[Wittrs] Re: [quickphilosophy] Anscombe on Tractarian epistemology & its incompatibility with verificationism

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 10 Aug 2010 14:15:00 -0700 (PDT)

Hi Walter:
If ostensive definition can apply only to elementary propositions, how can it 
be that we have no examples of elementary propositions?

--- On Tue, 8/10/10, walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx> wrote:

From: walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx>
Subject: [quickphilosophy] Anscombe on Tractarian epistemology & its 
incompatibility with verificationism
To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Date: Tuesday, August 10, 2010, 7:30 AM


The following is alengthy excerpt (pp. 152-154) from Anscombe's Introduction to 
W's Tractatus. I apologize in advance for the inevitable typos.
`Psychology is no more akin to philosophy than any other natural science.  
Theory of knowledge is the philosophy of psychology' (4.1121). In this passage 
W is trying to break the dictatorial control over the rest of philosophy that 
had long been exercised by what is called theory of knowledge—that is, by the 
philosophy of sensation,perceptio n, imagination, and, generally, of 
`experience' .  He did not succeed.  He and Frege avoided making theory 
ofknowledge the cardinal theory of philosophy simply by cutting it dead; by 
doingnone, and concentrating on the philosophy of logic.  But the influence of 
the Tractatus produced logical positivism, whose main doctrine is 
`verificationism' ; and in that doctrine theory of knowledge once more reigned 
supreme, and a prominent position was given to the test of significance by 
asking for theobservations that would verify a statement. (Further, in the 
period between the Tractatus and the time when he began to
 write Philosophical Investigations, W's own ideas were more closely akin to 
those of the logical positivists than before or after.)
We can see how the Tractatus generated logical positivism, although the two 
philosophies are incompatible, by studing Mortiz Schlick's essay, "Meaning and 
Verification" : `Whenever we ask about a sentence, "What does it mean?" what we 
expect is instruction as to the circumstances in which the sentence is to be 
used; we want a description of the conditions under which the sentence will 
form a true proposition, and of the those which will make it false.' Here 
Schlick seems to follow the Tractatus, except in the last clause of his 
statement: the Tractatus says that I `determine the sense of a proposition by 
`determining in what circumstances I call it true; (4.063). (It is implicit in 
this that the `circumstances I question may hold or not hold;for it is an 
essential part of the picture theory that a proposition which heldin all 
circumstances would not have `sense': it would lack TF poles.)
Schlick class the `description of the conditions; under which a word has 
application, or a sentence is true, the ;rules for the use; of the word or 
sentence.  These `rules' will consist partly of `ostensive definitions' , of 
which the simplest form will be a pointing gesture combined with the 
pronouncing of the word; this can be done with words like `blue'.  For words 
like `immediate', `chance', `because', `again', Schlick says, the ostensive 
definition is of a more complicated kind: `in these cases we require the 
presence of certain complex situations, and the meaning of the words is defined 
by the way we use them in these different situations.'  Allrules for use 
`ultimately point of ostensive definitions' .  `This,' Schlick says, `is the 
situation, and nothing seems to me simpler or less questionable.  It is this 
situation and nothing else that we describe when we affirm that the meaning of 
a proposition can be given only by giving the rules of
 its verification in experience.  (The addition "in experience" is really 
superfluous, as no other kind of verification has been defined.)'
This shews us the transition from the Tractatus to `verificationism' very 
clearly.  What Schlick says leads immediately (a) to the quick test for 
significance: `What experience would verify this?' and (b) to the maintenance 
of theory of knowledge as the cardinal theory of philosophy.
In the Tractatus, the `determination of the circumstances in which I call a 
proposition true' must be a statement ofits truth-conditions.  This is a 
completely different thing from a `rule for the use' of a sentence, if this 
takes the form of an `ostensive definition'. There could be no statement of the 
truth-conditions of an elementary proposition, other than a restatement of 
it;and for all non-elementary propositions there can always be statements 
oftruth-conditions.  If, then, Schlick is following the Tractatus, `ostensive 
definition' can only be relevant to the elementary proposition.
Further, Schlick insists that our `rules for use; are `arbitrary'; we give what 
rules we like; all that is essential is that we give some. Theonly 
arbitrariness in the Tractatus is in the assignment of names.  There is no 
arbitrariness about the fact that a certain type of arrangement of names is 
capable of representing such-and-such a situation; it can do that only by 
reproducing in its own structure the arrangement of objects in the 
situation,and we cannot make it do so at will. …
On the Tractatus view,then, one could not ask what observations would establish 
the truth of aproposition unless the `structures' of possible observation 
statements alreadystood in certain internal relations to the `structure; of the 
proposition.  In the presence of these internal relations,the question of 
meaningfulness cannot arise, except in the form of a questionabout the 
reference of the individual signs; if these signs are not given areference, the 
proposition could not be  `given' a sense, even by stipulating that its truth 
would be established if and only if such-and-such observation statements were 
My only comment here is that there seems to me to a kind of epistemological 
strain functioning here despite W's (and Anscombe's) denials. That, e.g., 
language MUST have a particular sort of relation with the world, that there 
MUST be elementary objects or there could be no understanding— these seem to me 
akin to Descartes' methodological claims regarding the impossibility of error 
with respect to the cogito. There is a metaphysical "comfort" supplied by the 
non-empirical, yet non-tautological props of the Tractatus, and W's certainty 
of the impossibility of the falsehood of any of them is its own sort of 
When Anscombe says "There is no arbitrariness about the fact that a certain 
type of arrangement of names is capable of representing such-and-such a 
situation; it can do that only by reproducing in its own structure the 
arrangement of objects in the situation... "—it's the very assurance of the 
impossibility of any invasion by "the arbitrary" that may give an empiricist 

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