“The World is All the Facts”

Anil Mitra © 2017


From a Quora comment of mine on an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

“May I suggest something tentative for your consideration?

If I say “the world is the totality of things” I must explain the concept of a ‘thing’.

But that is hard to do because my concept or percept of a thing is not the thing-itself (but even on a concept of knowledge as immediate apprehension of objects, the difficulty is not overcome for then there is no certain and necessary knowledge).

In other words what I grasp is the ‘concept of the thing’ rather than the ‘thing’.

So I ought to say “my world is the totality of my concepts of things”; not because there are no things, but because, truthfully, that is the best I can do. Here, by the way, I avoid the (somewhat deep) question of whether things-as-conceived are equivalent to the things-themselves. However, I should say this: if you say, “but you can improve your perception and measurement, you can improve your theories and so on”, I can then say “yes, but that all comes under concepts, and even the total system of cultural ideas and action comes under the idea of implicit concept; and I can say this without referring to a theory that extends our mind to the environment”.

So “my world is the totality of my concepts of things” is not so different from Wittgenstein’s “the world is all the facts” because a fact is “my concept of a state of affairs”.

So, then, the question is why Wittgenstein chose facts (concepts of states of affairs) as the base of reality over concepts of things.

It is because he and Bertrand Russell and others at the time were concerned that an ‘object’ has no meaning apart from some specification or concept of it (regarding that time, ~c.1900 - 1920, recollect that Russell’s paradox was a warning that arbitrary concepts, including those expressed in language, could be contradictory and therefore correspond to no actual thing in any possible world; while this is commonplace today, it was a shock back then).

Their thought, on the other hand, was that ‘fact’ was not limited in that way.

I think they thought ‘concept’ (of states of affairs) was implicit in ‘fact’. In any case that is what is necessary for a satisfactory ‘metaphysics’.

In summary, because the world is ultimately known no better than our best knowledge of it, we cannot realistically talk of the world apart from our knowledge of it. And Wittgenstein’s metaphysics is that ‘fact’ is better than ‘thing’ for this purpose.

Note, as an interesting aside, that in saying this, we are not saying that perceiving creates existence. Rather we are saying that the form of existence can be known no better than the form of knowledge. Incidentally, Immanuel Kant said something similar. And Kant concluded that the form of knowledge is the form of existence (he was talking about both built in perception and informal and formal conception); which is perhaps true in the case of abstract objects but not necessarily for the concrete sciences (of Newton and Euclid) to which Kant applied his reasoning. But this is why, in this regard, we consider Kant to have had great insight—perhaps his greatest—even though the application was somewhat off the ultimate mark (but it is a psychological insight for the brain evolved such that the form of perception is, roughly, the form of Newtonian space and time).

Going back to the last paragraph but one, whether that’s true is a matter of judgment and reason. But there’s something about ‘meaning’ worth noting. Russell and Wittgenstein did have the idea that a symbol is a fact and a ‘world fact’ is a fact and that the symbol-fact referred to the world-fact. Wittgenstein had the further idea that a sentence is a ‘picture of the world’. Okay, because a sentence has structure. But how can a pure symbol refer to the world? Here, it seems to me that the Russell-Wittgenstein idea is deficient.

Here is how a pure symbol, e.g. a primitive word can refer-represent. Consider, for example, that I have a mental picture, perhaps from memory of a tiger, even when there is no tiger or picture of a tiger present. When I see a real tiger the perception and memory compare. But the symbol is also connected, because we are linguistic creatures, in memory to the picture memory. So, if you and I share the same language and I say “quiet, there’s a tiger nearby” the word ‘tiger’ evokes in you the picture of a tiger and the idea of nearby (and you probably feel some fear). Similarly, I can also think in words. It seemed to me necessary that there was this three-way connection and indeed I found out some years ago that CK Ogden and IA Richards had already had that idea in their 1923 The Meaning of Meaning (The Meaning of Meaning - Wikipedia).

There are some important points about meaning here. First that the bare symbol ‘tiger’ without the association with a mental picture, recollected has no ‘meaning’ whatsoever(if you did not know English the sound ‘tiger’ would evoke no reaction because it would evoke no mental image). Second, that primitive meaning relates a recollected picture to something in the world. Third that linguistic meaning relates symbol, picture, and thing; the symbol makes for efficient thought and communication. Fourth, given such elementary tripartite meaning, a linguist construct such as a sentence has further meaning in virtue of the arrangement of its words (the picture ‘theory’). Finally, instead of saying words have meaning we might prefer to say that symbol, concept, and object constitute meaning.

The Meaning of Meaning came after Tractatus. However, Kant came about 150 years prior but ‘unfortunately’ neither Wittgenstein nor Russell were sufficiently familiar with Kant’s thought on the ‘synthetic a priori’ (it’s positive and inadequate aspects as described above).

Wittgenstein himself did not finally think his metaphysics in Tractatus was definitive. He rejected it for various reasons, but specifically because he thought its definitiveness was mistaken, and the sequel was Philosophical Investigations, published after his death, which is very different in approach and content than Tractatus.

This was much longer than I thought it was going to be. I hope it provides some illumination. I don’t know whether the analysis of Wittgenstein’s ‘world as fact’ is standard.”