Frames /sing


Wittgenstein’s Silence

It is Wittgenstein’s last sentence of his Tractatus  that is perhaps his most problematic, and therefore engaging: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent”. The silence though appears not to have stopped here. There seems to be a hidden silence that carries through to Wittgenstein’s much embraced latter work, despite the arguable radical break with what preceded it. The “silence” with which the Tractatus  ends, is the silence imposed when speaking under a picture-sentence view of language, “A sentence is a picture of reality” (TLP 1, 4.021). How much of this need, this must of “silence” remains in Wittgenstein’s new thinking?. It strikes me that at least in the followers of Wittgenstein a great deal more of this silence lingers than is often acknowledged. There is the feeling that Wittgenstein wants to say “Whereof one cannot speak under a Language-game picture of language, one must, or should remain silent”. It is this implicit continuation of a sense of completion, that the adequate framework of sense as been now supplied, and that all that falls outside of it is simply by definition “nonsense”, which is somehow sublated in the Philosophical Investigations and other texts. (One can see this most explicitly in Wittgenstein’s treatment of “nonsense” and metaphysics under a normalized concept of health vs. illness.) To be sure, Wittgenstein’s loose, often playful approach to language through an analogy of rules and games lacks the rigid latticework of the Tractatus, but it seems that the prescription of silence remains.

If though we take Wittgenstein’s two projects in composite, his picture-sentence theory of language, and his language-game theory (understanding “theory” in its Greek sense), we might take away something more than a final resting place which fixedly allows us to parse sense from nonsense, and the coherently spoken from requisite quiet. Perhaps we can see that while a silence halos all our approaches of a descriptive cohesion, our pictures of language can and indeed necessarily do change. A Language-game approach is not a final framework for our divisions of the spoken and unspoken. Other circumscriptions exist, and will exist, prospectively, creatively, usefully. If anything is taught by Wittgenstein’s progression, it would be that silence is always qualified. And the “must”, the imperative of normative discourse about discourse, is itself contingent to the metaphors and analogies we fashion. Wittgenstein’s Language Game itself imposes its unique urge to silence in the implicit assumption of its descriptive powers. The Language Game also is a “picture [that] held us captive” (PI §115).

“Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what could not be said” – Bertrand Russell


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