Wittgenstein says in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

6.4 All propositions are of equal value.

6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.

Ethics are transcendental.

(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)


7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

What this says is that all propositions are of equal value (6.4), ethics is transcendental (6.421) and that we cannot speak of it and thus should remain silent about ethics(7).

Ethics, he says, is something that can only be shown:

4.1212 What can be shown cannot be said.

While this seems very clear at first, it seems rather absurd to say that one can not speak about ethics altogether. This would be very problematic; how can we teach people about morality? Through our actions only? Also, some of the implications would include that we wouldn't be able to condone any wrongdoings: slavery, human rights violations, terrorism,... these can be talked about as propositions (i.e. as facts), but are all of equal value. This would obviously be problematic.

So my actual question is: should we, according to Wittgenstein, really remain totally silent about ethics altogether (i.e. not talk about it in any way)? And if this is the case, then how would he deal with the issues I raised? Would he resolve them all by showing value through actions? And how exactly would he do so?

  • Do you mean for your question only to pertain to Early-Wittgenstein? Regardless, however, of your response, I think you'd find W's "Lecture on Ethics," given in 1929, to be of interest.
    – Jon
    Jan 29, 2013 at 22:08
  • @Jon I'm primarily interested in the early Wittgenstein. This is not to say I'm not interested in how he evolved over time, but my main focus now is to understand his early work very well. I think too many people read his early work, don't understand all of its implications and then quickly move on to his later work to find answers. I really want to understand his early work first.
    – Ben
    Jan 29, 2013 at 22:36
  • It is possible to show something, and thereafter discuss it. So decisions we make about ethics are propositions in the world, even though their basis is not. Real moral differences cannot be resolved in argumentation. It is not possible to establish the basis of ethics by argument. But one can speak of the expectations and conflicts, since they result in actions or indecision.
    – user9166
    May 25, 2015 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


The following is from page 77 of Wittgenstein's Notebooks: 1914-1916:


What really is the situation of the human will? I will call "will" first and foremost the bearer of good and evil.

But can we conceive a being that isn't capable of Will at all, but only of Idea (of seeing for example)? In some sense this seems impossible. But if it were possible then there could also be a world without ethics.


The World and Life are one. [5.621.]

Physiological life is of course not "Life". And neither is psychological life. Life is the world.

Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic.

Ethics and aesthetics are one. [See 6.421.]

The "discussion" of ethics, here, continues for fifteen or so pages, and I would suggest looking into there for more incite into your question. I also remember, from Ray Monk's Duty of Genius, which is a highly recommended intellectual biography of Wittgenstein, that Wittgenstein was seldom silent about the topics he claimed we shouldn't speak about. (I believe the person who made the comment was Keynes or Russell or someone in the Cambridge Apostles.)

Anyway, I believe that the "Lecture on Ethics" and the full text from the Notebooks are the only two (relatively) sustained discussions on ethics in all of Wittgenstein's writings. I would, however, take his claim that "[e]thics and aesthetics are one" seriously--a claim that, I believe, Later-Wittgenstein would still hold, or at least, not disagree with greatly. So, if I were you, I'd look to see what he says about aesthetics––something he has more to say about.


There is a parallel between what W says in the Tractatus about ethics and what he says about logic. A central doctrine of the Tractatus is the idea that some things cannot be said but can be shown. The metaphysics of the Tractatus is like this, and you can approach what W is saying about ethics through his conception of logic.

Nowadays people like to talk about two readings of the Tractatus, standard and resolute or however you like to call it. In the standard interpretation, the propositions of the Tractatus are intended to show something about logic and ethics which cannot be said. On the resolute interpretation, the whole work is ironic nonsense. Both perspectives agree that W is saying something about philosophy, and a certain philosophical conception of logic (and ethics) is being abandoned.

Just as for W logic takes care of itself and ordinary language is in good logical order, so it may be he thinks it is possible to make ethical statements in an ordinary, non-philosophical way. The logical positivists who were heavily inspired by the Tractatus read it differently, analyzing ethical statements empirically. The best known positivist interpretation of ethical statements influenced by the Tractatus is that of A.J. Ayer who explained ethical statements in terms of emotivism, the doctrine that they do not express propositions but emotional attitudes.

The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money," in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks... If now I generalise my previous statement and say, "Stealing money is wrong," I produce a sentence that has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition that can be either true or false... I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments.

A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, p. 107

Wittgenstein always rejected the scientism of the Vienna Circle so I think it is possible he was only speaking about traditional philosophical claims about ethics rather than ethical statements per se, though from reading the Tractatus alone and taking it at face value, it is understandable why they read him in the way they did.

  • What do you mean by 'tending to emotivism'? Jan 31, 2013 at 15:29
  • @MoziburUllah I expanded on this a bit.
    – adrianos
    Feb 1, 2013 at 15:21

In my reading of this extract Wittgenstein is simply saying that ethics is not reducible to logic.

All propositions are of equal value because propositions are statements in a system of logic, and each such statement has the same moral & ethical weight, that is none.

The sense of the world must lie outside of the world that the world in itself carries no meaning, we bring meaning and sense to it, our understanding is not objectively part of the world. It looks like here that Wittgenstein is subscribing to some kind of dualism between matter & mind.

Ethics cannot be expressed that they cannot be fully quantified and reduced to a system of signs within a system of logic. That is it cannot be systemised. It is transcendental, that is beyond logic, and beyond human reason. This does not mean that it cannot be reasoned about, as we most obviously do; nor does this mean that we must be silent about it, as most certainly are not - it is simply the acknowledgement that in essence and in totality it lies beyond our capacity as rational beings.

(One could argue that this is consistent with Islamic & Christian theological thinking on ethics, an attribute of the divine and not of the human. Of course its not quite the same thing).

  • How is transcendental equal to "beyond logic and beyond human reason"?
    – iphigenie
    Jan 31, 2013 at 12:59
  • @iphigenie:Isn't this the common-sense meaning of the word transcendent? To be beyond this world, to partake of the divine, mystical etc. Kant uses transcendent in his transcendent idealism to say something like the world as-it-is is not expressible to our reason, it lies beyond all possible experience & knowledge. How is this not similar to what I said? Jan 31, 2013 at 13:15
  • 1
    This is probably a misunderstanding. In German, transcendent and transcendental are not the same. Kant's philosophy is transcendental, not transcendent. In German, this would really make a difference. Transcendent philosophy is what Kant criticises, i.e. empty talk about things we can't know because they're beyond our reason. His philosophy, on the other hand, isn't - transcendental means "grounding the possibility of knowledge and experience a priori". That is not similar to what you're saying, no.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 31, 2013 at 13:36
  • So when Wittgenstein says that ethics are transcendental he is explicitly referring to Kant? Jan 31, 2013 at 15:21
  • I don't know, I'd have to check that.
    – iphigenie
    Feb 1, 2013 at 0:38

Beyond just agreeing with @MoziburUllah, I think this points up one of the important parts of logic as action.

When we take language too seriously, we fall naturally into a sort of mathematical simultaneity, folding time into the tense structure of the language and assuming that thereafter time has been dealt with and we can proceed as though it does not really matter. All reasoning begins to take place in some absolute "realm of utter non-tense". As I see it, this is always a misleading impulse. (Even in mathematics, which is why I have Intuitionist leanings.)

It is possible to show something, and thereafter to discuss it.

So decisions we make about ethics are propositions in the world, even though their basis is not. Real moral differences cannot be resolved in argumentation. It is not possible to establish the basis of ethics by argument.

But one can speak of the expectations and conflicts with real meaning, since they result in action or indecision.

So discussing ethics is not pointless, but discussing ethics is premature unless there is an underlying framework demonstrated by real actions and a group consensus about it.

(One way of solidifying this is to interpret all modal statements as meaninglessly true outside of a given set of expectations. Context and modality are the same thing.)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .