Wittgenstinian Word-bomb

Have you ever wondered what a Wittgenstinian word-bomb is? Well, search no more, this is by far the most excellent one:

“…if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.”


“…we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see it clearly, as it were in a flash of light [most likely from the aforementioned explosion], not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance.”

And that’s that. I cannot explain this, for “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I could, however, show it.


3 comments on “Wittgenstinian Word-bomb

  1. Jon Coutts says:

    That is a word-bomb alright. Can you put in a sentence or two what he thought was ethics; what he thought was as yet unwritten? Is it the inability to find articulation for some kind of absolute value upon which to base ethics? Am I close? I haven’t yet read Wittgenstein, to my dismay.

  2. Kampen says:

    Well, what he’s really getting at is that speech about ethics (and faith in the same chapter) are located in a different grammar, which is why the book hasn’t been “written” yet. Our cartesian habits of thought and writing are so ingrained that we have a hard time figuring out the proper grammar to write in concerning ethics. That is why the book hasn’t been written yet.

    One error of modern philosophy that W names is that it tries to find ostensive definitions where there are none to be found. For example, to ask “what is thought” or “what is the essence of thought” is to assume that there is some one thing that is common to all thought (the answer for mod. phil. is of course that it located in the mind). W’s problem with this is that the question and the answer are based on a cartesian dualism of inside-outside (which is false). Things like thinking, willing, intending, are not nouns, by psychological verbs and therefore do not name a state of being in a specific location but multifarious ways of being, forms of life.

    Moreover, language, W shows, is common and public, and is is used in more ways than simple subject-predicate sentences (The apple is red = atomic fact, whereas “shut the door” cannot be reduced to its atomic parts). There are many language games (ways in which we use language) and words must be used in their proper language game (which is constituted by their ordinary use–>the ordinary use of “thinking” or “thought”) So, you’re close on the first part of you suggestion of “the inability to find articulation.” If our speech about ethics consists of finding articulation, finding the essence of ethics, then we are mistaken. This is to use the term ethics in a wrong way. The grammar of ethics doesn’t trade in essences, but is one of participation, dispositions, and character. The ethical question is not “what do we do?” but “who are we?” and “What is going on?”

    Tangentially, I got really excited about this whole different grammars business and am going to write my term paper on the mistakes “peacemaking” and “conflict resolution” make as akin to the errors mod. phil. makes in Wittgenstein. I’m going to suggest that there is a grammar of peace that does not trade in top-level agents and their peace accords, strategic peacemaking (insofar as that names universal formulas for peace – there is a journal article that shows a universal or essential formulaic expression of peace…it’s scary). The grammar of peace I will try to demonstrate will rely on notions of participation and character found primarily in the work of John Paul Lederach and his grass-roots peacebuilding approach, as well as the paradigm of peacebuilding as conflict transformation (as a corrective to conflict resolution). I will also be reading some David Burrell and taking up some of his discussion on friendship. Maybe it will look something like “The Practice of Friendship: an anti-cartesian grammar of Peace.”

    That was a lengthy response to your question, but I hope it was helpful. Wittgenstein’s work was also important to Hauerwas, if you’re interested in him at all.

  3. Jon Coutts says:

    Thanks for the explanation!
    And that paper sounds supremely interesting to me. Great title.

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