Wittgenstein: Showing off in Art

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Notebooks 1914-1916, G.H. vonWright and G. E. M. Anscombe, eds., Oxford: Blackwell, 1961. 109.

This same distinction between what can be shewn by the language but not said, explains the difficulty that is felt about types—e.g., as to the difference between things, facts, properties, relations. That M is a thing can’t be said; it is nonsense: but something is shewn by the symbol “M.” In [the] same way, that a proposition is a subject-predicate proposition can’t be said: but is shown by the symbol.

. . . Therefore a THEORY of types is impossible. It tries to say something about the types when you can only talk about the symbols. But what you say about the symbols is not that this symbol has that type, which would be nonsense for [the] same reason: but you say simply: this is the symbol, to prevent a misunderstanding. E.g., in “aRb”, “R” is not a symbol, but that “R” is between one name and another symbolises. Here we have not said: this symbol is not of this type but of that, but only: this symbolises and not that. . . . (1914)

The existence of objects, properties and relations can only be shown, not stated. The fact that our language has words for these “entities” shows that they exist; any attempt to say what they show—or, indeed, to assert facts—about the world, as most philosophy does, will result in nonsense (pseudopropositions). So “disputes [about what exists] . . . disappear . . . when we understand the roles played by different types of word in the construction of propositions” (Ray Monk, How to Read Wittgenstein [Granta, 2005] 38-39). “What can be shown, cannot be said” (TLP 4.1212).


  1. Language is made up of propositions, not words, and
  2. the world is made up of facts [complex, i.e. articulate], not objects [simple].
  3. Facts correspond to (true) propositions about the world.

Denis McManus calls this correspondence “the con-formity of thought and world,” thus “intelligibility as con-formity”:

[T]houghts and the world share “forms,” with the “intelligibility” of thought imagined as something like a fit, an isomorphism, between the “form of thought” and the “form of the world” [i.e., not “the particular way in which . . . the world happens to be,” but its “‘logical’ or ‘metaphysical possibilities’: the objects that happen to exist within it, as well as those that could happen to exist in it”]. (The Enchantment of Words: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [OUP, 2006] 5)

The question for him is how this conformity is acquired or comes to be.

Likewise, artists don’t understand the world, they understand the language of art. They show it rather than saying it.


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