DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2018
Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

2. The early Wittgenstein and the linguistic turn

The linguistic turn was initiated by Russell’s pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein 1921; see also Wittgenstein, L.). In one crucial respect, this work engages in a Kantian enterprise. Kant’s transcendental philosophy revolves around what might be called a ‘reflective turn’ (Glock 1997). It treats philosophy as a second-order discipline which does not describe or explain reality (whether material, mental or abstract) directly; instead, it reflects on the conceptual apparatus employed in everyday experience and/or scientific theories. A central aim of Kant’s reflective turn is to draw the bounds between possible knowledge and illegitimate speculation. Echoing this ambition, the Tractatus aimed to ‘draw a limit to thought’ (Wittgenstein 1921: preface). At the same time, Wittgenstein gave a linguistic twist to the Kantian tale. Language is not just a secondary manifestation of something nonlinguistic. For thoughts are neither mental processes nor abstract entities, but themselves propositions, sentences which have been projected onto reality. Thoughts can be completely expressed in language, and philosophy can establish the limits and preconditions of thought by establishing the limits and preconditions of the linguistic expression of thought. Indeed, these limits must be drawn in language. They cannot be drawn by propositions talking about both sides of the limit. By definition, such propositions would have to be about things that cannot be thought about and thereby transcend the limits of thought. These limits can only be drawn from the inside, namely by delineating the ‘rules of logical grammar’ or ‘logical syntax’, which determine which combinations of signs have sense (Wittgenstein 1921: 3.32–3.325).

At the heart of the Tractatus is Wittgenstein’s account of the propositions of logic. He regards them as vacuous ‘tautologies’ that combine empirical propositions in such a way that all factual information cancels out. ‘It is raining’ says something about the weather – true or false – and so does ‘It is not raining’. But ‘Either it is raining or it is not raining’ does not. The necessity of tautologies simply reflects the fact that they do not make any claims that depend for their truth value on how things actually are. There is, however, a metaphysical twist to this ostensibly linguistic tale. For, according to Wittgenstein, the fact that logical propositions combine empirical propositions in such a way that all sense cancels out nevertheless ‘shows the formal – logical – properties of language and the world’ (Wittgenstein 1921: 6.12). Those properties, the ‘logical scaffolding’ of the world, constitute a layer of inexpressible metaphysical necessity that underpins logic and language (cf. Wittgenstein 1921: 6.13).

In his introduction to the Tractatus, Russell took Wittgenstein to be ‘concerned with the conditions which would have to be fulfilled by a logically perfect language’ (Wittgenstein 1921: ix). In doing so, he sought to recruit Wittgenstein to the ranks of ‘ideal language philosophy’, as represented by Frege and himself, which holds that natural languages are logically defective and need to be replaced by an ideal language – an interpreted logical calculus – for the purposes of science and ‘scientific philosophy’. This, however, was a misreading. For Wittgenstein is explicit that ‘all propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order’ (1921: 5.5563). ‘Logic’, he says, ‘is transcendental’, i.e. it embodies the necessary preconditions for the possibility of representing reality (1921: 6.13). Accordingly, any language – natural or artificial – capable of such representation must be perfectly logical as it is.

Wittgenstein took the predicate calculus of Frege and Russell to be not an ideal language but an ideal notation which, for the purposes of philosophy, can display the logical form of the propositions of natural language. For while those propositions are perfectly all right as they are, their surface grammatical form leads to puzzle and confusion in the hands of philosophers. Indeed, Wittgenstein condemned most philosophical propositions not as false but as nonsensical in the sense of being meaningless or unintelligible. It is not just that they provide wrong answers, but that the questions they address are misguided questions to begin with. They are based on misunderstandings of the depth grammar – logical form – of natural-language propositions. Legitimate philosophy is not a doctrine but an activity, namely a ‘critique of language’ to be pursued through logical analysis (see Wittgenstein 1921: 4.003 et seq., 6.53). Without propounding any propositions of its own, it brings to light the logical form of meaningful propositions which, according to the Tractatus, are confined to the propositions of empirical science. This positive task is complemented by the negative task of demonstrating that philosophical propositions are nonsensical, since they violate the rules of logical syntax.

Citing this article:
Glock, Hans-Johann and Javier Kalhat. 2. The early Wittgenstein and the linguistic turn. Linguistic turn, 2018, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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