Is the Resolute Reading Really Inconsistent?: Trying to Get Clear on Hacker vs. Diamond/Conant
Is the Resolute Reading Really Inconsistent?: Trying to Get Clear on Hacker vs. Diamond/Conant


The aim of the present paper is to elucidate the metaphilosophical incommensurability between the two current camps in Tractatus research. To this end, I will examine Peter Hacker’s claim that the Resolute Reading unconsciously reintroduces through the back-door the previously banished notion of ‘important nonsense’. It will be argued that Hacker’s conclusion hinges on a misunderstanding of the logical structure of Cora Diamond’s mode of speech, thus disregarding the essential role given to the relationship between the logical and the psychological in her account of how the reader climbs the nonsensical rungs of the Tractarian ladder. My contribution is not to opt for either of these exegeses, but to shed light on the heterogeneity of the metaphilosophical strategies they see the early Wittgenstein engaged in on the battle-field of metaphysics.

Table of contents

    For over two decades the Resolute Reading of the Tractatus has attempted to create an awareness of the fact that readings which traditionally focus on the topic of ineffability are methodologically inconsistent and do not truly reveal the dialectical movement of Wittgenstein’s early masterpiece. In what follows my intention is to shed light on the question of whether the Resolute Reading is methodologically inconsistent in itself, as is held by Peter Hacker, the most influential opponent of this position.

    Two Paradigms for Reading the Tractatus

    Ineffability Readers share a transcendental approach to Wittgenstein’s early masterpiece: the philosophical critique of the Tractatus draws the limits of language by leading its reader into grasping an “ineffable metaphysics” (Hacker, 1998, 13) that lays bare the necessary conditions of possibility of meaningful discourse, i.e. the logical syntax of language. On their account, the stricto sensu nonsensical sentences of the Tractatus manage to echo (‘whistle’) the metaphysical melody of what cannot be uttered for an insightful reader. To be able to walk this baffling tightrope, the sentences of the Tractatus are categorised as “illuminating nonsense” (Hacker, 1997, 18) which – although strictly speaking nonsensical – is able to convey insights into the hidden nature of reality. In ineffability interpretations, the notion of important nonsense represents the fundamental paradox of the book’s self-destructive mode of announcing the nonsensicality of its own sentences, and these very sentences have established the limit between ‘sense’ and ‘nonsense’.

    Resolute Readers strongly reject this interpretation, given that it is based on a hermeneutics that takes “the target of the work for its doctrine“ (Conant, 2002, 381). In accordance with their account, the author of the Tractatus was not (indirectly) in favor of any philosophical doctrines or theses, because philosophy for him is an activity that essentially consists of an elucidative process whose aim is the “logical clarification of thoughts” (TLP 4.112). Perceiving the early Wittgenstein as someone who is trying to show what cannot be said, for the Resolute Readers evokes an incapacity to understand the subtle method of the work. The hermeneutic strategy of Ineffability Readers seems to be “constantly at odds with [their] interpretation of the work” (Conant, 1991, 339): while preaching the unsayability of the Tractatus’ doctrines, they have written lengthy and in-depth texts, extensively explaining such doctrines. In Cora Diamond’s words they “pretend to throw away the [Tractarian] ladder, while standing firmly, or as firmly as one can, on it” (Diamond, 1991a, 194). Sticking to the intelligibility of an inexpressible ‘something’ (shown in the Tractatus’ nonsensical sentences), implies an irresolute “chickening out” (Diamond, 1991a, 181) before the challenges encountered by any serious reader of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein’s verdict that anyone who understands him eventually recognizes his propositions as nonsensical (TLP 6.54) must be taken seriously (i.e., resolutely). Consequently, the exegesis of the so-called New Wittgensteinians denies the existence of different kinds of nonsense: “All the nonsense there is[,] is old-fashioned, straightforward, garden variety, completely incomprehensible gibberish.” (Conant, 1989, 253) Therefore they have a completely different picture of the philosophical activity to which the author of the Tractatus was profoundly committed in his work: his aim is not to show inexpressible deep truths that represent the metaphysical features of reality, but to free the philosophically inclined reader from the illusory meaningfulness of such obsessive pictures. Throwing away the Tractarian ladder – after having undergone the dialectical process of climbing it – means to have fully dissolved the philosophical problems produced by the logic of our language from within. Being able to read the Tractatus with understanding “supposes a particular kind of imaginative activity, the imaginative taking of what is nonsense for sense” (Diamond, 2000, 158). The answer at the top of the Tractarian ladder does not lie in the clouds of a metaphysical realm outside of language, but in the reader’s awareness that “[h]e was prone to an illusion of meaning something when [h]e mean[t] nothing” (Conant, 2002, 381). The reader eventually recognizes the sentences of the Tractatus as plain nonsense and is, thereby, freed from the obsessive seductiveness of the metaphysical statements the book contains. The solution of the problems then lies in their disappearance. The goal achieved after leaving behind the last rung of the Tractarian ladder is not the (silent) appropriation of ineffable metaphysical truths, but the ethical transformation of the reader who has undergone the process of a philosophical therapy.

    After this incomplete sketch of the two interpretative factions in recent Tractatus research, I will now go straight to the main point of the present paper. In order to keep them from sweeping the philosophical inconsistency of their interpretation under the carpet, Ineffability Readers of the Tractatus like Peter Hacker, have chosen to address this inconsistency in the early Wittgenstein by drawing from his later criticism of his early work. Hacker holds that the Tractatus is a philosophically interesting but misguided attempt which cannot be interpreted coherently. Consequently, Hacker has tried to show that the resolute account suffers from the same aporetic fate (Hacker, 2000, 360–370) as does the traditional reading he has contributed to in the past.

    Hacker on Tractarian Nonsense

    In his article “Was He Trying to Whistle It?”, it is argued that the “post-modernist defence” (Hacker, 2000, 356) of the New Wittgensteinians is itself an unsustainable attempt to give coherence to the paradox inherent in Wittgenstein’s early endeavors. This recent defence suffers from embarrassing exegetical faults – internal as well as external – which, to date, Resolute Readers have only been able to cover up by resolutely ignoring them. In what follows I will not try to debilitate his admittedly well argued criticism in all of its facets, but to concentrate on analyzing his claim that Cora Diamond’s interpretation of the Tractatus unconsciously reintroduces the notion of ‘important nonsense’ through the back-door.

    To get me right: my aim is not to strengthen the thesis that the Resolute Reading is the right interpretation, but to visit the scene of a battle-field of metaphysics on which two hermeneutically incommensurable schools of interpretations have been at war with each other. Hacker claims that Diamond’s account of Tractarian nonsense – against her previous conviction that there is only one kind of nonsense, i.e. plain nonsense – can not be sustained without resorting to the paradoxical notion of ‘important nonsense’. According to this view, Diamond herself can not keep from ‘chickening out’ and, thus, her interpretation does not save “Wittgenstein from the embarrassment of sawing off the branch upon which he is sitting” (Hacker, 2000, 362). These are his words:

    "Finally, those among them [the Resolute Readers, M. M.] who contend that some of the propositions of the Tractatus are ‘transitional ways of talking’ in a ‘dialectic’ in effect distinguish between two kinds of nonsense: plain nonsense and transitional nonsense. Assuming that it is important that we come to realize that apparent sentences that we think make sense are actually nonsense, then transitional nonsense is important nonsense, unlike plain nonsense.” (Hacker, 2000, 361)

    Hacker’s account here is undoubtedly motivated by his own earlier contribution to the understanding of the illuminative character of Tractarian nonsense. Let us, for the sake of clarification, take a closer look at what he wrote some time ago:

    “Within the domain of nonsense we may distinguish overt from covert nonsense. Overt nonsense can be seen to be nonsense immediately. (…) But most of philosophy does not obviously violate the bounds of sense. It is covert nonsense for, in a way that is not perspicuous in ordinary language to the untutored mind, it violates the principles of the logical syntax of language. (…) Nevertheless, even within the range of philosophical, covert nonsense can we distinguish (…) between what might (somewhat confusingly) be called illuminating nonsense, and misleading nonsense. Illuminating nonsense will guide the attentive reader to apprehend what is shown by other propositions which do purport to be philosophical; moreover it will intimate, to those who grasp what is meant, its own illegitimacy.” (Hacker, 1997, 18–19)

    In order to make sense of the paradoxical setting that the sentences of the Tractatus are nonsensical and, at the same time, must be understood by their reader, Hacker invents a complete ontology of various kinds of nonsense, reserving the contradictory category of ‘illuminating nonsense’ for the Tractatus’ sentences. The confusions characteristic of traditional philosophy are supposedly examples of ‘misleading nonsense’, whereas the Tractatus, “the swansong of metaphysics” (Hacker, 1997, 27), contains a different kind of nonsense that mystically ushers its reader into the correct logical point of view. What is happening here, I think, is that the grammatical categories of Hackerian language generate the imaginary existence of ontological ones. Hacker’s approach, as I read it, disregards the first fundamental principle of Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, which Resolute Readers are deeply committed to in their interpretation of the Tractatus. Hacker commingles the logical with the psychological when he classifies different kinds of nonsense as ‘overt’, ‘covert’, ‘misleading’ or ‘illuminating’. The mental accompaniments a hypothetical reader of nonsensical sentences might have, are to be distinguished from the logical status of those very sentences.

    I furthermore think that Hacker is wrong when he accuses Diamond of secretly using a variant of ‘important nonsense’ in her reading of the Tractatus. Trapped within the internal structure of his own approach, he misunderstands the way in which the dynamic relationship between the logical and the psychological, shapes Diamond’s description of the method in the Tractatus.1 He is projecting his characteristically categorizing style of thought onto Diamond’s view of the Tractarian method, which lies at the heart of the Resolute Reading. As a result, Hacker becomes prey to his own confusions as he misunderstands the surface grammar in Diamond’s use of language.

    Let me further clarify what I wish to convey: As mentioned above, the Resolute account broaches the issue of how the reader’s language usage enters into a relatedness with the sentences of the Tractatus. The book operates on the basis of a self-destructive pedagogy: the reader has to fully enter the illusory meaningfulness of the metaphysical statements until their deceptive character has become fully visible and effective to him. The Tractarian sentences are – seen from a logical point of view – plainly nonsensical; it’s the reader who fails to be aware of this fact since he is confused by the logic of his own language. The sentences in question can not be classified as ‘illuminating nonsense’, although they are made of nonsense, a nonsense which for the reader of insight becomes visible in the transitional process of climbing the Tractarian ladder. The logical structure of Hacker’s final phrase in the first quote above illustrates how he fails to trace the New Wittgensteinians’ style of thought. The Resolute Reading strictly follows the Fregean spirit which sharply separates the domain of the psychological from that of the logical, whereas Hacker ends up mingling both spheres, thus melting everything down to what he calls ‘important nonsense’. The (psychological) fact that metaphysical nonsense is important for those who are philosophically inclined, does not imply the existence of a (logical) category for ‘important nonsense’ within which the sentences of the Tractatus can be standardly classified. The illumination or elucidation that the early Wittgenstein strove to promote in his reader, can not, regarding the sentences of the Tractatus, be statically institutionalized. This is so because the Tractarian method is actually based on a dynamic and dialectical interaction between the book and its reader’s consciousness.2 The responsibility for becoming aware of the nonsensicality, which our attempts to transcend the limits of language lead to, can not be forced into imaginary (categories of) linguistic signs.

    Cora Diamond’s thesis that climbing the Tractarian ladder requires the reader’s imaginative activity of transitionally taking nonsense for sense, does not at all mean that she is using the notion of ‘important nonsense’. The fact that metaphysical nonsense is temporarily important, for both author and reader of the work, by no means implies that the book’s sentences fit into the peculiar and paradoxical notion referred to as ‘important nonsense’. Hacker’s misunderstanding of how the dynamics of the resolute approach works, as I have tried to show, allows him to claim that this approach suffers from exactly the same methodological inconsistency as do the standard interpretations. Despite all of the criticism that the hermeneutics of the Resolute Reading can be subjected to, it has in fact solved the fundamental paradox voiced in TLP 6.54 (i.e., that the sentences of the Tractatus are nonsensical, while at the same time it is possible to gain insights from reading the book). It has done so by producing a shift in paradigm from a static point of view to an understanding of the book’s method as a piece of dialectical therapeutics.

    Transcendental Ineffabilitists versus Wittgensteinian Therapists

    The “Hacker versus Diamond and Conant controversy” (Wallgren, 2006) is not a mere discussion of differing approaches within the history ofTractatus research: it is indeed the arena in which two conceptions of philosophy have come into conflict with each other in current philosophical culture. I believe that the exegetical conflict at stake is subcutaneously bound to the transitional process from analytical to post-analytical philosophy. The main point revolves around the question of the extent to which elements linked to the psychological dimension of the human mind (metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic, etc.) are negotiable through philosophical argumentation. The Ineffability Reading strikes me as the final and ultimate way of defending the paradigms of enlightenment Modernity. This defensive positioning subconsciously holds on to the idea that theoretical enquiry can provide substantive answers to philosophical problems by transferring metaphysical answers into a mute realm which lies beyond the limits of language.

    In contrast, the Resolute Reading is willing to radically deconstruct such attempts as hopelessly confused, thus opting for a shift from knowledge to self-knowledge. Whether one thinks that the complexity of the Resolute Reading reveals the genius of the early Wittgenstein, or is an imaginary construction of consistency for a work which, conventionally interpreted, falls victim to a reductio ad absurdum, does not only depend on the perceived degree of continuity in Wittgenstein’s writings, but also on one’s understanding of what it means to be a philosopher. Regardless of the validity one may attribute to the two interpretations addressed in this paper, discussing the tension between elements in the Tractatus that express some sort of transcendental mysticism and those that allude to a deconstructive dialectics, will amount to a clearer understanding of the task and nature of philosophy.


    1. Conant James 1989 “Must We Show What We Cannot Say?”, in: Richard Fleming and Michael Payne, eds., The Senses of Stanley Cavell, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 242–283.
    2. Conant, James 1991 “Throwing Away the Top of the Ladder”, in: Yale Review, Vol. 79, No. 3, 328–364.
    3. Conant, James 2002 “The Method of the Tractatus”, in: Erich H. Reck, ed.,From Frege to Wittgenstein: Perspectives on Early Analytic Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 374–470.
    4. Diamond, Cora 1991 “What Nonsense Might Be”, in: The Realistic Spirit, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991, 95–114.
    5. Diamond, Cora 1991a “Throwing Away the Ladder”, in: The Realistic Spirit, Cambridge: MIT Press, 179–204.
    6. Hacker, Peter 1972 “Ethics, Imagination and the Method of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus”, in: Alice Crary and Rupert Read, eds., The New Wittgenstein, London and New York: Routledge, 149–173.
    7. Hacker, Peter 1972 Insight and Illusion. Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    8. Hacker, Peter 1997 Insight and Illusion. Themes in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Reprint of the Revised and Corrected 1989 Edition), Bristol: Thoemmes.
    9. Hacker Peter 1998 “Analytic Philosophy: What, Whence and Whither?”, in Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar, eds., The Story of Analytic Philosophy. Plot and Heroes, London/New York: Routledge, 3–34.
    10. HackerPMS_2000 “Was He Trying to Whistle It?”, in: Alice Crary und Rupert Read, eds., The New Wittgenstein. London/New York: Routledge, 353 – 388.
    11. Hacker, Peter 2001 “When the Whistling Had to Stop”, in: David Charles und William Child, eds., Wittgensteinian Themes: Essays in Honour of David Pears. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 13 – 47.
    12. Hacker, Peter 2003 “Wittgenstein, Carnap and the New American Wittgensteinians”, in: The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 210, 1–23.
    13. Rorty, Richard 2006 “Wittgenstein and the Linguistic Turn”, in: Christian Kanzian und Edmund Runggaldier, eds., Kulturen: Streit-Analyste-Dialog/Cultures: Conflict-Analysis-Dialogue, Frankfurt am Main: Ontos, 3–19.
    14. Wallgren, Thomas 2001 “Lofty Ladders, Rough Ground – Learning from Hacker vs. Diamond“, in: Rudolf Haller und Klaus Puhl, eds., Wittgenstein und die Zukunft der Philosophie. Eine Neubewertung nach 50 Jahren. Beiträge des 24. Internationalen Wittgenstein Symposiums, Kirchberg am Wechsel: Österreichische Ludwig Wittgenstein Gesellschaft, 435–439.
    15. Wallgren, Thomas 2006 “The Hacker versus Diamond and Conant Controversy”, in: Transformative Philosophy: Socrates, Wittgenstein and the Democratic Spirit of Philosophy Lanham/New York/Oxford: Lexington Books, 213–217.
    16. Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1961 [1922] Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, David Pears and Brian McGuinness (trans.), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
    17. Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1980 Culture and Value, Peter Winch (trans.), London: Blackwell.
    There are various kinds of misunderstandings regarding how the relationship between the logical and the psychological shapes the way Resolute Readers describe the deconstructive dialectics of the Tractatus. Such misunderstandings are highly relevant when critics address the uncertainty of the frame-body distinction or the seemingly self-contradictory fact that the argumentation of Resolute Readers is evidently based on argumentation taken from sentences of the Tractatus they previously judged to be nonsensical.
    CV, 77: „Anything your reader can do for himself leave to him.”
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