[Wittrs] Re: [C] Does The Tractatus Invalidate Itself?

  • From: "SWM" <SWMirsky@xxxxxxx>
  • To: wittrsamr@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 18 Feb 2010 19:25:57 -0000

--- In Wittrs@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, "College Dropout John O'Connor" <wittrsamr@...> 

> Wittgenstein explicitly states that there are not several kinds of nonsense; 
> I think this was in his Lecture on Philosophy of Philosophical Remarks.  But 
> then, Wittgenstein does not distinguish between logic and logos and other 
> words we might think hand on to each other, past each other.  Like one is an 
> umbrella to the other.

Have you a link or direct quotation for this statement? It seems to me pretty 
obvious that there ARE and must be several kinds of nonsense, if only because 
the term "nonsense", like most of our words, had a range of uses and this is 
very much a part of the later Wittgenstein's thinking.

I may say of something I hear, that seems utterly unsupportable to me, that it 
is nonsense and mean by this that it is just so obviously wrong no one in his 
or her right mind could be expected to accept it. This pejorative sense of 
"nonsense" is often confused with, say, a claim that something someone has said 
is simply unintelligible, i.e., that it may look superficially as though one 
can make head or tail of it but, really, on closer examination one will see 
that we cannot. It is simply "non-sense" as in lacking in any genuine meaning.

And this may be intended pejoratively or just as a way of explaining how we can 
be fooled by the way someone has put something.

And then there is the nonsense of doggerel and the like. Perhaps Lewis 
Carroll's jabberwocky poem would be an ideal case in point. Think of a line 
like "T'was brillig in the slithy tove" and so forth. Here there is something 
else going on, i.e., the use of words or sounds that recall to mind words with 
real meanings for us in a combination that suggests a picture designed to evoke 
a particular response in reader or hearer. Here a swampy habitat, vaguely 
menacing, comes to mind, especially when heard as part of the larger poem which 
proceeds with such "imagery" to build the ominous picture. Certainly and in a 
literal sense, such words, too, are nonsense, but they do have some kind of 
sense attached to them by dint of their evocative effects and they get these 
because they both sound like real words and play the role those real words, 
which do have sense, might play. Compare: "T'was brilliant in the slimy grove". 
Note how "slithy", perhaps replacing "slimy", evokes something menacing as in 
the slithering of a snake.

Moreover, the words in the Lewis Carroll line have the organization, the 
seeming grammar, of the real words. A set of words like "brilliant the t'was 
grove in slimy" would seem to be more nonsensical than "T'was brillig in the 
slithy tove" because the words in the latter group not only evoke real words 
with sense in our language but also seem to follow the grammatical form of 
those words, while the latter even fail to do that.

So there would also seem to be degrees of nonsense here, as well as the 
distinction between what is and what isn't nonsense.

Thus again there are several types of nonsense to be distinguished:

1) The appellation given to describe something that is simply and obviously 

2) The name of something that has no recognizable meaning even if it may seem 
at first glance to have it, perhaps because of a misuse of the grammar ("Jane 
is a good boy");

3) The name for something whose meaning is attained by allusion, evocation, 
context, etc., rather than via the usual referential means, i.e., something 
that may be intentionally nonsense at one level but meaningful at another, etc.

4) The name for groups of sounds that can achieve no meaning at all because of 
the violation of too many of the rules (a jumbled sentence, for instance).

I'm inclined to think there may be other types, too. So I would be surprised if 
Wittgenstein (in his later phase at least) would have really thought that there 
are no distinctions to be made with regard to assertions of what counts as 
"nonsense", i.e., and that all instances of nonsense are just the same. Yes, 
all may be dismissed in some fashion or other but perhaps not to the same 
degree. Is even poetry that speaks of things that aren't, say 'the soaring 
eagle of my heart', be dismissed as merely nonsense because hearts really don't 
leave our bodies and soar above us in the heavens as eagles do?

Should assertions of what is good or beautiful be similarly dismissed as 
nonsense, as some logical positivists (active during Wittgenstein's earlier 
years) wanted to say? And yet the later Wittgenstein was very much concerned, I 
think, to show us why such logical positivist notions of nonsense could not be 
simply taken as such, even though the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus made a 
point of proudly, apparently, calling the work he had done in that book 
nonsense at the end -- but wasn't it a good "nonsense" (or else why write and 
publish such a book)? And if there is good nonsense is there not also bad 
nonsense (that's the point, after all, in calling some things "nonsense") in 
which case isn't that, in itself an important distinction between types of 

> Descriptively, he might be hitting upon this in the TLP, speaking of how 
> propositions hand like a chain.
> The nonsense Wittgenstein is speaking of is the utterance of tautologies.  
> This is a main point in his Lecture on Ethics, which would make a far better 
> introduction to the TLP than Bertrand Russell's spiel.

Yes, sometimes a tautology must seem quite pointless and so be nonsense in an 
important sense. More to the point, if one wants to say that what has sense has 
it because it carries information about the world, then, on at least one level 
of consideration, a tautology would not qualify. Yet aren't tautologies, too, 
information about the world, i.e., how we or the appropriate language users 
deploy a particular term (X is equivalent to Y)? Sometimes don't we need to 
know meanings, too? And not just because we may not know quite how to use a 
word but, perhaps, because we may not see that some uses are pre-ordained by 
the word itself?

Sean is interested in the idea that a bachelor is an unmarried male (or man) 
may not be a real tautology and, of course, it is and it isn't. It depends on 
when and how we are using the term. I disagree with Sean's assertion that Tiger 
Woods, who is currently married with children, could be called a bachelor 
though I agree that 1) he might think of himself that way, 2) carry on in that 
fashion (maintaining a "bachelor pad", picking up women and sleeping with them, 
etc., and 3) that the term "bachelor" could be stretched to apply to a 
lifestyle as well as to one's legal status under a certain system of laws and 
institutional norms.

Where is the tautology? Well it will depend on what we have in mind, i.e., are 
we asking about the meaning of "bachelor" according to legally sanctioned 
social norms in this society or are we asking about lifestyle choices? Does the 
fact that "bachelor" can be used in different ways detract from its 
tautological role in "a bachelor is an unmarried man"? I would say no because 
the tautology is specifically geared to a meaning (a set of uses of the word) 
and not to the term itself, not to the sounds that, in English are pronounced 

It's easy to confuse the word with its meaning, especially when we agree that 
meaning is use in a wide variety of cases, and then speaking of tautologies as 
statements like "a bachelor is an unmarried man" looks like it is merely 
definitional, what we tell a new English speaker in teaching him or her that 
particular word in the language. But giving the meaning is only one thing we 
can do here. There is also exploring the claim which rides on the meaning and, 
in that case, if asked what form the claim in question has and why that is 
significant it is useful to note that it is tautological and that some claims 
of knowledge can be shown to have the same form, in which case their truth (or 
falsehood) is to be found in the uses in context, not in the record of how 
English speakers speak.

> 'The world is everything that is the case' means the world is tautological.  
> In regards to skepticism, there is no point in doubting tautologies.  There 
> is no point in doubting the world.

I don't see how you arrive at this. "The world is everything that is the case" 
has the look of a stipulation, a statement of meaning, not a tautology in the 
sense I have described it above (the form of a claim). That is, sometimes it's 
useful to explore a meaning and not a form and, in the above, Wittgenstein 
chose to commence the Tractatus with a statement which, on examination, could 
withstand challenge because of its stipulative quality, albeit a stipulation 
that reflects actual usage (i.e., the language community stipulates it, not 
Wittgenstein alone, he is merely making explicit what is already found in the 

But is the result the claim that the world is, therefore, not to be doubted? 
Whatever is the case will be the case, of course, but what has that to do with 
the nature of what is the case? One might still decide that the world is 
illusion (because everything that is the case is illusory) and so no gain is 
made against a claim of solipsism.

> 'Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must be silent' is again tautological.

Yes and no. I agree it has a tautological aspect but it also has an important 
prescriptive aspect here, i.e., it is a kind of recommendation. And in that it 
goes beyond its tautological form. Is it nonsense? Yes in one sense but no in 
another which takes us back to the question of whether there are types of 
nonsense and whether Wittgenstein, at least in his later phase, would have 
agreed that there are.

> Tautologies are senseless, and their negation is a contradiction.  This says 
> nothing of crawling over the propositions (like a geometric construction?).


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