the situation that it represents and so it contains the form of the very situation that is represented.
The possibility that a combines with b is not different from the fact that the proposition ‘ab’ is meaningful; the meaning of the proposition is not some other fact of a special kind. As Emiliani points out, the root of the issue is that the nexus between a and b cannot itself be a third constituent of the state of affairs: ‘the nexus, the combination, can only be presented by means of a nexus of symbols: this is the kernel of the insight that a proposition is a picture. Proposition and state of affairs share their connective structure, and this is why their relation is internal’ . The nexus between a and b is shown by the proposition ‘ab’ having a sense, by the way the symbols hold together into a whole. There is no other ‘fact’ to be described. Emiliani again: ‘The possibility of the nexus of things is given in the meaningfulness of the nexus of symbols: there is not anything else which the nexus of things is in addition to that which is given in the meaningfulness of the nexus of symbols’ . At this juncture it becomes possible to clarify the role of nonsense in the workings of the text of the Tractatus. So far as the text is concerned, there is no such thing as nonsensical propositions that can be used to aim at ineffable qualities of reality or language. There are no sentences that are nonsense on account of the peculiarly illegitimate kind of thing they try, but fail, to say. That is, there are no metaphysical truths that though they may not be stated may nonetheless be shown. There is no such thing as ‘expressive nonsense’. From the point of view of their construction, according to the Tractatus, all nonsensical propositions are equivalent. One or more expressions have not been assigned any meaning in a certain context (or any context). Emiliani gives as an example ‘ this notion is yellow’. In this case, ‘x is yellow’ only has a sense when a material object is substituted for x. Here, then, no meaning has been assigned to ‘notion’. Nonsense is nonsense; there is nothing it says. And yet, as Emiliani insists, this is not quite the end of the matter. It is true that ‘this notion is yellow’ does not communicate the true nature of colour in some hidden or mysterious way. However, we recognise it as nonsensical only insofar as we have a commanding view of the way the words are actually used. If we don’t have such a view, it may be that the nonsense ‘proposition’ will lead us to see things aright, and so in its effects be significant. To recognise nonsense requires more than the withdrawal of the incriminated sentences. ‘Whether a nonsensical proposition is plain, trivial nonsense or significant nonsense depends on us, on what we see clearly and what we do not. What is qualified as significant or trivial is not so much the nonsensical proposition itself – this distinction is not based upon any properties that are intrinsic to it. Such a qualification instead applies to our appraisal of it’ [224-225].
The propositions of the Tractatus are more complex than the example just considered, and yet there are some features that they have in common. One can see what is involved by returning to the basic insight of the immediacy of semantic agreement. Emiliani formulates the issue as follows: ‘the meaningful proposition is internally related to a state of affairs: it directly agrees with it, as a mask fits a face and does not fit another. The fitting is a matter of form – in order to be able to fit a determinate state of affairs, the proposition must have a form in common with it’ . However, it must be noted that this form is not a physical form. It has to do with the way constituents of propositions link with each other in a certain structure (like the links of chain) and with the meaningful recombination and interchange between such constituents. But at this point the notion of form becomes questionable. No property of a material object is being referred to. The use of ‘form’ is not even metaphorical, since metaphors can be paraphrased. The same consideration applies to other notions in the Tractatus: ‘nexus, ‘links in the chain’, object’, and so on. One might call this use of words false metaphor: words are being used in contexts where they have been given no meaning. One might also say, in the idiom of Philosophical Investigations II, xi, that ‘form’ and words like it are being used in a secondary sense. To say, for example, that the vowel ‘e’ is yellow, or that the world is unreal, is to use ‘yellow’ and ‘unreal’ in secondary senses. The use of words in this way is closely allied to seeing aspects, as when one says that one sees the cruelty in a person’s smile, or a triangle as a wedge or an arrow. Transferred into the new context, where no meaning has been assigned to them, they are used as expressions of how things strike us, of how they appear to us. Something of this kind is at work here, in the way the text of the Tractatus leads us on: as we move from one formulation to another, it eventually becomes clear that any formulation is misleading, since they all presuppose that there is some thing we are talking about. Both the propositions of the Tractatus and the formulations of commentaries on it use constituents to refer to form, whereas the basic point is that form is not a constituent at all, but a nexus, a way of connection into a meaningful whole. To treat the nexus as a constituent of a state of affairs is to misrecognise the fact that it is a connection between elements: it is not an element, or what Emiliani calls ‘a mythological object’. And yet this very use of the word ‘connection’ is also misplaced: ‘if you have understood me, you recognise my use of “connection”, “form”, “internal relation between proposition and state of affairs”, “possibility of combination” etc. as nonsensical’ . To recognise the nonsensical use of words such as ‘form’ in this context, and to be shown, to see, the ineffable nature of logical form, of the logical connection into a whole, are not, in the end, separate acts. It is one of the ways a proposition may illuminate by being recognised as nonsensical. Part of what is being shown here derives from what was referred to above as the temporality of discourse, whereby the propositions formulating the general form of passage from one proposition to another are themselves subject to that same operation of passage. Logical form structures the very propositions which are trying to give its nature. When employed in this way, words like ‘form’ and ‘connection’ are nonsensical, though when used within a proposition or set of propositions to describe some feature of the world, they are fully intelligible. This means that, for Emiliani, there are no dubious assumptions being made about how nonsense may communicate ineffable truth: nonsense communicates nothing. Nonetheless, the showing is in fact accomplished, though not by describing something that is not describable but by recognising a proposition as genuinely nonsensical. As Emiliani has it, ‘the mythological object disappears when form shows itself – form shows itself when the mythological object disappears’ .
What we can say, then, is that the Tractatus itself, as a whole, offers itself to be recognised as an expression of the urge to metaphysics. In that recognition the metaphysical idea, the idea that a complete analysis of logical form is possible, and that logical form so understood determines the limits of the application of signs, fades away. And as it fades away, so too does the similarly metaphysical requirement that sense be determinate. Statements about simple objects are nonsensical in exactly the way that statements about logical form are nonsensical. In effect, the work of the Tractatus is to bring about a change of aspect, so that how we see the text itself, and how we seek to understand the way language operates, undergo alteration. At 5.5423, Wittgenstein presents a clear instance of aspect change in relation to the complex form of a proposition: ‘To perceive a complex means to perceive that its constituents are related to one another in such and such a way’. He then draws a comparison between the complex form of a proposition and the form of a schematic cube: when one looks at such a figure, the front face seems to change places with the back face, and front and back flip flop back and forth, each replacing the other. This shifting of aspect, like that of the famous duck-rabbit of Philosophical Investigations, points to what occurs in the structure of the text of the Tractatus itself as we, its readers, engage with it. Under one aspect, the text makes sense, so that it is perfectly intelligible to argue that in the body of the Tractatus Wittgenstein elaborates a critique of, amongst other things, Russell’s theory of types and logical objects. On the other hand, this critique, deriving from and so dependent on the notion that logical form is what determines the limit of the application of signs, is nonsensical. The text is thus many-layered, and operates in different modes at different levels, and part of what it requires of its readers is that they be alert to the shifts of level possible at any point. This, it should be said, avoids the obvious absurdity that every line of the Tractatus is simply nonsense. It is clear that the account of the truth tables, of succession and recursion, as well as of the Sheffer stroke, is wholly intelligible. However, these reflections do not justify the belief that it makes to imagine there could be such a thing as a perspective from which one can survey how language represents the world: whether one takes language ‘internally’, with respect to the form of the proposition, or ‘externally’, with respect to language ‘as a whole’, the possibility of either an ‘internal’ or ‘external’ point of view on how language represents states of affairs is unintelligible.
In 6.54, when Wittgenstein writes: ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as [nonsense]’, it would seem that he is insisting that ‘thinking cannot be completely reduced to and be fully expressed by anything we are likely to be content to call a “logical system”. What is as a consequence nonsense is the assumption of logical analysis that all thinking, in order to be thought, must be captured by a propositional sign that on examination is found to be either sensical, senseless or nonsense’. [Rupert Read and Rob Deans, ‘“Nothing is Shown”: A “Resolute” Response to Mounce, Emiliani, Koethe and Vilhauer’, Philosophical Investigations 62:3 (July 2003): 254.] That is, the very distinction, between propositions that make sense, the senseless propositions of logic (the tautologies), and the nonsense propositions of the Tractatus, is itself a nonsensical distinction, based as it is on the desire to express thought in terms of the structures of a logical system (the general form of the proposition). What logical form shows is the impossibility of making fully explicit the nature of sense, of meaning. Always beyond itself, and always lacking the objects on which the determinacy of sense depends, the syntactical (the senseless) and the semantic (the sensical) cannot be brought into a one-to-one relation. The reader begins with the idea that a limit has to be established to thinking and to the expression of thought, and a distinction set up between sense and nonsense. It is here that the analysis of simple objects and logical form is addressed, but ‘[w]hat the reader is left with is the realisation that there is thinking going on as the propositions of the Tractatus are engaged with, but without thought in anything like the Fregean-Russellian sense. Logical analysis can neither fully capture nor fully specify just what it is to think. Thought and language cannot be “pinned-down” and the attempt to give a complete analysis breaks down; but not because it is impossible, for this suggests there is something here that cannot be done, but because the very idea of giving a complete analysis is unintelligible’ [Read and Deans: 258]. No sense can be given to the idea of a vantage-point from which we can survey language as a whole, or of getting beyond it and seeing it as it were laid out before us, open to inspection. This does not mean that there is no role for logical analysis, in showing how language is actually used, in inference or other forms of argument. It does mean that logical analysis cannot justify or found meaning: logic is derived from our use of words to say what we mean, and not the other way round. In 6.1203, Wittgenstein gives a procedure for producing a picture, a physical depiction or image, of a tautology (~(p.~p)). Given that a proposition with sense is a picture of a possible state of affairs, a tautology is a picture of nothing. A tautology has no truth conditions, since it is unconditionally true, and a contradiction is true under no conditions (4.461). Since all the propositions of logic are tautologies (6.126, 6.22), logic says nothing: it lacks sense. The tautology, then, is both a part of logic (e.g. p implies p) and logic as such. When Wittgenstein presents an image of a tautology, what he is giving is a representation of a representation of nothing. To make an image or picture of a certain tautology may, on the one hand, be merely a novel and clearer way of laying out the truth table for that tautology. But if, on the other hand, it is taken as an image of tautology as such, that is, of logic as such, of the sinnlos in itself, the image is nonsense. Removed from any context of use, it stands on its own, above logic and above sense. We are, so to speak, taken beyond the limits of the text into an image of language qua language, into a material depiction that in depicting the absence of depiction asserts its own material presence beyond the opposition between meaning and non-meaning. In representing its own failure to represent, the text produces a nonsensical image, the seeing of which is seeing the distinction between sense, the senseless and the nonsensical as itself nonsensical. The image of the doubling of the doubled brackets in 6.1203, the typographical reduplication within the text, effects a kind of folding back of the Tractatus on itself, in which the physical inscription of the writing interrupts and inhibits the distinction between meaning and non-meaning. When Wittgenstein insists (in 6.54) that whoever understands him will eventually recognise his propositions as nonsensical, the point is that the aspect of the text that will eventually force itself onto the reader will be that aspect which has already forced itself onto Wittgenstein himself, the text’s author. It is not man makes images, but rather images that make a man, and so with the text as a whole: it is the Tractatus that creates both its author and its reader. Wittgenstein and his reader stand on the hither side of the propositions that constitute it. The image the propositions create is that of a language spoken by no one.
In using words here like ‘text’ and ‘writing’ I have wished to evoke something of the idiom of Blanchot and Derrida. My purpose is not to assimilate ‘continental’ thought to that of Wittgenstein, or vice versa, but to suggest points of comparison. I have argued that, whereas Blanchot in particular bases his thought on a concept of naming that is untenable, in order to reach the impossible conditions that are the possibility of writing as such, Wittgenstein begins from the meaningful proposition. The Tractatus is thus not an attempt to establish how meaning is possible. Whereas Blanchot, and others in the tradition to which he belongs, use language in way that implies that there is a sense in talk about the impossibility of possibility, Wittgenstein’s approach would characterise such talk as nonsense. No meaning has been given to the words like ‘impossibility’ in the context in which Blanchot seeks to use them. Nonetheless, I want now to propose that, despite the unsatisfactory foundations of Blanchot’s thought, its final direction, towards an understanding of the language of literature, is pertinent to a reading of the Tractatus. When Wittgenstein writes, in the Tractatus (6.4311), that death is not an event in life, since we do not live to experience death, one cannot but be put in mind of Blanchot’s reflections on the impossibility of dying, a comparison that may be further reinforced by reference to Wittgenstein’s remark (also in 6.4311) that our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits. We are being taken by remarks of this order beyond the expressible, towards what Wittgenstein calls the mystical: ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical’ (6.522). So far as the Tractatus is concerned, the notion of the mystical has its source in the discussion we have already looked at, that concerning simple objects: ‘Objects can only be named. Signs are their representatives. I can only speak about them: I cannot put them into words. Propositions can only say how things are, not what they are’ (3.221). Mysticism is motivated, in part, by the fact that if we are to understand anything we have to be related to objects, things. But, as Gordon Bearn indicates [Waking to Wonder, p. 60], objects are the unchanging structures of logical space: this means that, since whatever we experience could be otherwise (5.634), there can be no experience of objects, a conclusion reached also by McGuinness, from the different starting point of the meaningful proposition. How then are we to understand the givenness of objects, the givenness of the world? It is an experience not of HOW the world is but THAT it is, at all (6.44).
The ‘experience’ that we need in order to understand logic is not that something or other is the case, but that something is: that, however, is not an experience.
Logic is prior to every experience—that something is so.
It is prior to the question ‘How?’, not prior to the question ‘What?’. (5.552)
Here again the language can be seen in the process of shifting its status, as the word ‘experience’ undergoes a self-cancelling alteration, from a primary to a secondary sense. Logic is before the how, not before the what. But how the world is, is what is the case. So the experience we need, as Bearn puts it, ‘if we are to understand logic is not an experience of what is the case, of what has happened in the world’ [p. 60].
To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.
Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that that is mystical. (6.45)
Mystical wonder is not wonder at the way things are, but wonder at the bare existence of things, that they are—the what not the how. This returns us to the point I have emphasised before: when we understand logic we understand that it is senseless. Other than world there is nothing, and it is nothing that logic treats of. Bearn has said that, for Wittgenstein, understanding something is to understand that something against the background of logic, against the background of nothing. Bearn here compares Wittgenstein with Heidegger:
In July 1929, Heidegger had tried to understand the deepest form of anxiety in terms of his belief that ‘human existence can relate to things only if it holds itself out into the nothing’. In December of that year Wittgenstein said, ‘To be sure, I can imagine what Heidegger means by being and anxiety’. [Bearn, p. 61]
A comparison with Levinas and the notion of the il y a is also pertinent. This line of argument also brings something to the fore, the structure of the Tractatus itself. It exhibits exactly the torsion, the twisting turn, which is not exactly a circle but more like a Moebius strip, whereby what is anterior reappears in what succeeds. We move from an ‘experience’ of what is prior to the world, an experience that is not an experience, to an experience that is also not an experience, the experience of the ‘there is’ of things. Torn from our everyday existence, from the world of how things are, it is as though existence emerged from behind the world. I am no longer related to this or that possibility, but to existence itself, an experience that (according to the Tractatus, as well as to Levinas and Blanchot) is internally related to the experience of nothing. In coming face to face with the bare existence of things, that they exist at all, we come face to face with ‘no-thing’ at all: ‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical’ (6.522).
The encounter with the il y a is an encounter with horror, as when for the insomniac things take on the terrible and dreadful aspect of the ‘other night’. To experience the ‘there is’ is to experience the void or absence in which the things of the everyday world, the world of ‘how’ things are, dissolve and disappear. In a classic essay first published in 1991, Cora Diamond has brought out something similar in the way Wittgenstein’s understanding of the mystical (and of nonsense) relates to his discussion of ethics and treatment of the question of evil. A crucial matter for her is the manner of reading the Tractatus requires of us: ‘if I understand Wittgenstein in the way that he asks to be understood, then I read the sentences in question twice: first, entering (wittingly or not) into the nonsense that they are about ethics; secondly, entering into the nonsense of the book as argument to a conclusion that those remarks are not “about ethics”, for nothing is a “remark about ethics”. There are no “ethical propositions”, and sentences in question have no more to with “ethics” than “piggly wiggly tiggle”. If I understand Wittgenstein, I enter the nonsense of reading the book as ethics and of reading the book in such a way that it leads me to self-consciousness about the activity of such reading’ [Cora Diamond, ‘Ethics, Imagination and the Tractatus’, in Alice Crary and Rupert Read, eds., The New Wittgenstein (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 164]. The Tractatus requires a reading that at first takes us in, requiring us to take its propositions as making sense, as being about logic and so on, despite not being so. This is to take what Diamond calls the ‘austere view’ of nonsense, the view that all nonsense is just nonsense, that there is no such thing as articulating the meaning of a particular bit of nonsense, while at the same time acknowledging that there is such a thing as an imaginative activity of understanding someone who utters nonsense, of ‘letting oneself be taken in by the appearance of sense that some nonsense presents to us’ [Diamond, p. 165]. When I ascribe a belief or thought to someone, I must use an intelligible sentence of a language I understand. If I am to understand someone who utters nonsense, I have to participate imaginatively in what is said and see nonsense as sense. I become, as it were, the person who thinks he thinks it: ‘I treat that person’s nonsense in imagination as if I took it to be an intelligible sentence of a language I understand, something I find in myself the possibility of meaning’ [p. 165]. In other words, I am a participant in a change of aspect. Diamond’s point is similar to one I made above: when Wittgenstein says that whoever understands him will come to recognise his propositions as nonsensical, the point is that the aspect of the text that will eventually force itself onto the reader will be that aspect which has already forced itself onto Wittgenstein himself. Sense is seen as nonsense, nonsense as sense. This to see the Tractatus as uncanny.
There is a close connection in Wittgenstein’s thought, both in the earlier work and later, between logic and ethics. As we have seen above, logic is not for Wittgenstein a particular subject, with its own special truths, requiring some kind of scientific treatment, but something internal to all thought. Logic permeates our whole use of intelligible propositions in the course of our lives with language. Likewise, an ethical spirit, an attitude to the world and life, penetrates a whole way of living, and is manifest in how we talk and think. It is not the abstraction of a moral code, or a distinct set of rules. Ethics is a discourse turned towards everything there is or can be, the world as a whole. There is an important sense in which the ethical spirit for Wittgenstein involves an attitude towards the world ‘in terms of an acceptance of the independence of the world from one’s own will’ [Diamond, p. 154]. The ethical spirit, for him, Diamond believes, ‘is tied to living in acceptance of the fact that what happens, happens, that one’s willing this rather than that is merely another thing that happens and that one is in a sense “powerless” [p. 154]. It is in this connection that Wittgenstein speaks of two different attitudes to the world: the world of the happy man and the world of the unhappy man, though it is by no means clear how far these two attitudes can be kept separate. [Cf. Brian McGuinness, ‘The Mysticism of the Tractatus’, Philosophical Review 75 (1966): 316-317.] The happy man achieves a kind of piety in life, looking at the happenings of the world with clear eyes, whatever those happenings may be. Wittgenstein contrasts this with the state of mind of the suicide, for whom going on with life is made conditional on things being this way and not that. It is as though I were to reject the powerlessness fundamental to life, by willing to leave life if things do not go the way I want them. Diamond finds an example of such a refusal of powerlessness in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, 'The Birthmark', the main character of which, Aylmer, is ‘unhappy’ in Wittgenstein’s sense; the world does not meet the conditions he lays down. This spirit is evident in his response to the birthmark on his beautiful wife, and is further seen in his destructiveness of her life, goodness and beauty. There is, then, an analogy between the idea of understanding someone who utters nonsense and someone, whether oneself or someone else, to whom one ascribes an evil will, in the sense that one would be willing to ascribe such a will to a figure like Aylmer. A further example occurs in Wittgenstein’s remarks on Frazer’s account of the Beltane Fire Festival in eighteenth century Scotland. Wittgenstein says he has a sense of something terrible and sinister about the ritual games enacted in the festival, but what the source of that sense of the terrible is remains unspecified. On the surface there is nothing terrible, and even if one knows that there is a distant connection with human sacrifice this still does not account for the sense of the terrible that lies at the heart of the practices here, something terrible in the human heart itself. There is thus a tie here between something evil in a person’s will or in what people do, and an understanding of the person in which one sees him or her as willing something, but one specifies what is willed in words that have no content. In ascribing an evil will to someone, as with understanding someone who is the grip of an illusion—believing that what one utters is sense when it is nonsense—one must engage in a similar act of imaginative participation, giving ‘content’ where there is no content to give. Neither logical illusion nor the case of evil will is understandable. When one engages with what a person says who is in the grip of logical illusion (such as the illusion of the general form of the proposition) one is not inside that person’s thought as one is when he makes sense, because there is no thought to understand, there is no ‘inside’.
You are not inside, because there is as it were no inside; you cannot remain outside, because outside all you can see is someone inclined to put together words, to come out with them in certain circumstances, to associate them with images, feelings and so on; from the outside, there is nothing to be seen that could be called his being in the grip of an illusion that so-and-so, as opposed to his being inclined to come out with certain word-constructions. There is, as I said, no inside. But what it is to understand a person who utters nonsense is to go as far as one can with the idea that there is. [Diamond, art. cit., p. 157]
Diamond finds what she has in mind well put by Wilhelm Grimm, when he speaks of the evil in the tales he and his brother edited, not as something very bad which one could get accustomed to, but as something terrible, black and wholly alien that cannot even be approached. In Rumpelstiltskin, the miller who brags about his daughter and endangers her, and the avaricious king who sets the girl an impossible task, and threatens to kill her if she does not accomplish it, are far from being decent folk. But what is bad about these two is not of the order of the evil of which Grimm speaks, and to which what is dark and sinister in the human heart is able to respond, evil as terrible and unapproachable as that of Rumpelstiltskin. Unapproachable evil would once have been called supernatural or demonic, beyond the world, transcending it and irreducible to the deliverances of psychology or natural law. Rumpelstiltskin’s strength derives from his name being unknown to humans, and just as his name is unknown so his mode of being is ungraspable, and because of this the very eagerness of his demand for the girl’s first child brings it with a sense of horror inseparable from what he embodies of the dark and unappeased, a horror confirmed and augmented by the appalling death he undergoes at the tale’s end. The Tractatus succeeds, just as surely as the tales of the Brothers Grimm, in placing us outside the world, beyond the expressible, beyond the true and the false, an achievement whose power and profundity are for Wittgenstein inseparable from ‘ethics’.
The horror arising from this kind of exile is everywhere to be found in cinema. George Bailey’s expulsion from the world in It’s a Wonderful Life is an example whose effect is particularly shocking, given the context established by the film’s ease and comic precision of the importance of the quotidian to the progress and meaning of George’s life. The sudden access of darkness evoked at the moment of his mother’s repudiation of any knowledge of him, a repudiation by which he becomes as though he were no one, devoid of both identity and place, ruptures the film’s surface, and suspends us, for a moment, before the world even as it renders its reality unapproachable. While George Bailey is gathered back into the world, the protagonist of Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, is a man whose evil excludes him from any relation to others except that of torture and sadism. Free of compassion or fellow feeling, driven by ambition and will to power, he seeks to mould the world to his own liking, by employing the theology of witchcraft and witch-hunting to place himself outside the world and subjugate it to his sovereignty. The ‘logic’ of ‘floating’, whereby witches are tested for guilt or innocence—if they drown they are innocent, if they float they are guilty—serves this purpose admirably. Whatever the result, death is the automatic consequence, and Hopkins’s judgement cannot be gainsaid. Hopkins’s sovereignty, dependent on a form of logical necessity over which he can have no control, is thus internally related to impotence, a fact made abundantly clear by the atrocious death he suffers, as the lover of the girl he has driven mad by torture quarters him and the witchfinder’s own excess devours both him and the man who dismembers him. In Day of Wrath Merete, the elderly mother of Absalon, an elderly priest, and the grandmother of Martin, is consumed with hatred for Anne, Absalon’s young wife, who is to fall in love with Martin, her stepson. The oppression and power of the church, represented by the keys that Merete carries with her wherever she goes, are finally turned against the girl, after Absalon’s death, when in a paroxysm of rage and loathing the old woman accuses her of witchcraft. It is easy to see in Anne a figure of life, of the natural expression of love and freedom, expelled from a world whose power and institutional terror base their legitimacy on the burning of witches. The film itself, however, does not permit this simple opposition: Merete is too powerful and impressive a figure to be reduced to what on that reading would be merely a representative role. Her hatred takes on a physical presence that goes beyond the demands of either narrative or psychology, and exceeds even the theological justifications that might be found for it. She is more than the world of the church and more than the world of love. She appears to serve a principle of expenditure and destruction that has no exact correlative in the film, and in relation to her Anne, who we might be initially inclined to think of as unambiguously sympathetic, takes on a demonic aspect. Dreyer films Anne, as she talks at night to Martin of her love, in a contrasting light that suggests the corruption and evil present in what she is doing, exactly as though we were being brought to see the relation between Anne and Martin as Merete would see it. Dreyer reveals here the cinema’s strange and unsettling relation to the power of the image, as Day of Wrath separates off from meaning only to re-inscribe itself in the anonymity of the text and choral rendition of the Dies Irae. The final image of the film is a cross not photographed but etched in white on a black ground, a cross with a sloping top to it reminiscent of the cross employed in the burning, under Absalon’s jurisdiction, of Marte, an old woman convicted of witchcraft, about halfway through the film. The cross, replete with the symbolism of Christianity, is at the same time an image of an image, an image of nothing.
The manifestation of which the Tractatus speaks, of what lies outside idealisation and the continued possibility of meaning, the manifestation of the ‘there is’, that things are, not how they are, is an irruption of otherness more radical than any that could be reached within language: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ (7). Silence in this context is not only the negation of language seen as a totality from a place beyond language; it is also an interval or interruption that ruptures language and disturbs and displaces the self. Whatever one thinks such a feeling to be, it is, for Blanchot at least, even in its excess and affliction, affirmative. As the narrator of Madness of the Day puts it: ‘I saw that even on the worst days, when I thought I was utterly and completely miserable, I was nevertheless, and nearly all the time, extremely happy’ [Madness of the Day, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Station Hill Press, 1981), p. 7]. The narrator adds that the discovery was not a pleasant one. The world of the ‘happy’ man and that of the ‘unhappy’ cannot be kept separate one from the other. The event to which the Tractatus, like the work of Blanchot, seeks to open us is an event of no fixity, no determination. Even though we never stop making sense, of dwelling in a world made up of everything that is the case and represented by propositions that are true or false, we are always already impotent before the fascination of what lies beyond world and sense. ‘It makes what is ungraspable inescapable; it never lets me cease reaching what I cannot attain’ [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 31]. The fascination is that inherent in the condition of writing, a condition the Tractatus attains to and is recognised as having when we recognise the text as nonsense. In the act of such recognition we are precipitated into logical impossibility: ‘Just as the only necessity that exists is logical necessity, so too the only impossibility that exists is logical impossibility’ (6.375). We find ourselves in that place whose existence is ruled out by the logical structure of language, just as the simultaneous presence of two colours at the same place in the visual field is logically impossible, ruled out by the logical structure of colour (6.3751). For Blanchot, to enter this nowhere, which he calls the ‘essence of solitude’, is to surrender to the fascination of time’s absence. Time’s absence is not purely negative: it is ‘a time without negation, without decision, when here is nowhere as well, and each thing sinks into its image while the “I” that we are recognizes itself by sinking into the neutrality of a featureless third person’ [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 30]. The time of time’s absence has no present, no presence. Having no present, it has neither past nor future. What has no present has never happened, not even for a first time, and yet it starts again, over and over, forever re-begun, without beginning, without end. Wittgenstein writes: ‘If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present’ (6.4311). An eternity lived in the present is a time that is neither eternity nor the present—a time that is not time, an impossible time, excluded by the logical structure of time and so existing only in impossibility. This is the time internal to art, where images reveal that they do not reveal, and we, seeing them, are driven by the passive compulsion that fascination is into intensified states of excitation, as when in the cinema we are seduced ‘by masochistically exacerbating erotic tension, in an orgy of unproductive expenditure’. [Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 57.] For this reason, horror films are revelatory of the nature of cinema in itself and of what constitutes our relations to it, especially insofar as we are complicit with the victimisation and driven quality of the monsters who inhabit them. Not driven by power but compelled by his vulnerability, Michael Myers is both child and rapacious killer, forced at the end into the position of accepting his own death at the hands of Dr Loomis, a death that can never come. The masochism, the impotence, evidenced in the spectacle of his ‘killing’ creates a space of excess, which is given in the film in repeated shots of the places where Michael has been but is no longer present, places which he yet inhabits (there where the film’s theme music, associated with his presence, puts him, there where he is not). Throughout Carpenter’s film, Michael has striven to repeat the move that constitutes his situation in the opening sequence, from being behind the image, behind the mask, to being seen full face, a move from first to third person. No sooner does he close in on the centre of the image, in what is the penultimate sequence, than Loomis ‘kills’ him, by expelling him from the screen. Michael becomes subsumed into an image, but an image of nothing and nowhere. He is no one.
The Virtues of Knowledge
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