Lighten up, Ludwig

Went to the one-day Tractatus workshop here in Cambridge (the last in a series that has mostly taken place in Stirling). I was there in my role as the village sceptic.

Julian Dodd and Michael Morris kicked off with a joint talk on Making sense of nonsense. What are we to make of the fact that Wittgenstein officially seems to think of his claims in the Tractatus as nonsense (yet in the Preface he says ‘the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me to be unassailable and definitive’)? One line is that claims of the Tractatus communicate truths that can be shown but not said (the ‘truth-in-nonsense’ view). Another line is that actually not all the claims are non-sensical (the ‘not-all-nonsense’ view). Julian and Michael think there is a third way. All of the claims of the Tractatus are nonsense and they don’t communicate any genuine truths indirectly either (the ‘no-truths-at-all-view’); the prefatory remark is just another bit of philosophical nonsense.

This was interestingly done, though they also seem to want to suggest that the movement of thought in Tractatus, read their way, naturally leads to its mystical conclusion. I just don’t see that. Somewhere in the middle of the 6.somethings, sensible readers of the Tractatus can perfectly well think “Oh come off it, Ludwig, lighten up!”. The mystical guff about feeling the “world as a limited whole” is no more an upshot of what’s gone before than would be, say, something like Lichtenberg’s wryly amused attitude to the scattered occasions of his life.

Next up, Fraser MacBride and Peter Sullivan talked about Ramsey, Wittgenstein, and in particular the argument about complex universals. Peter hinted at, but didn’t in this talk really explore, an interesting thought. Ask: ‘How much do the principles of logic reveal about the nature of things/the constitution of facts?’ It seems Frege answers “a great deal” (logic reveals the deep distinctions between objects, properties, properties of properties etc.) while Ramsey answers “next to nothing” (e.g there isn’t a deep object/universal distinction reflected in the logical subject/predicate form). Peter suggested that there is a lot in the Tractatus that comes from Frege and a lot that feeds into Ramsey’s position. Which suggests that Wittgenstein’s position might be an incoherent mixture.

Finally, Mike Beaney talked about the chronology of the interchanges between Frege and Wittgenstein. And Michael Potter talked more specifically about when W. might have learnt from F. to distinguish sharply complexes and facts (early, according to Michael).

Which was all mildly instructive, though the discussions sometimes became bogglingly theological, in the way that Wittgenstein-fests can do. It was occasionally like listening to rounds of ‘Mornington Crescent’ without the jokes (and no, I’m not going to explain!).

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