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.



Working on the work of mourning

‘Failure succeeds’ when we fail to completely interiorize the other

Last time I was on the library I was in a hurry – in an effort not to make a friend wait too long. I was looking for books in philosophy of science, when I bumped on a book called ‘The work of mourning’ by Derrida. I didn’t have time to check it out, but I decided to take it. ‘Death and Derrida…how bad can this combination be?’ The book was orderly placed on my table, along with a dozen more, all uncomplainingly waiting for me to find time. A month later, on a rather hot Saturday noon, I was getting ready to hit the beach. I was hastily going through the book pile for something that would fit well with sand, and there it showed up. Hmm…I had forgotten about it. I sat on the couch to leaf through it. Four hours later, I got up. Ah, the unspeakable joy of discovering a treasure when not expected..

The book is a collection of texts written by Derrida for friends of him when each passed away. The great introduction by Brault and Naas analyzes how Derrida struggles to be responsible towards his dead friend (or more accurately, towards his dead friend still existing in him) and towards the living (the receivers of his words), while at the same time copying with his loss, copying with the effects of this death on himself. Even with the best of intentions, even when one has no agenda of political calculations, of serving his own purposes when speaking of the dead, still, there is always the risk of being narcissist, the risk

“of saying ‘we’, or worse, ‘me’” (Derrida, Lyotard and Us).

But how can we ever avoid that? Especially since it is only in us that the dead may speak? As Brault and Nass point out:

“Fidelity thus consists in mourning, and mourning –at least in a first moment- consists in interiorizing the other and recognizing that if we were to give the dead anything it can be only in us, the living. [..] According to Derrida, interiorization cannot – must not – be denied; the other is indeed reduced to images ‘in us’. And yet, the very notion of interiorization is limited in its assumption of a topology with limits between inside and out, what is ours and what is the other”.

Therefore the key to avoid egotism perhaps is this:

“It is within us, but is not ours” (Derrida, The Deaths of Rolland Barthes)

As goosebumbs-ly put by Derrida:

Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για constantine manos
Constantine Manos, Mother At Funeral Of Her Son Killed In Vietnam

“Upon the death of the other we are given to memory, and thus, to interiorization, since the other, outside of us, is now nothing. And with the dark light of this nothing, we learn that the other resists the closure of our interiorizing memory…death constitutes and makes manifest the limits of a me or an us who are obliged to harbor something that is greater and other than them; something outside of them within them

So ‘failure succeeds’ when we fail to completely interiorize the other, thus we acknowledge that the other will always remain ‘other’, in his unique alterity, in a space above and beyond us.

(— is it just me, or this seems to make perfect sense in relationships between any two living persons as well? But this is another story…—)

And it is in these challenges that struggling only begins. For to cope with a single death do we need to cope with all deaths, with death as a phenomenon intrinsic in life, in our relationships? Is there only one death, the ‘first death’, after which all the deaths are repetitions of this first experience, in which we have to focus? Isn’t it infidelity to the friend when we transform coping with his unique loss into coping general concept of loss? The friend, the lover, the relative, whose single death, as a unique event of a unique person, whose “true photograph” is “destined to be lost and never be repeated again” (Elytis, Things Public and Private).

And here come the questions… However, I am going to pause the questions at this point, in an effort not to make yet another friend wait too long.

So the blog starts at the end, starts with death. Sheer coincidence or not, I, we, cannot afford to lose sight of the end.




On intellectual sympathy – or a blog’s raison d’être

Mina Mimbu. New Zealand.

Intellectual sympathy is one – among many – of Henri Bergson’s attempts to explain what he meant by the methodological approach of intuition (not to be confused with the common meaning of intuition). For Bergson, there are two ways of knowing: the relative, partial knowledge and the absolute, complete knowledge. When we follow the method of analysis, we approach the object in question from outside, we move around it, and observe it from specific position(s). We are bound therefore to see only a part of it, and degrade the object to the aspects accessible to us. Intuition, on the contrary, is ‘entering’ the object itself, participating in it, sympathizing with all its aspects, without separating them, but in their unity. The analysis gives us only relative knowledge, while intuition provides us with absolute knowledge of the object in question:

It follows that an absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis. We call intuition here the sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it. Analysis, on the  contrary,  is  the  operation  which  reduces  the  object  to  elements already known, that is, common to that object and to others. [H. Bergson, The Creative Mind: An introduction to metaphysics]

It is not within my intentions (and competence) to provide an accurate description of Mr. Bergson’s philosophy. Nor to defend it as the source of absolute truth – although I have to admit my positive predisposition. Rather, it serves me, in a quite remarkable coincidence with its content, as a point of unity. For I see in this notion an intersection of my wanderings, interests and questionings that have troubled my mind – severely – during the last years. Let me give you a brief idea on these wanderings.

First, there is anthropology. Anthropology is the one mostly to be blamed for the birth of this blog. I came across it by chance, while, unsatisfied by the natural sciences, I was looking for answers elsewhere, and fell in love. For those unfamiliar with it, what differentiates Anthropology from other fields like sociology is the methodological approach of participatory observation. For an anthropologist to study a group of people must, by and large, live with them for a considerable amount of time. He must participate in their lives as one of them, do the things they do, try to see the world as they see it. Not insignificant problems arise when actually trying to accomplish that, but for the moment let’s stick to the intention of ‘entering’ into the insides of the study object. Does that ring a Bergsonian bell?

Now I would like to dig a little deeper on the aforementioned un-satisfaction with the natural sciences. To set the record straight, I need to state this: science is among the greatest achievements of human intellect. Science has given us a valuable way of understanding things.  However, as many before, from the Romanticists to the postmodernists, I have grown a skepticism for the limits of knowledge, especially in relation to the dominant place that science has in our lives.  Is our intellect alone capable of providing the meaning of life? If phenomenologists are right, and there is no meaning a priori to find out there, then isn’t it concluded that science, in the sense of trying to discover the truth, is merely one of many ways to signify our lives? And here come the questions on the limitations of intellect..and again, Bergson*.

Intellectual sympathy, however, in the context of this blog, stands also for sympathy for intellectuals. Not in the elitist sense of an Illuminati class, rather in the struggle of human spirit to understand, and make sense of its existence. With that, with them, I sympathize.

And then, as always, love and death and our internal struggle to understand them, incorporate them, live with them. I find Bergson’s intuition again relative in many ways, but I will just draw on a brief remark by Mr. Derrida on love and the difference between a person as a singularity and its qualities:

Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is? Often love starts with some type of seduction. One is attracted because the other is like this or like that. Inversely, love is disappointed and dies when one comes to realize the other person doesn’t merit our love. The other person isn’t like this or that. So at the death of love, it appears that one stops loving another not because of who they are but because they are such and such. That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and what. The question of being, to return to philosophy, because the first question of philosophy is: What is it to be? What is “being”? The question of being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is “Being” someone or something? I speak of it abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone—singularly, irreplaceably—and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the properties, the images that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what. [extract from interview]

So, there you have it. The unity and the part. The intellect and something beyond intellect. If you didn’t find any answers in this introduction, you got it right. If you keep reading this blog, I cannot guarantee you’ll find any answers, but questions, this I can promise.

* Although criticized by Russel and others as irrational and anti-intellectualist, Bergson’s intuition does not necessarily contradict intellect. See a well-presented view on this by Mr. M.D. Bolsover.