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Wittgenstein 1: The genius who ended philosophy?

“It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from it what the logic of language is. Language disguises thought.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) is considered one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s ideas changed so radically over the erratic—and peripatetic—course of his career that there are considered to be two Wittgensteins. These are sometimes referred to as Wittgenstein 1 and Wittgenstein 2.

Wittgenstein 1 is epitomized by the only book published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Wittgenstein 2’s conceptualizations are captured in Philosophical Investigations, which was published posthumously in 1953.

As this split is so closely related to Wittgenstein’s life, before we look at his intellectual legacy, we must deal with Wittgenstein, the person. It’s an amazing profile, and journey.


Like other geniuses, Wittgenstein was a profoundly unconventional individual. A difficult and driven man, it’s impossible to separate his highly idiosyncratic intellectual development from his unique emotional journey.

Born in Vienna, Wittgenstein was the youngest of nine children, and a member of one of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s richest families. After an unconventional—and unpromising—early education, he studied engineering in Berlin and in 1908 moved to Manchester to do research in aeronautics. While in England, a fledgling interest in philosophy suddenly blossomed, and he moved to Cambridge where he sought out the mentorship of the towering figure in British philosophy, Bertrand Russell.

Russell, who undertook to supervise his PhD, wrote about his first encounter with the young Wittgenstein: “An unknown German appeared … obstinate and perverse, but I think not stupid.” Within a year, Russell wrote of Wittgenstein again, clearly profoundly affected by him: “I shall certainly encourage him. Perhaps he will do great things … I love him and feel he will solve the problems I am too old to solve.”

After the completion of his first major work, the Tractatus, Wittgenstein announced that he had given up philosophy, considering, incredibly, that he had solved all its problems. He left Cambridge, renounced his family fortune, and became a teacher of elementary school children in the tiny village of Trattenbach, in lower Austria. Over the next few years, Wittgenstein taught in various village schools, but was constantly in trouble with staff and parents and never stayed for long: by all accounts he could be a superb teacher, but on occasion he meted out corporal punishment that was considered quite extreme even for his day.

By 1929, Wittgenstein found his way back to Cambridge, resumed his academic career and began to develop a philosophy that was at odds with his earlier work. This was to be published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations.

But we’ll look at that in another essay. For now, we need to consider Wittgenstein’s original, seminal piece, the Tractatus.


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus translates from the Latin as “Logical-Philosophical Treatise”. It was suggested by G.E. Moore, another Cambridge don, and the title is a reference to the 17th Century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

In 1914, at the start of World War I, Wittgenstein joined the Austrian army. He was taken captive in 1918 and spent the remainder of his war months at a prison camp. This is where he wrote his first drafts of Tractatus.

Tractatus attempts to resolve the distinction between thoughts and words and their relationship with reality: to explain how language and reality interact. This is a very difficult concept to unpack; so stay with me here.

Consider it this way: we use what we conceive as words in our thinking, in speaking, and listening. Images and ideas come into play, too, of course, but words play a big part. As you read this for example, the words on the page are evoking some meanings in your mind.

Now think about these questions: Do these words I am writing that you are reading, actually describe the reality you see around you? What about when you look at a chair or tree or a woman running and words come to your mind to describe those things – that’s a wooden chair, say, or a tall tree, or a woman running very fast.

It’s simple to answer “yes”—those words that you are thinking or reading actually describe reality; the world ‘out there’. But think more deeply. Hold those thoughts. We’ll come back to them. But even if they do, a central problem is how do they do that?


The book is structured as seven basic propositions, with numbered elaborations. As translated by Ogden, the propositions are:

1. The world is everything that is the case.

2. What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.

3. The logical picture of the facts is the thought.

4. The thought is the significant proposition.

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

6. The general form of truth-function is [p, ξ,N(ξ)]. This is the general form of proposition.

7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

An excerpt from the Tractatus.

This might sound like gobbledygook to anyone who hasn’t studied philosophy. It won’t be easy, but let’s break it down a little. The Wittgensteinian terms and ideas are here (Box 1).

The first claim, Proposition 1, refer to logical atomism. Though the term is not used by Wittgenstein it reflects a view developed from Russell’s conception of logical analysis. In this, analyses of language (and propositions, made from clusters of words) must either go on forever (smaller and smaller and more fine-grained analysis) or stop at some basic, fundamental and indivisible objects, or, facts.

That much must be true—everything must stop somewhere (see accompanying Box 2 for my example). For Wittgenstein the buck stops with objects (such as chairs, trees or people) and states of affairs (loosely, these are things that happen or can happen).

Wittgenstein’s “logical atomism” can be a little differently understood through another analogy—game of chess. Chess pieces themselves do not make a game of chess, just as objects do not create a state of affairs. But the configuration of those pieces, their positioning (along with the other objects), along with the pieces themselves, define a state of affairs.

The main argument of Tractatus is that language contains, and triggers, pictures of how things are in the world. This concerns the nature of representation: for Wittgenstein 1, propositions have pictorial form. And:

2.12 The picture is a model of reality.

In this, Wittgenstein was inspired by a Paris court case where the events of a car accident were reproduced using models. This illustrated the way in which words let us make pictures of facts so another person can see the pictures we create for them—and in this way we communicate.

Wittgenstein called this concept picture theory. Picture theory states that propositions in language can “picture” the world and are therefore able to represent it, so long as they reflect it truly. If you say, “there is a spider on the chair” that proposition is true only if there really is a spider on the chair.

Consequently, a proposition cannot be said to be true or false until it is placed side by side with reality and shown to be true. But Wittgenstein also points out that some things cannot be said and can only be shown. A proposition can say, “there is a spider on the chair” but it can only show that it says this. It cannot express such a proposition in reality.

3.13 To the proposition belongs everything which belongs to the projection; but not what is projected.

According to Wittgenstein, things that can be said can only concern facts about the world. Anything that does not concern facts about the world cannot be said but can be shown. This includes all the intricate, nuanced philosophical stuff like logic, ethics, and aesthetics.

3.3 Only the proposition has sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning.

Here Wittgenstein is saying that “sensical” language has a structure that conforms to the logical form and it has context. We are bound by the limits of logic, and beyond this is nonsense.


Because Tractatus is about the possibilities of language, the nature and function of philosophy itself comes into question:

4.003 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.

Thus, philosophy should be viewed as an exercise in clarity. And philosophers should act as gatekeepers of language, and identifiers of false claims and nonsense.

4.112 The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.

Words that have no connection to reality are not worthy of discussion. Metaphysical and ethical ideas are unsayable and cannot therefore be claimed as “branches of philosophy”.

In light of all this Wittgenstein argues:

6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e., the propositions of natural science, i.e., something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method.

These final arguments made by Wittgenstein are the most controversial. The penultimate proposition takes meta-philosophical ideas to their logical (but perhaps absurd) conclusion when the informed reader is strongly advised to regard the work itself as nonsense:

6.54 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.

Essentially Wittgenstein has built his theory and finds, at the end of his writing, that he himself has not met his own criteria for meaning. Wittgenstein’s relentless view of the limits of human language are starkly expressed in this final, unelaborated, proposition of Tractatus:

7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


I’m aware that even this brief, simplified version of Wittgenstein’s first seminal work is challenging, and for those who have done no or not much philosophy, virtually inaccessible. Yet the implications of his ideas have been immense across the twentieth century and into this one. Wittgenstein had a transformative influence on the role of philosophers themselves: no longer are they regarded as explorers of obscure ideas, as building sand castles in the sky with words, ideas, concepts and theories. Now they are guardians of the boundaries of logical thought, and even linguistic therapists for the rest of us.

Philosophy’s central role for Wittgenstein 1 is to clarify the logical structure of language and thought which is often—even mostly—full of obscurities. Whether he elucidated that essential obscurity for non-philosophers, or even philosophers with all their technical grasp of philosophical concepts, is not at all clear. Wittgenstein’s ideas are endlessly debated.

As it unfurls to the reader, however, the Tractatus defines the limits of science and philosophy. Wittgenstein’s radical view of language, and of philosophy, was considered by many to have undermined the entire discipline. The Tractatus, Wittgenstein himself asserted, had exposed the essence of philosophy itself, and there was nothing more to be said on the matter. He considered his own work the last philosophical treatise that would ever need to be written, and following the logic of his own conclusions, announced his retirement, and began his ill-fated teaching career.

I can’t think of anyone else in any field who claimed to have sorted out the whole discipline and resolved its problems, and brought it to an end. But the famous phrase Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent is surely good advice? Perhaps I should have taken it before writing this piece.


It was not until Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and the world of philosophy in 1929, when he was forty, that Wittgenstein 2 started to emerge. His silence would thereby prove to be temporary, but it was highly potent while it lasted.

Philosophy had not ended. In fact, the next decades of his newly energized philosophical work were to be very interesting, even more interesting, and that work, too, was far-reaching.

Further reading:

Biletzki, Anat, Matar, Anat (2014). ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N Zalta (ed). March 3.

Clack, Brian R (1999). An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Religion. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

Malcolm, Norman (2001). Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

McGuinness, Brian (1988). Wittgenstein: A Life: Young Ludwig 1889–1921. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Monk, Ray (1990). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by C.K. Ogden. Introduction by Bertrand Russell. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical Investigations. New York, NY: Macmillan.

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