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Wittgenstein's Later Logic


Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics was poorly

received by the critics when it wasfirstpublished, and only a few sympathetic
commentators have made much of it since then. The book has not had a
great success, because the majority of people interested in the philosophy
of mathematics these days have a quite different approach to the subject
from Wittgenstein. But not only that, they have a quite different logic from
Wittgenstein. I believe one of the main sources of the antipathy felt
towards the Remarks lies in the foreignness of the logic Wittgenstein
develops there. I hope, in what follows, to make that logic more under-
standable, and with it the philosophy of mathematics it supports.

Wittgenstein was a mathematician, of a sort. In his early days he was an

applied mathematicianhe is said to have designed an airscrew. His
. interest in philosophy originally arose through reading a book by the
philosopher-mathematician Russell, and his resurgence of interest in the
, subject, after a period away from it in the twenties, has been attributed to
hearing a lecture by that other philosopher-mathematician Brouwer. In his
early days Wittgenstein's logic was very Russellian; was his later logic,
then, Brouwerian? Was his later logic Intuitionistic? One might think so
if one read some of the passages late on in the Remarks where he is dis-
cussing infinite series and the Law of the Excluded Middle (IV, 9):

We only see how queer the question is whether the pattern <f> (a particular
arrangement of digits, e.g. '770') will occur in the infinite expansion of -n
when we try to formulate the question in a quite common or garden
way: men have been trained to put down signs according to certain rules.
Now they proceed according to this training and we say that it is a
problem whether they will ever write down the pattern </> in following the
given rule. . . .

What if someone were to reply to a question 'So far there is no such

thing as an answer to this question' ? So, e.g., the poet might reply when
asked whether the hero of his poem has a sister or notwhen, that is, he
has not yet decided anything about it. . . .

Philosophy 54 1979 199

B. H. Slater

Of someone who is trained we can ask 'How will he interpret the rule for
this case?' or again 'How ought he to interpret the rule for this case?'
but what if no decision about this question has been made? Well, then
the answer is not 'he ought to interpret it in such a way that <f> occurs in t
the expansion" or 'he ought to interpret it in such a way that it does not s
occur', but 'nothing has so far been decided about this'. $

This is all very Brouwerian. But from the way Wittgenstein goes on one *
can see it is not a Brouwerian point he has in mind. Wittgenstein's point is
not that we have here a determinate proposition which does not obey the
laws of classical logic; his point is that we do not yet have here a deter- i
minate proposition. What Wittgenstein is concerned to show is that '^
occurs in the expansion', has not yet been given a fully determinate sense
(IV, ii): >

To say of an unending series that it does not contain a particular pattern ^

makes sense only under quite special conditions.
That is to say: this proposition has been given a sense for certain f
Roughly for those where it is in the rule for this series not to contain f
the pattern. ,

Does that mean the proposition invariably has a sense? (IV, 18):
Does it make sense to say 'While there isn't a rule forbidding the occur-
rence, as a matter of fact the pattern does not occur' ? And if this does
not make sense, how can the opposite make sense, namely that the
pattern does occur?. . .

The opposite of 'it must not occur' is 'it can occur'. For a finite segment
of the series, however, the opposite of 'it must not occur in it' seems to *
be 'it must occur in it'.

But is it clear that the same thing holds for an infinite segment of the
series? (IV, 19): ^
But what if the rule were given that e.g. everywhere the formation rule ^
for 77- yields 4, any arbitrary digit other than 4 can be put in its place?
Consider also the rule which forbids one digit in certain places, but t
otherwise leaves the choice open.
Wittgenstein's point is not that we know what to make of these cases, so
we should be able to answer his questions, but expressly that we do not
know what to make of these cases so that, for the time being, his questions
are unanswerable (IV, 20):

Wittgenstein's Later Logic

But does this mean that there is no such problem as 'Does the pattern <f>
occur in this expansion?' . . .
Only within a mathematical structure which has yet to be erected does
the question allow of a mathematical decision, and at the same time
become a demand for such a decision.
So Wittgenstein's conclusions are very like Brouwer's, but there are
essential differences between them. His questioning of the Law of the
Excluded Middle, and his whole conception of mathematics as a creative
activity, show great parallels with that other thinker, but Wittgenstein does
not deny the Law of the Excluded Middle, as Brouwer did. His discussion
of it is in the middle of a discussion of the applicability of mathematics,
and the applicability of logic, so his concern is with where the Law of the
Excluded Middle can, and where it cannot be applied. His answer is that it
can be applied only to propositions with a definite sensehe is in fact
reminding us of the injunction logicans invariably subscribe to: be clear
only if one's propositions are clear and definite will logic apply to them.

So Wittgenstein's later logic was still the classical logic of Russell?

Certainly it was two-valued. The 'middle' which Wittgenstein saw the
Law of the Excluded Middle as excluding was not some third truth-value:
'unknowable', 'undecidable' or 'vague'. What was excluded were cases not
where the truth-value was 'vague', but where the truth-value was vague,
and what Wittgenstein reminds us of is that there are plenty of pro-
positions in that class.
But unclear propositions are not meaningless propositions: Wittgenstein
improved upon the old trichotomy 'true', 'false', 'meaningless'. There is
nothing meaningless about '(f> occurs in the expansion': we have given it a
sense in many cases. It is just that it is not yet invariably meaningful: there
is a whole spectrum of cases from the meaningful to the meaningless.
And a proposition's status can change.
Consider the proposition 'The Cantorian diagonal number does not
occur in the infinite list from which it is derived'. Is this true? We are given
a list of numbers

a\ =
3 = O.<731

Let us say they are binary fractions with amt n = o or i. Then we construct
, Cantor's diagonal number ac given by

B. H. Slater 1
@c, n @n, n \
where an,n is i or o depending on whether aW)TC is o or i. Is this number \
in the list?
'No' you will say, categorically, it was the great discovery of Cantor's ,
that this number is not in the given list. But let me just show you how it
could be in the list. Let me do the impossible! '
Suppose the digits in the list held to, amongst other things, the following
a = a
n+l,n n,n 'k
that is to say, let the digits immediately under the main diagonal be the
digits in Cantor's diagonal number. Then Cantor's diagonal number will be '
in the list. If you read the list not horizontally, but diagonally, as in the
kiddies' games you sometimes see in the newspapers, then there you will '
see it, it will be written immediately under the main diagonal. So there
you are: Cantor's diagonal number is in the list after all.
'But that's a cheat!' you may say. 'For it to be in the list it must be
written out horizontally, its being written diagonally is not what is meant. '
You haven't shown that it is in the list.'
But I have. It is in the list. Only it is not 'in' the list in the way you '
thought it was going to be. If you like, 'ac is in the list' is ambiguousbut
it is still true. 'But ac is not in the list!' you want to say? Well, O.K., so *
ac is in the list' is false as well: ac both is and is not in the list. The pro-
position sac is in the list', now, after I have pointed out the above possibility,
does not have a determinate sense, and we can only make a contradiction
out of it.
But ac is in the list' is not meaningless; it is not, for instance, ungram-
matical; it is a perfectly well-formed English sentence. It is just that its >
meaning is not now clear, so that for it, now, the grammatical form 'p and
not-p' fits the truth. Going with the recognition that the grammatical form
'p or not-p' fits the truth only for certain propositions, namely those with a
determinate sense, we must recognize that, correlatively, the grammatical
form 'p and not-p' fits the truth for other propositions, namely those with
an indeterminate sense.
Hence we come to see how Wittgenstein's concept of contradiction is so
different from that of the Formalists (V, 21):
Why shouldn't it be said that such a contradiction as 'heterological'
e heterological = ~ ('heterological' e heterological) shows a logical pro-
perty of the concept 'heterological' ?. . .
'h' e h= ~('h' e h) might be called 'a true contradiction'.
He explains what he means by 'a true contradiction':
'The contradiction is true' means: it is proved; derived from the rules

Wittgenstein's Later Logic

for the word 'h'. Its employment is, to show that " ' h ' " is one of those
words which do not yield a proposition when inserted into ' e h ' .
He means by 'does not yield a proposition' what he might otherwise have
expressed by saying 'does not yield a proposition with a determinate
sense' (II, 79):

The propositions '<f>(<f>)' and ' ~ <(<)' sometimes seem to say the same
thing and sometimes opposite things. According as we look at it the
proposition '<^(<^)' sometimes seems to say ~ <($), sometimes the
opposite . . .
If we became aware of the contradiction we should first like to say that
we don't mean the same thing by the assertion, is heterological, in the
two cases . . .
We should then like to get out of the thing by saying ' ~(f>(<f>) = (f>i((f>y.
But why should we lie to ourselves like this? Here two contrary routes
do lead to the same thing.
Wittgenstein considers one supposed way out of the puzzle: the con-
struction of a hierarchy of predicates <f>, <j>\, $2, etc. This is an allusion to
Russell's Theory of Types which essentially takes that line. But
Wittgenstein rejects this solution. Here we have a proposition without a
determinate sense, and there are more ways in which a proposition may
lack a determinate sense than by being ambiguous. Vagueness, for instance,
is not ambiguity, and there are perhaps ways of symbolizing things which
produce indeterminateness of sense.
So was Wittgenstein's later logic the classical logic of Russell? This
question now starts to lose its determinate sense. Certainly Wittgenstein
might have acknowledged 'All propositions obey the Law of the Excluded
Middle' and 'All propositions obey the Law of Non-Contradiction', taking
'proposition' to mean what might otherwise be meant by 'proposition with
a determinate sense'. But if we represent these laws as saying that 'p or
not-p' must be true, and 'p and not-p' must be false the answer is by no
means so easy. If we take these forms to be grammatical forms into which
we are to fit a grammatical sentence 'p', Wittgenstein would say 'no'.
There are sentences, and sentences with some sense, for which 'p or not-p'
is not true, and 'p and not-p' is not false. In this way Wittgenstein did deny
the absoluteness of the Law of the Excluded Middle, and the Law of
Non-Contradiction: there is some sense in affirming 'p and not-p' and
some sense in denying 'p or not-p'; these are not the self-contradictions
and tautologies he once thought.

B. H. Slater

Saying 'Either it is Monday or it is not' is saying something about its

subject, it is distinguishing this subject from other possible ones. It is
saying it is a time in a universe in which we can distinguish the days of the
weekand the fact that our methods of time determination do correlate
so as to enable us to do this thing is a fact about this universe, it is not
given in some a priori logic. If the earth were to stop spinning, or just start
to slow down, although our clocks kept on running just as before, then
'Monday' would not be what it was, and 'Well, it is and it isn't Monday'
would be an appropriate thing to say. The proposition, 'It is Monday'
would then have lost its determinate sense; to affirm 'Either it is Monday
or it is not' is therefore to affirm that it does have a determinate sense. This
would be a logical remark in the sense that its concern was with the co-
herence and consistency of things, and so it would even be a logically true
remark if it was said about some time in this world, given very general
facts about nature, but it would not be logically true in the old sense, for it
would not be vacuous, it would not lack 'empirical' content.
So it is the Russellian symbolism which Wittgenstein was attacking.
There was something in the symbolism which was confusing if not con-
fused: it conflated syntax with semantics. By saying 'For all propositions p:
p or not-p' we seem to have got the form of a logical truth, whereas 'all the
work has yet to be done'. The grammatical form is no guarantee, for what
we must put for 'p' here is a proposition, that is to say a 'proposition with a
determinate sense', and that cannot be done without an inspection of the
sentence in its use.
And equally, it would be a logical truth if some expression was incoherent,
so we do not just have 'For all propositions with a determinate sense: p or
not-p', we have also 'For all propositions with an indeterminate sense:
p and not-p'. So this form, equally, can express a logical truth, although
its range of application, as before, has still to be investigated.
Wittgenstein's bland acceptance of contradictions has seemed to some
to centre around the fact that whether expressions of the form 'p and not-p'
arose in some symbolic system would be a simple mathematical fact about
those systems, to be accepted like any other mathematical fact. And he
does make this point as well as the point that such 'contradictions' might
be avoided quite easily by means of some modification to those systems, as
Russell modified Frege's. But Wittgenstein's bland acceptance of contra-
dictions does not centre around a recognition of these facts about symbolic
systems. It derives from an understanding of something at the heart of
non-symbolic non-systems: it derives from a recognition of the fact that a
proposition in a language can be incoherent. And that would not mean that
the language was incoherent (expressly because language is unsystematic
and non-symbolic): even if 'It is Monday' lacked a clear sense, that would
not mean that anything followed; we might well be able to make other
discriminations quite sensibly.

Wittgenstein's Later Logic

Russell's logic has been recognized, for many years, to be pure not
applied: what has someone who talks all the time in terms of p's and q's
got to say about 'It is Monday' and the like? One could only speculate.
But the reluctance of logicians to consider more fully the application of
their systems might have been put down to some fear that their systems
would prove inadequate once they took a good look at the outside world.
Russell's system has been faced with the 'paradoxes of material implication',
for instance, and this has induced many to build what they considered
better systems. But the reluctance of logicians to consider more fully the
application of their systems derives from a more fundamental fascination
than that of system building: before that, holding the symbolists tight, is a
fascination with a symbolism, a symbolism which seems to do all the work.
But 'all the work remains to be done'.


All the work remains to be done in the philosophy of mathematics.

Wittgenstein only started to explore the subject in the light of his new
conception of logic. The Remarks is an introductory book to what is
practically a new subject, the investigation of the sense of various mathe-
matical propositions.
It reads very much like an elementary textbook, say on number theory.
In it there are a number of theorems: 'The Mathematician is a creator not
a discoverer', 'Mathematics is normative', 'If you want to know what is
proved, look at the proof. But there are also exercises, questions one is
asked to answer, and commands one is asked to carry out (II, 47):
Tell me: have I discovered a new kind of calculation if, having once
learnt to multiply I am struck by multiplications with all the factors the
same, as a special branch of these calculations, and so I introduce the
notation ' " = . . . ' ?
Or again (I, 42):
You discover a position of which you did not think beforeVery well:
but can't we also say; you find out that these triangles can be arranged
like this ? But 'these triangles': are they the actual ones in the rectangle
above, or are they triangles which have yet to be arranged like that?
One must work these exercises if one is to get into the subject. If one does
not, its theorems will mean as much as the Prime Number Theorem
means to a non-mathematician. The sense of its theorems will not come
out until one has worked through their proofand their application.
The comparison with an elementary mathematics textbook goes further.
The Remarks is 'empirical' in a sense which may seem strange, and there is

B. H. Slater

no way of summing it up. But can one sum up what one has learnt after
reading, and working through, an elementary textbook on number theory?
And how do its separate theorems fit together to form a system? Is there
any way in which one could predict what is coming? Then consider the
question 'What is the theorem about numbers?' This has as much sense as
'What is the sense of mathematical propositions?', which is the same
question as 'What is the philosophy of mathematics?'
We need to be reminded of this because all traditional philosophies of
mathematics tried to take a monolithic view of the subject, that is to say,
tried to take a view in which the variety and extensiveness of mathematical
procedures was lost. So the comparison with an elementary textbook on
number theory works in the other direction as well: it serves to justify one
of Wittgenstein's main theses about mathematical propositions (II, 46):
'I should like to say: mathematics is a motley of techniques of proof.
Mathematics is a motley of techniques of proof: how to solve simul-
taneous equations, how to factorize quadratic equations, how to draw
figures from written descriptions, how to deal with units, how to use
logarithms, how to manipulate irrational numbers. There is a whole wealth
of techniques here, and this only a minuscule part of the entirety which is
The Logicists, in particular, forgot this (II, 46):
If you had a system like that of Russell, and produced systems like the
differential calculus out of it by means of suitable definitions, you would
be producing a new bit of mathematics . . .
If a man had invented calculating in the decimal system, that would have
been a mathematical invention, even if he had got Russell's Principia
The Logicists had maintained that mathematics was reducible to logic
in this sense: given the axioms and procedures of logic, and the definitions
of the terms in mathematics, the whole of mathematics could be deduced.
Now Wittgenstein's attack on this idea is not, in the manner of Godel, to
show that the programme cannot be carried through to completion, but
that, in a sense, it cannot even be started upon. For the basis on which the
Russellian scheme was to found mathematics was not logic, or was not logic
alone; it surreptitiously contained central parts of mathematics itselfthe
definitions of the mathematical terms. By speaking of his programme as
the reduction of mathematics to logic Russell was belittling the part played
in his procedures by the definitions he continually introduced. But,
according to Wittgenstein, every time a new definition was introduced a
new piece of mathematics was introduced into the basis of the enterprise, so
the end product was not a logical foundation for mathematics, but, more
and more, a purely mathematical one.

Wittgenstein's Later Logic

The function of a definition is not merely abbreviatory, as Russell would

have argued; it introduces a new concept, and it is in the formation of such
concepts that much of the development of mathematics consists. Just what
is involved in giving sense to new expressions Wittgenstein illustrates in
his discussion of exponentiation, around the first 'exercise' above (II, 47).
But it is possible to take Wittgenstein further than he went in this area,
given the clarification in his view of logic. For the key set of definitions
which linked mathematics to logic for Russell, and Frege, were definitions
of the numbers in terms of the logical symbolism. But this symbolism
imports more into logic than should properly be there, given Wittgenstein's
view of logic, so with this point applied logic will be entirely separate from
The sort of definition Russell might give of 'There are two <'s' would be
as follows:
This definition involves the notion of identity, as do all similar ones: the
number nought, for instance, would be defined as the set of those things
which are not equal to themselves.
Now is it a logical truth that everything is identical with itself? Here with
the Law of Identity we meet the same ambiguity that we met before with
the other two classical laws of thought, the Law of the Excluded Middle,
and the Law of Non-Contradiction. Certainly it is a logical truth that
everything is identical with itself. But what if we write this in this form:
(*)(* = *)?
We then seem to have produced a grammatical form, 'x = x' which must be
true in all cases. But grammar does not determine that a word refers to a
thing, any more than it determines that a proposition has a determinate
sense. Just as 'p or not-p', as a grammatical form, need not be true, so
'x = x', as a grammatical form, need not be true. Asserting something of
this form may be uttering a logical truth in the sense that it concerns the
coherence and consistency of something when that thing is coherent and
consistent, but other things could lack this characterif you like, they
would then not be things.
Thus 'War is war', 'Business is business' do have a sense; they are not
the senseless tautologies they may seem. Certainly, as Wittgenstein says,
they are not applications of the Law of Identity as it was commonly meant,
but then nothing is an application of that. 'War is war' recalls people to the
reality of this subject, 'Business is business' wishes to keep this thing in its
pristine state. 'Richard's himself again' said Shakespeare: his character had
then recovered a consistency and coherence which he had lost.
Is Pegasus Pegasus? Surely Pegasus is not anything at all. Maybe we say
he is many things, 'a winged horse', for example; but even if we say he is

B. H. Slater

many things, Pegasus still is not anything. Someone can write 'Pegasus is
Pegasus', and so claim the minimum, that Pegasus exists. But Pegasus does
not exist, 'Pegasus is Pegasus' is false, and we should not allow 'Pegasus' as
a value of x in a true 'x = x\ Hence 'x = x' is not logically true in the sense
required to found mathematics on logic: there are substitutional instances
of this form which are false, unless we, contradictorily, import into the
form what is not part of syntax, but of semantics. Certainly we may say
'nothing is non-identical with itself, but that does not make the number
of the concept 'is not identical with itself anything other than the number
of angels that can sit upon a pin.


There are other aspects to the Remarks I can barely touch on. But the
passages at the beginning have been worked on much more. Around the
second 'exercise' above (I, 42), they centre on what a geometric fact is
about, and discuss in the context of geometry what is discussed in the
Investigations in connection with what it is to follow an arithmetical or
algebraic rule.
We can say these passages are about not what it is to define a concept, but
what it is to refine it. Definitions must ultimately be in terms of undefined
elements, so the process of clarifying a concept may be an unending one:
we could say definition was a continuous process. The concept 'triangle',
for instance, is a relatively definite one, but every new fact which comes to
light makes this concept clearer.
Hence Wittgenstein asks 'But "these triangles", are they the actual ones
in the rectangle above, or are they triangles which have yet to be arranged
like that?' He is concerned with what the mathematical fact is about, and
he asks not, as you might expect, 'Are "these triangles" the actual ones in
the rectangle above, or some ideal triangles in some ideal rectangle
"above"?' but 'Are "these triangles" the actual ones in the rectangle above
or are they triangles which have yet to be arranged like that?' This is part
of his attack on Platonism in mathematics, and connects with his discussion,
in the Investigations, of his changed concept of the ideal as an object of
comparison. 'We must turn the whole investigation round.'
His answer to the question about triangles is that the mathematical fact
is about our picture of triangles: we picture them differently after the proof,
from what we did before; the picture is then clear where before it had a
Is the mathematical fact about objects? Well, in as much as it is about
our pictures of objects it is about objects. And we could not have a picture
of an object lacking that object; so the application of mathematics is
essential to it, even though 'the application must take care of itself.

208 IS
Wittgenstein's Later Logic

So, on Wittgenstein's view, the mathematical fact is not about a 'Platonic

form' if this is seen as an object existing in some other world. It is about
some standard of comparison with which we judge the objects in this
world, and there is nothing to stop that being some other object in this
worldit could easily be a real physical picture. So it is a perfectly good
description of Wittgenstein's views to say that he saw mathematics as being
about the forms of objects. The forms of objects, for Wittgenstein, were
the likenesses of them.
But his insight was to see that all likenesses, all pictures, were only clear
to a certain degree of resolutionbeyond that they were vague. This is how
he turned the whole investigation round: if Plato thought that objects were
imperfect replicas of forms, Wittgenstein thought that forms were imperfect
replicas of objects.
This is connected with his seeing the form 'p or not-p' as non-

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