Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Cardinal Problem of Reading the Tractatus Resolutely

There is a workshop on Wittgenstein coming up at the University of Chicago titled, "Wittgenstein on the Literary the Ethical & the Unsayable." At that workshop, professor Michael Kremer will be presenting his paper "The Cardinal Problem of Philosophy." The following post is a brief response to that paper:

The Cardinal Problem of Reading the Tractatus Resolutely


Ever since I first came to be fascinated by resolute readings of the Tractatus there has been one problem that has always bothered me and led me to be suspicious of my own attraction to resolute readings. Here is the problem: If we are to take proposition 6.54 seriously, we must take seriously the idea that all the preceding propositions of the Tractatus have actually failed to express the sorts of philosophical insights that we, in our philosophical moods, imagined them to have been expressing. Those propositions were all nonsensical and as such they are to be discarded if we are to make philosophical progress.

Yet, resolute readers seem to be unable to discard certain propositions of the Tractatus. In reading the Tractatus resolutely, one is not only committing oneself to certain exegetical commitments about the text, but one is also committing oneself to a particular view of meaning. In particular, one must be committed to at least the following two ideas: 1. The context principle and 2. The austere conception of nonsense (both of which commitments are closely interrelated).

But these turn out to be the fundamental commitments of certain Tractarian propositions themselves. Among the propositions pertaining to the context principle are the following:

“It is impossible for words to occur in two different ways, alone and in the proposition.” (2.0122)
“[...] [O]nly in the context of the proposition has a name meaning.” (3.3)
“An expression has meaning only in a proposition. […]” (3.314)

Among the propositions pertaining to the austere conception of nonsense, we have the following:

“Logic must take care of itself. / A possible sign must also be able to signify. Everything which is possible in logic is also permitted […]” (5.473)
“We cannot give a sign the wrong sense.” (5.4731)
“Frege says: Every legitimately constructed proposition must have a sense; and I say: Every possible proposition is legitimately constructed, and if it has no sense this can only be because we have given no meaning to some of its constituent parts. […]” (5.4733)

So it seems that resolute readers want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be able to discard these propositions of the Tractatus (in accordance with proposition 6.54), yet at the same time they want to hold on to the fundamental commitments of some of those very same propositions. This seems to be a highly unstable position.


I was very excited to see that at the very outset of the paper, The Cardinal Problem of Philosophy, prof. Kremer identifies this as an accusation against resolute readings and you propose to defend resolute readers from such charges. Quoting him:

“[…] has sometimes misled critics into thinking (1) that on their view [Conant / Diamond] every proposition of the Tractatus is consigned irredeemably to the category of “nonsense” … Critics then seize on the apparent conflict with (1′) their apparent reliance on certain passages of the Tractatus in arguing for their interpretation … However, it is clear from much of their later work that (1″) on their view at least some propositions of the Tractatus can be redeemed as making sense, once we have learned the lessons of the Tractatus … (1″) is actually a necessary consequence of the account of philosophical confusion and the resulting philosophical nonsense, inspired by Diamond and Conant, which I develop below. On this account, philosophical nonsense derives from a kind of equivocation in which we try to make one word conform to two uses at once. Once we become aware of this confusion, we can decide to use the word in one of these two senses. Our propositions, so understood, will then make sense and may even be true – but they will be incapable of doing the philosophical work that we earlier confusedly wanted them to do.”

So, according this view, certain propositions of the Tractatus (which ones? how do you know?), after they have been discarded in the ladder climbing exercise, can once again be redeemed as making sense; only they are now purged of their apparent philosophical significance. So, the discarding of these propositions that is advocated in proposition 6.54 is only the first step towards redeeming those propositions once again in an innocent (non-philosophical) manner.


Very well. But I want to ask: how is this actually done? In the case of an actual proposition such as one of the propositions that I listed in the above section, how can we identify (a) the philosophical work that that proposition was supposed to do and (b) the manner in which that proposition can be purged of its alleged philosophical significance and be redeemed as true in an innocent manner?

The Cardinal Problem of Philosophy, is prof. Kremer’s answer to these questions that I have just posed. However, he only answers the question with respect to the propositions concerning the saying / showing distinction; that problem is the cardinal problem of philosophy. He gives us an analysis of (a) the philosophical work that such propositions were supposed to do, (b) why those propositions cannot do the work that they are supposed to do (because they result from an equivocation in our use of the word “show”) and (c) how the saying / showing distinction can be redeemed in an innocent manner.

But what about those other propositions that I listed above? Surely, those propositions pertaining to the context principle and the austere conception of nonsense are much closer to the heart of a resolute reader than the propositions expounding a distinction between what can be shown and what can be said. How can those be vindicated? If not, surely the resolute reading is just as much of a boggle as the standard reading.