03/26/2006

"Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist."

That's the proposition by which Wittgenstein opens up his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the most cryptic works of philosophy in the 20th century.

It is translated into English as "The world is all that is the case," or "The world is everything that is the case."

Some people can accept this one without too much difficulty. They read it, and they go: "Oh yea, sure, the world is all that is the case, that makes sense!" Others, however, find it puzzling and problematic.

Firstly, what is meant by "the world?" Does it just mean the external world, or the whole of reality (for the world and reality seem to be different things)?. How about the possible worlds? Are they included? At first it seems not, but you could surely contemplate that the possibility of these non-actual worlds also belong to "what is the case."

By "all that is the case," Wittgenstein means "the totality of facts (die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen)" (1.1). Here he seems to be adhering to a similar notion of facts as proposed by Russell, namely that facts are what makes a proposition true or false.

But does Wittgenstein mean that facts are all there is? That is, nothing else but facts exists? This question can further be complicated by distinguishing existing from being real, for they are different things, at least according to Russell.

The proposition itself, as well as the subsequent ones that fall under the number 1, does not clarify whether Wittgenstein is talking about existence of something or something being real.

Moreover, we learn from Russell that "is" can construct two quite distinct logical structures in the sentences that have exactly the same grammatical structure. For instance, in the sentence "Eminem is Slim Shady," if we suppose "Eminem" and "Slim Shady" are names (assuming, of course, person can be something that can be named), then the "is" here is that of identity, meaning that these two names designate the same object.

But in a sentence like "Eminem is the father of Hailie," according to Russell, what we really mean is something like "There is a unique being that is the father of Hailie, and that being is Eminem," thus revealing quite different logical structure.

Which "is" is Wittgenstein's "is" here? And what problems does this question raise? I can't even get into this here, but I guess the question is, "what does this proposition assert?" if it does assert something. Is it more like a definition to be accepted, rather than a claim to be defended? In fact, the style of the Tractatus makes it very difficult to discern what the argumantative relationship among the propositions are.

Overall, I find this as ambiguous and enigmatic as most of what follows in the treatise, but I don't find it terribly problematic. One can't be stuck so seriously in his first proposition, otherwise she can never get through the whole of this short book.

An interesting thing Peter pointed out in class Thursday. He noticed that the German for "case" is "Fall," and asked if that related anyhow to the English expression "the fall (throw) of the dice," thereby signaling something like: the world is whatever (contingently) happens to be the case. Unfortunately, none of us in the class (including Jon the professor) knew enough German to answer the question.

I looked up a dictionary online, and did not find that sense in under the word "Fall." But this sounds fascinating. Obviously there are other places where subtler connotation of language affects the meaning of the proposition in a quite serious manner. One can master German in order to get closer to the precise sense of the language, or one may keep her distance from the original language by way of using translation, and thereby keep her speculative freedom wider.

Current music: Away From Home from "Don't Explain" (Joel Frahm with Brad Mehldau)




posted by Yuuki at 01:32 | Comment(2) | TrackBack(0) | On Language
Comments to this post
In German you translate Ceasars famous saying into "Die Würfel (=dice) sind ge[b]fall[/b]en". You can translate the English word "fall" directly with the German word "Fall".
Posted by ChristianK at 11/24/2008 06:21
I was supposed to say the same told in the previous comment. I never understood why the English translation basicaly ignores the meaning of the world Fall in German, in this sentence. If we understand it says the world is all that falls, another interpretations should rise... even more if we think this sentence has a connection with the Caesar's one. Anyway, just wondering.
Posted by L. at 12/16/2012 04:36
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