BREAKING: We're speaking "literally," Kenny says!


Wittgenstein's famous theory:
Here we are, exploring the type of work we get handed by our elites. In this case, we've journeyed all the way back to 1973, to Anthony Kenny's "lucid" text for the general reader with the one-word title:


Professor Kenny was and is a major figure. His book was published by Harvard University Press. In yesterday's award-winning installment, we perused the start of his treatment of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), the early Wittgenstein's deftly-titled seminal work.

For yesterday's installment click here.

No one understands this book, Kenny basically said in the passage we've already reviewed. Agreeing to be unfazed by this fact, Professor Kenny began to explain the famous book's central doctrine:
KENNY (continuing from yesterday's text): The greater part of the book is concerned with the nature of language and its relation to the world, Wittgenstein's major philosophical concern throughout his life. The central doctrine it conveys is the famous picture theory of meaning. According to this theory, language consists of propositions which picture the world. Propositions are the perceptible expressions of thoughts, and thoughts are logical pictures of facts (TLP 3.5, 4, 4.001).

Propositions and thoughts, for Wittgenstein, are pictures in a literal, not just a metaphorical sense. An English sentence, such as 'Elephants never forget' or 'John is taller than he used to be,' does not look much like a picture. But that is because language disguises thought beyond all recognition (TLP 4.002, 4.011).
Say what? Let's see if we've been able to follow what Professor Kenny has said:

According to the central doctrine of the early Wittgenstein, "language consists of propositions which picture the world." Plainly, so Kenny has said.

At first glance, this might not seem like a breath-taking concept. In fairness, with even a second of thought, we might realize that human language "consists of" more than mere "propositions." As the later Wittgenstein would note, human language also consists of questions, commands, ejaculations, jokes, insinuations, silly songs and a great deal of piddle and folderol.

"Propositions" are part of human language; they aren't the whole shebang. Having accepted this obvious fact, we'll go on to note that it's common to say that we humans "paint pictures" through our descriptions of various situations and states of affairs.

With that in mind, it wouldn't seem odd to say that propositions "picture the world," or are "pictures of facts." in a metaphorical sense. If anything, this claim might possibly seem a bit obvious, even a tiny bit fatuous.

Luckily, according to Kenny, that isn't what Wittgenstein meant! He didn't mean that propositions are pictures in a metaphorical sense. He meant that propositions are pictures in a literal sense.

Now we're beginning to worry. Does it make sense to say that a spoken or written proposition is a picture of the world in a literal sense?

A typical English sentence doesn't look like a picture, Kenny quickly concedes. But at this point, we're perhaps a tiny bit puzzled.

If something doesn't even look like a picture, in what way can it "literally" be a picture? So far, Kenny hasn't told us that.

"Elephants never forget?" Kenny is right in one respect. That elementary, three-word statement doesn't look like anything we'd typically call a picture. But according to Kenny, the early Wittgenstein said it was literally a picture. What could the early Wittgenstein possibly have meant by that?

We promised you humor when we started this seance. That humor will arrive on the scene tomorrow, when Kenny starts to give us examples of the way something which doesn't look like a picture can (literally) be a picture in the end.
In our view, an anthropology lesson is lurking here, a lesson concerning the intellectual ability of our own human race. Eventually, or so we'll claim, the later Wittgenstein came along and hinted at that fact.

For that very reason, Professor Horwich has said, the fellow has fallen from favor.

Coming tomorrow: Take this sentence, please!


  1. Maybe there is some help for this quandary in Paivio's dual code theory of mental representation. It posits that people represent experience in two ways: (1) verbally, e.g. in language, and (2) non-verbally, e.g., in pictures and other sensory ways. People can then use either of these representations or both to think about whatever they are concerned with. From this it sounds like Wittgenstein is saying that the nonverbal representations correspond to verbal ones, which he calls propositions. He seems to be using the word "proposition" in the logical sense, to refer to a unit of meaning, not in the probabilistic sense of an offer or a wager or a tentative statement about the world, to be proven later. Some other cognitive philosophers describe basic units of thought as propositions. Somerby's comments are distorting that meaning by inserting an everyday use of the term that is inappropriate.

    In my experience, philosophers and theorists in any field start by defining their terms. When the meaning of a statement is unclear, it is helpful to go back to those initial definitions. Somerby doesn't do that with Wittgenstein, perhaps because he is reading Kenny's book about Wittgenstein, instead of Wittgenstein himself.

    There has been an ongoing debate among psychologists about the nature of mental representation. We know that people do form mental representations of their experience of the world, because memory would be impossible without such representations. One dominant theory was that experience is translated into language and that language is the only form of mental representation. Sensory experiences are transient and fade once they are translated into language. That theory lost influence with Paivio's (and others') empirical demonstration of the existence of nonverbal representations that are separate and distinct from language. Now we know a great deal about the neuroscience of the nonverbal systems (and also the verbal one) and how they work together and in parallel.

    Philosophy is not an empirical field. It does thought experiments but not actual ones. You would have to know when a philosopher wrote what in order to know how that person might or might not have been influenced by findings in the empirical fields of psychology and neuroscience. Cognitive scientists try to work across fields, reading and writing in both psychology, neuroscience, computer science (AI) and philosophy/linguistics. It isn't clear what influences Wittgenstein might have had, but his writing is consistent with this idea of dual representation and Somerby's complaints go away in that context. Somerby doesn't seem to have read much of anything beyond his early work at Harvard and that was a very long time ago, before most of these developments and in the early days of neuroscience and cognitive science. He isn't the best person to be critiquing anyone on this subject of mental representation and language.

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  2. Somerby also introduces some confusion about what is meant by a picture, as opposed to visual imagery. To the extent that a picture is a visual artist's product, a drawing, painting or photograph, it is NOT what is meant by visual imagery or visual mental representation or by picture as Wittgenstein is most likely using the word. Somerby seems to be talking about a picture as the translation of a visual experience or idea into some finished product, not as the nonverbal experience of the world through senses.

  3. “Propositions are the perceptible expressions of thoughts”

    This is how Kenny *himself* defines the term “proposition.” As such, it includes all the other items, such as questions and commands, that Somerby thinks are excluded.

    Similarly, the word “picture” can mean a mental image, like when we say “picture this.”

    What did Kenny mean when he talks about thought being literally a picture? “So far, Kenny hasn't told us that.”

    And so far, Somerby hasn’t allowed Kenny to make his point completely. One suspects the book consists of more than the meager excerpts printed here.

    But we can all laugh at the obvious ridiculousness of it all, can’t we? Because we are all so brilliant.

    1. In any other technical discipline, they would invent the vocabulary to discuss their subject, e.g., neurons, bits and bytes, and so on. In philosophy and psychology, they use words that already have meanings in everyday usage and that creates huge confusion, especially when people without the technical background try to use the words and assume they understand what they mean, but are wrong.

      Somerby should understand this danger but for some reason, doesn't, or cynically uses this problem to ridicule certain authors. I don't know if he is trying to make himself feel brilliant by doing this, but it is enormously irritating. I wish he would stop it.

      If he wants to feel brilliant, he should go back to teaching inner city children.

  4. Modern letters evolved from ideograms, also called pictographs. The capital letter A was originally a picture of an auroch's head, but got inverted over time. So I sort of see a connection, even though it is worded poorly.

    However, how audible/spoken language can be obfuscated pictures (in a non-metaphorical way) completely eludes me. I am inclined to disagree with that assertion.



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