The most widely known – perhaps notorious – and at the same time most obscure sentence Ludwig Wittgenstein has written is the last sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only work of his published during his lifetime:
‘7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’1
Wittgenstein’s thesis at this stage of his philosophical work is that certain things cannot be said in a language but only shown.2 The only purpose of philosophy therefore is to realize the vanity of this very endeavour, for, according to the early Wittgenstein, philosophy is the (pointless) attempt of saying that which can not be said but only shown. Philosophical questions are thus ‘senseless’.3 Consequently, Wittgenstein, convinced of having solved all philosophical questions, turned away from philosophy in order to teach children how to read.4
I concluded my article ‘Some Remarks on the Philosophical Analysis of the Relationship Between Thought and Language’5 asking whether, first, there could be thoughts impossible to be expressed verbally, and, second, how, if at all, we should, and could, know this. In order to tackle these questions, let us consider the following one:
Do thoughts themselves have forms? In philosophical writings, especially those dealing with the logical structure of language, we often encounter the attempt to extract or analyse the ‘form’ of a sentence from the proposition which is considered its ‘content’. Actually, it seems, thoughts do not have a form – at least not a form which could be demonstrated by extracting it from its respective verbal expressions. The latter, on the other hand, evidently do have a form. But the form only concerns the way of entertaining a thought, that is to say, of thinking about it. The grammatical structure of a proposition is not the form of the underlying thought, for the nature of grammar is an historical accident – it could easily be different from what it is. Even the number of words needed to express a thought, even more so their order, are not part of the structure of a thought. Grammar and vocabulary limit the possibilities of verbally expressing a thought, but they do not change the thought itself. Even in languages which have no articles, such as Latin, or only definite articles, such as old Greek, the thought ‘This is a human’ can be expressed: ‘Homo est’ and ‘Ἀνϑρώπος εστι’ represent the same thought as the English sentence ‘This is a human’, the equivalent German sentence ‘Dies ist ein Mensch’, or the equivalent French sentence ‘C’est un être humain’, all three of which – indeed, owing to their respective grammars, necessarily – contain an indefinite article. The grammatical structure does not determine the thought; the need to express the thought and think about it in various manners, however, determines the grammatical structure of a language. Since different natural languages have developed multifarious grammatical structures for expressing the same thought in various manners without its competent speakers’ lacking the ability to entertain the same ideas, we may justifiably conclude that not thoughts themselves but only manners of entertaining and expressing them are structured in a way which can correctly be said to have a(n extractable or analysable) form.
The thought (T) ‘It is raining’ – ‘Es regnet’ (German), ‘Il pleut’ (French), et cetera – has no analysable form or structure; only its respective verbal expression does. A thought is always a whole, and thereby has meaning. A thought in itself does not have a logical form or structure, either. Only two or more thoughts, and manners of thinking about them can stand in logical relationships to one another and have logical forms or structures.
Interestingly, only a few propositional attitudes, that is to say, ways of thinking about a thought, are usually taken into consideration by philosophers. The attitude A of a subject S towards a proposition P is usually noted as
S A P,
such as in
(1) Caroline (=S) believes (=A) [(that) it is raining] (=P).
Within a natural language, in this case English, propositional attitudes can be stated in a completely different manner, though. The expression ‘It is raining’ can, in regard to ways of thinking about the thought, be modified in virtue of a sentence adverb, for example:
(2) ‘Unfortunately, it is raining.’
Can this expression be reformulated in a way that maps it on to the logical structure represented by the notation S A P as in (1)?
This question seems to be the same as ‘Can the sentence adverb “unfortunately” be substituted by a verb representing the same attitude towards the thought (T) without changing the way of thinking about (T)?’
On the face of it, this may appear trivially easy. We may, for example, say (or write),
(3) Caroline regrets [(that) it is raining].
Yet if we take a moment to contemplate this, we notice that modifiers such as the sentence adverb ‘unfortunately’ in (2) are context sensitive in a way constructions as S A P are not. The notation S A P aims to describe the logical structure of the relationship between S and P, in philosophical analyses mostly applied to the attitudes of a single third person. A sentence adverb as ‘unfortunately’ in (1), in contrast, is mostly used by a first person to describe their own attitude towards a proposition, albeit not exclusively. The former appears to be extensional and thereby transparent, whereas the latter appears to be intensional and thereby (somewhat) obscure. An important difference is that while the truth conditions of S A P as in (1) are context independent, the truth conditions of sentences as (2) – if they have any, that is – are context sensitive. (1) is true if and only if (iff) Caroline believes that it be raining. The truth of (2), on the other hand, depends upon several factors.
If Caroline utters (2), she may believe that it be raining, and at the same time that this be a pity because the rain thwarts the plans she and a friend of hers made for the afternoon. She may as well be lying, though: perhaps she utters (2), although she does not believe that it be raining, or she believes that it be raining without disliking it because she was not looking forward to spending time with her friend this afternoon.
It may also be the case that Caroline confuses the word ‘unfortunately’ with another word, or that she accidentally uses it, even though she has something completely different in mind.
Now, how does this relate to Wittgenstein’s contention that there be things whereof one cannot speak?
[To be continued.]
1. Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; Translated by C. K. Ogden; New York: Routledge, 1922; Transferred to Digital Printing 2006; p. 189.
2. Confer: Op. cit., p. 8.
3. Confer: Op. cit., p. 9.
4. Confer the entry ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951)’ in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/wittgens/#H1, paragraph 5.
5. Confer: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-mc.