For this question I'm just considering Wittgenstein's theory at the time of the Tractatus. As far as I know, for Wittgenstein:

Meaning - The object denoted by a word (i.e. referent).

Sense - The conditions under which a sentence can be verified or falsified. (Adherence to the principle of bipolarity).

Hence tautologies and contradictions are senseless due to their not having conditions under which they can be verified or falsified. However he maintains that they are not nonsense,

4.461 '... tautologies and contradictions lack sense...'

4.4611 'Tautologies and contradictions are not, however, non-sensical.'

Continuing from this,

6.54 '...anyone who understands me eventually recognizes [my propositions] as nonsensical...'

  • Am I correct in thinking that Wittgenstein only afforded the property of senselessness (i.e. not nonsense) to tautologies and contradictions?
  • What is this distinction between senselessness vs nonsense actually based on?
  • Furthermore, how can nonsense still manage to communicate something to us, as appears Wittgenstein intended it does via the propositions in the Tractatus? (How can things be shown and what can be shown?)

Any help, ideas or recommendations for reading would be greatly appreciated!


1 Answer 1


See :

5.4733 Frege says: Every legitimately constructed proposition must have a sense.

Thus, we may equate nonsense [unsinn] with an illegitimate grammatical combinations of words, something like an ill-formed formula of a formal language.

Only well-formed combinations of words generate proper sentences, i.e. sentences that express a thought [3.2] or sense [3.142].

4.461 Tautologies and contradictions lack sense [sinnlos]

"They say nothing" because they have "no truth-conditions" : a tautology "is unconditionally true and a contradiction is true on no condition."

But tautologies and contradictions are not ill-formed : they are "degenerate" cases of well-formed sentences.

Metaphysics is nonsensical [unsinn] :

6.53 The correct method in 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 else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.

Metaphysical propostions are nonsensical because they are ill-formed expressions, they are built-up with signs lacking meaning.

For a good discussion of the thorny issue regarding the seemingly incoherence of the Tractatus, see : Michael Morris and Julian Dodd, Mysticism and Nonsense in the Tractatus, as well as : Marie McGinn, Between metaphysics and nonsense : elucidation in Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

  • Thanks for your answer. If this (well-forming) is the basis for the distinction between senselessness / nonsense, then how is it that some nonsensical statements (e.g. majority of those within the Tractatus) are able to 'communicate' something to us about the transcendental? And what can be said about these statements that distinguish them from gross misuses of langauge such as ('quadruplicity drinks procrastination' or 'hwer3673h')? Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 12:33
  • @M.Guillaume - see 6.54. But "communication" is not a tractarian word... Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 12:41
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I'm not trying to dispute your answer, I just have a question for my own sake: why would a tautology lack sense? If truth conditions are the conditions under which a given proposition is true, then wouldn't every condition be a truth condition for a tautology? If this is right, then since a tautology has a sense, it's negation should (a contradiction) also have a sense. What am I misunderstanding?
    – user193319
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 16:46
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    Because in W's "picture theory of meaning" the sense is related to the fcat that the proposition represents. But a tautology does not "represent" because it is compatible with every state of affair whatever. Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 17:41
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    @user193319 I think because 'sense' is the conditions under which we know a proposition can be verified/falsified. Hence a sensible proposition would relate to a particular configuration of the world (facts). However the truth value of ts & cs remains the same under any set of circumstances in the world, their truth/falsity is un-sense-able. Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 20:22

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