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Book of the Week — Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“The world is everything, and that is the case.”

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)
New York; London: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1922
BC135 W5 1992

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna, Austria. He was raised Catholic, despite his mostly Jewish ancestry. Coincidentally, he attended the same school as Adolf Hitler during the years 1904-1905. Wittgenstein was the son of an industrial steel tycoon and the youngest of nine children. His father, Karl Otto Clemens Wittgenstein, raised his children to use the family name and become titans of industry. Sadly, three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers would go on to commit suicide. 

In 1908, Wittgenstein began college studying mechanical engineering and then aeronautics. This led to his fascination with math and, more specifically, with Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics (1903). He was so influenced by the work that he moved to Cambridge in order to study under the author. Reportedly, Wittgenstein said to Russell, “Will you please tell me if I am a complete idiot or not. If I am a complete idiot I should become an aeronaut. If not, I shall become a philosopher.” Luckily, Russell concluded the latter. Their relationship was rather hot and cold, but ultimately led to Russel writing the introduction to what would latter be known as the Tractatus.

“What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.”

During his college years, Wittgenstein’s father died, making him one of the richest men in Europe. He donated some of his wealth to Austrian artists and writers but, ultimately, decided to retreat to a remote part of Norway, in a village called Skjolden. Here Wittgenstein began working on Logik (Notes on Logic), a predecessor to the Tractatus. However, his time in Norway was cut short. When war broke out in 1914, Wittgenstein volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army, despite qualifying for a medical exemption. Throughout his service,  he was commended with a multitude of metals for bravery. He also kept notebooks filled with philosophical and spiritual reflections. These writings would make up the first drafts of the Tractatus, which was completed while Wittgenstein was on military leave in 1918. Its full title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is named after Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1677)

Despite this accomplishment, Wittgenstein was suddenly faced with many tragedies. It was at this time that his uncle passed; his third brother committed suicide; his former lover, David Pinsent (whom the book is dedicated to) died in a plane crash; and a publisher had ultimately refused the Tractatus. By all accounts, Wittgenstein was physically and mentally ill. He frequently talked of suicide, gave away his enormous fortune to his siblings, and announced he was going to be a grade school teacher. A year later, he was working as a gardener for a monastery. When he finally received a position teaching in an elementary school, it was said that he was repeatedly violent towards his students.

“The logical picture of the facts is the thought.”

Three years after its completion, at long last the Tractatus found publication. In 1921, the first edition in German was published in the journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie under the title Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung. It included an introduction by Bertrand Russell, explaining why the work was so important. Without Russell’s introduction, it likely would have never been published — due to Wittgenstein’s obscurity both in style and reputation. Wittgenstein wasn’t happy with Russell’s involvement, either. He called it a “pirate edition” and didn’t think his former mentor truly understood the work. Although an English translation was prepared by Cambridge University Press, it was ultimately turned down because of Wittgenstein’s insistence it be published without Russell’s introduction. An agreement was finally made in 1922 for a bilingual edition, translated by Frank Ramsey. This first English translation is seen by scholars as problematic in many ways. Wittgenstein’s grasp of the English language at the time was very poor, and Ramsey was just a teenager who had only recently learned German. Philosophers often prefer to use the 1961 translation by David Pears and Brian McGuinness.

The book itself is incredibly short and peculiar in its style. It is composed of a series of hierarchical statements. The main seven being:

  • The world is everything and that is the case.
  • What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
  • The logical picture of the facts is the thought. 
  • The thought is the significant proposition.
  • Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions (an elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself).
  • The general form of truth-function is: . This is the general form of proposition.
  • Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

“The thought is the significant proposition.”

These claims are all then elaborated on with sub claims, and sub claims to the sub claims, and so on. The book begins with a preface that introduces many of the ideas that will be revealed within the text. In the first sentence, Wittgenstein writes, “This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it — or similar thoughts.” He expresses his interest in drawing “a limit to thinking, or rather — not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think on both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought).” The main text of the Tractatus begins by creating a framework for the world. Wittgenstein essentially defines the world’s limit, composition, and the relationship between components. 

“The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”

Wittgenstein, then, shifts into the perception of this physical world as perceived by the mind. He represents thoughts (which are representations of the world) as pictures. These pictures are made of elements. Each element represents an object. 

“The totality of true thoughts is a picture of the world.”

“Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions (an elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself).

This representation of the world in the mind is seen as the inherent limit of thought. The picture is tied to reality, in that it reflects it, but a picture does not have the ability to picture itself, because the mind cannot see itself. The book then shifts to how we translate our perceptions of the world into language. Wittgenstein describes propositions, which are representation of pictures through language. He also relates that inherent in a proposition is its sense (as opposed to nonsense). 

“In the proposition the thought is expressed perceptibly through the senses.”

According to Wittgenstein, Logic gives structure and limits to what can and cannot be said. Every proposition is either true or false. This true and falseness is in relation to its ability to express a picture, and that picture is true or false in its relation to reality. Wittgenstein uses this tether between language and the physical world through thought to discredit most works of philosophy as being nonsense because he sees them as fundamentally saying what cannot be said. Wittgenstein proposes an alternative way of thinking about language. 

“Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless.
We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness.
Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language.
(They are of the same kind as the question whether the Good is more or less identical than the Beautiful.)
And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.”

“The general form of truth-function is: [\bar p,\bar\xi, N(\bar\xi)]. This is the general form of proposition.”

After going through the relations of language, logic, the world and the mind, Wittgenstein seems to settle on the fact — made famous by his quote — “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” He sheds doubt on any information concluded outside of our experience, because of the fact it occurs outside of our world. That is not to say that things do not exist outside our perception, just outside the bounds of the language, which is so inextricably tied to our perception. It is within this knowledge of the inherent limitations of language, Wittgenstein seems to revel. 

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.
(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)”

Strangely, the book realizes that the book itself is saying something it has said it cannot say. This book is not tied to the strict world of perception. In expressing the limitations of language, it positions itself outside of those limitations.

“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them.
(He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.”

Wittgenstein then concludes the book with the simple sentence…

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

After the publication of Tractatus, Wittgenstein believed he had solved philosophy. There was nothing left to be written, because none of it could be expressed through language. He continued teaching unhappily. He was living frugally, in a room with only space for a bed, wash-table, nightstand, and a small chair. His family was still rich and frequently tried to give him gifts, but Wittgenstein refused. He retired from teaching after hitting one of his students so hard they collapsed. He again became a gardener, and tried his hand as an architect, designing his sister’s house. He took one year to design the door handles and another to design the radiator. After the house was near completion, Wittgenstein realized one of the ceilings was thirty millimeters too low. To everyone’s inconvenience, he had the entire room removed so the ceiling could be raised the 30 millimeters in order for it to maintain a ratio of 3:1, 3:2, 2:1.

“Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

The Tractatus steadily circulated, garnering Wittgenstein international acclaim and controversy in the world of philosophy. On the strength of this singular writing, he would be named a fellow at Trinity College and eventually elected chair. His former schoolmate, Adolf Hitler, would go on to establish the Nuremberg racial laws that now made Wittgenstein legally a Jewish person. Luckily, he was safe in England. During World War II he volunteered to work at a hospital. Later, Wittgenstein fell in love. Later, he got prostate cancer. Later, he died on April 29, 1951 — a few days after after turning sixty-two. His last words were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Posthumously, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously in 1953, with the first edition an English translation by G. E. M. Anscombe. In a 1999 survey, the Investigations would be named as the most important book of twentieth-century philosophy, while Ludwig Wittgenstein is remembered as one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Fittingly, the posthumous text contradicts many of the ideas postulated in the Tractatus

 Contributed by Henry Harrison, Rare Books Assistant


1 Comment
  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 20:00h, 10 May Reply

    “To everyone’s inconvenience, he had the entire room removed so the ceiling could be raised the 30 millimeters in order for it to maintain a ratio of 3:1, 3:2, 2:1.”

    I can’t decide if he is a genius, or insane. All of his philosophy was wild and ostentatious.

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