WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Marie McGinn: "Wittgenstein’s early philosophy of language and the idea of ‘the single great problem’", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 99-132. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).

Marie McGinn: Wittgenstein’s early philosophy of language and the idea of ‘the single great problem’

A ‘single great problem’

In an introductory passage to ‘Notes on Logic: September 1913’, Wittgenstein writes: ‘In philosophy there are no deductions; it is purely descriptive’ (NL p. 93).1 Wittgenstein’s sense of a profound distinction between philosophy and scientific theorizing might be regarded as the fundamental starting point for his philosophical reflections. However, this guiding intuition clearly leaves a great deal undetermined. What is the purpose of a purely descriptive philosophy? And how is the task of description to be appro-ached? In the same passage, in a sentence that survives virtually unchanged in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein indicates at least one of the purposes of description as follows: ‘A correct explanation of the logical propositions must give them a unique position as against all other propositions’ (NL p. 93; cf. TLP 6.112). The use of the word ‘explanation’ in a paragraph in which he has just described philosophy as ‘purely descriptive’ should not be seen as contradictory. Insofar as the idea of ‘correct explanation’ is to be understood as a call to make the distinction between the propositions of logic and other propositions perspicuous, it is something that is to be achieved by description alone and should not involve anything ‘hypothetical’. The remark is, nevertheless, revealing as to the nature of Wittgenstein’s early conception of his philosophical task of clarification. For it is quite evident that he is here working with a preconceived idea of the logical structure of our language, which is expressed in ‘the logical propositions’, whose unique status must somehow be made apparent. It is clear that Wittgenstein himself does not consider where this idea of ‘the logical structure of our language’ comes from, but that he allows it to determine how he conceives the purpose of description and to dictate, at least in part, his approach to the task of clarification.

Wittgenstein’s early philosophy of language is dominated by a particular set of problems.2 The problems that preoccupy him include the nature and status of the propositions of logic, the nature of truth and falsity, the nature of negation, and of the logical constants generally, and the nature of inference. Wittgenstein is, moreover, convinced that, at bottom, each of these problems is an aspect of what he calls in the Notebooks ‘a single great problem’:

The problems of negation, of disjunction, of true and false, are only reflections of the one great problem in the variously placed great and small mirrors of philosophy. (NB p. 40)
He instructs himself not to try to treat each of these problems piecemeal:

Don’t get involved in partial problems, but always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one. (NB p. 23)
And he identifies this ‘single great problem’ as follows:

My whole task consists in explaining the nature of the proposition. (NB p. 39)
Wittgenstein appears to be convinced that we shall see everything clearly – the nature and status of the propositions of logic, negation, disjunction, inference, truth and falsity – when we see this one thing clearly: the nature of a proposition. It is not that we shall be able to deduce, say, the status of the propositions of logic, or the nature of negation, from the nature of a proposition; ‘in philosophy there are no deductions’. It is rather that coming to see the nature of a proposition clearly is, at the very same time, coming to see negation and the status of the propositions of logic clearly: we have here, not a number of separate problems, but one great problem. If the problem is to be solved, then it must be solved all at once and in its entirety. The idea of the single great problem is that once the nature of a proposition has become clear, then everything will be clear: the nature and status of the propositions of logic, the nature of negation, of inference, and so on. The question I’m concerned with in this paper is how Wittgenstein arrives at the idea of a single great problem that governs his conception of the work of clarification or description that he sees himself as undertaking in the Tractatus.

1References to 'Notebooks' (NB), 'Notes on Logic' (NL) and 'Notes Dictated to G.E. Moore' (NDM) are to the editions in Notebooks, 1914-1916, edited by G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, 1961, (Oxford: Blackwell).
2The idea that Wittgenstein's early philosophy of language is directed at resolving a particular set of problems seems quite compatible with a conviction that these problems will be solved by means of the elucidation of logical distinctions, rather than by means of a theory. However, it also suggests that we should read the Tractatus as concerned with a substantial task of clarification, namely to make the nature of a proposition perspicuous. This idea is prima facie at odds with some of the claims of what has come to be known as the 'resolute' reading of Wittgenstein's early work.