Friday, 9 May 2014

Beginning Marie McGinn’s book Elucidating the Tractatus, in hope

As a break from answering emails and other administrative tasks, I’d like very briefly to flag a kind of textual anticipation. I’ve started to read Marie McGinn’s book Elucidating the Tractatus [McGinn 2007]. Reading it on my iPad I ignored an early comment by the author that she’d written a long book. It’s more than 300 pages, however, a fact obscured when one doesn’t support its weight (when, for example, reading in the bath). So it will take some time for me to put together enough snatched moments to get through it.

But I’m optimistic – the mood I’d like to record here in advance – because of the possibility of there being an account of the early Wittgenstein which reconciles two things. First, the attraction of taking the later Wittgenstein’s simple mindedness about nonsense to be operating in the TLP and hence ruling out the idea of sly pointing towards metaphysical insights into or even explanations of the hook up between language and the world. But second, the sheer eccentricity of its author offering such a detailed account of language and world if virtually all of it, bar some framing sentences, is merely a kind of reductio. Is there nothing to be said for thinking, for example, that what we might mean by a ‘world’ is a totality of facts, of things (where it is impolite to ask which things) which are the case? And what of the account of logic developed?

McGinn promises to steer a middle course which accepts the first point but which offers a view of the TLP as offering some sort of insight into language and logic and the articulation of a world which goes hand in hand with that. A quick skim of the first half suggests two concrete ideas from the first ten pages help with this.

First, there is the idea held dear by the resolute reading that ‘the early and the later philosophy are united in their rejection of the very possibility of taking what John McDowell calls ‘a sideways on’ perspective on language’ [ibid: 5-6]. With this idea in play, the baldy metaphysical tone of the first few sentences of TLP is thought of not as grounding a view of language as from outside it, nor as the result of a kind of inference to the best explanation of what the world in itself must really be like if language is possible, but rather a pithy expression of the most general way the world is articulated as seen, obviously, from within language. (I want to add: which is to say, from within the limits of sense, which is no qualification at all.)

Second there’s an idea to defuse the traditional view that simple names stand in relates to enduring metaphysical atoms which is stated like this at the start:

The concept of a simple object that is correlated with a name emerges, I want to argue, in the context of this conception of the meaning of a word as something that we grasp and which explains our ability to understand the sense of propositions in which the word occurs, without having their sense explained to us. As both Ishiguro and McGuinness remark, the idea of the object that is the meaning of a name that emerges in this context does not correspond in any way to our ordinary notion of particular, concrete objects that constitute parts of empirical reality. [ibid: 7]

and then rather later thus:

Objects are not necessary existents that endure through all change, but the meanings of primitive signs in a system for representing the world in propositions. [ibid: 144]

Thus, Wittgenstein wants us to recognize that our investigation into how a proposition expresses its sense is directed, not towards what symbols mean (the object they signify), but towards how they symbolize: how they are used with a sense. The conception of meaning that dominates Wittgenstein’s argument for simples now slips into the background and his logical investigation focuses exclusively on the use of expressions in propositions with sense. [ibid: 163]

The second move is the sort of thing that might make the first possible. But whether it is enough to head off what had seemed an account of how representation is possible, an account itself self-undermined with desperate acts of pointing, and replace it with mere description, I’m not sure. Nor whether what results is a kind of philosophical insight.

I have always liked the sketch of a sense of method in resolute readings – not that one discovers that particular possibilities are ruled out, since in the preference for talk of limits of sense over limitations, nothing is exogenously ruled out – but that each reader is invited to reflect on whether she or he has put in the work to invest meaning in particular combinations of symbols. I worry that this seems a solipsistic activity. I also worry that we can no longer say what it was that was achieved: not for example showing that a private language was impossible since that now becomes showing that *** *** is impossible. But at least there seems to be a premiss discharging philosophical method.

McGinn,M. (2007) Elucidating the Tractatus: Wittgenstein's Early Philosophy of Logic and Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press