Treating Tractatus

What’s the difference in climbing the ladder? Do we have to abandon philosophy since we don’t understand it or precisely because we do?


I didn’t enjoy reading Tractatus. It’s a pain in the a**, especially for someone like me with no strong background in logic. But how can one neglect a piece of writing that concludes that logic has limits, such that it cannot be used to say what is ethical, or to solve the problem of life?

I don’t consider myself to be dogmatic in general, but I do have a dogma regarding books. I *never* whatsoever read the introduction, the back cover or anything of the like before reading the actual text of the writer. The dogma lies in the belief that any such ‘pre-treatment’ will put glasses on me, through which I am bound to interact with the text, it will predispose me in a certain direction. And who needs another pair of glasses?

If you are now expecting to read ‘But..’, you got it right.

But.. when I started reading Tractatus, I got stuck right from the first two sentences.

“1 The world is all that is the case.”

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


I don’t think of myself as philosophical literate, but c’ mon! Where did this come from? Why the world does not consist of things, or why not of little atoms, or of blue butterflies? Is it an axiom?

So I cheated, admittedly. I browsed all the way to the end, to see where he is getting at.

“6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps- to climb up beyond them. (He must, show to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

That’s seems promising, I thought, and rolled up my sleeves (well, there are no sleeves in fact, it’s like 40 degrees in Athens now).

[Teaser: In the next paragraphs I’m going to attempt describing an oversimplified version of climbing on the ladder. For anyone who is not interested in the procedure, yet is interested in the outcome, I suggest to scroll down. ]

Kadinsky, Yellow Red Blue


In Tractatus, Wittgenstein constructs a theory based on logical concepts to explore the relation between the world, language and thought. He starts by defining what makes up the world. What are the ultimate constituents?

For Plato these are the forms. For Russel these are the sense data, the very small bits of experience. For Wittgenstein these are the facts, which he defines as relationships (existing states of affairs) between objects.

To completely describe the world, we need to list all the facts (which are probably infinite) and also at some point we need to say: that’s all the facts. So the world is made up by all the facts plus the fact that these are all the facts there are.

Nowhere in the Tractatus does Wittgenstein defines what objects really are. For the shake of discussion, I suggest to think of them as just elementary bricks, which, by relating to one another, they form reality (the world). ‘Objects’ is an abstract concept of what constitutes the world, in order to pose the question: can we explore the world through logic?

So he says…

2.02 Objects are simple.

2.0201 Every statement about complexes can be resolved into a statement about their constituents and into the propositions that describe the complexes completely.

2.021 Objects make up the substance of the world. That is why they cannot be composite.

2.0211 If the world had no substance, then whether a proposition had sense would depend on whether another proposition was true.

2.0212 In that case we could not sketch any picture of the world (true or false).

Wittgenstein uses sense with the meaning of determinate sense. For a proposition to have sense (i.e. definite sense) it needs to have one -and only one- truth pole and one -and only one- falsity pole.

Suppose A is composite object, composed by simple object c in an R-relationship with simple object d. Then A = c R d.

Suppose now proposition A R b, A bears a relationship R with b.

  • Truth pole: A does R b
  • False pole: A does not exist (c does not R d) OR A does not R b.

The proposition leaves something indeterminate, because if you know it’s false, you don’t know whether it’s because c does not R d or because A exists but does not R b. For this proposition to have sense, it depends on the truth of proposition c R d.

If there were only complex objects, then anything we could say about them would depend on something else been true, and this on something else and so on. So, he says, in order for us to be able to say anything (a proposition with sense about the world, a picture about the world with sense whether true or false), this loop must end somewhere, and in order for it to end there must be simple objects, since a proposition containing only simple objects would not depend on other propositions – end of loop.

So since we are able to make propositions with sense, there must be simple objects, and we then are able to construct ‘atomic’ propositions and then built up using logical operations to more complex ones with sense. And indeed, Wittgenstein shows the logical method of constructing all other propositions given the atomic propositions.


So far so good, so what’s the problem? Well, there are actually two.

 First, Wittgenstein claims there is no way to speak about the totality of things. There is no way to speak about ‘objects’ (remember, their relations to one another is the fundamental element of the world) as a totality. Russel says another way to put this, is to say that object is a pseudo-concept. If we are to speak about objects, we need to assign them a property, e.g. all objects that are green, or objects that relate to other objects in X way. A proposition like ‘I love objects’ would not bare any sense (and, in my case, would also lack truth :)). It follows that we can’t speak (make propositions) of the world as a whole, we are bound to say something only about a part of it, only for a part of the objects and their affairs.

The second limitation refers to the relationship between language and the world. When we form a logical sentence in a language, we draw a picture. “The elements of the picture are the representatives of objects” and the relationship between the elements in the picture depicts the relationship of the objects, the fact in the world.  For language (the proposition) to be able to depict the world (the fact), they must have something in common, they must have the same logical structure. But here comes the limitation:

2.174 A picture cannot, however, place itself outside its representational form.

Language cannot ‘speak’ about its own structure, so we cannot use it to actually say what we want to say about the world. We can only show it, the structure can only manifest, but it can never be said, we cannot ‘say the structure is such and such’.

Hence, there are limits to what we can say in strict, accurate logical terms and:

“What we can’t speak about we must pass over in silence.”

and my personal favorite:

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.”

That is pretty much in line with the legend that Wittgenstein in a philosophy conference turned his back on the speakers and started reading poetry.

So, where does this leaves us? How are we to just vanish the problem of life? I find Alan Watts view on this very enlightening. He says that there is an astonishing similarity of it to Buddhism in general and zenism in particular.

“The idea of throwing the ladder after having climbed up on it parallels the Buddhist doctrine to be a raft to cross a river from the shore of life lived as a vicious circle to the life of liberation. The whole task of philosophy is to get rid of itself, like a doctor.

There was an old master called Goso and one of his students came to him and said ‘how am I getting in my study of Zen?’  ‘You’re alright, but you ‘ve talked too much of it.’ ‘Isn’t it that natural, when one studies Zen to talk about it?’  ‘Yes. But when it’s like an ordinary conversation is somewhat better.’

If the most spiritual discourse that one can have is ‘Good morning, how do you do, nice day, isn’t’..doesn’t that reduce all the great speculations of human intellect, all the great quests to everyday matters?

The man who has been through all the philosophy quests, the whole wisdom, ends up deceptively like a stupid man who has heard nothing of philosophy. When I knew nothing of Buddhism mountains were mountains and waters were waters, but when I had studied them a great deal, mountains were no longer mountains and waters were no longer waters, but when I had thoroughly understood the whole thing, and arrived at peace, mountains were again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Oh, I love that..but then, what about progress? What about change?


I see others trying to understand every word in Tractatus and I’m thinking ‘come on, you are now just puzzling over something for no reason’. But there is someone else reading this right now and thinking the very same thing for me. Each one’s ladder is different. Does it make any difference? What’s more, does it make any difference at all to climb it if at the end you are gonna end up at the ground again?

Oh horror of horrors, I am afraid it does for one. If one can see the ladder in the first place, if the ladder exists for one, one can’t help but climbing it.



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