Wittgenstein and the Simple Object

Norman Malcolm

Wittgenstein’s famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is written in a style that is austere and sometimes aphoristic. ‘The world is everything that is the case.’ ‘A picture presents a possible situation in logical space.’ ‘A logical picture of facts is a thought.’ ‘We cannot think of anything illogical, for to do so we should have to think illogically.’ ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

The Tractatus tells us nothing of the uncertainties and struggles that Wittgenstein went through. Fortunately, much of this is revealed in those notebooks of his that escaped destruction. Notebooks 1914–1916 makes clear what Wittgenstein felt to be the central problem of Tractatus: ‘My whole task consists in explaining the nature of a proposition.’ The solution he arrived at was that a proposition (a sentence) is a picture of a possible situation in the world. The notebook entries show that this idea did not come easily. He pursued it through a thicket of perplexities:

That shadow which the picture as it were casts upon the world: How am I to get an exact grasp of it? Here is a deep mystery. It is the mystery of negation: This is not how things are, and yet we can say how things are not.

Sometimes he was close to despair: ‘I cannot bring out in what way a proposition is a picture of a situation. I am almost ready to give up all my exertions.’

A basic contention of Tractatus is that the world has to be composed of simple objects. The actual world and any imagined world must have something in common: namely, the same form. ‘Objects are just what constitute this fixed form.’ ‘Objects contain the possibility of all situations.’ ‘Objects are simple.’ Notoriously, Tractatus provides no example of a simple object, and one might think that this was not a worry for Wittgenstein. The notebooks show that this was not so. ‘Our difficulty was that we kept on speaking of simple objects and were unable to mention a single one.’ ‘What is my fundamental thought when I talk about simple objects? Do not “complex objects” in the end satisfy just the demands which I apparently make on the simple ones?’ Wittgenstein wrestles with the question of whether such items as points in his visual field, or even his watch, or a book lying before him, could be regarded as simple objects. To the end he was unable to fix on a satisfactory example of a simple object. But this did not prevent him from believing their existence was necessary. In the notebooks he says: ‘It seems that the idea of the SIMPLE is already contained in that of the complex and in the idea of analysis, and in such a way that we come to this idea quite apart from any examples of simple objects, or of propositions which mention them, and we realise the existence of the simple object – a priori – as a logical necessity.’

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