Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: A Trailblazing Work (He Later Disavowed)

How did the major work of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy attempt to revolutionize the subject as a whole?

Jul 12, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
wittgenstein tractatus logico philosophicus


Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early and later philosophical works differ so starkly that people usually refer to it as either “early Wittgenstein” or “later Wittgenstein.” In this article, we will explore this difference and give an analysis of Wittgenstein’s most influential early work: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (henceforth referred to as Tractatus).


In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein tries to redefine philosophy, and embarks on an attempt to explain the relationship between thought, language and the world, sense and nonsense, and other ideas. How much did Wittgenstein have to break with philosophical tradition to do so?


Who Was Ludwig Wittgenstein? 

ludwig wittgenstein photograph black white
Photograph of Ludwig Wittgenstein, c.1940, via The Paris Review.


Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austria in 1889, but spent much of his life in England, in two stints as a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His earliest philosophical influences were Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, and the earlier part of his philosophical work was focused squarely on the areas of philosophy which interested the two elder philosophers: logic, language, and the relationship between them. Yet Wittgenstein’s earlier work was at the same time a decisive break with the work of both men, although Russell clearly regarded Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as a work of great significance.


Portrait Bertrand Russell
Portrait of Bertrand Russell, 1957, via National Archives of the Netherlands.


It is worth clarifying that the emphasis placed on Wittgenstein’s “earlier” work (which includes the Tractatus) as opposed to his later work is meant to indicate the exceptional discontinuity between the two. It is common for philosophers to talk about “early Wittgenstein” and “later Wittgenstein” as though they are two different philosophers, and on many interpretations, they can be treated as if they were.

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Of course, not all of those who study Wittgenstein agree with that way of interpreting his work, but it is a distinction that is worth bearing in mind as Wittgenstein’s earlier work is explained here. All philosophers agree that Wittgenstein’s later work, of which the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations is the culmination, makes no attempt to build on the foundations laid by the Tractatus, and so whatever affinities there are, are to be found after some degree of interpretative work has been done. In any case, what follows should be taken as an introduction to the Tractatus and the Tractatus alone, not Wittgenstein’s philosophy at large.


Method in the Tractatus 

temple of mind painting
The Temple of the Mind by Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1885, via Buffalo AKG Art Museum.


The Tractatus is an attempt to redefine philosophy. Wittgenstein does this by contrasting it with the method and outcome of the natural sciences. Whereas science (successful science, anyway) is characterized by the production of true results, philosophy is instead an “activity,” a way of thinking, and not a set “body of thought.” Those philosophers who have attempted to produce knowledge are doing it wrong.


The activity in question is, for Wittgenstein, that of thinking clearly. The emphasis, to an unusual degree, must be placed on the last word. Wittgenstein believes that clear thinking is something like an ethical requirement—it is wrong to think in a muddled way. Thinking in a muddled way tends to manifest itself in a particular way. We are often misled, or allow ourselves to mislead ourselves, by fixating on superficial affinities between the similarity or dissimilarity of certain words or phrases.


In Wittgenstein’s terminology, the error relates to our conflating signs and symbols. Signs are physical markers that we perceive as part of the structure of communication (words on a page, the sound of our voice, and so on). Symbols are signs which are conjoined with their meaning—their semantic content.


Passing Traffic, Passing Time 

highway traffic
West Side Highway by Andreas Feininger, c. 1950, via MoMA.


To illustrate the kind of confusion which Wittgenstein is concerned with, here is an example, which is taken from Adrian Moore’s The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics. The example runs like this:


“Albert looks out of his window. The traffic passes. The time passes. Albert reflects on these two facts. And he is struck by the superficial similarity between the English sentences used to express them. Realizing that it is perfectly proper to ask, ‘At what speed does the traffic pass?’, he is led to pose the apparently parallel pseudo-question, ‘At what speed does the time pass?”


The point is clear enough. Both traffic and time pass, so the specific error is to assume that because a tendency in both time and traffic can be represented with the same word in one context, we can coherently (meaning, in a way such that what we are asking is clear) pose the same questions of each thing. But in fact, time and traffic are not at all similar, and should not be expected to have the same kinds of properties, to yield any worthwhile conclusions when we pose the same questions regarding both.


dali persistence memory
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931, via MoMA.


Attempting to answer the question of the speed at which traffic passes means (perhaps) whipping out our speed gun and measuring it according to miles or kilometers per hour. In contrast, attempting to answer the question of the speed at which time passes will force us to come up with nonsensical or redundant seeming claims, such as “time passes at one second per second.” Here we have conflated the sign (the word “pass,” which is identical in the context both of traffic and of time) with its symbol (which is context sensitive).


The idea that combatting such confusion is essential for thinking clearly, and that thinking clearly is equivalent to good philosophy, is not in itself especially controversial. Certainly, the opposite view (that muddled thinking makes for good philosophy?) sounds extremely odd. However, where the early Wittgenstein seems to make his own view suddenly far more controversial when he claims that the only legitimate purpose of philosophy is to combat bad philosophy.


Against the Western Tradition 

school of athens painting
The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani


Wittgenstein appears to have launched not a philosophical project, but a counter-philosophical one. The best philosophy would, in Wittgenstein’s view, attempt,


“to say nothing except what can be said …—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.”


Yet in spite of this, the Tractatus does not—at least at first glance—appear to differentiate itself so very much from the abstract style of Western metaphysics (indeed, Western philosophy as a whole). In fact, the subversion Wittgenstein pursues turns out to be rather more subtle than that.


Wittgenstein’s philosophy is turned away from things themselves, and towards sense (and, in particular, towards propositional sense)—towards a human capacity, not the world against which we are deploying that capacity. Yet in doing so, Wittgenstein simultaneously says quite a lot about how things are, about what there is. The world consists of facts, yes, but facts are determined by states of affairs, which are composed of objects—the unchangeable element of reality.


The conception of facts in Wittgenstein’s philosophy dictates the conception of clear thinking. Certain propositions, those which cannot but be true and those which cannot but be false, are senseless, just because they correspond to no particular thought. To think is to think contingently—to conceive of something as it is but as it need not necessarily be. Thought is always potentially misleading or simply wrong—risk is an element of thought.


Wittgenstein on the Limits of Thought 

wittgenstein photo
Portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Nähr Moriz, 1930, via Austrian National Library.


Wittgenstein is interested in drawing a limit to thinking, in defining what constitutes clear thinking and what constitutes the opposite, which Wittgenstein refers to as nonsense. What constitutes clear thinking, or in other words, what makes sense, is limited by language itself, and, more specifically, by Wittgenstein’s conception of what constitutes sense in a language. For something to make sense, it must be capable of representing or “picturing” that thing.


The limits of sense are designated by logical propositions—contradictions and tautologies—which, though having logical content, are not themselves liable to picture anything. Wittgenstein puts it this way:


“My fundamental thought is that the logical constants do not represent. That the logic of the facts cannot be represented.”


Logical constants are senseless, but this is not at all the same as something being nonsense. Nonsense is used by Wittgenstein to refer to what are, effectively, pseudo-sensical propositions—propositions that appear to present themselves as representing something, as making factual claims, when in fact, they do not.


Nonsense includes a very broad range of things. Metaphysics as it is ordinarily conceived—which includes circumscribing limits for sense—appears to be relegated by Wittgenstein’s early philosophy to the status of nonsense, though much of what is downstream from philosophy (empirical knowledge) might well be salvaged from the wreckage. Wittgenstein is, therefore, one of many philosophers who sees part of their achievement as an overhauling of the philosophical tradition as they found it.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.