Sense and Nonsense

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Sense and Nonsense

Post by spiritus » Mon Oct 03, 2005 10:23 pm

[h]Sense and Nonsense[/h]

In the Tractatus Wittgenstein's logical construction of a philosophical system has a purpose -- to find the limits of world, thought and language; in other words, to distinguish between sense and nonsense. "The book will ... draw a limit to thinking, or rather -- not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts .... The limit can ... only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense" (TLP Preface). The conditions for a proposition's having sense have been explored, and seen to rest on the possibility of representation or picturing. Names must have a bedeutung (reference/meaning), but they can only do so in the context of a proposition which is held together by logical form. It follows that only factual states of affairs which can be pictured, can be represented by meaningful propositions. This means that what can be said are only propositions of natural science, and leaves out of the realm of sense a daunting number of statements which are made and used in language.
There are, first, the propositions of logic. These do not represent states of affairs, and the logical constants do not stand for objects. "My fundamental thought is that the logical constants do not represent. That the logic of the facts cannot be represented" (TLP 4.0312). This is not a happenstance thought; it is fundamental precisely because the limits of sense rest on logic. Tautologies and contradictions, the propositions of logic, are the limits of language and thought, and thereby the limits of the world. Obviously, then, they do not picture anything and do not, therefore, have sense. They are, in Wittgenstein's terms, senseless (sinnlos). Propositions which do have sense are bipolar; they range within the truth-conditions drawn by the propositions of logic. But the propositions of logic themselves are neither true nor false "for the one allows every possible state of affairs, the other none" (TLP 4.462).

The characteristic of being senseless applies not only to the propositions of logic but also to other things that cannot be represented, such as mathematics or the pictorial form itself of the pictures that do represent. These are, like tautologies and contradictions, literally sense-less, they have no sense.

Beyond, or aside from, senseless propositions Wittgenstein identifies another group of statements which cannot carry sense: the nonsensical (unsinnig) propositions. Nonsense, as opposed to senselessness, is encountered when a proposition is even more radically devoid of meaning, when it transcends the bounds of sense. Under the label of unsinnig can be found various propositions: "Socrates is identical", but also "1 is a number". While some nonsensical propositions are blatantly so, others seem to be meaningful -- and only analysis carried out in accordance with the picture theory can expose their nonsensicality. Since only what is "in" the world can be described, anything that is "higher" is excluded, including the notion of limit and the limit points themselves. Traditional metaphysics, and the propositions of ethics and aesthetics, which try to capture the world as a whole, are also excluded, as is the truth in solipsism, the very notion of a subject, for it is also not "in" the world but at its limit.

Wittgenstein does not, however, relegate all that is not inside the bounds of sense to oblivion. He makes a distinction between saying and showing which is made to do additional work. There are, beyond the senses that can be formulated in sayable (sensical) propositions, things that can only be shown. These -- the logical form of the world, the pictorial form, etc. -- show themselves in the form of (contingent) propositions, in the symbolism and logical propositions, and even in the unsayable (metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic) propositions of philosophy. "What can be shown cannot be said." But it is there, in language, even though it cannot be said.

"Biletzki, Anat, Matar, Anat, "Ludwig Wittgenstein", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2 ... tgenstein/>.
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