"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 beyond them. (He must, so to speak,
throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world
He describes his own work in the TLP as potentially being nonsensical here, but, simultaneously being useful. So, what purposes does he have? Where does his ladder go? He gave another powerful metaphor:
"What is your aim in philosophy? — To shew the fly the way out of the
In particular, we need to consider the context he was speaking in, which was against a prevailing view by Russell and others, that language is just bad math, and if only it could be used more precisely all problems would be solved. That is an implicitly mathematical-Platonist view, which assumes there is something fundamental to language as to math, that's to be found in the ideal use of language, like 'pure' logic.
Instead, he draws attention to the details of how language is actually used:
"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn
the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of
examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to
see that the word must have a family of meanings."
And he says very pointedly I think
"The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine
idling, not when it is doing work."
This is nothing to do with scepticism, but about a shift from seeking for what language supposedly is, to what it does. In this light we can understand that first quote from the TLP, as undercutting the idea that the endeavour has been to lay out a definitive model of language. Instead it aims to capture a mode of language at work, the picture mode. But the point isn't to carry the ladder around forever as a status symbol once used, it is to understand how we do actually use the thing when it is needed, and can discard that mode when it is not.
"And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be
anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all
explanation, and description alone must take it's place. And this description gets it light, that is to say it's purpose, from the
philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems;
they are solved rather by looking into the workings of our language,
and that in such a way as to make us recognise these workings; in
despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not
by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by
means of language."
He pictures an essentially therapeutic paradigm:
"It is not our aim to refine or complete the system of rules for use
of our words in unheard of ways.
For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But
this simply means the philosophical complications should completely
The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing
philosophy when I want to.- The one that gives philosophy peace, so
that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in to
question.- Instead we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the
series of examples can be broken off. Problems are solved
(difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.
There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed
methods, like different therapies.
Or more pithily:
"The philosopher treats a question, like an illness."
This is very like Zen, where the problems of overthinking are not to be solved by more thinking, but by thinking just enough so we can put the thinking down. So, you can say: this is showing rather than saying, that nonsense isn't in the words, but in the uses we put them to.
"Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must
pay attention to your nonsense."
Culture & Value, a selection from the personal notes of Ludwig
I am by no means the first to point this out the Zen-style quality of Wittgenstein's tactics. I love this essay, which identifies a common thread among philosophers including Wittgenstein with his ladder, of using words to direct attention beyond their limitations: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick
It is obviously necessary that language is able to complicate itself. I like Hofstadter's picture in 'Surfaces and essences: Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking' which I think exactly inherits Wittgenstein's programme, and recognises a retrospectively obvious but deep truth, that language changes, and it's capabilities compound.
There's also the idea of philosophical closure as a psychological habit, or maybe need relating to simplifying the world, of saying for example, let's just accept this as a true definition so we can proceed. If we go too far without recognising our assumptions could be questioned though, we can stop recognising our opportunity for being open to the world, for engaging with new language games.
There is this tension in Wittgenstein's work between his declared aim of making problems evaporate, with what has been gained afterwards that couldn't have come from simply not engaging with the problem, with philosophy. What has shifted?
In this continued attack on assumed verities, on assumptions about how language works and what it is, an epistemic openess is illustrated, justified, and enacted. Similarly to Cartwright in 'How The Laws of Physics Lie', understanding the limits of our process don't diminish what we can do, it just adds warranted humility about them, and embeds a turning towards recognising we may come to rearrange what we know in ways we can't yet imagine.
"At the core of all well-founded belief lies belief that is
We have experimental results, and we have hypothesis generation. We have states of affairs, and then we have the embodied process of situating ourselves towards them - a term I like for this is creating a 'salience landscape'. The 'answer' is to turn away from questions for their own sake, and towards the world such that questions serve the process of living:
"For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be
expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all,
then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but
palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be
asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question
only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be
said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be
answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of
course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this
I take this to be understood as leaving science and math to those disciplines, but stating that philosophy is about arranging what is known, situating yourself to it - and then just getting on with living, as far as possible. Which of course is just what he did, going into designing a house, being a schoolteacher, and aiming to just put the philosophy down once he felt he'd sufficiently untangled it.
I see great continuity with the history of philosophy in that, as the height of the practice not being in knowledge but in wisdom: in correctly situating yourself towards life so as to live well, and that means with cultivating the skill of solving apparent lose-lose dilemmas in productive creative ways that manifest a security towards recognising the epistemic openess of the world, and our capacity for creative language and thought.
Whereof we cannot speak, thereof new language games may render intelligible.
"What can be shown, cannot be said."
That is, we don't create the new knowledge, the concept, but enact it, show it's meaningfulness by how we situate ourselves towards it.