Friday, May 11, 2007

A speculative post on Wittgenstein

This one is a somewhat speculative post, as indicated by the title which doubles as a warning. One of the ideas in the Tractatus is that propositions that presuppose their own truth (or falsity) are nonsense. For example, the proposition that x is an object is an illicit proposition, because either a non-object term goes in for x, in which case it is non-sense, or an object term goes in for x, in which case it is true. Elementary propositions must be capable of truth and falsity, but this particular proposition isn't capable of both, only one. (The speculative part begins now.) I wonder if this is a point on which Wittgenstein's thought remained constant throughout his philosophical life. Late Wittgenstein is associated with the idea that a rule or concept can be normative for one only if it is possible to violate the norm of that rule or concept. This is one of the ideas in the private language considerations. Representation is a partially normative concept. Something can be represented well or poorly, accurately or inaccurately. Propositions in the Tractatus are supposed to represent the way the world is, through the picturing relation. The elementary propositions must be capable of both representing and misrepresenting the world, that is truly or falsely representing the world. But, certain apparent propositions, ones that use formal concepts, e.g. x is an object, cannot misrepresent the world. Instead of misrepresenting, they don't represent at all due in part to grammatical misfire. I wonder if Wittgenstein is employing, perhaps only implicitly, his idea that normative concepts must admit the possibility of violation. Some apparently elementary propositions are such that they cannot misrepresent reality, so they cannot represent it either.

I'm not sure how this idea would fit into either a reading of the Tractatus or Wittgenstein's philosophy as a whole. This is in part because I'm still not at home either in the Tractatus or in Wittgenstein's philosophy as a whole. But, if there is something to the idea that there are many points of continuity between early and late Wittgenstein, as defended by the so called New Wittgensteinians, then there might be some further support for this idea in Wittgenstein's other writings.


N. N. said...

Only time for a brief comment...

The example from the Investigations that comes to mind concerns uses of the word "know." It is, for example, nonsense to say that I know that I'm in pain because the negation of this claim is nonsense, i.e., it is logically (grammatically) impossible to be in pain but not know it.

Shawn said...

I just want to point out that the Wittgenstein paper in the online philosophy conference uses the idea I mentioned, that a concept can't be normative if it is impossible to violate it, in what looks to be one of its main arguments. I only got as far as the introduction where the author goes through what she plans to do, but it looks like it figures prominently.

David said...

Here is a (potentially) helpful quote from Philosophical Grammar:

"'That's him' (this picture represents him)-that contains the whole problem of representation. What is the criterion, how is it to be verified, that this picture is the portrait of that object, i.e. that it is meant to represent it? It is not similarity that makes the picture a portrait (it might be a striking resemblance of one person, and yet be a portrait of someone else it resembles less.) How can I know that someone means the picture as a portrait of N?-Well, perhaps because he says so, or writes it underneath."

And later:

"What is the connection between the portrait of N and N himself? Perhaps, that the name written underneath is the name used to address him."

Here the sense of representation is that it is determined by convention and by the means in which it is used as a representation. The portrait of N represents N because the one whom is credited with the portrait has authority to say "this is a portrait of N--it represents N". This is the way "N's portrait as a representation" is used.

I'm not even sure the later Wittgenstein would subscribe to dealing with questions of truth and falsity with respect to representation. It makes no sense to ask: is it true that this is a portrait of N? or is it a portrait of N, that is, does it represent N, merely because N's name is written underneath it?

What if I responded: Well, no, surely that can't be the case--I write my name underneath a landscapes I draw, but the landscape is not a representation of me in the way that a portrait is a representation of N.

The truth or falsity of this brand of representation is misleading and /or irrelevant. We don't need epistemic justification for claims regarding intention and representation (at least not in the case of portraits and/or written names, and what they yield when combined in a certain way)

Additionally, consider where questions of epistemic justification lead to in this context, one could ask:

"Ok, so you're saying this is a portrait of N--I see that the name 'N' is marked underneath this portrait. But how do I know it really is a portrait of N? Did the author intend it to mean this N, or was it a mistake--perhaps the author was acquainted with someone else named N also, and the portrait is really about this other N, and not the N we think of when we look at this picture"

So, in conclusion (sorry this is so long-winded), I would say that truth/falsity is more or less irrelevant to certain kinds of 'representational' statements we tend to make (at least the sort of statements concerning 'representations as pictures' and/or the significance of expressions that name what a given representation is a representation of.

I hope that was somewhat helpful. And I want to reiterate that yes, the latter Wittgenstein most definitely regards concepts (especially loaded concepts like representation) to be determined (socially) normatively.

-David Price

My blog: language games

Shawn said...

It looks like Wittgenstein's later views on representation are more nuanced than I thought. The question I was getting at in the post was whether the normative aspect of concepts of operative in the Tractatus, particularly in the notion of representation. If the later Wittgenstein thought that truth/falsity couldn't arise for representations, then that might reflect negatively on my idea. Or, it might indicate that he changed his mind on the relation of representation and truth. This is rapidly getting outside the areas I'm familiar with. At least in the Tractatus, there seems to be a slightly different view of representation, one which seems to be under attack in the quotes you gave. I'm wondering whether the normative side of concepts is in that. If none, then my post is pretty much entirely off-base.