David Joseph: Wittgenstein on pictorial form

‘A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world’ (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 4.04). Discuss.

In this essay I shall address two questions. What view of the world and language and the relationship between them is suggested by Wittgenstein in this statement? Is it a view that stands up to critical evaluation and should it therefore be endorsed?

Whilst writing this essay I’ve just been listening to a track called ‘Moanin’ by the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the CD player. If I try very hard I can play a passable version of this tune on the piano, using the sheet music. If somebody who is musically literate had first listened to the Art Blakey version of the tune, then had heard my very imperfect rendition of it and, finally, had looked at the sheet music on the piano, then it is likely that she would have instantly recognised the conspicuous similarities between all three instances. Why? A reasonable answer to this question comes rapidly and almost effortlessly to mind. She would have acknowledged that all three instances were similar because they were different expressions, or manifestations in different media, of the essential features of the tune — its melody, key, chord sequences, tempo and mood. In other words, she would have said they were all similar since they appeared to share a common underlying structure.

In the Tractatus Wittgenstein employs this relatively commonplace and unproblematic musical knowledge as a heuristic for understanding the more complex realities of the world and language and the connection between them. Just as in the same way as we are able to notice a similarity between different realisations of the same tune due to their common structure, so we are able to detect a common structure — or what Wittgenstein refers to as a ‘logical form’ — shared by both the world and language which, as a consequence, enables us to infer how these two entities must be connected. But for Wittgenstein what is the precise nature of this common structure and what does he propose is the manner in which these two entities are connected? This common structure is essentially ‘atomistic’, where its larger entities are composites assembled in specific patterns from batches of its smaller, more basic and unalterable entities.

With respect to the world, Wittgenstein therefore perceives it as the sum total of all of its facts, assembled from its states of affairs which, in turn, are analysed as so many combinations of the world’s simple objects. With respect to language, he suggests that its atomistic structure can be detected in the fact that its propositions are composed from batches of elementary propositions, themselves assembled from configurations of more basic names. From this identification of the common structure of the world and language it is possible, according to Wittgenstein, to infer something about the nature of the connection between them. It seems reasonable to recommend, based on the drift of the argument so far, that what language seems to be accomplishing is a picturing of the world, or the providing of a representational model of reality. According to this view, the precise manner in which a strip of language is composed — in terms of its names, elementary propositions and propositions — pictures, or corresponds exactly, with the nature of a specific section of the world — composed of its simple objects, its states of affair and facts.

What judgement should be made about the cogency and value of this account of the world and language and the connection between them?

In order to assist in identifying just where this account might be at fault, consider first of all the following circumstances. Suppose that after having absentmindedly stared out of my bedroom window for several nights I suddenly discover the remarkable fact that the constellation of stars above Bristol is in reality — once seen from the right perspective — a perfect map and replica of streets below it. Thus, I can see clearly, for example, in the pattern of the stars the Gloucester Road coming up from Town, the City Road leading off into St. Paul’s and Whiteladies Road going up towards the Downs. In this respect, I think I would be justified in arguing that both the stars above Bristol and the world below share a common structure and, furthermore, that the stars can therefore be taken to be a picture of the City. I think that other people, once shown this marvellous discovery, would be happy go along with me. However, if I were then to argue that this similarity is something more than a remarkable and somewhat bizarre coincidence, that there is something about both the night sky and the City below that causes them both to take on a similar form, then people would be entirely justified in taking me for a complete fool.

The moral that can be drawn from this story is, of course, that just because two entities have a similar structure it is unacceptable to infer — without any further argument or justification — that their relationship is any more than being merely coincidental and a random chance. It is, however, just this type of unwarranted inference that Wittgenstein seems to make in the Tractatus. Having identified the common structure possessed by both the world and language, he then infers — on the basis of little or no argument — that they therefore have a pictorial relationship. But since he does not present any reasonable account about why this type of connection exists — or of the mechanisms in the world that might have caused it — then he is unable to respond to the very reasonable challenge that the similarities in structure between the world and language is just a strange coincidence and nothing can be inferred from this fact about the nature of their relationship.

Somebody who is enamoured by Wittgenstein’s early philosophy might argue that this criticism of it is completely unfair. Why? Wittgenstein’s principal intention in the Tractatus is to explicate the logical conditions necessary for there to be a relationship between the world and language, rather than to investigate the many primarily empirical matters raised by it. But my criticism could be read as admonishing Wittgenstein for not addressing these empirical matters. My criticism is therefore entirely unjustified, since it is generally wrong to fault somebody for not doing something they never intended to do. For reasons I cannot at this stage clearly articulate, but I suspect are based on my opposition to idea that there are philosophical problems that in principle are immune from empirical investigation, I sense that this defence of Wittgenstein’s position does not work. But if this is the case, then it still leaves open the question about the precise nature of the connection between the world and language. And to this question I still have no answers.

© David Joseph 2014