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I am reading the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (of L. Wittgenstein) these days along with The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a very difficult work to read first of all because it is too short for the philosophical questions it tackles.

The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein helps a bit in casting some light on some arguments of it but what it certainly does not do is to articulate in a very lucid way why really the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was so groundbreaking for its age and hence why it is considered one of the most important philosophy works of the 20th century.

Which philosophical theses of its ages Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus manages to unsettle and hence for this reason it is considered so groundbreaking for its age?

I already know in broad terms why the Tractatus was so significant. Therefore, I am expecting a more specialised answer about the very specific theories (e.g. Russel's etc) which Wittgenstein contradict and about very specifically the innovative points at his line of argumentation.

(I have some pretty interesting thoughts regarding my questions but (for now at least!) I do not want to extend my post by formulating some hypotheses regarding what is really the answer to my question.)

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    Funny enough, I guess a lot of philosophers would (with the later Wittgenstein) consider the Tractatus only "groundbreaking" if "pure" analytical philosophy was any good - which should be understood as problematic for some decades even within the analytic tradition. – Philip Klöcking Sep 5 '18 at 20:56
  • Yes, obviously philosophers like the later Wittgenstein would not consider the Tractatus as so groundbreaking. But this is why I stressed the phrase for its age. As you understand, great (philosopher, mathematician, politician etc) is someone who made a step further than the greats of its age even though finally all of them may be considered by their successors (or by their later selves) as still not great enough to reach the ultimate point (if there is anything like this). – Poete Maudit Sep 5 '18 at 21:07
  • @PhilipKlöcking I don't think that's quite true, I think a counter point to that would be that Wittgenstein's very dialectical viewpoint in the book (throwing away the ladder after reading and realizing the Tractatus is self defeating, etc.) makes it incredibly groundbreaking and I think that point is reinforced by the titans of early analytic philosophy trying to reject that view of the book (as in it was so groundbreaking they couldn't handle it and were slow to adapt). I don't think pure analytical philosophy is the only view that can consider throwing away the ladder groundbreaking. – Not_Here Sep 5 '18 at 22:43
  • It was very influential (for the new analytic tradition). See SEP's entries : Ludwig Wittgenstein and W's Logical Atomism. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 6 '18 at 6:05
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    I'm afraid I have no idea why the Tractatus is considered important, what it was designed to achieve.or why its author is considered a good philosopher. – PeterJ Sep 9 '18 at 13:13
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It has been a very influential book. See the so-called linguistic turn in analytic philosophy.

The book is obscure and fascinating.

Part of its success can be due to its obscurity, leaving place for so mavy interpretations.

The book itself claims to be "groundbraking"; see the Preface :

The book deals with the problems of philosophy, and shows, I believe, that the reason why these problems are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood. The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. [...] I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

See : Ben Ware, Dialectic of the Ladder : Wittgenstein, the Tractatus, and Modernism, Bloomsbury (2015), Preface :

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus has fascinated and perplexed readers since its publication in 1922. It is a short but intense work, made up of a series of highly compressed remarks or ‘propositions’. These remarks, governed by a strict decimal numbering system which Wittgenstein considered vital to securing the book’s overall clarity, deal with a range of topics: the relation between language and reality, the nature of logic, solipsism and subjectivity, the role of ethics and its connection with aesthetics, mysticism, and the aim of philosophy. Whilst there is nothing philosophically obscure about these themes, the book itself is notoriously difficult for readers to understand. Wittgenstein himself anticipated this difficulty in a letter to Bertrand Russell in March 1919:

I’ve written a book called “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung” containing all my work of the last six years. I believe I’ve solved our problems finally. This may sound arrogant but I can’t help believing it [...] [O]f course [...] nobody will understand it; although I believe, it’s all as clear as crystal.

[...] two features which make the Tractatus particularly challenging for readers. The first is the style in which the book is written. [...] The second difficulty for the reader concerns an apparent dissonance within the Tractatus itself. Despite appearing to put forward logical, linguistic and meta-philosophical theories in the body of the text, Wittgenstein writes, in the book’s penultimate section:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as nonsense, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. (6.54)

What, then, is one to make of these baffling sentences? How is it possible to understand a work which concludes that its own propositions are nonsense ? [...] And, moreover, what precisely does it mean to ‘throw away’ the ladder (of nonsensical sentences) in order to see the world rightly?

We can see here the many "faces" of the book : the "foundational" side ("I’ve solved our problems finally", referring to the foundations of logic and mathematics) and at the same time a deceptivly simple semantics and ontology (we have to consider that in the 20's of the last century, the semantics of newly developed mathematical logic was far from clear).

But also the treatment of "traditional" philosophical topics : ethics, aesthetics, mysticism, solipsism, that were foreign to the Frege-Russell philosophy but were at the core of mainstream tradition : Kant, Schopenhauer, British Idealism.

And finally, the conundrum of the last sentences : a seemingly self-defeating assertion regarding the main Tractarian thesis themselves.


A useful recent book : Peter Sullivan & ‎Michael Potter (editors), Wittgenstein's Tractatus: History and Interpretation, Oxford UP, 2013.

  • Thank you for your comment. To be honest, I had already in my mind the things that you are mentioning. I was expecting a more specialised answer regarding the very specific theories (e.g. Russel's etc) which Wittgenstein contradict and which were very specifically the innovative points at his line of argumentation. – Poete Maudit Sep 8 '18 at 14:18
  • @PoeteMaudit - the Frege-Russell Logicist project is fundamental to understand the Tractatus, but - IMO - is not the "logical side" of it that accounts for its "groundbraking" effects and success. There is no real impact of the Tractatus on the development of math logic. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Sep 8 '18 at 14:45
  • Yes, I am not necessarily insisting on Russell or Frege etc but I am simply mentioning in general that the purpose of my post was to see very specific points and arguments of Tractatus which were considered to be innovative at least at that time. – Poete Maudit Sep 8 '18 at 18:22
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I haven't read _The Cambridge Companion To-. Try ACGrayling's book, or I liked the 'Arguments of the Philosophers' one (Fogelin).

The Tractatus takes the approach implicit in what Russell and other analytic philosophers were doing, and takes it to it's logical culmination. This was crucially the grounding for Wittgenstein's later philosophy, which is widely described as not fully digested into the philosophical world, eg https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/ludwig-wittgenstein-honesty-ground

I recommend being very wary of jumping to simple conclusions about the Tractatus and why it is honored. It is deceptively dense and sophisticated. You have to understand the context it is writing against.

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