Speaking for Oneself: Wittgenstein on Ethics

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 54 (3):252 - 276 (2011)
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Abstract In the ?Lecture on ethics?, Wittgenstein declares that ethical statements are essentially nonsense. He later told Friedrich Waismann that it is essential to ?speak for oneself? on ethical matters. These comments might be taken to suggest that Wittgenstein shared an emotivist view of ethics?that one can only speak for oneself because there is no truth in ethics, only expressions of opinion (or emotions). I argue that this assimilation of Wittgenstein to emotivist thought is deeply misguided, and rests upon a serious misunderstanding of what is implied by the nonsensicality of ethical claims on Wittgenstein's view. I develop a reading of Wittgenstein's remarks in the ?Lecture on ethics? on which ethical statements, despite their nonsensicality, reveal the perspective of the speaker. The purpose of ethical language is to elucidate a speaker's perspective. Such elucidations, and the perspectives they reveal, can be evaluated, criticized, and respected on principled grounds even if, as Wittgenstein insists, no ethical judgment can be (objectively) justified by any fact. I contrast Wittgenstein's comments on ethics with some comments made by Frank Ramsey (from the same period), which appear similar to Wittgenstein's remarks on value. Contra Ramsey's insistence that there is ?nothing to discuss? about (or within) ethics, a proper understanding of Wittgenstein's views does not commit us to passing over ethics in silence



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Matthew Pianalto
Eastern Kentucky University