Making Sense of Showing

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Making Sense of Showing 1

How does the notion of showing ostensibly deployed in the Tractatus fare in the light of the understanding which we are to attain of its author? The question is all the more pressing, of course, as we are famously told in the penultimate section of the book that those elucidatory sentences it comprises only do what they are meant to (that is to say, to elucidate) to the extent that we recognize it to be the intention of their author that they should be recognized as nonsensical, or again that we recognize it to be the intention of their author that they should be thrown away as so many rungs of a ladder whose function was only to let us reach the right perspective on the world (TLP 6.54).

Not that the fate of the notion of showing is unique on that score. Of any ostensible Tractarian notion whose central occurrences in the book are not obviously to be discounted from the range of those notions that are deployed in the nonsensical elucidatory sentences, we are bound to wonder whether we must and can make sense in the end. Yet, it would seem that the question specifically involving the notion of showing possesses a unique urgency, owing to the unique role which befalls this notion in some of the very passages in which the author of the Tractatus formulates the main point of his book.

One relevant text is this connexion is the following well-known passage from a letter to Russell of August 19, 1919:

I’m afraid you haven’t really got hold of my main contention, to which the whole business of logical propositions is only a corollary. The main point is the theory of what can be expressed [gesagt] by propositions – i.e. by language – (and, which comes to the same, what can be thought) and what can not be expressed by propositions, but only shown [gezeigt]; which, I believe, is the cardinal problem of philosophy.

Another relevant and often quoted text is the following excerpt from the letter to Engelmann of April 9, 1917, commonly translated in English as follows:

And this is how it is: if one does not endeavour to express the inexpressible, then nothing gets lost. But the inexpressible will be – inexpressibly – contained in what has been expressed.

It is important to note that this use of the phrase “the inexpressible”, natural as it is, is prima facie an artefact of translation. A perhaps less prejudicial translation would be the following one:

Und es ist so: wenn man sich nicht bemüht, das Unaussprechliche auszusprechen, so geht nichts verloren. Sondern das Unaussprechliche ist – unaussprechlich – in dem Ausgesprochen – enthalten!

And this is how it is: if one does not endeavour to utter the unutterable, then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered.2

The terminology deployed in the letter to Engelmann is I think (more than verbally the same as) the one deployed in sections 6.5 and 6.522. At any rate, while it might turn out that everything unutterable (unaussprechlich) (or everything “ineffable”, in what seems the etymological sense of that term) is unsayable and vice versa, the Tractatus, as we shall see in detail when we come to section 4.1212, emphatically disowns any equation between the expressible and the sayable. It seems therefore advisable (at least provisionally) to translate section 6.522 thus:

Es gibt allerdings Unaussprechliches. Dies zeigt sich, es ist das Mystische.

There is indeed the unutterable. It shows forth, it is the mystical.3


Thus translated, section 6.522 seems to provide the missing link between the two excerpts from Wittgenstein’s correspondence quoted above, while the two excerpts seem in turn to give it more weight.

The sort of double-bind towards its own sentences which the book is in a way bound to induce in the mind of its reader thus seems bound to crystallize in a double-bind towards the notion of showing. Yielding to this pressure, a certain line of reading the Tractatus has it that the elucidatory sentences which the book comprises somehow seek and (to some extent) manage to “convey” what, by the book’s own lights, cannot be said. In some versions, the elucidatory sentences are said to “show” what, by the book’s own lights, cannot be said. Showing, in the guise of ““showing”” (I have just mentioned what could be called “scare-quote showing”), ends up being ascribed to nonsensical strings of signs.

This line of reading has been characterized and aptly criticized on the ground that it is “irresolute” in its intention, if not altogether inconsistent.4 I could hardly add to the forceful objections that were made by so-called “resolute” readers to this line of reading, sometimes called the “standard” reading. In a nutshell, the standard line of reading takes elucidatory sentences to bring out the categorial limitations to which sense is allegedly subject in virtue of their very failure to transgress them. In opening a gap between the logical category of what a sign designates and the way in which that sign is being used, in assuming that we may use a sign in way that conflicts with the logical category of what it designates, the standard line of reading is not only irresolute in its intention. It flies in the face of Wittgenstein’s insistence that we can not so much as fail in logic, even if we want to (TLP 5.4731) and that to fantasize otherwise is to fantasize that logic does not fill the world, so that we can step outside logic if we want to (TLP 5.61).

But even without rehearsing such objections, we can discern at once that there has to be something wrong with the standard reading, given that it sacrifices the interest of the book to what it regards as its (unsayable) content5 and that it flies in the face of Wittgenstein’s insistence that the interest of the book lies in its exemplary faithfulness to the fact that being sayable or being unsayable is an all-or-nothing matter, that it does not admit of degrees. In effect, Wittgenstein summarizes “the whole sense of the book”, in the Preface, as follows:

Mann könnte den ganzen Sinn des Buches etwa in die Worte fassen: Was sich überhaupt sagen lässt, lässt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

The whole sense of the book could somehow be encapsulated in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly; and about what one cannot talk of, one must keep silent.

The two parts of this conjunctive formula anticipate, respectively, sections 4.116 and 6.5, and section 7. And the second sentence of section 6.5 could be said to provide the very condensed formula of the whole sense of the book which, according to the motto of the book,6 it would seem must exist:

Das Rätsel gibt es nicht.

There’s no riddle.

In effect, if all that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and all that can be uttered at all can be uttered clearly (TLP 4.116), then all that can be thought at all is the answer to a clear question or (it comes to the same) the answer to a question clearly admitting of a clear answer (TLP 6.5).

Wittgenstein famously goes on to say in the Preface that while it does not make sense (so much as to attempt) to draw a limit to thinking (dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen), it does make sense, on the other hand, (to attempt) to draw another limit, namely a limit to the expression of thought (dem Ausdrück der Gedanken): one beyond which nothing lies but mere nonsense (einfach Unsinn).7 But rather than conclude that the invocation of the “unutterable” in the letter to Engelmann is therefore a piece of latent nonsense, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the unutterable (das Unaussprechliche) invoked there does not belong in the inexpressible which, according to the Preface, lies on the outer side of the limit drawn in the book, and is pure nonsense.

So the standard reading fails to deal adequately with the pressure. But the pressure itself remains as vivid as ever. We are torn between two ways of putting the main point of the book which, to put things mildly, do not pull in the same direction. Worse even, it looks as if the author of the book is urging us to make them cohere. But how could it be one and the same thing to understand that everything that can be uttered at all can be uttered clearly and to understand that the unutterable is unutterably contained in what is uttered?

Thus, on the one hand, the standard reading seems prima facie implausible given what Wittgenstein writes in the Preface and in the conclusion of the book, while, on the other hand, getting this reading out of our way hardly solves our problem – unless, that is, we are prepared to grant to the standard reader that the notion of showing ostensibly deployed in the book is meant to invite his reading. Some resolute readers have leaned towards that option or positively taken it.8 But other resolute readers have either clearly abstained or positively recoiled from taking it.9 Still other resolute readers have claimed that the Tractarian notion need and can be “redeemed”, that is, rescued from the nonsense which it prima facie amounts to.10

It is one thing, after all, to claim that the book in a way invites a misreading of it in terms of “showing” (i.e. scare-quote showing); it is another thing to claim that the very sections that ostensibly delineate the Tractarian notion of showing (zeigen) invite that misreading of the book; and it is still a third thing to claim that these sections are meant to invite that misreading of them, that we are meant to construe showing in terms of “showing”, only to realize that we have not managed, or perhaps never really wanted to, make sense of showing after all. Note that according to the third option, in construing showing as “showing” we are not misconstruing showing after all.

From which I conclude that not is all well, perhaps, with this third option, and that we need to slow down our pace. Accordingly, the main contention of this paper is that those resolute readers who have emitted doubts as to whether we can make sense of the Tractarian notion of showing have given up the attempt to make sense of it at too early a stage, as if somehow granting to the standard reading that it embodies well, if of course unwittingly, the very illusion which the author of the Tractatus means his reader to explore from inside. Another way of putting my point is this: if the standard reading were to grant to the standard interpretation of the Tractarian notion of showing that it constitutes not only a target but the principal target of the Tractatus, then it would trap itself in a predicament. For the weaker the standard reading will be shown to be as a reading of the Tractatus, the weaker will appear the target of the Tractatus, and finally the weaker will appear the motivations underlying the writing of the Tractatus. Accordingly, my aim will be here – to use a phrase from Beckett’s penultimate piece Worstward Ho which in a way summarizes his poetics11 – to “fail better” at making sense of showing.12 It goes without saying that the only way of doing this is by trying to make better sense of showing.

1. Let us begin in media res as it were, that is, with section 4.1212:

Was gezeigt werden kann, kann nicht gesagt werden.

It is naturally rendered in English as:

What can be shown can not be said.

The syntactical shape of the original sentence can hardly be preserved in translation. In particular, its remarkable symmetry seems bound to be obliterated. That symmetry enhances, and makes look redundant, the emphasis twice laid on the modal auxiliary verb “kann”. It is in turn enhanced by that double emphasis. The original sentence seems to draw on peculiarities of German syntax so as to conjoin and to oppose at once the possibility of being shown and the possibility of being said, as if to suggest that the negation of the latter is but the mirror-image, or but the other side, of the former. In fact, as it turns out, section 4.1212 not only resists translation but mere paraphrase. For it soon proves hardly possible so much as to rephrase it without already embracing what is in fact a prejudicial understanding of it.

It seems at once advisable and relatively safe, at this juncture, to proceed to the sections that provide the context of section 4.1212, and to look for sections that specifically pave the way for that section. The immediate context of section 4.1212 is provided by the ordered, nested series of sections 4.12-(4.121-(4.1211-…). The wider context of section 4.1212 is provided by the ordered, nested series of sections 4.02-(4.021-4.022-…-4.027). Section 4.1212, together with the section that immediately precedes it (namely section 4.1211), comment on section 4.121 (which itself comments on section 4.12). Section 4.1212 cannot but be read as a rephrasing of the second and third sentences of 4.121. Let me quote section 4.121 as a whole:

Der Satz kann die logische Form nicht darstellen, sie spiegelt sich in ihm.

Was sich in der Sprache spiegelt, kann sie nicht darstellen.

Was sich in der Sprache ausdrückt, können wir nicht durch sie ausdrücken.

Der Satz zeigt die logische Form der Wirklichkeit.

Er weist sie auf.

It can be translated in English as follows (I add alternative translations between brackets):

The proposition cannot represent the logical form: the logical form mirrors itself in it.

[gets reflected]

What mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent.

[What gets reflected in language, language cannot represent.]

What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language.

[What comes to expression of its own in language, we cannot express by means of language.]

The proposition shows the form of reality.

It displays it.

Read in the light of the second and third sentences of section 4.121, as it should be, section 4.1212 cannot be read as it could perhaps be read if it were taken out of context, namely, as drawing an opposition between showing and saying. Nor can it be read as contrasting being said with being shown. Even less can it be read as contrasting what can be said with what (can not be said but) can only be shown. And of course, as some commentators have rightly underscored, the contrast that is being drawn in 4.121-4.1212 is drawn entirely within the proposition or more generally within language as a whole.13 That is to say, in the text of the Tractatus, the verb “to show” (zeigen) never is never applied to nonsensical strings of signs (nor is any of its cognates).14 Thus the notion of showing ostensibly deployed may be said to be “aseptic”.15

The second and third points I have just made seem straightforward enough. Wittgenstein does not talk about what cannot be said. He refers to what can be shown and proceeds to say of that, that is, of whatever can be shown, that it cannot be said. The idea does not seem to be that, for want of admitting of being said, what cannot be said nevertheless admits of being shown (as if the possibility of being shown were awarded, so to speak, as a consolation prize), but rather that whatever can be shown does not admit of being said to the very extent that it already shows forth. We have no antecedent grasp on the notion of what can be shown, and certainly not any one provided by the notion of what cannot be said. Sections 4.121 and 4.1212 do not invoke any notion of what cannot be said, neither any extensive notion of all that cannot be said, nor any comprehensive notion of what not admitting of being said consists in.

Elsewhere in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein does invoke what is, on the face of it, a comprehensive notion of what cannot be said (gesagt), or of what cannot be uttered (ausgesprochen) (TLP 4.116). There he insists that everything that can be said can be said clearly and that everything that can be said can also be thought and vice versa, from which it follows that everything that can be thought can be thought clearly. Indeed, such a remark as that “there is only a logical necessity” (TLP 6.375), to take but one example, not only does not “convey” (let alone “show”) anything whatsoever, but it does not draw our attention to anything showing forth. It is bound to disintegrate into our hands as a piece of nonsense. But I think that the right conclusion to draw is not that 4.121 is, just like 6.375, a piece of latent nonsense, and for much the same reasons, but on the contrary that if 4.121 is to turn out to be a piece of latent nonsense, it won’t be in the same manner, if only because the sense in which what shows forth cannot be said (according to 4.121) is not the sense in which 6.375 cannot be said. Neither what can be shown nor what cannot be thought can be said (TLP 4.1212, 5.61).

That we should not be in a position to say what can be shown seems to be as much a function of its being superfluous to do so as it is a matter of its being impossible. What can be shown just is what can show forth on its own as it were. What can be shown does not lie beyond the reach of our means of expression; rather it lies too close to them, as it were, for us to be in a position to express what can be shown by means of our means of expression. It adheres to them. You might almost say that it sticks to them.

What shows forth shows forth anyway. What we are not in a position to express just is what gets expressed anyway, whether we want it or not.16 For us to express is for us to do something, namely to (use a propositional sign to) say that so-and-so is the case (TLP 4.022), that is to say to make pictures of facts to ourselves (TLP 2.1, 2.12).17 Whatever it is that shows forth, that is to say, expresses itself (TLP 4.121), it is not the kind of thing we need or can express. Already in the Notebooks, Wittgenstein wrote (19/04/1915):

Was sich in der Sprache spiegelt, kann ich nicht mit ihr ausdrücken.

What mirrors itself in language, I cannot express by it.

[gets reflected]

We have no direct business with showing, for we have no business with showing as such. What cannot be said just is, by definition, what we cannot say. But what we cannot say, we cannot show either. Everything we manage to say we have meant to say, although not everything we mean to say we do (manage to) say. And meaning requires wanting to say (meaning requires “vouloir-dire”). There is something arbitrary (willkürlich) about it in the sense that it is up to us, to our discretion as it were, to say what we say. To say is perforce to choose to say.

The reason why the contrast between being shown and being said cannot be rephrased as a contrast between showing and saying, as a “show/say distinction” (let alone as a “say/show distinction”!), is that in an important sense, even though they both partake of one and the same realm of the expressible, being shown and being said do not stand on a par.18 Saying that to be said is to be said by us is redundant, while saying that to be shown is to be shown by, let alone that it is to be shown by us, is, in a way, out of place. Even saying that “the proposition shows the logical form” of the world or the form of reality is presented as a mere short-cut for saying that the logical form of the world or the form of reality shows forth in the proposition. In fact, it would seem that nothing can do the showing because nothing can do the showing and that nothing need do the showing because nothing need do the showing.

Showing is not something done. Therefore it is not something that can be imputed or even ascribed to something else. In fact, not only there is no agency underlying the showing and showing does not actualize any capacity, but the possibility of being shown is no ability. Section 4.121 refrains from using such a phrase as “what can be expressed”. The clause “what can be shown” (was gezeigt werden kann) is not so much in the passive voice as in the middle voice. To anticipate and summarize the main contention of the present paper: showing takes care of itself, for much the same reasons why logic equally takes care of itself (TLP 5.473). We make to ourselves pictures of fact (TLP 2.1) and in particular we make use of sensuously perceptible signs as a projection of reality (possible situations) (TLP 3.11). But there is a sense in which we can neither allow nor disallow to show forth whatever shows forth, and this sense is related, I shall argue, to the sense in which we cannot make mistakes in logic (TLP 5.473, 5.4732-5.4733). In logic we do not express what we want to express by means of sign; in logic, whatever is of a logical character gets expressed, as if the nature of the necessary signs did somehow declared (aussagen) itself (TLP 6.124) (it is worth noticing that Wittgenstein is careful not to use “aussprechen” in this context).

The end of section 4.1212 suggests that from that section on, whenever it will be officially said that a proposition shows something or that a proposition shows that something is the case, one should keep in mind that, in a way, no proposition ever shows anything, that showing only ever takes place in propositions (to anticipate: “to recognize” (erkennen) is not to do anything, that verb is not a verb of action; and to “see as” (auffassen) is not just to do something, it crucially involves some passivity as well). The reader is also presumably meant to revert to the very first section of the book where the notion of something being displayed (aufweisen) by something else was introduced, namely section 2.172 (which the first sentence of section 4.121 is evidently meant to parallel, hence to echo):

Seine Form der Abbildung aber, kann das Bild nicht abbilden; es weist sie auf.

Its pictorial form, on the other hand, the picture cannot depict; it displays it.

Retrospectively, section 2.172 can be reformulated thus: its pictorial form expresses itself in any picture we make; so we need not and can not express it, that is, make a picture of it.

It is true and crucially important that nonsensical sentences neither say nor show.19 But, in a sense, neither do significant sentences show anything. In a sense, significant sentences only do (or abstain to do) one thing: say that so-and-so is the case. Not because nothing is shown. But because, in a sense, there is nothing by which whatever shows forth is shown. Which is not to say, of course, that there is nothing in which whatever shows forth is shown.

As I read it, section 4.1212 not only coheres well with section 4.121, but it derives its intelligibility from that prior section. In section 4.1212, the main point of section 4.121 is rephrased and summarized in terms of the distinction between showing and saying which had come to the fore in section 4.022, while that distinction is both neutralized and turned into a contrast between what can be shown and what can be said. So section 4.1212 can hardly be said to “counteract” some misleading “grammatical insinuation” to be traced to section 4.121,20 (what needs to be conceded is that 4.1212 does counteracts, on the face of it, the implications of section 4.1211). According to what precedes, it is anything but clear that the sort of talk deployed in sections 4.12’s is aptly characterized as some “rhetoric of saying and showing”. And it would seem that “Wittgenstein’s rhetoric here does not call up visions of the ineffable”.21 But if the “rhetoric of saying and showing” epitomized by section 4.121 is ultimately to prove incoherent, then so is section 4.1212.

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