Strip Teasy: Wittgenstein and Joyce

Wittgenstein and Joyce

Die Sprache verkleidet den Gedanken.

1.This statement from section §4.002 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/2), which Pears and McGuiness translate as ‘language disguises thought’, sets the terms of the early Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Drawing on the immediate context, we could parse it as follows: ‘everyday/ordinary language (Umgangssprache) hides the true identity of the proposition (der Satz)’. ‘So much so’, the next sentence continues, ‘that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the clothed thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.’ This is a perfectly good translation. Yet by deleting the word ‘clothed’ (bekleideten) from the first clause—because it seems redundant?—Pears and McGuiness downplay the poetic logic of the original which follows a thread of phonetic-orthographic associations peculiar to German: ‘verkleidet’ (disguises) links to ‘Kleides’ (clothing or dress) and to ‘bekleideten’ (clothed but also dressed up), reinforcing the idea of ordinary language as a cover or mask that needs to be stripped away.

1.1 It is as if, for the early Wittgenstein, the following three sentences disguise the essential thought or propositional content, say, for instance, that the speaker’s female parent died on, say, 12 December 1992:

Mum passed away today.
Mother kicked the bucket today.
Maman died today.

In fact, Wittgenstein had no interest in recasting such sentences in an apparently more transparent or neutral everyday idiom. He wanted to re-write them in an alternative quasi-algebraic notation or propositional calculus that would make the logical form of the thought explicit (e.g. for this example, ‘∃x(Mother(x) ∧ Died(x))’, which formalizes ‘There exists a person x who is a mother and has died’, or, at a more elementary level, ‘aRb’, representing a relationship (say taller than) between a and b, see also ‘Wittgenstein’s phonofilm’ post).

1.1.2 This was also the dream of the early twentieth-century positivists who attempted to turn philosophy into a rigorous science by developing what Bertrand Russell in 1918 called a ‘logically perfect language’ that could serve as a ground for all empirically verifiable truth-claims (25)—this dream morphed into the quest for a perfect computer language in the 1960s. Though Russell claimed Wittgenstein as an ally in this venture in his introduction to the English edition of the Tractatus (1922), he was at best an awkward fellow-traveller—the anecdote about Wittgenstein reading Rabindranath Tagore to the members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s reflects the testiness of his relationship to the more mainstream positivists. Whereas they tended, for instance, to see their perfected calculus as an alternative to the inherent illogicality of ordinary language, he insisted that ‘all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order’ (§5.5563). The trouble was that this apparent or simply opaque logic (the clothing) was designed for purposes other than revealing the real logic of the thought (the unadorned body)—hence the need for a more transparent notation that would make the underlying logical form visible.

2. Section §4 of the Tractatus begins with a statement that goes some way towards explaining why Wittgenstein felt this was necessary:

§4.  A thought is a proposition with a sense.

A ‘proposition with a sense’, we soon learn, is one that in some way corresponds to ‘reality/truth’ (Wirklichkeit), though here too his thinking took took an unorthodox turn:

§4.01 A proposition is a picture of reality.
  A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.

Few card-carrying early positivists would have felt comfortable with the second claim. For Wittgenstein, however, pairing these two statements held open the possibility that sense-making propositions can be true or false. We can picture the formal relations each describes (e.g. ‘The crowd at Trump’s inauguration was bigger than the one at Obama’s’; A>B) without having to check each one against reality. So, on his account, ordinary language needs to be stripped away not because it is inherently illogical but because it hides the logical form of sense-making propositions, which may be true or false, and therefore interferes with our capacity to represent reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be.

2.1 Wittgenstein may have been more open to the hypothetical than some positivists, but he set himself as firmly against radical scepticism as they did. Defining his own conception of philosophy in a brief aside, he invoked (only to reject) the most extreme linguistic sceptic of the early twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian writer-philosopher Fritz Mauthner:

§4.0031 All philosophy is a ‘critique of language’ (though not in Mauthner’s sense).

In the opening of his monumental Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-02), Mauthner declared in Weiler’s translation:

‘In the beginning was the word’. With the word men stand at the threshold of the knowledge of the world and they remain standing there if they stay attached to the word. (272)

At best, for Mauthner, language articulates a linguistic community’s ‘fable convenue’ (literally ‘agreed fable’) of the world (Kritik, I, 25). Rejecting the idea that it could be re-designed to offer a secure ground for knowledge, he insisted it could only be destroyed—hence the motto on his book plate: ex-libris‘Whoever does not recognise and break the tyranny of language, is not free.’ By contrast, for the early Wittgenstein, language stripped of its everyday opacities can meaningfully ‘picture’ or ‘model’ reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be. For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave aside the question of what exactly the difference between Wittgenstein’s ‘imagined reality/truth’ and Mauthner’s ‘agreed fable/fiction’ might be.

3. Wittgenstein mostly relied on visual metaphors like Bild (generally translated as ‘picture’) to describe how propositions, construed in his formal terms, correspond to reality/truth, but he also proposed a series of other analogies. At one point he turned to the technologies of sound reproduction:


§4.014 A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world.

At another he invoked the history of writing systems:

§4.016 In order to understand the essential nature of a proposition, we should consider hieroglyphic script, which depicts the facts that it describes.

       And alphabetic script developed out of it without losing what was essential to depiction.

Anticipating and partly explaining these analogies, he noted:

§4.011 At first sight a proposition—one set out on a printed page, for example—does not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is concerned. But no more does musical notation at first sight seem to be a picture of music, nor our phonetic notation (the alphabet) to be a picture of our speech.

       And yet these sign-languages prove to be pictures, even in the ordinary sense, of what they represent.

In German, the shift from ‘phonetic notation’ to ‘alphabet’ to ‘speech’ is more suggestive as we move from Lautzeichen-Schrift (literally ‘sounded-signs-script’, e.g. IPA) to Buchstaben-Schrift (‘letters-script’ or more literally ‘book-staves-script’) to Lautsprache (‘sounded-speech’). By setting out the first two as ‘Lautzeichen- (Buchstaben-) Schrift’, Wittgenstein implied that both forms of writing can be understood as direct transcriptions of speech.

4. The main purpose of all this analogizing is clear enough. Re-working Russell’s logical atomism, Wittgenstein wanted to show how c-sharpdiscrete propositions map discrete facts (not things), the ‘totality’ of which constitute ‘the world’ as the opening of the Tractatus has it (§1.1): ‘The world is everything that is the case’ (§1). Stripped of its everyday disguises and re-analysed as a transparent propositional calculus, or logical form, he believed ‘language’ could represent ‘the world’ in this sense with the same exactitude as the symbol for C♯, or the groove in a gramophone record, represents the sound produced by, say, a specific key on the piano: different systems or notations, in other words, but the same one-to-one formal relationship. On his account writing corresponds to speech in the same way.

4.1 This last turn in his analogizing did not bode well. For one thing, hieroglyphs, like early Chinese pictograms, very quickly lost their pictorial character as scribes adopted many stylized conventions to deal with the problem of expressing complex facts or abstractions. For another, the frequency of, say, middle C♯ is precisely measurable (it ‘stands for’ 277.18 Hz); whereas the sound the letter C ‘represents’ is notoriously slippery (think only of the three English words ‘cat’, ‘circle’ and ‘chase’).  True, English is one of the most opaque ‘alphabetic’ systems. The sounds ‘r – eye – t’ rendered as /rʌɪt/ in IPA, for instance, can be written as ‘write’, ‘right,’ ‘wright’ or ‘rite,’ none of which can be thought of as ‘a picture of our speech’ in any straightforward or exact sense. But even more transparent languages, like German and Italiando not represent sounds in a simple one-to-one fashion (consider the German phrase ‘sechs schulen’ – ‘six schools’, pronounced ‘zex shoolin’).

5. Finnegans Wake puts Wittgenstein’s analogizing under more pressure. This is not just because Joyce devised a maze of improbable graphemes that rarely map onto a single meaning, or even language, let alone a specific phoneme. Whatever it is Wakese is not ‘a picture of our speech’ (see Fourth Proposition). Nor is it only because Joyce had some sympathy for Mauthner’s linguistic scepticism (see Chapter 3 of the book). It is because he challenged the early Wittgenstein’s conception of ordinary language by comically embellishing his clothing analogy, restaging it as a dubiously sexualized encounter between a ‘lady’ and an ‘ornery josser, flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to Lady's Picratiocination by syncopation in the elucidation of complications’ (Wake, 109). On being introduced to the ‘lady’, the ‘josser’, who is one of the Wake’s many bad male readers, immediately imagines stripping off her ‘definite articles of evolutionary clothing’ so he can ‘vision her plump and plain in her natural altogether’ (109). Indifferent to her ‘local colour and personal perfume’—that is to the singular history and intricacies of each language, writing system or idiom—he also fails to see ‘that the facts of feminine clothiering are there all the time or that the feminine fiction, stranger than the facts, is there also at the same time, only a little to the rere’ (109). By implication, for Joyce, the empress only has clothes, that is, ordinary language can never be completely stripped away, exposing the logical form in its pure unadorned state. Equally, there is no simple way of disentangling facts from fiction, or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, ‘reality/truth’ as it is and as we imagine it. When it comes to knowledge, and much else besides, all we have is ordinary language ‘in all its featureful perfection of imperfection’ (109).

5.1 Reading the Tractatus alongside the Wake makes the notorious split in Wittgenstein’s early philosophy less puzzling than it might at first seem. Seen in Joyce’s terms, the apparently abrupt turn towards ethics and mysticism in the final pages is all of a piece with Wittgenstein’s worries about the opaque logic of ordinary language and his effort to uncover a more transparent alternative. The apparently mystical Wittgenstein who insists that the ‘solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time’ (§6.4312) and that ‘ethics is transcendental’ (§6.421) repeats the gestures of the semi-positivistic but also quasi-Kantian Wittgenstein who claims that ordinary language ‘disguises thought’ (§4.002) and that ‘logic is transcendental’ (§6.13). ‘Transcendental’ in this context refers not to a realm beyond the empirical world but to a fundamental, enabling condition of the way we experience it: so, following Wittgenstein’s parallel, transcendental ethics makes value, or meaningful action, possible in the way that transcendental logic makes sense, or meaningful language, possible.

6. Famously, Wittgenstein changed his mind in the Philosophical Investigations (1953) — see also ‘Wittgenstein’s phonofilm’ post. Rejecting his youthful josserish inclinations, he now insisted that ‘nothing is hidden,’  including the logical form of a proposition (versteckt could also be translated as ‘disguised’, §435, see also §88-92 where he questions his earlier appeal to the sublime ideality of logic). Marking a clear line between himself and the Russell of the introduction to the Tractatus, he also rejected his earlier idea of ordinary language as so much discardable clothing, re-imagining it as ‘an ancient city’ with a Wake-like ‘maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses’, all of which call out for exploration in their own right (§18). At the same time he re-considered his analogy with writing systems, taking issue with his earlier ‘over-simple conception of the script’:

§4. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation. (A script may be conceived as a language for describing sound-patterns [or ‘pictures’, Lautbildern].) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also a completely different function.

In another turn in his analogizing, he described ordinary language as a ‘multiplicity of language-games’ (Sprachspiele), underscoring the fact that it supports and even makes possible many activities beyond simply picturing the world — though he never abandoned the idea that this is one of the games language plays (§7, §23). The others range from ‘giving orders’ to ‘guessing riddles’ and from ‘requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying’ to ‘making up a story (Geschichte)’ (§23). Like games, these are all activities, that is, ways of doing things with words, they are rule-guided (though not necessarily governed), and they make sense within what Wittgenstein called a particular ‘life-form’ (Lebensform, §23). On this account language is not simply an instrument for describing the world. It is a changing repertoire of practices that shapes and is shaped by culture construed as a complex, evolving way of life.

6.1 This was the Wittgenstein who remarked, in a series of marginal notes to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), that ‘a whole mythology is deposited in our language’ (48). Reflecting testily on the English anthropologist’s overly scientistic rationalism, he added: ‘What narrowness of spiritual life we find in Frazer! Hence the impossiblity of grasping a life different from the English one of his time!’ (38).

7. Joyce would no doubt have welcomed Wittgenstein’s new openness to ordinary language in all its featureful diversity, though he may have questioned the usefulness of his games analogy when applied to some kinds of literary writing. While the many forms and genres of writing conventionally called literary, ranging from the sonnet to the novel, can be thought of as rule-guided games in the later Wittgenstein’s sense, some defy the implied sociability of the analogy by changing and re-making the rules all the time (like the figure of the errant pupil who recurs throughout the Investigations). Put in Wittgenstein’s terms, we could say they risk creating an impossible, or seemingly incomprehensible, private language, or, at the very least, a game with very vague rules (a possibility Wittgenstein in fact recognized, even embraced — see §99-103 of the Investigations). As Joyce acknowledged from the outset, Finnegans Wake is a case in point. On 16 October 1926, four years into the protracted seventeen-year history of its composition and already sensitive to the incredulity it was provoking, he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: ‘I know it is no more than a game but it is a game I have learned to play in my own way. Children may just as well play as not. The ogre will come in any case’ (144). This was a bit of artful self-deprecation designed to keep an increasingly wary patron on board. When it came to the various forms of early twentieth-century positivism—and many other kinds of thinking as well—it is clear that his idiosyncratically jocoserious, rule-defying writing-game (Schriftspiel) was neither trivial nor inconsequential (see also Chapter 3 of the book and Fourth Proposition).


Richard Ellmann, ed., Letters of James Joyce, III (London: Faber and Faber, 1966).

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 3 vols. (1901-02; Berlin: J. G. Cotta’sche, 1912).

Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (London: Routledge, 2010).

Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Mythology in our Language (Chicago: Hau Books, 2018).

For more on the Tractatus and translation, see

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