Science and ethics, through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Science and ethics, through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Wittgenstein famously ends his Tractatus with the seventh proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent.” (Ogden trans.) Simple enough, it would seem. Not able to say something meaningful, or add something meaningful to the conversation? Then better not speak at all! But this is not a sufficient explanation – it is precisely what is ‘meaningful’ that is at stake with this proposition.

Let us put Tractatus in perspective first. For early (‘Tractarian’) Wittgenstein, language is meaningful when it can depict (‘picture’) states of affairs in the world. Meaningful sentences are ones that can be presented, as it were, in pictures. This may seem counter-intuitive, but bring to mind learning books for children and toddlers. “This is a ball.” “This is a cat.” “This is a car.” – all the while, the picture of a ball, a cat or a car is present in the book. For Wittgenstein, a meaningful sentence is one that can depict a state of affairs – it can present that state of affairs as a picture: “The cat sits on the mat.”1 Notably, this is precisely where Wittgenstein starts from, the first proposition of the Tractatus is “The world is everything that is the case.” But what is a case (der Fall)? Quite simply, facts are the case. Facts are precisely the type of pictures described above: e.g. “The cat is on the mat.”

However, this is only plausible on certain occasions. Wittgenstein realises that the world would be quite meaningless without such things as ethics.2 The difficulty comes when we try to ‘depict’ ethical propositions. There is no picture that we can bring to mind on the ‘virtue’ of states of affairs, or the ‘inherent good’ of the state of affairs. To stay with the same example, ‘the cat sits on the mat’ does not denote any ethical position. ‘Is it virtuous of a cat to be on the mat?’ is a ridiculous question; and so is ‘Is it good or evil that the cat on the mat?’ These ethical questions do not add anything to the picture itself – we are still presented with the same image of a cat on the mat, while ‘is it virtuous/good/evil’ part of the sentence cannot be depicted. The point here is not, to be clear, that nothing can be said about good or bad cats, the point is precisely that there is the same picture in both situations.

The most intriguing part of Wittgenstein is his realisation that even though ethics cannot be meaningfully depicted, it can nevertheless “show” itself: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” (6.522). It is in this sense that we are confronted with the last proposition – “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should be silent” (7) – for now we can distinguish between what it is to speak of something and what it is for something to show itself. While we cannot speak of ethics, ethics can show itself; equally, while we cannot picture ethics, ethics can show itself through pictures. The problem is that while ethics shows itself, ‘what’ it shows cannot be conveyed clearly: “It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental.” (6.421)

It is in this sense that we arrive to this famous ending of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Certain aspects of our language use have no meaning because they cannot be depicted – we must remain silent about ethics (among other things) because it is not within the barriers of language to make speech on ethics meaningful.

But, one may object, we speak about ethics constantly, what a boring and perhaps even meaningless life it would be to only speak of facts, and let ethics only show itself. What of love and friendship, or politics and (indeed) philosophy? Isn’t judgment on these issues and inherent part of our lives?

Here we have to put Tractatus aside and look at Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics, which he gave at the ‘Heretics Society’, Cambridge University, in 1929. He ends that lecture with the following paragraph:

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

We have to take Wittgenstein quite literally here, there is nothing added to our knowledge by the study of ethics. Ethics is not a science; it cannot be depicted and hence nothing meaningful can be said of ethics. Nevertheless, contra contemporary dismissive ‘scientists’, ethics nevertheless remains a fundamental aspect of our lives. So while we cannot say something meaningful (and thus should remain silent), we are nevertheless confronted with this ‘tendency’, which is not only to be respected, but even celebrated. It is our capacity to judge that makes us human, and far from inhibiting this capacity by ‘scientists’, we should insist that science cannot make ethical judgments.3

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  1. Incidentally, this is still the way that most language learning programmes work – in school we learnt ridiculous phrases in French (“Le singe est sur la branche”), which are quite useless, but precisely because they present pictures, the method was quite effective. Fifteen years later, without ever having spoken at all, I can still ‘picture’ the monkey on the branch. Another example is of course the very effective method of learning another language of Rosetta Stone, which literally pictures states of affairs.
  2. He even goes as far as calling on the mystical existence of the world: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” (6.44)
  3. It cannot for a very simple reason: science cannot convey something that ‘shows itself’, but is not the picture. While ‘the cat is on the mat’ is something science can determine, it cannot determine whether that is ‘good or bad’ of itself. In anticipation of an objection, science can say that cats scratch mats, which would be bad for your budget – but note here that all science would be in fact doing is depicting the cat scratching a mat, an empty wallet, etc.; the judgement that this is bad is extraneous to science.

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