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In Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein said

I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.

What exactly is meant by these words? Did he mean that the concepts of ethics are forever unreachable by the language of humans? Is he insinuating that ethics cannot be fully understood by human intelligence but it is however understandable to a species with a language much more different than humans'?

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  • Sounds like a variation of the is/ought problem. According to Wittgenstein language can describe what is, the world as it is, but not how it should be in any meaningful way. All one can express properly is ethics sentences like "IF you want A, you should do B", but can't express why you should want A in the first place (the "absolute value")
    – armand
    Jan 5 at 4:35
  • I had basically the experience described about 30 years ago. It seems true enough.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 5 at 15:57

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Wittgenstein is bordering on Daoism here, interestingly enough...

I'm not sure from what period of Wittgenstein's life this comes from, but it sounds more in line with his early philosophy. In essence, he's saying that whenever one talks about morality and ethics, one is reaching for a universal that cannot possibly be expressed in language. For early Wittgenstein, language was pragmatic, and philosophical arguments were often a violation of that essential pragmatism. For instance, he closes the Tractatus with the claim:

The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other — he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy — but it would be the only strictly correct method.

There is obviously no easy or satisfying way to reduce an ethical claim like "It's wrong to kill" to propositions of natural science. We inevitably run smack into the is/ought distinction, and Wittgenstein would accuse us of using a sign — the word 'wrong' - which has no practical meaning. But at the same time, Wittgenstein doesn't want to dismiss or ridicule those who make ethical assertions of this sort, because ethics is such a central part of human life and society.

Wittgenstein's later work would (I think) take a distinctly different approach, though I don't recall if he addresses ethics in that phase of his life. But I suspect it is exactly problems like the one raised here that brought him to revise his theories.

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  • As best I know, the quote is in line with early Stoicism. Most of my comments here say essentially, "You have unstated assumptions."
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 5 at 15:58

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