A couple of weeks ago Warren Goldfarb gave a short talk to our TLP reading group on the notion of showing. Explaining the saying/showing distinction is very important to resolute readers of the Tractatus and it is one of the big ways in which the resolute reading is set apart from the others. The traditional reading takes the talk about showing to indicate that there is some inexpressible reality or truth that statements can gesture towards but not outright say. While these things are nonsense, they are informative nonsense in that they help us see the deep truths. The resolute reading wants to do away with that and say that nonsense is just nonsense. Alright, but what do we make of various places in TLP where Wittgenstein says things like what can be shown cannot be said?


Goldfarb’s idea was to look at all the instances of “show” and its cognates (zeigen in German) in the Tractatus and see if they lend themselves to a metaphysically loaded interpretation. There are around 20 instances in the book and a few relevant passages from the Notebooks. He isolated three versions of showing. One is the sense of showing in which a name shows that it is a name and not a relation and a relation symbol shows that it is a relation. One can’t say that something is a name, but that it is a name is apparent from what sort of variable it can be substituted for. This is an idea that Wittgenstein most likely picked up from Frege. The other two senses seem to be original to Wittgenstein in the Tractatus. (I can’t find my notes on the talk so this bit might be fixed up later.) The second sense is the way in which a proposition shows that it is logically complex. It can be seen in the proposition that a proposition is logically complex or atomic, but not said according to the Tractatus. The third sense is the way in which propositions show what follow from them, i.e. by combining into tautologies. That p and p->q implies q is shown by (p. p->q)->q being a tautology. I got these two senses confused since they are similar. The important difference is between complexity and consequence. The second step is the former and the third is the latter. All three senses are in play in the finished Tractatus. Going through the text, Goldfarb made a pretty compelling case that all instances of showing in the Tractatus involve only showing logical and categorial features of the propositions involved, which would not necessitate any move to more metaphysically loaded readings. Part of the desire to give a more metaphysical reading depends on the discussion of the mystical, which I will get to below. Goldfarb’s talk made it slightly hard to see why people were tempted by the more metaphysical understanding of showing at all. I think that the more metaphysical reading is fairly easy to get on the first read or two. However, examining the specific passages with his distinctions in mind did make it difficult to see the need for a more metaphysical reading of those passages.

There were two further points that were important to his presentation. One was what to make of the ‘cardinal problem’ letter to Russell. Wittgenstein wrote a letter to Russell in which he told Russell that he had not gotten the message of the Tractatus and he said that the cardinal problem of philosophy was the distinction between what can be said and what can be shown. Goldfarb’s take on this was that it was directed mostly at Russell and his philosophy of logic. This was probably the least satisfying part of the presentation since he ended up saying that Wittgenstein was emphasizing the point just for Russell. The idea being that the distinction wasn’t the cardinal problem but rather a cardinal problem. I’d like to go back over Goldfarb’s take on this in comparison to Kremer’s recent paper on the topic, but I’m not sure when that will happen.

The other was what to make of phrase that is translated as “shows itself” in Ogden’s translation and as “makes itself manifest” in the Pears-McGuinness translation. The German that these come from is “sich zeigen”. They are used in connection with Wittgenstein’s discussion of the mystical. Goldfarb’s suggestion here is that all instances of “sich zeigen” should be seen as expressing something completely different from what is expressed by “zeigen”. This would let the resolute readers try to make sense of the discussion of the mystical apart from the rest of the discussion of showing. I hadn’t drawn the connection between the two enough to worry about their relation. It seems like a reasonable enough thing to do. All in all it was a great talk and a delightful way to end the reading group for the term.

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