Thinking and Looking-Commentary on The Blue Book

How can one think what is not the case? That’s a great example of a philosophical question and it is one that Wittgenstein explicitly addresses in The Blue Book, page 31 (among other places, I am sure)

“How can one think what is not the case? If I think that King’s College is on fire when it is not on fire, the fact of its being on fire does not exist.  Then how can I think it? How can we hang a thief who doesn’t exist?” Our answer could be put in this form: “I can’t hang him when he doesn’t exist; but I can look for him w hen he doesn’t exist.

Wittgenstein here is commenting on the fact that the object of a thought not existing shouldn’t be as philosophically perplexing as we allow it.  Once we get outside the “rules of a term’s use” we realize that, in this case, we can have the thought that p, where p is “King’s College is on fire” without p being the case in the same sense that I can look for a person that doesn’t ‘exist’ in the strict (and local) sense of the word.

What about the thought that

r: if I think something is the case then q: that thing must actually be the case

This is really the same dillema.  The problem is the confusion over the word “to think” and “what the thought denotes”.  Consider this case:

r1: If something is the case then that thing must actually be the case

R1 is a tautology.  It says that the truth of itself must obtain.  Realize that many times when we say “I think” we are not assigning an intentional state (in the philosophical sense) but rather drawing attention to the up-and-coming assertion.

w: I think that Wittgenstein is saying here that the meaning of a term is how the term is used in a social context.

What would it take for that sentence to make sense, let alone be true?

response: But the assertion w deals with a matter of interpretation because we can’t actually know what Wittgenstein meant.

I agree that it is a matter of interpretation, albeit in an unimportant way.  Consider your use of “what Wittgenstein meant” and realize that my use of “Wittgenstein is saying here that…” may not coincide in the way you want.  Maybe that part of the expression can be interpretted only as saying “the best possible interpretation for Wittgenstein’s writings here is…”

Now consider the difference between

  1. “Wittgenstein is saying here” means “what Wittgenstein meant here”
  2. “Wittgenstein is saying here that” means “the best possible interpretation for Wittgenstein’s writing here is…”

Which did I mean when I said it?  Who knows–but realize this:  when we ask questions like “well what did you mean when you said that…” we presume that the speaker actually knew the exact meaning of the expression in question when he uttered it.  That is, we think that the speaker ought to know what he or she meant when he or she used it.  Consider the case in which S says that p but realizes that p might imply r to T and then revises p in light of this newfound suspicion.  What did S mean when S said that p?  It depends on the time at which S said that p.  It also depends on the questioner and what he or she knows about the use of that particular term.

As Wittgenstein notes in The Blue Book, page 31:

We are  here misled by the substantives “object of thought” and “fact” and by the different meanings of the word “exist”. Supposing we asked: “How can one imagine wh at does not exist?” The answer seems to be: “If we do, we imagine non-existent combinations of existing elements” [this is also Russell’s answer as a representative of logical monism].

We’re misled by the quality of a thought with its facticity as an occurent event. If I have something I call a thought, then what the thought has as its content need not be true.  Just like I can be “looking for x” without knowing that “x exists”.

My thoughts say things that may not be true.  But their failure to be true [in the correspondence sort of way] need not mean I can’t have them.  Or that they are meaningless.

I look for things that may not exist. Often times my act of “looking for a particular baseball card” may defy the fact t hat “in all probability, no one has access to that particular card” for example.


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