On James Conant’s “Resolute Reading” of the Tractatus

In recent years, a dispute has been raging among Wittgenstein scholars, which has been called the “New Wittgenstein” debate.  Plenty of books and articles have appeared on the topic.  The battle lines are drawn between traditionalists who advocate a “doctrinal schema” and those who argue in favor of what has been called a “resolute reading.”  Those in the former camp include David Pears, P.M.S Hacker, and Gordon Baker, and those in the latter camp include James Conant, Cora Diamond, Warren Goldfarb, and Peter Winch.  In “Wittgenstein’s Later Criticism of the TractatusJames Conant surveys the nature of the dispute and argues in favor of the “resolute reading.”  Although aspects of the “resolute reading” are appealing, I think it is misguided because it interprets the Tractatus in terms that are reserved for Wittgenstein’s later work, the Philosophical Investigations (PI).  In other words, the resolute reading reads backwards from the PI, maintaining that the Tractatus (TLP) does not posit theses nor does it advance theoretical perspectives or apparatuses.  The merit of the resolute reading closes the gap between Wittgenstein’s early and later work.  However, the problem is its anachronism: it reads into the Tractatus an avoidance of ‘theory’–often labeled ‘quietism’– that Wittgenstein developed in the Blue and Brown Books and in the Philosophical Investigations.  I prefer the traditional view–it seems obvious to me that the Tractatus advances assertions, theses, and theories, such as the famous ‘picture theory of truth,’ and, among other things, it offers a criterion of meaning that distinguishes sense and nonsense.  Conant’s paper is 33 pages long, so given space constraints I won’t be able to discuss it at length.  Rather, I will provide a reading of the pivotal TLP passage that has been the crux of dispute.

The dispute pivots on divergent readings of TLP 6.54:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb out through them, on them, over them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it).

Conant proposes that “the author of the work does not ask us to understand his sentences, but rather to understand him.”  Surely, the converse holds as well: if we are to understand Wittgenstein, then we must make sense of his sentences.  However, Conant maintains that “nothing …could count as understanding them [the sentences].”  For Conant, the resolute reading rejects the following idea:

What the author of that work, in 6.54, aims to call upon his reader to do (when he says that she will understand him when she reaches the point where she is able to recognize his sentences as nonsensical) is something that requires the reader of the work first to grasp and then to apply to the sentences of the work a theory that has been advanced in the body of the work–a theory that specifies the conditions under which sentences make sense and the conditions under which they do not.

The traditional interpretation doesn’t necessarily require “the reader first to grasp and then apply to the sentences of the work a theory.”   Furthermore, Conant summarizes the traditional position as claiming that “the point of a significant number of sentences of the work is to achieve the formulation of an adequate set of theoretical criteria of meaningfulness.”  Resolute readers oppose this view because “they are committed to rejecting any such reading …they reject the idea that the author of the work aims to put forward substantive theories or doctrines.”  Conant mentions several corollaries to this reading: (1) a rejection of any intended commitment to an ineffable theory or doctrine; (2) the rejection of the idea that the TLP holds that there are logically distinct kinds of nonsense; (3) the TLP’s logical notation must be elucidatory instruments whose employment is not itself supposed to require commitment to any philosophical theses; (4) Confusion in thought cannot be eliminated by a procedure of reformulating or retranslating sentences from one language into another by a commitment to some doctrine, but rather a “practical understanding of how to engage in a certain kind of activity.”

Let’s look again at the TLP passage: “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical.” 

For Wittgenstein, the term ‘proposition’ meant an asserted proposition.  All asserted propositions are meaningful: they are the primary bearers of truth-value, i.e., the objects of belief or the referents of that-clauses.  A proposition that serves as an elucidation is meaningful, so why is it that a reader who understands the author recognizes them as nonsensical?  Isn’t that a contradiction?

Here, Wittgenstein’s worry is not consistency with a criterion of meaning.  We must consider a few relevant biographical details.  First, the TLP is a war book.  It is a product of the trenches despite much of its ruminations started in Russell’s Cambridge rooms.  As such, he worried about distractions and the upheaval that impeded composition.  Above all else, Wittgenstein valued peace and quiet to work in.  The war was not ideal conditions for composition.  It was hard to think and make his ideas cohere.

Second, Wittgenstein was very insecure in his apprenticeship as a philosopher.  Although his ideas were innovative and crucial in logic, he always entertained doubts about the strength of his contributions. 

Third, aside from its logical propositions and the logical notations much of the TLP is metaphysical, if not mystical.  In this way, Wittgenstein would have considered these kinds of assertions in a similar way that Kant did—an unfortunate consequence of the human mind to venture outside the bounds of reason.   

In TLP 6.54, I believe Wittgenstein is worried about how the document as a whole is to be received in terms of its clarity and compositional coherence.  How do the propositions logically cohere?  How do the sections of the TLP cohere?  That is, Wittgenstein’s point seems less relevant to the issue of sense or nonsense, but to the virtue of clarity.  The TLP is a treatise on logic, yet it does not read like a logic textbook as much as Russell’s Principia.  It reads like much of his other work—snatches of thoughts, assertions, and theses.  We may be tempted to think that Wittgenstein’s TLP offers no theory or theses because we want to avoid the burden of attributing coherence to it.  If we understand that the TLP is a major achievement in the field of logic, then we must acknowledge its shortcomings as a product of logical operations.  A work that demands attention to sense and nonsense violates traditional notions of logical coherence. 

As careful readers of Wittgenstein know, ‘sense’ is not exactly identical with meaningfulness.  Thus, when Wittgenstein says that the propositions are nonsensical he more likely acknowledges their unclarity or lack of coherence rather than their lack of meaning.       

To continue, Wittgenstein says, “Anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb out through them, on them, over them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it).  The analogy is that the propositions are comparable to steps on a ladder.  But does the analogy hold up?  If anything, Wittgenstein’s point could be that analogies such as this one lead to confusion and unclarity—that is, they are the potential source of philosophical problems.  Are the propositions steps?  Are the logical notations steps?  What exactly is being compared to steps on a ladder?  And are the steps nonsensical because they are no longer useful?  If one has climbed up the ladder and no longer needs it, then where exactly has he gone that doesn’t require steps to reach the ground again?  This very analogy is nonsensical, but we seem to understand Wittgenstein’s meaning.  He understands because he has climbed the steps, undergone the process, and by increments has followed the propositions to where they lead.  But where do they lead that doesn’t require another ladder to climb up or down?

The ladder is not necessarily a useful or helpful implement.  It could be useful if only it allows us to ‘see’ through or beyond the problem.  But the ladder provides a limited perspective.  It could very well be part of the problem.  It only seems to be an appropriate tool for climbing higher.  What is this climbing business a metaphor of?  Is climbing on a ladder a kind of logic-chopping?  Is it exploring the scope of language?  Is it solving logical conundrums?

The ladder can be an impediment as much as it is an implement.  Look at the prepositions Wittgenstein uses to describe climbing it: “out through,” “on,” “over.”  These describe actions involved in negotiating an obstacle that must be overcome or dealt with somehow, if only it is to be thrown away.  

 For Wittgenstein, the TLP is not an implement, rather it only points out the impediments of human reason.  If we understand this aspect of his logical treatise, then we can understand his personal struggle as a philosopher and as a man.  If we understand him, then necessarily we understand his sentences.  But that’s the problem.  His sentences are vulnerable to nonsense.  And nonsense merges inauspiciously with our notions of rationality and the pursuit of truth.  Often, we employ the wrong language or an erroneous analogy.  The step will feel right as we climb on it.  That is, until it snaps and the ladder falls asunder.


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