I read the Tractatus about a decade ago, and was impressed, both by it and I suppose myself! But suddenly I'm seriously wondering what the book has or could achieve. Not so much how it changed philosophy, but given its apparent wish to dispose of its own arguments, what conclusions can be drawn from it.

If I up the bar to taking it the book as seriously as I was impressed, all I can think of is a toughening up of reasoning, that not being wrong isn't enough to add to what we know. From the introduction, by Russell

As one with a long experience of the difficulties of logic and of the deceptiveness of theories which seem irrefutable, I find myself unable to be sure of the rightness of a theory, mearly on the ground that I cannot see any point on which it is wrong. But to have constructed a theory of logic which is not at any point obviously wrong is to have achieved a work of extraordinary difficulty and importance.

  • so in effect, we have certain intuitions, but as long as we try to reason from these rather than get rid of them, we're left with at best non verbal knowledge
    – user6917
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 23:12
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    I think it was a step towards the later theory of games. He delineated one language-game clearly, and clearly identified its boundary. That let him see how negotiated that boundary really was...
    – user9166
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 23:22
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    An important thing to note is that Wittgenstein disliked Russell's introduction and said that Russell and others completely missed the point of the work
    – Not_Here
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 0:47
  • @Not_Here i knew that! but yeah, if you can flesh that out into a proper rebuttal of my temporary answer, that would be kind
    – user6917
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 2:11

2 Answers 2


There is a heated controversy as to what Wittgenstein tried to achieve in the Tractatus and whether he achieved it.

Wittgenstein's own retrospect of the book is rather ambivalent, see Kuusela's Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy for a review. In a 1936 manuscript he writes "Language is much more complex than logicians and the author of the Tract. Log. Phil. have imagined", and in the preface to Philosophical Investigations admits that he was "forced to recognize grave mistakes in what [he] wrote in that early book". But, on the other hand, he says that Philosophical Investigations "could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking".

Tractatus itself is somewhat cryptic about its aim, which is sketched in the famous passage that apparently also says that Tractatus is "nonsensical":

"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."

But on this too Wittgenstein changed his mind by early 1930s:

"I might say: if the place I want to reach could only be climbed up to by a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place to which I really have to go is one that I must actually be at already. Anything that can be reached with a ladder does not interest me."

This sounds more like "philosophy leaves everything as it is" from Philosophical Investigations.

As for the role of "nonsense" in accomplishing Tractatus's goals, there are two major competing readings. They are surveyed in Kuusela's Nonsense and Clarification in the Tractatus – Resolute and Ineffability Readings:

"Ultimately, Hacker’s view of what nonsense in the Tractatus is meant to convey is, in a way, very straightforward. The book contains an argument which leads the reader to realise the nonsensicalness of what is said in the book. More precisely, the book contains a theory of representation (the picture theory of proposition) from which it follows that formal properties of symbols cannot be talked or thought about and that a theory of types is merely not necessary, but impossible. Consequently, many remarks in the book, i.e. those “talking” about the formal or necessary features of language or of the world, are nonsense. However, it does not follow from this, in Hacker’s view, that such remarks could not convey truths of some sort to us. Rather, the theory and the line of argument are what constitutes the famous ladder of the Tractatus."

In Hacker's own words, "what someone means or intends by a remark can be grasped even though the sentence uttered is strictly speaking nonsense... there are, according to the author of the Tractatus, ineffable truths that can be apprehended." However, Wittgenstein's own remarks in the Tractatus and afterwards undermine the idea that he would accept that there are such things as "ineffable truths" or "nonsensical arguments". The resolute reading, put forth e.g. by Conant, and shared by Kuusela himself (with some amendments), goes like this:

"First, instead of providing us with a paradoxically nonsensical doctrine the Tractatus aims at demonstrating that the clarification of philosophical problems requires a particular approach to philosophy, which differs importantly from how philosophy has been traditionally conceived. More specifically, according to Wittgenstein, philosophers have made a mistake in treating statements concerning the essential, i.e. necessary features of things as if they were simply another type of statements of fact... Accordingly, one important aim of the Tractatus’ nonsense (as emphasized by Conant and the resolute readers) is to show case by case how attempts to put forward statements about such necessary features of things dissolve into nonsense... Contrary to what has been traditionally assumed, philosophy is not in the business of stating facts or making true/false statements about things (including language)."

In other words, on this reading there are no ineffable truths hinted at by nonsense, there is only confusion as to what sentences of certain type express. And it is not that something "there" is beyond expression, but trivially there is no "there" there to express. And the concept-script of the Tractatus is supposed to transition us into a new language where the offending sentences are not even utterable (the place where the "ladder" leads). Carnap will later be far more direct, and aggressive, on this in Elimination of Metaphysics, where he characterizes "metaphysics" as "meaningless". But it is his directness that got him in trouble, for it was pointed out to him that his critique of metaphysics is itself "metaphysical" in his own sense, and therefore meaningless. Perhaps, Wittgenstein knew better:

"The correct method of philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science – i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy – and then, whenever someone wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions."

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    while the phrase "I might say" i don't like in this context, at least without more context, this is balanced by the quote from PI "philosophy leaves everything as it is" which is very to the point, and helpful. i think this answer could only really be iimproved with a little more on that second quote, but i've accepted it anyway
    – user6917
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 2:10
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    @MATHEMETICIAN I wanted to write more about Wittgenstein's transformation but this answer was already too long, and it is more about Philosophical Grammar, Blue and Brown books, Philosophical Investigations, etc., than about the Tractatus.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 19:16

I think Wittgenstein gives you an answer in the preface. He says that if his book will help even one person see the world in new light, it's aim will have been achieved.

"Tractatus" is extremely difficult and philosophers will argue about what it means for centuries to come just like they will always argue about every sentence of Heraclitus. It is a masterpiece that is both locally razor sharp and ecstatically poetic. The language is oracular.

To use Aristotelean terminology, the matter of the book is mathematical logic (Frege and Russel), and it's form is ethics (Schopenhauer and Kant). For Wittgenstein, ethics was the more important part.

In trying to understand this world in its totality, he deals with questions of logic, and he does so brilliantly and clearly, but those questions are sort of secondary. What really matters is the meaning of life, the tragedy of human existence and the mystery of our being. However, we cannot say anything meaningful about those things, and as you know, thereof we must remain silent.

As he said in the preface, this book is written for YOU (that one person he mentions is you), it was written to make you FEEL the tragic truth that the really important questions of life cannot be answered. As we get deeper and deeper into logic and math, we think that we can get to the ultimate truth, we feel that those awesome tools can reveal the ultimate mysteries to us, but that feeling is illusory, and we are doomed to fail like heroes in ancient greek tragedies.

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