I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that,if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.
-Wittgenstein, “A Lecture on Ethics”


Wittgenstein’s work and thought on ethics remains a largely enigmatic area of his overall body of work. Yet throughout his career, Wittgenstein held ethics to be a crucial part of his philosophy. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, according to him, fundamentally a book about ethics1 ; however, Wittgenstein’s ethics are of quite a different sort than we might find being developed by Kantian deontologists or utilitarians. Quite contrary to any conventional ethics, Wittgenstein’s is one of restraint, of withholding, rather than theorizing or promulgating. In the Tractatus, he writes, “it is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental” {TLP 6.421}. But what does he mean by this kind of talk? The Vienna Circle interpreted Wittgenstein as taking up a positivist stance– ethical propositions, as nonsense {TLP 3-4}, are to be excluded. For Wittgenstein, anything that cannot be represented by propositions in language is nonsense. To quote A.J. Ayer on the Tractatus, “metaphysical pronouncements fail to represent anything. They are nonsensical. At their best they are attempts to say what cannot be said but only shown. This applies to ethics and aesthetics” {PTC 112}.

I would like to argue that Wittgenstein’s assertions about ethics embody a critical attitude toward philosophical language. This attitude is one that sees the preservation of ethics as lying in an anti-philosophical (or perhaps extra-philosophical) approach. Of course, this statement requires some qualification. I do not mean to say that Wittgenstein is not doing philosophy; it is obvious that the contrary is true. I would like to suggest, however, that his philosophy functions by showing limitations: not only the limitations of language, but also the limitations of philosophical activity itself. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that it is the most important things that fall outside of representation. This is why it is important to invoke the distinction between saying and showing. By saying, we can express certain ideas; by showing, we can express others2. Not everything that can be shown can be said. For instance, we can show that a mathematical equation works and we can also say that it works, but we cannot say anything about the nature of numbers themselves. We can show the idea of infinity, but we cannot express it properly in language. Similarly, we can “get at” or show ethical ideas, but no set of propositions can capture ethics. Poetry and literature may perhaps be able to better give us a sense of ethical thought than philosophy. This is related to Wittgenstein’s “religious” point of view. In his work, Wittgenstein seeks to move away from explanation and justification, and move toward something more concrete and immediate. As Norman Malcolm puts it, A possible clue my lie in the reiterated theme of his writings, that explanations, reasons, justifications, come to an end. This theme itself needs to be clarified. Does it mean that there are no justifications for anything? Or does it mean that there are – but only up to a certain point? If so, what is that point? Can it be described? {WR 2}

These questions, as I see them, are central to proposing the kind of ethics that we can draw out of Wittgenstein’s work. They point first and foremost to a rejection of a mistaken commitment to a certain kind of metaphysics. I would call this metaphysics the metaphysics of science, but that is too crude a moniker to attach, and I will clarify it through the paper. Fundamentally, Wittgenstein’s view tries to show the ways in which philosophical language can and cannot be used appropriately. The use of “nonsense” and “silence” do not necessarily carry negative connotations, and Wittgenstein’s picture of the ladder up and out of philosophy {TLP 6.54} is immensely valuable. In this paper, I will expand upon these ideas3 and try to bring out some ideas about ethical living outside of philosophical theory.

Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy

Wittgenstein’s main objection toward philosophy is its pretension of being able to “catch” everything. Along with the advent of the scientific method, philosophy has been used to analyze the world and contain it within a framework that supposedly tells us the truth about things. In a sense, philosophy and science have purported to reflect the contents of the world in a meaningful way. Because of this, a certain vocabulary has taken a primary place in our talk about the world and about ourselves; “thus,” Wittgenstein writes, “people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both are right and both wrong: though the view of the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained” {Ibid. 6.372}. By now, this is not an uncommon comment to make. In Mind and World, John McDowell writes, “if we conceive the natural as the realm of law, demarcating it by the way its proper mode of intelligibility contrasts with the intelligibility of the space of reasons, we put at risk the very idea that spontaneity might characterize the works of our sensibility as such” {MW 71}. Of course, this refers to problems in the philosophy of mind, but it is an example of how one way of thinking and speaking has taken hold in philosophical activity in general. The notion of explaining everything has become violent; at the very least, the traditional philosophical commitment to this view of the world has caused serious problems for ideas about the self as well as religion and the supernatural. The causal efficacy of the mind, for instance, has been marginalized and excluded because it cannot properly figure into scientific or physicalist accounts of causation4 .

Why are we in this position, though? Why do we feel the need to stick with it? As Wittgenstein says, again in the Tractatus, “the whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” {Ibid. 6.371}. It is important to notice that he uses the word “explanation” here. “Explanation” implies that a truthful story is being told about something; however, can everything actually be explained? Moreover, is explanation meant to have such an all-encompassing function in the first place? Is it necessary to use this type of talk to represent the world? Wittgenstein thinks that it is not. By putting thought in its proper place, Wittgenstein’s transcendental critique wants both to preserve the legitimate role of thinking in natural science and to prevent its encroachment into territory reserved to other human interests, much as Kant wanted his critique to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith. For Kant and Wittgenstein some things must be passed over with that pregnant silence which indicates that representation is out of its depth. {EWP 12}

Here James Edwards makes an appropriate connection between Kant and Wittgenstein: in the Critiques, Kant tried to highlight the limitations of representation and thus show that there are things about which we can make no final judgment or analysis5 . Wittgenstein tries to do the same in his work. When he says something like “the law of causality is not a law but the form of a law” {TLP 6.32}, he means that the way in which we describe it takes on a law-like character. Description is often mistaken for explanation: what may suffice as a good practical framework for moving around in the world is often misinterpreted as a foundational picture of it. Another way of putting it is that explanation is a form of justification; description, on the other hand, does not necessarily require justification. If we hold our propositions only to a standard of pragmatic use, we may not run into the kind of philosophical confusion that troubles Wittgenstein. Logic, for instance, can play the role of demarcating the world’s structural/formal traits:

At 4.4511 Wittgenstein says that a tautology, while it says nothing, is not nonsensical, because it is a “part of the symbolism”, like the ‘0’ (zero) in mathematics. A tautology is part of the symbolism because by considering it one learns something of how to operate with its constituent symbols. And, since these symbols represent propositions, one at the same time learns something of how to operate in the world. That’s what is meant at 6.12 when he says that logic mirrors the formal properties of the world, as well as those of language. A tautology does not depict the world of contingent states of affairs; yet it conveys knowledge of the formal structure of language and the world. {EWP 55}

Logical propositions are useful for purposes such as predicting consequences of actions (making causal claims, in other words), understanding that certain events occur regularly, and so on; logical propositions cannot, however, get any grasp on what makes those things happen, or even (with total certainty, at any rate) how they happen. They can show, not say – but then again, the showing occurs in the saying, to some degree6 – ideas about the world.

Edwards argues that ethical propositions are of the same order. “The remarks of ethics, which literally cannot be said … are attempts to convey a sort of practical knowledge; it is a knowledge of how to live so as to give a sense to the world” {Ibid. 57}. Both logic and ethics can provide us with useful knowledge, but that knowledge does not necessarily point to any metaphysical truths. Moreover, Wittgenstein says, we do not need metaphysical truths for propositions to be useful; in fact, it is the desire to obtain metaphysical truths that causes us to speak nonsense. Metaphysics is a manner of explanation and justification: it constructs foundations that anchor our view of the world. The problem is that we cannot be certain of those foundations, however much we wish it. When we incorporate metaphysical mistakes into our talk about the world, we begin to make nonsensical propositions. By saying nonsensical things, we are essentially trying to articulate what cannot be articulated; in other words, we are trying to get at something but only coming up with senseless statements.

Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical. Consequently we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind, but can only point out that they are nonsensical. Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language. (They belong to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical as the beautiful.) And it is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all. {TLP 4.003}

Nonsense consists in the production of meaningless ideas through the misuse of language. If we take this to be true, then philosophy really is plagued with nonsense, since throughout history, philosophers have been asking questions about God, the nature of time, the soul, and myriad other problems.

Is “nonsense” necessarily a pejorative term, though? I would suggest that it is not. Ayer says that

I wholeheartedly endorsed Wittgenstein’s conclusion that metaphysical utterances were nonsensical but did not count the utterances of the Tractatus itself among them. I did not see, and still do not see, how a sentence could at one and the same time express a pseudo-proposition and an unassailable truth. I agreed rather with Ramsey that ‘if the chief proposition of philosophy is that philosophy is nonsense … we must then take it seriously that it is nonsense, and not pretend, as Wittgenstein does, that it is important nonsense’. {PTC 112-3}

If we consider this problem in relation to §435 of the Investigations, we may see how Wittgenstein believed the propositions of the Tractatus to be at once nonsensical and truthful. In articulating what ultimately turns out to be nonsensical because it ends up running into its own limits, we are able to convey, to show that limitation as well as the function of language, properly conceived. Thus the truth of the Tractatus’ propositions lies not in the expressed content of the propositions themselves, but rather the truth that they reveal. Furthermore, Wittgenstein says in the introduction to the Tractatus that “the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive” {TLP p. 4}; this is a subtlety that may also answer Ayer’s question. The thoughts communicated in the Tractatus are not solely to be found in the propositions on the page. “My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all I have not written. And it is precisely the second part that is the important one” {PT 16}. On this view, we can see that there is no conflict between the assertion that the Tractatus is at once full of nonsense and truth.

The point of this is that nonsense does not have to be seen as pernicious or even always useless. Edwards notes that

since, according to the doctrines of the Tractatus, ethics, logic, and Tractarian philosophy all lie outside the boundaries of sense, ‘nonsense’ is not always a derogatory characterization in Wittgenstein’s early vocabulary. Sometimes there is something that cannot be conveyed except by uttering something that is, strictly speaking, nonsense. This is the case for the propositions of logic: they show the formal structure of language and world; but they are themselves literally senseless. They do not represent the existence of contingent states of affairs. It is also the case for Wittgenstein’s philosophy itself. Witness the Tractatus: it says nothing, but intends to show everything important. {EWP 106}

So what distinguishes useful nonsense from dangerous or misused nonsense? I would suggest that the difference lies in justification. When nonsensical propositions are set up as–or made part of–metaphysical foundations7 , they become dangerous: they lead us into confusion and misunderstanding. Plato’s myth of the immortality of the soul may become dangerous if it is transformed into philosophical doctrine; however, when it is employed merely to convey some idea without trying to ground it in “truth” or justify it, it can be useful in what it points to or shows. As Wittgenstein says in Culture and Value, “don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense” {CV 56e}. This distinction is of the utmost importance. It is the difference between the Tractatus and a work such as Jaegwon Kim’s Mind In A Physical World, which refuses to see the inherent meaninglessness of trying to talk about the mind and the body as somehow separate or bound in a hierarchical relationship8 . Philosophical inquiry can congeal and harden into doctrine from which it is difficult to escape: we become the fly in a bottle {PI §309} of our own construction. We become forgetful, we are convinced that this is the way things are. In Wittgenstein’s words:

(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.5): “The general form of propositions is: This is how things are.”––That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing the frame through which we look at it. {PI §114}

Here we see another theme emerging: certainty. Mistaking propositions for a priori or unconditional truths both spurs on and satisfies the desire for absolute certainty – epistemological or metaphysical safety, as it were. Yet is certainty possible? Or is it, on the other hand, a false hope? “’But this is how it is––––‘ I say to myself over and over again. I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this face, get it in focus, I must grasp the essence of the matter” {Ibid. §113}. Our fixation on the frame, as Wittgenstein puts it, gives us the illusion that we have certain knowledge of the thing being framed; however, as the seemingly endless stream of philosophical problems implies, the illusion is an illusion and not much –if anything– else.

The religious point of view

So far we have been examining Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy. The most prominent problem appears to be the unwarranted and untenable development of metaphysical roots– a development that may have come about accidentally, or may simply be a normal, unavoidable byproduct of the way in which we use language. Of course, because it is unavoidable does not mean it is not troublesome9 . It is also, in a sense, dishonest. Despite the warnings of Hume and Kant, we still fall into the trap of assuming that everything can be explained. We assume that propositions about the world accurately and fully represent it, even though we would see after some examination that this is not always the case. Thus, we are certain of propositions’ validity– but what do we know? How can we say that we have a firm purchase on reality, if there is no way to get outside and make sure? Yet certainty is not in itself a bad thing; just as the propositions of logic provide us with practical knowledge, certainty is also practical. When we are certain, we have a coherent view of our own world. “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own” {OC §174}. There is a catch: the ground (and this is a troublesome word, to be sure!) upon which we stand is always ours; it does not come from external and “objective” point of view. The ground, then, is not a ground insofar as it is not rooting us in anything permanent or absolute. Rather, it is the way our world is constituted, the way in which it comes together for us. It is not above or below us. It is there, in the most immediate way. For instance:

Think of chemical investigations. Lavoisier makes experiments with substances in his laboratory and now he concludes that this and that takes place when there is burning. He does not say that it might happen otherwise another time. He has got hold of a definite world-picture–not of course one that he invented: he learned it as a child. I say world-picture and not hypothesis, because it is the matter-of-course foundation for his research and as such also goes unnoticed. {Ibid. §167}

Our world-picture is bound up in our everyday lives; it has been given to us by virtue of the fact that we are born into a community of language-users. The important thing about all of this is that it brings out the way in which explanation does come to an end at some point. For all of us, there is a limit to what we can sensibly doubt; outside of that limit, it does not make sense to doubt. We do not doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on. None of us can say, though, that we know that it will rise {TLP 6.36311}; as Wittgenstein says, “There is no compulsion in making one thing happen because another has happened. The only necessity that exists is logical necessity” {Ibid. 6.37}.

We all essentially take on a religious point of view at some point or another. When we arrive at the point at which doubt no longer makes sense if we are to make sense of the world, we have reached the end of justification and the end of explanation. Consider logical propositions: we have no way of knowing if they do not merely approximate some kind of correlation to reality by way of a fortuitous accident, or if there is some meaningful way in which they can help us gain practical knowledge about the formal structure of the world. Despite this, we do not focus on doubting logic’s efficacy; we just accept it. In this way, we all take up a religious point of view at some point. To think of it another way, “we are satisfied that the earth is round” {OC §299}. In this way, the world-picture given to us by science is just as religious as the “properly” religious one. We cannot in the end escape from it. “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our beliefs” {Ibid. §166}.

If the difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our beliefs, then our task should be to make that realization. This consists in paying attention to our nonsense, and not making the mistake of constantly searching for justification and explanation. We have to forsake the safety of false certainty and adopt a more critical stance in relation to our propositions about the world. Wittgenstein holds that we will then recognize the non-existence of many philosophical problems and be able to work our way out of them instead of bouncing back and forth inside of them without solving anything. He writes, “my propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them” {TLP 6.54}. Of course, the Tractarian notion that we can just escape is not really present in the later Wittgenstein; instead, we have the notion of philosophical therapy.

It is not our aim to refine or complete the system of rules for the use of our words in unheard-of ways. For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear. The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. –Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. –Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem. There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed different methods, like different therapies. {PI §133}

The idea is that we start to unravel and extricate ourselves from philosophical confusion and anxiety. In essence, we are taking philosophy apart instead of trying to iron out its wrinkles; we are dismantling instead of tinkering10 .

When we start backing out of (or perhaps fighting through) the false problems and booby traps of philosophy, where do we end up? Since we are refusing the need for justification, we move into a religious point of view. No longer do we cleave to endless explanation and the desire for absolute knowledge; instead, we adopt a more honest way of relating to the propositions that we use and the language-games that we play. “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it is really possible to walk on it” {CV 73e}. Instead of endless nonsensical babble, we start to choose silence. This silence is not truly the refrain of someone not saying something; it is the silence that occurs when there is nothing to say. This, I would suggest, is what Wittgenstein means by saying “I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing any problem from a religious point of view” {LW 94}. It is that tightrope walk, the other road we can take instead of winding ourselves up into the false promises of metaphysics.


If we take up the kind of activity proposed by Wittgenstein, the notion of ethics also takes on a very different cast. Rather than the construction of theories or doctrines, ethics on this view takes the form of a resistance. It is resistant to philosophy, and most importantly, it is resistant to codification. In “A Lecture on Ethics”, Wittgenstein says,

My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute value, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. {LE 44}

As we saw earlier in the essay, nonsense is not necessarily to be condemned; indeed, if the Tractatus is any indication, it can be quite useful. Its use, however, is found in showing. Accordingly, I would suggest that we can engage in nonsensical talk about ethics, but not as a means of directly articulating ethical “truths”. Instead, we can convey ideas about ethics by showing them through our various activities within language-games. As I said in the introduction, literature and poetry can play this kind of role. In Ethics Without Philosophy, Edwards writes that

there is no way directly to say what cannot be said. But there are things that can be said which will ‘contain’ the unsayable: to say these things is somehow to communicate what is in itself unsayable. A poem is an example of this phenomenon: it can communicate some ineffable truth about life while talking about the growth of a sprig into a hawthorn bush. A poem may alter one’s whole view of the world, making happy what was unhappy; and it is no accident that the poem makes the change possible. Perhaps without the poem the alteration would never have occurred. {EWP 51-2}

Ethical ideas cannot be said, but they indeed can be communicated or shown, thus preventing us from being sealed off into so many solipsistic units. We can indeed affirm ethical stances and beliefs; in The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot writes, “affirmation does without proof, provided it claims to prove nothing” {WD 62}; here we see how ethics can thrive (as can ideas about many other meaningful things in life) without the justification of philosophy. But what of lost “objectivity”– how do we prevent the slide into chaotic subjectivity and relativism? The fact that language-games are shared forms of life {PI §23} into which we are all born and initiated shows that we do have a milieu in which the communication of ideas can and does take place. In fact, it would not make sense to deny this! Language is deeply11 and fully a part of our lives and what constitutes us as human beings. Before philosophizing (as well as scientific inquiry) became a cardinal language-game and form of life, ethical living existed: we are not dependent upon it to continue to sustain ethical living.


An ethics proposed on the strength of Wittgenstein’s religious point of view could not properly be called an ethics. It could not really be theorized or codified: we cannot say the unsayable. Wittgenstein “connects theory, naturally enough, with the concept of explanation; and philosophical explanation he understands to be the attempt to provide foundations” {EWP 99}; since foundations present nothing more than an illusion that leads to misinterpretation and confusion, they should be discarded. If anything, ethical behaviour and thought should be rooted in our forms of life, not in an appeal to a set of regulations or some philosophical doctrine. We can perhaps articulate ideas about ethics, but it is not in the utterances themselves that we see the most meaningful notions. Rather, I would say that the utterances simply point to something that cannot be captured –not necessarily because they are transcendental, as Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus, but perhaps because they are too broad and too complex–by them; the general impulse or direction of ethical propositions can help convey what we really mean, or point us toward what really merits attention and contemplation.

In terms of practical matters, ethics on this view would not be treated the same way as philosophical theories. We would not, for instance, try to reconfigure some utilitarian calculus of the “good” over and over again until we got it right. Nor would we ask questions such as whether the good is identical to the beautiful. Instead, I would suggest that issues of the treatment of others would come to the fore, since all ethical thought would occur within forms of life not touched upon by theory. A blanket solution would not be imposed on myriad problems, just creating a disjunction between propositions and the everyday situations to which they supposedly pertain. Propositions (that is, logical propositions or globalizing statements), as we have said, cannot capture contingent states of affairs: this is why propositions about ethics are nothing more than chatter in the end. Realizing this, we can adopt a more critical attitude toward ethical problems, one that does not ignore particular situations in favour of more general ideas. We may be running up against the walls of a cage, but at least we may be doing it in new and different ways every time. Ethical discourse might not, on this view, be restricted to what counts as “rational”; thus, our possibilities for discourse with one another may become fruitful and multiply. This, I suggest, is the type of ethical practice and living that Wittgenstein has in mind when he calls for a refusal of philosophy.


  1. In a letter to Ludwig von Ficker, whom he hoped would publish the Tractatus, Wittgenstein wrote “My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put firmly into place by being silent about it” {PT 16}.
  2. There is still the question of whether the distinction between showing and saying is really so sharp. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein offers the following: “If it is asked: ‘how do sentences manage to represent?’–the answer might be: ‘Don’t you know? You certainly see it, when you use them.’ For nothing is concealed. How do sentences do it? –Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden. But given this answer: ‘But you know how sentences do it, for nothing is concealed’ one would like to retort ‘Yes, but it all goes by so quick, and I should like to see it as it were laid open to view’” {PI §435}. This leads me to wonder whether or not showing can happen in saying, even if it is not a direct communication. Can there be something conveyed in an utterance without being part of its expressed content? Certainly, it would seem that every use of language is an expression or demonstration of how language works. It is just that there is no way of taking that demonstration and turning it into a meaningful proposition.
  3. I will not only be using Tractarian ideas. I will also draw on the middle and later Wittgenstein; his ethical thrust has not disappeared in the later work.
  4. This is a question that stems at least in part from Descartes’ idea of substance dualism: if an individual’s actions can be causally explained by physical means, then what role does the mental play in the scheme? For those committed to standing behind a world in which everything is subject to the laws of nature as the sciences have described them, this seems to be an inescapable problem. On one hand we can cleave to the naturalistic view of the world and sacrifice any meaningful talk of agency. On the other hand, we can accept the notion that mental intentionality is real and thus compromise a scientistic view of the world. As long as we are caught in a post-Cartesian (in the sense that we are still trying to respond to the problems raised by Descartes) framework, we cannot come to a satisfactory answer. The solution proposed not only by Wittgenstein but also by others like John McDowell, Richard Rorty, Donald Davidson, and even Martin Hedeigger, is to abandon such a view of the world in favour of a more radical reworking.
  5. Similarly, Hume argued that we are able to do no more than observe events in nature and make predictions based on those observations. “Hence we may discover the reason, why no philosopher, who is rational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe. It is confessed, that the utmost effort of human reason is, to reduce the principles, productive of natural phenomena, to a greater simplicity, and to resolve the many particular effects into a few general causes, by means of reasonings from analogy, experience, and observation. But as to the causes of these general causes, we should in vain attempt their discovery; nor shall we ever be able to satisfy ourselves, by any particular explication of them. These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and inquiry” {HU 19}. These “ultimate springs and causes” are not available to us through experience and are therefore outside of certain knowledge. In other words – that is, in Wittgenstein’s words – “We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present” {TLP 5.1361}. There is no theory about the world that can explain the world other than logically; there is no true representation of the world as it is.
  6. Again, the communication of these propositions itself is what conveys or shows the concept; showing and saying are not radically separate, even though the Tractarian Wittgenstein suggests that the former takes over where the latter reaches its limits.
  7. This is not to say that metaphysical foundations are not in and of themselves problematic, or distinct from nonsensical propositions, either.
  8. Kim, of course, is not a Cartesian dualist. He is nonetheless part of a tradition of responses to the problems bound up in Descartes dual substance ontology. He goes along with the physicalist ontology provided (at least in part) by the natural sciences, and thus has to answer the question “what sort of causal role does mentality or intentionality play when physical (or neurophysiological) events can provide a full causal explanation of ‘intentional’ actions?”. The conclusion of his investigation is that the mental cannot fully be preserved without reviving Cartesian dualism; thus, he relegates the mental to a subordinate role in relation to the physical. Is it not clear that even though this tradition (as Kim is working within it, at least) has collapsed Descartes’ dualism into a monism (the mental is crossed out and leaves only the physical), that it still is more or less working on the same set of assumptions? From a Wittgensteinian point of view, the whole problem is not a problem: the set of propositions used to think and talk about it is nothing but nonsense. To create a problem out of trying to conclude whether or not the mind exists is unnecessary and meaningless: “the feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain-process: how does it come about that this does not come into the considerations of our ordinary life?” PI §412. Our mentality can only be substantially doubted philosophically (or perhaps scientifically), but even so, there is no reason why this philosophical doubt should spill out into everyday life. In any case, such a distinction is meaningless, on Wittgenstein’s view; furthermore, to accept it as a metaphysical ground for thinking about ourselves as human beings is to create greater confusion.
  9. Furthermore, it does not place this effect of language – or tendency of language use – in some metaphysical position, either. The world could very well have turned out differently. Perhaps caution dictates that we add the qualifier “given the way that the world has turned out…” to any statement about the nature of language.
  10. This brings to mind Heidegger’s call for the “destruction” of ontology. “If the question of Being is to have its own history made transparent, then this hardened tradition must be loosened up, and the concealments which it has brought about must be dissolved. We understand this task as one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue, we are to destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being–the ways which have guided us ever since” BT 44. In this passage Heidegger is referring to a way of escaping from the various ontological doctrines that have compounded and conglomerated over time, directing and limiting our possibilities of thought and understanding. This escape involves an intensive examination and uncovering of philosophical ideas in order to see them quite differently than they are normally. A common theme between Heidegger and Wittgenstein resounds here: they are both going about the task of relieving philosophical confusion and anxiety. Doubtless there are more connections that can be drawn between the two, and these connections might be quite fruitful in terms of new developments. Heidegger incorporates the notion of historicality (historicism is a more broadly used word which approximates the same idea), which is something that Wittgenstein’s thought does not really touch on; Wittgensteinian thought could benefit greatly from a nod in that direction. Of course, I cannot go into great detail about that idea here, but it could perhaps be productively engaged in another paper.
  11. This is certainly another troublesome word for Wittgenstein, but in using it, I am taking care to pay attention to my nonsense!
  12. Works Cited

    • Ayer, A.J. Philosophy in the Twentieth Century {PTC}, 1982; London: Phoenix Press, 1992.
    • Blanchot, M. The Writing of the Disaster {WD}, trans. Ann Smock, 1980; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
    • Edwards, J. Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life {EWP}, Tampa, University Presses of Florida, 1982.
    • Heidegger, M. Being and Time {BT}, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, 1926; San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1962.
    • Hume, D. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding {HU}, ed. Eric Steinberg, 1977; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
    • Kim, J. Mind in a Physical World, 1998; Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
    • Malcolm, N. Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? {WR}, ed. Peter Winch, 1993; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
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