After some research and personal investigation of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, I can't help but be confused by his conclusion that metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, etc. are meaningless given our language's logic. It seems that he rigs his argument from the start by liming the meaningfulness of propositions to only matters of phenomenal fact; a meaningful proposition must attempt to picture such states of affairs. Under these premises, of course metaphysics and traditional philosophy would become nonsense.

Just how does Wittgenstein manage to deem traditional philosophical discourse meaningless? According to him, how are meaningful propositions restricted to talking about only states of affairs in the world?


I don't think that Wittgenstein actually "rigged" his argument from the start by limiting the meaningfulness of propositions to only matters of phenomenal fact. Because first, the Tractatus actually never mentions phenomenal facts, neither at the start, nor at the end. Second, the Tractatus, more generally, does not discuss epistemology at all. Third, in many comments Wittgenstein does oppose natural science to philosophy. But such remarks start relatively late in the book, in part 4. So it does not seem to be rigged from the start (more about this immediately).

4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).

4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)

Wittgenstein begins the Tractatus with a treatment of facts. Not phenomenal facts, not natural facts, just facts in the abstract. Quite a bit later, and quite suddenly, he begins to identify facts simpliciter with the facts of natural science. How is this identification to be understood? I don't recall that Wittgenstein gives any positive characterization for natural science. He goes the opposite way: all the sentences that are not semantically problematic, by his lights, he groups indiscriminately under the term "natural science".

"Philosophical" sentences can be problematic in two ways, as suggested in the above remark:

4.111... The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.

I interpret it like this: philosophical talk is "above natural science" when it attempts to refer to things that are "too big" i.e. beyond the world, like God or the overall meaning of the world.

6.4312... The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (It is certainly not the solution of any problems of natural science that is required.)

6.432 How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.

6.4321 The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution.

Philosophical talk is "below natural science" when it attempts to refer to the structures of subjectivity, structures that underly the world (the world that language refers to), including the structures that make language possible.

5.631 There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas. If I wrote a book called The World as l found it ... this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book.

5.632 The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world.

All the other sentences are, to Wittgenstein's mind, semantically unproblematic, and he just wraps them all under the term "natural science". This, without endeavoring to tie them precisely to what is usually referred to by this term.


The early Wittgenstein limits the meaningfulness of propositions to only matters of phenomenal facts for a reason. He tries to explain why logics is so fundamental, and ascribes it to the fact that the relations between objects in a logical proposition that is true are equal to the relations between corresponding objects in the real world. In that sense, a logical proposition is a picture of a specific state of affairs in reality. A logical proposition, then, has to be about objects in the world, and hence can have a truth value only if it is about phenomenal facts.

To understand this notion a bit better, we can learn the way in which the logical positivists spoke about the meaning of a proposition. For them, the meaning of the proposition P: "The temperature is 30 degrees celsius" is meaningful because it can be reduced to an unlimited amount of empirical propositions. To put it differently, P is a short way to say a much longer proposition of the form: "at time t and place x this glass tube with mercury shows 30 AND at time t and place x this glass tube with alcohol shows 30..." and so on. The word 'temperature' is only a short way to speak about endless states of affairs that are purely empirical.

In that way, the positivist believed that each meaningful proposition can be somehow reduced to a longer (or a much longer) proposition about phenomenal facts only. If a reduction of this kind does not exist then the proposition doesn't have any meaning.

For the early Wittgenstein Metaphysics, Ethics etc. are meaningless only because they cannot be rephrased using precise logical terms. In other words - we can, of course, speak about them, but we cannot philosophise about them, or suggest a convincing argument concerning them, because in order to provide an argument we need to use logics, but logics is powerful only if it is used as a picture, only if it creates propositions that are reducible to pure phenomenal facts.

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