I've been listening to BBC's "In Our Time" on Wittgenstein here, but I can't seem to understand why Wittgenstein thought that "a proposition can't picture the pictorial relationship." One of the commentators in the video used the similarities between a mother and her daughter as an example. But why can't you make the proposition "the mother and the daughter have the same eye color," for example, to depict the property that creates the resemblance between the two people?

Can someone explain this to me further?

  • 1
    The "pictorial relationship" is the relationship between a sentence (a piece of language) and a fact (a piece of the world). See W's Tractauts: 2.13 "In a picture objects have the elements of the picture corresponding to them." 2.1514 "The pictorial relationship consists of the correlations of the picture’s elements with things." 2.172 "A picture cannot, however, depict its pictorial form: it displays it." W's theory has been debated since its pubblication. Apr 11, 2016 at 7:48
  • Hello. Could you pinpoint, where in the BBC episode the issue of discussed? Apr 16, 2016 at 8:54
  • Starting at 17:10. Apr 17, 2016 at 5:48

1 Answer 1


Yes, there are similarity relations where one can describe a common factor that underlies the similarity. A mother and a daughter may share same eye colors, nose shapes, etc (the analogy in the bbc episode seems indeed faulty). Wittgenstein's claim seems to be that the picturing relation is just not one of these relations. There is no describable common factor to that similarly.

To inquire why this might be, let's take an example. How does the sentence

the cat is on the mat

picture the state of affairs where the cat is on the mat? What is the common structure between the sentence and the SOA? Well, it seems to be something like:

In both instances there are two objects, and a certain relation between them

The two objects being, on the one hand the cat and the mat, on the other hand the expressions "the cat" and "the mat".

We have just described the common structure, haven't we? It is just that the terms that we had to use in the description are "senseless" by Wittgenstein's lights.

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

We have spoken about two objects. But there is really no way to count objects, as such. "Object" is not a true concept, but a pseudo-concept, a place-holder. As Bertrand Russell put it, in his Introduction to the Tractatus:

Wittgenstein contends and, I think, rightly . . . that “object” is a pseudo-concept. To say “x is an object” is to say nothing. It follows from this that we cannot make such statements as “there are more than three objects in the world,” or “there are an infinite number of objects in the world.” Objects can only be mentioned in connexion with some definite property.

So the only way to describe the picturing relation is in "Tractarian" senseless terms; using pseudo-concepts such as "object". This does not amount, by Wittgenstein's lights, to saying anything. It only amounts to showing something.

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