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Wittgenstein's Error

The early Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus made waves in the twentieth century between the world wars, considered ethics beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry because its propositions, he held, lacked content. In Tractatus 6.42 he said “. . . there can be no ethical propositions” and followed, at 6.421, with:

. . . ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)

In this (aside from the invocation of the “transcendental”!) he was fully in line with the tradition in Empiricist philosophy, since Hume, that ethical propositions do not express objectively discernible claims about things in the world but serve, rather, to express our feelings about such things. And feelings about things can be neither true nor false themselves, neither right nor wrong. They just are particular states in which we happen to find ourselves. Whatever we take to be the case about the world, as we find it, cannot imply anything about how we ought to feel about it. . . .

. . . On this Humean view we can neither be blamed nor condemned for what we feel, and what we feel can neither imply anything factual about the world nor itself be taken to be implied by the way the facts present themselves to us since we may react in any number of ways to the phenomena of the world. . . . But in that case we cannot be praised or blamed for being such creatures since we are not what we are by our own choice and ethics is, finally, about judging our options, the choices we make. . . .

Wittgenstein, whose early philosophy was much influenced by this post-Humean empiricism, as expressed in the work of the early analytic philosophers at Cambridge led by Bertrand Russell, came to think a little differently however. As he goes on to say immediately after at 6.422 in the Tractatus:

The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt . . . ” is: And what if I do not do it. But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself. (And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

Immediately following, at 6.423, he adds:

Of the will as the bearer of the ethical we cannot speak. And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.

Then, at 6.43:

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language.

Wittgenstein moves here toward an account of ethical valuing which, while not rejecting the Humean analysis, endeavors to find a place for ethical concerns despite their exclusion from the realm of meaningful content. As he later suggested with regard to the Tractatus, its thrust, on his view, was not so much to show how ethical matters are excluded from our areas of concern but to show how ethics occupies a different, albeit still legitimate, position in our world. But he is not transparent about this in that work. At 6.52 he writes . . .

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