Wittgensteins Ladder

"My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it."

LudwigWittgenstein, TractatusLogicoPhilosophicus

Similar to Schild's Ladder, used for parallel transport in curved spaces. Greg Egan wrote a SF novel by that title, although he was mostly using it as a metaphor for the question of retaining personal identity even as one undergoes changes due to one's path in life.


One example of such a ladder would be spaghetti code, procedural programming, object orientation, pattern orientation (see SellingPatternsViaProfiling). Another one might be software written in a higher language compiled by a compiler written in assembler running on microcode using transistors and so on. (Note: some things the assembler does, for example, are conceptually "wrong" when seen from a higher-level standpoint, e.g. the equivalent of gotos). Then, of course, there's the use of words to convey the QualityWithoutaName and other ZenConcepts.

That's three uses. Maybe WittgensteinsLadder is a pattern (what kind? there must be more like it!):

Problem: Communication is difficult because your audience doesn't have the language or concepts to understand what is to be communicated.

Context: Teaching/Learning programming; Teaching/Learning philosophy; "Teaching" (a computer) programming languages; ...?

Forces: "Teacher" and "learner" speak languages that are very different; the teacher's language is at a much higher level, that is, much more "meta", to be buzzword-compliant; the language of the learner may contain elements that, when seen from the teacher's perspective, are obsolete or even wrong.

Solution: The teacher uses a language of level (n-1) in order to teach language (n), even though this language is "wrong" from his standpoint.

Rationale: Patterns amuse me (okay, maybe this is a meta-rationale) :-)

-- FalkBruegmann


ExtremeProgramming might itself be an example of this. -- SureshVv?

What would it mean for this to be true? We do explain our rules, we do follow them, we don't consider them nonsense. However, they are phrased so as to be striking. When you understand them, in context, we mean them to be followed quite precisely. -- RonJeffries

ExtremeProgramming might be an example of WittgensteinsLadder in another way: You start by implementing simple things. The manifestation of your code as a running program is a "proposition" in Wittgenstein's sense. Your customer may or may not agree with what you propose. You learn and change things, getting to ever more complex tasks, refactoring all the time. At some point, you might discover that none of your original ideas remain in what your system has become. You might even notice that they were plain wrong from today's perspective. You have thrown away at least part of the ladder after climbing a few steps. -- HaskoHeinecke

I'm sorry, but I think the interpretation of Wittgenstein is not correct. Wittgenstein is getting at something that is beyond language in the sense that it can be expressed in language. Instead he is trying to demonstrate it through the use of language. It is close to saying "I can't tell you, but maybe you get it when I talk about it long enough." -- MichaelSchuerig

I think, applying Wittgenstein's thoughts to software development means stretching the matter anyway. Let's say, my interpretation is unorthodox. :-) -- HaskoHeinecke

I'm teaching my kids math by HomeSchooling. Early on I teach them "you can't divide 7 by 3". The following year, I teach them WittgensteinsLadder :) -- JohnClonts

Fond memories of math class. First you can't take 3 from 2, then you do it. You can't take the square root of a negative number in 7th grade, but just wait until next year :-)

I was out sick from math class the day LongDivision? was introduced. The next day Teacher asks me to give an example problem. I, having obviously missed the "You Can't Do That" instruction from the day before, say something like "3 divided by 7". Class laughs and I develop a lifelong aversion to LongDivision?, despite not really understanding why it was impossible. I invented RepeatedMultiplication? as a workaround (or thought I did) and that served me for the rest of my school career.

All of this, of course, leads me to think of ThomasSKuhn and TheStructureOfScientificRevolutions. One of his main points is not only does the previous paradigm's worldview look ludicrous, but that some knowledge is lost in the shift to the new one. "Progress" is somewhat illusory, and previous scientific beliefs are not "wrong." -- Jim Jarrett


RichardFeynman tried to write his course on physics without using Wittgenstein's Ladder. (He also tried to make it so every lecture contained at least one thing which at least one student wouldn't understand.) -- DaveHarris

Yeah, but if I remember Genius correctly, he got to quantum mechanics before he had introduced velocity! (By repute, it was an undergraduate physics course understandable only by postdocs.)


This is a dangerous route to follow. There have been many FalseProphets? who have hidden behind this as a way to prey on their followers. "Sure, I said that celibacy is the way, but not for the Enlightened One!"


An alternate view is that each "next level" is largely "inclusive:" It shows where and why the previous view was "right."

Relativity proves that Newtonian physics was "wrong." But relativity also shows that Newtonian formulas are "remarkably close" in "most common situations."

In spite of relativity proving Newton wrong, and quantum physics proving relativity wrong, people who design roller coasters still use Newtonian formulas. Today's roller coasters don't get up very close to the speed of light, nor are they currently built close to black holes. That would make a pretty awesome roller coaster, though! -- MikaelBrockman

Quantum physics don't prove relativity wrong, at least not when I studied physics ... NissimHadar

(Did you study BellsTheorem, Nissim?) -- EricHodges Can't that be interpreted as meaning relativity proves QM wrong?

In the programming realm, I'm inclined to say that Modular Programming built on Structured Programming and generally conforms to it. And that Object Oriented programming, likewise, builds on and conforms to Modular Programming ideas. How often do you see methods over a page long or with multiple entry and exit points in a "well-designed" OO system? I suspect that if you measure any typical "well designed" OO library, using modular metrics - coupling, cohesion and lines per function - you'd get "very good" values.

Good OO programmers do in fact use multiple exit points exactly because the methods are short, see for instance GuardClause. In general of course, most ideas build on some and are in conflict with some other ones. -- JonBratseth


It seems to me that JamesClerkMaxwell in the development of his famous equations is reputed to have used all sorts of visualization aids, especially various mechanical analogs that had properties he was trying to understand. These played a role like scaffolding during the development of the theory, but like scaffolding, were discarded at the end. So that is similar to WittgensteinsLadder seen as a set of aids which are used to develop something, but are dispensed with at the end. In a sense, the entire patterns movement is about just such things as these, but very generative and reusable ones. -- RaySchneider


A key issue in understanding Wittgenstein is to realize that he was operating in a context that considered language primarily as a mechanism for description. His earlier philosophy (namely, the Tractatus) was still trying to figure out how to understand language precisely as a descriptive tool.

As a metaphor, the ladder was really something that he acted on. Wittgenstein threw away his own work in philosophy, but later came back, realizing that language had impact and could make things happen. Much of his later work is trying to demonstrate (not prove) that language has this force.

-- BretPettichord


Wittgenstein was an arrogant and just plain wrong. Much of his ideas have been discredited. The only things that stand are the techniques like truth tables.

Instead, go read Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, or The Logic of Scientific Theory. Basically he says that theories are only scientific if they are open to falsification. Same applies to code. All code must be able to be examined, prodded and eventually proven wrong. This is why Open Source will be better than hidden proprietary vendor code every time. Same applies to patterns, nothing is written in stone or should constitute an inviolable bible.

BTW - Wittgenstein believed all philosophy was pointless and nothing better than a linguistic parlor game. That would be a bit like saying all design, patterns, code is pointless and just some sort of game in logic.

-- AndyConnors?

Much of Popper's ideas have also been discredited. Go figure.

Just because the ideas have been discredited doesn't mean that they were irrelevant. They led people to think beyond them. Isn't that the point of this page? -- TimMoore

I've enjoyed reading both Wittgenstein and Popper. I would never recommend that someone read one instead of the other. I agree with all the claims here made about Popper's ideas. The digs on Wittgenstein strike me as TinFoilHat material. -- BretPettichord

Interestingly, falsificationism is not falsifiable and so it fails its own criteria for being scientific -- AnonymousDonor

I put the same point to someone on another Wiki. As I understand, the standard popparian answer to this is that falsificationism is not science: it is philosophy. I'm not saying that this is a satisfactory answer. Especially since I can imagine criteria for its falsification. A historical study ought to show whether the principles of falsificationism have been adhered to in successful scientific episodes. Or one could perform a study into the affects of popper's philosophy on scientific research to date. Popparians could of course avoid or dismiss falsification of their own philosophy, but then one must ask, why would they? -- ChrisSteinbach


Wittgenstein was an arrogant and just plain wrong. Much of his ideas have been discredited. - by Popperians Much of Popper's ideas have also been discredited. - by Wittgensteinians

It depends who you talk to.

"Wittgenstein believed all philosophy was [...] a linguistic parlor game. That would be a bit like saying all design, patterns, code is pointless and just some sort of game in logic." No, it wouldn't.

Why so? Software follows from design and code. What follows from philosophy? -- ChrisSteinbach

A life worth living.


BTW - Wittgenstein believed all philosophy was pointless and nothing better than a linguistic parlor game. Also wrong. He stopped working after Tractata, but resumed much later, rediscovering an interest for philosophy. Sadly, he passed away fairly shortly after


A first step approach in the progress toward an objective. Success orientation suggests that as successes are encountered in the progress toward a goal are claimed, methods used to reach that intermediate point need not become burdens in the progress forward. Having served a purpose, and no longer needed, one need not keep or carry forth the method to a succeeding step. One can call for it (using a metaphorical cell-phone) from an advanced position, if it is found to be of further use. If however one is on an expedition or exploration in a watery expanse, and the method is a canoe rather than a ladder, carrying it forward is not only useful but essential. -- DonaldNoyes

See Also:
  3.343  - definition - http://www.kfs.org/~jonathan/witt/t3343en.html
  6.54   - ladder     - http://www.kfs.org/~jonathan/witt/t654en.html
  3.3442 - map        - http://www.kfs.org/~jonathan/witt/mapen.html
Consider:
CategoryEducation, CategoryPhilosophy

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