Wittgenstein's Tractatus starts with the assumption that the world is "the totality of... facts".

But famously concludes that what we cannot speak of "one must be silent" about.

It seems pretty clear that he's not saying that we mustn't ever talk about "the facts". Is there any clear way of defining what is it "we cannot speak about".

And why doesn't his argument surmount not just itself ["he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless"] but also the world that the is argument is about?

Does anyone say that the argument does also make the "world" of facts itself impossible, and conclude that the argument then must be incorrect?

  • I think this is intended as a rejection of metaphysics. Now the argument surmounts itself and the world so described in that the tractatus is, arguably, a piece of metaphysics. Mar 3, 2015 at 10:38

3 Answers 3


According to Wittgenstein, what we cannot speak about cannot be defined clearly (hence, cannot be defined at all). Because if it could be defined clearly, it could ipso facto be spoken about. What cannot be spoken about can only be shown, and even that only indirectly, by showing what can be spoken about.

The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather —not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to thnk both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can, therefore, only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will be simply nonsense. (Tractatus, Preface)

Concerning the other question, I'm not aware that anyone argued that the Tractatus implies that the world of facts cannot also be spoken about. Many have suggested the opposite, i.e. that the Tractatus itself shows that more can be spoken about than is supposed. Thus Bertrand Russell, in his Introduction to the Tractatus:

These difficulties suggest to my mind some such possibility as this: that every language has, as Mr Wittgenstein says, a structure concerning which in the language, nothing can be said, but that there may be another language dealing with the structure of the first language, and having itself a new structure, and that to this hierarchy of languages there may be no limit.

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    +1. I strongly agree with your reference to Russell. We have to take into account the "logical" background of the Tractatus and mainly (one of) its goal : the critique to the "philosophical" basis of W&R's Principia Mathematica. In modern terms, we can say that Wittgenstein's dictum is the negation of Principia's view of an "all-encompassing" logical language and system. But Wittgenstein's view is clearly untenable; Russell's comment point at the (at that time not so clear) distinction between language and meta-language. Mar 4, 2015 at 9:06
  • Yes, we are so much wiser now...we have conquered all the difficulties in dealing with the fundamental "unknowableness" of consciousness. Thank goodness for that distinction between language and meta-language. Seriously, I am not saying that there is no such thing, but it does not answer the fundamental question of how do we as humans have language, and what are the consequences of the fact that we do? You might read Becker's Denial of Death, if you have not already. Oct 25, 2018 at 4:10

This is really only a comment rather than an answer.

In the context of the correspondence theory of truth, for a proposition to have any truth-value it must refer to a 'fact' or 'thing' of the world.

One can speak of facts or things through propositions; but the facts or things themselves must be shown ie perceived.

To illustrate: were we to send Moby Dick to some alien civilisation that lived in some parallel universe; they won't understand what a 'white whale' is until they 'see it'.


One way of reading the tensions between the Tractatus and the Investigations is exactly this: that while in the Tractatus the notion of what cannot be said simply transcends the reach of his totalizing logicism, in the Investigations those "things that can't be said" are even mundane and commonplace, and that we seem to unintentionally talk about all the time. The "facts" that ground what it means to follow rules are the sort of things that appear to be beyond expression.

The later Wittgenstein still agrees with the earlier that these are problematic entities that we ultimately need to try to paraphrase out, but it's not just a purely ideological question of simply not talking about them. Grammar and logicality are structurally important to his project, so he needs something like a language game account to explain how a framework of logical form can be reasonably held without collapsing into its own self-denial. And with such an account, we might have some way of addressing the apparent compulsion to "define" or to appeal to the "facts" without actually requiring such notions as part of how we're "understanding things".

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