Reasonable Logic: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein played a central, if controversial, role in 20th-century analytic philosophy. He continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture. Originally, there were two commonly recognized stages of Wittgenstein’s thought—the early and the later—both of which were taken to be pivotal in their respective periods. In more recent scholarship, this division has been questioned: some interpreters have claimed a unity between all stages of his thought, while others talk of a more nuanced division, adding stages such as the middle Wittgenstein and the third Wittgenstein.
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, whether or not it prove to give the ultimate truth on the matters with which it deals, certainly deserves, by its breadth and scope and profundity, to be considered an important event in the philosophical world. Starting from the principles of Symbolism and the relations which are necessary between words and things in any language, it applies the result of this inquiry to various departments of traditional philosophy, showing in each case how traditional philosophy and traditional solutions arise out of ignorance of the principles of Symbolism and out of misuse of language. The logical structure of propositions and the nature of logical inference are first dealt with. Thence we pass successively to Theory of Knowledge, Principles of Physics, Ethics, and finally the Mystical (das Mystische). In order to understand Mr. Wittgenstein’s book, it is necessary to realize what is the problem with which he is concerned. In the part of his theory which deals with Symbolism he is concerned with the conditions which would have to be fulfilled by a logically perfect language. There are various problems as regards language. First, there is the problem what actually occurs in our minds when we use language with the intention of meaning something by it; this problem belongs to psychology. Secondly, there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology. Thirdly, there is the problem of using sentences so as to convey truth rather that falsehood; this belongs to the special sciences dealing with the subjectmatter of the sentences in question. Fourthly, there is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other? This last is a logical question, and is the one with which Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned. He is concerned with the conditions for accurate Symbolism, i.e. for Symbolism in which a sentence “means” something quite definite. In practice, language is always more or less vague, so that what we assert is never quite precise. The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts. Given the syntax of language, the meaning of a sentence is determined as soon as the meaning of the component words is known. In order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact. This is perhaps the most fundamental thesis of Mr. Wittgenstein’s theory. That which has to be in common between the sentence and the fact cannot, he contends, be itself in turn said in language. It can, in his phraseology, only be shown, not said, for whatever we may say will still need to have the same structure.
There are historically three main trends in understanding Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The first is the interpretation offered by the Vienna Circle. They read Wittgenstein as arguing that neither metaphysical nor normative propositions have any cognitive meaning, and thus are to be considered nonsense. This interpretation understands Wittgenstein as setting the limits of sense, and prescribing that nothing of substantive philosophical importance lies beyond that line. The second way of reading the Tractatus, which has became popular since the 1950s, is the interpretation which most currently accept as the early Wittgenstein's view; for this reason I refer to it as the 'standard reading.' According to this interpretation, Wittgenstein did not consider metaphysical and ethical discourse as nonsense (Anscombe, 78). Rather, relying upon the distinction between saying [sagen] and showing [zeigen], he meant that these truths cannot be uttered, but instead are only shown. The standard reading can perhaps be best understood in contrast with the third interpretation, dubbed the “resolute reading.” The resolute reading takes seriously Wittgenstein's remark at 6.54 that “[m]y propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as nonsense [unsinnig].” According to the resolute interpretation, Wittgenstein is not advancing a series of philosophical theses in the Tractatus. Rejecting the distinction characteristic of standard readings, between propositions without sense [sinnlos] and just plain nonsense [unsinnig], these interpreters read Wittgenstein as treating ethical and metaphysical inquiry, as well as a bulk of the doctrines in the text, as nonsense. To them, Wittgenstein did not intend to put forth any theses in the the text. Instead his methodology is therapeutic, similar to the later philosophy (Carnap, 67).
After all, by the time showing is introduced in the 4.12's of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein has developed his picture theory, and shown how propositions in language can represent real states of affairs just like models or pictures. Relations between names in propositions represent possible arrangements of real objects. The representation and reality must have a common logical form, and this is the minimum which must be in common to allow the picture to picture reality. However, the representation can never say that it includes this logical form - it can never be displayed within the model, the picture or the proposition, but must be there nonetheless. It is noticeable to anyone who happens to study the representation, as they will need to know what there is in common.
Anscombe, Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, 78
Hacker, “Was He Trying to Whistle It?,” 370.
Conant, “Must We Show What We Cannot Say?,” 274
Carnap, “Elimination of Metaphysics,” 67.