Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Early Wittgenstein)

For the rest of the series, see: Tarnishing the Ideal.

In this section I want to draw out some of the primary features that philosophical scholarship has identified in the Tractatus, then show how those features and principles have been found in Greek language scholarship more broadly, even some of the most recent Greek studies being done today. In fact, the types of issues found in Greek scholarship are some of the issues that Wittgenstein critiques in the Philosophical Investigations against the Tractatus. In addition, it will be imperative to bring into the discussion Chomskyan linguistics, because Cartesian/Generative linguistics possesses similar foundations and close ties which all are similar in nature to a logical positivistic structure and is more directly imbibed by Biblical scholars, linguists, and exegetes.

The Tractatus (TLP) is laid out as a series of short statements. In the opening of what some scholars refer to as “the blue book” Wittgenstein makes clear the primary underpinning of his system, if we may call it that, in one of his logical propositions stating, “The facts in logical space are the world” (TLP § 1.13). He later says, “If I know an object, then I also know all the possibilities of its occurrence in atomic facts… A new possibility cannot subsequently be found” (TLP § 2.0123). In other words, to know something, is not to just know something about it, but it is to know that thing truly.

If I know what an object is according to this ideology, then I know all the occurrences of logical facts about that object which cannot be broken down any further. This is because language is a mirror of reality as Wittgenstein states, (TLP § 6.13) the question then becomes about logically minimizing the linguistic hurdles, ambiguity or arbitrariness.

This type of philosophical underpinning that Wittgenstein and others developed lives within the stream of rationalism. The principles that are purported by the blue book, namely that atomic facts are known a priori, and that language is at its root logical are more pervasive outside of philosophical discussions in grammatical discourse. The first place to look for practical applications is within the world of linguistics, especially considering Wittgenstein’s explicit interest in grammar and linguistics in both the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations. The more popularized version, even if indirectly, of these concepts and rationalistic positions is found in Chomskyan/Generative grammars. There are clear overlaps, and it may be suggested that Chomsky is heavily influenced by earlier Wittgenstein. Apart from being within the same philosophical stream, rationalism, there are doctrines in both thinkers that are composite features of their thoughts.

One of the most easily identifiable components of Chomskyan grammar that would be similar to earlier Wittgenstein is the rejection of communities as determinative of meaning and instead languages or meaning resides in the mind, or more specifically the brain. For Chomsky (Ludlow 2001, 420) the importance of a model of cognition based on Descartes (Chomsky 2009) as a starting point in determining the essence of something is very similar to Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning (Chomsky 2000).* This remnant idea of a psychologically based private language in Wittgenstein can also be found in statements such as, “that the world is my world, shows itself in the fact that limits of the language means the limits of my world” (TLP § 5.62). And “I am my world” (TLP § 5.63.) In other words language is what it is because of my ability to know that world truly, since language mirrors the world. These foundational assertions made by Wittgenstein, for his system, show a strong correlation between his early thoughts and Chomsky’s linguistic framework developed only shortly after him. Of course, more points of contact could be brought to bear between these two, but it is simply to point out that this aspect is foundational for both thinkers.**

*In this interview it is very interesting to see that Chomsky has taken issue with some of the specific adjustments that Wittgenstein makes to his system in PI. It seems that if Chomsky could affirm Wittgenstein as a whole he would.
**This is not to say that both are saying the same exact things either. I could also bring in differences, such as the biological nature and how Chomsky asserts universals, but due to space and intent of the paper I didn’t feel it was as relevant.

If it is true that there is an organic connection between Wittgenstein’s earlier work and Chomsky’s theory of grammar, then it is possible to see how these concepts from Wittgenstein have had an impact, direct or indirect, through Chomskyan thought into Biblical studies. Outside the guild of biblical scholarship many people have criticized Chomsky on his linguistic framework, generative linguistics is not the only brand of linguistics available. Even further, Chomsky’s theories do not hold the same weight they did when he first began his academic career, this is most evident in the aggressive critique of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, in their book The Anti-Chomsky Reader.

Specifically, two linguistics scholars Robert D. Levine and Paul M. Postal wrote a chapter, entitled, “A Corrupted Linguistics” in which they argue that there has been a mass exodus of Chomsky’s approach (Levine & Postal 2004 203). Despite the tactics taken by Collier and Horowitz, the move away from this perspective is noticeable in other related fields (literary studies, English, philosophy, theology). Unfortunately, there has been a sluggish departure from this philosophical perspective within Biblical studies, especially Greek and Hebrew scholarship.

One of the clearest examples of the the same sort of rationalist assumptions behind generative linguistics being used as a framework for Greek studies is the syntax Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by Daniel Wallace. This is one of the most widely used Greek grammars today. It is beyond a doubt that such a widely used and influential grammar, intending on replicating sensibilities of “classical” grammarians” (Wallace 1997 X) would then perpetuate some of these outmoded and unsophisticated linguistic models perpetuated by the modernistic underpinnings of the “classical” grammarians. In a number of cases, he talks about “modern linguistics” as scholars doing something entirely different than what he is aiming to accomplish with his grammar. These “modern linguistics” only exist because the guild has recognized that the outmoded linguistic practices do not satisfactorily explain the data or even create suitable categories. If there exists some anomalous use of the genitive for instance, we can just create another category to fit this anomalous use.*

* This has been a common complaint of Wallace in the past, but it should continue to be as long as we continue to use his grammar. The simple fact that a Greek student can continue to create Greek categories or find one that “fits” seems unnatural in understanding a language, even at a pedagogical level. It is not compelling when we begin to ask, “Did the native Greek speaker know of or have in their mind these categories?” Without being able to ask one, I find it difficult and problematic to believe that they had this grand network of categories embedded in their language “choices.”

Nonetheless, this metaphysically dependent method has proven insufficient for all our data. Baker summarizes earlier Wittgenstein saying, “Any possible language is governed by a complex system of rules of logical syntax. These rules determine the combinatorial possibilities of symbols, thus delimiting the bounds of sense” (Baker & Hacker 2010 41).* An example of this in Wallace is found early on in his grammar, when explaining what he calls unaffected meaning which is, “the meaning of the construction in a vacuum-apart from contextual, lexical, or other grammatical intrusions”(Wallace 1997 2). This is simply an impossible situation; in what case does any word or part of speech exist outside an utterance unaffected by its grammatical context? To put it simply in the words of Wittgenstein, “Naming is not yet a move in a language-game – any more than putting a piece in its place on the board is a move in chess” (PI, § 49.) The problem with this method, especially found in Wallace’s treatment of the language, is that it actively avoids doing any more than naming. There is no ontological relationship between the language and the myriad of morphosyntactic categories created for the purpose of exegesis.

* They note, among other quotes or references, Wittgenstein’s assertion,

“In order to avoid such errors we must make use of a sign-language that excludes them by not using the same sign for different symbols and by not using in a superficially similar way signs that have different modes of signification: that is to say, a sign-language that is governed by logical grammar—by logical syntax. (The conceptual notation of Frege and Russell is such a language, though, it is true, it fails to exclude all mistakes.)”

(TLP § 3.325). See also: TLP § 4.1272; RLF § 162; WWK § 49, 78, 104, 220; LWL § 120.

If linguists are now abandoning the traditionally Chomskyan approaches to language research (see Martin Haspelmath’s recent essays, “Chomsky now rejects universal grammar” and “Is generative syntax simply a useful descriptive tool?”), then why are Biblical scholars and Biblical Greek grammarians still imbibing assertions about language that are, effectively, generative-adjacent because of their rationalist underpinnings? One can imagine that there are many reasons this is the current trend in Biblical scholarship, but one reason might be that Greek and Hebrew are dead languages, so applying a methodology that is unapologetically interested in metaphysics seems more intuitive, especially since other methodologies may require more socio-historical and contextual knowledge which is not a commodity easy to come by in Biblical studies. If this is in fact the case, Biblical scholars and grammarians should not shy away from other methods if they provide a framework that helps explain our data.

This should lead us to the question: if these problems are so pervasive in Greek scholarship, what corrective is there? Perhaps Wittgenstein is the perfect correction to Wittgenstein. We need his insight into use-based linguistics to correct his rationalist positions from his own earlier writings.