“The World Is Everything That Is The Case” – a sentence analysed by Jeff Dolven

From The Paris Review:

In our new eight-part series, Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven will take apart and put back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence every week. Tom Toro will illustrate each sentence Dolven chooses.

The first sentence is the opening sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “The World Is Everything That is the Case” (which I was more familiar with as “the world is all that is the case”:

Nonetheless, embarking on what will be a set of eight meditations on the sentence—what it is, what it can be for or about—I’ll propose one purpose that all sentences have in common. The purpose of a sentence is to end. If this is a property of all sentences, any ought to do for an example, but here is one particularly determined to be done with itself:

1 The world is everything that is the case.

It comes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as translated from German into English by C. K. Ogden in 1922. Beginning, as it does, with a capital letter (let’s ignore the number for the moment), and ending with a period, it advertises its own completeness. The completeness is grammatical: there is a subject and a verb, the minimum conditions, then a predicate nominative, and then a simple relative clause. It is also complete rhetorically, with the double “is” almost suggesting a palindrome, folding neatly in the middle. You could just about read it backward as well as forward. That wouldn’t be a good idea logically, but it asserts a certain self-containedness, a certain autonomy, which a sentence is supposed to have.

Autonomy: says who? Aristotle, for one, in his Rhetoric, where he says that a sentence is a complete thought. The definition has been repeated often since, by philosophers and English teachers, though really it only pushes the question back into the darkness of the mind. What is a complete thought? Why should a thought be complete? Why should a sentence mirror that completeness? Surely it is possible to imagine speech as a continuous self-narration, flowing through everybody’s works and days as a song for the stream of consciousness. Might that song not be truer to mental life? In a world without sentences, we could talk to one another in fluent duets, like they do in operas, or even interlock our words like gamelan players. Might not that world be a happier world to live in? We might kiss continuously, too, long, soundness embraces mouth to mouth, without the constant suction-punctuation of each discrete detachment, all those little betrayals to repair.

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