A Computational Linguist Reads Wittgenstein Very Quickly and Understands Little Bits Here and There

The best way to approach a famously dense book like Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is with an air of bemused indulgence. You’ll give this Wittgenstein guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s onto something, but that shouldn’t stop you from rolling your eyes at how incomprehensible he can be. Yes, I know there are people out there who’ve built whole careers out of talking about books like this in hushed tones and equating murkiness with depth, but what can you do? Some people are just easily impressed. Remember that at the end of the day a philosopher is a writer, and as a writer it’s their job to make you understand. If there is a passage of Wittgenstein that you approach with an open and attentive mind but still don’t get, then Wittgenstein has failed with that passage. We might be inclined to give him a pass given the difficulty of the subject matter he’s covering, but it’s a failure nonetheless. You paid for the damn book–you’re the boss.

That said, in planning your assault a little bit of background goes a long way. Ray Monk’s excellent biography provides the illuminating context of Wittgenstein’s relationship with Bertrand Russell. If you don’t want to spend the time on that, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and good old Wikipedia are excellent places to start. If you have training as a linguist–the particular slant this blog will focus on–you will stumble across several welcome oases of familiarity, though the overall effect of the book is familiar to linguists for a different reason: it’s like understanding a language well enough to find it familiar but not well enough to know what people are saying. There’s this constant nagging sense of “I’ve heard that before–I should know what it means.”  Finally, it helps to make a party out of it. I retired with my Kindle to the bar around the corner where the staff (Hi, Suzy!) knows to bring me a Manhattan without my asking, put Zeppelin on the jukebox, and settled in for some serious skimming. Honestly–life of Riley.

What follows will be patchy and telegraphic, both because I did a quick read, and because most of my first impressions are the same first impressions anyone would have and so aren’t worth repeating for the umpteenth time. Here are the bits that jumped out at someone with a background in computational linguistics.

Wittgenstein is Made for the Web

It’s a cliché to say that this or that book from years ago anticipated hypertext. Wittgenstein’s technique of breaking the Tractatus up into short nested paragraphs (many of Tweetable length) whose numbering scheme indicates their interrelationship has plenty of precedent–mathematical theorems and the Bible to name two–but it still lends itself nicely to an HTML presentation.  Check out this online version.  Being able to expand and close the different nesting levels at will strikes me as a better way to read Tractatus than on paper because it allows you to focus your attention on a particular level of explication without your eye wandering over to the drill-down. Source code editors with structure folding achieve the same effect.  I cut my teeth programming C++, so I think information hiding is a good thing.

The next time I write a technical paper I’m playing with the idea of starting the thing as a series of numbered paragraphs and only gradually smoothing it out into prose as it becomes clearer what I need to say.  Wittgenstein’s distinctive prose structure is just a few LaTeX macros away.


Most philosophers are difficult because they say too much.  Wittgenstein is difficult because he says too little.  Here’s the whole book:

  1. The world is everything that is the case.
  2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
  3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
  4. The thought is the significant proposition.
  5. Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself.)
  6. The general form of truth-function is: [p, ζ, N(ζ)]. This is the general form of proposition.
  7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

If you were really on his wavelength you wouldn’t need to read any more.  “Yeah–‘thereof one must be silent’.  Of course.”  For the rest of us this sounds like gibberish, and most of it still sounds like gibberish even after you’ve read the equally terse intervening commentary paragraphs. What we learn from this is that rhetoric is an at least three-dimensional space spanning 1) signal 2) noise and 3) content.  Wittgenstein is low signal, low noise, high content. Kant, say, is high signal, high noise, high content.  Timecube is low signal, high noise, and low content.  At first glance, all three appear equally useless.

Is the Tractatus Just Formal Semantics Version 1.0?

Some books are hard to read because they’re deep, and other books are deep, sure, but are also hard to read because they’re the first crack anyone has taken at the concepts they express. The best way to understand them is to ignore them for fifty years until they become orthodoxy, at which point someone will write a good textbook. For example, there is a branch of physics called Newtonian mechanics expounded by a particular historical figure–Isaac Newton–in a particular book–the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica–which everyone speaks of with respect but no one actually reads. If you want to understand Newton’s ideas you pick up a freshman physics textbook, because a) it’s not in Latin and b) the intervening centuries have provided a clarity and context that simply wasn’t available when they were first put down.

If you have training in formal semantics you can’t shake the feeling of having heard some of the Tractatus before. You’ll be deep in the reeds in paragraph 4, and suddenly Wittgenstein will go on at length about truth tables like he was teaching Formal Logic 101. But then you have to remember at the time of his writing formal logic wasn’t a well-worn tool of mathematicians and philosophers alike.  It was this crazy thing that Frege and Russell had only recently dreamed up. I’m not sure how true this is to the family history of these ideas, but I suspect it’s productive to conceive of the Tractatus as a rough draft of Montague Semantics.

The Punchline

The Tractatus is touted as being a work of literature in addition to a technical treatise and for the most part my response is–yeah, not so much. But I have to admit the last line of the book gets me. It’s great not just because it comes out of left field–since the main achievement of the work is in finding ever new left fields to come out of–but that after accustoming you to gnomic statements followed by pages of explication Wittgenstein shuts up. He says, “…one must remain silent” and then proceeds to remain silent. The reader feels like Wile E. Coyote after he’s just run off the cliff and is still hanging in mid-air because he hasn’t yet realized he’s no longer on solid ground.

I’m not sure the final paragraph isn’t a bit of a bluff.  I get it, I get it–the whole damn Tractatus is a justification for this seemingly tautological statement, still it’s hard not to giggle at its portentousness. Whereof one cannot improve by filling in its divots with caulk, thereof one must not spackle. Whereof one cannot make yummy by breading it and dipping it in boiling oil, thereof one must not deep fry. If it is a bluff, though, it’s a damn catchy one.  I’ll roll with it.

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One Response to A Computational Linguist Reads Wittgenstein Very Quickly and Understands Little Bits Here and There

  1. Pingback: A Linguist Reads Philosophical Investigations Even More Quickly and Likes It Better but Knows Even Less what to Make of It | Corner Cases

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