Monday, January 25, 2010

What Wittgenstein's Picture Theory is For

Sorry to change the subject abruptly but this is a blog, after all.

My thinking is going to be somewhat constrained by the courses I'm taking for the next few months, and today is Wittgenstein day.

The picture theory of language as expounded in the Tractatus seems to me something like a vigorous assertion of the reach of the correspondence theory of truth--it charges again and again in the direction of thinking and though it is at each advance prevented the force of its attack does pull it up into an orbit of significance. Lots to explain in that sentence. First, why do I say that Wittgenstein's approaches to thinking are prevented? Witggenstein says, "What a picture must have in common with reality, in order to be able to depict it--correctly or incorrectly--in the way it does, is its pictorial form." It must be admitted that in this formulation he has taken a step in the direction of thought, in that he has identified something that appears before the mind but as such is no longer the original state of affairs. However, all this step accomplishes (and it is in the positive spirit of the Tractatus to accomplish very little), is to extend the plane of the thinkable to include mental pictorial structures--even making these the principal objects of thinking. It does not in the least explain the act of thinking, nor the structure of language, as it is supposed to do.

What does it mean to "picture facts to ourselves?" how is this different than simply to picture facts? Is it a matter of first composing a logical construction with a certain pictorial form, and subsequently putting it on display within the mind? The ludicrousness of this interpretation shows that there must be in a single moment both the construction and the display, and not even in the sense of two simultaneous but distinct acts. To "picture to ourselves" is not perspicuously analyzable into construction and display. It has to be understood all together or not at all. "The thought," as something presented to thinking for its appreciation, is a fiction. It is part of a narrative which gives discursive thinking something to hold on to, in a matter too immediate to be thought in its immediacy.

The distinction between thinking and the thought must be collapsed if we are to make progress beyond the facts of what thinking has for its object, and beyond the manner in which it presents itself to thinking. The notion of "the thought" brings with it precisely the same structure and penetrates not at all into thinking. But to give up this distinction means to give up the explication of thinking in terms of pictorial form.

Wittgenstein claims to achieve very little in the Tractatus. This is correct, in that the greater work remains of renouncing what he has achieved. I do not know whether this renunciation belongs to the "late Wittgenstein," but I am certain that it is the proper and logical consequence of the picture theory.