Elementary propositions are the constituent parts of complex or ordinary propositions. That is to say, ordinary propositions can be analyzed into more basic kinds of propositions, which can be further analyzed into the most fundamental parts, until no further analysis is possible. Once we reach the point where no further analysis is possible, then we have what Wittgenstein calls the elementary proposition
. The elementary proposition puts us into direct contact with the world because they are logical pictures
of atomic facts. Atomic facts are the smallest constituent parts of more complex facts. We are in direct contact with the world, because the smallest analyzable proposition, the elementary proposition, puts us in contact with the smallest analyzable fact - the atomic fact (facts exist in the world).
An elementary proposition is the simplest kind of proposition, and it is made up of names (T 4.22). What is a name? "A name cannot be dissected any further by means of a definition: it is a primitive sign (T 3.26)." Names refer to objects in the world, and objects are simple (T 3.203, 2.02). While it is true that elementary propositions are the simplest kind of proposition, they can be analyzed or broken into smaller parts; however, these parts are no longer called propositions, they are called names
. Hence, a complete analysis of a proposition is the following: Complex proposition -------> elementary proposition -------> and finally, names
Nowhere does Wittgenstein come up with an example of an elementary proposition or name. According to Norman Malcolm, when he asked Wittgenstein about this, Wittgenstein said that it was not his job as a logician to decide whether this thing or that was a simple or complex thing. His thinking was that this was an empirical matter and it was not up to him. However, to be fair Wittgenstein understood the problem and makes reference to it in the Notebooks on page 68 (Fann, p. 12).
So what we have then is the following: Complex propositions
can be analyzed into the most basic kind of proposition - called elementary propositions
. Elementary propositions are made up of simple terms called names
. He concludes that names
must refer to objects in the world, that is, the object is its referent
. If the referent does not exist, then the proposition is senseless.
The idea that names must refer to objects is a view that goes all the way back to Augustine, and this is the view of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus
; and it's this view that he criticizes in the Philosophical Investigations
. However, remember that language in part does
name objects, but it does more than just name objects - much more. This can be seen (the naming of objects) in the primitive language-game that Wittgenstein describes in paragraph 2 of the Investigations. Moreover, we observe the use of ostensive definitions when we teach a child the use of words like pencil, cow, car, cat, etc. Therefore, we want to be careful in making the claim that language does not use the ostensive definition model - it does, or that Wittgenstein completely abandons this idea, he doesn't. It is just that this view (the view that language names objects) is a very narrow description of language.
So what we have then is the following: Complex propositions can be analyzed into the most basic kind of propositions - called elementary propositions. Elementary propositions are made up of simple terms called names. He concludes that names must refer to objects in the world, that is, the object is its referent. If the referent does not exist, then the proposition is senseless. One question that naturally arises from Wittgenstein's thinking is the following: we often make reference to things that do not exist, and yet we understand the sense of the proposition - how is this possible? After all we refer to Hobbits, witches, little green monsters, and yet they do not exist. We understand because we understand the concepts - not because they point to some object
; and we understand because propositions present a picture, and these pictures either mirror reality or they do not.