07 October 2013

World, Thing, Case, Is, The

"The world is all that is the case." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

With one deceptively simple sentence, a proposition really, Wittgenstein sets the course for much of Twentieth Century philosophy. What does he accomplish here? Let's take a look.

The form of Wittgenstein's proposition is this: {x is P}, where 'x' is 'the world', and 'P' is the entire set of things that are the case. Of the things that are the case, the world is all of them. In such a formulation, P is predicated of x. For there to be a world, there must first be at least one thing that is the case. And if we find something to be the case, then it is necessarily included in that world.

But what is the meaning of this statement? What sort of world does Wittgenstein envision here? What can we glean from an analysis of these eight single-syllable words? There's really nothing in this sentence that a rudimentary reader of the English language would have trouble reading. And at first face, upon reading it, most readers might very well think they understand it and move on to the next sentence.

Before moving on, it will pay to analyze this statement. What assumptions does it entail, what conclusions does it imply? We can learn quite a great deal about the young Wittgenstein's philosophy by taking this one proposition apart and, in the process, get a taste of how philosophers read and think about things.

You wouldn't know it from a cursory reading, but Wittgenstein essentially gives the game away with his very first word: 'the'. He doesn't say 'A world is all that is the case.' or 'One of many worlds...' He says 'THE world'. Implying there is one unitary reality which he then proceeds to name 'world'. There is A reality. One reality. Not many and not none. There is something out there which just is THE world. It is something around which philosophers, or at least readers of his treatise, can unify.

A world is a thing, and there is one and, by implication, only one of them. We shall have to read on to see how he defines and delimits this world, for this is the aim of the proposition. To wit: to indicate how, in philosophy at least, this 'world' can be formed. If there is a world (and Witttgenstein asserts there is so long as something is the case), it is comprised of the entirety of things that are the case. If something is indeed determined to be the case, everything that is the case therefore constitutes the world.

There is no 'my world' and 'your world' nor is there some lesser world subordinate to a greater world. In science, for example, the most powerful theoretical view is the one that comprises the greatest number of verifiable statements about the reality under observation. More powerful theories supersede lesser explanatory theories. For Wittgenstein, by contrast, THE world exists. It is independent of our knowledge of it, and it contains everything that can possibly be the case. If we discover something to be the case that previously we did not know to be the case, this does not alter THE world. It merely increases our knowledge of THE world.

The 'is' in Wittgenstein's statement is formally a copulative and a powerful one at that, inextricably linking the subject with its predicate. Identifying them for once and for all.

But it accomplishes far more than this. It insists not only that this unitary world exists but that it has substance. The world IS. It exists as the totality of everything that is the case. And then he proposes to tell us of what that world is constituted.

What, then, is the substance of this Wittgensteinian world? Why, of the things that are the case, it is all of them. Now, what can we infer from his use of this locution 'is the case'?

The predicate 'is the case' is philosophical jargon meaning 'true', or more specifically 'logically true'. If you ever studied symbolic logic, you learned about truth tables—variables, operations, connectors, etc. Logical propositions are always either true or false.

If we say that it is the case that 'grass is green', then we mean that if we go out an look at a patch of grass we will all agree that it is green. Or, technically, 'grass is green' is true if and only if grass is green.

[There is not space here to discuss 'greenness', nor is it implied in Wittgenstein's seminal proposition. I'll save that for another day.]

Truth and is-the-caseness, though, are values ascribed to propositions. This is very important in philosophy. Truth is not something that exists in reality. Rather it is a value we give to propositions.

Technically speaking, truth does not exist in Wittgenstein's 'world'. Rather, it is the qualifying quality of the things ('is-the-caseness') that ultimately go to make up THE world. But what exactly are the sorts of things that make up this world? This is where it gets interesting (for philosophers, at least).

Things like grass and greenness do not exist in Wittgenstein's world if we read him aright.

For example, we don't say 'grass is the case', or 'grass is true'. Nor do we say 'green is the case', or 'green is true'. Those plant blade thingies that sprout up from the ground and are often found in people's yards and have appearance of greenness (except maybe in winter or in drought) are not the sort of thing that goes to make up Wittgenstein's world.

Moreover, we don't say grass is green is the case, rather we say 'grass is green' is the case. Is-the-caseness, in this instance, has nothing to do with grass or greenness; it has to do with the mapping of the proposition 'grass is green' to the color of the grass. If the proposition can be demonstrated to map onto things, then it is case and it goes to make up the world.

We might, thus, say there is some grass over there and it has the aspect of greenness. Thus, 'the grass is green' is one of things of which we might say that it is the case. 'The grass is green' gives us, to use Wittgenstein's term, a picture of reality.

The Tractarian world comprises all and only those statements that are true. It is, in a sense, a picture world. A linguistic, or languaged, model of the world. This seems to be what Wittgenstein is saying here. He is not making an assertion about the rocks and seas and stars and people in what we normally think of as the physical reality we all inhabit.

Rather, he is making an assertion about a technical, philosophical world, a picture world of true propositions which, ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, map precisely and completely onto the normal world of rocks and birds and plants and things, etc. And, according to him, there is only one such world, the one which contains ALL of these true propositions.

In other words, we cannot make any headway in making complete and coherent systems of philosophy if we are dealing with the so-called real world, the sensory world of things. We must make ourselves a picture, a precisely circumscribed and accurate model that we can deal with linguistically, that is to say whose axioms and rules we can delineate, a model that contains all and only those propositions we can demonstrate to be true. A complete picture of reality.

Thus, to know the world is to know all possible true propositional statements about that world. To understand it is to be able to generate all true propositions from a given set of axioms and rules. This is what we can glean from an analysis of this one simple statement. Esoteric enough for you? Ready to move on to the second sentence of the book?

It's fair to say that Wittgenstein achieves here what novelists, poets, and other artists seek to accomplish via their works, namely the creation of a world. Here, he takes the opportunity in this prefatory statement to his Tractatus to define the precise parameters of this world.

This is what we can take away from that first sentence. It is, of course, subject to correction, and if Wittgenstein is any sort of philosopher (which he is!), he will address and explain everything we've inferred from it.

This is how philosophers think. They set up precise, technical definitions of the terms they use and operate within those limits. Terms like 'being', 'reality', 'existence', 'world', 'mind', 'knowledge', 'meaning', 'truth', 'beauty', 'freedom', and etc., and etc. all have very circumscribed meanings in philosophical discourse, quite unlike the sort of loosey-goosey way we throw terms about in our day-to-day discussions. In fact, much of philosophical dialogue revolves around making sure the conversants are not talking past each other. Making sure they are agreed on the precise technical meanings, limits, and uses of the terms they are bandying about and about which they are debating. In this, philosophy is different from other forms of discourse.

Wittgenstein's world-making, of course, raises a whole set of problems, some of which he is at pains to decide in the Tractatus. For example, such a proposition begs the question whether there is a real world independent of our knowledge of it—or, our statements about it. That is to say, we have the ontology of the world, everything included in it (i.e., everything that is the case), but we simply lack the foundational wherewithal to determine whether Wittgenstein's Tractarian world completely and coherently captures reality.

The Wittgensteinian world seems set, fixed. This is signaled by the power of 'is'. In his world, can a proposition that was once true cease being true? Can a proposition that once was not-the-case ever become the case? Do new true propositions emerge? Do old true propositions ever fade away?

How do we know that the Tractarian world contains every possible true proposition? If this world includes all and only those propositions that are true, then, by implication, it excludes all and only those propositions that are not true. But can we conceive of propositions that are neither true nor false, and in such an instance should they be included in this world or excluded from it? Are there propositions that are both the case and not the case, and does the world include or exclude them?

Are there aspects of the world that are not susceptible to languaged propositions? That is to say, is the language of propositions all powerful? Is it capable of determining all possible worlds?

What do we do about undecidable propositions? For example, does the Tractarian world contain the statement 'The world is all that is the case'? That is to say, in the Tractarian world is there any way ever to know whether this proposition is or is not the case? Is "'The world is all that is the case' is the case" determinably true or false? There seems to be no way to decide this question in the Tractarian world.

Why do we need these sorts of specialized, technical terminologies and models? What about everyday language and speech? Don't carpenters and business people and politicians and others effectively communicate without resort to all this recursive, semantic, meta-linguistic nit-picking?

Some of these intractable problems (and, of course, others) ultimately caused Wittgenstein to abandon this attempt at articulating the basic principles of a systematic philosophy. This came about in his later book, the only other book he completed and published during his lifetime, Philosophical Investigations.

Confused? Welcome to the world of Philosophy where sometimes being wrong can be a very valuable exercise. It's not that you're wrong that matters, it's how you're wrong.


Landru said...

Beery swine.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Just as sloshed as Schlegel.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ah, what a supreme delight to read such a close reading that is simultaneously so generous — to LW as well as to your readers. I'd forgotten the joy of taking one sentence and discovering worlds.

Let me ask you this: Is this the way of philosophers? Must they use specialized terms, define them, stipulate a world? Surely it's not a sufficient condition but is it even necessary?

I think of Nietzsche for whom philosophy is a way of living and moving in the world; it is a posture less than it is a formal practice. D&G, of course, say philosophy is the creation of concepts which may or may not demand specified terms?

And: What makes philosophers' specified language different than, say, a doctor's, novelist's, a poet's, a carpenter's?

I don't know the answers; I ask the questions in all (or partial) innocence.

Jim H. said...

Thanks, Daniel for both the thoughtful Comment and the probing question. Let me take a run at it.

If you are about systematic philosophy, precision and definition are essential. Same applies to, say, theology. Tillich and Barth and Tracy must settle on soteriological conditions, e.g., consistent with their respective Christologies. It's the coin of theory and, for philosophers, of metaphysics.

No need to get into the great divide b/w European and Anglo. Husserl and Heidegger aim for precision. As do Dummett and Davidson. The latter group simply has made a living out of clarification, or analysis.

Nietzsche is aphoristic, brilliant, and at times sloppy. His training was as a philologist, a hermeneut, an interpreter. In his writing there are passages of supreme clarity and others of muddy allusion and private reference. He left it to the rest of us to try and make some sense of the relationship b/w, say, resentiment and the will to power.

I wish I could find time to read A Thousand Plateaus or finish Anti-Oedipus. I fail to see how a concept can fail to be specific (unless it is ill-formed). Else how can we have discourse about it and be assured we are not talking past one another.

But that just points out the gaps in my own knowledge base.

Wouldn't you say Nietzsche's posture was one of superiority to the mass of men? Whereas the notion of philosophical discourse as no different—formally, I gather your question implies—from other forms of discourse is a rather egalitarian stance?

Doctors focus on the body, disease, and healing strategies. Novelists on the clash of the inner, emotional world with the outer. Poets on the immediacy of experience (including the experience of language). Carpenters on what? construction of houses or cabinetry?

What if we say that a philosopher focusing on concepts—and here I'm not fully confident I understand what we mean by a 'concept'—is attempting to come up with a means of understanding/explaining reality? And that reality includes bodies and diseases and healing methodologies as well as houses and art forms? But that doctors, writers, poets, and carpenters aren't trying to grasp all of that reality, merely their circumscribed corners.