Saying, Showing and Doing

The distinction Wittgenstein makes between saying and showing in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a famous one. He later repudiated that exact account, but it could be said there was a kernel of truth in that distinction that remained important to his writing afterwards.

What I am talking about is his later distinction between empirical and grammatical propositions. Empirical propositions may be true or false, their truth or falsity depending on the way the world is. For example, Sherbrooke is east of Montreal. Grammatical propositions are neither true nor false, and retain their status regardless of the way the world is. For example, you kick with your foot. In a sense, empirical propositions ‘say’ and grammatical ‘show’. Do not be misled, since these are idiosyncratic and not normal uses of ‘say’ and ‘show’.

In the normal cases of saying and showing, one is also doing. Yet, we make an important distinction between saying and doing in the ethical arena. The threat of violence is not as bad as violence, for instance. Insofar as the threat of violence is bad, our judgment of it is also context-dependent. Why threaten? we might ask. From another current popular angle: words are not violence.

Here our discussion connects with the notion of free speech, the idea that while it makes sense that one cannot do what one wishes, one should be allowed to say what one wishes, with certain exceptions applying. What are those exceptions and why are they exceptional?