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This question relates to the correctness of a particular passage from Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger and translated by Shaun Whiteside, which describes a decade of philosophical thought by Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer and Heidegger.

I've added the passage itself below, which describes Wittgenstein's thoughts on what philosophy and the natural sciences are equipped to do and how philosophy might address what gives meaning to life. Essentially, it seems to me that the last sentence contradicts the rest.

The author is describing (and quoting) Wittgenstein's thoughts as:

  1. The realm of the sayable is the world of facts, it is the set of things about which anything can be meaningfully said, and it is the set of scientific questions and their answers, and it is disjoint with the realm of philosophy.
  2. Nothing in this realm addresses at all "the problems of life," which I take to mean matters that concern what makes life meaningful.

Then the author goes on to contrast this with the positivist ideas of the era; everything significant or meaningful can be reasoned about or subject to logical analysis etc.

All well and good. But then the last sentence, he claims Wittgenstein was able to show that the things that give life meaning do lie within the bounds of the sayable, which contradicts the idea that the "problems of life" cannot be addressed by something from the realm of the sayable.

Please help clarify.

This is the relevant passage:


The realm of the sayable, which Wittgenstein’s work delineates “from within” through logical linguistic analysis, applies only to the world of facts; this is therefore the only realm about which anything can be meaningfully said.

But to grasp this world of facts with all its qualities as precisely as possible is ultimately the task of the natural sciences. For Wittgenstein, it is “something that has nothing to do with philosophy” (T 6:53). Against this backdrop, then, the problem, or rather the actual philosophical solution, consists in the following conviction, or more precisely the following feeling:

6:52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

The largely positivistic spirit of the age assumed that only things about which we could meaningfully speak could be significant for our own lives. These were things that could be proved to exist using the methodical foundation of this essentially scientific vision of the world—logical analysis. That is, so-called facts. But Wittgenstein was able to show that the truth was in fact precisely the reverse. Everything that gives meaning to life, and the world in which we live, already lies within the boundaries of what can be directly said.

Excerpt From: Wolfram Eilenberger. “Time of the Magicians.” Apple Books.

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  • Please don't use images of text. It makes reading, copying, and searching far more difficult. And if you're going to quote a text, please use proper citations. I might have fixed the first problem myself except the second problem keeps me from locating the relevant passage. – Ted Wrigley Jan 16 at 21:11
  • Apologies, and thank you for correct it for me! – eriophora Jan 16 at 21:46
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    W's point of view is quite idiosyncratic: if the language expresses only facts of the world and ethics are about values and values are not facts, that the language cannot "speak of" values. This implies that every discourse about values and meaning of life lies outside language. But there is no language outside of language... thus, we are left with "the mystical" (the ineffable). Very debatable... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 19 at 10:28
  • See the last items of Tractatus. It seems that Eilenberger's reading is wrong, at least wrt Tractatus. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 19 at 10:29
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Without reading the full text, I don't know what Eilenberger is header towards, so I can't comment on his goals. But with respect to this passage, what's clear is that Eilenberger is referencing the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus", which represents Wittgenstein's entry into the philosophical arena, and which Wittgenstein himself later rejected as a naïve work. The apparent contradiction you're seeing may not be in Eilenberger, but in the work he's referencing.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was following Bertrand Russell's paradigm. This paradigm was an effort to demonstrate that all meaningful philosophical claims could be represented in mathematical logic, and that ipso facto all statements that could not be represented in mathematical logic were not meaningful philosophical claims. Thus:

  • "Jane is female" can be reduced to mathematical logic, and thus is a meaningful claim
  • "I love Jane" may or may not be reducible to mathematical logic — depending on whether we can discover an analytic biochemistry of 'love' — and thus may or may not be a meaningful claim
  • "Marrying Jane will make us one in spirit" is not reducible to mathematical logic, and thus is not a meaningful philosophical claim

This Tractatus quote is merely pointing out that issues like 'love' and 'marriage' are important problems of life, but aren't analyzable by the methods of the natural sciences, and thus aren't part of philosophy at all. One can talk about them, but one cannot talk about them philosophically, not without the mental equivalent of spinning one's wheels. Eilenberger's last line is simply reinforcing this point, though where he goes from that I don't know.

Of course, Wittgenstein soon realized they we cannot make such a clear distinction, and that the problems of denotation that kept plaguing Russell's work ran much deeper than was realized. Even terms like 'male' and 'female' — that seem like clear and rock-solid references to physical reality — are at their heart matters of linguistic convention. We know this (if for no other reason) because the LGBTQ community has made significant headway questioning the 'conventional' assumptions about how we identify 'males' and 'females' in society. Wittgenstein put some hefty nails in the coffin of Russell's version of analytic philosophy, and the broader issue of denotation is still contentious in philosophy.

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  • Wittgenstein sees a bunch of people in the park pointing at birds. He writes a philosophical treatise about this strange finger-pointing-game and how we can only understand birds by analyzing the rules of the finger-pointing-game. – causative Feb 16 at 3:15
  • @causative: Actually, Wittgenstein would be more interested in the fact that when someone points we (somehow) know to look where the finger is pointing, not at the finger itself. – Ted Wrigley Feb 16 at 4:36
  • The finger represents language, and where the finger is pointing is outside language. Wittgenstein's approach denies the meaningfulness of discussing where the finger is pointing, as it is outside language. He prefers to assign meaning to finger-pointing-gestures only according to the role they play in a finger-pointing-game. – causative Feb 16 at 4:38
  • @causative: That's not quite correct, See W's Language Game #2. Wittgenstein doesn't deny that there is a connection between language and the real world; he just recognizes that the relationship is a convention (a property of language, not of the object) and might change depending on the language game being played. If we say someone 'gave us the bird' we may have to check in to figure out whether he handed us a parakeet or flipped us off — two different language games — but within each language game we know precisely what's going on in the real world. – Ted Wrigley Feb 16 at 5:25
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    There's more to words than how they are used in a game - when we're speaking truthfully, the game is a shadow of some part of reality. And to assign meaning to the game is to say in what way that shadow is being cast by reality, not merely to give rules saying how one shadow leads to another or in what context a shadow appears. – causative Feb 16 at 5:54

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