Sunday, March 9, 2008

Wittgenstein, Silence passage correction

It took a little bit of finding the right words for a google search and using the goggle translator for each word...but it does clarify that Wittgenstein passage.

In regards to silence, Wittgenstein writes:
darüber muß man schweigen

This literally means "more [therefore, moreover] one must be silent."

The "pass over" is a nice literary embellishment, but for someone who doesn't read German and tries to reflect on every single nuance of each word (what can I say: overtraining in lit crit classes), such embellishments can hinder the understanding of the passage.

Besides the "one must be silent", one should note the passage before it as composing a polar opposite. So to put it in a visually helpful way:

what can be said at all can be said clearly

therefore one must be silent

There's a nested logic movement in the first portion:

If it can be said, it can be said clearly.

Here, I feel that Wittgenstein is laying almost an imperative to speak clearly (I can almost hear an English professor beseeching me to speak more clearly).

But if it cannot be said (and if it cannot be said, it clearly can't be said clearly), then the only option is to be silent.

As Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus concerns itself with logic, it seems to be aligning logic with what can be said clearly. What is interesting is how much he leaves as being outside the realm of logic and the realm of language. Over and over in Culture and Value, he speaks about the limits of language.

I just found out that John Koethe, the poet, has written a book on Wittgenstein. To a good extent, this helps me to understand the questions that are propelling his poems.


pense-creux said...

The complete line is this: "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen."

Translated hyperliterally, it reads, "Of what one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Or rendered into English a bit more usually, but still literally, "What one cannot speak about, one must be silent about."

Darüber here is a relative adjective referring back to wo[von], not an adverb meaning "therefore"; literally it breaks down to da("that") and über ("over") -- the r is just a fill consonant. Schweigen über means "to be silent about" (or literally "to be silent over").

So, yes, rendering the phrase as "to pass over in silence" is a bit of literary license on part of the translator, but it is drawn directly from the German phrase schweigen über. There is no causal "therefore" in the sentence, nor is there any implication of speaking clearly.

Simply, one must not speak about things one can't speak about. The tautology is, I think, eloquent.

Postillion said...

Thanks so much, pense-creux, for the thorough explanation of the line. Your translation clarifies my confusion about this crucial line.

As you point out, Wittgenstein's tautology is eloquent. I was trying to explain to a friend what it was like reading the Tractatus, and finally I said the beauty of his logic is somehow like seeing a Rothko painting.

Pyramis said...

It's worth noting that 'schweigen' is an intransitive verb in German for which we have no equivalent in English. We translate this single word for a kind of activity into 'be silent' -- which for English speakers, means to not communicate anything at all.

But this goes against the grain of Wittgenstein's picture theory of language and thought. The notion of an active 'doing of silence' more precisely follows from Wittgenstein's argument in the rest of the book.

Thus, the Pears/McGuinness translation is even more of a crime. Wittgenstein's silence is not a passing over kind of silence, as in a giving up or a setting aside, it's a resounding and active communicative silence that appreciates those occasions where silence is more articulate than words.