Ludwig Wittgenstein: the logical
The wrong paradigm
The inclusion of Ludwig Wittgenstein in this selection is not meant to
suggest that his way of thinking, his understanding of the world, is in
complete agreement with that of Mallarmé, Duchamp, Darwin or
Shakespeare. On the contrary, Wittgenstein found himself unable to appreciate
the greatness attributed by others to Shakespeare and did not believe
the evolutionary process was capable of generating the qualities he valued
in the human mind (see quotes below). The logic of eroticism, which is at
the basis of the works of Mallarmé, Duchamp, Shakespeare, and even
Darwin, had no apparent influence on his writings.
Because Wittgenstein operated within the proscriptions of traditional
apologetic philosophy he took no account of the relation of the sexual to
the erotic in his appreciation of the logic of language. Similarly, he excluded
physiological sensations from his metaphysical sense of ‘aesthetics’. He did
entertain the idea, though, that language derived its capacity to represent
the world from an inherent logical relation between the world and the mind.
And he maintained that everyday language did not need logical reform
because it already adequately represented the world.
But it is principally in Wittgenstein’s later work, where he uses biological
metaphors to account for the logic of language, that there is a suggestion
of a logical connection between functions of the body and the operations
of the mind. His later investigations move closer to the understanding of
Mallarmé, Duchamp, and Darwin and Shakespeare.
While Wittgenstein takes no account of the logical implications of the
sexual/erotic dynamic for the operations of the mind, neither can it be said
that Mallarmé or Duchamp explicitly elaborated a position on the sexual.
Both, though, did produce artworks that recognise the logical status of the
aesthetic in terms of sensations, and an art conscious of its logical status as
erotic. But unlike Wittgenstein, they did not purposefully engage with the
ethical. Duchamp had an attitude of determined indifference towards
anything that was not ‘aesthetic’ or reducible to sensation.
Darwin, though, did have a consistent and comprehensive appreciation
of the relationship between the sexual dynamic and the dynamic of understanding
in the human mind. In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation
to Sex he argues for the logical development of the human mind from evolutionary
predecessors. He gives greater consideration, though, to the ethical
or ‘moral sense’ than he does to the aesthetic. This is in keeping with his
comment that his scientific researches allowed little time for artistic pursuits.
Because Darwin had little or no time to consider the aesthetic in depth
he deferred to Kant, the most noted philosopher of his day. Darwin’s
clarity of insight belies the fact that Kant, as an apologist, was quite
confused about both ethics and aesthetics. Kant took no account of
the philosophic implications of sexual dynamic, so he misrepresents the
priority of the body over the mind, and hence confounds the logical
relation of aesthetics and ethics.
Kant, like anyone with an apologetic programme, was unable to present
a consistent understanding of the operations of the mind. Kant cannot be
understood, nor can Descartes, except as apologists. Both attempted to
reconcile the processes of reason to their transcendental faiths. Along
with Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and many others, they were
apologists for their beliefs. Historically, philosophical apology or its complement
scepticism were, like theology, no more than psychology disguised as
Wittgenstein is the first professional philosopher to attempt systematically
to present a philosophy free of the psychology of apologetics. Yet his
work was still conditioned by residual elements of the traditional psychological
programme. Wittgenstein’s achievement was to establish a logical
bridgehead beyond the psychology of apologetics while avoiding the
indeterminacy of scepticism.
The philosophic method Wittgenstein introduces into Western thought
stands in marked contrast to the methods of apologetic thinkers. It avoids
Kant’s disembodied transcendentalism as much as it avoids Hume’s scepticism.
His method treats philosophy not as a process of justification in
which the formal methods of philosophy are used to give the appearance of
rationality to a set of beliefs, nor as a means to counter those justifications.
Rather it considers the philosophic as the pre-existing basis or dynamic for
thought and language that enables effective expression in terms of the
processes of life. Wittgenstein attempted to apply the method to the
relationship between the world and language throughout his life.
Wittgenstein’s method offers a philosophic approach capable of distinguishing
between the philosophic basis of life and the psychological -
ramifications of apologia or ideology and their logical counterpart, scepticism.
For apologists, the possibility of forming thoughts and ideas independent of
other human beings is a prime condition for the possibility of an intelligent
relationship with a transcendental entity such as God. Wittgenstein’s
arguments avoid the illogicality of such apologetic expectations.
When Descartes attempted to isolate the certainty of the subjective act
of knowing, he hoped to demonstrate the independence of reason. Kant
similarly isolated reason because he wanted to validate his belief in God.
Likewise attempts to reshuffle the pack of reason, without addressing its
logical basis in nature, failed for Schopenhauer as much as it does, in the
final analysis, for Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language in
the Philosophical Investigations demonstrates the logical relation between
language, as a human faculty, and life. In the private language argument he
demonstrated, against the premises of his earlier work, that the only way to
account consistently for human reason was from an understanding whose
criteria were determined by the social function of language within the
dynamic of life. In general terms Wittgenstein was moving away from the
illogical belief in the priority of the ideal, toward a philosophic understanding
that prioritised the processes of life, or, as he called the cultural
manifestations of life, ‘forms of life’.
Where the method failed
Wittgenstein’s gradual development toward a sound philosophic method in
his later period did not mean he applied the method consistently to all
aspects of philosophy. He retained practices from the idealist philosophy of
the Tractatus. Because he developed his new method from a critique of his
earlier idealism, the method was not fully grounded in the logic of the
dynamic of the body and mind. It was only in his last writings, in the
collection of thoughts that constitute the book On Certainty, that he came
close to such a possibility. Even though he worked toward a consistent application
of his new method he did not correctly identify the basis of the
certainty it engendered.
The residual idealism of his later work ensured he remained something
of a Kantian, particularly in his confusion over the status and relationship
of ethics and aesthetics. Wittgenstein’s earlier position that ‘aesthetics and
ethics are one and the same’ depended on just such a transcendental understanding
of ethics as beyond the contingency of propositional discourse. In
terms of the logic of aesthetic and ethics derived from Duchamp and
Shakespeare this amounts to saying ‘aesthetics and aesthetics are one and the
same’. Wittgenstein never overcame the early influence of Schopenhauer’s
modification of Christian apologetics. Schopenhauer’s elevation of the Will,
following on the abstract tendency in thought epitomised by Hegel, to the
transcendental throne merely perpetuated the reduction of ethical processes
to the aesthetic.
Yet at the same time as Wittgenstein denied the possibility of the ethical
to propositional language in his early work, he developed a complex theory
of language to account for seemingly ethical concerns as the truth and
falsity of propositions. These, he claimed, referred to contingent facts
that supposedly had no ethical or moral status. Nor did his arguments
acknowledge the logical status of aesthetics. His idealism prevented him
from appreciating that aesthetics includes all possible sensations from the
immediacy of pain to the apprehension of sublime unity. Nor did he explore
the logic of understanding where a sensation, once named in the language
dynamic, enters the domain of ethics.
Wittgenstein’s dismissal, in the Tractatus, of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas
is symptomatic of his difficulties. He did not appreciate that Darwin was
presenting verifiable facts in a way more logically sound than did the
Tractatus. Darwin at least based his understanding on the human dynamic
and not on speculations about atomic and molecular physics. To have both
an awareness of profound sensations and a capacity to express sensations
profoundly as language is what it means to be human in the Darwinian sense.
(Shakespeare details the dynamic in the logical structure of his Sonnets and
explores its ramifications in his poems and plays.)
Neither was it possible for Wittgenstein, out of his later theory of
‘language games’, to see the logical relationship between the language games
of ethics and the language games of aesthetics. His philosophical position
admitted of no unified reading that would show the logical connection
between different games. He did not consider the possibility that the idea
of language games carried a logical connection that accounted for the
relation of ‘language games’ to the bodily dynamic.
Wittgenstein, however, did make some effort to modify his understanding
of the transcendental. Rather than being a mystical realm beyond
language, in his later work it became embodied in the limit of the actual,
at the boundary of language. ‘Value’, both ethical and aesthetic, was at the
limit of language and so still not expressible in language.
Darwin and Shakespeare avoid Wittgenstein’s self-inflicted impasse by
locating the source of logic, and so the possibility of language, in the sexual
or bodily dynamic that ensures the continuation of human being. Not
surprisingly Wittgenstein confessed in his notes and conversations an
inability to comprehend the basis of Shakespeare’s greatness. He also had
great difficulty accepting that the evolutionary understanding of Darwin had
sufficient ‘multiplicity’ to account for the complexity and depth of human
In his later work Wittgenstein was unable to overcome his acquired
resistance to natural logic. His attempts to correct and supersede the
flawed crystalline structure of the Tractatus failed because he was caught
between the comfort of the old beliefs and an appreciation that logic is
based in nature not God. Consequently, the Philosophical Investigations
(like many of his posthumously published writings) was published as an
‘album of notes’.
While Shakespeare, Darwin and Duchamp were able to produce structured
philosophic works of great logical consistency, Wittgenstein failed
miserably in his first attempt in the Tractatus, and gave up trying in his second
attempt. Behind his failure is the shadow of Kant’s overt apologetics in the
Critique of Practical Reason following on the covert apologetics in the Critique
of Pure Reason.
The trajectory of Wittgenstein’s thought
Despite these considerations or difficulties, there is a trajectory followed by
Wittgenstein’s intense philosophic questioning from the early to the later
periods that is relevant to the thoughts presented here.
A trajectory toward a greater consistency in the logic of language is
absent from the writings of Hume or Kant. Hume, whose radical scepticism
provoked the transcendental philosophy of Kant, was not able to relate his
philosophical scepticism to the events of everyday life. And Kant’s later
thought is retrogressive rather than progressive as he moved to connect his
early arguments with his beliefs.
The direction of Kant’s thinking after the Critique of Pure Reason, with
its prima facie case for the independence of reason, was compromised by
the apologetic requirement of reintroducing the concepts of ‘God,
Immortality, and Freedom’ into the area of practical reason. This was not
an option favoured by Wittgenstein. He grounded his philosophy firmly in
the facts of language, in the logic of everyday discourse. He was able to
prevent everything but his most private reflections turning to such possibilities
as a ‘Last Judgment’.
If Duchamp offers an expression of the logic of aesthetics, or sensation,
then Wittgenstein offers a persistent analysis of propositional language,
which was anathema to Duchamp. At the same time Wittgenstein was
attempting to detail the logic of language in the Tractatus (1914-8) Duchamp
had successfully expressed the logic of aesthetics in the early schematic for
the Large Glass (1912-5). Duchamp appreciated that the inexpressible was
the aesthetic, while Wittgenstein thought it was both the aesthetic and the
ethical. Both sought to proscribe language in favour of the inexpressible.
That both thinkers were independently considering the relation of the two
modes of understanding is an irony Duchamp may possibly have enjoyed,
but one that was beyond the reach of Wittgenstein’s crystalline world.
Consequently it is not surprising that Wittgenstein determined ‘it is
impossible for there to be propositions of ethics’. Yet he persisted in
claiming in the Tractatus that propositions present the ‘existence and nonexistence
of states of affairs’, that they can be analyzed into the relationship
between the ‘true or the false’, that they have ‘truth-grounds’, ‘truthfunctions’,
‘truth-operations’, and that there can be the ‘good and bad
exercise of the will’.
Critics point out that Wittgenstein appears to want it both ways. On
the one hand he claims that, because ethics is beyond discourse and can only
be ‘shown’, all the propositions of the Tractatus are nonsensical, to be
transcended so that one ‘will see the world aright’ (84) Yet he also said that
only the propositions of natural science merit ‘saying’ because it is only in
the scientific process that determinations are made between the true and
Wittgenstein’s conflation of aesthetics with ethics and his dismissal of
ethical processes as non-ethical is a consequence of his adherence to the
remnants of apologetics. Wittgenstein’s distinction between the aesthetic/
ethical as ‘showing’ and ‘saying’ as non-ethical confounds the natural
division of understanding into sensations and ideas, or aesthetics and ethics.
Some scientists such as Einstein, affected by the same corrupt paradigm,
believed the scientific programme of discovery and verification of facts
Wittgenstein was unable to accept that the aesthetic is the dynamic of
sensations and the ethical is the dynamic of ideas. It is not surprising then
that he struggled to understand Shakespeare’s achievement. Wittgenstein’s
Romantic flight from the ethics of discourse is an option Shakespeare rejects.
Its direst consequence is the distortion of the logical relation between the
aesthetic and the ethical.
The atomic model does not provide the correct multiplicity
Wittgenstein’s basic intuition was that for language to be meaningful it must
have the same logical multiplicity as the world it represents. In his early work
the model he used to demonstrate the relationship was pre-determined by
that used by his contemporaries in philosophy, Bertrand Russell and Alfred
North Whitehead, which was in turn derived from the atomic physics of
scientists such as Heinrich Hertz, Ludwig Boltzman and Ernst Mach. By
analyzing language into atomic and molecular propositions in the Tractatus
Wittgenstein thought he could show the one-to-one relationship between
the micro-world of atomic physics and the logic of language.
Under the influence of scientific determinism and religious idealism,
some atomic physicists did not doubt their capacity to locate the ultimate
constituents of matter. Albert Einstein’s unwillingness to accommodate the
uncertainty inherent in quantum mechanics was a consequence of his faith
in the capacity of language and reality to be, at some point, reconciled with
the discoveries of atomic physics. He brought a religious fervour to his scientific
investigations. His idealist philosophy of science was a form of apologetics.
The logical consequence of the idealist attitude to science was that
both Einstein and Russell considered science a-moral. In reporting the ‘facts’
of the world both idealists ignored the logic of language.
The young Wittgenstein was influenced heavily by their scientific
idealism. It led to his denial of an ethical consequence to propositions,
and the location of the ethical in the ‘mystical’. Consequently the seemingly
‘a-moral’microscopic world of atoms and molecules was the level of ‘reality’,
or the ‘describable’world, on which Wittgenstein based his logical structure
of language. The expectation that elementary particles of physics could be
equated with the constituents of language implied that human logic was
derived from the atomic, or microscopic, dimension.
Ironically, the inability of science to isolate individual colours of the
visible spectrum without implicitly referring to the rest of the spectrum led
to the collapse of Wittgenstein’s faith in discrete atomic objects as the logical
basis for language. The basic units of meaning in the Tractatus could not
represent the conventional names for colours in the spectrum. Although
Wittgenstein’s later work addressed the inadequacy of comparing human
beings and their language to a model derived from atomic physics he never
satisfactorily resolved the dilemma.
Once Wittgenstein realised the inadequacy of the atomic model for
demonstrating philosophic consistency between the world and language, he
began to move toward a model that more adequately accounted for the
human dynamic in language. He shifted his focus from discrete atomic
objects to the ‘subjective’ aspects of human observation, basic to the sense
of indeterminacy in perception (which influenced Niels Bohr and others
to formulate the uncertainty principle). Not surprisingly the reforming
idealist in Russell did not understand the significance of Wittgenstein’s
abandonment of the theories of the Tractatus in favour of a deeper investigation
into the living logic of language.
Wittgenstein’s move from an idealised scientific model to one based in
human propensities was still not rigorous enough to account for correct
logical multiplicity between the world and language. He was not able to give
his later thoughts, which took account of the vagueness in meaning, the
logical structure of the early work. Only Shakespeare’s Sonnets show how
to combine the structural expectations of the Tractatus logically with the
Philosophical Investigation’s unstructured ‘album of notes’.
The metaphor of life
Not only did Wittgenstein’s later work look to language as human beings
use it in everyday life, he began to use everyday ‘life’ as a metaphor for the
description of the range of possibilities manifest in what he now called
‘language games’. Phrases such as ‘family resemblances’ and ‘forms of life’
came to represent the type of multiplicity that language games exhibit in
the language of everyday life.
Even Wittgenstein’s sense of ‘certainty’ was founded on such givens as
‘family’ or ‘parents’. In place of the abstractions based in atomic physics of
his earlier work there was the gradual intrusion of biological metaphor into
his descriptions of the function and limitations of language.
What a Copernicus or a Darwin really achieved was not the discovery of
a true theory but of a fertile point of view…I think there is some truth in
my idea that I think only reproductively. (85)
Wittgenstein’s later work is transitional between the logical atomism of
a Russell, and the acceptance of the biological level for philosophic structuring
in the recent work of cognitive scientists such as Lakoff and Johnson
in Woman, Fire, and Dangerous Things, Metaphors We Live By, The Body in the
Mind, and Philosophy in the Flesh. (See essay 8.)
I can think of no better expression to characterise these similarities
(between various forms of games as a model for the nature of Language
Games) than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between
members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament,
etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’
form a family. (86)
Now it gives our way of looking at things, and our researches, their
form. Perhaps it was once disputed. But perhaps for unthinking ages, it
has belonged to the unthinking scaffolding of our thoughts. (Every human
being has parents.) (87)
I cannot say that I have good grounds for the opinion that cats do not
grow on trees or that I had a father and a mother.
If someone has doubts about it – how is that supposed to have come
about? By his never, from the beginning, having believed that he had
parents? But then, is that conceivable, unless he had been taught it? (88)
The procedure in a court of law rests on the fact that circumstances
give statements a certain probability. The statement that, for example,
someone came into the world without parents wouldn’t even be taken
into consideration there. (89)
Now I would like to regard this certainty, not as something akin to
hastiness or superficiality, but as forms of life. (90)
But that means I want to conceive it as something that lies beyond
being justified or unjustified; as it were, as something animal. (91)
So instead of the microscopic modeling of the religion of science or the
macroscopic modeling of the science of religion, Wittgenstein begins to use
the intermediate or basic level imagery of the human form (basic level in
the sense of a cognitive category). This is the level at which the human being
operates for its evolutionary persistence through the sexual dynamic.
Symptomatic of the residual apologetic reluctance to accept the
biological as the basic level of cognition was the above-mentioned difficulty
Wittgenstein expressed about understanding Shakespeare.
It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something that we do not
see the truth of for ourselves. When, for instance, I hear the expression
of admiration for Shakespeare by distinguished men in the course of
several centuries, I can never rid myself of the suspicion that praising him
has been the conventional thing to do; though I have to tell myself that
this is not how it is. It takes the authority of a Milton really to convince
me. I take it for granted that he was incorruptible. – But of course I don’t
mean by this that I don’t believe an enormous amount of praise to have
been, and still to be lavished on Shakespeare without understanding and
for the wrong reasons by a thousand professors of literature. (92)
And in a conversation with Maurice Drury, Wittgenstein revealed the
difficulty he had with the implications of Darwin’s arguments.
My failure to understand him could (then) be explained by my
inability to read him easily. That is, as one views a splendid piece of
I do not believe that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other
poet. Was he perhaps the creator of language rather than a poet.
I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with
The reason why I cannot understand Shakespeare is that I want to
find symmetry in all this asymmetry. (95)
I have always thought that Darwin was wrong:his theory doesn’t account
for all this variety of species (in the Zoological Gardens, Dublin). It
hasn’t the necessary multiplicity. Nowadays some people are fond of
saying that at last evolution has produced a species that is able to understand
the whole process which gave it birth. Now that you can’t say! (96)
Wittgenstein’s mistaken suggestion that Darwin presumed to ‘understand
the ‘process’ that gave birth to species is amplified by Drury’s empathetic
You could say that now there has evolved a strange animal that collects
other animals and puts them in gardens. But you can’t bring the concepts
of knowledge and understanding into this series. They are different
categories entirely! (97)
To which Wittgenstein replied, ‘yes , you could put it that way’.
In his early work Wittgenstein failed to find an appropriate model for
rendering the correct multiplicity between the world and language. His
attempt to represent the logic of language was foiled by the scientific idealism
in the Tractatus. The logical multiplicity he sought for the Tractatus, using
the model of atomic physics, could not provide the appropriate relationship
between language and the world. Wittgenstein’s idealism led him to confuse
the meaning of aesthetics and ethics by considering them ‘one and the same’.
And he designated propositions as true and false without attributing any
sense of ethics to the rational processes of thought.
Wittgenstein acknowledged most of these failures and spent the second
half of his life attempting to rectify them. He went beyond his contemporaries
but was still conditioned in significant respects by residual aspects of
his old way of thinking.
In Wittgenstein’s later work the idealism of the Tractatus is replaced
by his notion of ‘language games’ which conformed more closely with
language as it is used by human beings in everyday life. He turned to
biological metaphors to evoke the appropriate degree of multiplicity that
language games involved. While his attitude to ethics did not change,
he no longer held to the claim that the aesthetic and ethics are the same.
The variety of uses of each word gives rise to the sense of interrelating
language games. Their commonality is reduced to the idea that ethics
and aesthetics are something inherent in ‘forms of life’, the boundary
conditions without which any language has no community of usage, no
community of purpose.
Wittgenstein does not, or was unwilling to, draw the obvious conclusion
that language derives directly from the natural world. He does not
accept that, for the human being, the mind is conditional on the body.
In this regard he remained decidedly an apologist. His natural logic had
not distilled itself sufficiently to appreciate the clear and simple logic of
Darwin’s unconditional acceptance of life. A quote from Kant reveals the
similarity of their struggle to counteract the consequences of their illogical
The schematisation by which our understanding deals with the
phenomenal world ... is a skill so deeply hidden in the human soul that
we shall hardly guess the secret trick that nature here employs. (98)
I can take Wittgenstein no further. He is significant because he has
enabled me to see more clearly the logical moves needed to correct the
consequences in his work of an illogical agenda and in Duchamp’s work of
the effects of a logical but limited agenda and in Darwin’s work of a logical
but empirically focused enterprise. He points in the direction that helps
make sense of Duchamp’s narrowed focus on aesthetics to the exclusion of
ethics. He points in the direction of Darwin’s more comprehensive philosophic
position. And they all point toward Shakespeare’s complete and
consistent philosophic system.
Notes are numbered continuously throughout the webpages on Darwin, Wittgenstein, Mallarmé, Duchamp to Shakespeare
84 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961, proposition. 6.54. Back
85 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. Peter Winch, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1980, p. 18. Back
86 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1968, no. 67. Back
87 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1974, no. 211. Back
88 Ibid., no. 282. Back
89 Ibid., no. 335. Back
90 Ibid., no. 358. Back
91 Ibid., no. 359. Back
92 Ludwig, Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, no. 48. Back
93 Ibid., no. 49. Back
94 Ibid., no. 84. Back
95 Ibid., no. 86. Back
96 M. O'C. Drury, 'Conversations with Wittgenstein', in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Personal Recollections, ed R. Rhees, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1981, p. 160. Back
97 Ibid. Back
98 Emmanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1787, in William. H. Calvin, How Brains Think, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1996, p. 113. Back