Remarks on Metaphysics



What kind of statement expresses the results of metaphysical inquiry? Wittgenstein famously begins the Tractatusthus: “The world is all that is the case” (1), “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1.1.), “The world is determined by the facts, and by their being allthe facts” (1.11). The use of the phrase “the world” is conspicuous, intended to announce a thesis of metaphysical proportions, but what does it refer to? What does Wittgenstein mean by “the world”? Presumably he means the actual world, though he could certainly be taken to include other possible worlds—they too are constituted by facts (in that world). But what in the actual world is he referring to? Not ethics, because he denies that value is inthe world, and not philosophy since its results can only be shown. Not the self either: “The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world—not a part of it” (5.641). The facts are what can be stated by means of true propositions, but Wittgenstein doesn’t think that everything (real?) can be stated. He means to exclude some things (if the word “thing” may be permitted). We could take him to be distinguishing the world from our attitudes to the world, including our ethical attitudes. Thus he might say that while the world is the totality of facts the mind is the totality of attitudesto facts. This would be to oppose mind and world (as in the title of a well-known book: Mind and World); the mind is not intended to fall within the denotation of “the world”. This is the narrow interpretation of  “the world” to be contrasted with the wide interpretation that includes the mind within the world.

Two pieces of evidence may be cited for the narrow interpretation. The first is that in a later section Wittgenstein says the following: “Similarly the possibility of describing the world by means of Newtonian mechanics tells us nothing about the world: but what does tell us something about it is the precise wayit is possible to describe it by these means. We are also told something about the world by the fact that it can be described more simply with one system of mechanics than with another” (6.342). Assuming that he refers to the same thing in both places by “the world”, he must be referring to what might be called “the physical world”, since he is not supposing that the mind can be described by mechanics. This certainly fits the general tenor of the book. Second, he construes facts as “combinations of objects”, and there is no reason to believe that he understands the mind that way: how is being in pain or feeling angry a combination of objects? There is no developed philosophy of mind in the Tractatusand it would be merely speculative to suggest that he understands the mind as a totality of facts constituted by combinations of objects. It is true that at one point he speaks of a speck in the visual field, musical notes, and “objects of the sense of touch” (2.0131), but these are not mental phenomena; they are the objects ofmental phenomena (not sensing but thing sensed). It is also true that he may be committed by the picture theory to regarding thoughts as combinations of (symbolic) objects, since they have to be isomorphic to external facts; but there is no reason to suppose that he regards everything about the mind in this way. In any case, it seems clear that he intends the narrow interpretation in the passages cited, so that it includes neither ethics nor the mind nor the self nor philosophy: the world is contrasted with these other domains, not taken to include them. Perhaps we could paraphrase him by saying “the objective world”. That would make sense of his remark that “the world is independent of my will” (6.373), which would make no sense if the will were partof the world. He is quite happy to assert, “The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: init no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (6.41). So he has no trouble excluding things from the world that don’t belong there, in the realm of reportable fact. He is speaking always of what may be mentally represented, not the representing itself. And his point is that the world in this narrow sense consists of facts not things, states of affairs not merely the objects that occur in them. The structure of the world is the structure of facts not objects (particulars, universals).

But now, having settled on the denotation of “the world”, we have the question of the logical form of Wittgenstein’s pronouncements. We know what he is talking about, more or less, but what is he saying about it—and how is he saying it? On the face of it the sentence “The world is the totality of facts” has the form of an identity statement combining two definite descriptions: “The F= the G”. It is not an identity statement joining two proper names, as in “a= b”, though we might substitute a name for one or both of the descriptions, calling the world (say) “Winston”, so that we have “Winston is the totality of facts”. The question then would be how to analyze these descriptions: would Russell’s theory do the job? That gives the decidedly peculiar, “There is uniquely something xsuch that xis a world and xis identical to the totality of facts”, which might also yield its second description to Russell’s analysis. The truth is that the alleged description “the world” is by no means a term of ordinary language but a philosopher’s invention; semantically, it is hard to know what to make of it. In any case, the statement in question purports to identify one thing with another—the world with the totality of facts. Elsewhere we read: “The totality of existing states of affairs is the world” (2.04) and “The sum-total of reality is the world” (2.063)—again, apparently, identity propositions employing definite descriptions. Metaphysics thus characteristically issues in statements of the form, “The world is (identical to) X”, where “X” is to be replaced by some description that purports to tell us the general nature of things.

What is notable is that Wittgenstein’s own statement falls short of what most metaphysicians aim to supply, since he is neutral as to the kindof fact that constitutes the world. All he tells us is that facts make up the world, not what these facts might be (similarly for his talk of “objects” and “states of affairs”). So far as his statement is concerned, these facts might be physical or mental or abstract or divine or unknowable. His theory is merely structural (logical), not substantive: it gives the form of the world not its substance (as he no doubt intends). Still, his statement provides a canonical formulation of a metaphysical thesis—a thesis about the general nature of reality. If we add to it the claim that all facts are physical facts, then we get metaphysical materialism. If we say that all facts are mental facts, we get metaphysical idealism. If we say the world consists of two types of substance, material and immaterial, we get metaphysical dualism. Schopenhauer wrote a book entitled The World as Will and Representation, clearly aiming to make a metaphysical statement (the book was known by Wittgenstein). Plato’s metaphysics can be expressed as, “The world is the instantiation of universals by particulars”. Hegel maintains, “The world is spirit”. David Lewis might say, “The world is the totality of all worlds”. Quine could opine, “The world is what science tells us it is”. The positivists might assert, “The world is what is verifiable”. All these views make use of the general notion of “the world”, and all could agree with Wittgenstein’s structural thesis. The metaphysician is telling us what the world is—its nature, its manner of being. Hesperus is Phosphorous, and water is H2O, and the world is spirit or matter or both or neither. We are offered a very general identity statement purporting to enlighten us about something called “the world”.

It is reasonable to be suspicious about such metaphysical statements. This is not because they are unverifiable or that ordinary language has gone on holiday but because the conditions of reference may not be met. Does the term “the world” really refer to anything determinate as used by the would-be metaphysician? It isn’t much like a regular definite description with uniquely identifying descriptive content, or an embedded demonstrative; and “world” is hardly a regular sortal noun that carries criteria of identity and counting. What kind of entity is the world? What predicates does it satisfy? How is it to be picked from among other things? How can we speak about it as concrete particular with a specific nature? Is it an object? Can it be named? To what end? Sentences containing this pseudo-description, such as “The world is the totality of facts”, are semantically anomalous, though perfectly grammatical; certainly, we can’t just assume they are meaningful, possessed of determinate truth conditions and reference. They seem parasitic on other types of sentence in which the word “world” appears doing more humdrum things (“I’ve searched the world for her”), and thus derive apparent sense from their humble origins. But metaphysical sentences sonorously beginning, “The world is…” are up to something beyond the normal routines of the words they contain: for they purport to refer to the whole of reality—whatever that might mean. Hence the lack of clarity about Wittgenstein’s use of the phrase: does he include value in the world, or logical form, or the mind, or the fact that the world is the totality of facts? (Is this fact also a combination of objects, the world being one of them?) In fact Wittgenstein excludes various things from the reference of “the world”, so the phrase can’t just be a variant of “everything”: but then we need to be told exactly what he does intend to refer to. The phrase trips easily off the tongue, to be sure, but it may still fall flat—it may fail to single out a specific entity. Similarly for “the totality of facts” or “the sum-total of reality”: do we really know what these phrases mean? Presumably they are not intended to include the non-existent or merely fictional (but what about Meinong?), but there are true propositions about them too—isn’t it true that Sherlock Holmes is a detective or that unicorns don’t exist (hence all the problems about whether the world contains negative facts)? It is just not clear that we have hold of a well-defined concept here. What if a common sense type of chap were to protest, “I have no idea what you mean by ‘the world’, though I’m perfectly happy with phrases like ‘the cat in the corner’ or ‘the queen of England’—what is it exactly that you have in mind?” Grammatically, it looks as if we have an identity statement flanked by definite descriptions that pick out entities in good standing, but appearances can be misleading—in which case the standard products of metaphysical inquiry are lacking in sense. At the least we are owed some kind of account of how such sentences work. To put it bluntly, isn’t “the world” a meaningless abstraction, however sublime it may sound—just the kind of thing on which the later Wittgenstein would pour scorn? Isn’t it suspiciously like “the holy spirit” or “the ether” or “the force”—in fact, worse than these because they at least contain relatively well-defined words? Just because I can say, “You mean the world to me” doesn’t imply that I can talk meaningfully about what kind of the thing the worldmight be. Certainly we cannot begin a sentence with, “The world is…” and expect automatic semantic propriety; we need to say more about what precisely we have in mind.

Because the sense of such sentences is unclear, we are apt to interpret them by whatever means comes to hand. And here I think semantics gives way to mental imagery: we form various picturesof what might be meant. These pictures may vary from individual to individual, but they are introduced in order to pin down the import of the proposition we are struggling to grasp. Metaphysics thrives on emergency imagery, particularly spatial imagery. Thus when I hear the sentence, “The world is the totality of facts”? I picture a heapof facts—a mountain of them, what with the world being so large. Wittgenstein tells us at one point, “The world divides into facts” (1.2), and we duly picture a divisible something—something with spatial parts. The world is an assemblage of smaller entities (“facts”) that combine into a larger whole, as rocks may form a mountain. Wittgenstein’s use of “totality” is interesting: not “set”, which might prove not concrete enough, but the more tangible idea of a spatial grouping of some sort—a pile, a stack, a pyramid maybe. The world is an agglomeration of lesser things, where these things are themselves conceived as spatial particulars (like atoms or molecules—atomic and molecular facts).  Such imagery courses through our mind as we study Wittgenstein’s enigmatic text and gives us an illusion of understanding—I know what a heap is! I conjecture that metaphysical discourse is unusually prone to this kind of imagery, as a kind of substitute or crutch. It would be interesting to do some empirical work on such imagery: how frequent is it, are there any universals, what happens when it is absent? Wittgenstein had an engineer’s mind and was fond of the notion of picturing, so it is possible that he had unusually strong imagery when composing the Tractatus: this will have encouraged him to think he was talking sense. And partly he was—but was it complete sense?  Language can carry us away, as he recognized in the Investigations, but so can the mental imagery it provokes: it can provide dubious abstractions with concrete credentials. Isn’t the Tractatusa very visual work, reliant on the reader’s complicity in visualization?

The same is true of other metaphysical visions (!): they are apt to come with pictures attached. What do you think of when you think of dualism? I imagine two entities side by side, one extended and concrete, the other wispy and amorphous (compare the image of consciousness as steam emanating from a steam engine). When I think of materialism I imagine an accumulation of geological strata: at the base we have atoms in the void, with chemistry and biology and psychology laid on this base, like bricks laid on a foundation (and just think of the imagery associated with that word!). I don’t think of the facts of the world as separated in space, like islands, but as built one upon another—vertically not horizontally. Idealism puzzles my imagination because the mind is not so readily imagined spatially, but my imagery is something like a cloud of feathers or a ghostly gathering—a weightless assembly of formless nothings. Plato tried to give imaginative expression to his theory of forms by the parable of the cave, which is full of spatial imagery, but the theory taken neat suggests (to me) nothing so much as a colony of splendid birds of paradise. Frege likened his theory of sense and reference to the optical image in a telescope, in order to make the metaphysics palatable (intelligible), with space explicitly invoked; without this analogy we struggle with mental pictures of free-floating simulacra of things (those elusive “modes of presentation”). Much of the charm of metaphysics derives from these flights of imagination: we contrive to render elusive abstractions mentally manageable. Without this we might flounder in incomprehension, with only words to play with (“the world”, “totality”, “substance”, “immaterial”, “hierarchy”, “supervenience”, etc.). When Wittgenstein remarks, “Objects make up the substance of the world” (2.021) we reach for familiar ideas of substance and think we know what he means, as in “Flour makes up the substance of the cake”. Imagery abets metaphysics—maybe makes it humanly possible. What makes metaphysics meaningful to us is the imagery we bring to its pronouncements: but this is a suspicious gift, intoxicating though not necessarily illuminating. It may simply provide spurious protection from the verbal haze (or blaze). Or it may bias us in favor of views that interact better with our imagination—that provide us with more appealing pictures. Wittgenstein spoke of being held captive by a picture—well, in metaphysics there may be no alternative. In normal discourse we can rely on words to carry us along, but when discourse turns metaphysical words struggle to keep up, and then imagination takes up the slack, or tries to. We find ourselves dependent on pictures of many kinds: of heaps, webs, steam, railway tracks, shadows, lenses, ghosts, exotic animals, shimmering mirages, tools, chess games, light, magic tricks, building blocks, cement, blank slates, sentences—all the tricks of the philosophical trade. In this way we try to give sense to what we are inclined to say. When you read the words, “The world is…” your imagination is activated: you start to form pictures of what might be meant. You would be lost otherwise, or perhaps just not interested.[1]


Colin McGinn


[1]I don’t want to give the impression that I am against all metaphysics (on the contrary), but I think certain ways of proceeding are fraught with linguistic peril, particularly pronouncements of the general form “The world is X”.

4 replies
  1. says:

    Ray Jackendoff has a good take on imagery and on the spatial psychology of abstract concepts . Talk of “facts” or “truth” or “reference” tends to annoy me these days—though whether this is due to Trump or to too much beer I don’t know. I have a rage to try to reduce all of philosophy to cognitive science—but I forbid you to dump on this fun-loving scientism!

  2. says:

    Botany is rather less fun-loving. As for “insecurity”, philosophers have their problems too—-my cat is riven with it. On a serious point, though, the less philosophy I read these days the better my book seems to proceed. As you yourself said, just focus on language and humor.


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