Upon careful consideration of the literature I want to read in the following months, I have stumbled into a particular book which is called: Tractatus logico-philosophicus, written by brilliand author and analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

But, I'm afraid; my level of comprehension might be short of Wittgenstein innovative genius, since, alas! I'm no philosopher, neither should I try to be one when I'm made for other causes. My particular, question is:

How much background do I need to read this book? And, in such case of needing background at all What background should I expose myself to, in an effort to properly understand and interpret this book?

Any help or generous guidance is particularly, much appreciated.


3 Answers 3


It's the same with any philosophical work. To read it and glean something worthwhile from it you don't need any background. To read it at a full depth of comprehension, you would need quite a lot of background. There are scholars who spend lifetimes reading the Tractatus and continuing to find new angles on it. So comprehension of a philosophical work is relative to one's background. As someone without philosohpical background, you will be able to comprehend the Tractatus, allowing that comprehension here is relative to what you can bring to bear to it, therefore that your comprehension, while worthwhile, is provisional and subject to revision by those more competent than you. Anyone who can read German (or whatever language you read it in translation) can comprehend the sentences in the Tractatus even if it will require time and some strain--minus the formal strings, which are even difficult for today's trained philosophers to decipher because he's writing in notation that's not used and implementing background assumptions about identity that are not mainstream. That makes his calculus behave in ways very different than today's philosophers are trained in. So picking up on the depth of detail will not be possible for you without a really specialized background, but that won't stop you from appreciating and trying to synthesize nuggets of the bigger picture that you pick up in beautiful passages, which are not few and far between:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all (6.52)

The riddle does not exist (6.5).

Your response to the reading given the background you do have will guide your development of the requisite background, influencing your topics of study and the figures to which you are drawn. Contrary to what might be intuitive, developing the "background" to comprehend a work should come after one's initial encounter and confrontation with the work itself . That initial confrontation draws the outlines of one's subsequent investigation.

One could spend one's lifetime worrying about having to study the neo-Kantians, theology, St.Paul, vitalism, Husserlian phenomenology, etc. before one ever gets to Heidegger. But if you want to read Heidegger, just read him. It makes no sense to spend one's life on preliminaries. For, in no circumstance would you be able to comprehend the full depth of a work on first read, no matter how much background you have. Hence, the obvious thing to do is just read the book you want to read, perhaps with a supplemental guide, and let your reading of the primary text guide the subsequent background study. Trust what you find fascinating. Trust that it will send you on the right paths to further comprehending it in the years to come, should that be something you still want to do. Let's put it this way. Instead of taking 10 years to build up the background and then expecting to read the Tractatus once through in an onrush of comprehension all at once, accept the more realistic process of piecing your understanding of it together piecemeal and accepting your limited comprehension of it any given stage relative to a higher stage.

In short, pick up the work you want to read and worry about prerequisites later. The curriculum of the prerequisites will be guided by your encounter with the work you wanted to read in the first place. At most, for something like the Tractatus it might be advisable to read along with a "guide" to the text--i.e., not a text about Wittgenstein but a guide to reading the Tractatus. There are also numerous YouTube resources and so on out there to help you along, but be wary of the angle that secondary sources bring to bear and always take in the primary text with your own eyes.


It may be worthwhile when reading any famous work to read it from the perspective of a commentator who will act as a guide. That is because these works may be very easy to read, but difficult to understand or situate within a broader context. This commentator becomes the window through which one understands the work by providing the "background" the OP desires.

If that is the case, the question is which commentator to use as a guide to Wittgenstein's Tractatus? There are many people who have written about the book. The one I recommend is G. E. M. Anscombe's An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus: Themes in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein.

Julia Driver summarizes her professional life:

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe was one of the most gifted philosophers of the twentieth century. Her work continues to strongly influence philosophers working in action theory and moral philosophy. Like the work of her friend Ludwig Wittgenstein, Anscombe’s work is marked by a keen analytic sensibility.

So, Anscombe is a philosopher worth knowing in her own right and she was closely associated with Wittgenstein.

Driver discusses their relationship further:

Anscombe met Wittgenstein at Cambridge, after her graduation from Oxford. She attended his lectures and became one of his most devoted students. She believed that it was Wittgenstein’s lectures, for example, that freed her from the trap of phenomenalism (MPM, ix). When she returned to Oxford she continued to travel to Cambridge to study with Wittgenstein.

Anscombe also became one of Wittgenstein’s good friends and then, after his death in 1951, one of the executors of his literary work. Ray Monk wrote that Anscombe was “…one of Wittgenstein’s closest friends and one of his most trusted students, an exception to his general dislike of academic women and especially of female philosophers. She became, in fact, an honorary male, addressed by him affectionately as ‘old man’.” (Monk 1991, 498).

Anscombe translated Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), and wrote an introduction to the Tractatus in 1959 (the work had originally been published in 1921). She organized major publications of Wittgenstein’s later work in, for example, Remarks on Color and Zettel. She also translated a number of his other works.

The Monk reference is to his biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.

Someone this closely involved with Wittgenstein may be a worthy guide to understanding him better.

Here is the question:

How much background do I need to read this book? And, in such case of needing background at all What background should I expose myself to, in an effort to properly understand and interpret this book?

Anscombe's introduction may be all the background one needs for an initial reading of the Tractatus. Both of these works can be read (and re-read) together. After that initial understanding one will be in a better position, that is, one will be able to trust one's own judgement better, to look for other sources or explore other themes related to either of these two philosophers.

Anscombe, G. E. M. An introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. (1971)

Driver, Julia, "Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/anscombe/.


Probably the most useful background is discovering the motivations which led Wittgenstein to formulate the Tractatus as he did. Philosophy, after all, is famous for asking questions, but the book itself is simply a long list of assertions. Russell, who wrote the introduction, noted that although Wittgenstein solved the questions he set out to solve, he barely addressed the questions of life.

More important background is that Wittgenstein is his later work dismissed his earlier work presumably viewing it as merely an adolescent infatuation (and hence affirming Russells summation of this work) with the philosophy of mathematics (after all he was trained as an engineer - more useful 'background'). To understand mans work, is not merely to understand one work, especially if he later disavows it, but to understand it in relation to the whole of his work.

  • Whether LW repudiated his early work is very much a subject of contention, and the 'resolute' reading that he did not do so, is increasingly popular en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_F._Conant#Philosophical_work Certainly he never said he did, in fact he indicated the opposite, that he felt he had lastingly 'solved philosophy'
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 8, 2020 at 2:50

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