Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Anscombe all write mostly in numbered paragraphs. (Of course Hegel and Nietzsche have chapters. And many of Hegel's lectures aren't written in this way, but both Logics, PR and PS are.)

To some extent this makes sense for Nietzsche---aphorisms are supposed to stand on their own, yet exist in context. But the Genealogy is not a collection of aphorisms and could easily have been written in a continuous flow. And I think the same is true of Hegel.

I could guess that early Wittgenstein was following Russel in writing this way. Perhaps each statement in the Tractatus is supposed to stand alone uncontroversially, like a theorem. But he keeps the form up all the way through his life, and Anscombe copies it in Intention.

Have any of them ever explained this strange organization? Who has written on why these thinkers thought it necessary to write in this form?

  • I think the point is the same as it is in many mathematical presentations. It makes it easier to later refer to specific arguments unambiguously. This happens often during composition and later: when combining threads of thought into a more intricate argument, when correcting dependencies if an earlier concept needs refinement, or when defending them against disputations brought by others after publication. – jobermark Jan 8 '18 at 20:46
  • @Canyon. New answer to your question about numbered paragraphs. – Geoffrey Thomas Jan 11 '18 at 13:35

There's no single answer but the question is an interesting one and merits a reply.

  1. If a text is highly analytical, different parts of the argument can be cross-referenced more easily, forwards and back, with numbered paragraphs. More helpful to say 'we will return to this topic in § 46' than 'we will return to this topic later'. 'Where ?' the reader wants to know.

  2. Even in a text that is not tightly analytically organised, it is helpful to refer back or forwards to a precise place indicated by a numbered paragraph.

  3. Wittgenstein claimed not to offer arguments in the 'Philosophical Investigations' (though I think he does). He only offers thoughts, ideas, examples, round and about a topic. The para. numbers help to indicate separate thoughts.

  4. Paragraph numbers can be suppplemented by sub-numbers. For instance an author may discuss freedom in one paragraph § 10, then want to add a refinement indicated by (say) § 10.1. The reader is alerted that § 10.1 is still within the scope of § 10 and that the argument or exposition has not moved on to a new topic.

  5. Sometimes when an author has left disorganised and bitty notes - often the case with Wittgenstein - an editor may decide to put them in what seems the best or an acceptable logical order. Numbering the notes indicates what notes the editor has decided to group together.

Hope this helps.


For Spinoza, the numbered paragraphs followed the techniques of mathematical proof. He wanted clarity, and he wanted to duplicate the then-recent advances in astronomy.

One example is The Ethics. Four of the five parts begin with definitions. All five offer axioms or postulates. Finally there are propositions, most followed by a proof that depends upon the definitions and axioms.

The most precious production in modern philosophy [The Ethics] is cast into geometrical form, to make the thought Euclideanly clear...

Durant, The Story of Philosophy (1926), Ch. IV, Pt. IV.

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