Wittgenstein's Tractatus at 100

The legacy of a masterpiece

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 A work of philosophical genius according to some, a work of art according to others. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus was published 100 years ago, in 1921. It’s a book that according to its own philosophy of language, is mostly nonsense. Language, according to the strict logic of the Tractatus, is meaningful only when it functions as a picture of the world, a crystal-clear reflection of the structure of reality. It follows that most philosophical questions are meaningless and have to be condemned to silence. The Tractatus went on to influence philosophical movements like the logical positivists, but its lasting significance remains a matter for debate. Leading Wittgenstein scholars offer their views on the question of its legacy today.


A.W. Moore

Like any other great philosophical work, the Tractatus has provoked vigorous exegetical debate.  And like any other great philosophical work, it has inspired both discipleship and opposition.  But unlike many great philosophical works, it has not done the former as a simple prelude to doing the latter.  Rather, its doing the former has been a significant component in its doing the latter.  One of the main points of contention between disciples and opponents has been precisely how to assess a work that generates such a variety of different reactions.  And this in turn is because of the extraordinary way in which, both implicitly and explicitly, the Tractatus requires its readers to acknowledge that most of it is nonsense.  In asking what we are to make of a work that does that, we are asking a question that is at once both exegetical and evaluative.  The Tractatus draws attention to itself in a way that few other philosophical works do.  It fascinates and inspires in a way that few other philosophical works do.  I think of it as being, among all the great twentieth-century philosophical works, the one that can most readily be classified as a great work of art.

A. W. Moore is Professor of philosophy and Fellow of St Hugh's College, University of Oxford. He is the author of The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things. 


Marie McGinn

The work begins with a picture of how propositions signify that gradually expands into a picture of the nature of logic and logical inference, mathematics, scientific laws, the self, ethics and the limits of philosophy. All these topics are bound together. Language is a mirror of the world. It pictures facts. It has a crystalline logic. A proposition contains within its sense everything that is logically entailed if it is true. The self is not part of the world. Value lies outside the world. Philosophy ends in silence. The work is a war book. Ideal and other worldly and intensely personal. It is a significant work in the history of philosophy of logic and language, but it also has a unique power to fascinate, by the intensity with which its idealised vision of language and its profound implications are worked out. Wittgenstein later realised this ideal picture cannot be made to fit human language – the work contains fatal flaws - which he associates with a tendency to “sublimate” the sign, to picture thinking as “something unique”. He pivots away from the ideal, back to the rough ground, looking at how humans operate with signs. But it remains the starting point.

 Marie McGinn is Emeritus Professor of philosophy at the University of York. She is the author of Elucidating the Tractatus: Wittgenstein's Early Philosophy of Logic and Language.


José Zalabardo

What I would characterise as the core of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus includes striking accounts of the structure of reality and of how we represent it in language and thought. Wittgenstein doesn’t really explain the problems he is trying to solve with these accounts, but once we manage to identify these problems, his solutions strike us as hugely compelling. However, the greatness of his contribution might not lie so much in his solutions as in his profound understanding of the problems—in his realisation that there are serious difficulties attending our conception of the structure of reality and of how we represent it. His solutions, appealing as they may seem, are intrinsically unstable. If we can only represent the world in the way Wittgenstein describes, then it’s not possible to produce the kind of representations that would be needed for describing how we represent the world—his solutions entail their own impossibility. He presents this denigration of the philosophical enterprise as his ultimate goal, but even if he fails to achieve this, the value of his contribution is not diminished. If he is wrong in thinking that his proposals are nonsensical, he has provided, malgré lui, powerful insights into fundamental philosophical problems.

José Zalabardo is Professor of philosophy at UCL and author of Representation and Reality in Wittgenstein's Tractatus.


Genia Schönbaumsfeld

The Tractatus’s crystalline purity continues to fascinate philosophers. It presents us with an a priori order of the world that must be utterly simple, prior to all experience and ‘of the purest crystal’ – a ‘super-order’ between ‘super-concepts’ (Philosophical Investigations §97), far removed from the workings of ordinary language. Although later Wittgenstein would go on to dismantle his early self’s dazzling construction, the Tractatus also contains key insights that survived the 180º turn to the later conception. Most significant among these is the thought that philosophical questions are not false, but senseless; that they arise from a misunderstanding of the logic of our language. Philosophy, for both the early and later Wittgenstein, is an activity – not a body of knowledge – designed to free us from the illusions in which we become entangled, because language ‘disguises the thought’ (Tractatus 4.002). The idea that philosophical problems cannot be solved, but only dissolved – that the deepest problems are really no problems (Tractatus 4.003) – continues to be a revolutionary notion that antagonizes those who prefer metaphysical theorizing. So, paradoxically, the Tractatus is both disease and cure: simultaneously in thrall to a conception of language and logic whose downfall it, at the same time, serves to precipitate.   

Genia Schönbaumsfeld is Professor of philosophy at the university of Southampton and author of A Confusion of the Spheres – Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein on Philosophy and Religion.


Arif Ahmed

We all make mistakes – slips of the tongue or on smooth ground – when we learn to read or walk. Humanity makes mistakes – feudalism, slavery – on the path from anarchy to civilization. Philosophy’s wrong turns had to be taken to be recognized as such. The Tractatus was among them.

Its ideal was uncompromising logical transparency: what you can think at all can be thought with absolute clarity. So facts cannot have connections not already there in our thoughts about them. Causal connections would be of this sort; so too the relations between a fact and my thought of it; or between a fact and its value. All these must go. The describable universe is a contingent, soulless, value-free assembly of logical atoms in the void. ‘The rest is silence.’

‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ The Tractatus took logic’s demands as far as they could go. It became – like the Summa Theologica or the Art of Fugue – a monument to an ideal whose inner resources it had exhausted. Or rather its mausoleum, because what philosophy has learnt from it is to reject the ideal of logical perfection. In the later words of its author: ‘Back to the rough ground!’     

Arif Ahmed is University Reader in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and author of  Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: a Reader’s guide.


Michael Morris

The obvious legacy of the Tractatus is through its influence on the logical positivists, which lies at the root of a general scepticism about metaphysics which persists to this day. But it deserves to be remembered for two deeper things.  First, at its heart is the thought that if words are meaningful in virtue of being correlated with something outside language, that thing outside language has to have something like a syntax, and language cannot then give you an independent view of that syntax (or quasi-syntax). That thought underlies Wittgenstein’s criticisms of Russell and Frege, and is the core of the distinction between saying and showing. It also lies behind some of the most profound contemporary concerns about realism and idealism. The other deep and memorable (and also obvious) thing about the Tractatus is that it’s a work of philosophy which is also self-consciously a work of art: it tries to do what it takes to be the business of art, which is to show reality as composed, with every fact shown together with the space of what could have been, and thereby make it possible to accept reality as it is.

Michael Morris is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex, and author of The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein's Tractatus.


Chon Tejedor

Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus remains revolutionary in terms of both purposes and method. The book is a carefully crafted construction in which different types of propositions are combined with each other with a view to producing a series of deliberately considered effects.  The first of these effects is a form of experiential inoculation: an inoculation against metaphysical positions that afford us a distorted understanding of the importance of our place in the world. For instance, by engaging with the Tractatus' remarks on solipsism (where solipsism is the view that I am a necessary condition of the world as given in representation), we come to see that solipsism ultimately defeats itself and dissolves into nonsense. Wittgenstein hoped that this process of dissolution into nonsense would yield a conceptual clarity capable of effecting a profound ethical transformation in the reader's dispositions to think, speak and act. In other words: in her attitude to and manner of positioning herself in the world.  In a letter to his friend, Paul Engelmann, Wittgenstein went as far as to describe the Tractatus as "a machine for becoming decent". If the Tractatus is indeed such a machine, it is one of the utmost finesse, elegance and awe-inspiring beauty.

Chon Tejedor is Professor of philosophy at the University of València and author of The Early Wittgenstein on Metaphysics, Natural Science, Language and Value.


Lee Braver

The greatest success of the Tractatus is that it failed so brilliantly, its best legacy its patricidal progeny.

Early analytic philosophy is a philosophy of the ideal. It thinks in capital letters and definite articles. It seeks The Platonic Paradigm of Language while downgrading actual speech to confused echoings against the cave walls.

The Tractatus itself is ambiguous about this idea, but its impact was decisively in its favor—inspiring quests to ruthlessly expose the nonsense of normal talk—except for one reader. Upon later rereading it, Wittgenstein regretted its “grave mistakes” and wrote a number of late masterpieces to counter their influence. It’s no accident that his Philosophical Investigations begins with Confessions.

The late work renounces his previous yearning for crystalline perfection. It settles into the mess of living, giving up the notion that linguistic questions can ever be conclusively settled or that we are settling for mere shadows of some Real Thing. It speaks of what it is to speak as a human in the world rather than constructing a transcendent logic for silent souls outside. 

For believers in the ideal, the late work is sloppy, lazy, an abandonment of the use of rigorous argumentation to attain systematic knowledge—the philosophical ideal. Back to the frictionless ice! For those, however, who think philosophy’s purpose is not to help us transcend but rather to appreciate our immanence, these writings represent a rare bout of sanity in the history of philosophy, paving the way for the post-WWII analytic philosophy of the ordinary, the actual, the human.

Lee Braver is Professor of philosophy at the University of South Flodira, and author of Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.


Michael Potter

The Tractatus supposes that the world is wholly represented in thought, without residue, as what is or is not the case. What is most striking about the book is the single-mindedness with which Wittgenstein works out the consequences of this supposition. In particular, he shows what conception of logic such a supposition requires. In doing this he convincingly exposes a series of errors in Frege's and Russell's accounts of logic (for instance, their belief in "logical objects"). Even when he himself errs (for instance, in his argument for atomism) his errors illuminate topics that remain controversial today (in this case, semantic externalism). Wittgenstein's account of logic leaves out at least two sorts of apparently declarative sentence, the semantic and the ethical. What is least convincing about the book is its attempt to treat these two sorts as one.

Michael Potter is Professor of logic at the University of Cambridge, and life fellow at Fitzwilliam College. He is the author of  The Rise of Analytic Philosophy 1877 - 1930: From Frege to Ramsey.


Gilad Nir

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is one of the great works of the philosophical tradition — a book that will continue to exact the attention of philosophers in centuries to come. One of the most striking features of the Tractatus is the manner in which it engages with the tradition. Philosophical critique, as Wittgenstein sees it, does not assert the falsity of this or that thesis, but rather exposes the nonsensicality of the manner in which the problems are posed, in response to which such theses are put forth. Wittgenstein’s mentors, Frege and Russell, have already shown how in specific cases, a successful logical analysis dispels confusions and thereby enables us to overcome this or that philosophical aporia. Wittgenstein radicalizes this idea and turns it into a new vision of philosophy, which is at the same time a return to its Socratic origins: philosophy is not a theoretical endeavour, but the activity of the elucidation of thinking. Yet it would not be a proper alternative to the theoretical approach if Wittgenstein’s critical elucidation had to be grounded in further theoretical considerations. So the logical principles which help distinguish sense from nonsense must not be construed as elements of a substantive theory (as Frege and Russell thought). Indeed the very idea that we can meaningfully draw the limits of sense is put under immense pressure in the Tractatus. This is famously captured in the penultimate paragraph of the book, where Wittgenstein admits that his own elucidations are nonsensical but also assures us that once we have used them to reach clarity, we can throw away the ladder on which we climbed.

Gilad Nir is a postoctoral fellow at the department of philosophy, University of Potsdam, and author of several academic articles on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, including The Tractatus and the Riddles of Philosophy.

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Hazel McQueen 23 December 2021