Wittgenstein's Tractatus : A Dialectical Interpretation (review)

Journal of the History of Philosophy 41 (2):281-282 (2003)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.2 (2003) 281-282 [Access article in PDF] Matthew B. Ostrow. Wittgenstein's Tractatus: A Dialectical Interpretation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 175. Paper, $20.00. This contribution to the new readings of the early Wittgenstein presents in detail how one might read the Tractatus as a sustained attack on Frege's and Russell's philosophical and logical conceptions while at the same time presuming Wittgenstein to have always been in some sense a "late Wittgensteinian," that is, already embarked on the therapeutic task of setting down "the way of release" from philosophical confusion and "ensnarement of thought" (1). Taking seriously the passage in the Tractatus (6.54) in which Wittgenstein assesses his "elucidations" as "nonsensical," Ostrow places himself among those readers who infer that straightforward theory-making was not Wittgenstein's aim, but differs from them in his original and challenging account of how the propositions of the Tractatus are nonsense.Wittgenstein, Ostrow contends, employed such (apparent) doctrines as the picture theory, the showing doctrine, the notion of tautology, and so forth dialectically, that is, as self-detonating attempts to expose philosophical nonsense in situ which were not themselves intended to be argued pro or con as philosophical assertions or theories. Wittgenstein's purpose in speaking in the Tractatus in avowedly though not patently nonsensical ways is, the author argues, to encourage us instead to see philosophical nonsensicality as "given in and through" the process of making such philosophical assertions, and in seeing how they "change their character, how they undermine their initial presentation as straightforward truth claims" (12). Thus the "central notions" and propositions in the Tractatus, according to Ostrow, "only have their life in relation to the philosophical temptations that the book aims to eradicate" (43).Such a reading involves the author (and his readers) in a task that is both detailed and delicate. Ostrow's work is detailed because he reads Wittgenstein as engaged in a systematic attempt to expose philosophical theories as nonsense case-by-particular-case, that is, by "working through philosophy from the inside, without making appeal to any kind of fixed criteria of sense and nonsense" (99). It is for this reason that Wittgenstein's articulation of the many structures in the Tractatus is necessary, and Ostrow's work, which he views as largely descriptive, must trace the same path.Ostrow's task is a delicate one because he must explore the themes in Wittgenstein's Tractatus (pictures, significant propositions, logical propositions, etc.) without appearing to contradict his position that the Tractatus offers no general doctrines meant to be taken as they stand. Thus, for instance, when Ostrow argues that for Wittgenstein pictorial form is constituted by a picture's application to reality and not an independent entity, he must remind the reader that he is not attributing to Wittgenstein a doctrine of "constitution of form" offered up as a philosophical alternative. Just as we are not to make pictorial form and its emergence in the Tractatus into a substantive theory in its own right but rather see it as having a role only in Wittgenstein's battle to expose such shibboleths (44), so too for all other parts of the Tractarian structure. Thus Wittgenstein's apparent explanation of the [End Page 281] possibility of depiction in terms of isomorphism is said to aim at showing that as an explanation, "talk of an isomorphism is empty" (39); Wittgenstein's show/say distinction is taken as a foil used to expose the logician's desire to get at essence (42), and so forth. Even the notion of tautology is, according to Ostrow, "as dialectical a move as any other," not one "put forth as a self-standing claim, an attempt to offer an overarching characterization of truth" (105).This book engages in its daunting task very ably and in fluid, confident prose. The author is clearly aware of the various challenges he is likely to meet and suggests ways of doing battle with them. To cite one case, Ostrow examines Wittgenstein's later comments on his...

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Rosalind Carey
Lehman College (CUNY)

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