cjbanning: (Symposium)
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The Tractatus opens with what appears to be a description of an ideal language of a vaguely logical positivist character, but which by the end of the work has revealed itself to have taken a strange—and, to many philosophers, even alarming—turn: it announces that everything it has been saying (and continues to say) has been (and is) nonsense, espouses the mystical character of not only ethics and religion but also grammar, and then concludes with a quietist call to silence.

Most troubling has been the first claim, that the Tractatus itself is nonsensical. Wittgenstein's exact words are:
6.54  My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he [sic] used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Interpretations of this passage in the Tractatus (at least, those which do not simply assume he was wrong and move on) can be said to fall into three groups: the austere reading (emerging, as Danièle Moyal-Sherrock not incorrectly notes, “not accidentally in the wake of Deconstruction” [“Good Sense of Nonsense: A Reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as Nonself-Repudiating.” Philosophy 82 (2007): 147]), which claims that Tractarian nonsense must be rejected completely; the ineffable reading, which argues that Tractarian nonsense gestures towards ineffable truths which cannot be put into words; and non-therapeutic readings which claim that by nonsense Wittgenstein meant something quite technical and limited and which should not, properly understood, bother us. 

As Roy Brand has argued in his essay “Making Sense Speaking Nonsense" (The Philosophical Forum 35.3 [2004]: 311-339), the three positions are actually in substantial agreement with each other, with most of their apparent differences being the result of different emphasis and terminology (331-333). After all, all three schools of interpretation agree that Tractarian sentences are, by the standards of the Tractatus, nonsensical. (They hardly could deny it without departing from Wittgenstein at the start.) And all three acknowledge also that those sentences nonetheless have a specific function which they can play, at least sometimes do play, and which Wittgenstein seemed to want them to play, in the natural history of human beings. Even in early Wittgenstein, then, we have the conception of sentences which function without signifying, of (what Wittgenstein does not yet call) meaning as use, which will go on to become the main impetus of Wittgenstein's discussions in the Investigations. The disagreement, then, is over exactly what words we should use to describe these sentences.

Wittgenstein's description, such as it is, of the mystical is found in the following Tractarian proposition:
6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
This seems to result only in meaningless mystery-mongering. (I am indebted to Paul Horwich for the term "mystery-mongering.") If the mystical cannot be put into words, how can we say it exists? Obviously, we cannot; therefore we require the elucidatory nonsense of the Tractatus to gesture towards it. But how can we say that the nonsense of Tractatus gestures towards it—remember we cannot speak of it at all. So we are left not being able to say that we can't say that we can't say that we can't say . . . that we can't say, an infinite regress of meaningless sounds following meaningless sounds of which we seem we will never, ever, be able to escape. Even the suggestion that we should not talk about the mystical lest we be trapped in this infinite regress—the Tractatus' quietist conclusion—manages to fall within it. Thus the implicit ineffablism of even the austere reading:
It is a feature of the austere reading that these propositions mean nothing, but they must somehow succeed in attracting our metaphysical urge to go beyond what can be said and this illusion to be nothing more than nonsense. [. . .] But for this to be successful, so the austere reading claims, we must attribute some transitory sense to the propositions of the book or, alternatively, go beyond those and understand the author the book in some ineffable way. (Brand 333)
Similarly, even the non-therapists, who attempt to preserve the say/show distinction in order to hold off this ineffability, are nonetheless left with sentences halfway between sense and nonsense which we are nonetheless able to understand.

It is understandable, then, why it is tempting for philosophers to want to view Wittgenstein's early mysticism as a mistake—or, for the austere reading, something which he is even then rejecting—and to see his later philosophy as a break away from and a rejection of this mysticism. However, there are two reasons why this view of Wittgenstein's development is unsatisfactory. The first is that Wittgenstein's critiques of the Tractatus—for example, as found in the Investigations at §23, §97, and §114, and by implication spread liberally throughout §§1 to 120 seem not to focus, or even touch, on the mysticism of the Tractatus but on the positivistic characteristics of the work, the so-called "picture-theory of language" which many non-therapists understand it to be espousing (wrongly, I would argue--for any non-austere, non-ineffable understanding of nonsense, the existence of ethics and the truth of the picture theory are in fact incommensurate.). Furthermore, there are statements in the Investigations which Wittgenstein seems to endorse and which thus reaffirm the Tractatus' mystical vision:
The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of pure nonsense [. . .] that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. (§119)
Here is where the accusation of reading postmodernism into Wittgenstein will begin. But if we are to take Wittgenstein seriously, then we must turn to as guides those thinkers who do, as he does, take mysticism seriously—and these are not to be found (at least not in any great number) within the analytic tradition. In my next post I'll compare Wittgenstein's mysticism with the thought of two French post-structuralists, Derrida and Kristeva.


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