Episode 8: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (and Carnap): What Can We Legitimately Talk About?

Continuing last ep's discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with some Rudolph Carnap (a logical positivist from the Vienna Circle: “The Rejection of Metaphysics” from his 1935 book Philosophy and Logical Syntax) about what kind of crazy talk is outside of legitimate discourse.

Carnap interprets W as simply ruling out as unscientific most of the talk we'd consider philosophical, i.e. metaphysics, ethics, the self... Or is W really a mystic who just wants to distinguish these from science? Why doesn't he just write more and explain himself? This tricky text inspires Seth to start a cult.

To follow along, read the Tractatus from the beginning through around 4.12, then skip to 6.3 and read to the end, skimming the more technical material in the middle. Buy the book

Also, if you're confused by the description of truth tables (which are hard to picture without seeing some), look here.

End song: "The Last Time," by Mark Lint and the Fake from the 2000 album So Whaddaya Think?


  1. Tom says

    Great work guys. I’ve been a fan of Nigel Warburton and David Edmunds philosophy bytes podcast for sometime. But nice to see a more earthy, perhaps brash approach to philosophy (Us Northern English folk aren’t always the most judicious). Not that I have a problem with Oxbridge etiquette, or anything.

    Keep it up!

  2. says

    This one was far more understandable than the first which made so much seem so pointless. And I loved when Seth finally brought in the fact that much of this seemed to prove Hume’s skepticism. Nice. As there is no knowledge available to us of the things themselves (can’t know the Monad either, I’d guess) there is only knowledge of how we know and how we convey the How we know. Grammar! Maddening.

  3. says

    Apologies if this has been addressed already (no Facebook account, so I don’t see the discussions there), and it’s pretty irrelevant (or maybe not, it could just be more evidence of, “who gives a crap about your laws of physics?”) but the equation for force is mistakenly spoken of as: F=mv rather than F=ma, where acceleration, a, is the first derivative of velocity, v – velocity as it changes over time.

  4. Nathan Sacket says

    This episode was great for me, not just in reading introductory books on the problem of a unified theory of physics but also in thinking about the problem of metaphysics and ethics. This is one of my favorites. Thanks guys!

    Wonder how logical positivism relates to the attempt to use scientific practices in the social sciences and psychology as opposed to just the physical sciences. (Future podcast?) Has much work been done on relating Wittgenstein’s ideas to heuristics? (Is this a terrible idea?) Can I interpret Wes’s reassurance of Seth’s faulty equation as an innocent mistake, or something more? What about sitcoms? So many unanswered questions!

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      I have a history of making mistakes related to science and logic, so if you are working through chronologically, be prepared for more..fortunately I usually am just citing things as a reference and not actually trying to prove anything specific about the laws. That’s what Dylan is for anyway.

      Logical positivism has been disowned even by the tradition that used to embrace it. Currently the catchphrase for applying scientific method to non-scientific subjects is “scientism”. You’ll hear Mark say that Wes and I are staunch opponents and for the sense above, that is true for me. I tried to read Hayek’s Counter Revolution of Science, but it’s prose is impossible. He does pretty clearly at one point though note that scientific method is for examining the relationship between things and things, where the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ are concerned with the relationship between man and things, or man and man and the scientific method is not appropriate for those subjects. I agree with that.

  5. Justin Wagner says

    Just on the topic of verificationism: I just finished reading the Tractatus as well as Anscombe’s Intro to the TLP (her book is almost as difficult to understand in some sections as the Tractatus is). Anscombe makes a pretty good argument in her chapter on ‘Knowledge and Certainty’ that Wittgenstein, despite often being understood as arguing for some verification principle involving sense-observations, is really arguing for a specific kind of critique of propositions, which he brings out in 6.53: demonstrating to those making metaphysical arguments that they have given no meaning to certain signs in their propositions.

    Anscombe points out that such a critique can never take a simple or general form, that it must be ad hoc. The example she gives of one such critique is the well-known story of her conversation with Wittgenstein about why people used to think that the sun went around the earth, rather than that the earth turned on it’s axis:

    “Wittgenstein once greeted me with the question: ‘Why do people say that it was natural to think that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth turned on its axis?’ I replied: ‘I suppose, because it looked as if the sun went round the earth.’ ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘what would it have looked like if it had *looked* as if the earth turned on its axis?’ This question brought it out that I had hitherto given no relevant meaning to ‘it looks as if’ in ‘it looks as if the sun goes round the earth’.”

    From reading both the TLP and Anscombe’s guide to it, it seems to me that Wittgenstein is not limiting sensible propositions to empirical ones (although he does say at 4.11 that the totality of true propositions is the total natural science). Instead, he’s saying that propositions make no sense when they fail to give meaning to certain signs, or are not significant propositions in the first place (i.e. the proposition and it’s negation fail to describe a possible state of affairs).

    That said, I’m still struggling to figure out what the hell Wittgenstein is talking about in most parts of the TLP.

  6. Joe Johns says

    Pretty good episode, boys. In Tractatus part I, I tended to agree with you all: what is all this trivial crap?

    But in this second part, I was reminded why I had the impression that wittgenstein is one of the few philosophers who “knows what’s up”. I agree: he does seem to be a mystic type. (I also like Socrates because his main thing seems to be showing you that what you think you know, you don’t really know.)

    By the way, have you all read the graphic novel “Logicomix”? I think you’d enjoy it a lot; it’s basically a biography of Berty Russell with a view towards explaining what were the big goals in logic and philosophy he was pursuing (and also, from a personal psychological perspective, why – hint: puritanical religious guardians 😉 ). In that graphic novel, Wittgenstein appears as Russell’s student (Frege and Godel also appear of course).

    I am myself a mathematician (or maybe one who was one once but then thought better of it) with some “mystical leanings” (touché, Wes). I think that is where it’s at. Basically “mysticism” is all about recognizing how much we mix up direct, living, present moment experience with concepts and thoughts and stories about what we think is going on. And the proposition is: beyond the puny realm of our thoughts there is a vast ineffable reality, and also a great depth to our own selves, which we can know directly.

    Another proposition (which becomes more clear once one is able to “step outside” of the stream of continuos thinking a little) is the following: This mixing up “pure consciousness” with thoughts and emotions is bascially the source of all psycholigical misery in the human condition, and what is ultimately responsible for every collective dysfunctional behavior that human beings display, both individually and collectively. The (usually gradual) separation of consciousness from all this thinking activity is called “enlightenment” in Hinduism, or “salvation” (by Christ), or “awakening” by the Buddha.

    There is a lot of misunderstanding about what this is all about especially in the west. Have any of you read “The power of now” by Eckhart Tolle”? (or any of his three books?). I know Wes is interested in Buddhism and Mark once read new agey stuff … Anyway, if you are interested in Buddhism and all that, I think it may really help to take a look at that (probably in your library), since it is much more modern and “understandable” then old old texts. In my opinion it is definitely not fluffy new age stuff (as you might expect since Oprah likes it).

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents …



  7. Andrew says

    I discovered TPL a couple of months ago and have been gradually working my way through the episodes. I know it’s been a while since this was recorded, but I wanted to know if Seth has any openings in his Wittgenstein-Bob Dobbs-golf cult. I wear a size 42 dhoti, BTW.


  1. […] In preparation for discussing his new book, Constructing the World, with him in a couple of months, we’re going to squeeze in a couple of episodes before then specifically to prep for this experience, tentatively on Quine and Carnap. (As a preview, Chalmers has a very interesting take on Carnap that minimizes the importance of his verificationism and reductionism, i.e. the things we were complaining about when we briefly considered Carnap during our Wittgenstein’s Tractatus podcast.) […]

  2. […] As long-time listeners may recall, Carnap was a leading figure in the Vienna Circle, known as the logical positivists, though in Carnap’s case, a more accurate and charitable description would be logical empiricists. In our early Wittgenstein episodes, we discussed how the logical positivists denied that metaphysical claims were meaningful, that, ultimately following Hume, all knowledge has to refer to some experiences, some basic impressions. […]

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