Saying, Showing, Constructing

6 August 2012


Ludwig Wittgenstein and L. E. J. Brouwer

Brouwer and Wittgenstein were contemporaries, with the whole of Wittgenstein’s years contained within those of Brouwer’s (Wittgenstein lived 1889 to 1951 while Brouwer lived the longer life from 1881 to 1966). It is mildly ironic that even as Brouwer’s followers were playing down his mysticism and trying to extract only the mathematical content from his intuitionist philosophy (even the faithful Heyting distanced himself from Brouwer’s mysticism), Wittgenstein’s writings reached a much larger public which resulted in the mystical content of Wittgenstein’s works being played up and the early Wittgenstein himself, very much the logician following in the tradition of Frege and Russell, presented as a mystic.

Not only were Brouwer and Wittgenstein contemporaries, but we also know that Brouwer played a little-known role in Wittgenstein’s return to philosophy. After having written the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and then disappearing into the mountains of Austria to become a village schoolmaster in Trattenbach, some of those philosophers that continued to seek out Wittgenstein in his self-imposed exile convinced him to go to a lecture in Vienna in March 1928. The lecture was delivered by Brouwer (Brouwer gave two lectures; Wittgenstein is said to have attended one of them). Wittgenstein was said to have listened to the lecture with a surprised look on his face (sort of like G. E. Moore saying that Wittgenstein was the only student that looked puzzled at this lectures). So it may be the case that Brouwer played a pivotal role in the transition from the thought of the early Wittgenstein to the thought of the later Wittgenstein. (Matthieu Marion has argued this thesis.)

Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, a doctrine that dates from the Tractatus (cf. sections 4.113 and following), is often adduced in expositions of his alleged mysticism. According to Wittgenstein’s distinction, some things can be said but cannot be shown, while other things can be shown but cannot be said. While to my knowledge Wittgenstein never used the term “ineffable,” that which can be shown but cannot be said would seem to be a paradigm case of the ineffable. And since Wittgenstein identified a substantial portion of our experience as showable although unsayable, the ineffable seems then to play a central role in his thought. This puts Wittgenstein firmly in the company of figures like, say, St. Symeon the New Theologian (also, like Wittgenstein, an ascetic), which makes the case for his mysticism.

An extract from St. Symeon on the ineffable: “The grace of the all-holy spirit is given as earnest money of the souls pledged in marriage to Christ. Just as a woman without a pledge has no certainty that the union with the groom will occur within a certain length of time, so does the soul have no firm assurance that it will be re-united to its God and Master for all eternity. The soul cannot be certain that it will achieve this mystic, ineffable union nor that it will enjoy its inaccessible beauty if it does not have the pledge of His grace and does not consciously have that grace within.” (Krivocheine, Basil and Gythiel, Anthony P., In the Light of Christ: Saint Symeon, the New Theologian 949–1022, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986, p. 367)

Brouwer was a bit more explicit in his doctrine of ineffability than was Wittgenstein, and he repeatedly asserted that the language of mathematics was a necessary evil that approximated but never fully captured the intuitive experience of mathematics, which he understood to be a free creation of the human mind. This comes across both in his early mystical treatise Life, Art, and Mysticism, which is pervaded by a sense of pessimism over the evils of the world (which include the evils of mathematical language), and his more technical papers offering an exposition of intuitionism as a philosophy of mathematics. But, like Wittgenstein, Brouwer does not (to my limited knowledge) actually use the term “ineffable.”

There is another ellipsis common to both Brouwer and Wittgenstein, and that is despite Brouwer’s openly professed intuitionism, which can be considered a species of constructivism (this latter is a point that needs to be separately argued, but I will only pass over it here with a single mention), and despite the strict finitism of the later Wittgenstein, which can also be considered a species of constructivism, neither Brouwer nor Wittgenstein employ Kantian language or Kantian formulations. No doubt there are implicit references to Kant in both, but I am not aware of any systematic references to Kant in the work of either philosopher. This is significant. Both Brouwer and Wittgenstein were philosophers of the European continent, where the influence of Kant remains strong even as his reputation waxes and wanes over the generations.

Kant was an early constructivist, or, rather, a constructivist before constructivism was explicitly formulated, and therefore sometimes called a proto-constructivist — although I have pointed out an obvious non-constructive dimension to Kant’s thought despite his proto-constructivism (which I do not deny, notwithstanding Kant’s non-constructive arguments in the first Critique). Kant’s classic proto-constructivist formulation is that the synthetic a priori truths of mathematics must be constructed, or “exhibited in intuition.” It is this latter idea, of a concept being exhibited in intuition, that has been particularly influential. But what does it mean? Obviously, a formulation like this has invited many interpretations.

The approaches of Brouwer and the later Wittgenstein could be considered different ways of exhibiting a concept in intuition. Brouwer, by casting out the law of the excluded middle from mathematics (at least in infinitistic contexts), assured that double negation was not equivalent to the truth simpliciter, so that even if you know that it is not the case that x is false, you still don’t know that x is true. (On the law of the excluded middle cf. P or not-P.) The later Wittgenstein’s insistence upon working out how a particular term is used and not merely settling for some schematic meaning (think of slogans like “don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use” and “back to the rough ground”) similarly forces one to consider concrete instances rather than accepting (non-constructive) arguments for the way that things putatively must be, rather than how they are in actual fact. Both Wittgenstein’s finitism and Brouwer’s intuitionism would look with equal distaste upon, for example, proving that every set can be well-ordered without actually showing (i.e., exhibiting) such an order — also, the impossibility of exhaustively showing (i.e., exhibiting in intuition) that every set can be well-ordered if one acknowledges an infinity of sets.

I give this latter example because I think it was largely the perceived excesses of set theory and Cantor’s transfinite number theory that were essentially responsible for the reaction among some mathematicians that led to constructivism. Cantor was a great mathematical innovator, and his radical contributions to mathematics spurred foundationalists like Frege (who objected to Cantor’s methods but not his results) and Russell to attempt to construct philosophico-mathematical justifications, i.e., foundations, that would legitimize that which Cantor had wrought.

The reaction against infinitistic mathematics and foundationalism continues to the present day. Michael Dummett wrote in Elements of Intuitionism, a classic textbook on basic intuitionistic logic and mathematics, that:

“From an intuitionistic standpoint, mathematics, when correctly carried on, would not need any justification from without, a buttress from the side or a foundation from below: it would wear its own justification on its face.”

Dummett, Michael, Elements of Intuitionism, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 2

In other words, mathematics would show its justification; in contrast, the foundationalist project to assure the legitimacy of the flights of non-constructive mathematics was wrong-headed in its very conception, because nothing that we say is going to change the fact that non-constructive thought that derives its force from proof, i.e., from what is said, does not show its justification on its face. Its justification must be established because it does not show itself. This is what “foundations” are for.

Note: There is also an element of intellectual ascesis in Dummett’s idea of a conservative extension of a theory, and this corresponds to the asceticism of Wittgenstein’s character, and, by extension, to the asceticism of Wittgenstein’s thought — asceticism being one of the clear continuities between the earlier and the later Wittgenstein — like the implicit development of constructivist themes.

But it was not only the later Wittgenstein who reacted with others against Cantor. It seems to me that the saying/showing distinction of the Tractatus is a distinction not only between that which can be said and that which can be shown, but also a distinction between that which is established by argument, possibly non-constructive argument, and that which is exhibited in intuition, i.e., constructed. If this is right, Wittgenstein showed an early sensitivity to the possibility of constructivist thought, and his later development might be understood as a development of the constructivist strand within his thinking, making Wittgenstein’s development more linear than is often recognized (though there are many scholars who argue for the unity of Wittgenstein’s development on different principles). The saying/showing distinction may be the acorn from which the oak tree of the Philosophical Investigations (and the subsequently published posthumous works) grew.

For the early Wittgenstein, the distinction between saying and showing was thoroughly integrated into his idea of logic, and while in the later sections of the Tractatus the mysticism of what which can only be shown but cannot be said becomes more evident, it is impossible to say whether it was the logical impulse that prevailed, and served as the inspiration for the mysticism, or whether it was the mystic impulse that prevailed, and served as the pretext for formulating the logical doctrines. But the logical doctrines are clearly present in the Tractatus, and serve as the exposition of Wittgenstein’s ideas, even up to the famous metaphor when Wittgenstein says that the propositions of the Tractatus are like a ladder than one must cast away after having climbed up and over it.

Just as there is a mathematical content to Brouwer’s mysticism, so too there is a logical content to Wittgenstein’s mysticism. It is, in fact, likely that Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing was suggested to him by what is now called the “picture theory of meaning” given an exposition in the Tractatus. Few philosophers today defend Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning, but it is central to the metaphysics of the Tractatus. For Wittgenstein, the logical structure of a proposition can be shown but not said. Since for Wittgenstein in his Tractarian period, “The facts in logical space are the world” (1.13), and “In the proposition the thought is expressed perceptibly through the senses” (3.1) — i.e., the proposition literally exhibits its structure in sensory intuition — thus, “The proposition is a picture of reality.” (4.01) One might even say that a proposition exhibits the world in intuition.

Today these formulations strike us as a bit odd, because we think of anything that can be formulated in logical terms as a paradigm case of something that can be said, and very possibly also something that may not be showable. For us, logic is a language is among languages, and one way among many to express the world; for the early Wittgenstein, on the contrary, logic is the structure of the world. It shows itself because the world shows itself, and after showing itself there is nothing more to be said. The only appropriate response is silence.

As we all know from the final sentence of the Tractatus, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent. According to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, all scientific questions can be asked and all scientific questions can be answered (shades of Hilbert’s “Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.” — which Per Martin-Löf has called Hilbert’s solvability axiom, and which is the very antithesis of Brouwer’s rejection of the law of the excluded middle), but even when we have answered all scientific questions, the problems of life remain untouched.

As implied by the early Wittgenstein’s insistence upon the solvability of all scientific questions, the metaphysics of Brouwer and Wittgenstein were very different. Their common constructivism does not prevent their having fundamental, I might even say foundational, differences. Also, while Wittgenstein comes across in a melancholic fashion (a lot like Plotinus, another philosophical mystic), he is not fixated on the evils of the world in the same way that Brouwer was. If both Brouwer and Wittgenstein can be called mystics, they are mystics belonging to different traditions. Brouwer was a choleric mystic while Wittgenstein was melancholic mystic.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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