This question relates to the correctness of a particular passage from Time of the Magicians by Wolfram Eilenberger and translated by Shaun Whiteside, which describes a decade of philosophical thought by Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer and Heidegger.

I've added the passage itself below, which describes Wittgenstein's thoughts on what philosophy and the natural sciences are equipped to do and how philosophy might address what gives meaning to life. Essentially, it seems to me that the last sentence contradicts the rest.

The author is describing (and quoting) Wittgenstein's thoughts as:

  1. The realm of the sayable is the world of facts, it is the set of things about which anything can be meaningfully said, and it is the set of scientific questions and their answers, and it is disjoint with the realm of philosophy.
  2. Nothing in this realm addresses at all "the problems of life," which I take to mean matters that concern what makes life meaningful.

Then the author goes on to contrast this with the positivist ideas of the era; everything significant or meaningful can be reasoned about or subject to logical analysis etc.

All well and good. But then the last sentence, he claims Wittgenstein was able to show that the things that give life meaning do lie within the bounds of the sayable, which contradicts the idea that the "problems of life" cannot be addressed by something from the realm of the sayable.

Please help clarify.

This is the relevant passage:

The realm of the sayable, which Wittgenstein’s work delineates “from within” through logical linguistic analysis, applies only to the world of facts; this is therefore the only realm about which anything can be meaningfully said.

But to grasp this world of facts with all its qualities as precisely as possible is ultimately the task of the natural sciences. For Wittgenstein, it is “something that has nothing to do with philosophy” (T 6:53). Against this backdrop, then, the problem, or rather the actual philosophical solution, consists in the following conviction, or more precisely the following feeling:

6:52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

The largely positivistic spirit of the age assumed that only things about which we could meaningfully speak could be significant for our own lives. These were things that could be proved to exist using the methodical foundation of this essentially scientific vision of the world—logical analysis. That is, so-called facts. But Wittgenstein was able to show that the truth was in fact precisely the reverse. Everything that gives meaning to life, and the world in which we live, already lies within the boundaries of what can be directly said.

Excerpt From: Wolfram Eilenberger. “Time of the Magicians.” Apple Books.

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    Please don't use images of text. It makes reading, copying, and searching far more difficult. And if you're going to quote a text, please use proper citations. I might have fixed the first problem myself except the second problem keeps me from locating the relevant passage. Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 21:11
  • Apologies, and thank you for correct it for me!
    – eriophora
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 21:46
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    W's point of view is quite idiosyncratic: if the language expresses only facts of the world and ethics are about values and values are not facts, that the language cannot "speak of" values. This implies that every discourse about values and meaning of life lies outside language. But there is no language outside of language... thus, we are left with "the mystical" (the ineffable). Very debatable... Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 10:28
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    See the last items of Tractatus. It seems that Eilenberger's reading is wrong, at least wrt Tractatus. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 10:29
  • I'd describe the Tractatus as 'Wittgenstein's ladder', by which he dispenses with problems of the kind to do with language idling rather than doing work', such as to be able to return attention to 'whereof we cannot speak' - yet absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 15, 2021 at 22:26

3 Answers 3


Eilenberger completely dismisses what Wittgenstein called "the mystical", which both lies outside of the boundaries of what can be said and still is tied to the problem of life. Let me present a non-positivist reading. I think Wittgenstein outgrew Russel at that point already, and Eilenberger is confusing "the world" in an ontological sense of all that exists with the world as a sum of facts that we can speak of. But it is a huge difference whether I say that language is a closed system in which nothing ineffable can be expressed or whether only that which can be expressed through language does exist. I'd say Eilenberger suggests the latter, whereas I am pretty sure Wittgenstein meant the former. (I used this translation)

6.43) If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language.
In brief, the world must thereby become quite another, it must so to speak wax or wane as a whole.
The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

6.44) Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.

6.45) The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation as a limited whole.
The feeling that the world is a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

6.521) The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.
(Is not this the reason why men to whom the sense of life became clear after long doubting, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)

In other words: Living and feeling life itself (not talking about it) does not answer the questions of life or makes it possible to talk about anything but the world, but it makes one feel one's own world as shaped by how life is lived and thus does make us understand that life is not a problem or a question, but outside of the world of facts (though tied to it, as it changes its limits!):

6.522) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.

Here, it becomes clear that meaning, ethics, etc. do exist for Wittgenstein. But since it only shows itself - clearly a term out of the phenomenological jargon of the time - and cannot be expressed by means of language, we should stop pretending we could talk, ie. pose or answer questions or problems about life itself:

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

But even worse, this whole endeavor of writing (or reading) this philosophical book seems to contradict this very reasoning. And Wittgenstein agrees, in a sense:

6.54) My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, 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.

I would read "sees rightly" here as "limited and shaped by life itself". This can, in a non-positivist and non-analytic twist, be read as "Go out there and live!" as well as "Life is nothing that we can talk, philosophize, or discuss about, it is primarily living it to the fullest!" - in short:

The meaning of life amounts to nothing more than living it.

(which is, according to Wittgenstein, outside of the boundaries of language)


Without reading the full text, I don't know what Eilenberger is headed towards, so I can't comment on his goals. But with respect to this passage, what's clear is that Eilenberger is referencing the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus", which represents Wittgenstein's entry into the philosophical arena, and which Wittgenstein himself later rejected as a naïve work. The apparent contradiction you're seeing may not be in Eilenberger, but in the work he's referencing.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was following Bertrand Russell's paradigm. This paradigm was an effort to demonstrate that all meaningful philosophical claims could be represented in mathematical logic, and that ipso facto all statements that could not be represented in mathematical logic were not meaningful philosophical claims. Thus:

  • "Jane is female" can be reduced to mathematical logic, and thus is a meaningful claim
  • "I love Jane" may or may not be reducible to mathematical logic — depending on whether we can discover an analytic biochemistry of 'love' — and thus may or may not be a meaningful claim
  • "Marrying Jane will make us one in spirit" is not reducible to mathematical logic, and thus is not a meaningful philosophical claim

This Tractatus quote is merely pointing out that issues like 'love' and 'marriage' are important problems of life, but aren't analyzable by the methods of the natural sciences, and thus aren't part of philosophy at all. One can talk about them, but one cannot talk about them philosophically, not without the mental equivalent of spinning one's wheels. Eilenberger's last line is simply reinforcing this point, though where he goes from that I don't know.

Of course, Wittgenstein soon realized they we cannot make such a clear distinction, and that the problems of denotation that kept plaguing Russell's work ran much deeper than was realized. Even terms like 'male' and 'female' — that seem like clear and rock-solid references to physical reality — are at their heart matters of linguistic convention. We know this (if for no other reason) because the LGBTQ community has made significant headway questioning the 'conventional' assumptions about how we identify 'males' and 'females' in society. Wittgenstein put some hefty nails in the coffin of Russell's version of analytic philosophy, and the broader issue of denotation is still contentious in philosophy.

  • Wittgenstein sees a bunch of people in the park pointing at birds. He writes a philosophical treatise about this strange finger-pointing-game and how we can only understand birds by analyzing the rules of the finger-pointing-game.
    – causative
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 3:15
  • @causative: Actually, Wittgenstein would be more interested in the fact that when someone points we (somehow) know to look where the finger is pointing, not at the finger itself. Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 4:36
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    The finger represents language, and where the finger is pointing is outside language. Wittgenstein's approach denies the meaningfulness of discussing where the finger is pointing, as it is outside language. He prefers to assign meaning to finger-pointing-gestures only according to the role they play in a finger-pointing-game.
    – causative
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 4:38
  • @causative: That's not quite correct, See W's Language Game #2. Wittgenstein doesn't deny that there is a connection between language and the real world; he just recognizes that the relationship is a convention (a property of language, not of the object) and might change depending on the language game being played. If we say someone 'gave us the bird' we may have to check in to figure out whether he handed us a parakeet or flipped us off — two different language games — but within each language game we know precisely what's going on in the real world. Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 5:25
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    There's more to words than how they are used in a game - when we're speaking truthfully, the game is a shadow of some part of reality. And to assign meaning to the game is to say in what way that shadow is being cast by reality, not merely to give rules saying how one shadow leads to another or in what context a shadow appears.
    – causative
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 5:54

"only things about which we could meaningfully speak could be significant for our own lives. These were things that could be proved to exist using the methodical foundation of this essentially scientific vision of the world—logical analysis. That is, so-called facts. But Wittgenstein was able to show that the truth was in fact precisely the reverse. Everything that gives meaning to life, and the world in which we live, already lies within the boundaries of what can be directly said."

Seems to be directly against

"7.1 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." - TLP

Which is generally understood as aimed at excluding metaphysics from philosophy, in a positivist manner.

You might say, what is meaningful in life, beyond concrete facts alone, can be pointed at with language, but not contained by language. The meanings, are in the modes of life, the language games rather than the language. Which indeed seems to precisely contradict your quoted passage.

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