Realistic Solipsism in Wittgenstein's Tractatus

I apologize for some rather ugly formatting here, but I do not have the time to go through and perfect the HTML. Perhaps later…

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical treatise Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a dense, meticulously configured outline of the author’s views concerning the nature of philosophy, the limits of linguistic structures, and the ramifications of both for human knowledge. On its surface the Tractatus is a profound description of human cognition in its role as perceiver of the world, entailing a clarification of representational language and the wholesale dismissal of all claims to metaphysical knowledge. While this interpretation might be assumed upon first glance, as it has been by the numerous proponents of logical positivism, it seems to ignore a vital aspect of Wittgenstein’s expressed intent in creating the work: the portion which asserts his view of the mystical side of reality. In the latter pages of the Tractatus Wittgenstein propounds the notion of ‘what can’t be said,’ a seemingly paradoxical concept from which the book derives the entirety of its contribution to metaphysical and ethical discourse, as well as its most apparent logical diversion from the positivism of philosophers such as A.J. Ayer and the members of the Vienna Circle. This he achieves through a reworked theory of solipsism that exhibits itself in a way identical to realism. Though, again, paradoxical upon reflection this foundation is the source of the most valuable insights found in the Tractatus, and infuses the text with its sense of ethical value, which Wittgenstein asserts to be the point of its writing.

“The world is all that is the case.”

The majority of text in the Tractatus is dedicated to the explication of ‘what can be said,’ or Wittgenstein’s illustration of the function of language in forming propositions, which mirror facts in the world.  The world, he says, “is the totality of facts, not of things.”   Things, or objects, do exist in combinations dubbed states of affairs, and the totality of existent states of affairs is the totality of facts, and thus “all that is the case.”  In analyzing the use of language, Wittgenstein asserts that humans form propositions, whose sense derives from their depiction of possible states of affairs.  The possibility of such depiction consists in the state of affairs’ logical form, or the determinate way in which the constituent objects relate to each other, which is mirrored in the structure of the proposition.  This logical form presents not only what states of affairs do exist in the world (or, facts), but also all possible states of affairs (with those that do not exist being known as negative facts).  Thus the world, being a sum of all states of affairs both existent and merely possible, is in all cases a display of logical form.  Logic provides the “scaffolding” for all propositions that may be said to have sense, and any proposition that does not adhere to its structure is nonsensical and is not a genuine proposition.  Logical form, which enables the logic of all reality, cannot however be stated.  It may only be shown in the structure that propositions share with the states of affairs that they depict.  This inability of language to directly describe the form that makes it knowable is posited as an indication of the inherent limit of language itself.  The question is raised, if all that may be said of reality is confined by the boundaries of such a logical space, what else, if anything, remains?

“There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

Logical form, we have seen, is shown in the structure of all propositions of sense.  More, as Wittgenstein states, “[w]hat can be shown, cannot be said.”   This distinction between what is shown and what is said is paramount to the Tractatus throughout.  It is impossible to directly define logical form because, to do so, we would require the ability to step “outside” of logical-space, and thus the world.   In other words, to represent the nature of commonality that allows our propositions to describe reality, we must not use any propositions that adhere to logical form whatsoever.  Ergo, any such attempt will be necessarily and utterly devoid of sense!  Such formal concepts make themselves manifest in every usage to which they apply, so that the “expression for a formal concept is a propositional variable in which this distinctive feature alone is constant.” 
If all that may be said of the world is confined to propositions regarding states of affairs, the status of philosophy as a discipline of knowledge is thrown under heavy doubt.  It seems that much of the centuries of discourse that have generated our various canons of ethics, metaphysics and epistemology would need to be eliminated by Wittgenstein’s axe of sensibility.  Wittgenstein therefore sees the need to clarify the nature of philosophy under his new concept of meaning, stating that “[p]hilosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.  A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.”   This idea of elucidation relies upon his assertion that what cannot be said is instead made manifest in propositions displaying certain formal concepts.  While many philosophical statements appear to treat these formal concepts as factual matters, they are incapable of doing so because of their own dependence upon said structures.  Thus, philosophical proposition pretending to uncover some sense in the underlying forms of reality are really without any determinate sense.  Wittgenstein’s proposed notion of the philosophical elucidation is one which, though not a factual, scientific method of acquiring knowledge, attempts to display the forms of the world (what can’t be said) in its structure in the most clear and concise way possible.  In this way, even the Tractatus itself must be deemed senseless, in that it has no determinate sense.  As Wittgenstein writes, “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me … must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.”   True to his doctrine, Wittgenstein thus sets the Tractatus up as a manifestation of his philosophy by acknowledging the factual limits of what his words may represent, and allowing the underlying structures of his thought to be simply displayed throughout the treatise.

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.”

With the whole of metaphysical questions so handily labeled as nonsense, it might seem that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus leaves no room for the entrance of any ethical content at all.  Indeed, any propositions regarding what is good in life, or what the meaning of that life in general is, could surely not be said to contain any factual references to the world.  However, Wittgenstein wrote, in a letter to an acquaintance, of the Tractatus: “The book’s point is an ethical one.”   As is maintained in every reach of the book, he does not believe in language’s ability to transcend the world, to express anything beyond the scope of propositional states of affairs.  Thus, his view on ethics does not concern itself with any doctrine of dutiful obligation, rewards or punishments, or any of the other common trappings of most moral theories.  Instead, Wittgenstein believes that ethics deals with the purpose of life, that which gives us a reason to live.  His ability to derive this notion from his rigid notion of the sayable and unsayable is achieved through an assertion that the world exists similarly to the way posited by the theory of solipsism, modified by the realizing element of linguistic limits.
Realism and solipsism are, by many accounts, the logical opposites of each other.  While the realist holds all perception of the world to be epistemically direct, the solipsist believes that all of reality exists only within the subject.   As we have already seen, Wittgenstein sees the world (all that is the case) as being limited by the structures of language we use to portray and interpret it.  Because of this, he writes, “The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language…mean the limits of my world.”  In this way, “what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest.   What separates Wittgenstein’s philosophy from that of other solipsists stems from this statement, and his notion of the subject, or “I”, of whom reality consists.
It is common for people to speak of their self, or the selves of others, as if speaking of a factual object.  However, in Wittgenstein’s view, the ability to do this would need to appeal to some vantage point outside of the self, some transcendent vista from outside the world.  His concept of the Self is not identified with a specific mind or body in the world, but the entirety of the reality, the boundaries which define all that is the case.  It is impossible, says Wittgenstein, to separate some thing called the world from the life, or perception, of the Self because “the world and life are one.”   This mistaking of the subject of reality for an object in reality is essential to his view of the purpose of life, and they ways in which if makes itself manifest in the world.
When the nature of the Self is thus shown, the ramifications for ethical existence fall into place.  Wittgenstein writes, “In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists – and if it did exist, it would have no value.”   That is, within all possible states of affairs, value is nowhere found as a determinate object, a senseful subject for a proposition.  Due to this, “good and evil only enter through the subject.  And the subject is not part of the world, but a boundary of the world.”   The contemplation of what is good or bad in life, or what is the meaning of life presupposes that such a concept applies to the objective existence of oneself.  However, such a presupposition is errant, because the Self does not exist in the world, it is not an object to which qualities (such as value, meaning, worth) may be attributed.  This flawed assumption arises from the tendency to project oneself into the world, considering oneself a determinate object that may be analyzed and modified upon reflection.  Thus, it seems that the “problem” of life is the existence (or contrived existence) of any problem at all.
Wittgenstein’s implosion of the notion of Self, or the deletion of a meaningful Ego, is similar in some ways to other theories in ethical thought.  Many religious belief systems, such as Zen Buddhism and the words of the historical Jesus Christ, place great import on a notion of selflessness.  By understanding the limits of what may be sensefully expressed in language, and realized the value of philosophy as a tool for elucidating the structures of the world, ethical value is displayed as the eminent mystical aspect of reality.  It is, in a way, the form of forms, the merging of subjective and objective viewpoints that depict and embody all that is the case.  It is a possibly fatal blow to wishful assumption that human thought can transcend itself, and a beautifully simple re-centering of the focus of thought.  In his posthumously published Notebooks Wittgenstein encapsulates this nicely, “In order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world.  And that is what ‘being happy’ means.”

Thanks, athunley.

I’ve never really focused on Wittgenstein’s work before, although I have sampled it here and there.

I also heard that he had a terrible temper, perhaps from an unreliable source, I dunno. That being the case, I’m all the more interested.

Your introduction was very satisfying.