Speech and silence: Wittgenstein v. Augustine?

Did he mean that it would be better to remain silent than to speculate about the nature of the Divine?

The final sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen, usually translated “Whereof one cannot speak, thereupon must one silent.” The English isn’t as nice as the German, because “be silent” is clumsier than “schweigen,” which could be rendered “hold one’s peace” or “STFU.”

The evident meaning would seem to be “Don’t talk through your hat,” an analytic rebuke of metaphysics. But Ashok Gangadean, who taught me philosophical logic at Haverford back when both of us were younger, read it as an invitation to mystical contemplation: silencing the monkey-mind’s endless chatter to find of “non-dual” experience.

But here’s something I just stumbled over: Voltaire in the Dictionary quotes St. Augustine De Trinitate: Dictum est tres personae, non ut aliquid diceretur, sed ne taceretur. “It is said that there are three persons, not to say anything, but to not be silent.”

I don’t know whether Wittgenstein would have known much Augustine, but he might well have read Voltaire. Was his famous sentence a rebuke, not of metaphysics, but of dogmatism? Is he saying that Augustine and other other Church Fathers would have done better to remain silent rather than speak “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann“?

As always, illumination from the learned is welcome. Comments are broken, so send email and I’ll update.


1. Yes, Wittgenstein was very familiar with Augustine.

2. The sentence from De Trinitate is better translated, “They say that there are three Persons, rather to say something of the matter than to pass over it in silence.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com