Please excuse this letter as springing from my unsatisfied need for communication. I find myself in a vicious circle: before people pay attention to my Begriffsschrift, they want to see what it can do, and I in turn cannot show this without presupposing familiarity with it. So it seems I can hardly count on any readers for the book I mentioned… (Letter to Marty)
This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it–or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text-book. (Preface to TLP)
Davidson’s Truth and Predication–at least parts of it–have been in front of me this weekend. Good stuff, although I am out of sympathy with many of the details of the stories he tells, both about the history of the problem of predication and about the solution of the problem.
But I guess my fundamental disagreement with Davidson centers on the reality of the problematic he investigates. For Davidson, the unity of the proposition must be explained; explaining it requires solving the problem of predication. Seeing things this way, when Davidson turns to Frege he understands objects and concepts as constituents of propositions, constituents fashioned, as it were, so as to constitute a propositional unity. Predictably, Davidson is most fascinated with concepts, since they are–even more than objects–fearfully and wonderfully made: they are incomplete. Objects of course are complete–as are propositions (although in a different sense (Frege got confused about this, unfortunately)). The beginning of wisdom in reading Frege is recognizing the varieties of incompleteness and completeness he thematizes in his thinking–but that is a topic for another post. What I want to consider here is the way that Davidson turns Frege upside-down. I believe Frege understands objects and concepts as abstractions from propositions, not constituents of propositions. Objects and concepts are, shifting descriptions, made from propositions, not made for them. The proposition, the propositional unity, is prior to objects and concepts. There is no explaining the unity; and there is no problem of predication to solve. Davidson’s problematic is unreal.
Of course there is a problematic looming here, but it is more metaphilosophical than metaphysical. Namely, how do we philosophize without this problem? What would it be to philosophize constrained by the unity of propositions, recognizing that ultimately our only grip on anything as an object of thought is as what we are thinking instead of as what we are thinking about? Or, to put this in a more Fregean way, what would it be to philosophize constrained by The Context Principle–and its two companion Principles from Foundations? Frege’s Principles, as I believe (and have argued elsewhere), are the methodological counterpart to the unity of the proposition. Taken seriously–kept is Frege’s word–the Principles reorient philosophy itself. Wittgenstein’s work, both in TLP and in PI, strives to keep Frege’s Principles. Arguably, Davidson senses this. Although he shies away from Wittgenstein (saying a bit about why in a long footnote) he does at one point talk of a “deep truth” in a “Wittgensteinian thought”–but he seems unable to see how really to entertain the thought. That is unsurprising, since the thought impugns the problematic that provides the very structure of Davidson’s thinking.
I’ve been thinking actively again about Frege. I was puzzling through his apparent Platonism, wondering about Tom Ricketts’ way of responding to that (in his masterful paper, “Objectivity and Objecthood”), and I recalled this passage of Karl Jaspers. It strikes me as useful on Kant (as it was intended to be) but also as useful about Frege–and as marking a deep similarity in the problematic each faces.
The fundamental difficulty is that Kant, in striving to disclose the conditions of all objectivity, is compelled to operate within objective thinking itself, hence in a realm of objects which must not be treated as objects. He tries to understand the subject-object relationship in which we live as though it were possible to be outside it. He strives toward the limits of the existence of all being for us; standing at the limit, he endeavors to perceive the origin of the whole, but he must always remain within the limit. With the transcendental method he strives to transcend while remaining within the world. He thinks about thought. Yet he cannot do so from outside thought, but only by thinking.
Frege does not use Kant’s transcendental method. But his symbolism can be understood as striving to transcend thought while remaining within it, to disclose the conditions of all objectivity while operating within objective thinking itself.
As Frege was perhaps the first clearly to recognise, the sign for a property or relation…is not a quotable sign: it is not an isolable piece of language. Of course, it is not incorrect to call ‘(is) white’ a predicative expression or ‘north of’ a relational expression, but what is here being called a predicative or relational expression is logically peripheral to what we should call the sign proper for a property or relation. For the sign that is proper to a property must, of course, have a different form from that which is proper to a relation. We give expression to this difference when we say ‘It is of the essence of a property to be of something’ and ‘It is of the essence of a (dyadic) relation to be between one thing and another’. What these propositions convey could be expressed at the level of language by saying ‘The sign for a property contains the form of a sign for a possible subject of the property’ and ‘The sign for a relation contains the form of signs for possible terms of the relation’. These formulations are not Frege’s, but they express what he meant by calling such signs ‘incomplete’, as opposed to those signs whose form is such that they do not contain the form of other signs, which he calls ‘complete’. –Peter Long, “Universals: Logic and Metaphor”, p. 97
Reshef Agam-Segal has asked about the difference between Socrates’ desire for a definition and Wittgenstein’s for grammar. The two desires meet or can seem to meet in the word ‘essence’. Socrates wants to know, say, the essence of piety. Wittgenstein wants to know the grammar of piety (“theology as grammar”); and, according to Wittgenstein, “essence is expressed by grammar”. So each chases essence.
What Socrates chases is familiar enough (at least as standardly interpreted). What Wittgenstein chases is not so familiar. To succeed in construing the grammar of piety would be to express the essence of piety. The grammar of piety would be construed in an a series of grammatical remarks. But the series of grammatical remarks does not tell us the essence of piety. Rather, the series of remarks expresses the essence of piety. ‘Express’ in “essence is expressed by grammar” works intransitively. That is, what grammar expresses is not something that we can tell, can say. If you like, what grammar expresses is inexpressible. (Moving, in that sentence, from the intransitive to transitive.)
We are here at one of those anti-type spots in PI–of which, of course, TLP contains the type. We are in the ambit of showing/saying, as indeed in Wittgenstein we always already are. But, as my typological talk is meant to suggest, what we have in PI is something foreshadowed in TLP; but what we have in PI is not what we have in TLP. Getting the differences straight is more than I can do; I will though do what I can. Perhaps the best place to start is with a glaring absence in PI: the absence of the symbolism. The symbolism glyphs the pages of TLP. It wards those pages. Without a real, active and sympathetic inwardness with the symbolism, TLP is a closed book. (Anyone who has attempted to teach the book to undergraduates will know this.) But the symbolism is almost nowhere to be seen in PI. What does that mean? And what does it mean for showing/saying in PI? [Pause here to light pipe.]
One thing it means, I reckon, is that showing or expressing is now something done by means of ordinary sentences, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language. The crucial issue in PI is the issue of our relationship to those sentences, to those phenomena. A sentence is a grammatical remark not in and of itself–noumenally, as it were–but rather because of our orientation upon it. The possibility of the orientation that makes a sentence a grammatical remark, and so one that expresses or contributes to the expression of essence, results from our being in the grip of a philosophical problem. The problems provide the light, we might say, in which a sentence can shine forth as grammatical, as essence-expression. Without the problem, the sentence is, well, just a sentence. Philosophy is a battle against the-bewitchment-of-our-intelligence by means of language, by means of the spatio-temporal phenomena of language. But the language is only a weapon in that battle–a weapon of peace, ultimately, to be sure–if we orient on it in a way made possible by a philosophical problem.
This makes philosophizing in Wittgenstein’s way both easier and harder. It is easier in that we need no special magical weapon, no Excalibur, no symbolism, to do what needs doing in philosophy. It is harder because the weapons we have can always appear to be no weapons at all, to be valueless in the fight. (“So? That’s just more words.”) Being in the grip of a philosophical problem makes the necessary orientation possible, but it does not make it automatic. Being in the grip of a philosophical problem can also make the necessary orientation look only like so much rigmarole, like a willful way of losing track of what really matters in responding to the problem. Losing our way among words can lead us further afield, but it can also allow words to lead us home in a way that they ordinarily do not. “Where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” [Pipe dies; re-light.]
Having written all this, I am aware that I have still not answered Reshef’s question. But I hope this opens the way to answering his question. And I hope to get back to his question again soon. (Thanks to D. for a recent useful conversation about these topics.)