Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

6. Thought, self and value

Wittgenstein writes, ‘There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas’ (5.631). His grounds for this are similar to those of Hume, namely that a unified, conscious self cannot be an element in any encountered fact. Hence no such item can be among those objects represented in thought. So reports of the form ‘A believes that p’, which seem to mention such a subject, are really of the form ‘“p” says that p’. They report the existence of a sentential complex, the components of which are correlated with the elements of the potential fact that p. There are then no selves in the contingent, encountered world but, at best, bundles of sentence-like items.

But Wittgenstein does not discard the notion of subject completely. The notion he rejects is that of the subject ‘as conceived in psychology’. But the notion of the ‘metaphysical’ subject he thinks important. On this latter he says, ‘What the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said but makes itself manifest’ (5.62), and ‘The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world’ (5.632).

One reading of this sees it as holding that I cannot prise apart the world and my experience of it. My own experience is directly available to me and any claim I make about the world must at the same time articulate that experience. Others’ experiences, by contrast, are available to me only through noises or movements in my world. Another interpretation stresses the idea that a representation is always from a point of view which is not represented in it. A third view connects these remarks with the idea of projection. Wittgenstein speaks of using a propositional sign as a projection of a possible situation by thinking out its sense. So a subject might be the origin of the lines of projection which link representing items with what they represent and whose existence is thus presupposed by their meaningfulness. ‘The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limit of my world’ (5.62). So perhaps Wittgenstein’s idea is that the existence of a unique self (me) at the limit of the world is shown by the existence of representations which are meaningful to me.

Wittgenstein also offers, in the closing pages of the Tractatus, a number of gnomic remarks about value, death and the mystical, among them that no value exists in the world, that ethics cannot be put into words, that the will as a subject of ethical attributes cannot alter facts but only the limits of the world, that at death the world does not alter but comes to an end, that feeling the world as a limited whole is the mystical and that the solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. These claims are to some extent intelligibly grounded in ideas concerning the self and what can be said. But they also represent a leap of development beyond those, a leap which comes in part from Wittgenstein’s experiences in the First World War and the religious convictions to which his always intense and serious outlook then led him.

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. Thought, self and value. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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