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The Tractaus, a mini-review

Tue May 8, 2012

1104 Words
Posted In: philosophy, wittgenstein, book-review

This is the only book that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. At the onset of the first world war Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austrian army. He was captured and served out the end of the war in a POW camp. It was here that the manuscript for the Tractatus was completed (footnote, I can’t recall where I read this, either in an encyclopaedia entry on Wittgenstein, or in Wittgenstein’s Poker, either way perhaps someone can otherwise confirm this statement?). I recently read that the work was highly influenced by The Gospel in Brief by Tolstoy (House Wittgenstein, a family a war)

The book was first published in 1921 in in the periodical Annalen der Naturphilosophie. The first English translation was made by C. K. Ogden and his student F.P. Ramsey and appeared in 1922. My edition was first published in 1961 and translated by D.F Pears and B.F McGuinness working from notes that Wittgenstein had made about the Ogden and Ramsey translation. The copyright is currently held by Routledge.

The book was used as his doctoral thesis for obtaining his Doctorate from Cambridge. This was really more of a formality. It was clear, by the time that Wittgenstein came to defend, that he was one of the most important philosophers in the world (a continuing mystery to his family). His viva was conducted by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore.

In the actual examiner’s report, Moore wrote “It is my personal opinion that Mr. Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius; but, be that as it may, it is certainly well up to the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy”.

On the [Royal Institute of Philosophy] web page there is a very entertaining article entitled Wittgenstein’s Ph.D Viva - A Re-Creation (The author of this essay contends that had the examiners not been overawed by Wittgenstein’s personality then the Tractatus would have failed a viva.)

The Tractatus is made up of n propositions, 7 major propositions with sub proposition following as 1.1, 1.11, 1.12, … 2, 2.01, 2.011 etc. Wittgenstein says, in the only footnote in the book, “the decimal numbers assigned to the individual propositions indicate the logical importance of the propositions, and the stress laid out on them in my exposition. The propositions n.1, n.2, n.3 etc. are comments on proposition n0. n: the proposition n.m1, n.m2, etc, are comments on proposition n.m; and so on.”

In this way Wittgenstein attempts an axiomatic analysis of philosophy.

The book is quite short, but dense. I have managed to get close to proposition 6, then I put the book down and pick it up and start from the beginning again. I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Far more has been written about the book, and I have read a lot more material about the book than I have read of the book. I did finally finish, and had one of those moments of absolute epiphany. It has escaped me now, and as I get older and as my days fill I am content with the knowledge that such a thing happened. I remember clearly the bench in Waverley station in Edinburgh where I picked the book up again, one more time.

The first proposition reads “The world is all that is the case”, the last proposition “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence”.

Before having completed the work I used to think Wittgenstein’s preface to the work gave a very clear indication of what he was about with the work. He tells us “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 motto to the work is taken from Kurnberger and states “ … and whatever a man knows whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words”

In proposition 4.116 Wittgenstein tells us “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.”

I used to think that his goal was to clarify what we mean when we speak. He believes that most, if not all, of the problems in philosophy are due to confusion, and if we could be clear about our terms it would become apparent that these are merely language [puzzle]s and not [problem]s of any merit whatsoever. He constantly tells us that a proposition shows it’s meaning. It cannot say anything, it can only display things (great advice for both script writer and UX designers).

Broadly, the first third of the Tractatus sets out the terms of discourse about the [world], [facts], [objects] and their logical relation to one another. The second third of the book deals with [logical inference] and attempts to show how it is purely probabilistic matter based on the permutations of objects in the world and how we are limited by what we can say about these permutations. The last third speaks about what all of this may mean for our lives.

The [logical positivist]s seem to have latched onto the earlier sections. They seem to have seen it as a template for reductionism. Wittgenstein himself saw the book as a work of ethics. Having completed the book, and thought about it for a few more years, I think I’ve changed my mind about what I think he was about. I used to think that he was about seeking that clarity of understanding about what we wish to speak about, but now I think that he was pointing the way to the unsayable. Pointing the way, and giving clarity to the idea that not all ideas are expressible. They can be shown, but not described. That the most important aspects of our experience in fact fall into these categories of things, and in this way philosophy can say very little about our state, if indeed it can say anything at all about our state.

The entire work hinges on being able to identify atomic units of language. Wittgenstein later came to the conclusion that this is not possible, that language is created in a bootstrapping way, through use. This forms the theme of most of his later philosophy, though it does not affect much at all the underlying message of the work.

Although the Tractatus might be wrong, it is still important. It is still thought provoking and it remains one of the most influential books on philosophy written. It also happens to be a very good book, though not an easy book.