Wittgenstein and the Dissolution Principles
November 16, 2005
For Dr. Burke
What one has to look for, in any application of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work to philosophy is his principle of dissolution. In both his early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the later Philosophical Investigations, he approaches philosophical problems as things to be dissolved, as confusions arising from a misunderstanding of language. As Wittgenstein changes his idea of a correct understanding of language, his understanding of why these confusions exist and the manner in which they cease to exist changes, but the general method remains the same. While “all philosophy is a ‘critique of language,’” Wittgenstein holds that philosophy can be dissolved by language’s critique.
Wittgenstein does not believe that these persisting philosophical problems are resolved by his method of analyzing the logic of language, but that they go away. He doesn’t think he has arrived at a method by which to definitively answer such questions, but that he has shown why these questions make no sense, and why they do not need to be asked. He is not working at resolving philosophical problems but at dissolving them.
In the Tractatus Wittgenstein holds to the idea of a perfect language, one that is fully analyzable to its fundamentally simple “atomic” facts, whose logical structure is identical with, and therefore adheres to and depicts, the logical structure of the world, a logical structure which can and is shown, but cannot be said. A language such as this cannot, he believes, pass into illogicality. With a language such as this, the limits of the world are firmly and clearly drawn so that everything can be said clearly and precisely, or it cannot be said at all. Wittgenstein says this is the “whole sense” of his book, and working from this description of his language and from that sense of limits, we come to the Tractatus’ principle of dissolution.
From this idea of language he reaches the principle which dissolves philosophical problems. “Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers,” Wittgenstien writes, “arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language. And it is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all.” These problems are not problems because they vanish either inside the frame of language, like tautologies, or outside, like contradictions. Philosophy is made up of riddles and doubts, but Wittgenstein seeks to show that riddles and doubts don’t exist because one cannot have a riddle or a doubt without an answer. “If a question,” he says, “can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical.” So the method is not to try to stop all such doubts from arising, but to realize such doubts have no justification and are simply nonsensical in attempting, as they do, to go beyond the limits of the world and of language.
Wittgenstein realizes this vanishing act leaves us uncomfortable, but says that it is the vanishing itself that is the answer to the question. He writes, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.” If philosophical diversions, riddles and skepticisms, brought us to the “sense of life” then the sense of life would be found in the vanishing of the so-called problems and we would abandon them.
Consider how this principle might work out as a method. The Tractatus isn’t an attempt to show how one could go about dissolving philosophical problems, and Wittgenstein does not approach the problem, for example, of free will and determinism. He does hint at it, however, when he speaks directly of causality. Traditional problems are rooted in misunderstandings of language. Both approaches to the problem – free will’s proposition that we make choices without being caused to do so and therefore there are states of affairs which are not determined by prior states of affairs, and determinism’s proposition that everything is caused and therefore every state of affairs is necessitated by a prior state of affairs – confusions about language, about the logic of language and language’s limits. Both approaches to the problem and even the problem itself is a confusions rooted in misunderstandings the logico-linguistic nature of causality.
Where the traditional philosophical approach has assumed causation and, from there, made a problem, Wittgenstein dissolution would proceed by showing that the language of causation was confused and this confusion gave rise to the problem. There are two confusions concerning causality: first, that causality was a form of necessity distinct from logical necessity; second, that causality could be stated.
Given Wittgenstein’s language, it is impossible to imagine any sort of causality that is beyond the causality of the logic of language. “The only kind of necessity,” he writes, “is logical necessity.” Since logic is the mirror of the world, and the world is the case, there could be no sort of causation not shown in logic. There is no causality apart from that which is found in logic, that is, nothing is necessitated unless it is necessitated by logic. If states of affairs are caused by will or by prior states of affairs, then that must be shown in the mirror of logic.
We cannot speak of causality, either the illusionary causality that gave rise to the problem, or the logic reflected causality of Wittgenstein’s. In the first case, if causality is above the world, above the assemblage of facts, then it would be like the ancient’s superstitions of gods and of fates. Causality, if it were this sort of thing, would be beyond the facts of the world and we couldn’t speak about it. In the second place, in Wittgenstein’s language, we cannot speak about the logic of language because we would need another logic to speak in, and so on ad infinitum. We cannot, Wittgenstein holds, speak that logic, The logic shows itself, but it cannot be spoken of. Thus causation is either in the world, unspeakable and showing itself through the structure, or outside the world, and unspeakable and indescribable. Either way, to think that we could speak of causality would be confused.
Therefore, if language is explained by Wittgenstein’s picture theory, the philosophical question of free will versus determinism is not even sensible to pose unless one doesn’t understand causality in the logic of the language, unless one has gone the route of imprecision and unclarity. A solution ought not to be attempted for the problem, but rather the language ought to be analyzed to show where the error began.
His understanding of language changes in the Philosophical Investigations. He rejects the idea of a perfect language and embraces, rather, natural language. “When I talk about language,” he writes, “(words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed?” He no longer sees language as the attempt at a fully analyzed atomistic affair that pictures the logical structure of the world by sharing it, but looks to the normal and practical language arising directly out of use in our forms of life. Language is not, he decides, a logic, but a contextual system.
Wittgenstein is clearer here concerning his principle of dissolution, describing philosophy as “the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense” and demonstrating his method throughout the book. The dissolution method of Philosophical Investigations is to present a thought experiment, take a philosophical objection or problem or confusion, to conduct a grammatical investigation of the articulated objection and find the misunderstanding that raised the problem and, finally to show how the problem is not, in fact, a problem. At first it appears that the principle of dissolution is, as it was in the first case, the transgressing of limits. The limits here, however, are not the limits placed upon thought by a perfect logic of language depicting the logical structure of the world, but the grammatical limits of normal and natural language. Wittgenstein’s method shifts from logical analysis to grammatical analysis, from opposing illogicality and mysticism to opposing subliming and secrets, and his dissolution principle shifts from holding philosophy to be confused about the perfect structure of language to holding it as confused about the natural use of language.
Philosophy refuses to accept the limits of common everyday good-enough grammar by looking for secrets, by subliming, by taking natural things and imagining them to be mysterious and extraordinary. Wittgenstein thinks that it should be easy to note these acts of sublimation for the very strange and unusual act that they are, that it should be quite evident that something’s gone very wrong, but that philosophers have become calloused by philosophy.
We set out with the assumption of a secret and so are led astray. He writes,
Here it is easy to get into that dead-end in philosophy, where one believes that the difficulty of the task consists in our having to describe the phenomena that are hard to get hold of, the present experience that slips quickly by, of something of that kind. Where we find ordinary language too crude, and it looks as if we were having to do not with the phenomena of every-day, but with ones that ‘easily elude us’
When one realizes that that nothing is hidden or concealed, that there is no great secret waiting to be uncovered and that we are not waiting for the something to be made sublime, one realizes that the problem isn’t the problem but the question, because the “question contains a mistake.” Then we can turn to common grammar, language in that “kind of way we always use it, the way we are taught to use it,” that we everywhere rely on for our the dissolution of these problems. Returning to the previous example for how this dissolution happens, let us look at the free will versus determinism “problem.”
While Wittgenstein, again, does not approach the philosophical debate directly, he does direct some attention towards the dissolution of our strange idea of willing. We’ve become confused, Wittgenstein says, by thinking that willing was some strange case. We’ve imagined willing to be some strange case that was like wishing, a sort of causal wish, but not like doing a thing. But when one examines the language, “willing” vanishes into acting, for “what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” When one examines the grammar of language, it becomes clear that “willing” and cannot be described as a sort of wishing, for “when I raise my arm, I have not wished it might go up,” and it is the case that “when I raise my arm I not usually try to raise it.” Wittgenstein object, however, to reading this as some sort of strange and remarkable thing. “If (willing) is the action,” he writes, “then it is so in the ordinary sense of the word.”
For what ever reason we are tempted to the sublimation of the will, but we will not have it right, Wittgenstein thinks, until we realize it is normal. By the dissolution principle, focusing on and trusting the grammar, we can, as it were, be talked down
Wittgenstein’s understanding of language changes, but his method and his idea of what language should do remains. Linguistic analysis, whether through logic or grammar, will bring us to the principle by which the many needless problems of philosophy can be solved. Where philosophy has critiqued language Wittgenstein has undertaken a reversal where language will critique philosophy. With this reversal, he thinks, things will be returned to normal and philosophical problems will fade like the discolored illusions of an eye that has ceased straining to see itself.
Short Summary of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is contributing to a system of philosophical atomism, continuing and yet also deviating from Russell’s project of articulating the conditions of a logically perfect language. It was intended to fix the confusions of Frege’s Begriffsschrift and Russell’s Principia Mathematica, and thereby to solve the problems of philosophy. The binding theme of the work is the theme of limits, covering the limits of the world, thought, the expression of thought, and logic/language.
The Tractatus can be outlined in three parts:
1. Wittgenstein’s picture theory of language, whereby the world is made up of atomic facts and pictured by propositions, propositions represent facts by bearing an identical logical structure to them, and the structures common to the picture of the world and the world are shown and not said.
2. Wittgenstein’s exploration of the logical structure of language (which is also the logical structure of the world), covering truth tables, notation, Russell’s paradox, paradoxes, contradictions, etc., concluding with the postulation of the essential logical form of all propositions.
3. Wittgenstein’s considerations of the other side of the limits of the world and logic, the “mystical” – i.e., the will, ethics, aesthetics, God, etc. – which cannot be examined within language.