Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1910

From Notre Dame Philosophical Review:

Tejedor is, I think, right to suggest that for Wittgenstein there is more besides senseful propositions, senseless tautologies and contradictions, and nonsense. But one could argue in this connection that there is room in the Tractatus for a different notion of senselessness, one not restricted to tautologies and contradictions but involving simply a lack of sense. On that understanding, the propositions of natural science would instead be another example, alongside tautologies and contradictions, of propositions that lack sense and so are senseless, but that are nevertheless not nonsense since they are in some sense still a part of the symbolism. One benefit of that account, in this context, would be that it would then be possible to bring out more clearly and convincingly that there is already room within the Tractatus, on its own terms as it were, for the kind of account of the propositions of natural science that Tejedor presents.

Chapter six turns to what Wittgenstein describes, in a letter to Ludwig von Ficker in 1919, as the ethical sense or ethical purpose of the Tractatus. Here, Tejedor begins by criticizing and rejecting Martin Stokhof’s “Schopenhauerian” reading, according to which Wittgenstein advocates abandoning one’s desires in the face of the independence of the world from one’s will as adopting an ethical attitude towards the world. Against that reading, Tejedor maintains instead that there is a much closer connection between the ethical purpose of the Tractatus and its elucidatory or clarificatory aims. For Tejedor, the process of clarification in the Tractatus aims at “fine-tuning our practical abilities in relation to the use of signs” (p. 145), as a result of which the reader is to come to use signs, or be disposed to use signs, in such a way as to reflect that “reality consists of fundamentally contingent facts”, that “the notion of causal necessity is nonsense”, and that “the notion that human beings are in absolute control of certain facts . . . is nonsensical” (p. 146). Using signs in such ways, for Tejedor, is to adopt an ethical attitude towards the world, and it is that ethical attitude that is promoted by the Tractatus.

This proposal raises many questions, and it would be very interesting to see it developed further in response to them. For instance, what exactly is involved in using signs in such a way as to reflect that (e.g.) reality consists of fundamentally contingent facts? Do all senseful uses of signs reflect this, insofar as they all express propositions that are either contingently true or contingently false? Do some senseful uses of signs reflect this rather than others, or some better than others? (Which? Why?) Do only senseful uses of signs reflect this, and not senseless tautologies for instance? (Why? Why not?) Can nonsense be used to reflect this (the elucidatory nonsense of the Tractatus perhaps), and if not, is it unethical to speak nonsense on this view? Do we have any choice about whether or not our uses of signs reflect that reality consists of fundamentally contingent facts, if that really is the case as it were? Mustn’t all of our uses of signs reflect this in some sense, simply by being senseful, senseless, or nonsensical? Moreover, why should the fine-tuning of this practical ability to use signs in certain ways be thought of as ethical, as well as logical? What makes the application of the term “ethical” appropriate here, and how does its use in this context relate to and differ from our ordinary understanding, insofar as there is such a thing, of what ethics involves?

“The Early Wittgenstein on Metaphysics, Natural Science, Language and Value, reviewed by Edmund Dain”, Notre Dame Philosophical Review