top of page

Wittgenstein's 'Tractatus' Philosophical Issues Still Impact Readers Century Later.

How is it that false statements, such as “horses have eight legs”, can be just as meaningful as true statements, such as “horses have four legs”?

Whence comes the order of thought? What if the rules of logic were to change in the same way that the laws of physics may be described?

Is there such a thing as an ethical fact?

What would life be like if we finally found the answers to the philosophical puzzles that have plagued us for generations?

When Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (or "the Tractatus") was released a century ago, it provided answers to these and other concerns.

As far as we know, Wittgenstein only ever wrote and published the Tractatus. Much of it was written when he was an Italian prisoner of war during World War I, lending it an air of existential mystery.

Although nearly no one has agreed with its major arguments, the Tractatus has had a tremendous impact on philosophy. It is a collection of numbered aphorisms that is both eccentric and smart.

Wittgenstein was a strong opponent of the idea. Just a few years after its publication, he began to doubt his own findings.

Wittgenstein's goal in writing this tiny work was to eliminate all philosophical difficulties by demonstrating that they are the result of a misunderstanding of language's fundamental logic. Once this ambiguity is resolved, he argued, we'll see that "what can be stated at all can be spoken clearly and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence."

That "must" can be viewed as a moral requirement.

Wittgenstein maintained that both reality and language are grounded in a certain form of logic, and he set out to describe that logic in the Tractatus. For language to work, he reasoned, the two must reflect one another.

Within this logical framework, he reasoned, are many distinct facts, all of which may be expressed precisely. However, the structure can be "shown" rather than discussed.

Wittgenstein quickly classifies as nonsensical any other propositions, including the vast tracts of Western philosophy devoted to considerations of ethics, theology, and metaphysics 

Atomism in logic

The development of the periodic table by chemists, which lists the elements and their chemical symbols, was a major step forward in the study of physics and chemistry. This allowed scientists to formulate descriptions of the chemical reactions that produce commonplace materials like water, sugar, and soil.

Similar hopes were held by early analytic philosophers like Bertrand Russell at the time Wittgenstein was writing the Tractatus. Using predicate logic, they attempted to outline every conceivable permutation of those atoms. The term "logical atomism" describes the overall goal of this work.

In 1911, after Wittgenstein's arrival at Cambridge, he began studying under Russell. To finish Russell's logical atomist programme, Wittgenstein worked hard. His outspoken rejection of its strategies served as a driving force in his later accomplishments.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Wittgenstein's professor. Photographed in 1936. This picture is in the public domain.

The Tractatus's dedication to logical atomism is seen in its treatment of data as unique and independent pieces. While everything else stays the same, Wittgenstein argues that "any item can be the case or not the case."

The reality of the world is based on the presence of states of affairs, which are made up of elementary particles.

In language, a fact is expressed by a proposition made up of a string of words. What are these seemingly innocuous things? They "make up the essence of the world," as Wittgenstein puts them, although the philosopher gives no concrete instances.

Conceptualization using Images

Wittgenstein's Picture Theory of Meaning is his solution to the problem of how to use language to explain something that is incorrect in a meaningful way.

The idea that claims may serve as visuals is absurd. When he says this, Wittgenstein is referring to the fact that a valid argument organises its concepts into a structure rather than just listing them.

Take the names "Megan," "Harry," and "loves" as an illustration of this point. By grouping them in various ways, we may paint several representations of circumstances, any of which can be true or untrue while the others stay stable:

The two have developed a strong romantic relationship.

Clearly, Megan has romantic feelings for Harry.

That Harry adores that Harry is a given.

According to Wittgenstein, "a picture depicts a situation in logical space, the presence and non-existence of states of events," and this space is vast enough to accommodate any possible assertion.

This "space" is far larger than the actual space in which we move and exist since it incorporates not just the true but also the false and the simply conceivable.

It's intriguing to speculate about how this area relates to real space.

Odin, a Norse god, riding his eight-legged animal Sleipnir. The image is courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Words can only go so far.

Once we map out the boundaries of the logical realm, we can see that certain crucial considerations do not belong there. The very structure of language allows it to be a faithful reflection of the world around us. Thus, according to Wittgenstein, "Propositions can reflect the totality of reality, but they cannot convey what they must have in common with reality in order to portray it — logical form."

For an illustration of Wittgenstein's concept, consider this mirror, which shows a distorted image of a city street. The cityscape is represented openly via the mirror, but the link between the streetscape and the light that makes this representation possible is not.

Many philosophers have been influenced by what is known as the Correspondence Theory of Truth, which holds that truth is a reflection of reality in language. Inasmuch as it implies that "reality is out there," this hypothesis has garnered the interest of many.

The metaphor isn't without its detractors; Richard Rorty, in his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is among the most prominent (1979). However, the famous quote attributed to Wittgenstein, "The boundaries of my language represent the limits of my universe," seems to include a strong anti-realist message inside the realist metaphor.

And here's how he explains it:

The world is bounded by logic; its boundaries are likewise their own. Since this would imply that logic extends beyond the bounds of the world, the statement "The world contains this and this but not that" is illogical.

Let me explain with an example: suppose I were to say, "The universe includes no actual contradictions." On the surface, this may sound like the profoundly important statement, "The earth contains no eight-legged horses." Yet, the reality is completely distinct.

We may compare the "logical visions" we create of worlds with and without eight-legged horses. However, it may be argued that the logic behind our language prevents us from doing so.

If you're having trouble, try "imagining" a universe where both "it is pouring and it is not raining" are equally accurate statements. Is it going to rain, so you need to bring an umbrella?

Confusing assertion with demonstration

As the Tractatus nears its conclusion, Wittgenstein abruptly departs from logic and launches into a series of aphoristic reflections on ethics, death, God, scepticism, the meaning of life, and the purpose of philosophy.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by the breadth of these potential discussions, but for Wittgenstein they all have one thing in common: they're not stateable. What actually happens is that they are "made apparent" or "revealed" to us.

He plainly denies there are truths regarding ethics:

The key to understanding the world is beyond it. Everything happens as it does, and there is no meaning to anything that occurs in this world. Clearly, ethics are inexpressible non words.

To counter this, I wonder whether ethical discussions don't happen often enough.

Such individuals are confused, Wittgenstein implies. The goodness or badness of an activity does not rest in some type of subsequent reality - as if God would reward us for a “good” deed by giving us money, or punish us for a “bad” action by bopping us on the head. Rather, goodness or badness must “reside in the activity itself”.

A similar issue is the will, considered as our total attitude of optimism or pessimism. This is also somewhere outside our solar system. The following is a direct quote from Wittgenstein:

If the use of good or bad will has any effect on the world, it can only affect the boundaries of that reality and not the facts themselves. The universe of the happy man is a distinct one from that of the miserable guy.”

Hereafter, we must face our inevitable demise. By making a novel comparison between the incommensurable boundaries of logic and those of life, Wittgenstein provides a "New Epicurean" argument that death is nothing to be dreaded.

"Death is not a thing that happens to us [...] Our life has no end, just as our sight has no boundaries."

This then leads to God and the mystical:

“It is not how things are in the world that is mysterious, but that it exists.”

Now Wittgenstein is ready to address all the issues of philosophy. To express what can be stated ("the propositions of natural science") and show the mistake in trying to assert anything else is, he says, the sole purpose of philosophy.

Later, "whenever somebody sought to say anything metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to provide a meaning to specific indications in his assertions," the author writes.

Does the Tractatus itself make sense under this framework? The numbered aphorisms it contains are not convincing as "propositions of natural science." Wittgenstein's famous metaphor of a ladder being climbed up and then thrown away is an effort to preempt this problem.

"My propositions act as elucidations in the following way: he who knows me ultimately acknowledges them as stupid, when he has utilised them — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, when he has climbed up on it.)”

The infamous last line of the composition reads, "What we cannot speak about we must pass through in silence."

Influence that lasts

The Tractatus, despite its brilliance, is sometimes seen as a work written by a young man because of the naïve certitude with which it approaches many important philosophical questions.

Almost immediately after its release, Wittgenstein experienced a crisis of confidence in its ideas. He devoted a large portion of the rest of his career to criticising it from a philosophical perspective. After his untimely passing in 1951, his magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, was released with many comments mocking logical atomism and transcendental philosophising about language.

Logical positivism and the Vienna Circle may be traced back to Moritz Schlick (1882-1936). This image was acquired from the Wikimedia Commons.

Over in Vienna, a group of logical positivists read the Tractatus and were profoundly moved by it. In 1927, Wittgenstein was invited to come for study purposes. Wittgenstein showed there but refused to discuss his work, saying he had lost the ability to comprehend the mind of someone capable of penning such nonsense. Instead, he reclined in silence, his back to the audience, reciting poetry by the Indian spiritual Rabindranath Tagore.

Negative thinkers of logic were not amused. Nonetheless, many Tractatarian concepts were embraced by them. They emphasised formal logic as a crucial tool for philosophical study. They also insisted on a clear demarcation between claims of value and statements based on scientific truth.

Many members of the Vienna Circle emigrated to the United States during World War II, where logical positivism evolved into the analytic philosophy that continues to predominate in the English-speaking world today. However, the hope that these philosophical conundrums could one day be answered is no longer widely held. Today's professional philosophy is a lot more intricate and fragmented endeavour than the young Wittgenstein could have imagined.

Even though it is primarily a work of formal logic, the Tractatus's original idea of purity has maintained an enduring allure in popular culture.

A number of musical settings exist. Indeed, it has served as a source of creativity for Chicago's graffiti artists. The last scene of the full-length Wittgenstein biography by independent director Derek Jarman includes one of the most brilliant and elegant summaries of the Tractatus' ambition, and its fatal defects.

John Maynard Keynes visits a dying Ludwig Wittgenstein and speaks warmly of the "extremely intelligent young guy" who had hoped to rid the world of "imperfections and indeterminacy" by converting it to pure logic.

The earth became covered in a smooth layer of ice, making it unsafe for human habitation. The universe of everyday meanings was "tarnished and worn" by the time Wittgenstein was an elderly man, but he learnt to make do. Although the ice world was "radiant and uncompromising and ruthless," he nonetheless felt a pang of nostalgia for it.

This had led to tension that he had been unable to ease. This conundrum has not lost its power to stir the souls of philosophers even after the Tractatus was first published a century ago.

Legg, C. (2022, July 14). 100 years after Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus’, its philosophical dilemmas continue to move readers. Scroll.