WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Georg Henrik von Wright: "Remarks on Wittgenstein’s use of the terms “Sinn”, “sinnlos”, “unsinnig”, “wahr”, and “Gedanke” in the Tractatus", 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. 90-98. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).

Georg Henrik von Wright: Remarks on Wittgenstein’s use of the terms “Sinn”, “sinnlos”, “unsinnig”, “wahr”, and “Gedanke” in the Tractatus

“Legitimately constructed proposition”

In 5.4733 Wittgenstein, with a reference to Frege, uses the term “legitimately constructed proposition” – in German “rechtmässig gebildeter Satz”. Every such sentence, he says, must have a sense, “and if it has no sense this can only be (‘nur daran liegen’) because we have given no meaning (Bedeutung) to some of its constituent parts.”

Here several critical questions arise. In which sense of “must” must every legitimately constructed proposition have a sense? Must it have a bipolar relation to truth, in which case it is contingent? Maybe a unipolar relation will suffice, in which case it is either necessarily true (“certain”) or necessarily false, i.e. contradictory? Or can it even have a zeropolar relation to truth, i.e. be neither true nor false? If the relation to truth is unipolar, the sentence is senseless (“sinnlos”) but at the same time true or false and not nonsensical (“unsinnig”).1

How shall we understand Wittgenstein’s words that if a sentence has no sense, this can only (my italics) be because we have given no meaning to one of its constituent parts? As an example he mentions “Socrates is identical”. It has no sense – here = “is nonsensical” – because “we have given no meaning to the word ‘identical’ as adjective” (L.W.’s italics). This is easy to understand. But does the same hold for all nonsensical sentences, viz. that they have a constituent part without “Bedeutung”? Moreover, are all sentences which are neither true nor false nonsensical – for example “Bach is a greater composer than Vivaldi” or “you must not smoke here”? And if they are, does it mean that they contain some constituent part without meaning?

“Socrates is identical” is a clear example of a sentence which has no sense (is “sinnlos”) because of the fact that it has a part, viz. the word “identical” which, in the context of the sentence, has (been given) no meaning. If we substitute for it, say, the word “Chinese” we get a meaningful contingent sentence (which happens to be false).

The sentence “Socrates is identical”, moreover, is not only senseless (“sinnlos”) but also nonsensical (“unsinnig”). The question may be raised: why is this sentence pattern not only senseless but also such in the stronger sense of being nonsensical? An answer – not given by Wittgenstein, however – is that the sentence is ungrammatical, not a correctly formed sentence of the English language. In this it differs from other types of sentence with what I called a zeropolar relation to truth, for example value judgements and norm formulations. “I like this picture” is, as an expression of a valuation, neither true nor false – and so is “smoking prohibited” as norm formulation.

But the two last-mentioned sentences are grammatically well formed. We understand them – they have a use in our language. “Socrates is identical” is unintelligible and useless. Sentences which are neither true nor false but are well formed and have an established use in language are, although senseless according to the Tractatus not nonsensical (according to the view I am taking here). So much for the notion of a “rechtmässig gebildeter Satz.”

1In this context also belongs the observation that normative and evaluative sentences have a characteristic ambiguity. They can be used to express a subject's will or its approval (disapproval) of something or to state that something is willed or valued. In the second case the sentence has factual meaning, says something which is true or false. On this ambiguity rests the possibility of logical relations between norms and also between valuations.