Wittgenstein and Aristotle: a Comparison of the Conceptions of an Object

This essay is a very introductory work to the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Ludwig Wittgenstein himself was an extraordinary character, and in his work, “The Tractatus” each sentence manages to evoke such strengths and vigor that an overly analytical philosophical logic hits one as a revelation.

Winter Semester 2016

This essay is an attempt to discern whether Wittgenstein’s metaphysical views in the Tractatus are related or inherently predicated in classic Western philosophy, namely Aristotelian categories and Aristotelian metaphysics in general. More specifically I will outline the Categories and Aristotle’s view of the perceptibility of an object; in other words, how does Aristotle understand the world to be perceived, both in a metaphysical sense and a structural sense. The Aristotelian view will be compared with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and his atomic facts or logical atomism. I assume that both philosophers have similarities in their conceptions of this metaphysics, yet I also conclude that the philosophies are built of different content, and are hence entirely separable. The second paragraph of the essay will discuss how both philosophers assume the correspondence theory of truth, Aristotle in ancient times, and Wittgenstein as a contemporary. It can also be seen that the trend in these philosophies share a certain “metaphysics of presence”, a term coined by Heidegger and later used by Derrida in his deconstruction. I will postulate that this “presence”, which refers to man’s “self-knowing and self-propelling autonomous agent”(1) most certainly exists in classic western philosophy and is perhaps inherent in Wittgenstein’s metaphysics also. What this means is that man has an intrinsic accessibility to conceivable knowledge based upon both one’s own presence in the world and the privileging of presence of the world. As I understand it, the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Aristotle both create metaphysical categories and structure the world according to that which is (presence).

Aristotle’s categories seem similar to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and his atomic facts at first, because they both discuss the structure of thought that leads to conceivability of the world. Let us first discuss what Aristotle meant by his categories. Aristotle was one of the first that reflected upon the conceptions of an object. In the categories, he gives ten categories that structure, both linguistically and metaphysically, the object of human conceptuality. The substance, as he called it, is not merely a category, but rather a first being. The substance of, say, Monty the cat is not that which is predicated of Monty the cat; rather all the predications of a cat exist as possibility of Monty the cat. This means that a substance is distinct from its properties: a cat may either be black or white, yet the substance of Monty stays the same; the substance, hence, is a property-bearer, that which has properties predicated in it. In other words, substance is form and matter; the specific cat in its spatial world. Aristotle has ten categories, the first being substance, that which is “not predicated of any subject; rather, the subject of predicates.” The rest of the categories are the predicates, or in other words accidental predicates, which “correspond to an individual characteristic present in an already well-constituted subject”, such as quantity, relation, place, time, position. This idea posits a certain particularism, as the substance of the horse is particular to the specific horse, because it cannot be predicated of. Aristotle distinguishes between what he calls primary substance and secondary substance. The secondary substance is universal, as it can be predicated of. Socrates is a primary substance, yet man, which is predicated in Socrates, is a secondary substance, and is viewed as a universal concept which is predicated in Socrates just as it is in the word “manliness”. (6) With Aristotle’s ontological views set in place, we may continue to investigate how these categories of being are related to Wittgenstein’s metaphysical view. First, it may be of use to understand what Wittgenstein means by “facts” when he states that “1.1 the world is the totality of facts, not of things.” A fact is a basis for logical entities. In other words, rather than describing a fact as having some substantial properties, it has the property of being, which we use to constitute a state of affairs. When Wittgenstein points that the world is not made up of things, he posits that the fact “in logical space” is what can be spoken of in our conceptualization of an object. Wittgenstein speaks of substance as “that which exists with respect to every possible world.” Wittgenstein’s substance is that which “remains unchanged through all changes”. Is this similar to Aristotelian substance? Aristotle too believes that primary substance exists as independent from other substance/things. It is, however, this form of dependence that allows us to interweave different facts/substances together. “The thing is independent, in so far as it can occur in all possible circumstances, but this form of independence is a form of connexion with the atomic fact, a form of dependence.” This is interesting, as what is here posited is that within the independence of the fact there exists its dependence with other facts, hence forming a state of affairs or atomic fact, meaning that one cannot speak of the particular fact without its relation to other facts. This is similar to Aristotle, who believes that the primary substance is independent in virtue of it being particular; one may not speak of the particular cat without giving it a form of a cat, or a quality of a name and color. While this is a point of similarity, it is not the same, as Aristotelian substance is compound in that it is both form and matter, while Tractarian objects are joined in dependence only through the object’s independence. It is through propositional language that this connexion exists (an atomic fact is a “combination of objects (entities, things)”), and not by virtue of metaphysical categories. Hence, while the categories and Tractarian objects speak of similar ideas and the connexion of substances/objects/entities, they are in essence different, as a Tractarian object is in no way compound or categorized; rather the Tractarian object is fixed and independent. Furthermore, Wittgenstein asserts that substance is form and content, meaning that an object’s configuration (space, time, color) is its form and content. Again, this sounds similar to Aristotle’s attempt to give substances configurators through categories. More conclusively, it seems that Wittgenstein speaks of similar ideas as Aristotle in his categories, yet his language is entirely different and while the ideas posited are similar, the conveyed message is entirely different; namely that the categories outline a way in which we may conceptualize an object, while Wittgenstein gives the basis and structure for atomic connexion that forms our conceptualization. (5)

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” Aristotle was not the first amongst the Ancient Greeks to dwell in this sphere of thought that we can today call Correspondence theory of truth. To think that Wittgenstein when he powerfully asserts that “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” meant something entirely different than Aristotle would be almost heretical to the foundations of the thought herein. The Correspondence theory of truth states that whether or not a statement is true depends only on how it reaches up or relates to the world. Hence, correspondence; a statement is true only if it corresponds and accurately describes the world. The quote introducing the paragraph is clear to Aristotle’s philosophical style of the categories, in which he “talks of underlying things that make statements true and implies that these things are logically structured situations or facts”. (5) It can be said that the categories give an outline of how our conceptualization, if true, reaches up to the world. Aristotle is much of a correspondent theorist, as he asserts that categories structure our thought in such a manner that our conceptualization matches that of reality. The form reaches up to reality; it is through the form that we can point out that the specific substance perceived matches reality. Where does Wittgenstein fit here? The picture theory is a good place to start. “The picture is a model of reality.” It is through the picture of atomic facts that we can model our reality and point to the existence of the atomic fact in reality. If the atomic fact does not exist, such as the purple whiteboard, then we cannot make a picture out of it, and hence not only is it not perceivable, but it also does not match with reality. In essence, the picture reaches up to reality. If the fact is true, then it can exist in correspondence with atomic facts, which are true only if the proposition itself is true, and hence through the true picture created we can correspond to reality. Aristotle discusses underlying structure and categories that make statements true, while Wittgenstein is concerned merely with the truth of the statement propositionally. To conclude, both are correspondent theorists, in that they assume that the truth of a statement corresponds directly to reality. (2)

It seems that all modern philosophy has its root in ancient Greek description of the philosophical world. In the previous paragraphs, we have compared Aristotle’s categories to Wittgenstein’s Logical Atomism; conclusively it seems that Wittgenstein has a similar basis of thought as Aristotle, yet the object of his ideas are different. While Aristotle observes that the structure of our thought is based upon categories of the object conceived, Wittgenstein deals only with a purely analytical point-by-point account of logic and the logic of language. Aristotle certainly assumes presence and present-hood; the conceivability of an object exists through the categories being present; every object becomes conscious through the categories inherently existing in the object. Whether the world and its objects are presented to us through our immediate access to meaning-qua-meanings is not the question that Wittgenstein asked. Rather, he investigates the very fabric of the world that is bound by logic; that means the fabric that constitutes and structures our propositional thinking. By propositional thinking, I mean that statements made that correspond to reality can only be understood or expressed through logical language; the world is made up of facts in their logical entities. Indeed, thinking propositionally is thinking logically, and this assembly is one that Wittgenstein discussed with the intention of showing the structure of our thought, and not the accessibility of perception or thought. Yet it seems hard to escape the inclination to assert that there is certain impossibility in discussing the anatomy of thought without assuming that the accessibility of present thought is in-born. Can Wittgenstein possibly assert that atomic facts that make up a statement do not correspond to our immediate access to those facts? Do the facts exist in presence? Aristotle certainly assumes temporal present-hood; the present is the key to immediate perceptual access. Does Wittgenstein assume the same? It is not entirely clear to me. Yet, although the fact is fundamentally present to us, the atomic fact requires a certain inter-weaving of different facts. However, if these facts are to be present to us, then they can only be so through its connexion with other facts. The atomic fact of ‘x on y’ (such as the mug on a table), may only exist through the connexion of the mug and the table; of course our perception is more complex, and the atomic fact also includes color, space and time (of both the mug and the table), and therefore if we are to relate x with y then we may only do so through the connexion of the totality of these facts. “The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts”. Yet, a question arises: according to Wittgenstein does the perception of an object relate only to the presence of the object in the present, or does the totality of the world perceived relate also to that which is not present at the moment at all? It seems to be the latter, “for the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.” The mug on the table is certainly determined by the presence of the connexion of the inter-relatable atomic facts, yet it is also determined by the absence of all the atomic connexions which are not true, which in this case creates the accessibility of the thought. Aristotle does not assume such an intricate play of inter-relatable substances; rather he assumes the substance to exist in its temporal present being.

Have we answered our question? It seems that the matter has been over-complicated. The categories are of a similar substance to that of Wittgenstein’s Tractarian conceptions and objects, yet as has been seen, Wittgenstein does not categorize the propositional world; he rather asserts that it is the propositional world that allows for such structural thought that leads to meaning and conceptuality of an object. If there is to be a connection between the two philosophers it is this: the correspondence theory of truth. Although the two offer a different way of corresponding the conceptual statement to reality (Aristotle through underlying structural categories and Wittgenstein through the picture theory), they both assume that if a statement is to be true in its fundamental construction then hence it can be perceived and correspond to reality. It is certainly wrong to say that Wittgenstein assumes classical Western philosophy; rather the opposite it seems and this is most seen in the straying away from the metaphysics of presence.

(1)- “Presence, Metaphysics of – Oxford Reference.” Presence, Metaphysics of – Oxford Reference. N.p., 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.

(2) David, Marian. “The Correspondence Theory of Truth.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 10 May 2002. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.

(3) Marshall, By Taylor. “Aristotle’s Ten Categories.” Aristotle’s Ten Categories. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2016.https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/files/217576

(4) Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” C. K. Ogden, October 22, 2010

(5) http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/pbartha/phil312/p312ho2.pdf


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