In the introduction to the Tractatus, Russell writes:

In order to understand Mr Wittgenstein’s book, it is necessary to realize what is the problem with which he is concerned. In the part of his theory which deals with Symbolism he is concerned with the conditions which would have to be fulfilled by a logically perfect language. There are various problems as regards language.

First, there is the problem what actually occurs in our minds when we use language with the intention of meaning something by it; this problem belongs to psychology.

Secondly, there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology.

Thirdly, there is the problem of using sentences so as to convey truth rather than falsehood; this belongs to the special sciences dealing with the subject-matter of the sentences in question.

Fourthly, there is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?

This last is a logical question, and is the one with which Mr Wittgenstein is concerned. He is concerned with the conditions for accurate Symbolism, i.e. for Symbolism in which a sentence “means” something quite definite. In practice, language is always more or less vague, so that what we assert is never quite precise.

What interests me is this last sentence of Russell - 'language is always more or less vague'; intuitively it seems true because of the four terms together present this truth. That is a logically perfect language cannot be psychologically true, and is essentially a fragment of language and not its ideal.

Take this lyric fragment from the Beatles:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly

A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

This is definitely language. But within Wittgensteins theory of language we are immediately helpless. We have epistemic information: tangerine and tree refer to definite objects in the world. But the phrase 'tangerine trees' has no referent. Yet it has meaning in the lyric.

But Russell goes on to say:

Mr Wittgenstein is concerned with the conditions for a logically perfect language—not that any language is logically perfect, or that we believe ourselves capable, here and now, of constructing a logically perfect language, but that the whole function of language is to have meaning, and it only fulfils this function in proportion as it approaches to the ideal language which we postulate.

This seems to me an impossible task from the outset, and misguided in its intent. One might say that language is ambiguous, because the world is ambiguous; and I mean this as a 'fact', and not as a turn of phrase. One might note that Wittgensteins cannot conceive that one can view the world from the ouside; a corollary of thi view must be the inherent ambiguity of the world for us, in all its proper sense.

One might say that language is like a blank canvas, only by marking is something definite and precise uttered; or like a palimsest on which several pictures are overlaid, and the meaning lying not in each picture, but between the pictures and within all the pictures, and the possibilities of new pictures, or the the possibility of erasure.

Given, that I consider why the project contained in the Tractatus is impossible, why should I read it? What is its current status in Analytic Philosophy? Should one consider it as a founding stone for Analytic Philosophy - in the way Newtons Principia is a foundational stone for Physics, even though it is properly speaking wrong; but by not appreciating it one cannot make begin to understand the concerns, the language & directions that modern Physics moving in?

Did it have any influence in Continental Philosophy?

Wittgenstein himself writes in the preface:

On the other hand the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved. And if I am not mistaken in this, then the value of this work secondly consists in the fact that it shows how little has been done when these problems have been solved.

  • I think that at the core of Russell-W relation there is a big difficulty form the first one to understand the other (apart form the fascination of W's personality). Russell (like Frege) was interested into discovery the "correct" logical form hidden into natural language expressions; Wittgenstein in TLP propounded his basic hinsight (later developed in his PhilRes) that natural language is not in need of "regimentation". Russell had a philosophical background in english empiricism and continental rationalist (one of his first books regarded Leibniz). Russell was also a logician. Dec 5, 2013 at 14:14
  • To understand W's TPL, we must take in account also Schopenhauer and Lichtenberg (see Alfred Nordmann, Wittgenstein's Tractatus An Introduction [2005]). Notwithstanding W's study of MathLog with Frege and Russell, he was not a "practising" logician. I think that is useful to reflect on W's idea that all logical truth are "tautologies": this idea is based on the insight of the usefulness of a technical device (truth-tables) that is not capable of explaining the "nature" of logic. Dec 5, 2013 at 14:29
  • @allegranza: all logical truth are tautologies can't be right but it certainly captures something. Of course axioms escape that characterisation - they're true by definition - why they're chosen is an important but seperate question Dec 5, 2013 at 17:54

3 Answers 3


I'm not certain Russell or anyone, for that matter, is right about what the Tractatus is about. Wittgenstein was famous for proclaiming that no one understood him, and that is a terribly hard proposition to refute.

Regardless, I find that there are errors in your thinking. You state:

This seems to me an impossible task from the outset, and misguided in its intent. [. . .] Given, that I consider why the project contained in the Tractatus is impossible, why should I read it?

This seems to be impling: if X is impossible and misguided, then X is not useful for learning.

There are two issues with this reasoning:

  1. Your judgment is not absolute, therefore this rule of thumb will lead you astray when you misjudge X.
  2. Many impossible and misguided things are insightful. Consider the following prompt: Find a closed form solution to a quintic equation using only standard operations. This prompt, as we know now, is definitely impossible and arguably misguided; however, this prompt is what led to the development of group theory. Group theory is one of the most prominent fields of modern mathematics.

The first issue is obvious. The second is a bit more subtle; there are a plethora of examples like the one I have provided, but the general principle is not so obvious. The general principle is that we learn why things are impossible or misguided when studying things that are impossible or misguided; we learn why things are wrong and, as a result, (often) learn what is right.

If you read Tractatus and learn precisely where and how Ludwig failed (as you seem to think you know), then you will know everything that should not be used as an approach to the problems he addresses. You may even learn the solutions to the problems he addresses by finding the errors in his solutions.


I've read a bit of Wittgenstein and even sat in on part of a lecture series on him. He's a notoriously difficult philosopher and the Tractatus is downright inscrutable at times, and there are major interpretative controversies. Which isn't to say of course that the text isn't very historically important. Maybe grab yourself one of the secondary guide texts like this one to help you read along. I don't endorse that specific book, as I haven't read it. Still, I think for a first time read through a little secondary literature might be useful.


Like pretty much any philosophical work, the Tractatus has its flaws. Wittgenstein had a very nice way of picturing how to take the Tractatus however: as though you had climbed a ladder and necessarily had to kick the ladder away from beneath you—that is to say that until you have read and understood the Tractatus, you cannot know why it is nonsensical, and I think this actually applies to most philosophical works.

The value is not in the end result; we do not read the works of Hegel because we think his mammoth encyclopaedic approach to philosophy actually solved all the problems in philosophy—rather we read it to understand how it influenced future works and how it evolved from previous works. We trace philosophy through time to better understand where it is now.

Nearly all philosophical works contain valuable insights and ideas, intriguing ways of looking at problems. The Tractatus is valuable for the say/show distinction, an idea that foreshadowed Gödel's incompleteness proofs and that finds its way into some interesting contemporary research, and arguably has parallels in continental philosophy (I'm thinking Derrida here).

Furthermore, Wittgenstein's idea of mathematics/logic as something which must 'look after itself' i.e. be sufficiently grounded and proven by its syntax is an observation that has always greatly interested me.

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