Wittgenstein and Objects

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Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is an effort to establish both the basic constituents of the world and the way our talk about the world makes sense.  The Tractatus contains a metaphysical component and a linguistic component which parallel each other. Wittgenstein identifies objects as the monads of his ontology.

Paragraph 2.02 of the Tractatus asserts: "Objects are simple." Wittgenstein's objects are analogous to physicists' atoms in that both objects and atoms are the fundamental constituents of the world. "The configuration of objects produces states of affairs" (2.0272),and "The totality of existing states of affairs is the world." (2.04).An analysis of the world entails analyses of states of affairs which in turn entails analyses of the configuration of objects. Wittgenstein's claim that objects are simple establishes a point at which investigations of the world may terminate. Complexes have a polarity in that they may be true or false, but objects lack such polarity: they (simply!) exist. States of affairs may or may not exist, but objects have no alternative but to exist. If we only had complexes we could never be certain about the sense of descriptions of the world. It is important to point out that Wittgenstein never offers an example of an object; we can obtain a clearer idea of objects only by determining what they are not.

The simplicity of objects is contrasted with more complex metaphysical entities such as relations and properties. The linguistic entities which correspond to objects are names (3.22), but for Wittgenstein, a name can never express a relation: a relation is exemplified or displayed in a situation, and "Situations can be described but not given names." (3.144). Since a relation cannot be named, it cannot be an object. Obviously, language contains words which indicate relations, but Wittgenstein denies that such words are names; only objects have names. Wittgenstein's statement that "In a state of affairs objects fit into one another like the links of a chain" (2.03) gives a picturesque description of the manner in which objects relate to each other. Two objects are not linked by something known as a relation, but rather, the linkage of two objects constitutes the relation. Clearly, a relation is not an object.

Nor are objects properties. Wittgenstein recognizes a distinction between formal and material properties. In the statement, "William is ill, "illness is a material property. For the statement, "The pen is on the book," we can draw a picture of a pen with the pen resting on the surface, but we cannot draw on-ness.  On-ness is a formal property. At paragraph 2.0232, Wittgenstein states that "it is only by propositions that material properties are represented -- only by the configuration of objects that they are produced." Since material properties are manifested only in states of affairs, and states of affairs are produced by a configuration of objects, material properties are not simple and thus are not objects. Wittgenstein does not attempt to explain how material properties are produced by objects. Objects are not formal properties either because objects can be represented (3.22), but formal properties cannot be represented at all: "To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world" (4.12), which Wittgenstein does not allow.

Properties are the features according to which things in the world can be sorted and classified. It is not possible to understand redness before finding examples. What is common among particulars, and contrasted with other particulars which lack such features, enables us to formulate ideas about properties. It is essential to properties that they have multiple occurrences, but particulars, by definition, are singular, unrepeated occurrences. According to Wittgenstein, since properties are principles of classification, a property is more complex than a particular instantiation of a property through a state of affairs.

Wittgenstein makes the interesting remarks that "In a manner of speaking, objects are colourless." (2.0232). Not only are properties not objects, Wittgenstein attempts to purge objects of properties altogether. For Wittgenstein, an apple is not a red object (we will pass over the fact that Wittgenstein would not recognize an apple as a Tractarian object), but the obtaining of a state of affairs. In the Tractarian world, objects do not have monadic properties, e.g., redness; objects only exist in relations with other objects. In this respect, Wittgenstein is a nominalist: redness does not exist, only red particulars exist. But how can we say that one object resembles another if both lack properties? Wittgenstein must say that resemblance itself is a relation of states of affairs, much like objects linked in a chain. If color existed in an object, then there would be a necessary relationship between that object and its color, but Wittgenstein denies this possibility when he states that "Things are independent in so far as they can occur in all possible situations" (2.0122).

Wittgenstein's claim that objects are form and content (2.035) seems at first glance to be a reference to hylomorphism, an Aristotelian doctrine that physical objects are composed of a structure (form) and substance (content). However, Wittgenstein actually makes the literal claim that objects are both form and content, rather than form plus content; form in one context may be content in another context. Consider a gold ring, a silver ring, an iron ring and a brass ring. In Plato's view, any common feature denotes an object's form; content is what is not common, that which differentiates objects and makes them particulars. Thus, with the objects listed above, they share a common structure (form) as rings, and their contents, the stuff of which they are made, differ. But consider a second group of objects: gold ring, gold necklace, gold bracelet, gold bar. Plato's view requires that we say these objects share the form of gold, even though gold is the stuff of which these objects are made and would ordinarily be thought of as content. In the Tractarian world, every object carries within itself the potential for entering into states of affairs with other objects. However, once a state of affairs actually obtains, clear-cut distinctions between form and content are not possible.

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Last revised: July 9, 2016.

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