Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Facts, Images and Sentences

"Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialog it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory." (Borges)
In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell stated its central question as follows: "What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another, in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" Though he is sometimes accused of forgetting it himself, it is important to point out that Wittgenstein was not suggesting that a sentence can symbolize a state of affairs independent of a mind to comprehend it. That is, one part of the "relation" between the sentence and the fact is a sentient being who reads and writes it.

"We make to ourselves pictures of facts," said Wittgenstein (T2.1). It is one of those sentences in the canon that is utterly simple and profound. Whether we are observing the fact directly or reading a sentence about it, we form an image of it—what Wittgenstein calls a "logical picture". This operation is absolutely crucial to understanding a text.

A sentence is not straightforwardly an arrangement of words that represents an arrangement of things (i.e., a fact). This can be easily seen in the case of a sentence that includes a pronoun. "It was lying on the sidewalk," for example. What this sentence represents will depend crucially on the context that determines the meaning of "it". Ultimately, however, the context will include the whole world of the reader, which determines the meaning of words like "sidewalk" and "lying". This world is part of the context of the fact that is a sentence. Understanding the sentence depends on the reader's ability to imagine this world. And writing a sentence, therefore, depends on the writer's ability to imagine the world of the reader.

The role of imagination in reading and writing, and therefore the role of imagination in scholarly work more generally, is not often enough acknowledged in my opinion. We take the capacity of a sentence to symbolize (i.e., stand for, i.e., represent) a fact for granted and do not give ourselves the time to imagine the world that our writing (and reading) implies. A text comes to represent, not any particular arrangement of facts, but our generalized authority as scholars. Reading the text does not become an occasion to imagine something but merely one to acknowledge the position of an author in a verbal structure.


Presskorn said...

I am not really sure that "Wittgenstein was not suggesting that a sentence can symbolize a state of affairs independent of a mind to comprehend it.". At least, it is not within Wittgenstein's concerns in the Tractatus.

It is, in any case, ostensibly wrong (as a reading of Tractatus at least) to say that "one part of the "relation" between the sentence and the fact is a sentient being who reads and writes it.".

As if some sentient being were "a part of a relation”[???], whose relata are a sentence and a fact... But perhaps your quotes around the word relation already indicates that it doesn't really mean "relation"...

Also, it is a mildly paranoid (to say the least) interpretation of the anaphoric antecedent of “it” to say that its context “will [ultimately] include the whole world of the reader”. Actually, the opposite is true: The general possibility of anaphora depends on the possibility of establishing *limited* contexts.

Perhaps your sound scholarly advice should not always pretend to be philosophy of language as well (even though, admittedly, it is this character of your advice that makes it so attractive to me - and others, I suppose).

Thomas said...

Ouch! I think the soundness of my scholarly advice, and the dignity of my entire project here, depends on the philosophy of language (and everything else) that it implies. So I'm going to have to defend myself:

I take Russell to be correct in stating the basic problem of the Tractatus. It is about the "relation" that must obtain between two facts in order for one of them to symbolize the other.

Wittgenstein's answer begins with the famous sentence "The world is everything that is the case." This is a "part" of the answer and therefore part of a description of the "relation" and, in that sense, the world is "part" of the relation that makes one fact capable of symbolizing another. We make paraphrase it as follows: in order for one fact to symbolize another they must obtain in the same world. Or: if a sentence were not a fact, if it were not "the case", it could not symbolize something else that is the case.

I think it is true to say that this "doesn't really mean" what we usually mean by "relation", at least in logic. But logical relations (in the narrow sense) depend on this general arrangement of facts that relates two facts such that one is a symbol of the other.

Another part of Wittgenstein's anwers, i.e., his description of the symbolic relation, is that sentence at 2.1, "We make to ourselves pictures of the facts."

I conclude that Wittgenstein believes that without imagination (Einbildungskraft) there would be no symbols. And I take symbolism to be very much "within the concerns" of the Tractatus.

Two facts must not simply obtain in order for the one to symbolize the other, they must have same logical form, and this is provided (and only provided) by the picture of the fact that we "make to ourselves".

This necessary function of imagination in symbolism is what I mean when I talk about a "mind to comprehend it".

As for the anaphora: any limited context "ultimately" indicates the whole. I am not denying that it is possible to temporarily establish a partial context. Only that this context is in principle open to recontextualization and that the limit of this openness is what we call "the world", i.e., everything that is the case.

I'm here thinking of something Davidson's "great fact".

Andrew Shields said...

The translation that you quote is simply awful. The simple German sentence corresponds to an equally simple English sentence: "We make pictures of facts for ourselves." What possible reason would any translator have for retaining the German word order and thus utterly violating English syntax?

I would also prefer "images" here as the more appropriate translation of "Bilder" in such a context, but at least I can understand why someone would prefer to use "pictures" here.

If a translator is going to completely distort the English in slavish homage to the German syntax, then why not go all the way and translate "Tatsachen" as "act-things" or "deed-things"?

"We make to ourselves pictures of act-things."

Even without my mocking of it, the translation is quote is not "utterly simple and profound" but "utterly stupid and fetishistic."

Thomas said...

What a tough room my comments field has become today!

The translation I linked to is Ogden's, from 1922. (Aside: Ogden invented "basic English".) In 1961 a new translation was published by Pears and McGuinness, which included Russell's original introduction. They note that all the translations in the introduction are Russell's own. In this case, it matches Ogden's exactly (which may mean that Ogden took Russell's lead).

The 1961 version has "We picture facts to ourselves," which is simple and clear but lacks the evocative word "make" (which I like because it suggests poiesis).

My own preference is. "We make ourselves pictures of facts." Which, I would argue, is as good "I made myself a sandwich."

Thomas said...

The German reads: "Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen."

I've always thought the "der" should grant us a definite article.

"We picture the facts to ourselves."
"We make ourselves pictures of the facts."

Presskorn said...

Yes, my last general statement was totally unfair… But at least, I think, that I admitted the particular attractiveness of your scholarly advice do exactly consist in its well-founded relation to philosophy of language (among other things). I should have said that I just don’t agree with the particular “founding” in this post.

On Tractatus & Wittgenstein: I think we have to distinguish between “concerns” and “presuppositions”. While I agree that W. presupposes something like an imagining and knowing subject, it is not within his concerns in the Tractatus. Russell, for instance, in the very quote you use is quite lucid in pointing that out:

“There are various problems as regards language. First, there is the problem what actually occurs in our minds when we use language with the intention of meaning something by it; this problem belongs to psychology. Secondly, there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology. Thirdly, there is the problem of using sentences so as to convey truth rather that falsehood; this belongs to the special sciences dealing with the subject-matter of the sentences in question. Fourthly, there is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other? This last is a logical question, and is the one with which Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned.”

Anything about an imagining and knowing subject belongs question 1-2, and is not within W.’s concerns – if we take Russell at his word, as you have often done. Even if W. is presupposing stuff about it. I would, for instance, call it an interpretive blunder to say that anything in the Tractatus suggests any strong claims about epistemology, say of a positivist nature. Even if, the whole Vienna Circle read it in that way.

Scholarly writing, I suppose [but you tell me], concerns everything but W.’s fourth question:
It concerns conveying “truth rather that falsehood”(question 3), it concerns using “language with the intention of meaning something by it” (question 1) and the question of method or epistemology (question 2).

On anaphora: Davidson’s great fact is demonstratively irrelevant to the question of anaphora. And I hold something alike to your quasi-Derridean point about contexts too, but that point doesn’t really support your conclusions.

PS: On translation, as you probably both know, Wittgenstein himself heavily assisted the Ogden’s translation, so I think Basbøll is right to use Ogden’s translation, especially of a key sentence such 2.1., which it is probable that W. himself approved (perhaps I’ll check the W.-Odgen correspondence later to settle the matter).

Presskorn said...

Wittgenstein did specifically approve the translation of 2.1. What Ogden and W. focussed on, however, was whether to render it: "We make FOR
ourselves pictures of facts" or We make TO ourselves pictures of facts."

On Andrew's comments on image/picture: Wittgenstein did not complain about it in relation to 2.1., but did complain about in relation to 3.001, part of which reads "Wir konnen uns ein Bild von ihm machen"

Wittgenstein here commented on Ogden's initial translation, which was similiar to 2.1 (in a way that actually also vaguely supports Thomas's comments on imagination in the Tractatus):

"I don't know how to translate this. The German Wir konnen uns ein Bild von ihm machen is a phrase commonly used. I have
rendered it by 'we can imagine it' because 'imagine' comes from 'image'and this is something like a picture. In German it is a sort of pun, you see."

Ogden went along with Wittgenstein on this point and chose "we can imagine it" for 3.001.

Thomas said...

I'll grant your "presuppose" over "is concerned with". But will insist that Wittgenstein (whether he knows it or not) is really describing how the empirical imagination (our capacity to imagine facts in the world) works. He is not describing a "mental process" but the (structured) play of imagery that just is logic.

Imagination does not belong to psychology. It is the substance of the world.

More on this in tomorrow's post.

Presskorn said...

I'm looking forward to that. But then we are not really talking about the Tractatus anymore. Or at least we are reading it (as McDowell politely said of Brandom's reading of Hegel's Phenomenology) "at some distance from the text".

Andrew Shields said...

Back to the translation of 2.1: whether Wittgenstein approved or not doesn't really matter to me. There is no reason whatsoever to distort standard English syntax in the sentence. There is no possible philosophical gain to it that offsets the distortion. If Wittgenstein approved that translation, then he made a serious error in doing so.

I've seen similar idiocy in translations of Heidegger, where slavish subjection to German syntax produces nonsense in English—not to mention the fetishization of German compounding that leads to all kinds of ridiculous invented words in the translations.

Thomas said...

I agree with that judgment. There's no reason to think Wittgenstein had any particular reason for the word-order, and little reason to think his reasons were better than ours might be. (We should keep in mind however that the translation is almost 100 years old.)

Yes, Heidegger translations are often ridiculous. My definitive satire of it (and Heidegger's original, I suppose) can be found here. Some straighter talk here.

Andrew Shields said...

"Do your own thing, man!" That's an exemplary act of translation!