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The Virtues of Silence: An Ethical Reading of Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein


Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus is one of the most enigmatic works of philosophy ever published. According to Wittgenstein, even those for whom it was meant - Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege - did not grasp its main point. In this dissertation, I argue that the Tractatus is so enigmatic and yet so engaging because, although it represents a pivotal moment in the philosophy of language and logic, it is also a major ethical and aesthetic achievement. That is, I hope to show that although the Tractatus is a response to the problems raised by Russell and Frege, its aim and form are essential to grasping its "solution." However, it is difficult to discern the significance of Wittgenstein's aim and style in the text itself; so, to illustrate the nature of the difficulty of the Tractatus, I compare it to the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard and Socrates. In particular, I argue that the interpretive difficulties surrounding the Tractatus resemble what has come to be called "the Socratic problem," and what should be recognized as "the Kierkegaardian problem."

"The Socratic problem" is that it is virtually impossible to distinguish Socrates' voice from the many who have written about him, since he did not write his own philosophy. Similarly, what I call "the Kierkegaardian problem" consists in the fact that although Kierkegaard did write his own philosophy, it is virtually impossible to identify his own voice behind the voices of his many pseudonyms. So, I hope to show that, like Socrates and Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein did not say enough to settle disagreements about what he actually believed - that is, he creates what we might call "the Wittgensteinian problem." What unifies the three "problems," moreover, is that they each represent a kind of irony and silence, which Kierkegaard thought is essential to ethics, philosophy, and life.

One aim of the dissertation is to uncover the virtues of irony and silence in philosophy. Although there are many virtues, perhaps the most important is that they challenge the common assumption underlying traditional philosophy that philosophy is valuable only if it presents clear arguments in favor of clear theses or views.

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