Friday, 6 November 2009


The standard reading of the Tractatus presents its project in terms of the demarcation of the bounds of sense. It is argued that the text develops a general theory of language which is then used to fix the bounds of sense. Wittgenstein’s purpose, on this view, is to draw limits to meaningful discourse. However, it has been made clear, by commentators like Cora Diamond and James Conant, that the task of a ‘proper theory of symbolism’ is to self-destruct in a manner that shows all theories of symbolism to be superfluous. ‘Logic must take care of itself’ (TLP 5.473). When Wittgenstein claims that you cannot give a sign a wrong sense, his claim is that there is no such thing as infringing on the bounds of sense and therefore there are no bounds of the sort that, according to the standard view, he was seeking to demarcate.

As Conant indicates, ‘the difference between an ideal logical symbolism and ordinary language, for the Tractatus, is that in the former—unlike the latter—one is able to read the symbol directly off the sign. Logical syntax for the Tractatus is not a combinatorial theory (which demarcates legitimate from illegitimate sequences of signs or symbols) but a tool of elucidation (which allows us to recognize the logical contributions of the constituent parts of a Satz, and the absence of such a contribution on the part of the constituents of a Scheinsatz)’. Elucidation, or the transition from unclarity to clarity, is not effected through the transformation in the logical character of the propositions of ordinary language, but rather through a transformation in the view we hold of their logical character. In Conant’s words, ‘It is a matter of making explicit the logical structure that has been implicit in our Sätze all along (and if our Sätze are Unsinn [nonsense], it is a matter making explicit that there has, all along, been no implicit logical structure but only the appearance of such structure)’.

Conant’s argument is that in the Tractatus Wittgenstein wants to show how Frege’s theory of Begriffsschrift—his theory of a logically perfect language that excludes the possibility of the formation of illogical thought—is in fact the correct theory of language as such. ‘Language itself prevents the possibility of every logical mistake. Ordinary language is in this respect already a kind of Begriffsschrift. What for Frege is the structure of an ideal language is for early Wittgenstein the structure of all language.’ Denis McManus argues that Wittgenstein's early work can be seen ‘as attempting to defuse all efforts to draw the bounds of sense, as attempting to expose as illusions anything that would give logic an impossible reality’. ‘Theories which make a proposition of logic appear substantial are always false’ (TLP 6.111). As McManus has it, ‘Anything that would seem to set the bounds of sense, to give substance to the laws of logic, is an illusion.’

For Badiou, Wittgenstein is, along with Lacan, one of the most potent of modern anti-philosophers. This is how he characterises the procedures of the early Wittgenstein:

The antiphilosophical act consists in letting what there is be manifested, insofar as ‘what there is’ is precisely that which no true proposition can say. If Wittgenstein’s antiphilosophical act can legitimately be declared archi-aesthetic, it is because this ‘letting-be’ has the non-propositional form of a pure showing, of clarity, and because such clarity happens to the unsayable only in the form of a work without thought (the paradigm for such donation is certainly music for Wittgenstein). I say archi-aesthetic because it is not a question of substituting art for philosophy either. It is a question of bringing into the scientific and propositional activity the principle of a clarity whose (mystical) element is beyond this activity, and the real paradigm for which is art. It is thus a question of firmly establishing the laws of the sayable (of the thinkable), in order for the unsayable (the unthinkable, which is ultimately given only in the form of art) to be situated as the ‘upper limit’ of the sayable itself.

This is a restatement of the standard, ‘ineffable’ reading of the Tractatus. However, if Conant and McManus (amongst others) are right, it is this very reading that the Tractatus causes to self-destruct. In Philosophical Remarks we find the following:

Any kind of explanation of language presupposes a language already. And in a certain sense, the use of language is something that cannot be taught . . . I cannot use language to get outside language. (PR 54)

McManus points out that a similar thought can be found in an early Notebook entry:

How can I be told how the proposition represents? Or can this not be said at all? And if that is so can I ‘know’ it? If it was supposed to be said to me, then this would have to be done by means of a proposition; but the proposition could only show it.
What can be said can only be said by means of a proposition, and so nothing that is necessary for the understanding of all propositions can be said. (NB 25)

As McManus indicates, ‘all explanations of propositions terminate at some point in our simply seeing what a proposition shows, and that will be a matter of our already understanding the world in the terms in which that proposition represents it. The proposal that a proposition must simply “show its sense” (TLP 4.022) and, with it, the world it represents, thus emerges here out of a sense of confusion in the notion that one might be told how propositions represent’.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (TLP 5.6)

This sentence, as it is set out here, relating, as it would seem to do, to the question of the conformity between my language and my world, is in fact a sentence to which we given no sense. We have simply mistaken a combination of signs without sense for a combination of symbols with sense. If utterances are meaningless, that is not because they are beyond sense, or possess some illogical sense. It is because we have, as yet, given no meaning to the signs that make them up.

It would seem, then, that Badiou is right when he says that what he calls the ‘act’ is central to Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophy as an activity. 'Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an actvity' (TLP 4.112). As Conant has argued, the nonsensicality of a sentence like ‘Caesar is a prime number’ is to be traced, not to the logical structure of the sentence, but to our failure to mean something by it. For Wittgenstein, the source of the problem is to be located in our relation to the string, not in the linguistic string itself. We think we are confronting a logically impossible thought—and that this involves a kind of impossibility of a higher order than ordinary impossibility. The desire for meaning is displaced onto the words themselves: it is as if they are aspiring to say something they can never quite succeed in saying. It is in this, and nothing more mysterious than this, that the archi-aesthetic nature of what is situated beyond the sayable consists.


Badiou, Alain. ‘Silence, solipsisme, sainteté: L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein’, BARCA! Poésie, Politique, psychanalyse, 3, (1994).
Bosteels, Bruno. ‘Radical Antiphilosophy’, Filozofski vestnik XXIX, 2 (2008): 155-187. The translation from Badiou is cited from Bosteels.
Conant, James. ‘The Method of the Tractatus’, in From Frege to Wittgenstein, ed. E.H. Reck (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 374-462.
McManus, Denis. The Enchantment of Words (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

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