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Signs of Sense

Signs of Sense
Reading Wittgensteins Tractatus

Eli Friedlander


Cambridge, Massachusetts
London, England

Copyright 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Friedlander, Eli
Signs of sense : reading Wittgensteins Tractatus / Eli Friedlander.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-674-00309-8 (alk. paper)
1. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 18891951. Tractatus logico-philosophicus.
2. Logic, Symbolic and mathematical. 3. Language and languages
Philosophy. I. Title.
B3376.W563 T7333 2000

To the memory of Burton Dreben



This book is dedicated to the memory of Burton Dreben. He accompanied my attempts to read the Tractatus from the very rst stumbling
steps to make sense of what professes to be nonsense to the last formulations. We met countless times, and his sharp criticism, his inspiring insights, his kindness and unfailing encouragement fostered much of what
is good in this book.
Stanley Cavell taught me the terms in which to address the task of
writing and reading philosophy. His generosity, his responsiveness, and
the example he sets through his writings and teaching provided both inspiration and orientation. In this work I have found myself returning to
his writings and discovering how indebted I am to his thinking. I hope
that he recognizes in my reading of the Tractatus something of a response to his vision of Wittgensteins later philosophy. Burton Dreben
and Stanley Cavell are for me exemplary teachers of philosophy, the one
dedicated to reveal what drives you by demonstrating that you have
failed to mean what you said, the other showing you that there is always
more meaning to recognize in what you say. I think of the inner dialogue
between their voices as generating the productive tension that drives
this work forward.
During my stay at Harvard, when this writing project began, I had
the benet of thought-provoking philosophical exchanges with Steven
Affeldt, James Conant, Juliet Floyd, Paul Franks, and Arata Hamawaki.
As I moved to Tel-Aviv, more friends joined the conversation, among
them Hagi Kenaan, Yaron Senderowich, Michael Roubach, Ofra Rechter,
and Dror Doln. I particularly want to thank Irad Kimhi for many inspiring conversations over the past few years, conversations which have
had a great impact on my thinking. Dror Dolns generous friendship
and invaluable assistance helped me through many difcult moments.
Lindsay Waterss friendly support in the last stages of writing and rewrit-



ing provided much needed encouragement. The readers to whom he

sent the manuscript have provided many valuable comments and corrections. I thank them for their elaborate and thoughtful reports. The
Rotschild foundation generously awarded me a grant to complete the
process of writing, and Philippa Shimrat as well as Anita Safran did a
wonderful job of editing the nal version of the book.
My parents, Hagith and Saul, my brother, David, and my sister,
Michal, are fondly acknowledged here for the things that often go without saying. In writing about the voice and silence of philosophy, I often
cross paths with the work of Michal Grover-Friedlander, as she thinks
through those questions in opera. That such encounters take place in relation to our life together makes them all the more signicant. Our
twins, Omer and Elam, learned to pronounce philosophy as I was trying to spell out its difculties. Their bursts of laughter in treating the
world as a playground with plenty of ladders to climb upon and throw
away snapped me out of many a moment of self-indulgence.


Introduction: Figures of Writing



Logic Apart


The Form of Objects


We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


Signs and Sense


The Symbolic Order


The Grammar of Analysis


Making Sense and Recognizing Meaning


Subject and World


Ethics in Language


A Demanding Silence




On Some Central Debates Concerning the Tractatus



On Wittgensteins Dissatisfaction with the Tractatus


Works Cited





Abbreviations refer to Ludwig Wittgensteins writings listed in alphabetical order.


Culture and Value, 2nd ed., G. H. von Wright, ed., P. Winch, trans.
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1980).


A Lecture on Ethics, Philosophical Review 74 (1965).


Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir, P. Engelmann, ed.

(Oxford: Blackwell, 1967).


Letters to C. K. Ogden with Comments on the English Translation of the

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, G. H. von Wright, ed. (Oxford:
Blackwell; London: Routledge, 1973).


Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore, G. H. von Wright and B. F.

McGuinness, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974).


Notebooks, 19141916, G. H. von Wright and G. E. M. Anscombe, eds.,

G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961).


Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe and Rush Rhees, eds.,

G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958).


Prototractatus, B. F. McGuinness, T. Nyberg, and G. H. von Wright, eds.,

D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1971).


Some Remarks on Logical Form, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society,

supp. vol. IX (1929).


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, trans.

(London: Routledge, 1961).


Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by

Friedrich Waismann, B. F. McGuinness, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).





While working on this book I have often asked myself whether there is
room for a reinterpretation of Wittgensteins Tractatus Logico-Philosophicusfor surely the signicance of this classic work has long been exhausted. Moreover, if my main purpose is to dispute previous readings
of specic topics, what is the point of writing yet another complete interpretation of the whole work? The answer I always gave myself in the
wake of such doubts was that, despite all that has been written, a fundamental difculty still remains in assimilating the Tractatus. Many signicant philosophical works contain obscure, enigmatic, or difcult
passages. Yet we mostly agree, for example, on what Kants fundamental
framework, method, and aim are. The same cannot be said about Wittgensteins Tractatus. The fundamental interpretative disagreements that
abound in the secondary literature are themselves indicative of the problematic nature of the text. It is the very nature and extent of such disagreements that justies asking once more what Wittgensteins purpose
was in the Tractatus.
My book closely follows the movement of Wittgensteins text: it is a
commentary of sorts, and as such is rather restricted in scope and aim.
But at the same time it is ambitious in aiming at a different view of a
work that has been the concern of so many interpreters. My sense that
the movement of the Tractatus as a whole, its impetus, can be missed
constitutes the immediate justication of my writing. The conviction
that the different parts of the Tractatus should be read as constantly serving an overall aim, rather than merely as discrete sets of topics, determined the direction of my interpretation, as well as a certain task of writing and the form my writing took. It is the source of whatever merits and
shortcomings the nal product may have. This does not mean that I will
not attempt a different reading of the various specic issues raised. Indeed, showing what I take to be the movement of the book as a whole rexiii



quires rereading parts of it in detail and reconceiving the relation of

those details to the whole. But I do not think that the ultimate difculty
experienced with this work is dispelled by a reinterpretation of this or
that proposition. The work makes no claim to novelty in detail, as
Wittgenstein states in the preface. Thus both its achievement and its difculty have to do with the way in which all these details are put together
or spaced. But how is it that the reader can fail to see what all the details
are for? What precisely is the singular difculty of that text?
This sense of difculty was an issue for Wittgenstein himself from the
very beginning. He wrote to Russell in 1915:
Im extremely sorry that you werent able to understand Moores notes.
I felt that theyre very hard to understand without further explanation,
but I regard them essentially as denitive. And now Im afraid that
what Ive written recently will be still more incomprehensible, and if I
dont live to see the end of this war I must be prepared for all my work
to go for nothing.In that case you must get my manuscript printed
whether anyone understands it or not.1

As the writing progressed, Wittgensteins sense of this essential problem

of understanding intensied: Ive got my manuscript here with me. I
wish I could copy it out for you; but its pretty long and I would have no
safe way of sending it to you. In fact you would not understand it without a previous explanation as its written in quite short remarks. (This of
course means that nobody will understand it; although I believe, its all as
clear as crystal.)2
It is tempting to take such remarks as testifying to the problematic
character of Wittgenstein the man, to a certain arrogance of temperament. After all, what could be so difcult about logic, functions, and
classes that Russell could not understand?3 And yet the intrinsic difculty of understanding is the very issue that is raised by the rst line of
1. LRKM, p. 62.
2. Ibid., p. 68. Here is a gure to be compared with the ladder: That something is as clear as
crystal suggests that one can see through it. Any clouding or obscurity of thought will then be
the result of the readers insisting on nding an understanding along the way, instead of working his or her way through the book to the end, thus making it into a transparent medium.
3. Wittgensteins correspondence with Frege concerning the Tractatus is a fascinating case
of the nonmeeting of minds. See Gottlob Frege: Briefe an Ludwig Wittgenstein, eds. A. Janik
and P. Berger, in Wittgenstein in FocusIm Brempunkt Wittgenstein, B. McGuinness and R.
Haller, eds. (Amsterdam: Rodolphi, 1989). Parts of that correspondence are translated to English in J. Floyd, The Uncaptive Eye: Solipsism in Wittgensteins Tractatus.



the preface of the book: Perhaps this book will be understood only by
someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in
itor at least similar thoughts.4 This way of thematizing the problem
of our approach to the Tractatus makes the difculty intrinsic to that
text. It turns it, one might say, into an esoteric text. Thus the claim that
there is an intrinsic difculty of understanding this book points neither
to a psychological problem of Wittgensteins nor to the shortcomings of
any of the readers who have approached that text. Rather, it is something
in the book as a whole, that is, in philosophy itself as Wittgenstein sees
it, that creates such a problem of approach. The difculty is due neither
to Wittgensteins supposed obscurity or laconic way of putting various
points nor to the lack of examples or aids to the reader. The book itself is
written in such a way as to present something of an enigma. To read it
with understanding is to address its enigmatic nature in a fruitful way.
This perception of the nature of the work provided me with a direction of interpretation. The point was not to attempt, with cunning, to
solve the works riddle, but rather to present its enigmatic character in a
truly thought-provoking way. A thoughtful acceptance of this enigmatic
character meant that it had to be viewed as integral to the progress of the
text. The enigmatic tone that colors the opening of the preface crystallizes in the nal gesture of throwing away the ladder, with the authors
claim that a proper understanding demands that his propositions be recognized as nonsensical. But in most readings of the book there is a signicant gap between the progress of the text and the philosophers nal
revocation of all that has been said. The end, one might say, comes to the
reader as a shocking, unassimilable surprise after the seemingly continuous progress of the text. An interpretation that takes this moment seriously must lead to it, provide an understanding of its necessity, or work
through the text to this end point; it must think of the book as a whole.
I have worked on the Tractatus in various ways at different times. Anyone who has seriously approached that text knows of the frustration
involved in reading it. No doubt frustrations arise with many great philosophical texts, but the form of these difculties varies from one philosopher to another. When reading a text such as the Tractatus, it is particularly vital to be attentive to the form of these difculties and to take ones
reactions as guidelines to understanding the text. Insofar as the Tractatus
4. L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, trans.,
p. 3. Henceforth all references to the Tractatus will be to this edition (unless otherwise specied) by reference to the proposition number immediately following the quote.



is not geared toward any manifest content, one should think through the
gaps as they appear in the frustrations and blockages of reading it.
On several occasions I have gone from a sense of the texts opaqueness, of disappointment with its promises and seductiveness, of feeling
that nothing speaks in it, to a sudden insight into its signicance as a
whole. This pace of understanding and this peculiar mode of clarity intrigued me. It seemed to say more about the works structure than about
my interpretative skills. This all or nothing experience seemed to turn
the Tractatus itself into a world in which one could either feel entirely
lost or alternatively move freely from one part to the other. This reinforced my conviction that the Tractatus should always be read as a
whole, and that our relation to the text should be seen as exemplifying
something of our relation to the world. In attempting such an interpretation I hope I have not forced the text against its natural inclination.
Whether I have been successful in doing what this conception of philosophical work demands is something that the reader will have to judge
for himself.
The difculty of reading such a work also raises questions as to what
it means to write about it. Wittgenstein writes in the preface about the
difculty he has in expressing his fundamental insights: Here I am conscious of having fallen a long way short of what is possible. Simply because my powers are too slight for the accomplishment of the task.
May others come and do it better. I take this remark as suggesting a direction for reading the text fruitfully: namely, what is required is a certain balance between diligently following the text and the need to try to
express differently what the explicit part of Wittgenstein s text only half
says. Not that I claim that my interpretation expresses better than Wittgenstein what the Tractatus is about, but I do think that a proper conception of the nature of the difculty of expression requires from a good
reader something like the act of rewriting that I attempt. The Tractatus
does not ultimately aim at communicating some content that one can
grasp and circulate. Its insights must be rediscovered, or recovered from
ones own standpoint. (Perhaps this book will be understood only by
someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in
itor at least similar thoughts.) The ultimate aim of such a commentary must be the reopening of the space in which Wittgensteins speech
can be heard, or can resound, as forcefully as possible. This work of



clearing the ground or opening up a dimension of the text, suggesting its

lines of force, and allowing its intensity to come to light is, properly
speaking, what a devoted reading of the book should aim at.
A particular difculty resides in trying to write about the end of the
book. A diligent reader will nd himself faced with the question of how
he relates to the emergence of Wittgensteins own voicefaced with the
ultimate ambition of this text. For by the end one thing is clear: Wittgenstein aims at the deepest and most serious communication. And the
question is how to respond to it; how to write seriously, for others, about
it, in response to it.
Here the writer can fall into the trap of modesty. Since the end demands such a transformative experience, how can I be sure that the work
has had its effect on me? And how can I write about the ultimate secret
of the text for others? It seems as if no work of explication or criticism
(in the sense in which criticism is used for a text of literature) could be
adequate to the demands of the end; as if the very attempt at writing in
order to make manifest this other form of communication must inevitably fail.
Another, much more disturbing possibility of failure I call the trap of
arrogance: the belief that one can and will expose what is essentially hidden. Wittgenstein writes: It is a great temptation to try to make the
spirit explicit.5 In the belief that one has succeeded in discerning what
has escaped expression, one is lured into making explicit a moment that
must remain unsaid, and that can work forcefully only by remaining unsaid. Figuration, or explicitness, affords a premature release from the
true tension of the work. The arrogance lies in claiming for oneself a
mastery of what essentially escapes representation.
This oscillation between modesty and arrogance is known to the text;
it is predicted in the duality of moods Wittgenstein expresses in the preface: I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points,
the nal solution of the problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is
that it shows how little is achieved, when these problems are solved
(TLP, p. 4).
Nowadays it is not common to nd books that are devoted to the
5. CV, p. 8.



reading of a single philosophical text. Writers prefer to consider the

corpus of a philosophers work as a whole or to focus on a trend in
the history of philosophy with reference to the sociocultural context.
But certain philosophical texts resist their contexts and stand in a deviant relation to their times, despite the interminable attention they might
elicit and the commentaries they might produce. Indeed, a resistance to
assimilation might very well be a denitive trait of a classic work, which
means that in every period the task presents itself anew to read and write
on such a text and to bring its elusiveness to the fore.
Wittgenstein himself, early and late, does not explicitly bring into
play the historical or cultural context of his writing. This in itself constitutes a feature of his writing that has to be interpreted. In the Tractatus
his writing also assumes the appearance of a somewhat dogmatic, or at
least authoritative, tone. By avoiding the historical context I do not
mean to imply that I take such authoritative pronouncements to be the
ultimate trutha new form of dogmatism in philosophy. But I do think
that ultimately the power of the Tractatus is its own, and its air of autonomy serves the aims it seeks to achieve. In my interpretation I want to
show Wittgensteins conception of the power of the book in philosophy.
This also means that I will avoid at most junctures references to various
inuences, the intellectual context, and other works of Wittgensteins.
I have mostly restricted myself to considering only the text of the
Tractatus. At times I make exceptions to that rule and refer to the Notebooks and the Lecture on Ethics. Even more rarely do I mention the
philosophical views that Wittgenstein engaged, such as those of Frege
and Russell and also of Schopenhauer and Kant, but not in order to compare the views in any detail. Here, I follow Wittgensteins own advice in
the preface: I do not wish to judge how far my efforts coincide with
those of other philosophers. Indeed, what I have written here makes no
claim to novelty in detail, and the reason why I give no sources is that it
is a matter of indifference to me whether the thoughts that I have had
have been anticipated by someone else (TLP, p. 3).
Wittgenstein himself does not engage in a systematic assessment and
criticism of various views. Russell and Frege are mentioned in the Preface as sources of stimulation for his own thinking, and the Tractatus
contains various (mainly critical) references to specic points they
make. But we are left with the impression that such remarks are not



meant to serve as a systematic assessment of Wittgensteins position in

relation to those views. His wish is not so much to open a debate with
those thinkers as to use them to further clarify his own central point.6
Since I think that the Tractatus contains a movement that should be
grasped in its entirety, my interpretation must remain keyed to that gesture. This means that it will be rather short, endeavoring to express and
duplicate the movement of the work, even if this entails foregoing a
detailed commentary of various propositions.7 That said, I did conceive
my reading of the Tractatus in relation to various other major interpretations of the work. I shall mark points of agreement and disagreement
with those interpretations in the second part of this book.
Although I wish to read the Tractatus apart from its times, this doesnt
mean that this reading is entirely divorced from the history of philosophy itself. Certain developments which are connected to the very inuence and reception of Wittgenstein make it possible to emphasize aspects of the Tractatus that have been neglected, and thus to shift the
conception of the work in the direction I want. The fate of the book
seems bound up with the fate of the divide between the two traditions
of philosophy, the analytic or Anglo-American and the existentialphenomenological, or so-called Continental tradition. I conceive of
Wittgensteins work, both early and late, as a possible mediation between those two directions of modern philosophy. Insofar as the philosophical climate is changing, it is, I think, possible to return to this text
of Wittgensteins with a different aim, not in order to collapse the two
traditions into one another, but to take the Tractatus as a proper standard
for measuring their distance. My wish to touch upon such different traditions of philosophy partly explains the distance, at least in tone, between my way of expressing some of Wittgensteins points and the
sound of his own writing. Parts of the book will sound closer to analytic
elaborations of notions like logic, signs, and symbols. Other parts, elaborating concepts such as world, the subject, the ethical, and the mystical
6. This feature of Wittgensteins writing becomes more and more pronounced. Thus the
Philosophical Investigations contains very little in terms of an overt argument with other philosophical views.
7. Imitation may not in most cases be the most promising way to elaborate ones interpretation, but I think that there are works, such as the Tractatus, in which the task of repeating in
other words what they say addresses their peculiar difculty.



will have a distinctly different tone. Since I have learned much on how
to read these topics of the Tractatus from reading Heidegger, I nd it
fruitful to make Wittgensteins pronouncements resonate with what one
might think of as Heideggerian formulations.

Signs of Sense


Figures of Writing

What kind of work is Wittgensteins Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, what

are the philosophical sensibilities of its author, and what does it demand
of its readers?
The Tractatus is a singular work. Some readers might initially perceive
its singularity as the difculty of placing it in any tradition of modern
philosophy. It is usually said that the Tractatus developed from Wittgensteins preoccupation with the logic of Frege and Russell, who are indeed
the only two sources explicitly, even if problematically, acknowledged in
his preface. Thus the work is usually placed in the lineage of analytic
philosophy and considered to have fathered logical positivism. Moritz
Schlick called it the rst to have pushed forward the decisive turning
point in philosophy, and Carnap named it as the inspiration for his Logical Syntax of Language in particular and for his anti-metaphysicalism in
general. And yet the Tractatus is hardly similar in tone either to its ancestry or to its progeny, despite its apparent similarities to them in content
and subject matter; it seems to be the product of a completely different
philosophical sensibility. Yet this does not mean that it can be squarely
placed in the other great modern tradition, emanating from Kant and
leading through Hegel and Nietzsche to Heidegger.
The difculty in assimilating the Tractatus is often revealed by the tendency to divide the book into parts and adopt some of its pronouncements while discarding others. Carnaps attitude is in this respect typical; he adopts in his Logical Syntax of Language only that part of the
Tractatus that can be seen as the elaboration of a general theory of syntax, thereby correcting Wittgensteins erroneous supposition that logi1

Signs of Sense

cal form can be shown but not said and squarely rejecting the ethical or
mystical implications of the work.
It was Wittgenstein who rst exhibited the close connection between
the logic of science (or philosophy as he calls it) and syntax . . . Further he as shown that the so-called sentences of metaphysics and of
ethics are pseudo-sentences . . . If I am right, the position here maintained is in general agreement with his . . . There are two points especially on which the view here presented differs from that of Wittgenstein, and specically from his negative theses. The rst of these theses
states . . . [that] there are no sentences about the forms of sentences;
there is no expressible syntax. In opposition to this view, our construction of syntax has shown that it can be correctly formulated and that
syntactical sentences do exist . . . Wittgensteins second negative thesis
states that the logic of science (philosophy) cannot be formulated . . .
Consistently Wittgenstein applies this view to his own work also . . .
Such an interpretation of logic is certainly very unsatisfactory.1

This divisive treatment of the work is not restricted to one kind of philosophical sensibility. From the opposite corner of the philosophical landscape, Wittgensteins friend Paul Engelmann has a somewhat similar reaction:
a whole generation of disciples was able to take Wittgenstein for a
positivist because he had something of enormous importance in common with the positivists: he draws the line between what we can speak
about and what we must be silent about just as they do. The difference
is only that they have nothing to be silent about. Positivism holds
and this is its essencethat what we can speak about is all that really
matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that
really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be
silent about. When he nevertheless takes immense pain to delimit the
unimportant, it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on
surveying with such meticulous accuracy but the boundary of the

Despite his sense of a world of difference between his view of the

Tractatus and that of the positivists, it may well be that Engelmann presents only the mirror image of the positivist conception. Ridiculing
those who do not see what is really important, he ignores, like the posi1. R. Carnap, The Logical Syntax of Language, pp. 282283.
2. LLW, p. 97.


tivist, the crucial question: what is it in Wittgensteins work that makes

it possible to mistake the land for the ocean? In other words, how can
one fail to see the essential relation between land and ocean? Thus the
challenge in reading the Tractatus is to explain how a single work can
have all those sides to it, rather than to separate the book into parts that
are good and others to be discarded.
This divisive approach to the real concern of the Tractatus may have
been encouraged by some of Wittgensteins own remarks concerning his
work. In a famous letter to Ludwig von Ficker, Wittgenstein tried to explain the point of his manuscript, which seemed so remote from any of
von Fickers interests and so forbidding.
In reality, it isnt strange to you, for the point of the book is ethical. I
once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually
are not in it, which, however, Ill write to you now because they might
be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts:
of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written.
And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is
delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and Im convinced that,
strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited in this way. In brief, I think:
All of that which many are babbling today, I have dened in my book by
remaining silent about it. Therefore the book will, unless Im quite
wrong, have much to say which you want to say yourself, but perhaps
you wont notice that it is said in it. For the time being, Id recommend
that you read the foreword and the conclusion since they express the
point most directly.3

It is tempting to interpret these remarks to mean that Wittgenstein

has only an instrumental interest in logic. Yet the letter to von Ficker
does not merely express the primacy of the ethical but states the necessity of going through logic in order to delimit the ethical. That this is the
only way of delimiting the ethical shows the essential relatedness and
interdependence of logic and ethics. What is most difcult to understand is the nature of the afnity established between them. Why is it
that, in extremis, thinking about logic touches upon the ethical?
The easiest and most tempting way of viewing the relationship between logic and ethics is to think of them as two separate domainsas,
so to speak, countries bordering on one another. Thus logic would delimit all that is sayable, and the content of the Tractatus would chart this
3. Quoted in R. Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, p. 178.

Signs of Sense

domain. Ethics would then be identied with the domain of the unsayable, whose contours are determined by the negative space that the
Tractatus leaves open. After all, the Tractatus, at least in its manifest content, is indeed concerned with logic, and Wittgenstein himself seems to
hold that ethics cannot be said.
This easy solution, which relies so heavily on the geographical trope
of two adjacent domains (as Engelmanns gure of land and ocean suggests), is unsatisfactory. Ethics, after all, cannot be the other side of
logic, that which is not logic, since negation itself belongs to the realm of
logic: hence both the content to be negated and the result of the negation belong to the same domain. Moreover, delimiting the logical in that
way might leave room for the ethical, but it in no way provides its internal articulation. It would present us at most with the external contours
of a domain, its borders. But the Tractatus is not a prolegomenon to a domain of ethics. It is a work with an ethical point, which is inseparable
from its work of delimiting the logical.
Moreover, it does not seem all that natural to assume without further
ado that logic merely delimits the ethical. Why are we not in the least
tempted to say that Russell and Whiteheads Principia Mathematica or
Freges Begriffsschrift delimit the ethical negatively? Would it be possible
to perceive the Tractatus as a work with an ethical point without Wittgensteins remarks to this effect, and if so, what is the nature of the difference between these two ways of elaborating logic and its limits?
In my approach to the text I will assume that only by discarding the
gure of adjacent domains can the reader grasp the meaning of the
Tractatus: that everything happens at the limits, in the work of delimitation. This means that the task of delineating the logical is as problematic
as that of opening ourselves to the ethical. There is not one domain,
logic, in which everything is quite straightforward and open, and another, ethics, that is essentially obscure. Work at the limits bears equally
on both the ethical and the logical. This perception suggests that the
main issue is to explain why drawing the limits of language as such reveals the inner relation of the ethical and the logical. Wittgensteins philosophy, far from separating these into distinct domains, brings out their
essential afnity.4
These disciplinary or territorial considerations are naturally con4. This intuition runs counter to P. M. S. Hackers interpretation: It is common to view the
Tractatus as a completely and wholly integrated work, and hence to think that the so-called
mystical parts of the book are a culmination of the work reecting back on everything that


nected with the difculties presented by the relation between the form
of the Tractatus and its content. From that perspective, the singularity of
the work lies in its declining to provide the kind of continuous reading that encompasses the content and the conditions of content. The
Tractatus can be read either from its beginning or from its end. At the
end, Wittgenstein casts doubt on the beginning and distinguishes the
content from the point of the book. He notoriously writes:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone
who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when
he has used themas stepsto climb up beyond them. (He must, so
to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the
world aright. (6.54)

Readers of the work do not cease to be mesmerized (and consequently

often paralyzed) by this remark, by the end of the book, and by what
supposedly lies beyond it, and seek to use it as the key to understanding
the Tractatus and its ethical point. Others, taking a different approach
and recapitulating the philosophical division, start reading from the beginning and are drawn to the content or supposed logical doctrine of the
bookto the most complex and detailed picture the work presents. Its
logic is fascinating though not easily understood.
Those who emphasize the point of the book over its content seek to
explain that point before analyzing the detailed argumentation (in particular, they try to explain the meaning of the injunction to throw away
the ladder). They view our understanding, at the end, as essentially external to the considerations raised in the work. Furthermore, a gradual
interpretation of the text, tracing its internal logic, would seem a most
misleading enterprise, given what one is left with after the ladder has
been thrown away. If we take too seriously what we know to be ultimately nonsense, it will be hard for us to dismiss it at the end.
Those who prefer to emphasize the manifest content of the book will
went before. This is, I think, at best misleading, at worst erroneous. It is true that these sections of the Tractatus are connected with what went before, although the connection is tenuous. It is also true that they were of great importance to Wittgenstein. It is not obvious, however, that they follow from the earlier sections of the book. See Insight and Illusion: Themes in
the Philosophy of Wittgenstein, p. 101. As I indicated in the Preface, I think that such a piecemeal interpretation of the Tractatus misses the essential aim of the book. It is a book that demands to be read as a whole.

Signs of Sense

see such a grand gesture as empty at best. Indeed, why should Wittgenstein write such a complex treatise on logic only to throw it away dramatically at the end? They tend to dilute the remark about throwing
away the ladder, to avoid its radical consequences, by arguing that our
understanding at the end is still related to what was set forth in the book.
They would argue that although strictly speaking the book might be
nonsense, it nonetheless manages to convey a view of logic and the
world which, on its own terms, cannot be stated.5
The rst kind of reading suffers from all the defects of an overhasty
identication with Wittgensteins voice. In particular, the reluctance to
be fooled, by divining the point of Wittgensteins work in advance,
might give the reader a false sense of mastery which in fact does not contain the truth of the text. The text requires work in order for its truth to
be made manifest, or for the discrepancy between illusory mastery and
the assumption of subjectivity to be acknowledged. The second kind of
readers inevitably will see the fruits of their work snatched away at the
crucial moment, and satisfaction withheld permanently. They will treat
the Tractatus, despite Wittgensteins warning, as a textbook, and thus
will not derive any pleasure from reading it. (For, indeed, there is a peculiar kind of pleasure to be had in relating to the end of the book in the
proper way.) Here too, the books purpose will not have been fullled.
The oddness of the book might merely be dismissed as a matter of
style, which would be to dismiss the philosophical importance of presentation as such.6 The literary dimension of the Tractatus, the peculiar
5. Cora Diamond as well as James Conant have convincingly shown the difculty of holding to the content of the Tractatus despite the injunction to throw away the ladder. See C. Diamond, Throwing Away the Ladder, in The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy and the
Mind; J. Conant, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Nonsense, in T. Cohen, P. Guyer, and H.
Putnam, eds., Pursuits of Reason, pp. 195224.
6. An excellent example, just because it self-consciously dismisses the peculiarities of Wittgensteins writing, is E. Anscombes An Introduction to Wittgensteins Tractatus: In his introduction Wittgenstein suggests that he may be understood only by people who have had the same
thoughts as he; certainly he can only be understood by people who have been perplexed by the same
problems. His own writing is extraordinarily compressed, and it is necessary to ponder each
word in order to understand his sentences. When one does this, they often turn out to be quite
straightforward, and by no means so oracular or aphoristic as they have been taken to be. But
few authors make such demands on the close attention and active co-operation of their readers.
In my account, I have not followed the arrangement of the Tractatus at all. That, I think, is
something to do when one reads the book for enjoyment after one has come to understand its main


style of the work, is usually viewed as an expression of the singular personality of the author. Although no direct attempt is made to explain the
content of the book in terms of Wittgensteins biography, interpreters
seem to feel that the works peculiarities are to be attributed either to the
authors cultural background or to his strong personality. Russells description of Wittgenstein as perhaps the most perfect example I have
ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound,
intense, and dominating might well epitomize the interest that his person can generate.7 However, the Tractatus contains hardly anything that
might be called personal, which suggest that its uniqueness cannot be
explained as an emanation of Wittgensteins personality.8 Indeed, the fascination with Wittgensteins personality in relation to his work often
hinders a thorough inquiry into the inner necessity of the Tractatus singularity. For the impression does arise that Wittgensteins reections on
logic and the state of his soul are intimately connected. On reading his
diaries, putting together what has been separated by editors (Notebooks
19141916, and the secret war diaries or Geheime Tgebuchen), it is certainly tempting to establish a biographical connection to the strictly
philosophical writing.9 But the fact remains that no hint of the biographical material appears in the nal work. Thus the authors uniqueness and
the uniqueness of the work must be addressed without making the work
personal. That is, although the biographical response might be suggested by the work, it actually misrepresents the signicance of the person to the work and fails to account for the necessity of the rst-person
singular in a work of philosophy such as the Tractatus.
ideas. In Introduction to Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 19, my emphasis. Anscombes deliberate
shift from having the same thoughts to being perplexed by the same problems, her insistence that Wittgensteins aphoristic style is actually a compressed argumentative form, and her
dissociation of understanding from the affective dimension of the book, all contribute to segregating the logical, the ethical, and the aesthetic into separate domains.
7. B. Russell, Autobiography, vol. 2, pp. 9899.
8. The distinction between uniqueness and other forms of understanding the personal will
be a topic I will address in my interpretation of solipsism in the Tractatus as well as in my reading of the ending of the book. This form of uniqueness will have to be elaborated so as to account for a claim such as: Only from the consciousness of the uniqueness of my life arises religionscienceand art (NB, p. 79). I assume that here uniqueness does not mean features of
my character or the events of my life that distinguish me from other human beings.
9. For an attempt to bring into the picture Wittgensteins diaries as a whole, see, for example, J. Floyds The Uncaptive Eye: Solipsism in Wittgensteins Tractatus.

Signs of Sense

In thinking of Wittgensteins writing itselfof, as it were, the style of

his workas giving us a clue to the conception of the work, it is important to grasp that just as an understanding of ethics is inseparable from
that of logic, so the aesthetic cannot be seen as a domain apart. Wittgenstein asserts in a well-known statement that Ethics and aesthetics are
one and the same (6.421). We should not assume that we know what
ethics and aesthetics are. Nor, for that matter, should we assume that we
know what logic is. Indeed, we should abandon preconceived ideas
about their nature before approaching the text, and such statements
should themselves be exemplied and tested in the context of the Tractatus itself. In taking as a starting point the nature of the writing of the
Tractatus, I do not mean to imply that such an inquiry is truly separable
from the questions of logic or ethics that the book raises, only that it
might provide a better or fresh point of entry into its problems.
By speaking of the aesthetics of the Tractatus, I do not intend here to
raise the issue of the pleasure afforded by reading the work (though
Wittgenstein does state in the preface that the purpose of the book is
to give pleasure to the one person who reads it with understanding).
Rather, I mean to inquire about the nature of Wittgensteins writing and
what it means to read it.10 Wittgenstein does not speak of his work
merely as a work of philosophy but says that it is strictly philosophical
and at the same time literary,11 implying that there is a literary dimension to the philosophical as such. The question is, then, to what extent
does the writing of a book concerning logic, with an ethical point
to it, dene a literary task which is essential to strictly philosophical
We can approach the question of the nature of Wittgensteins writing
by considering that the Tractatus is a pointed work. It reveals a limit
case, or an experience of limits. The task of making manifest such an
elusive limit should be conceived of in terms of intensity of expression
rather than clarication of a domain (what Wittgenstein calls in the
preface hitting the nail on the head). In his Notebooks Wittgenstein often presents his problem as one of expression: My difculty is only
10. An elaboration of this theme in relation to Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations
will be found in S. Cavells The Investigations Everyday Aesthetics of Itself, in S. Mulhall,
ed., The Cavell Reader.
11. Undated letter to Ludwig Ficker. Quoted in B. McGuinness, Wittgenstein: A Life, Young
Ludwig: 18891921, p. 288.


anenormousdifculty of expression.12 Indeed, in the preface to the

Tractatus Wittgenstein develops an opposition between truth and its expression:
If this work has any value it consists in two things: the rst is that
thoughts are expressed in it, and on this score the better the thoughts
are expressedthe more the nail has been hit on the headthe greater
will be its value. Here I am conscious of having fallen a long way short
of what is possible. Simply because my powers are too slight for the accomplishment of the task.May others come and do it better. On the
other hand the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems
to me unassailable and denitive. I therefore believe myself to have
found, on all essential points, the nal solution of the problems. And if
I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the
value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when
these problems are solved. (TLP, pp. 34)

Wittgenstein here distinguishes the task of expression from the discovery of truths or the solving of problems. What has value is the force of
expression, and not the content of the statements made.
The thoughts expressed can be quite simple when uttered as theses.13
An example of the contrast between expression and mere utterance is
given in proposition 5.5563, where something like the point of the work
is stated: In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just
as they stand, are in perfect logical order.That utterly simple thing,
which we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the
truth itself in its entirety. What it takes to express the force of that is no
less than the Tractatus as a whole. This emphasis on expression should
be read in conjunction with the motto of the book: . . . and whatever a
man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has
heard, can be said in three words.
Such emphasis on the expression of a point may seem to go against
the overwhelming impression that the Tractatus is a treatise organized
almost like an axiomatic system. The numbering system that orders the
propositions and divides the text into discrete parts, as well as the asser12. NB, p. 40.
13. I would think of such a separation of the problem of expression from the statement of
thoughts as preguring what Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations: If one tried to
advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone
would agree to them (PI, 128).


Signs of Sense

tive mode in which it is mostly written, reinforce that impression, which

is why Wittgensteins writing has been compared with Spinozas geometrical methodand hence also Moores suggestion to give a Latin title to
the English translation from the German that plays on the association
with Spinozas Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Although elements of Wittgensteins text certainly suggest the association with Spinoza, the reasons that prompted Moore to choose that title should not be identied
with those that led Wittgenstein to agree to it. Thus the archaic tone of
the title, as well as the very form of the treatise, might be seen as expressing the relation between the Tractatus and those past works of
metaphysics. But rather than pointing to a similarity of content, this association might serve to emphasize the contrary: that we have lost the
capacity to relate to the world through metaphysics, that metaphysics is
a matter of the pastindeed, that the Tractatus, in throwing away the
ladder, expresses this very loss.
Furthermore, one should not identify the geometrical method of the
Ethics and the numbering system of the Tractatus, for the latter may
carry with it certain rhetorical effects which are at odds with Spinozas
geometrical thinking.14 The numbering indeed creates the possibility of
surveying the progress of reading. But this is not merely the possibility
of making perspicuous the way in which one proposition constitutes an
explication of another. The numbering frames everything as surveyable;
it holds the book together. Wittgensteins numbering provides a measure
of progress and colors the book as a whole with the sense of linear progress.15 It creates the impression that you can take one step after another
14. See S. Cavell, The Investigations Everyday Aesthetics of Itself on proofs and perspicuity in Wittgensteins later thinking. It is instructive in that respect to compare the Tractatus
with the Notebooks. The Notebooks of the early Wittgenstein are, one might say, closer to
Wittgensteins later remarks than to the Tractatus that comes out of them. This might be explained by Wittgensteins later cultivation of the style of the diary entry, but it would be, I
think, more correct to say that such was his natural inclination from the very beginning, and
thus to associate with the tone of the Tractatus a deliberate striving after a certain tone and effect. It is interesting that his understanding of the tone in which philosophy is to be conducted
shifted so radically, whereas something important about his aim remained the same throughout
his writings.
15. This stands in sharp contrast to the central gure for writing used in Wittgensteins
Philosophical Investigations, that of sketching a landscape: The philosophical remarks in this
book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of . . .
long and involved journeyings (Preface, p. ix). The Tractatus, although it allows for various
branchings in our modes of advance, is essentially hierarchical and does not form a landscape
in which the reader can stroll.



while keeping in mind what has been said. But maybe it is precisely this
ordering that ultimately serves the nal gesture: for the ladder to be
thrown away, it must have existed in the rst place. Indeed, Wittgensteins remark that his book is not a textbook does not mean that the
reader is not tempted to a step-by-step advance, as if on a ladder. But
there will come a decisive moment when the very possibility of this advance will be rejected. One could also say that in order to address the
problem of the essentially distant, the unapproachable (and after all the
end of the Tractatus is concerned with the mystical), it is necessary to experience the attempt to draw near.
The Tractatus is a complex text, yet this complexity does not contradict the possibility of taking it in all at once. (This is not a psychological
remark but an aesthetic judgment concerning the form of the work.) In
this respect the brevity of the book is important, for it allows the reader
to advance while keeping in mind what has been read. The possibility of
that activity of comprehension is a condition for the force the work gathers at the end. It is a book with a point, and the point cannot be separated from encompassing its content in a certain way. It is a book whose
advance can be visualized, and one that can therefore stage a crisis of visualization. This is what makes it the exact opposite of Philosophical Investigations, a book that cannot be read in terms of a unique gesture, a
book with no sublime moment.16
Probing into the literariness of the Tractatus might seem out of place,
not just because of its seemingly straightforward logical content, but
also because Wittgenstein may often be perceived as a Socratic gure
who is essentially concerned with the dialogical teaching of philosophy.
This image of Wittgenstein as someone who does not writean impression that remains despite the two books and innumerable remarks he
did writemight be the result of Wittgensteins own denials that philosophy consists of a body of doctrine (4.112), and his claims that philosophizing always starts with someone elses confusion (6.53) or that it is
addressed to one person who can relate to it with understanding (pref16. I assume that the category of sublimity is relevant to assess the experience of the world
in the Tractatus, which is also, as I want to claim, the experience that is provoked by the reading
of the text. This will be developed in the last two chapters of this book. I will only point to
Kants characterization of the conditions of the experience of the sublime in terms of a ratio between the activities of apprehension and comprehension. See Critique of Judgment, trans. J. C.
Meredith, 26. For an elaboration of the conditions of such an experience, see E. Friedlander,
Kant and the Critique of False Sublimity, pp. 6991.


Signs of Sense

ace). I do not say that such an image is completely wrong, but merely
ask what it implies concerning Wittgensteins understanding of the nature of a book of philosophy. Indeed, writing need not be confused with
the assertion of positive theses. But then, what is writing, beyond theory,
in philosophy?
This leads to the question what signicance books had for Wittgenstein. He is reputed to have read few philosophical works, and he certainly writes as if the books of others are of no concern to him. And yet
mentions of books and book writing appear on various occasions in
Wittgensteins early writings.
In his Lecture on Ethics he imagines the writing of a book:
Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all
the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he
also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and
suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book
would contain the whole description of the world.17

A book of this sort presents us with the world as the sum total of facts,
letting us survey or contemplate all that is the case extensively or exhaustively. Enumeration constitutes the essence of such a book. It displays every possible fact to a reader who is imagined as a stranger or
spectator to this world. But Wittgenstein also envisaged another kind of
book, in the same Lecture on Ethics:
And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have
to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say
should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientic book, the subject
matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a
man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics,
this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the

This book can be seen as the opposite of the great book of facts. If the
rst kind of book has nothing but facts, nothing essentially beyond
facts, or nothing transcendent, then the second kind of book is nothing
17. LE, p. 6.
18. LE, p. 7.



but pure transcendence. The explosion of that book (for in the fantasy of
The Book, the apocalyptic book, or the book to end all books, as I picture it, what explodes is the book itself), evokes the manifestation of the
essentially distant or other. The explosion, the clat, to elaborate the gure, is a ash of light that signals that something has been destroyed, or
has disappeared. Platos sun, if it were to rise at all, would illuminate the
disappearance of the ground we wished to stand on in its light.19
The two books have something in common: they present a view of the
beyond; the rst in terms of innitely detailed enumeration, and the second in terms of the intensity of pure transcendence. They are both fantastic or impossible books, the rst because of its innite exhaustiveness, the second because of its immediate explosiveness. But this very
feature would seem to distinguish them from the Tractatus, which, after
all, we hold before us. But do we? And what precisely do we hold, once
we have thrown away the ladder?
The Tractatus shares some striking features with the apocalyptic book.
It declares, for instance, that it puts an end to all books of philosophy or
metaphysics by solving all problems of philosophy. It further exemplies
the explosive movement of the imaginary book on ethics: it does, if we
follow what drives it, collapse into nothing.
The Tractatus also shares some features of the rst imaginary book.
Although it does not list all that is the case, it creates the impression that
it speaks of the world from the perspective from which that would be
possible. It makes us consider the world as all that is the case and elaborates what is involved in adopting such a perspective.
I claim, then, that the Tractatus incorporates both kinds of book.
Wittgenstein begins with the fantasy of the exhaustive book and ends
with the fantasy of the apocalyptic book; that is, he elaborates the Tractatus between two fantasies of doing away with work, in particular with
the work of language. This means, not surprisingly perhaps, that the
Tractatus is an impossible work. Logically speaking, the Tractatus does
not exist. An impossible work must necessarily have an illusory consis19. Walter Benjamin uses a similar gure to express his understanding of the philosophical
text. He writes: In the eld with which we are concerned, knowledge exists only in lightning
ashes. The text is the thunder rolling long afterwards. Quoted in G. Smith, ed., Benjamin:
Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, p. 43. Importantly, Benjamin does not identify the philosophical
text with the lightning but rather with the thunder that is separated from the lightning. Thus
for him too the book that is pure transcendence is an impossible book.


Signs of Sense

tency. Here we nd a rst reason why it is necessary for the Tractatus to

be written. It does not exist in the realm of thought; it has a ctional or
literary existence. For thought alone, the Tractatus is a lost cause.
In the Tractatus there is yet another book that Wittgenstein imagines
If I wrote a book called The World as I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts were
subordinate to my will, and which were not, etc., this being a method
of isolating the subject, or rather showing that in an important sense
there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book.

In contrast to the two impossible books, Wittgenstein presents The

World as I Found It as a book he could write. He writes in the Notebooks:
I have long been conscious that it would be possible for me to write a
book: The world I found.20 Without going, at this point, into a detailed
interpretation of this proposition, it is clear that it presents a peculiar
case, standing, as it were, in the space between the two impossible
books. On the one hand, it contains a form of enumeration. It proposes a
way of presenting an impersonal view of my place among things. On the
other hand, such an enumeration is a way of isolating the subject. It is
an attempt to delimit my will by placing my body among things, rather
than by reference to a transcendent subjectivity. It is a form of autobiography that brings the world into a relation with the I.
What stands in the way of writing such a book? That is, what prevents
me from thinking of my own life in such terms, through such detailed
attention to the embodiment of my will in the world? Why did Wittgenstein not write such a book? Is this the part of the Tractatus that he left
unsaid? One thing is clear: the Tractatus is not The World as I Found It.
What stands in the way of writing the latter book is no less than metaphysical pictures of the world, facts, transcendence, and subjectivity. It
is precisely the persistent fantasy of the two other impossible books, the
book of facts and the apocalyptic book, that stands in the way of the
proper autobiographical relation. To the extent that the Tractatus incorporates something of both those books, it is necessary to work through
it to reach the possibility of writing The World as I Found It.
The World as I Found It can be thought of as presenting a conception of
20. NB, p. 49.



experience which overcomes the tension between the impossible book

of facts and the impossible book of transcendence. It presents the possibility of relating to the world as I found it, that is, to things as they have
signicance or touch me, yet without the subjects being in any way the
subject matter of that book. It opens onto experience, as would the great
book of facts, but introduces the possibility of viewing the world as signicant.
What is the place from which the world can be viewed not merely as
the sum total of facts laid out for us, but as a world of things that are signicant for a subject? What steps take us to that standpoint? Can we be
led there step by step? Taking as a clue the similarity of the Tractatus to
the two imaginary bookswhich can only be thought of as of divine originI want to consider the relation of the Tractatus to the Scriptures.21
Consider a work that is divided into seven parts, that opens with the
world as such, appearing out of nothing, and that ends with the withdrawal and silence of the creator, after all that could be done has been
done. If the seven parts were seven mythical days, this might be called a
story of creation, or be thought of in relation to the story of creation in
the rst chapter of the book of Genesis. But if that description ts
Wittgensteins Tractatus, should the book then be understood as addressing the question of the emergence of Being out of Nothing, or should
this feature be dismissed as a mere coincidence, or at best as a joke in
bad taste on the part of Wittgenstein, who thereby relates his text to the
Without dismissing the possibility of the parodic, ironic, or comic
tone that might counterbalance the pristine seriousness of the rest of the
text (for this text is not merely written in that neutral, matter-of-fact
tone which is the supposed analytic ideal of writing, but rather embod21. A reference to the quasi-biblical tone of the work and its elaboration of a version of creation appears in B. McGuinness, Wittgenstein: A Life, pp. 299300, without a consideration of
the signicance of the analogy.
22. It is interesting to compare the Tractatus with another text, written at about the same
time, that addresses the account of creation in Genesis: it is Walter Benjamins On Language as
Such and on the Language of Man, in Selected Writings, Volume 1. 19131926, M. Bullock and
M. W. Jennings, eds. Specically, the division of language into the perspective of the world, the
perspective of objects, and the perspective of facts, which I view as essential in the Tractatus,
can be compared to Benjamins distinction between the divine creative verb, the Adamic naming, and the state of language after the Fall, which essentially involves the bipolarity of judgment.


Signs of Sense

ies what I would call a pathos of seriousness), I shall inquire whether

that comparison can be taken seriously and propose a reading to account for it.
I have claimed that to read the Tractatus fruitfully is to work through
it so as to justify its enigmatic character. But an enigma is not a secret
withheld by the author of the book in silence. As I have suggested, the
esoteric nature of the text, the difculty of expression inherent in it,
does not derive from the attempt to convey a particularly difcult content but rather from the necessity of directing the reader to experience
differently. I have tried in what follows to convey that aim in the movement of my interpretation. But it may be useful to provide here, at the
end of this introduction, a broad overview of my understanding of the
Tractatus. This should not replace working through the text. Indeed, if
what is at stake is the intensity of expression, such an overview might
not help much. Nevertheless, my hope is that it may serve as a guide for
the reader if the sense of the overall movement of the Tractatus gets lost
in the more detailed unfolding of my interpretation.
The Tractatus aims to open us to our own experience as it is revealed
through language. This means that there is a gap between the way we
represent to ourselves facts in the world and our recognition of the signicance of experience. This recognition is not the experience of a transcendent source of signicance, but rather the possibility of viewing our
ordinary dealing with things as presenting a face of signicance. To
speak here of signicance means, on the one hand, that what one is
looking for is a phenomenon of meaning, that is, the appearance of
meaningfulness in the language we use, and on the other hand, that we
have a phenomenon of value. Thus I nd Wittgenstein attempting to
lead us to a point where the linguistic issue of recognizing meaning is
fused with the evaluative perspective of things having signicance.
These are not two separate domains of inquiry, one linguistic and the
other ethical; rather, it is that the proper opening onto the possibilities
of meaning also provides the fundamental evaluative dimension. (We
can also say that the evaluative dimension of the recognition of meaning
relates that recognition internally to the appearance of affects, so that it
can be thought of as aesthetic as well as ethical.)
It is a world of things that appear to us signicant. Thus in my reading
the recognition of signicance correlates with properly expressing the
fundamental role that objects play in the Tractatus. Such objects, far



from being mysterious logical preconditions for the functioning of language, form a world of possibilities of meaning which a human subject
can assume and through whose appropriation the subject is made manifest. They are internally related to our everyday use of language, to the
opening of possibilities of existence in that everyday world of concerns.
It is for this reason that objects cannot be given systematically; our recognition of them cannot be grounded in advance of experience, for they
stand at the place of our openness to experience, which is the ultimate
imperative of the work.
That the recovery of experience is an imperative means that it is to be
achieved against an urge to transcend the limits of experience, an urge
which manifests itself in language in the form of nonsense. The recognition of signicance is thus achieved as a return from nonsense.23
23. This description of the aim of the Tractatus might strike readers acquainted with it as
strange. Part of the aim of the detailed reading is to make it convincing. But I would add this:
opening onto meaningfulness or signicance is to be contrasted with two perspectives, that of
facts and that of pure transcendence. Those are the two temptations between which the book is
stretched: the temptation of the beginning and that of the end. Giving in to the rst temptation
will yield the understanding of the book as concerned essentially with the elaboration of the
possibility of language to picture facts. Giving in to the second temptation will yield seeing the
whole point of the book as concerned with a mystical grasp of the transcendent source of value
outside the world. It is nevertheless important that the Tractatus touch upon those two extremes. It is concerned, one might say, with this world, with experience as it is given in language (thus sharing something with the perspective of facts), but also with viewing this experience as the emergence of meaning out of nothing, a certain experience of ungroundedness of
meaning (thus sharing something with the perspective of transcendence). I call the possibility
of going beyond the dichotomy of facticity and transcendence the opening onto creation in language.

Part One

Signs of Sense

Logic Apart

Logic Apart

The tendency to focus mainly on the oddity of the end of the Tractatus
may cause us to overlook the striking nature of its opening. The force of
the opening propositions is surely connected to their ontological tenor.
How can one start with the world as such, after Kant? How can one
bypass language after Frege and Russell? To be sure, language is introduced later in the text, and this makes it possible to read back into
that beginning a more nuanced account. But such a retroactive reading
would lose the tone to which the opening is pitcheda tone that itself
needs to be explained and its purpose examined. Is it, as we are tempted
to say, the tone of metaphysics, and if it is, why should Wittgenstein
have even begun with the tone of a metaphysical treatise in a work that
problematizes to the extreme the very possibility of metaphysics?
An easy way out of this initial quandary is to invoke the end of the
book at the very beginning. Several interpreters have been tempted to
say that Wittgenstein introduces ontology only to overcome it after a few
steps up the ladder.1 For if the book is ultimately metaphysical non1. E. Anscombe, for example, immediately opens her commentary with a discussion of elementary propositions, as if it were obvious that there were no place for the ontological question.
T. Ricketts thinks of Wittgensteins rhetoric in the 2.0s as carefully calculated both to limn a
metaphysical picture and simultaneously to cancel the incompatible implicatures that any presentation of this metaphysics carries with it . . . When subsequently we reect on Wittgensteins
words, on the view we take these words to convey, we realize that, on their own telling, they do
not communicate a view at all. Wittgensteins words pull themselves apart. See Pictures,
Logic and the Limits of Sense in Wittgensteins Tractatus, in Sluga and Stern, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, pp. 8990. This description might indeed convey the dialectic at work in the Tractatus, but in that case it must be carried all the way to the end.
By stressing the attempt to start from the world, I do not mean to say that the perspectives of



Signs of Sense

sense, why shouldnt that fact be made clear from the start? Undoubtedly, some justice bolsters the intuition that a certain way of speaking of
the world that is exemplied at the very beginning of the text has to be
overcome. But what I nd suspicious is the hasty recourse to a safe haven in the realm of language, that is, the apparent need to invoke the
ladder at the very outset, while neglecting it throughout the rest of the
book until it reemerges at the end.
The relation between beginning and end must indeed be conceived in
the context of the ontological tone of the opening, but not necessarily in
order to reject the ontological perspective. Indeed, I suggest that Wittgensteins return to the possibility of seeing the world aright at the end
should itself be interpreted ontologically, not beyond language but at the
limits of language. In a circular structure, the book starts with the world
as such, a world as if beyond language, only to return to it at the end
through an understanding of the limits of language.2 Overemphasis on
the gure of the ladder as the key to understanding the structure of the
book distracts attention from this circle. I am suggesting then that we
can think of the structure of the Tractatus by means of a gure that
stands to some extent in tension with the gure of the ladder, that of the
circle. The seeming tension between the linear advance suggested by the
ladder and the idea of return suggested by the circle is resolved by the
fact that the ladder must be thrown away. Having thrown it away, we do
not nd ourselves somewhere outside or above the world. To throw it
away marks, one might say, the realization that one is being returned to
the world, with no further need for any ladder.
What is it like to enter this circle, to be returned to the world we have
left behind in the very rst steps of thinking? Does Wittgenstein indeed
world and of language are entirely independent of each other. Wittgenstein importantly interweaves remarks about language with his account of the world and its objects (see, for instance,
2.0122, 2.02112.0212, 2.0231). Nevertheless it remains to be explained why he chooses to
start with a seemingly ontological perspective. Often the wish to see language there from the
beginning burdens Wittgensteins thinking with a form of transcendentalism, as if he argued
that the condition of the possibility of language is that the world be thus and so. Such transcendental arguments miss the force of Wittgensteins anti-a priorism. This will be demonstrated in
my discussion of Wittgensteins conception of the nature of analysis and of the subject.
2. I nd it signicant that neither the opening propositions nor any hints at the surprise of
the end of the book appear anywhere in the Notebooks. Most of the Tractatus appears in some
form in the Notebooks, but such material is ordered and enclosed, encircled as it were by the beginning and the end.

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close a circle when he returns to the world at the end? Does he make
ends meet and return to the world he opened with, that is, to all that is
the case? Or is there a certain gap, something that does not let itself be
closed and that constitutes the very thing which the Tractatus teaches to
be the experience of the world? Although seeing the world aright is not
just seeing all that is the case, nothing is added. To think of the world as
more than all the facts there are cannot be regarded as determining a
realm apart from facts. The book as a whole can be seen as a work of
elaborating and intensifying that fundamental tension, the tension inherent to transcending the factual.
The books circularity of structure provides a clue to the Tractatus aim
and effects. Wittgensteins statement in the preface that the aim of the
book is to draw a limit to thought can be read as meaning that thought
is to be restored to its proper bounds, as in Kants work of critique, and
as further implying that there is nothing beyond thought. In a certain
way this expresses the aim of the Tractatus correctly. But Wittgensteins
aim is just as much to show that thought is limited, to present us with an
interpretation of nitude.3 Such a limitation does not mean that there is
something beyond the limits, but it does grant a fundamental importance to the very experience of limitation. Limitation will mean that
there is the world itself in excess to what can be said. The experience of
limitation, I suggest, is the experience of the world. Thus the problem of
the circle in the Tractatus is how to advance to a sense of the limits of
thought, while realizing that limitation does not place anything on the
other side of thought (except the very existence of a world). The difculty is to see that there is always something more to what is said. As
Wittgenstein put it to Ficker, there is always that part of the book that
he did not write. We should add that this is not a part that can ever be
It is the world that is the aim of thought. But having barely been mentioned, the world seems already lost in an avalanche of terms leading
from facts to states of affairs to their constituents. We are abruptly introduced to a multitude of terms and distinctions: the world, what is the
3. To think of the Tractatus as elaborating a conception of nitude hinges on an understanding of Wittgensteins concept of limit. Juliet Floyd presents a powerful interpretation of
his position on this issue in The Uncaptive Eye: Solipsism in Wittgensteins Tractatus, in L.
Rouner, ed., Loneliness (forthcoming). I nd many points of agreement as well as of difference
with Floyds position, which will be mentioned in chapter 11.


Signs of Sense

case, the totality of facts, facts, states of affairs, objects, possibilities of

combinations, logical space, substance of the world, logical form, structure of state of affairs, form, possibility of structure, positive facts, negative facts, reality, sum total of reality, conguration of objects.
Let us remain for a moment at the beginning, for it is all too tempting
to enter into the network of articulations, distinctions, and conceptualizations and become enmeshed in guring out how terms relate to one
another. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is the world that
opens this book, that it is the world to which we provide articulation.
And if such an endeavor seems odd, would not all further articulation,
while serving to clarify, also convey the very loss of what we aimed for
as if language, its very occurrence, both claried and essentially interfered with our relation to the world; as if, once the movement of thinking about the constitution of the world is broached, the world itself is
lost.4 The attempt to recover the world will then create the fundamental
tension of the book, wherein the very distinctions introduced create new
modes of alienation. While advancing in the reading, it will be necessary
to retain throughout this double perspective of concealment and discovery, as if striving to use language so as to get rid of it, in order to return to
the world in silence.5 Not that the vision of acceding to the world in silence should be immediately embraced, for it might itself be as much of
a fantasy as the vision of a world fully articulated in language. But we
must recognize the movement, the tension that arises in bringing language to the world.
From the outset we must remember that Wittgenstein thinks of the
4. A curious aphorism related to that matter appears in Culture and Value: In art it is hard
to say anything as good as: saying nothing (CV, p. 23). I would read this aphorism as claiming
that we are fated to language when we wish to express anything at all, but that the driving force
of expression in art is to do away with language. What is it to attain the point in language in
which we recognize the force of doing away with language? Attempting to express such an
understanding characterizes for me the movement of the Tractatus, which aims, through language, at the world, in silence.
5. This sense of loss and nostalgia is recorded in many of the interpretations. N. Malcolm,
for instance, writes: In certain respects the Tractatus belongs to an old tradition of metaphysical philosophy, in Wittgenstein: Nothing Is Hidden, p. 236. P. M. S. Hacker writes: The Tractatus . . . is not a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics, but the swan song of metaphysics,
in Insight and Illusion, p. 27. D. Pears writes: The exposition of [this] ontology is notoriously
difcult to follow, a last message from a vanishing world, barely articulate, because it is spoken
in such a strangled voice, in The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 17.

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Tractatus as a problem of expression. We must therefore orient ourselves

rst to what it is that needs to be expressed. This initial orientation, albeit still vague, is crucial to the attempt to come to terms with the
Tractatus. The movement of reading must incorporate Wittgensteins
own sense that a single insight at the start is worth more than ever so
many in the middle.6 And what needs expression, we must keep in
mind, is the world.
It is vital not to yield to the lure of detail but to keep the world in view,
if only because of its return at the very end. The single simple insight
that governs the writing here is that the world can be viewed apart from
logic, without our attributing any reality to logic. This insight is compatible with the sense that Wittgenstein wants to open us to the world beyond our structuring efforts, to provide an experience of the world at the
limits of language. The attempt to put such an insight to work is, I suggest, to question the status of logic as determinative of what there is.
This statement itself requires much explication, partly to avoid misunderstandings. I am far from claiming, for instance, that there are illog6. NB, p. 31. Throughout the Notebooks various remarks reveal Wittgensteins sense that he
is dealing with one innitely difcult thought: The problem of negation, of disjunction, of
true and false, are only reections of the one great problem in the variously placed great and
small mirrors of philosophy (NB, p. 40); and his constant feeling that he is losing his grip on
that perspective shows up in his strictures to himself to recover it, despite the temptation of apparent puzzles and problems: Dont get involved in partial problems, but always take ight to
where there is a view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear
one (NB, p. 23). Sometimes Wittgenstein is tempted to give a name to this problem: The great
problem around which everything that I write turns is: Is there an order in the world a-priori,
and if so what does it consist in (NB, p. 53). And in a somewhat altered formulation, he writes:
My whole task consists in explaining the nature of the proposition. That is to say, in giving the
nature of all facts, whose picture the proposition is. In giving the nature of all being. (And here
Being does not mean existingin that case it would be nonsensical) (NB, p. 39). This perspective on the problem also provides a mode of advance and inquiry: Dont worry about what
you have already written. Just keep on beginning to think afresh as if nothing at all had happened yet(NB, p. 30) and further: In this work more than any other it is rewarding to keep on
looking at questions, which we consider solved, from another quarter, as if they were unsolved (NB, p. 30). This last claim sometimes conveys, for me, the experience of reading the
Tractatus, providing a sense of the difculty of advance, along with the realization that this advance always leads back to the same place. Such an approach to the single problem of philosophy should be contrasted with Russells sense of the possible parcelization and piecemeal advance concerning the problems of philosophy; see P. Hylton, Russell, Idealism and the Emergence
of Analytic Philosophy. One should not assume, though, that Wittgensteins perspective of the
unique problem means a retreat to a form of absolute idealism.


Signs of Sense

ical or contradictory facts in the world. But I do insist that there is something peculiar about the attributes of logic in the Tractatus. One of its
famous claims is that there is no such thing as logical laws; that the laws
of logic, say in Frege or Russells view, are tautological or senseless.
Wittgenstein also writes that logical constants do not stand for anything.
Such claims should, I think, raise some questions about the role of logic
in determining what there is, the constitution of objects. If, for example,
someone were to argue that the laws of physics were senseless and that
physical constants had no meaning, would it not be incoherent to then
say that things had irreducible physical properties? So why does it seem
to readers of the Tractatus coherent to argue that the laws of logic are
senseless, to add that logical constants are not representatives of objects,
and yet to want to insist that logic determines what there is? Such a misinterpretation stems partly from the reluctance to take seriously the ontological standpoint, the centrality of the term world in Wittgensteins
account. More specically, it results, as I will show, from a misreading of
his notion of object. Indeed, facts, or for that matter propositions that
represent facts, cannot exist without logic; but is Wittgensteins aim ultimately to account for facts?
What is required then is to challenge the idea that our grasp of what
objects are is given to us by the logic which, according to Wittgenstein,
essentially characterizes what facts are. The understanding of the grammar of the object will be distinct from the understanding of the space of
facts spanned by logic.7 An intuition of the world apart from logic will
also be a view of the world apart from the perspective of facts. Such a
view will go through many renements and complexities, but will express the fundamental tension throughout the book to its end. It will
take some time until we are in a position to assess the signicance of the
possibility of opening to the world apart from logic, but we require
something that can start us on our way up the ladder. It is necessary to
perceive that all the distinctions Wittgenstein makes are subordinate
to that insight, that all his claims revolve around it. Lifting us up to
7. Frege, for instance, thinks of ontology as supervenient on logic. To be an object is to
behave thus and so in inferential patterns. See on this point Freges On Concept and Object,
in Translations From the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, eds. P. Geach and M. Black, as
well as T. Ricketts powerful interpretation of Freges understanding of the primacy of judgment in Objectivity and Objecthood: Freges Metaphysics of Judgment, in L. Haaparanta and
J. Hintikka, eds., Frege Synthesized.

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this perspective requires teaching us how to think differently about the

world, facts, and objects. We will thus nd many of the terms used in the
tradition shifted, subverted, reconceived, or translated.
The rst move on Wittgensteins part, the rst move in thinking about
or breaking down the totality suggested by the term world, is to consider how the world breaks down into facts (Tatsachen). Wittgenstein
then relates facts to states of affairs (Sachverhalten) constituted by objects (Gegenstanden, Sachen, Dingen). This progress can be presented
succinctly by means of the following propositions:
The world is all that is the case (1).
What is the casea factis the existence of states of affairs (2).
A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects
(things) (2.01).

Reading this series of claims we might be tempted to a reductivist picture and take facts to be constructed out of states of affairs and these in
turn to be composed of their basic elements, the objects. In such a picture something must provide the structure of the construction, and this
cement would be logic.8
But is this Wittgensteins picture? What is the relation between facts
and states of affairs, and between the latter and objects? What is the nature of the contrast between facts and states of affairs? What is the nature of the shift from one perspective to the other? For I will, indeed,
8. I realize that this presentation is rather schematic. I do intend it to refer to Russells early
conception of logic, according to which logic is, strictly speaking, part of the furniture of the
universe. Certain aspects of this early realism also carry over to his later logical atomism. In his
preface to The Philosophy of Logical Atomism Russell associates his thought with Wittgensteins: The following [is the text] of a course of eight lectures [which] are largely concerned
with explaining certain ideas which I learnt from my friend and former pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein; see B. Russell, Logic and Knowledge, p. 177. This assessment of Russells concerning the
relation of his logical atomism to Wittgensteins thought is problematic. Indeed, it might be the
source of many misreadings of the relation between facts and states of affairs. The problem appears rst in relation to the question of simplicity, for Russell does not think of simple objects
as containing internal complexity. But that is the reason why everything that pertains to the
realm of possibilities must be expressed through external relations, thus in relation to molecular propositions rather than elementary propositions. For that reason logical structure is part of
the constitution of reality. There is no sense in speaking of a perspective on the world apart
from logic. There is no opening to possibilities apart from the space of possibilities given by


Signs of Sense

attempt to show that these must be viewed as two perspectives on the

world, rather than as placed in some hierarchical ordering.
In response to a letter from Russell asking for clarication of the difference between a Tatsache and a Sachverhalt, Wittgenstein writes:
Sachverhalt is what corresponds to an Elementarsatz if it is true.
Tatsache is what corresponds to the logical product of elementary
propositions when this product is true. The reason why I introduce
Tatsache before introducing Sachverhalt would want a long explanation.9

Wittgenstein does not say that a Tatsache is a logical product of Sachverhalten. He says that it corresponds to the logical product of elementary
propositions. This apparently pedantic distinction on my part is actually
essential. If we were to say that it is the fact itself that is a conjunction of
states of affairs, this would imply that there is a relation (that of conjunction) between those states of affairs. But what Wittgenstein wants to
emphasize is precisely that a fact consists of states of affairs that stand in
no logical relation whatsoever to one another, that are independent of
one another (2.061). States of affairs merely co-exist. There is nothing
that holds states of affairs together to constitute a specic fact. A fact is,
ontologically speaking, just the taking place or existence of individual
states of affairs.
This then claries the nature of the contrast between the two perspectives. Speaking of the perspective of facts, Wittgenstein emphasizes that
facts are in logical space, that The facts in logical space are the world
(1.13). But as he shifts to the perspective of states of affairs, logical
space, as it were, disappears.10 A fact is just the existence of states of
9. LRKM, p. 72.
10. Such a shift away from the logical space that surrounds facts explains the rather puzzling sequence of claims: The world divides into facts (1.2); and Each item can be the case
or not the case while everything else remains the same (1.21). Why state that The world divides into facts after having said that The world is the totality of facts? What is the nature of
this division that makes it worth mentioning? And is it not contradictory to assert that facts are
in a logical space and then say that the division into facts results in items that are logically independent of one another? I assume that the possibility of that division must reinforce the sense
that there is a perspective from which logical relations are seen to disappear. Thus the division
is the possibility of separating all the facts into classes, such that the existence of any one class
is independent of any other class. When Wittgenstein says that Each item can be the case or
not the case while everything else remains the same (1.21), he does not mean that any fact re-

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affairs, their bare existence with no logical relations between them.11

Whereas facts are surrounded by possibilities in logical space, states of
affairs stand in logical isolation.12
It is not the case that state of affairs are just the simplest kinds of facts.
Rather, I take it that Wittgenstein emphasizes that states of affairs cover
all the space of facts, or include within themselves all that is covered by
the perspective of facts. This means that a complete description of the
world through the perspective of facts can be replaced with a complete
description of the world through the perspective of states of affairs.
In the more common reading of the Tractatus, there would be simple
facts as well as complex facts. The simple facts by themselves would not
cover all the space of facts by themselves. To cover all of reality we
would then need to invoke logical combinations of states of affairs.
Doing so would immediately demand that we assume the ontological
reality of logical constants and take logical space as constitutive of the
ultimate structure of the world. My reading attempts to make the perspective of facts and that of states of affairs overlap completely. It is motivated in part by the assumption that logical constants do not have ontological reality and laws of logic are not contentful, an assumption
which Wittgenstein repeatedly asserted and to which I will return in
later chapters.
Wittgensteins statement, The facts in logical space are the world,
could be interpreted as meaning that logical space is one of the constituents of the world, together with facts. In that case it cannot be dispensed
lates to any other fact in that way (since some of them obviously stand in logical dependencies). Rather, the item is a class of facts that is independent, logically speaking, of all other
such classes. All such classes exhaust whatever facts there are in the world. Considering these
classes we need not invoke any kind of logical relations between the various items. They are
logically independent. That independence prepares the transition to speaking of states of affairs. Indeed, one could say that any such class contains all the material that is implicit in a
state of affairs.
11. The tendency to think of a fact as a logical combination of states of affairs might result
from reading back onto the ontological level Wittgensteins claim that all propositions are the
result of truthfunctional operations on elementary propositions.
12. Such an initial picture of the space between facts being internal to facts requires that all
facts be at the same level, that there be no hierarchies of facts. That is, there is no ground level of
facts and then a second level of the facts as to the relation of those facts, and so on. In other
words, there are no facts about facts. We will see this insight developed in the context of
Wittgensteins distinction between saying and showing.


Signs of Sense

with even at the level of states of affairs. Granted, the notions of logical
space and fact are correlative, but this does not require that logical space
be viewed as a constituent added to facts. That facts are in this space
means that logical space belongs internally to what it is to be a fact. This
does not make logical space a reality external to facts, which belongs to
the furniture of the universe. When Wittgenstein writes The facts in
logical space are the world, it is precisely to emphasize that logical
space is not an additional entity but a condition of facticity as such.13
The logic of facts, the relations of implication among facts, are not external properties of facts. Indeed, to have a fact is to have something that
is, for instance, negatable or conjoinable with other facts. Placing facts
in logical space brings out the way a fact is internally related to various
logical possibilities. Logical space is not an entity in which facts are embedded. One could say that each and every fact opens a space around it
that is determined by the particular fact it is. This is the space of inferential relations of that factthe various logical possibilities that are intrinsically related to the taking place of that fact. The aim of adopting a perspective apart from logic, as I initially understood this move, is to shift
away from the perspective of facts. To go beyond that perspective is to
view the world in terms of states of affairs, recognizing which states of
things there are. This does not mean that a state of affairs is a different
kind of entity than a fact. Obviously, states of affairs are facts, but they
have another aspect, which is revealed by turning to their constituents.
In states of affairs the objects are given to us. The space of states of affairs is the space of possibilities opened by objects. But I want to emphasize that this is a different space from what Wittgenstein calls the logical
space of facts.
Speaking somewhat guratively, we can also say that a fact opens onto
an outside, onto other facts, whereas a state of affairs is closed upon it13. Wittgensteins use of the term logic is complex, and there are reasons for that complexity. When I emphasize the aim of viewing the world apart from the perspective of logic, I take
logic to be something like Frege and Russells view of logic. Wittgenstein also uses logic to
mean something like the philosophical investigation into the nature of that conception (as in
2.012). He uses the notion of space both in connection with logic (logical space as in 1.13,
4.463) and in connection with objects (as in 2.013, 2.0131). In his discussion of space in relation to objects, what is emphasized is that such space is internal to what the object is. It is not
an entity that stands over and above such objects. This should also be the way one understands
the notion of logical space surrounding a fact. In Chapter 2 I will develop further the understanding of form based on the identication of form and space.

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self, or its connection to other such states is made through its inner constitutionits objects. Its space is the space of its objects. This does not
mean that it cannot be taken as a fact, only that viewed in itself it reveals
something other than the space-of-facts (logical space).14 These issues
will be discussed later at length; here I should just like to stress that a
state of affairs is where two aspects of reality come together (call them
the form and the content). On the one hand, by virtue of the determinate way in which the objects of the state of affairs are combined, the
state of affairs is a fact. The state of affairs viewed as a fact stands in a
space of possibilities spanned by logic. On the other hand, in a state of
affairs we are given objects, and thus there is also a realm of possibilities
determined by the nature or form of the objects.15 I assume that while
these two perspectives overlap, the view of the world through its objects
presents us with substantive possibilities (I will also use the term real
possibilities to indicate this aspect), whereas logical space gives us only
abstract or formal possibilities. To think of the world apart from logic, or
beyond facticity, is to open up to real possibilities.
Although the above may point at the direction to take when interpreting the opening of the Tractatus, it cannot show how such an interpretation would work in detail. In particular, we need to clarify how to determine possibilities at the level of states of affairs without assuming logical
space, the space of facts. To appreciate the kind of problems such an account can raise, let us consider the following two propositions: The
world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts(1.11);
For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever
is not the case (1.12). This claim might at rst sound trivial: if we list
all that is the case, then what remains is what is not the case. But things
are not so simple. The question is precisely how to determine what remains? How is what remains determined by all that is the case? In the
14. The German term Wittgenstein uses, vorkommen, which has the connotation of coming out (from beneath the cover of facts), reveals the connection between states of affairs and
the appearance of the object, its uncovering.
15. Wittgensteins distinction between situation (Sachlage) and state of affairs (Sachverhalt) marks these two perspectives. He uses Sachlage to emphasize the factual aspect of states
of affairs. Thus Sachlage can be used in relation to facts in general, but also to emphasize the
factual aspect of states of affairs. See, for instance, 2.0122, where the independence of the thing
means its being considered as occurring in situations, whereas its dependence is a connection
with states of affairs.


Signs of Sense

case of facts, their being in logical space provides the necessary determination; it is, for example, internal to a fact that its negation is not a fact
but is possible. But Wittgenstein also states that The totality of existing
states of affairs determines which states of affairs do not exist. How
would existing states of affairs determine nonexisting states of affairs?16
Indeed, whoever has a realistic conception of logic might do away
with the problem by saying that since logical constants such as negation
have reality, we can not do without ultimate facts of the form this and
that is not the case. But if my interpretation of Wittgensteins intentions
is correct, he needs an account of so-called negative facts that do not
presuppose an object that is negation (or for that matter the reality of
logical constants). What this initial picture of the world is supposed to
convey is that we can have a complete account of all existing states of affairs and of what is merely possible, without postulating logical objects.
According to Wittgensteins use of the term fact, the nonexistence of
a state of affairs is not itself a fact (although the negation of a nonexistent state of affairs is one).17 Rather, we should say that the nonexistence
of states of affairs has reality. Understanding the notion of reality de16. To take a concrete example, given that facts are in logical space, it is a fact that such and
such is not the case; but what is this very fact composed of, in terms of states of affairs that
17. Wittgensteins terminology might be somewhat confusing. From his letter to Russell
quoted above we can say that facts, as Wittgenstein uses that term in the opening of the
Tractatus, are the correlates of conjunctions of true elementary propositions. He does not talk of
existing facts and nonexisting facts (facts as it were that are only possible). He reserves the term
fact for what is the case. What we would be tempted to call possible facts should be explained
by appealing to the logical space internal to what it is to be a fact. States of affairs, as opposed to
facts, can have existence or not have existence: The existence and non-existence of states of
affairs is reality. (We also call the existence of states of affairs a positive fact, and their non-existence a negative fact.) (2.06). This might cause some confusion, unless we realize that the
terms positive fact and negative fact are replaced by Wittgensteins analysis of states of affairs.
We here does not refer to the author of the Tractatus but to the users of traditional logical notions. The existence of states of affairs replaces the traditional notion of a positive fact; the nonexistence of states of affairs replaces the traditional notion of a negative fact. This shift then
points precisely to Wittgensteins aim to do away with the logical constants, in particular with
the operation of negation. We can account for what we called negative facts, facts which seem
essentially to involve negation, by the existence and nonexistence of states of affairs. Moreover, the states of affairs which do not exist do not involve negation, but are rather determined
by the internal constitution of those states of affairs that exist through the objects. (See Chapter 2.)

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pends on grasping how the existence of states of affairs determines the

nonexistence of other states of affairs. It is only by considering states of
affairs that one can understand the reality (as opposed to the facticity) of
the possible. Indeed, it is the nature of the objects constituting the state
of affairs that will allow us this determination, which is not an inference.
This point can be explained by considering Wittgensteins concept of an
object, its form and its relation to the structure of states of affairs.

Signs of Sense

The Form of Objects

The Form of Objects

The difculty we experience in grasping Wittgensteins aim in his account of objects derives from the prevalence of certain traditional notions of objecthood which are evoked by, and then imposed on, his text.
It is therefore essential to be aware that Wittgenstein subverts the various distinctions that are used in the metaphysical tradition of elaborating the concept of an object. Traditional approaches to the notion of object postulate some of the following oppositions: internal (essential) and
external (material, or contingent) property, the universal and the concrete particular, the simple and the complex, form and matter. Working
through the propositions concerning objects in the Tractatus reveals
how Wittgenstein goes beyond these distinctions to give us another approach to the object that escapes traditional frameworks.
A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects
(2.01). We can start by asking, as we did when considering the relation
of states of affairs to facts, what holds the objects together in a state of
affairs. The answer will be similar: nothing does. There is no thing holding the objects together. What holds things together cannot be another
thing. In a state of affairs objects t into one another like the links of a
chain (2.03). The elements of the chain are not held together by something like glue, but rather hold together by virtue of their own constitution. This way of putting the point is rather empty, but it can serve to illuminate the priority of the states of affairs over the object, which would
explain why we need not account for the unication of objects into
states of affairs. We might nevertheless be tempted to say, wrongly, that
there is something about an object that enables it to be combined with

The Form of Objects


some objects and not with others. However, there is no prohibition or

law that divides possible from impossible combinations of objects; there
are no rules of combination. Attempting to state such a law would result
in nonsense, for it is not a fact about the object that it combines with
certain objects and not others. There are no facts about what the object
is. To take a simplistic example: the absence of red sounds does not follow from a law or contentful characterization of objects. There is no reason why sounds cannot be red.1 There is no a priori specication of the
range of states of affairs. This understanding places the objects beyond
the sphere of justication. It is part of Wittgensteins aim to open up,
through his concept of an object, a perspective beyond the lawfulness
identied with the logical.
This means that it is wrong to think of a self-standing object and, over
and above it, a contentful characterization of what states of affairs it
could appear in. The object is exhausted by its possibilities of combination. Wittgenstein uses object to name any constituent of a state of affairs. What distinguishes the form of one object from the form of another is the other objects it combines with, the states of affairs it can
occur in. We must beware of making the object into an isolated it,
something wholly self-standing that is then placed in various facts. Indeed, many of the problems encountered when interpreting Wittgensteins concept of an object arise from precisely such a reication of the
object. Thus the objects independenceits being self-standing, insofar
as it is not tied to any particular fact or insofar as it can occur in various
possible situationsis itself denitive of the objects dependence on that
range of possibilities. The object is given by the states of affairs it can occur in:
Things are independent insofar as they can occur in all possible situations, but this form of independence is a form of connection with
states of affairs, a form of dependence. (It is impossible for words to
appear in two different roles: by themselves, and in propositions.)

To know an object is to know its possibilities of combination, what Wittgenstein calls its form. It is impossible to understand the role of objects
1. This is, one could say, an ontological version of Cora Diamonds understanding of nonsense and of her claim that there cannot be informative nonsense. See in particular On What
Nonsense Might Be, in The Realistic Spirit.


Signs of Sense

and their place in states of affairs if we do not follow closely Wittgensteins distinction between form and structure. Form is a notion that can
be elaborated both with respect to logical space and to what I have called
the space of the object. I will rst think of it, as Wittgenstein does, in relation to the object. Initially we can say that the form has to do with the
possibilities of combination of objects. The form of an object is, so to
speak, its grammar, shown through the states of affairs it can occur in.
Objects contain the possibility of all situations (2.014); The possibility of its occurring in states of affairs is the form of an object (2.0141).
In order to avoid the temptation of thinking of the object as an it,
Wittgenstein further elaborates the account of possibilities by means of
the analogy with a space. Thus we are invited to think of a form not so
much according to the model of a gure in space (which, I take it, would
be the natural understanding of form), but rather in terms of a space
taken as a whole. Objects are not in space, as if the space were independent of the object that occurs in it. Rather, the space is precisely the form
of the object. Just as there is no spatial point apart from space, so there is
no object apart from the space of possibilities that characterizes it:
Just as we are quite unable to imagine spatial objects outside space,
or temporal objects outside time, so too there is no object that we
can imagine excluded from the possibility of combining with others.
A spatial object must be situated in innite space. (A spatial point is
an argument-place.)
A speck in the visual eld, though it need not be red, must have
some color: it is, so to speak, surrounded by color-space. Notes must
have some pitch, objects of the sense of touch some degree of hardness,
and so on. (2.0131)

A structure is a mode of combination of objects in a state of affairs. It is

the way in which objects with given forms are combined within that
space of forms. The articulation of the state of affairs is the structure.
Wherever we have a fact, we have structure or articulation, a particular
conguration of objects. If the central gure for elaborating form is that
of space, then the central gure for elaborating structure is that of an arrangement in space, a conguration. To take a simple example: suppose
we have spatial objects or objects with the form of space (supposing

The Form of Objects


space is a form), then their arrangement in a circle would be a structure

of that form. But the arrangement of those objects in a square would also
be a structure of that form. Though these are two completely different
gures, both are structures of the same form.2 The possibilities of various
congurations must be understood in the light of the analogy of form
with space. Space permits its objects to be arranged in various ways.
There is, then, a categorical distinction between form and structure, between space and arrangement in space. The structure is only the how of
the relation, the form is what objects are. The structure is the specic relation between objectsthe form is what makes those relations possible.
Form is the possibility of structure (2.033).
Every property an object can have depends on a pre-existing form of
that object. The form of an object, which makes the object what it is, determines the possibility of properties that are attributed to it contingently, that is, the properties that appear through the structure of facts.
Form provides the background against which facts are possible. Form is
not a property of an object but the condition of the attribution of properties. It can also be called an internal property of the object.
If I am to know an object, though I need not know its external properties, I must know all its internal properties (2.01231). This might
sound as if Wittgenstein were saying that an object has two distinct sets
of properties: internal properties (form) and external properties, and
that when we philosophize we deal only with the internal properties. It
might also sound as if the very having of a property had the same grammar, whether we talk of an internal or an external property. This way of
putting it is, to my mind, quite misleading, for it fails to indicate the radical shift that Wittgenstein makes in our understanding of these no-

2. To refer to an example given by Wittgenstein later on, suppose being a successor is a

form. Then:
(x) aRx.xRb
(x,y) aRx.xRy.yRb
are all structures of the same form. This shows that Wittgensteins concept of form should be
distinguished from the Frege-Russell concept of logical form, for Frege or Russell would not
say that all these are propositions of the same logical form.


Signs of Sense

tions.3 He brings out the fundamental difference between the grammar

of those attributions. A moment of reection sufces to make evident
why this difference is necessary, given what was claimed about facts and
states of affairs. If to have an internal property were to be construed
with the same grammar as to have an external property, then it would
be a fact that the object has an internal property, just as it is a fact that an
object has an external property. In that case, all facts could not be reduced to the existence of states of affairs. There would be further facts as
to the nature of the objects constituting states of affairs. Wittgenstein
must preserve a clear distinction between what it is to know an object
and what it is to know a fact. This difference is eshed out or reconceived in terms of the distinction between form and structure.
In order to see how the distinction between form and structure replaces the distinction between internal and external properties, we
should follow closely Wittgensteins formulation in 2.0231:
The substance of the world can only determine a form, and not any
material properties. For it is only by means of propositions that material properties are representedonly by the conguration of objects
that they are produced.

It would be tempting to read this proposition as simply stating that each

object can combine with various other objects and that these combinations are the various facts. But this interpretation does not address Wittgensteins emphasis on the notion of conguration, or the way in which
objects are combined. Only by using the analogy of a space as a way to
think of the form of objects can we start to appreciate the force of the
term conguration. We realize that there are different ways of relating
objects in the same space, and it is those ways that produce the material properties. We have what might be called a structural account of
In order to esh out this idea of a mode of conguration as distinct
from the form of the object, we must now introduce the idea that facts
also have form. A fact has form simply by virtue of being a fact at all (not
3. This will be taken up explicitly when considering Wittgensteins treatment of formal
properties. On the confusion between internal and external properties, he writes: I introduce
these expressions in order to indicate the source of the confusion between internal relations and relations proper (external relations) which is very widespread among philosophers

The Form of Objects


a fact of space, a fact of color, a fact of time, but rather a fact at all). The
form of facts is what we have called the logical space that surrounds a
fact. Once more, we must be careful to point out that here too form
means the occurrence of possibilities that are internal to the fact. But
those possibilities are merely what is internal to being a fact at all, not to
the nature of the objects which occur in that fact. Thus it is internal to a
fact that it can be negated. It is part of the grasping of the form of that
fact that we understand its relation to its negation. The congurations
that express material properties are therefore congurations of a certain
form, of the form of facts in logical space. The form that allows these
congurations is in no way the form that determines the real possibilities of objects. This distinction between the form of the object and that
of the fact is essential and will recur as we develop Wittgensteins account of picturing.
In attempting to further rene the idea of form in relation to objects,
care should be taken to avoid certain misleading pictures. One attractive, but to my mind false, conception of what Wittgenstein means is
that an object is a space of possibilities, as it were, laid out before us. A
combination of such objects would be a choice of particular places in
such spaces of possibility. For instance, the objects are a space of color, a
coordinate system, and a time axis. A fact would then be a red square in
such and such a place between two oclock and two thirty. The problem
with this picture is that we think of the fact as containing objects, that is,
we think of the object as given in a specic fact (or we separate it from
its space). But the fact cannot give us the objects since they are what
they are only by virtue of their relations with other possibilities; they appear only through the space of combination. The object we imagine
within a fact is falsely contained, isolated, reied, or made into an entity
which we imagine we can grasp independently of its space of possibilities. Therefore we should not say that in grasping a material property we
are given objects in a particular conguration, for this gives us only a
conguration in logical space: the objects, as it were, recede from our
view. Inversely, when we have an object, we can only have a form, a
whole space of possibilities, never a specic fact. We can also say that in
establishing the fact of the relation of objects, we lose the object space
that makes the relation possiblethe background. Conversely, when
trying to make the form of the objects appear, we do not take any particular fact into account.


Signs of Sense

A correct understanding of the distinction between an internal property and an external property depends on grasping the difference between the perspective of facts and that of objects. That difference of
perspective will develop into a radical distinction between what is represented by propositions and what is shown through the internal relations
of their constituents. Attributing a property to an object is always a matter of producing a particular structure or conguration of a space of possibilities, a form. Facts are always a matter of how objects of given forms
are related, always a matter of structure, articulation, or conguration
given the form. Objects are conditions of facts. The fact is the how
given a what. A fact can be said to be skeletal; it is the specication of a
conguration which does not include any elements to be combined. It is
the how of combination provided by logical structure in which things
form the nodes of that structure.4
Should we say that objects in themselves are only form? Wittgenstein
writes: In a manner of speaking objects are colorless (2.0232), meaning that they are only form and have no material properties. But this is
just a way of characterizing a different grammar of internal and external
properties of what belongs to the object and what appears in the fact. Indeed, the claim that objects in themselves are only form might lead to
various misunderstandings. It might tempt us to think of objects as universals. It is therefore necessary to clarify that a form is not a general
In a certain space of form one can speak of facts concerning particular
points in that space, or of facts about points in general. But the general
should not be identied with the formal (in Wittgensteins sense). A
general fact is no less a fact. It is a determination of a certain conguration of objects rather than a form (or space of possibilities).5
Related to the misconception of forms as universals is the temptation
4. We must take care not to introduce here a distinction between the schematic and the
contentful that will be later reproduced as an interpretation of what happens at the level of language. We must remember that the distinction between form and structure is drawn before language is brought into the picture and concerns the relation between facts and objects.
5. Contrast this with, for instance, Freges view in which logic is correlative with the most
general properties of facts and will be expressed in fully generalized propositions. The distinction between a regular concept and something that exhibits form will become clearer in Wittgensteins account of formal concepts.

The Form of Objects


to read Wittgensteins account of form in terms of a dichotomy between

form and matter, as though we needed something like matter to individuate and distinguish objects that have the same form. Wittgenstein
avoids drawing such a distinction between form and matter:6
If two objects have the same logical form, the only distinction between them, apart from their external properties, is that they are different. (2.0233)

Let us consider again the analogy with space. Two points in space have
the same form, and apart from their external properties, the fact of their
relation with other points, there is nothing that distinguishes them. As
we move to the level of language, the statement that distinctness appears
through external properties or facts translates into the claim that the
only distinction we can make is by representing such facts: by describing
an object in such a way as to distinguish it from another. Thus there is
no way to determine absolute difference.
This is further reinforced by the following proposition, with its peculiarly convoluted structure:
Either a thing has properties that nothing else has, in which case we
can immediately use a description to distinguish it from the others and
refer to it; or, on the other hand, there are several things that have the
whole set of their properties in common, in which case it is quite impossible to indicate one of them.
For if there is nothing to distinguish a thing, I cannot distinguish it,
since otherwise it would be distinguished after all. (2.02331)

This formulation has an empty sound which warns us against trying to

come up with a substantive notion (such as matter) to explain the difference of individuals. One would think that absolute difference could be
expressed by means of the proposition (a b).(f )(fa fb), which
would then allow us to say that two objects that share all properties are
different, and would enable us to make this difference into a fact. But
just as Wittgensteins shift away from the perspective of facts and logic
6. This avoidance might suggest a certain bond between the recognition of the particular
case and the recognition of possibilities. It points to Wittgensteins tendency to distance himself
from any attempt to determine form in advance, in theory, as universal ideas, apart from instances of experience in all their particularity.


Signs of Sense

implies that logical constants have no ontological reality, so nothing corresponds to the relation of identity. There is no translation, in terms
of elementary propositions, of (a b).(f )(fa fb). We cannot ultimately say that two objects have all their properties in common yet are
different. Two different objects will just be given two different names in
a proper notational system.
Wittgensteins characterization of objects as subsistent, unalterable,
making up the substance of the world, tempts us to turn them into eternal ideas, to entirely dissociate them from happenings in the world, from
the concreteness of experience. Brooms or beds cannot simply be objects, it seems. We are tempted to think of such objects as existing necessarily, and our grasp of them as a priori. I want to insist nevertheless that
considering states of affairs, and thus objects, provides a different perspective on experience. Their connection with facts is yet to be made
clear, but we should be alert at this point against assuming various misleading presuppositions. It is true that the objects form the background
of alteration, of conguration, of the changeable and the unstable, but
they cannot be recognized apart from an investigation of phenomena.
Indeed, as I understand it, Wittgensteins insistence on distancing himself from traditional accounts of form is ultimately connected to his wish
not to reify the space of possibilities, not to make it a realm of a priori
ideas distinct from experience.
These considerations allow us now to address a deep confusion concerning simplicity in the Tractatus. In it Wittgenstein never uses the
term simple object, which would imply that some objects are simple
and some are complex, but states that objects are simple. Nor does he
say that every object is simple. The claim that objects are simple does not
express accidental generality but denes the very concept of an object,
the essential distinction between objects and facts, or between what an
object is and what can be attributed to it through its appearance in situations. In the traditional picture we think of simple objects as a subset of
all objects, as those which are the ultimate building blocks or atoms of
reality. The picture I suggest makes the simplicity of the object constitutive of the notion of objecthood. It is opposed to the articulability of
facts, or their inherent complexity. It marks a distinction between facts
and the condition of facts.
Wittgenstein writes: Every statement about complexes can be re-

The Form of Objects


solved into a statement about their constituents and into the propositions that describe the complexes completely (2.0201). It is signicant
that this statement concerns language. We can treat a fact as if it were an
object by naming it, but this does not make it into a complex object. It
will always be resolved in analysis. Complexity is always a matter of
fact. A fact and a complex are one and the same. There is no complex
object over and above the fact that consists of the specic relation of
its elements. Speaking of the complexity of objects is speaking nonsense.
The desire to make simple objects into a subset of all objects derives, I
think, from a misconception of the nature of simplicity. Simplicity is often pictured as uniformity, as a lack of discernible parts. This is why
sense data are taken to be paradigmatic examples of simplicity. But for
Wittgenstein recognition of simplicity is recognition of the possibilities
of an object as internal to what it is. A broom, for instance, might be
composed of various parts, but that does not make it complex. One
could say that the possibilities of its parts are not in the same space as
the possibilities of the broom.
What is usually called the argument for simples in 2.021 2.0212 is
then misinterpreted if it is conceived as involving something like a Russellian notion of analysis, which leads to ultimate constituents that are
really simple. Wittgenstein would say that analysis must lead to elementary propositions containing names in immediate combination. This is
very different from saying that analysis leads to logically structured
propositions containing ultimate constituents. Wittgensteins scheme
incorporates the logical scaffolding into the form of the object to get to a
level of names in immediate combination, so as to make contact with a
world apart from logic. Russells scheme complicates logical structure to
get to constituents that cannot be broken down any further. In the former case, the criterion of success is the disappearance of logic; in the latter case, the discovery of the most basic building blocks bound with the
cement of logic.
This perception calls into question the soundness of the interpretative
enterprise of lling in for Wittgenstein the category of simples, of determining which of the things we encounter in experience could count
as suchwhether sense data or physical objects or space-time points,
whether particulars or universals. The fact about the Tractatus is that


Signs of Sense

Wittgenstein does not present a specic category of things which are to

count as objects.7
This argument might be countered by citing proposition 2.0251:
Space, time, and color (being colored) are forms of objects. Are we to
read this as Wittgensteins example of objects? And if not, why does
Wittgenstein speak of space, time, and being colored as forms of objects? A possible reason is that these are traditional examples of the domain of the a priori, which have a central feature in common and introduce the difcult claim that objects are both form and content. These
examples are then to be thought of in relation to the claim in 2.0121 that
we are quite unable to imagine spatial objects outside space or temporal
objects outside time. Wittgenstein further elaborates the analogy of the
form of objects with space developed in 2.013 and 2.0131 but, importantly, nds traditional notions in which this conception of object could
be said to be operative. Space does not contain spatial points. A spatial
point is a point-in-space. Each point is what it is by having the form of
space. The same could be said for time and for being colored. An object
is form and content (2.025). An object is form only insofar as it is inseparable from a space of possibilities; it provides content insofar as it occurs as a node in a specic conguration of that space. The examples
Wittgenstein gives are therefore intended to clarify the very concept of
an object rather than to serve as examples of specic objects.
Wittgensteins failure to specify objects is not inadvertent. It is not due
to his contempt for the kind of hard work that would constitute a successful analysis, or to a desire to obfuscate what he means by object.
The concrete example is not elaborated simply because this does not belong to the task and aim of the Tractatus. Later Wittgenstein expresses
this separation of tasks by speaking of the distinction between questions
raised about logic itself and questions that have to do with the application of logic, which we can call questions of ontology. I will discuss this
7. D. Pears suggests that by not specifying the nature of the objects, Wittgenstein left a
vacuum which commentators felt obliged to ll with dogmatic interpretations, and so there
was a proliferation of exegeses offering to unlock the secrets of the ontology of the Tractatus.
See The False Prison, vol. 1, pp. 9192. Although I disagree with his nal assessment of a basically uncritical realism concerning objects, I think that objects are a source of attraction and
mystery in the Tractatus. Indeed, I think that Wittgenstein himself conceives of the wish to express objects as one of the driving forces behind problematic pictures of ineffability. (See Chapter 7 below.)

The Form of Objects


distinction in turn, but it is crucial to grasp that insofar as the Tractatus

has a contentful task, it consists of accounting for what can be given all
at once, before experience. Objects, as opposed to Kantian categories, do
not fall into that kind of inquiry. As I will explain later, this division of
tasks is not arbitrary but rather inherently related to the deeper aim of
the book, to its ethical point.
Wittgenstein opens the book with the claim The world is all that is the
case (1). He further species What is the casea factis the existence of states of affairs (2). Later he denes the concept of reality: The
existence and non-existence of states of affairs is reality (2.06) and
claims that The sum total of reality is the world (2.063). Does this
mean that he ultimately distinguishes between the world and reality?
This series of claims seems to be inconsistent: how could reality be more
than the world (since it contains the nonexisting states of affairs in addition to the existing ones) and yet its sum total be the world? In what
sense do nonexistent states of affairs have reality if they have no existence? In sum, what is Wittgensteins account of possibility? The concept of possibility, of what could be the case but is not the case, can be
understood by means of the idea of logical space or the space of facts,
but the above interpretation of states of affairs was to lead to a different
grasp of the possible, one that depends ultimately on objects having
form. The notion of form opens a way of moving from existing states of
affairs to the determinate totality of those that do not exist.
The existence and non-existence of states of affairs is reality (2.06).
That reality includes nonexistent states of affairs does not imply that
there are more facts in the world than those that are the casea fact is
merely what is the case. Nor does it imply that there are objects that exist and objects that only subsist. When Wittgenstein writes that The
sum total of reality [gesamte Wirklichkeit] is the world (2.063), the
term gesamte Wirklichkeit should rather be read as meaning all that this
amounts to is the world, as it is given in states of affairs. Sum total does
not mean the numerical sum; it is not the totality of everything put together but what that totality amounts towhat counts, not what is
counted. The world is the totality of facts, but the reality of nonexisting
states of affairs is the result of the form of things. It adds nothing to the
facts there are or to the things there are. The notion of reality is the result of drawing a distinction between facts and their conditions. The


Signs of Sense

condition of having facts is that there is a form within which facts take
place. By grasping that form, we grasp what it is for states of affairs to exist, and what it is for states of affairs not to exist.
It is important to note that Wittgenstein does not argue that an existing state of affairs determines the nonexistence of other states of affairs. He writes: The totality of existing states of affairs also determines
which states of affairs do not exist (2.05). The idea of a totality of existing states of affairs allows Wittgenstein to distinguish the concept of determination from inference. From the existence or non-existence of one
state of affairs it is impossible to infer the existence or non-existence of
another (2.062). Indeed, when we speak of facts in logical space, such
inferential relations would hold. From p being the case we can infer that
p is not the case. But in order to determine which states of affairs do
not exist, we must consider the existing states of affairs as a whole. They,
through their objects, will allow us to grasp the whole space of possibilities and thus to determine the nonexisting states of affairs without this
being a matter of inference.
In other words, what is real for us is not just that a state of affairs exists, but also that a state of affairs does not exist. The nonexistence of a
state of affairs should be distinguished from no reality at all, and the basis for that distinction is that objects have form. What is not the case is
not nothing, but it is not a fact either. There is something real beyond
the facts: that which makes facts possible; this is what I will call the horizon of form.
The Wittgensteinian understanding of objects through the notion of
form establishes a connection between an object and real possibilities.
An object cannot be grasped apart from a space of possibilities. So we
can now use this conception of object to open a perspective beyond the
conditions of possibility provided by logic. What are the possibilities of
an object? Do possibilities exist in the world apart from human subjects? How are they opened to our view, or how do we open ourselves to
them? These are questions that cannot be answered at this stage of our
inquiry, for one of the most important requirements for a proper reading
of the Tractatus is to know when to ask the right questions.

Signs of Sense

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts

We Make to Ourselves Pictures

of Facts

One of the most striking features of the opening propositions of the

Tractatus is the impression they create of a world without any human
subjects. This is not only because the discussion mostly avoids mentioning language or thought, but also because the very tone, the matter-offactness of these opening moments makes one imagine a world of mere
facts. Indeed, some of the most inuential interpreters of the Tractatus
seem to react to this humanless world by forcing a problem upon the
text for which subjectivity is the only solution. According to them, the
books central concern is how language is connected onto this world of
brute facts. Thus, far too quickly in my view, the subject is brought into
a relation with this humanless world by means of the assumption that
subjectivity will secure the connection between languagea human
constructionand the world as such. This conceptualization of the
problem might seem useful when thinking about various issues in the
book: it can be used to explain, for instance, the supposed emptiness of
logic, the formal aspect of Wittgensteins account, by locating language
apart from the world, in the sphere of human convention. But I think
that to impose a division between the realm of language and that of facts,
and thereby to create the problem of relating them, goes far beyond the
intent of the text and may lead to misinterpretations.
Specically, this reading suggests that the central problem in picturing
facts is how something that is other than the world of fact, namely language, can be related to that world so as to be about it. Yet as we read
Wittgensteins account, we realize that pictures are facts, and the question we should ask is rather how certain facts can be used to represent


Signs of Sense

other facts. This formulation of the problem reduces the temptation to

resort to a metaphysical subject in order to guarantee the connection between these two domains of facts.
I certainly recognize the initial impression of a world devoid of human subjects, but I wish to refrain from introducing subjectivity so soon
into the account of picturing. I also acknowledge that some connection
does exist between picturing and human activity, for, as Wittgenstein
puts it, we do make pictures to ourselves (2.1). But we should note that
Wittgenstein systematically avoids introducing intentions of human
subjects into his account of picturing. Indeed, the Tractatus treats the relation of propositions to facts as unproblematic. It asks us to acknowledge a deep level at which the form of language and that of objects is
one. The difculty is not that of specifying a complex relation between
language, or mind, and the world, by virtue of which language is about
the world, but rather that of perceiving their mutual involvement in producing the very possibility of signicance.
A proper understanding of Wittgensteins account of picturing is a
fundamental crossroads in the text. It relates to later issues such as the
understanding of the subject and the ethics of the Tractatus. Various presuppositions about the place of the subject are based on the assumption
that the Tractatus gives a substantive account of the relation between
language and world, that is, that there is a need for an account of reference. A subject will therefore be involved in order to secure the relation
of language to the world. Much of my discussion of picturing will be devoted to arguing, on the contrary, that there is no fundamental issue or
substantive theory of the relation of language to the world. That is, I argue that such a relation is characterized at the most fundamental level as
one of identity. This means that language and objects are equiprimordial: we discover our world through language. Such a shift in the understanding of language and world will also mean a total shift in our conception of the subject. It will also allow us to elaborate the dimensions of
the unveiling of truth, understood as the discovery of the identity of language and worldan unveiling which may very well have an ethical dimension to it.1
1. This remark serves only to indicate the direction of my reading. The issues mentioned
will be elaborated at length in chapters 8, 9, and 10 below.

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


In order to bring out these issues, my discussion of picturing will contrast the representation of facts (through the structure of pictures) with
the pictorial form that provides a locus of identity between language and
things. This distinction introduces into my interpretation of picturing
the split between the articulation of the structure of facts and the form of
objects, a split that I identied in talking about the opening propositions
of the Tractatus.
It is this intuition that will guide me through a reading of Wittgensteins discussion of picturing. I will thus endeavor to address both the
possibility of representing facts and the sense that such a capacity does
not characterize the subject for us. If the most general capacity of relating through pictures to facts is what Wittgenstein calls thinking, this
means that such thinking is not wholly constitutive of human subjectivity (There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains
ideas; 5.631).
Many commentators emphasize that we should understand a picture
through the concept of an isomorphism. It is a picture of some fact, we
are told, if its elements are arranged in the same way as the objects are
arranged in reality. Two things are thus identied: what makes a picture
a picturethe pictoriality of the pictureand what makes it a correct
picture of some specic fact.
A mere glance at the text, however, raises doubts about this interpretation. We note rst that pictures can be correct or incorrect. But if picturing is dened by its isomorphism to the fact, then something would
be a picture only if there were a corresponding fact. How could there be
an incorrect picture? One way of thinking of false pictures would be to
say that isomorphism obtains between the picture and a possibility. This
solution has a drawback, since it would fail to explain what distinguishes the representation of a possible state of affairs, thus a false picture, from a correct representation of what is the case. The capacity of
the picture to represent possibilities must be independent of the relation
that determines its truth or falsity.
Indeed, this stress on isomorphism as the central component of the
account of picturing leads us to think of picturing mainly in terms of a
relation between structures. But I should like to shift the emphasis to the
role of form (as elaborated in the previous chapter) in the account of


Signs of Sense

picturing. Shifting the emphasis from structure to form will, I think,

provide a wholly different interpretation of Wittgensteins account.2
To understand the use and function of the notion of picturing in the
Tractatus we rst have to sort out the distinctions among ve terms that
Wittgenstein introduces: (a) Standing for or being representative
(vertreten): In a picture the elements of the picture are the representatives of objects (2.131); (b) depicting (abbilden): A picture can depict any reality whose form it has (2.17); (c) presenting (vorstellen):
A picture presents a situation in logical space, the existence and non-existence of states of affairs (2.11); (d) representing (darstellen): A picture represents a possible situation in logical space (2.202); and (e)
agreeing (stimmen): A picture agrees with reality or fails to agree; it is
correct or incorrect, true or false (2.21).

A. Being Representative
A central drawback of the interpretation that emphasizes the isomorphism of structure in the account of picturing is that it sidetracks us to
problems of reference, prompting us to ask what it is that enables the elements of the picture to refer to objects in the world so as to make the
isomorphism possible. We are then led to think of Wittgensteins notion
of being representative as involving an account of reference. But Wittgenstein merely says: That is how a picture is attached to reality; it
reaches right out to it (2.1511). Rather than accusing Wittgenstein of
philosophical naivete, we should realize that he is not at all concerned
with giving an account of reference at this point.
Wittgensteins account of picturing does not include an account of reference. This can explain why he uses the term being representative
rather than meaning (bedeuten) for the relation of the elements of the
picture to objects. Indeed, the term representative suggests some arbitrariness in the choice of the element. Its properties are unimportant beyond the fact that it stands for an object. Picturing does not depend
2. To avoid misunderstanding, I note that the term isomorphism is used in interpretations
of picturing to characterize the relation between arrangements of representatives in the picture
and arrangements of objects in the world. Isomorphism might also be used to characterize a
mapping from one space to another that shows a fundamental identity of form between such
spaces. In that case form would be used to characterize a space in which various structures or
arrangements are possible.

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


upon the external properties of the elements that are the representatives.
Such a relation of representativeness, standing for rather than meaning, implies at least that we should ask not how such a correlation can
be established or by virtue of what a given element refers to an object,
but rather, given that elements stand for objects, how do we use such
representatives to make pictures of facts. (As in the case of political representatives, what ought to be important is how they represent their
constituencies, once they are elected.)
Wittgenstein showed his lack of interest in the nature of those representatives and their connection with things in his response to Russells
query on this matter: Again, the kind of relation of the constituents of
thought and of the pictured fact is irrelevant. It would be a matter of
psychology to nd it out.3
Thus Wittgenstein assumes the barest contact with the world, that we
bring words to the world. The picture reaches right out to the world, as
he says in 2.1511: The correlations are, as it were, the feelers of the pictures elements, with which the picture touches reality (2.1515). The
term feelers suggests that the touching tests how reality responds, seeking to feel it, to uncover it, or get a sense of it, rather than referring to an
already given reality.4
Let us consider another analogy suggested by Wittgenstein in propositions 2.15112.1513: [A picture] is laid against reality like a measure.
Only the end points of the graduating lines actually touch the object that
is to be measured. In measuring we do not ask what enables the ruler to
refer to the object. No property of the ruler itself determines what it represents. The ruler in itself says nothing about the object. Rather, the
ruler can be used in a certain way to determine a fact (the fact that the
object has such-and-such a length). I bring the ruler to reality, which is
3. LRKM, p. 72. P. M. S. Hacker, quoting this claim, confuses the relation of representativeness with that of meaning, which results in an unfounded criticism of Wittgensteins psychologistic tendencies in the Tractatus. See Insight and Illusion, pp. 3957.
4. I nd it extremely interesting that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud uses the
same gure of feelers to express the activity of perception in relation to an external reality: It is
characteristic of [sense organs] that they deal with only very small quantities of external stimulation and only take in samples of the external world. They may perhaps be compared with feelers which are all the time making tentative advances towards the external world and then drawing back from it. S. Freud, Standard Edition, vol. 18, p. 28. In the case of both Freud and
Wittgenstein, what follows is a problematization of what it is for a human subject to have an


Signs of Sense

not to say that the ruler is somehow isomorphic to reality, only that a
fact results from the encounter of the ruler with reality.
The gure of touching also makes clear that the object is not taken up
into what the picture says. It has representatives, but this is precisely
why it escapes being present there, in its essence. What there is to say
depends on the scale we bring to the object, and saying whatever we say
will be distinct from recovering the object.

B. Depicting
A picture depicts the reality it is about. It depicts a reality even though it
can be an incorrect representation of that reality. That it is about reality
has to do with the identity of form: What a picture must have in common with reality, in order to be able to depict itcorrectly or incorrectlyin the way it does, is its pictorial form (2.17).
We should bear in mind, from the account of objects and facts, the
sharp distinction between form and structure. Form is the possibility of
structure. The structure will determine the specic situation that is presented, but that it is a picture, that it depicts anything at all, is due to an
identity of form and not to an isomorphism of structure. There must be
something identical in a picture and what it depicts, to enable the one to
be a picture of the other at all (2.161). It should be noted that Wittgenstein speaks here of identity. He does not use weaker terms such as harmony, similarity, or agreement. At the level of form, there must be an
identity between the picture and the reality depicted, whether the picture
is correct or incorrect. This explains how a picture can be incorrect: the
form will be such as to enable us to construct a structure that does not
agree with reality and yet can still be about it, since it has the same form
as that reality. Placing representatives of objects in a background of form
will produce a way in which those are related in fact.

C. Presenting
A picture presents a situation in logical space, the existence and nonexistence of states of affairs (2.11). A picture, in itself, is a certain fact
(see 2.141). The picture, we should recall, is not an object. In the picture
there are elements that stand for objects, but the constitution of those elements is irrelevant to what the picture presents. The picture consists of

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


the arrangement of elements in the space of form to make a structure, a

fact. A picture is a factthe fact of the relation of its elements. Just like
any fact, the picture itself stands in logical space. It is, then, the fact of
the relation of its elements in logical space.
By emphasizing that a picture is a fact, Wittgenstein intends to address the possible criticism that a picture could be interpreted in different ways. Take, for example, a picture of owers in a vase. We might
want to say that it can present different things: that the owers are in the
vase, or that the owers are beautiful, or that there are 12 owers in the
vase, or that the vase holding the owers is blue. This criticism would
seem to depend on thinking of the picture as a kind of object that could
be said to have various properties, to consist of various facts, and that it
is up to us to decide which fact it presents. What causes the apparent difculty is, rst, that we do not treat the elements of the picture as mere
representatives of objects, but, as it were, take them to have various
properties which could be seen as relevant or irrelevant, thereby deciding what is expressed in the picture. Moreover, we do not take the space
of form as determined, or we ignore that what is at stake is the arrangement of elements in a space of form. (In the above example, we introduce color space only when we take the picture to present the fact that
the vase holding the owers is blue, and at other times ignore it.) In
Wittgensteins account, a picture need not await our interpretation for it
to be a determinate fact.
The fact that the elements of a picture are related to one another in a
determinate way presents (vorstellt) that things are related to one another in the same way (2.15). We might indeed ask why a picture is not
just another fact, of a certain form. How is it that the picture presents
something other than itself? How does it present that objects are related
in the same way as its elements? Do we not need to introduce here the
intention that the picture be about something? We must clarify what is
meant here by the term presenting. The picture is indeed taken to be a
model of how things are, but even if we were to introduce (contrary to
Wittgensteins language) some intention on the part of the one who
makes such a picture, the intention in no way determines the reference
of the picture, or makes it about reality. Intentions can be involved to the
extent that what is at stake here is an activity of human beings which
has various purposes. But I want to take this appeal to our activity as
unproblematic, at least at this stage. Intention, in some metaphysical


Signs of Sense

sense, is not needed to make something into a picture, in the sense of securing its relation to its subject matter. Indeed, enough of the intention
is implicit in the idea of having representatives for objects. We arbitrarily
choose certain terms with the intention that what we do with them
would stand for what happens to objects. But such an intention does not
make the elements function in such a way. There are various conditions
for the possibility of picturing which must come into play, such as an
identity of form, which is not ours to make. Insofar as we can speak of
the aboutness of the picture, it involves an identity of form.
The central precondition for picturing is what one might call the
background of the picturethe form. This pre-existence of the background of form has various consequences, which I want to start elaborating at an initial, intuitive level. We place elements in a space of form,
but it is form that makes them a fact. The factuality of the picture takes
care of itself. However we place elements in a space, an arrangement is
established; they present us with a fact in that space. One could also say
that there is no nonsense in a picture.5 There is no way of placing the elements so that nothing specic will result. There is also no vagueness in
a picture: the properties of the elements are unessential, the only important thing is their place, as representatives in a pre-given space of form,
and this arrangement is always a specic fact.
A picture is always contingent. There are no a priori pictures. When
we see something pictured (say, some elements in some spatial relation)
we can also see how the elements could be placed in a different position
(suppose we move this one to the right; I can see that it is possible when
I see the picture). Nothing in our visual space is necessarily where it is,
and the same is true of pictorial space. What makes a picture a picture is
identity of form, and form is the possibility of structure; hence whatever
is pictured could be otherwise than it is. It already stands in a space of
possibilities which is constituted by the form.
5. D. Pears seems to acknowledge this, but then retracts the claim in reecting on language:
once the systems for producing pictures has been set up, there is no risk that a would-be picture might make an impossible claim . . . false claims are possible but not nonsensical ones.
However, that is plainly not true of language, because it is not only possible but easy to produce
nonsensical strings of words. The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 121. Of course it is possible to have
nonsensical strings of words, but this just means that nonsense cannot be produced at the level
in which form comes into play; that is, there is no such thing as nonsense deriving from category mistakes. Indeed, a complete translation of the account of picturing, in particular the notion of form, to the level of language precisely shows that nonsense does not occur at the level
of form or at the level of the symbol.

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


Finally, a picture cannot depict the space of possibilities itself. It

makes sense to speak of showing the properties of space through the
placing of objects, or more precisely by considering the internal relations between various ways of placing objects in that space. But I cannot
present in a picture with no objects at all the necessary properties of
space itself. A picture cannot, however, depict its pictorial form: it displays it (2.172).

D. Representing
A picture represents its subject from a position outside it. (Its standpoint is its representational form.) That is why a picture represents its
subject correctly or incorrectly (2.173). We might have learned something from the claim that there must be something identical in the picture and in the reality depicted, but why is it worth mentioning that a
picture represents its subject matter (Wittgensteins term is Objekt) from
a position outside it? What is the nature of the distance between the picture and what it aims atits subject matter? We have already established that there is an identity of form of depiction between the picture
and reality. Wittgenstein distinguishes between form of depiction and
form of representation. The former comes to express the identity with
reality, the latter the distancethe standpoint apart from the subject
The form of representation determines the possibilities of making
sense with a picture. The picture represents a sense. Those possibilities
are external to the reality depicted, insofar as they are possibilities of the
medium of representation.
The distinction can be further elaborated as follows: we can use the
picture, operate with the means of representation, in a way which is not
necessarily congruent with the form of depiction. A spatial picture presents a reality of the spatial form, but this form does not determine the
possibilities of using the picture to make a claim about reality. I can, for
instance, use such a picture to express the sense that things are not like
that. Negation is not a possibility in visual space, but it is an option of
construction in representational space. We can also say that the issue is
what we can do with the picture. In the case of presentation this is not
an option, for the way in which objects are combined presents that
things are combined in the same way. But precisely because there is a distance between the picture and the object, I can use a picture to express


Signs of Sense

anything in its representational space. Such use determines the standpoint of the picture with respect to the facts. It gives us directions as to
how to take what is presented. Such directions, the way of taking the
picture, are what Wittgenstein calls the sense of the picture.
Thus we distinguish between what a picture actually presents and
what it can be used for (can represent). Presenting involves how the arrangement of the elements makes a structure given the form of depiction; representing involves the way the picture itself is taken to state
something that might be other than what it presents.
We can use presented facts to represent other facts. For example, I can
use the spatial state of affairs that the picture presents to represent that
things are not like that. I can use a picture to represent the negation of a
state of affairs, but the spatial picture itself cannot present us with a negation.6 Wittgenstein emphasizes the distinction between what a picture
presents and what it can logically represent in the following formulations: A picture presents a situation in logical space, the existence and
non-existence of states of affairs (2.11); A picture represents a possible
situation in logical space (2.202). In other words, whereas presentation
directs us to how things are in fact in the picture, in representation we
can use that fact to make a possible situation, and take that possible situation to be how things are.
The form of representation is not necessarily the same as the form of
depiction. Let us call the former the space that is external to the picture,
and the latter the inner space. One can use a picture (represent a possible situation by means of it) without even knowing exactly what its inner form is. I take the picture wholesale, treating it as a fact, to represent
another fact. I think of the inner space of depiction as the form of objects, and the outer space of representation as the space of facts, namely
logical space. The split between objects and facts is thus reproduced at
6. Freud writes in Interpretation of Dreams: What representation do dreams provide for if,
because, just as, although, either-or, and all the other conjunctions without which we cannot understand sentences or speeches? . . . The incapacity of dreams to express those things
must lie in the nature of the psychical material out of which dreams are made. The plastic arts
of painting and sculpture labor, indeed, under a similar limitation as compared with poetry
which can make use of speech (Standard Edition, vol. 4, p. 312). Could we say that seeing the
world from the point of view of form, without bringing in the logical operation, opens us to a
dreamy aspect of reality? I will want to say something of the sort by showing the unsystematic
nature of meaning. The overdetermination of form in dreams or in painting is analogous to the
power of creation Wittgensteins text evokes in language.

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


the level of picturing. This is why Wittgensteins considerations of the

form of representation are immediately followed by a discussion of logical picturing.
Insofar as representation is related to our taking a fact to express a certain possibility in logical space, then a precondition of representation is
an identity of logical form between the picture and what is depicted:
What any picture, of whatever form, must have in common with reality,
in order to be able to depict itcorrectly or incorrectlyin any way at
all, is logical form, i.e. the form of reality (2.18). Here, clearly expressed, is the contrast between the particular pictorial form and the
general possibility of picturing facts.
Every picture, whatever its inner form, can be used to represent the
nonexistence of the state of affairs that it presents (or, for that matter, it
can be used to represent various logical relations between the states of
affairs it presents). Wittgenstein can therefore say: Every picture is at
the same time a logical one. (On the other hand, not every picture is, for
example, a spatial one.) (2.182). It is the notion of representing that
introduces what he will later call logical operations. The logical constants are operations on pictures. Making sense is operating on pictures.
What a picture represents is its sense (2.221). The sense, then, is external to what the picture in itself presents. There is no sense by itself;
there is only the taking of what is presented to represent a sense.
The notion of logico-pictorial form should be kept distinct from the
general notion of pictorial form of objects. It is form only in a very special sense. Logico-pictorial form is the form of our activity of constructing pictures.7 This is a way of saying that there is no space spanned by
logical constants that preexists the activity of using the picture to represent. Logical space, as opposed to object space, has no ontological
A logical picture of facts is a thought (3). Given our understanding
of the framework of representation, one could say that in thinking I use
a picture to represent in a certain way. It follows from our understanding
of picturing that the form of thought is the same as the form of reality:
A thought contains the possibility of the situation of which it is the
7. This permits an initial understanding of Wittgensteins claim: The possibility of propositions is based on the principle that objects have signs as their representatives. My fundamental idea is that the logical constants are not representatives; that there can be no representatives of the logic of facts (4.0312).


Signs of Sense

thought. What is thinkable is possible too (3.02). Wittgenstein proceeds to identify the form of reality with the form of thought by turning
the thinking of a thought into a construction of possibilities of facts out
of given facts. Thinking a thought is an operation on facts, which is why
the form of thought and the form of reality are one and the same: in both
cases the form is that of facts.
A logical picture is the construction of a situation in logical space. It is
a construction of something being the case (and of something not being
the case). Logical space determines how we can take the picture to represent facts. This is also what leads Wittgenstein to say: It used to be
said that God could create anything except what would be contrary to
the laws of logic.The truth is that we could not say what an illogical
world would look like (3.031). Our understanding of what constitutes
facts in the world and our understanding of thinking, making sense, are
internally connected. Consider in this context the metaphor of coordinates he introduces, in which logic is to be thought of as the coordinate
system that allows us to represent possible facts:
It is as impossible to represent in language anything that contradicts
logic as it is in geometry to represent by its co-ordinates a gure that
contradicts the laws of space, or to give the co-ordinates of a point that
does not exist. (3.032)

E. Agreement and Disagreement

A nal aspect of the various relations of the picture to the world is the
agreement of the sense of the picture with reality. Let us recall the distinct relations of the picture and its components to reality. The rst is
a relation of representativeness, which exists exclusively between the
components of the picture and objects. It consists of the correlation of a
sign with an object and in no way depends on being given the form of
the object in question. The second is the relation between pictorial form
and the form of what is depicted, which is the precondition of the possibility of making sense. Pictorial form is the possibility of structure; it is
not something that we determine, but what allows us to make determinations. It makes no sense to ask: How can we be sure that we have correlated the pictorial form properly with reality? Moreover, the relation
to the world is that of identity, which is not, strictly speaking, a relation
at all. A third relation that Wittgenstein introduces is the agreement or

We Make to Ourselves Pictures of Facts


nonagreement of the picture with reality. This relation between the logical structure of the picture and a fact is the truth relation. The pictorial
form is identical in both the picture and what it depicts, but there can be
correct and incorrect pictures.
The concept of form is what underlies our understanding of possibility, that is, in grasping the form of a picture we grasp what it is for it to be
true, and what it is for it to be false. The making of sense of a specic
claim presupposes a whole space of possibilities, a form. This is crucial:
the picture represents what is the case, but in doing so it allows us to determine also the possibilities of its falsity. We have not only a representation of what must be the case if the proposition is to be true, but also the
possibility of representing what is the case if it is to be false. We do not
merely say that all the rest of the facts make it false, but we can specify
what must be the case for it to be false. This is the point of working always within a given space of possibility determined by formtruth and
falsity are always determinate.
The adequation or agreement involved in truth is not a relation of absolute correspondence. The problem with a correspondence theory, as
Frege has pointed out, is that the relation of correspondence is conceived to be a real relation. It would then be possible to ask whether it is
true that it holds or not, and this would cause a regress in our determination of truth. Wittgenstein avoids that by making agreement depend
on a form that is always identical in both the proposition and reality. The
possibility of truth depends on a relation between the proposition and
reality, the pictorial relation, which is not a material relation (the forms
are identical); that is, we cannot ask whether the pictorial relation does
in fact hold between the sense and reality, since the very possibility of its
having a sense depends on having that identity of form. Truth is always a
relative, internal truth: it is an agreement given certain conditions, not a
fact of absolute agreement. Whether the picture is true or false, there
will be an internal connection with the world. Depending on whether
the picture is true or false, there will be different parts of the logical
space of the sense that will agree with the facts, but such agreement will
always exist. This is precisely the point of basing the agreement on an
identity of form and not of structure, which means that the possibility of
agreement is internal to the picture. As Wittgenstein puts it later, to say
that a proposition is either true or false is not like saying that all roses
are either yellow or red (6.11).
This account of truth leads us to appreciate that what is philosophi-


Signs of Sense

cally important is not the question concerning the relation of adequation, but rather the universe of form that conditions it. One might say
that there is a deeper notion of truth, which is that of the disclosure of
what things are, or of the form of the world. This distinction reveals yet
again Wittgensteins attempt to separate the perspective of facts from
that of objects. The question of disclosing or uncovering the form of objects is a completely different activity from assessing the agreement of
sense with reality. Wittgensteins account distinguishes between a propositional sense of truth and falsity, understood as the agreement or disagreement of structures with facts, and a more important idea of the unveiling of form, which is what allows representation at all. We will be led
through various stages and transformations of this idea of unveiling, but
it is in this idea that I locate the force of Wittgensteins account. He refers
us to a deeper level of identity between the subject and his world, which
is presupposed in the capacity to manipulate language in order to represent the world.

Signs of Sense

Signs and Sense

Signs and Sense

Wittgensteins account of picturing in general and of thought in particular leads us to examine more specically the conditions of language and
the nature of the linguistic sign. When making the transition to his elaboration of language, it is essential to keep in mind his account of depiction, especially since our object of study, the propositional sign, does not
look like a picture:
At rst sight a propositionone set out on the printed page, for exampledoes not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is
concerned. But neither do written notes seem at rst sight to be a picture of a piece of music, nor do our phonetic notations (the alphabet)
to be a picture of our speech.
And yet these sign-languages prove to be pictures, even in the ordinary sense, of what they represent. (4.011)

We ask, then, how the pictorial character is translated at the level of the
linguistic sign. We must make sure that the translation retains all the elements of the account of picturing, and, in particular, we should pay attention to the way in which form is translated. To ask about form in language is to ask about the appearance of the symbol through the sign,
that is, about their difference as well as their essential relatedness.
Specifying the relation of sign and symbol will help address a confusion that might have been produced by the account of picturing. The
separation of the form of facts (logical space) from the form of objects
and the identication of representation with logical picturing might
have suggested a mode of access to objects and their form that com61


Signs of Sense

pletely bypasses the conditions of representation, that is, logic. This

would suggest the need to resort to a special form of intuition, nonlinguistic in nature. I do not think this is Wittgensteins picture. The distinctions he makes, as will become clear, always pertain to registers of
language; they express dimensions of language. Indeed, logic will be
seen to be indispensable to the formation of a network of signication,
and it is only through the existence of such a network that we recognize
the form of objects. Certain things are absolutely necessary to open us to
the world, to enable us to relate to objects. These will be shown to derive
from the very nature of signication or from the existence of the linguistic sign. Logic provides the conditions of the linguistic sign, but this
does not mean that such conditions are imposed as a necessary form on
experience. Logic does not determine the form of objects that appear in
language or show through the use of signs.
Hence the account of linguistic signication will contain two separate
moments. The rst, establishing an association between the space in
which signs can express sense and logical space, the space of facts; the
second, recognizing that language has a dimension that is related to, yet
distinct from, the linguistic sign, the dimension of the symbol, through
which the form of objects can be recovered. Thus, once more, the structure of our discussion of signication will repeat at a higher level the
initial fundamental separation of facts and objects. Elaboration of the
specic interconnection between sign and symbol will enable us to recognize that these two dimensions are inseparable, that both belong to
language as such.
Wittgenstein opens his account of signication with the claim: In a
proposition a thought nds an expression that can be perceived by the
senses (3.1). From the outset we must beware of thinking of Wittgensteins problem along Cartesian lines, wherein thought is identied with
an inner mental realm and expression would be the externalization of
that thought content in signs. Expression is not the duplication of an inner thought in the external world, for this distinction of inner and outer
plays no role in Wittgensteins account. The notion of expression as it is
related to thought must, then, be understood differently.
Our original understanding of thinking referred to the notion of logical representation, or the representation of possibility in logical space.
From the way we have characterized thinking, it follows that grasping a

Signs and Sense


thought is not the relation of a passive subject to a ready-made entity. A

thought is not an object; there is only the thinking through, the production of sense, of logical pictures of facts. What is produced does not
stand on its own. Thinking, one might say, has priority over the thought.
This, in turn, implies that just as we assume that thoughts can be expressed and communicated in language, so we need to explain how
thinking can become perceptible in signs, how the result of the acts of
thinking can be perceived, that is, how they form the common ground
which we call language. It is in this context that we must understand
Wittgensteins use of the concept of expression.
In order to make the result of thinkingthe thoughtperceivable,
the result of the operation of thinking must become a fact in a medium
that is perceptible to our senses. We can perceive with our senses only
what exists in fact. Since the thinking of a possibility does not itself result in a fact, it can only be made a perceivable fact by being translated.
This means that the translation must be projected onto a space of facts
sharing the same form, or a space whose form is merely logical form.
This is the space of signs. This translation, which projects a possibility
as a fact in another medium, is what introduces the propositional sign:
the fact that results from the projection of thinking. It is a possibility in
logico-pictorial space made into a linguistic fact in the space of signs
having logical form.
In the space of signs itself we can now distinguish between the
fact that results from making a possibility perceptible (a propositional
sign) and the space of possibilities that is the condition of depiction
as it appears in the new medium. The proposition, as opposed to the
propositional sign, shows that space of possibilities as it appears
through the medium of signs. Always attached to it is a propositional
sign, a fact.
I assume then that for Wittgenstein a proposition is essentially related
to a mode of expression, to a system of signs. This is why he rst characterizes the proposition in relation to a thought on the one hand and to
the perceptible sign on the other. A proposition occurs at the meeting
place of thinking and signs, that is, the proposition and the propositional sign are elaborated conjointly. The issue is always how the form of
thought expressed as a proposition can be recovered from the factualization of possibility in signs perceptible by the senses. That is the reason that Wittgenstein introduces the concept of proposition by means of


Signs of Sense

the concept of the propositional sign, reversing the order of priority we

would expect:
I call the sign with which we express a thought a propositional
sign.And a proposition is a propositional sign in its projective relation to the world. (3.12)

The proposition is, one might say, the propositional sign as it exhibits
the form of the thought in the medium of signs. It depends on the projection of form onto the medium of signs.
In order to rene the relation between thought, proposition, and
propositional sign, we must elaborate the notion of projection that links
We use the perceptible sign of a proposition (spoken or written, etc.)
as a projection of a possible situation. The method of projection is to
think of the sense of the proposition. (3.11)

It should be emphasized from the start that projection has nothing to do

with any activity on the part of a metaphysical subject that is supposed
to secure the applicability of the proposition to the world. It is not an explanation of how language hooks onto the world or of the way in which
an abstract formal syntax is provided with meaning.
A projection involves two spaces and a rule of translation between
them. A projection is the general rule of translation between those
spaces, independently of the specic gures projected. Emphasizing as I
do the importance of form in understanding the logic of depiction, I suggest that what must dene a projection is the identity of form between
the two spaces. It is the internal relation of depiction that is the invariant
that denes a projection.
Wittgensteins analogy with musical notation can elucidate this point:
And if we penetrate to the essence of this pictorial character, we see
that it is not impaired by apparent irregularities (such as the use of and
in musical notation). For even these irregularities depict what they
are intended to express; only they do it in a different way. (4.013)

I assume that what Wittgenstein has in mind is the way a scale is transposed in musical notation. Thus if our invariant, our form, is the C-major scale, its natural expression in the standard musical notation does
not require any sharps or ats. If we now project it, starting from an-

Signs and Sense


other pitch, say G, we will have to introduce the notation of in order to

keep the same succession of intervals; that is, we introduce apparent irregularities in order to retain the same form, that of a major scale. This
apparent irregularity is necessary in order to express the invariant form
in the new key.
A scale is not a specic musical composition. Wittgenstein does not
think of projection in relation to structures but rather as determining
the invariance of form. There is a rule of translation, or projection between spaces, which determines how a certain form will remain invariant.1 This rule reconstitutes the invariant of form in the new space or
medium. Elaborating the musical example, Wittgenstein writes:
A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the
sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of
depicting that holds between language and the world.
They are all constructed according to a common logical pattern.
(Like the two youths in the fairy-tale, their two horses, and their lilies. They are all in a certain sense one.) (4.014)
There is a general rule by means of which the musician can obtain the symphony from the score, and which makes it possible to derive the symphony from the groove on the gramophone record, and,
using the rst rule, to derive the score again. That is what constitutes
the inner similarity between these things which seem to be constructed
in such entirely different ways. And that rule is the law of projection
which projects the symphony into the language of musical notation. It
is the rule for translating this language into the language of gramophone records. (4.0141)

What is retained in the translation is the internal relation of depicting,

namely the form rather than some similarity of structure. Moreover,
Wittgenstein speaks here of a common logical pattern (Bau), suggesting
that the commonality has to do with organization and requires no similarity at the level of the individual elements. The identity of pattern required for depicting is the identity of depicting form.
1. This is reminiscent of the mathematical idea of embedding one space in another in order
to constitute a model. Indeed, Wittgenstein refers to his use of Abbildung in that way: I have
inherited this concept of a picture from two sides: rst from a drawn picture (Bild), second
from the model (Bild) of a mathematician, which already is a general concept. For a mathematician talks of picturing in cases where a painter would no longer use this expression (WVC,
p. 185).


Signs of Sense

Hence the projection determines how the form of a certain space will
be expressed in a completely new medium, with new signs or elements
of representation. Such a rule is not necessarily simple. Indeed, complex
constructions in one medium may be required to reect what appears
completely simple in another. But the apparent dissimilarity should not
obscure that what is at stake in projection is the invariance of form, the
common pattern required for depiction. The rule of projection reveals
how the form of one space can be recovered in another space.
Projection is the term used for the relation of translation between two
different systems of signs, but also for the transition from the pictorial
form to the space of signs. We apply the notion of projection to the relation between the proposition and the propositional sign as follows: the
projection translates into the medium of signs the essence of depiction,
the pictorial form. To nd the rule of projection is to recover through the
new medium the form which is essential to depiction. For Wittgenstein,
perspicuous expression is the recovery of the symbol, the way in which
signication that depends on the form of depiction appears through
signs. The symbol is an expression. It is the way in which form expresses
itself in the medium of signs.
Having thus characterized the notion of projection, we can now attempt to interpret the difcult propositions concerning the relation of
expression, projection, thought, proposition, and propositional sign:
We use the perceptible sign of a proposition (spoken or written, etc.)
as a projection of a possible situation.
The method of projection is to think of the sense of the proposition.
I call the sign with which we express a thought a propositional
sign.And a proposition is a propositional sign in its projective relation to the world. (3.12)
A proposition includes all that the projection includes, but not what
is projected.
2. R. Rhees nds the translation of this proposition problematic: In other words, the
method of projection is what we mean by thinking or understanding the sense of the proposition. (Messrs. Pears and McGuinness read it differently, as though the remark were to explain
the expression method of projection here. I do not think that ts with what follows. And I
think projection which is a logical operation, is written to explain das Denken der SatzSinnes). See Discussions of Wittgenstein, p. 39. My reading supports his claim.

Signs and Sense


Therefore, though what is projected is not itself included, its possibility is.
A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but
does contain the possibility of expressing it.
(The content of a proposition means the content of a proposition
that has sense.)
A proposition contains the form, but not the content, of its sense.

The separation of the propositional sign from the proposition, as well as

their essential relatedness, can be expressed by associating the sense represented with what is perceptible, as well as with taking a direction in
space (3.144).
Thought is the representation of a particular possibility in logical
space. It takes a direction in that space. To become perceivable, such a
possibility (a direction) must be projected upon a screenthe medium
of signs. The propositional sign is, as it were, the result of the projection
on that screen. Thus what was mere possibility becomes fact on the
screen. A propositional sign is a fact (3.14). The propositional sign
makes sensible the activity of representing a possibility. It transforms
what is only a direction, a sense, into a sense perceivable by the senses.
That fact, so perceived, is connected with the space of possibilities in
which thinking operates. This space itself can be seen as projected onto
the medium of the linguistic sign. It is not perceivable, but is capable of
being shown through the network of signication in ways that will be
subsequently elaborated.
The proposition is the space of possibilities surrounding the linguistic
sign. Thus Wittgenstein says that the proposition is a propositional sign
in its projective relation to the world. But the proposition does not include the projected sign, even though the latter belongs to it. The proposition is a background of possibility for that fact, which is the propositional sign. A proposition includes the possibility of what is projected:
A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but does
contain the possibility of expressing it (3.13). Strictly speaking, as
Wittgenstein puts it, the content of a proposition actually means the
content of a proposition that has sense. The propositional sign determining the sense constitutes the content, and it is not included in the
proposition but belongs to it. A proposition contains the form, but not
the content, of its sense (3.13). This independence yet relatedness of


Signs of Sense

proposition and propositional sign makes it possible to say that the

propositional sign does not express completely the conditions of the
sense that it presents, thus opening up the dimension of analysis.
I will further elaborate an understanding of the proposition in my account of symbols, but at this stage I would like to focus on the propositional sign. The propositional sign is not a list of signs but rather the fact
that signs stand in relation to each other. What constitutes a propositional sign is that in it its elements (the words) stand in a determinate relation to one another. A propositional sign is a fact (3.14). As we have
seen, for something to be a fact depends on the pre-existence of form.
The proposition provides the background of form in which the propositional sign can be seen to be a way of combining elements.
A proposition is not a blend of words.(Just as a theme in music is not
a blend of notes.)
A proposition is articulate. (3.141)

Such an articulation, the way in which we direct ourselves in a space of

form, is a sense. Only facts can express a sense, a set of names cannot
(3.142). This last claim is, I take it, a direct attack on Freges conation
of propositional signs and names, and indeed Frege is mentioned in the
next proposition.
Although a propositional sign is a fact, this is obscured by the usual
form of expression in writing or print.
For in a printed proposition, for example, no essential difference is
apparent between a propositional sign and a word.
(That is what made it possible for Frege to call a proposition a composite name.) (3.143)

Wittgenstein gives a particularly vivid example to clarify the dependence of the propositional sign on a background of form:
The essence of a propositional sign is very clearly seen if we imagine
one composed of spatial objects (such as tables, chairs, and books) instead of written signs.
Then the spatial arrangement of these things will express the sense
of the proposition. (3.1431)

The spatial form is not an element of the scene but appears through the
arrangement of the elements. Similarly, the propositional sign is an ar-

Signs and Sense


rangement, a fact dependent on the space of form opened by the proposition. In a propositional sign aRb, what represents the relation of a to b
is not the fact that we have a sign for a, a sign for b, and a sign for the relation. This set of signs represents no sense; rather, what represents the
relation of the elements is the fact that the linguistic sign a stands in a
certain relation to the sign b:
Instead of, The complex sign aRb says that a stands to b in the relation R, we ought to put, That a stands to b in a certain relation
says that aRb. (3.1432)

Similarly, we should not say that the sign fa says that a is f, but rather,
that a stands to the right of f says that a is f.
Now, even as we consider such propositional signs as fa or aRb, which
do not contain logical constants, we must keep in mind that what is at
stake at the level of the propositional sign is the representation of facts.
Thus the sign itself need not make manifest the form of the objects but
only the fact of their relation. This is indeed the basis of the capacity of
representing any situation which we attribute to language. The facts that
are the propositional signs of our notation have the form of reality and
thus can represent any logical structures, that is, structures of the logical
form. Wittgenstein says in his Notebooks:
It can be said that, while we are not certain of being able to turn all situations into pictures on paper, still we are certain that we can portray
all logical properties of situations in a two-dimensional script.3

For such an account to work, the notation must allow us to distinguish

in the propositional sign as many parts as there are in the fact. This is its
mathematical multiplicity. But this does not mean that the notation in
any way reects the form of the elements or objects. There is, once more,
a sharp division between what is expressed by propositionsfactsand
what can be namedobjects.4
3. NB, p. 7.
4. For Frege sense was primarily the mode of presentation of a meaning. Sense was originally introduced for names. Every name had a sense. The sense provided, as it were, a description of what the thing is, it identied it in a certain way. Propositions, according to Frege, are to
be thought of as names themselves, since the logical functions are taken to be real functions. It
follows that the sense of a proposition is a derivative notion from the sense of a name. It is what
allows us to nd the meaning of the proposition, namely, its truth value. Wittgenstein views


Signs of Sense

It is because a propositional sign is a fact that it can express a sense.

But the reverse implication is that only facts can be expressed in propositions. Situations can be described but not given names. (Names are
like points; propositions like arrowsthey have sense.) (3.144).5 This
raises the question of what it means to recognize form in language. It is
in the dimension of the symbol that form will appear.
this as completely misguided. He insists on the distinction between signs that express a sense
and signs that name. Objects are named; this means that a sign is correlated with them. We do
not need to provide the sign with instructions that would help it nd its meaning. The names
are representatives of objects. But it is only because this correlation exists that we can now produce sense. As Wittgenstein says later on: The possibility of propositions is based on the principle that objects have signs as their representatives (4.0312). Thus the distinction between
sense and meaning is completely shifted in Wittgensteins account. This will have dramatic
consequences when we think of what it means to recover the object in language, through our
making of sense. The object must be shown, but such showing is to be kept distinct from the
idea of a mode of presentation as it is elaborated in Freges conception of sense, for what is
shown is not content.
5. This image of the arrow is indeed very suggestive if we think of it in the context of the account of picturing. Logical signs, one can say, mark the way in which we take elements in a
space of form. We should think of logical signs as directions for forming a content. But this
means precisely that a logical sign does not stand for an object, which should give us a further
indication of the meaning of Wittgensteins claim that logical constants are not representatives
of objects.

Signs of Sense

The Symbolic Order

The Symbolic Order

The topic of symbolism constitutes one of the most complex issues in

the Tractatus. It is related to the nature of analysis, the nature of generality, the nature of formal concepts and of logical laws, as well as the distinction between saying and showing. My own mode of exposition of
this issue will attempt to show the connections between these apparently different sets of issues and will necessitate abandoning the attempt
to follow Wittgensteins numbered propositions more or less in sequence.
Wittgensteins account of signs and signication leads one to reect
on the distinction between the essential and the accidental in language.
As he stresses, the accidental features of language derive from the way
we produce propositional signs:
A proposition possesses essential and accidental features.
Accidental features are those that result from the particular way in
which the propositional sign is produced. Essential features are those
without which the proposition could not express its sense. (3.34)

It is therefore necessary to draw a distinction between the sign and its arbitrary features on the one hand, and a symbol, what is essential to the
expression of the sense of the proposition, on the other. An elaboration
of the nature of the symbol cuts across the various contexts we have kept
separate: the proposition, the logical constants and quantication, as
well as names in relation to their meaning. Thus an investigation into
the nature of the propositional symbol will elucidate the general form of
the proposition (what is common to all sign languages); an investigation


Signs of Sense

into the nature of the symbols of logic (the logical constants and the
quantiers) will yield a deeper understanding of the emptiness of logic;
and an investigation into the signication of names will shed light on
the nature of analysis and the possibility of recognizing objects through
language. I will at rst ignore the differences between these contexts and
consider symbolism in general.
Wittgenstein initially introduces the distinction between the sign and
the symbol by considering the relation of the propositional sign to the
proposition. These considerations are later extended to include parts of
the proposition that are essential to expressing the sense. Hence the account of the proposition takes precedence over the account of the components of the proposition. Wittgenstein indeed begins his discussion of
symbols in general (of which the proposition is a special case) by stating
the above priority: Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a
proposition does a name have meaning (3.3). The priority he gives to
the context of the proposition can be interpreted in different ways.1
In determining meaning we go beyond the way in which names are
representatives of objects. Representativeness, as I have elaborated it in
the account of picturing, involves an arbitrary correlation of name and
object. Wittgensteins concern is how to go beyond this arbitrariness in
language, how to discover what is essential to signication, or how to
reveal through the use of signs in propositions the form that allows
signication. The form determines the symbol to which the sign belongs. Saying that a name, viewed as a symbol, has a form does not mean
that the name itself is complex. The form is internal to the name. It
1. This proposition brings to mind Freges context principle: Never to ask for the meaning
of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition (Foundations of Arithmetic,
p. x). It is important, however, to distinguish Wittgensteins understanding from Freges. For
Frege the context principle does not instruct us how to nd the specic meaning of a sign but
rather directs us to its form or logical category. But determining the logical category of a sign
depends on grasping the kind of inferences that could be performed with propositions containing the sign. Thus the context principle refers not to a single proposition but to the network of
logical implications between different propositions. This is quite foreign to Wittgensteins picture, at least when it comes to specifying the mode of signication of the name of an object,
since form can be grasped in elementary propositions (that is, just as the form of objects appears in states of affairs), so the form of names will show up in the elementary proposition. The
elementary proposition is the expression whose constituents perspicuously contain their form
within themselves. Since elementary propositions do not stand in any inferential relations, the
context principle cannot have the same sense for Wittgenstein as it does for Frege.

The Symbolic Order


makes the name what it is and is revealed through its appearance in

propositions. Wittgenstein writes:
I call any part of a proposition that characterizes its sense an expression (or a symbol).
(A proposition is itself an expression.)
Everything essential to their sense that propositions can have in
common with one another is an expression.
An expression is the mark of a form and a content. (3.31)

As we consider the representation of facts, the construction of content,

the names appear as mere representatives, as points or nodes of a structure. To reveal the form of the object is to consider the name in the context of a proposition, and the proposition within a larger class of related
propositions. It is only thus that the name can be grasped as an expressionsomething that is the mark of both a form and of a content. In order to bring out the formal properties of a sign, the symbol to which the
sign belongs, we have to consider the common feature of the various
propositional contexts of which it is a constituent, that is, to identify the
internal connection between various propositions that contain the expression. I call this an internal or formal relation insofar as it determines
the very identity of the expression in question:
An expression presupposes the forms of all the propositions in
which it can occur. It is the common characteristic mark of a class of
propositions. (3.311)

Wittgensteins use of the term presuppose implies that one cannot characterize what a symbol is without having been given all the possible contexts in which it could occur.
A crucial point here is the analogy between Wittgensteins elaboration
of the notion of an expression and his understanding of objects through
their form.2 His insistence that an expression cannot be determined
apart from its possible combinations in propositions means that, in a
specic proposition, the expression contributes to a content only by virtue of having its form determined by a whole class of propositions. To
2. Compare 2.025, [Substance] is form and content, and 3.31, An expression is the mark
of a form and a content. One can now understand better Wittgensteins parenthetical remark
in his account of objects: (It is impossible for words to appear in two different roles: by themselves, and in propositions.).


Signs of Sense

take a simple example: a given proposition expresses a specic sense,

but it can do so only by its symbols being a symbol for propositions; that
is, being determined by a form that involves a whole space of possibilities out of which this particular sense is asserted. This is the logical
space that comes with the propositional symbol.
A proposition can determine only one place in logical space: nevertheless the whole of logical space must already be given by it. (3.42)

This suggests that understanding what a symbol or an expression is constitutes the rst step in discovering how form appears in language, and
in particular how the form of objects appears. Just as objects reveal their
form by exhibiting their possibilities of combination with other objects,
so Wittgenstein suggests that in order to isolate an expression one has to
see the propositional contexts in which it could occur. Therefore it is
crucial to understand Wittgensteins idea of what precisely propositions
can have in common.
The form of a sign is shown by means of a whole class of propositionsby giving a characterization that captures that whole class. What
stands for that class is a variable whose range covers the kinds of propositions in which that expression can occur meaningfully:
[An expression] is therefore presented by means of the general form
of the propositions that it characterizes.
In fact, in this form the expression will be constant and everything
else variable. (3.312)
Thus an expression is presented by means of a variable whose values
are the propositions that contain the expression.
(In the limiting case the variable becomes a constant, the expression
becomes a proposition.)
I call such a variable a propositional variable. (3.313)

It is easy to misinterpret Wittgensteins picture by assimilating it to what

philosophers such as Frege, Russell, or Carnap meant by logical form.
For example, proposition 3.315 may tempt us to conclude that the procedure for discovering logical form is akin to what we would call schematization:
If we turn a constituent of a proposition into a variable, there is a
class of propositions all of which are values of the resulting variable

The Symbolic Order


proposition. In general, this class too will be dependent on the meaning that our arbitrary conventions have given to parts of the original
proposition. But if all the signs in it that have arbitrarily determined
meanings are turned into variables, we shall still get a class of that
kind. This one, however, is not dependent on any convention, but
solely on the nature of the proposition. It corresponds to a logical
forma logical prototype [protopicture, Urbild].3 (3.315)

However, imposing the idea of schematization on Wittgensteins account

of the symbol seems to me misleading on several counts: schematization
provides us with a certain structure, but such a structure is not a form; a
space of possibilities is different from a specic mode of combination,
even generalized; a fully generalized proposition is not a form but a determinate statement about the world.4 The form reveals the combinatorial possibilities of an expression. To take a simple example: in order to
characterize the form of a propositional symbol p, we must characterize
all the propositions in which it can occurthus, p, pvq, p.q, qvp, and so
on. This class of propositions cannot be viewed as having a common
structure. The variable that determines such a class is something that
Wittgenstein will elaborate in terms of a procedure of construction (see
5.2552). Hence his notion of logical form as the presentation of the
kinds of contexts in which an expression can sensically appear is very
different from that of Frege or Russell. For logical form is most clearly
presented by a class of propositions containing very different kinds of
It is also tempting to impose on Wittgensteins account of the symbol
the idea of an uninterpreted syntactical system for which we need to
provide meanings; to make a contrast between syntax and semantics.5
Indeed, the procedure that Wittgenstein describes might seem to do

3. The translation of Urbild as prototype obscures the connection between Bild and Urbild,
and hence the relation between the account of the variable and quantication, and the account
of picturing. See below, p. 86.
4. Wittgenstein makes clear in 5.5265.5261 that the generalized proposition is as contentful as any other proposition: We can describe the world completely by means of fully generalized propositions . . . A fully generalized proposition, like every other proposition, is composite.
5. This contrast would then force on us the assumption of a metaphysical subject, which
would be responsible for providing meaning to the empty formalism.


Signs of Sense

away with all the components of meaning, leaving only the syntactical
possibilities of the signs. For instance, he writes: In logical syntax the
meaning of a sign should never play a role. It must be possible to establish logical syntax without mentioning the meaning of a sign: only the
description of expressions may be presupposed (3.33).6 But I read this
to mean precisely that everything that contributes to signication must
be grasped through the interrelation of propositions, by means of the
class that determines the expression. In other words, there is no need for
a further step in which meaning is specied, that is, there is no need to
interpret a formal syntax. Wittgenstein equates the symbol with the way
in which the sign signies or has meaning. Once a symbol has been determined, the issue of providing a meaning has also been solved.7
Let us now return to proposition 3.315 and ask once more about the
arbitrariness of meaning that Wittgenstein wants to get away from. This
arbitrariness can be thought of in terms of the notion of representativeness, which I elaborated in the account of picturing. The correlation that
is formed between a sign and the world in naming things is indeed arbitrary. This connection does not show what precisely allows the sign to
signify, that is, the identity of form that enables depicting. In order to
bring out that level of form, we must get away from the arbitrariness of
the relation of representativeness and ask about the combinatorial properties of the sign. This does not mean moving from the world to a merely
6. There are also good textual grounds on which to refrain from imposing on the text the
contrast between syntax and semantics, as it is usually understood. For instance, Wittgenstein
writes: In order to recognize a symbol by its sign we must observe how it is used with a sense
(3.326). A sign does not determine a logical form unless it is taken together with its logicosyntactical employment (3.327); If a sign is useless, it is meaningless. That is the point of
Occams maxim. (If everything behaves as if a sign had meaning, then it does have a meaning.)
7. This claim should be qualied, for the relation of representativeness has to be determined, but this relation is a condition of the very formation of the symbol. Indeed, the problems of meaninglessness do not derive from the properties of the symbol but from the lack of
this initial relation: Frege says that any legitimately constructed proposition must have a
sense. And I say that any possible proposition is legitimately constructed, and, if it has no
sense, that can only be because we have failed to give a meaning to some of its constituents.
(Even if we think that we have done so.) Thus the reason why Socrates is identical says nothing is that we have not given any adjectival meaning to the word identical. For when it appears
as a sign for identity, it symbolizes in an entirely different waythe signifying relation is a different onetherefore the symbols also are entirely different in the two cases: the two symbols
have only the sign in common, and that is an accident (5.4733).

The Symbolic Order


formal symbolic system, for the form of depiction is identical in the picture and in the world. Thus by doing away with the arbitrariness of
meaning we can now perceive the fundamental identity between language and reality. Logical syntax, as Wittgenstein understands it, does
not merely deal with schemata of signs; it rather shows the way in which
the sign signies.
As with 3.315, a misreading of 3.3163.317 may suggest that Wittgenstein elaborates an arbitrary or conventional syntax which gives us the
power to stipulate what the sign signies:
What values a propositional variable may take is something that is
The stipulation of values is the variable. (3.316)
To stipulate values for a propositional variable is to give the proposition whose common characteristic the variable is.
The stipulation is a description of those propositions.
The stipulation will therefore be concerned only with symbols, not
with their meaning.
And the only thing essential to the stipulation is that it is merely a description of symbols and states nothing about what is signied.
How the description of the proposition is produced is not essential.

The form of a symbol is brought out by the inner relation of a whole

class of propositions. Wittgenstein insists that the characterization of
the variable is produced through a description of that class of propositions. This does not mean that the class over which the variable ranges is
somehow arbitrarily stipulated. The stipulation makes the variable into
a representative of that class, which itself is nonarbitrary: What the values of the variable are is something that is stipulated. The stipulation is a
description of the propositions that have the variable as their representative (5.501). Here the translation by Pears and McGuinness of the
term Festsetzung as stipulation, which suggests a certain arbitrariness,
might be the source of the misunderstanding. Ogden uses determination, which correctly expresses the notion of characterizing the range
of the variable as something that corresponds to a given, nonarbitrary
class. Indeed, that class is the result of doing away with the arbitrary elements.
I wish to stress the point that Wittgenstein characterizes our grasp of


Signs of Sense

the symbol as something achieved by paying attention to expressions

and not by any direct reference to meaning. Indeed, there is no such
thing as direct access to meanings. We arrive at meaning by considering
the combinatorial possibilities of expressions, by bringing out the symbol
or the form. Hence his claim: Only propositions have sense; only in the
nexus of a proposition does a name have meaning (3.3). The symbol
should not be reied and equated with a separable sign in the notation.
A symbol is only brought out by the interconnection of propositions. As
a mark of form, it is the internal relation between such propositions. We
can use a variable to range over all such propositions and thus give a
sign of the notation that will stand for the symbol, but this does not
mean that the symbol has been turned into something wholly separable
and self-standing. This may be why the symbol is not perceivable as the
sign is: not because the symbol is somehow hidden beneath the surface
of language or belongs to an inner mental realm, but rather because it
does not belong to the factual. It is shown through the internal relations
of propositions and this showing of form is not a perceiving.
This point can be elucidated by considering a further complication in
Wittgensteins account of the symbol. We tend to draw the distinction
between the accidental and the essential in language in terms of the arbitrariness of the sign, but Wittgenstein speaks of arbitrariness at the symbolic level as well. If a symbol is what is essential to the expression of
sense, then in a particular notation that contribution can be expressed in
different ways, with different symbolic constructions:
A proposition possesses essential and accidental features.
Accidental features are those that result from the particular way in
which the propositional sign is produced. Essential features are those
without which the proposition could not express its sense. (3.34)
So what is essential in a proposition is what all propositions that can
express the same sense have in common.
And similarly, in general, what is essential in a symbol is what all
symbols that can serve the same purpose have in common. (3.341)
What signies in a symbol is what is common to all the symbols that
the rules of logical syntax allow us to substitute for it. (3.344)

Even our symbols are the result of a certain arbitrariness in our choice of
means of representation. Take the example of negation: before reading

The Symbolic Order


Wittgensteins account we might have been tempted to say that expresses the symbol of negation; we grasp the symbol when we see that
we can negate the proposition p by placing a in front of it. But
Wittgenstein shows us that we have not grasped a form in that way. The
essence of the symbol for which p stands can be grasped only by
considering what is common to the following signs of the notation expressing the negation of p: p, p, p, p.p,
pvp, and so on. The symbol is what is common to all those modes
of representing negation. It is a rule that characterizes the construction
of all the signs that could negate p:
But in p it is not that negates; it is rather what is common to all
signs of this notation that negate p.
That is to say the common rule that governs the construction of
p, p, pvp, p.p, etc. etc. (ad inf.) And this common
factor mirrors negation. (5.512)

This shows that grasping the symbol that p stands for involves
grasping the whole of the logical space of p. In order to know the symbol of negation, I must know that p and p signify the same
thing. Moreover I must know that p and p.p signify the same
thing. Thus when I know the essence of the symbol, I know various
things which we would normally say follow from p (or are logically
equivalent with it).
Wittgenstein makes a similar point concerning conjunction and disjunction:
We might say that what is common to all symbols that afrm both p
and q is the proposition p.q; and that what is common to all symbols
that afrm either p or q is the propositions pvq. (5.513)

These last examples show very clearly that determining the symbol does
not merely give the syntactically possible combinations of signs but
what we would call logical relations of content. To elaborate the symbol
means to bring out the internal properties that determine what an expression is. We should expect then a close connection between such an
account and Wittgensteins elaboration of how internal relations and
properties appear in language, his account of formal concepts, which begins in 4.122 with an apparent reversion to a discussion of ontology:


Signs of Sense

In a certain sense we can talk about formal properties of objects and

states of affairs, or in the case of facts, about structural properties: and
in the same sense about formal relations and structural relations.

In contrast to the straightforward ontological tone of the opening of the

book, however, Wittgenstein here elaborates the question of how we can
talk about those very ontological notions, that is, how they appear in
As we recall, the important point concerning these internal properties, which was already adumbrated in the opening of the book, is
that propositions cannot say that things have these properties, which is
why we can talk about those properties only in a certain sense.
We cannot attribute those properties to anything; there can be no
propositions that describe such attributions. Nor can there be propositions distinguishing one property from another by means of a characteristic mark:
It would be just as nonsensical to assert that a proposition had a formal property as to deny it. (4.124)
It is impossible to distinguish forms from one another by saying that
one has this property and another that property: for this presupposes
that it makes sense to ascribe either property to either form. (4.1241)

Wittgenstein calls concepts purporting to signify such internal properties formal concepts and distinguishes them from concepts proper. The
essence of Wittgensteins account of the symbol is that we are given the
possibilities of combination, the combinatorial space, when we are given
the symbol. This applies to the proposition as a whole as well as to the
various component parts. Wittgenstein warns against the confusion that
may result from thinking that the possibilities of combination that are
internal to the symbol are something that we add to itthat stand in an
external relation to the symbol rather than in an internal one. The result
of such a confusion, the treatment of a formal concept as a real property,
is the generation of nonsensical propositions purporting to use that concept:
So one cannot say, for example, There are objects, as one might say,
There are books. And it is just as impossible to say, There are 100 objects, or, There are o objects.
And it is nonsensical to speak of the total number of objects.

The Symbolic Order


The same applies to the words complex, fact, function, number,

etc. (4.1272)

The various signs such as object, fact, complex are used in philosophers propositions as real concepts (indeed Wittgenstein himself uses
all those concepts in the opening of the Tractatus). But he insists that at
the symbolic level there are no component terms that such signs belong
tono things that they signify.
How do we use language to talk about such formal properties? We can
do it insofar as we can bring out how in language the internal relations
between propositions show those formal and structural properties:
The existence of an internal property of a possible situation is not
expressed by means of a proposition: rather, it expresses itself in the
proposition representing the situation, by means of an internal property of that proposition. (4.124)
The existence of an internal relation between possible situations expresses itself in language by means of an internal relation between the
propositions representing them. (4.125)

The formal concept is, properly speaking, the mark of an internal relation between propositions belonging to the same space. It is thus represented in language by means of a whole class of interrelated propositions. Some such classes can be arranged in what Wittgenstein calls a
formal series. The ordering reveals the form common to the propositions in that class. Wittgenstein gives the example of the successor in
If we want to express the conceptual notation the general proposition b is the successor of a, then we require an expression for the general term of the series of forms

Hence what the propositions of a formal series have in common is not

one of their component parts but what Wittgenstein calls a feature of the
So the sign for the characteristic mark of a formal concept is a distinctive feature of all symbols whose meanings fall under the concept.


Signs of Sense

Such a feature is brought out by means of the use of a propositional variable whose values belong to the class of propositions that have that feature in common.8
Just as we considered what happens to formal concepts when they are
used as though they were real concepts, so we can consider ways in
which structural properties are treated as though they were real ones.
Structural properties have to do with the logical connections between
propositions. Thus to treat structural properties as real properties results
in what we would call logical propositions (tautologies and contradictions).
That a certain proposition follows from another or contradicts it is not
a fact about such propositions but an internal relation between them.
For instance, it is part of the symbol p.q that p follows from it; or to return to an example we have considered before, an essential feature of the
symbol p is that propositions such as p follow from it. As Wittgenstein puts it: One could say that negation must be related to the logical place determined by the negated proposition. That p contradicts
p is not external to the nature of p. To think of logical laws as contentful
propositions would purport to turn that internal relation into a statable
fact and would reveal a fundamental misunderstanding as to how formal
relations are shown:
The fact that the propositions of logic are tautologies shows the formallogicalproperties of language and the world.
The fact that a tautology is yielded by this particular way of connecting its constituents characterizes the logic of its constituents.
If propositions are to yield a tautology when they are connected in
a certain way, they must have certain structural properties. So their
yielding a tautology when combined in this way shows that they possess these structural properties. (6.12)
8. It is no coincidence that Wittgenstein develops his understanding of the variable in both
the account of symbolism and that of formal concepts. In the account of symbolism the variable is necessary to express the whole combinatorial space that belongs to the symbol, which is
precisely the reason why it can be seen as the proper representation of what Wittgenstein calls a
formal concept: Every variable is the sign for a formal concept (4.1271). It would seem that
not every variable or formal concept can be represented by means of a formal series. Indeed, in
5.501 Wittgenstein characterizes three ways of xing a variable by describing the propositions
it stands for, the last of which is the giving of a formal series. (I thank Michael Knemer for very
helpful criticisms and comments regarding earlier attempts to interpret Wittgensteins idea of a
formal concept and of generality.)

The Symbolic Order


Wittgensteins treatment of logical laws stands in important contrast to

his treatment of formal concepts, which relates to the distinction he
draws between the senseless and the nonsensical. Wittgenstein speaks of
tautologies and contradictions as being senseless. They are valid combinations of signs that do not represent anything or that produce no sense.
In opposition to them, the attempt to state the internal properties of an
object is an attempt to turn internal relations into purported facts. It is,
in that way, strictly speaking nonsensical. Unlike tautologies and contradictions, which will still appear in a perspicuous notation, such purported statements concerning internal properties will disappear. This
of course does not mean that internal relations cannot be shown in a
proper notation.9
This insight into the symbolic order underlies much of Wittgensteins
criticism of various positions concerning the nature and possibilities of
logic. It not only serves to show the emptiness of logical laws, but also
constitutes the basis of his argument against the logicist reduction of
arithmetic to logic. Wittgensteins account of the successor as a formal
concept undermines the notion that lies at the very heart of such a reduction:
If we want to express in conceptual notation the general proposition, b is a successor of a, then we require an expression for the general term of the series of forms
In order to express the general term of a series of forms, we must use
a variable, because the concept term of that series of forms is a formal
concept. (This is what Frege and Russell overlooked: consequently the
way in which they want to express general propositions like the one
above is incorrect; it contains a vicious circle.) (4.1273)

A correct understanding of symbolism also shows the problematic nature of Russells theory of types. Wittgensteins account of the symbol
demonstrates that a function must contain within itself a characteriza9. One could also say that a structural property is shown by tautologies and contradictions,
whereas a formal property can only be shown by a class of propositions that share that internal


Signs of Sense

tion of its argument. For it to be a symbol at all, it must be dened

through the range of arguments it can take. Thus it makes no sense to
think that, after determining a symbol, there remains a further task of
deciding which arguments it is allowed and which it is not allowed to
No proposition can make a statement about itself, because a propositional sign cannot be contained in itself (that is the whole of the theory of types). (3.332)
The reason why a function cannot be its own argument is that the
sign for a function already contains the prototype of its argument, and
it cannot contain itself. For let us suppose that the function F(fx) could
be its own argument: in that case there would be a proposition
F(F(fx)), in which the outer function F and the inner function F must
have different meanings, since the inner one has the form (fx) and the
outer has the form ((fx). Only the letter F is common to the two
functions, but the letter in itself signies nothing . . . (3.333)

This argument emphasizes the point that a symbol is dened through its
possibilities of combination. Wittgenstein does not need to introduce a
special rule for distinguishing the inner and the outer Fs. It is part of
what they are: they are dened in part by the kind of arguments they
take. One could say that the syntax takes care of itself, for it is a logical
impossibility to construct an expression F(F(fx)) where the two Fs are
the same symbol. We can of course have such a string of signs, but this
identity of sign says nothing about the symbol.10 We must never confuse
the level of signs and the level of symbols. It makes sense to speak of a
confusion at the level of signs, but there is no such thing as a mistake in
the order of the symbol. There can therefore be no rules for the proper
combination of symbols, for symbols are internally related to possibilities of combination.
Finally, let us consider the consequences of this account of the symbol
for the nature of logical constants, starting with an elaboration of Wittgensteins insight concerning the theory of types. If he were to take logi10. The argument Wittgenstein deploys against Russells theory of types could also be used
against Freges elaboration of the distinction between concept and object. In particular, what is
problematic is Freges identication of the complete proposition with an object, that is, a truth
value, which precisely allows a construction such as F(F(fx)) where the rst application of F to
some object produces once more the type of argument that F itself could take.

The Symbolic Order


cal constants to be real functions (as Frege did), he would be committed

by the logic of his argument to say that in p negation cannot be the
same function in both occurrences. Wittgenstein sees that argument as
pointing to the difference between logical constants and real functions.
The fact that logical symbols such as negation can be iterated shows that
logical constants are not real functions but what he calls operations.
(Operations and functions must not be confused with each other.)
A function cannot be its own argument, whereas an operation can
take one of its own results as its base. (5.251)

Drawing this distinction between function and operation is tantamount

to expressing the peculiar status of logical constants. It means that such
constants are not ultimate constituents of the content:
The occurrence of an operation does not characterize the sense of a
Indeed no statement is made by an operation, but only by its result,
and this depends on the bases of the operation. (5.25)
Truth-functions are not material functions.
For example, an afrmation can be produced by double negation: in
such a case does it follow that in some sense negation is contained in
afrmation? Does p negate p, or does it afrm por both?
The proposition p is not about negation, as if negation were an
object: on the other hand, the possibility of negation is already written
into afrmation.
And if there were an object called , it would follow that p
said something different from what p said, just because the one proposition would then be about and the other would not. (5.44)

The analogy between form and a space might help us understand this
distinction. If we think of form as a space, then what is essential in a specic proposition is revealed through its connection with every other
possible structure in that space. That is, a certain possibility of movement or transition within that space from one structure to another is
crucial. This means that all these structures must share a procedure for
transition from one to the other: this is the operation which can take us
from one structure to another.


Signs of Sense

The structures of propositions stand in internal relations to one another. (5.2)

In order to give prominence to these internal relations we can adopt
the following mode of expression: we can represent a proposition as
the result of an operation that produces it out of other propositions
(which are the bases of the operation). (5.21)
An operation is the expression of a relation between the structures of
its result and of its bases. (5.22)
The operation is what has to be done to the one proposition in order
to make the other out of it. (5.23)
And that will, of course, depend on their formal properties, on the
internal similarity of their forms. (5.231)

Insofar as form is constituted through the internal relations of propositions, we can speak of cases in which that internal relation is shown by
means of an operation that takes one proposition as a basis and another
of that class as its result. The concept of the operation is then intimately
connected to the notion of a formal concept:
We can determine the general term of a series of forms by giving its
rst term and the general form of the operation that produces the next
term out of the proposition that precedes it. (4.1273)

It is crucial to realize that the occurrence of an operation has no correlate at the level of meaning. The operation is not part of what we speak
about in the proposition, but is operative in making the transition in a
space of internal relations. In itself the occurrence of an operation means
nothing, for it can vanish. Sometimes a repeated application can cancel
previous applications of the operation; this, for instance, is what happens in the case of the equivalence of p and p. The fact that the operation can be canceled shows most clearly that it is not a component
expression of the sense. Insofar as these operations do not in themselves
transform the space of signication, they can be repeated or applied repeatedly.
At this point we are nally in a position to ll in a lacuna in my previous account of logical constants, concerning Wittgensteins understanding of the quantier. What I emphasized in Wittgensteins conception of
a picture is the pre-existence of a background of form which conditions

The Symbolic Order


the possibility of structures. Classes of structures will bring out features

of that background. Related to every picture, we can conceive of protopictures which make no determinate statement but show features of the
background of form. Such protopictures can be presented by means of
classes of propositions related by an internal relation.
Wittgensteins account of the quantiers appeals to such protopictures:
I dissociate the concept all from truth-functions.
Frege and Russell introduced generality in association with logical
product or logical sum. This makes it difcult to understand the propositions (x).fx and (x)fx, in which both ideas are embedded. (5.521)
What is peculiar to the generality sign is rst, that it indicates a logical prototype [protopicture], and secondly, that it gives prominence to
constants. (5.522)
The generality-sign occurs as an argument. (5.523)

The generality sign indicates the presence of a logical protopicture, that

is, a class of structures that are related by an internal relation. Indeed,
the variable which is involved in the generality sign is always the mark
of a formal concept. That formal concept is precisely a protopicture, that
is, a formal feature shared by a class of propositions. These structures
are, rst of all, constructed by means of the scaffolding provided by logical constants. In that sense we can say that the generality sign gives
prominence to constants. The generality sign is an argument in the sense
that it completes the indeterminacy of the protopicture so as to form a
denite sense. It allows a statement concerning the structures that present the formal concept. This makes it clear that the quantier, while not
an operation on pictures, can be seen as an operation on protopictures
that produces a determinate sense.

Signs of Sense

The Grammar of Analysis

The Grammar of Analysis

While we have gained some insight into the nature of logical signs and
the existence of formal and structural relations, we still need to determine the symbolic properties of names, that is, how to analyze language
into elementary propositions. Wittgensteins account of symbolism enables us to address the question of analysis.
Indeed, Wittgenstein gives an initial statement of the relation of symbolism to the question of analysis immediately after he introduces the
notion of the symbol:
A sign is what can be perceived of a symbol. (3.32)
So one and the same sign (written or spoken, etc.) can be common
to two different symbolsin which case they will signify in different
ways. (3.321)
Our use of the same sign to signify two different objects can never
indicate a common characteristic of the two, if we use it with two different modes of signication. For the sign, of course, is arbitrary. So we
could choose two different signs instead, and then what would be left
in common on the signifying side? (3.322)

Wittgenstein gives several examples of this phenomenon: the use of the

sign is to signify both the copula and identity, or the proposition
Green is green, where the rst word is the proper name of a person
and the last an adjective. Such examples are well known, yet their signicance remains to be interpreted. They might give the impression that
everything about everyday language is problematic and confusing. In88

The Grammar of Analysis


deed, when Wittgenstein addresses the issue of specifying the correct

logical perspective, or sign-language (as in the present context), ordinary language appears decient:
In everyday language it very frequently happens that the same word
has different modes of signicationand so belongs to different symbolsor that two words that have different modes of signication are
employed in propositions in what is supercially the same way. (3.323)
In this way the most fundamental confusions are easily produced
(the whole of philosophy is full of them). (3.324)
In order to avoid such errors we must make use of a sign-language
that excludes them by not using the same sign for different symbols
and by not using in a supercially similar way signs that have different
modes of signication: that is to say, a sign-language that is governed
by logical grammarby logical syntax. (3.325)

Such statements, read in isolation, might suggest that Wittgenstein is involved in the same project as Frege and Russell after allthat of replacing ordinary language with a logically perfect one. For Wittgenstein,
however, the problematic nature of everyday language pertains to the
level of signs and not to that of symbols. This is a crucial point, since it
directs analysis to make perspicuous the form of that very sense which
we make in ordinary language, rather than to replace ordinary language
with an ideal or perfect language.1 Wittgenstein is concerned with replacing signs rather than with constructing a symbolism. He does not
1. Freges conceptual notation is primarily concerned with the language of science. In his
view ordinary language has an extremely problematic status: If it is one of the tasks of philosophy to break the domination of the word over the human spirit by laying the misconceptions
that through the use of language often almost unavoidably arise concerning the relation between concepts and by freeing thought from that with which only the means of expression of
ordinary language, constituted as they are, saddle it, then my ideography, further developed for
these purposes, can become a useful tool for the philosopher. (In J. van Heijenoort, Frege and
Gdel, p. 7.) In Freges view a conceptual notation is necessary for a stable scientic enterprise.
Science would be threatened with innumerable confusions unless a precise syntax for its language were laid down once and for all. Everyday language is full of symbolical confusions.
Frege sometimes expresses himself in such a way as to imply that language requires our help to
function properly. One might say that the whole project of the Foundations of Arithmetic is motivated by the possibility of mathematical catastrophe. It is this idea of a conceptual notation
and its attendant idea of logic as the standard and foundation of meaningfulness that Wittgenstein attacks.


Signs of Sense

assume that ordinary language has no clear symbolic structure, but

aims precisely at making the symbolic form of ordinary language perspicuous.
There are no logical problems in ordinary language; there are only
problems arising from the ambiguity of signs, not from the signs modes
of signication. In every case that a sign stands for two different modes
of signication, thus for two different meanings, the symbolic form corresponding to each can be revealed if we consider the sign together with
its use. It would be possible then to dispel the ambiguity of the sign,
which might in certain cases ease our recognition, but we have not
thereby corrected anything concerning the logic of that sign.
The very concept of logic implies that it takes care of itself. This
means that in a certain sense there cannot be a mistake at the level of
symbols. Misinterpretations are caused by our use of similar signs for
different symbols. Mistakes that are related to how we use the signs (for
instance missing an inference) certainly exist, but these cannot be illogical symbolic formation. The very concept of a malfunctioning symbol is
problematic, since it involves a grammatical confusion concerning the
nature of logic: it makes us responsible for the working of logic in language. Whereas a mistaken theory of physics would still be a theory of
physics, a mistaken logical theory is simply inconceivable. But this just
means that logic is not a theoretical domain. The notion that we need to
help language out, logically speakingthat without our logical corrections and intervention language would be threatened by illogical constructsis fundamentally erroneous. Wittgenstein points out that such
a conception of philosophical work is incoherent.
Logic must look after itself.
If a sign is possible, then it is also capable of signifying. Whatever is
possible in logic is also permitted . . .
In a certain sense, we cannot make mistakes in logic. (5.473)

It is not a question of the possibility of logical trouble in language but

merely an issue of our failure to make an arbitrary determination of the
signs we use, that is, of the relation of representativeness. It has nothing
to do with the functioning of language in itself.2
2. Cora Diamond makes these points forcefully in considering Wittgensteins view of nonsense. I have taken a somewhat different path, thinking of the very concept of logical work, to
arrive at the same place. See her On What Nonsense Might Be, Frege and Nonsense, and
Throwing Away the Ladder in C. Diamond, The Realistic Spirit.

The Grammar of Analysis


Hence there seems to be a certain duality in Wittgensteins attitude to

everyday language. While he recognizes ambiguities at the level of signs,
his concept of symbolism shows ordinary language to be in perfect logical order. This point can be elucidated by considering more broadly his
view of the task of the Tractatus and of the possibilities of work in logic
and philosophy. Wittgenstein makes three fundamental statements concerning his insight, method, and aim, which at rst sight seem to be unrelated:
The possibility of propositions is based on the principle that objects
have signs as their representatives.
My fundamental idea is that logical constants are not representatives; that there can be no representatives of the logic of facts. (4.0312)
Our fundamental principle is that whenever a question can be decided by logic at all it must be possible to decide it without more ado.
(And if we get into a position where we have to look at the world for
an answer to such a problem, that shows that we are on a completely
wrong track.) (5.551)
In fact, all the proposition of our everyday language just as they
stand, are in perfect logical order.That utterly simple thing, which
we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the truth
itself in its entirety.
(Our problems are not abstract, but the most concrete that there
are.) (5.5563)

Thinking about these three statements together provides an insight that

could guide our reading of the Tractatus as a whole.
In the rst statement Wittgenstein speaks of a fundamental idea or
thought (Grundgedanke); in the second, of a fundamental principle; and
in the third, of the utterly simple truth in its entirety. The fundamental
idea or thought, whose consequences one has to elaborate, is the starting point of our inquiry. The simple truth is, as it were, the endpoint of
such an enterprise of thinking, something that we come to recognize
by following the path of thinking. It is what needs expressing and for
whose sake we have to develop the fundamental idea. The fundamental
principle allows us to advance along that path and keeps us on track.
The fundamental idea determines the principle of inquiry, the method of
advance toward showing the truth in its entirety. The simple truth is not
a new thought or a complicated idea, but an acknowledgment or recognition that, contrary to what seems to be the case, ordinary language is


Signs of Sense

in fact perfectly in order as it is. This recognition seems to imply some

as yet undetermined concreteness and urgency. It opens an ethical dimension or opens us to the ethical. It reveals that the problems of the
Tractatus are not abstract but rather the most concrete that there are. In
order to reach the opening of such a dimension, it is rst necessary to
approach this simple truth of the Tractatus in the right way, by linking it
to the other fundamental propositions.
My earlier discussion of picturing and of symbolism addressed some
aspects of the claim that logical constants are not representatives of objects. I now want to elaborate this insight from a different angle. Wittgensteins fundamental idea is based on the duality of signs that stand
for objects and logical constants that are not representatives; on the notion that there can be no representatives of the logic of facts. We now
perceive that this separation of domains derives from Wittgensteins understanding of the ontological status of the logical constants. Thus if we
have signs that are representatives of objects, the question is how the
form of these objects is manifested in language. Wittgenstein argues that
while the logical signs help reveal this form, they themselves are not representatives of anything in the world. According to his notion of the
logic of portrayal, and of portrayal by means of logic, no element of the
logical system of representation stands for anything in the world. This
might sound odd, for we are used to thinking that the possibility of representing the world is based precisely on some such correspondence.
Wittgenstein has already attempted to lead us away from that concept of
representation in his account of symbols, where he stated that to express
the form (which is the symbol) required bringing out a whole network
of internally related propositions. Similarly, he writes in the Notebooks:
We should then work with signs that do not stand for anything but
merely help to express by means of their logical properties.3

But how is the world expressed by means of logic, without logics being
part of the world? Wittgenstein often refers to this mode of expression as
How can logicall-embracing logic, which mirrors the worlduse
such peculiar crotchets and contrivances? Only because they are all
3. NB, p. 10.

The Grammar of Analysis


connected with one another in an innitely ne network, the great

mirror. (5.511).4

Mirroring is intimately related to the nature of showing:

Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them.
What nds its reection in language, language cannot represent.
What expresses itself in language we cannot express by means of language.
Propositions show the logical form of reality.
They display it. (4.121)

The notion of mirroring emphasizes that form is expressed by a reecting surface. This means that we do not immediately express the world
by means of the signs we choose, but that our linguistic activity results
in that innitely ne network of interrelated signs, of surfaces, in which
the world is reected. We have seen how this idea is developed in Wittgensteins account of symbolism, where the symbol is related to the recognition of a class of internally related propositions which express its
form. The notion of mirroring further suggests that we need not go
beneath the surface of language to recognize objects. Objects appear
through the recognition of internal relations in the network formed by
our use of language. They are not mysterious hidden entities, but wholly
in view.
There is thus a clear division between the means of logical representation on the one hand, and what shows itself through our constructions,
what there is in the world, on the other. Indeed, it is possible to perfectly
express or show things, in their essence, without there being any correspondence between an element in the proposition and the internal properties of the thing. This means, then, that Wittgensteins concept of an
adequate notation is a notation that will allow constructions through
4. It is interesting that the locution mirror of the world occurs in Schopenhauer, and,
given Wittgensteins acquaintance with his work, it might very well be related to his thought on
the matter. Schopenhauer speaks of ideas rather than representations as being mirrors of the
world: Man . . . is the most complete phenomenon of the will, and, as was shown in the second
book, in order to exist, this phenomenon had to be illuminated by so high a degree of knowledge that even a perfectly adequate repetition of the inner nature of the world under the form of
representation became possible in it. This is the apprehension of the Ideas, the pure mirror of
the world. See The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, pp. 287288. We can schematically
suggest a parallel between the Wittgensteinian thing and the Schopenhauerian idea, which is
the expression of the will in experience.


Signs of Sense

which the forms of objects will show. It does not mean in any way that
the form of the signs will be the form of the objects.
We can now attempt to see how this fundamental ideathat logical
constants and signs that stand for objects constitute two separate domainsis expressed in the fundamental principle of inquiry. The latter
seems to demand that the logical be separated from the empirical, a separation that is commonplace in philosophy. What then is the radical innovation in Wittgensteins view of the matter?
First, consider the odd distinction between can and must be possible without more ado in Wittgensteins formulation of the fundamental
principle: his claim that when a question can be decided by logic at all, it
must be possible to decide it without more ado. Wittgenstein is not
warning us against confusing a supposed logical law with an empirical
generalization (for instance, mistaking the principle of nonmathematical induction for a logical principle). He assumes that logic can be
strictly delimited from factual statements. He is concerned with the very
nature of logical as opposed to scientic investigation. It is this necessity
of separating modes of inquiry that opens the question of the relation
between can and must be possible without more ado in Wittgensteins statement of the fundamental principle. The principle concerns,
then, our conceptions of the nature and possibilities of logical investigation. Thus it will also have implications for the nature and possibility of
philosophical work.
The fundamental principle seems to warn us against confusing logical
work with empirical work, that is, against dening the tasks of philosophy in a way that would fail to distinguish between the logical and empirical modes of inquiry, as if logical investigation could be conducted
like a scientic inquiry. Unlike Freges stricture against mixing empirical
or psychological observations with logical ones, Wittgensteins concern
here is with the tendency to rely on what properly belongs to the grammar of scientic investigation when attempting to describe the possibility of work in logic.
But how can the grammar of a scientic question be distinguished
from that of a logical investigation? The grammar of science involves the
concept of hypothesis, thus a space of possible options among which
something can be discovered to be the case. Moreover, the concept of a
scientic inquiry also involves the possibility of error, and hence we
have to assume the responsibility for determining the truth. Unless we
do something, take steps and make decisions, truth will not be discov-

The Grammar of Analysis


ered, but it is this task that also opens up the possibility of error. The
task of science further assumes the possibility of classication and hierarchy, the difference between the general and the specic, and all the
work demanded by this mode of thought: the problems of reclassifying,
asking how many kinds of things of a certain species there are, asking
questions about the domain of application of general laws, and having to
revise them in the light of particular cases.
Furthermore, the notion of incompleteness is inherent to the concept
of scientic inquiry, allowing one to determine a direction of research
and questioning without coming up with complete answers. We can undertake scientic work without aiming to complete science at every
step, and without fearing that this incompletion would show what we
have done to be nonscience. Issues can be left open to further work;
questions can be undecided yet statable. Every scientic question can
be answered, since the possibility of a sensical question involves laying out a space of options among which the answer can be found. But
nding the answer might require some more work. This is the gap between can and must be possible without more ado. Scientic inquiry
can pose a question which it can solve, but it cannot solve it without
more ado. Put differently, to ask a question is always to ask about alternatives in a given framework or space of possibilities. This is why there
can be an answer; this is also why it takes some doing to arrive at the
In logic no such gap can exist. As Wittgenstein puts it at the very beginning of the Tractatus: Nothing in the province of logic can be merely
possible. Logic deals with every possibility and all possibilities are its
facts (2.0121). This is why in a certain sense, we cannot make mistakes in logic (5.473). This is not a psychological remark but a grammatical one. Because logic is the condition of the possibility of facts, it is
a eld where one cannot go wrong; where there is no place for alternatives of true and false.
The various possibilities associated with the form of scientic work
are dismissed in logic:
All numbers in logic stand in need of justication.
Or rather, it must become evident that there are no numbers in logic.
There are no pre-eminent numbers. (5.453)
In logic there is no co-ordinate status, and there can be no classication.


Signs of Sense

In logic there can be no distinction between the general and the specic. (5.454)

Moreover, logic is not something we are responsible for or must take

care not to misuse. We express ourselves with logic and have the responsibility for expressing the truth, but we are not responsible for the functioning of logic. It takes care of itself. Logic does not require our assistance. Wittgenstein expresses this insight in a way that ties together our
interpretation of the fundamental idea that logical constants are not representatives with the fundamental principle concerning the possibilities
of inquiry in logic:
[L]ogic is not a eld in which we express what we wish with the help of
signs, but rather one in which the nature of the absolutely necessary
signs speaks for itself. (6.124)

To this feature logic owes its a priori character and its completeness
It is possibleindeed possible even according to the old conception
of logicto give in advance a description of all true logical propositions. (6.125)
Hence there can never be surprises in logic. (6.1251)

Wittgensteins understanding of the a-priori nature of logic implies that

there is no possibility of partial or cumulative work:
It is clear that whatever we can say in advance about the form of all
propositions, we must be able to say all at once. (5.47)

The a-priori in this sense is internally related to completeness. In logic

there is no possibility of hypothesis, projects, partial inquiries, looking,
searching, and nding. No work in logic is work unless it is complete.
Partiality is a sign that what is intended has not been captured. This is
the sense of simplicity that is associated with logic:
The solutions of the problems of logic must be simple, since they set
the standards of simplicity.
Men have always had a presentiment that there must be a realm in
which the answers to questions are symmetrically combineda priorito form a self-contained system.
A realm subject to the law: Simplex sigillum veri. (5.4541)

Such simplicity is to be understood not as the opposite of complexity

it is not the simplicity of the one as opposed to the complexity of the

The Grammar of Analysis


manybut as a sign of the essential otherness of logic. That simplicity is

eshed out by the peculiar grammar of logical work. It contains no hypothesis, no classication, no partiality; it must always be one, complete.
As I have noted, these remarks of Wittgensteins are important not so
much for dening the domain of logical propositions as for helping us
grasp the nature of logical work and its conditions. In particular they
have implications for what seems to be the very foundation of analytic
philosophy, namely, Russells statement: That all sound philosophy
should begin with an analysis of propositions is a truth too evident, perhaps, to demand a proof.5 Wittgensteins questioning of this supposed
self-evidence is expressed early on in his Notebooks. That worry has to
do with what it takes to complete an analysis, to end it, or to answer the
original questioning. For, once we distinguish grammatical and logical
form, we also require a criterion for recognizing when an analysis is
completed. This criterion, established before undertaking analysis, must
specify the nature of the objects reached at its end.6 The formal criterion
for ending an analysis is the simplicity of the component terms. But how
to decide whether something is simple?
Is a point in our visual eld a simple object, a thing? Up to now I have
always regarded such questions as the real philosophical ones: and for
sure they are in some sensebut once more what evidence could settle
a question of this sort at all? Is there not a mistake in the formulation
here, for it looks as if nothing at all were self-evident to me on this
question; it looks as if I could say denitively that these questions
could never be settled at all.7

Analysis cannot be thought of in terms of a scientic inquiry, for we

lack any criterion for determining what would satisfy us that we have
reached the correct analysis. The outcome cannot be determined in advance, but for it to be scientic we must at least be able to state in advance the kind of objects to be reached at the end. But this means that
the task of philosophy would be to specify a priori the ultimate constitu5. B. Russell, The Philosophy of Leibniz, p. 8.
6. Let some philosophical question be given: e.g. whether A is good is a subject-predicate
proposition; or whether A is brighter than B is a relational proposition. How can such a question
be settled at all? What sort of evidence can satisfy me thatfor examplethe rst question
must be answered in the afrmative? (This is an extremely important question.) Is the only evidence here once more that extremely dubious self evidence? NB, p. 3.
7. NB, p. 3.


Signs of Sense

ents of reality. For Wittgenstein this is not a question that can be resolved a priori; indeed, the attempt to resolve it a priori results in nonsense. What is analysis then? And if it is not what it seemed to be, then
what is the task of philosophy? Can there be philosophical logic?8
The Tractatus repeats emphatically that it does not make sense to ask
questions about the ultimate form of reality:
It would be completely arbitrary to give any specic form. (5.554)
It is supposed to be possible to answer a priori the question whether
I can get into a position in which I need the sign for a 27-termed relation in order to signify something. (5.5541)
But is it really legitimate to ask such a question? Can we set up a
form of sign without knowing whether anything can correspond to it?
Does it make sense to ask what there must be in order that something can be the case? (5.5542)
If I cannot say a priori what elementary propositions there are, then
the attempt to do so must lead to obvious nonsense. (5.5571)

It is at this point that Wittgensteins thinking requires the recognition of

the perfect order of everyday language.9 Objects must appear as the correlate of the sense we want to make, not as transcendental anchor points
of language as such. They are present at the surface of language, wholly
tied to the functioning of everyday language.
In attempting to grasp this relation of simple signs to simples, to objects, it is necessary to reect once more on the starting point, on the apparent independence of the realm of objects from language. The initial
move I attributed to Wittgenstein was to undermine the concept of an
object as an independent itness. The object is inherently related to the
8. In response to Ogdens suggestion that the English translation should bear the title
Philosophic Logic, Wittgenstein wrote: although Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus isnt ideal
still it has something like the right meaning, whereas Philosophic Logic is wrong. In fact I
dont know what it means! There is no such thing as philosophic logic. (Unless one says that as
the whole book is nonsense the title might as well be nonsense too.) LO, p. 20.
9. In his Notebooks Wittgenstein contrasts his philosophical method with Russells and criticizes the latter as being too close to the method of science: My method is not to sunder the
hard from the soft, but to see the hardness of the soft. It is one of the chief skills of the philosopher not to occupy himself with questions which do not concern him. Russells method in his
Scientic method in Philosophy is simply a retrogression from the methods of physics.
NB, 44.

The Grammar of Analysis


space of possibilities it can occur in. That space of possibility is the form
of the object. The apparent independence of this space of possibility
from language, which is suggested by the ontological tone of the opening of the Tractatus, is already qualied in some of Wittgensteins parenthetical remarks throughout his discussion of objects by his introducing
the linguistic parallel to the strictly ontological language. It is his discussion of picturing that reveals the fundamental identity of language and
world, when he claims that the very possibility of making sense depends
on an identity of form (the depicting form) of language and world.
The fundamental identity of language and world can be interpreted in
different ways. We may be tempted to understand it as a form of realism
according to which objects underlie the functioning of language. In this
view, language must reproduce in itself the form of those independent
objects in order to be able to function; that is, although the objects
would not be independent of states of affairs, they would have some
cluster of internal properties which would completely determine what
they are. But, most importantly, they would in a certain sense be independent of language, insofar as they could be independent of particular
uses of language.
In Wittgensteins understanding of language, however, the object is
not an entity existing entirely in itself underlying the functioning of language in general, but the correlate of a determinate act of sense-making:
The requirement that simple signs be possible is the requirement that
sense be determinate (3.23).
Wittgenstein has been criticized for failing to provide any examples of
simple objects, as though he had some kind of argument for the existence of simples but had no idea how to conduct a specic analysis and
what its outcome would be. He supposedly turns objects into mysterious entities hidden deep beneath the surface of language, maybe never
to be discovered. But his correlation of the possibility of simple signs
with the very determinacy of sense points to an opposite conclusion:
that objects are not hidden, mysterious entities but lie at the surface,
completely tied to the sense we produce. It is for this very reason that
they do not form part of the progress of the Tractatus.
Objects appear in the context of making perspicuous determinate acts
of sense-making. They are not presupposed by language in general, but
are correlates of concrete uses of language. In the Notebooks Wittgenstein makes this idea very clear: All I want is only for my meaning to


Signs of Sense

be completely analyzed; and further, The demand for simple things is

the demand for deniteness of sense.10 It is crucial to see that this
contextualization does not imply a relativism with respect to meaning. It
explains the relation of objects to specic contexts of use and in no way
involves the idea of private or incommunicable meaning.11
When sense is made at all, then something must be able to be expressed in a denite manner. This means that the possibilities involved
in this act of sense-making have been made perspicuous. This is precisely how the object is shown. Put differently, if there is sense, there is
always some complete and determinate sense. There is no indeterminate
sense. What a proposition expresses it expresses in a determinate manner, which can be set out clearly: a proposition is articulate (3.251).
This apparently obvious statement is one of the important insights of the
Tractatus. It is intimately connected with the claim that everyday language is in perfect logical order. All supposed indeterminacy and vagueness in ordinary language are the result of not recognizing the forms that
are involved in our sense-making; that is, they result from an imposition
of a standard of exactness derived from some a priori understanding of
how reality must be for language to function. Instead, Wittgenstein directs us to recognize what is completely precise in such supposed vagueness: I only want to justify the vagueness of ordinary language, for it
can be justied.12
Many arguments could be invoked to counter such a view. We could
argue, for example, that as they stand, propositions of everyday language
are essentially ambiguous. In this view, the issue is not how to bring out
10. NB, p. 63.
11. An example might illustrate the problem regarding the relation between objects and the
determination of sense. Take the proposition Wittgenstein discusses in his Notebooks, The
book is lying on the table. As an object the book has various characteristics that do not appear
in this sentence, such as a specic color or size. Now if the object is given independently of a
specic context of use, the task of analysis is to bring out the form of the object, and those dimensions must therefore be part of analysis itself. Thus although the analyzed proposition does
not make a determinate reference to the color of the book, it should specify the range of colors
(or sizes) it could have. However, the clear link between objects and determinacy of sense
means that only such dimensions that are relevant to the specic sense I am trying to make
should be brought out. To arrive at a determinate sense does not mean to add all the dimensions that seem to belong to the general concept of that kind of object; it means expressing
what is implicit in a specic attempt to make sense.
12. NB, p. 70.

The Grammar of Analysis


the sense that is implicit in them, but rather how to endow them with
determinate sense. It is our decision to take them in a particular way that
makes denite sense. However, this beliefthat ordinary language is defective, inherently vaguearises from a misunderstanding of the notion
of making sense. It is precisely Wittgensteins understanding that we
only say how things are, not what they are, that leads him to contextualize objects and to assert the determinacy of sense: Objects can only be
named. Signs are their representatives. I can only speak about them: I
cannot put them into words. Propositions can only say how things are, not
what they are (3.221).
In order to recognize that ordinary language is in perfect logical order,
that language requires no logical work, we have to maintain the distinction between showing objects and stating facts. Keeping these levels
strictly apart allows us to avoid various misleading pictures of problems
with everyday language for which logical work is required.
In general we could say that the very notion that there are logical
problems in everyday language depends on associating logic with the
constitution of objects and not merely with facts. When Wittgenstein
thinks of logic as altogether the basic condition of any sign-language,
and of such sign-language as concerned with picturing facts, he shows
that ordinary language, to the extent that it is a sign-language, is in perfect logical order. This means that any problems that may arise with regard to ordinary language are only those concerned with dispelling ambiguity of signs, and not any intrinsic problems concerning symbols.
Now we can sketch the way in which the Tractatus addresses the problem raised by the preceding reections on analysis and logical work. The
task of completing logic must be kept quite separate from the domain of
work concerned with applying logic. The question of logic has to do
with the level of the linguistic sign, whereas understanding the form of
reality derives neither from the structure of the sign nor from logic.
Logic allows us to make sense with signs; it determines the possibility of
language, but this does not mean that its forms are the forms of objects.
Hence, on the one hand, the general form of the proposition has to be
provided, that is, the logical syntax of any sign-language. On the other
hand, all questions concerning the nature of the thingsthe ontological
questionshave to be left open as inherently beyond the scope of philosophical work. In particular they are beyond the task the Tractatus set


Signs of Sense

The Tractatus, then, proposes a kind of truce: the general form of the
proposition can and must be completely characterized, but the inner relations that constitute the richness or complexity of experience, of the
world, are not something we can arrive at a priori. The uncovering of the
object constitutes a completely different dimension of thinking.
We are now in a position to assess the last of Wittgensteins three fundamental propositions cited earlier and show its intimate connection to
the other two:
In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they
stand, are in perfect logical order.That utterly simple thing, which
we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the truth
itself in its entirety.
(Our problems are not abstract, but the most concrete that there
are). (5.5563)

Indeed, if there is no possibility of work, of discovery, in analysis, if all

analysis must aim at expressing better what we already have present, and
what we always already have present is ordinary language, then ordinary
language acquires the importance of a standard. Ordinary language is
the very thing that is wholly in view, that we do not need to think of as
an object of in-depth research.
In this chapter I have elaborated the idea of what expresses itself
through language in the context of Wittgensteins understanding of the
problem of analysis. The question now arises as to how such expression
in language can be recognized. The very idea that showing is always in
relation to what is already there, to what is given, implies that we cannot
view the project of the Tractatus as constructing an ideal language. Instead, we need to acknowledge what already exists and expresses itself
in language.
Thus the task of the Tractatus emerges as the defense of the language
that is implicated in our lives and in our world, our everyday language.
This was primarily characterized as a defense against the imposition of
certain pictures of exactness. I shall now consider how everyday language is recognized in and of itself as a locus of signicance.

Signs of Sense

Making Sense and Recognizing Meaning

Making Sense and Recognizing


I ended the discussion of picturing by suggesting a distinction between

two levels in language: that of the manipulation of pictures, the activity
of thinking which determines what can be said, and a deeper identity of
form which can only be shown, and which makes it possible to depict
things at all. This distinction parallels the distinction between facts and
objects, but it can also be approached through the distinction Wittgenstein draws between sense (Sinn) and meaning (Bedeutung) in proposition 4.002.
Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense, without having any idea how each word has meaning
or what its meaning isjust as people speak without knowing how the
individual sounds are produced.
Everyday language is a part of the human organism and is no less
complicated than it.
It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from it what the
logic of language is.
Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward
form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to
reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.
The tacit conventions on which the understanding of everyday language depends are enormously complicated.

This proposition stands out from the rest of the text. It contains concepts such as the human organism that seem to belong to the repertoire
of the later Wittgenstein, anticipating his understanding of forms of life.


Signs of Sense

Moreover, these concepts are not directly elaborated elsewhere in the

Tractatus, in contrast to the very slow pace that characterizes the analysis of other terms in the text (compare the painstaking analysis of picture and sign). This difference in pace is not fortuitous. It corresponds,
in general, to the different treatment Wittgenstein accords issues such as
the nature of picturing, signs, logical constants, on the one hand, and
isolated propositions pertaining to life, death, the subject, metaphysics
and the world, on the other. When these latter, pivotal propositions are
placed within their context, they become a gathering point for our understanding of the text.
One of the most striking features of proposition 4.002 is surely the
development of an analogy between language and the body or the human organism. This analogy is complex and demands a careful reading.
It is of the utmost importance in evaluating later propositions in the
Tractatus determining the relation of the world to the limits of language
and life. Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense. Not knowing what making sense is, we may think
that there is a lot we are missing in the world, sense that cries out for expression. This feeling is not entirely mistaken, only it cannot be accounted for in terms of representation or sense. The realm of representation is adequate for every possible sense. Sense is always very much a
matter of fact, of the way things are congured.
Wittgensteins account of representation has explained why we may
be tempted to say that something is intrinsically unsayable. Our feeling
that there are things that are unsayable arises from our wish to express
objects, to capture the things themselves. For Wittgenstein, however, to
make sense is always to represent facts, never to capture objects.
I can only speak about [objects]: I cannot put them into words. Propositions can only say how things are, not what they are. (3.221)

Wittgenstein understands the essence of the proposition, of making

sense, as the general propositional form: this is how things stand. Being
able to express every sense, then, means being able to describe how
things stand, however they stand. Now how should be contrasted to
what. Making sense has to do with expressing the structure of facts, not
what the objects are, that is their form. Form is always presupposed in
saying how things stand. Making sense is always representing facts.
There is no sense that is inexpressible. But this deationary view of the
realm of sense opens the way for Wittgenstein to establish the distinc-

Making Sense and Recognizing Meaning


tion between making sense and recognizing meaning. It is at this level

that the original intuition that the world has meaningfulness beyond
what we say about it can be properly understood.
Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense, without having any idea how each word has meaning or
what its meaning isjust as people speak without knowing how the individual sounds are produced. Just as the production of sound originates in a state of the body, of its vocal strings, so the production of sense
can be said to be dependent on the body of meaning. In contrast to the
dualistic line of thinking that separates the body from meaningfulness,
Wittgenstein aims to delimit a place within language, a body of meaning. It is in this space of embodied meaningfulness that language and
world come together. Wittgensteins account of picturing can help us
identify this dimension of language as the recognition of form. Form is
where the body of language is indistinguishable from the world.
Thus body is not what is represented but what underlies the possibility of representation. I assume further that the invocation of body is to
be contrasted to what is conscious, to what we do consciously. This implies a split within language: the production of sense belongs to conscious activity, but Wittgenstein emphasizes that it goes on while we are
unaware of the conditions that enable it to occur. Wittgensteins claim
that Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense, without having any idea how each word has meaning or what its meaning is establishes a fundamental contrast between
the realm of conscious, directed activitythe capacity of human beings
to represent facts and the realm of form, which is not something that
we can construct or control. This dimension of activity was already apparent in the initial discussion of picturing.
We make to ourselves pictures of facts. (2.1)1

By calling a picture a model (2.12), Wittgenstein further emphasizes

that it is something that we construct. The thoughtfulness that has to do
with the recognition of form is to be distinguished from the thinking
that is the making of sense, that is bound to facts, to our conscious activity of representation. Recognizing form means opening another dimension of language. But what ought we to be attentive to so as to open this
dimension, and what are its implications?
1. I have chosen to rely here on Ogdens translation, which better captures the German:
Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen.


Signs of Sense

According to Wittgenstein, everyday language is the locus in which

the split in language is manifest. Everyday language is a part of the human organism and is no less complicated than it. Here he is not thinking of the human organism in the biological or anatomical sense. He
does not reduce human sense-producing activity to biological functions,
but directs us to the connection between human meaningfulness and the
concept of life or the organic. He does not conceive of language as an abstract system of conventions but rather as constitutive of the life of a
subject. The concept of life directs us to conceive of language as an activity in which an organism is related to its surroundings. Thinking of
life in relation to language means primarily that this activity is presented
here not as the work of blind instinct but rather as constituting a sphere
of meaning. In other words, the recognition of meaning is the opening
of possibilities of living for a subject.2 Viewed in its concrete application, language is inseparable from human activity. The human organism
should then be understood as the meaningful surroundings of activity
for a subject, a human world. To live in a human world is to be able to
recognize meaning, or possibilities of being, just as to act toward a human being depends, for example, on the ability to recognize expressions
of sadness, joy, pain, or boredom through their bodily expressions. The
recognition of meaning is not the discovery of an empirical connection
between a thought and a body.3 Such signicance or meaningfulness of
the body is an original phenomenon, part of what language is as such.4
Wittgenstein then establishes a connection between the concept of
2. This identication is supported by such propositions as The world and life are one
(5.621) and I am my world. (The microcosm.) (5.63). I will develop these identications of
the world and life in chapters 8 and 9.
3. In his Notebooks Wittgenstein struggles with this notion that the body expresses meaning: . . . Can I infer my spirit from my physiognomy? Isnt this relation purely empirical? Does
my body really express anything? Is it itself an internal expression of something? Is e.g. an angry face angry in itself or merely because it is empirically connected with bad temper? (NB,
p. 84). Interestingly, in the Tractatus Wittgenstein proposes an analogy between internal properties and facial features: An internal property of a fact can also be called a feature of that fact
(in the sense in which we speak of facial features, for example) (4.1221).
4. In using the term signicant I draw on the relation between the German Bedeutung with
its philosophical connotations and the more ordinary sense of signicance associated with the
term. Wittgenstein uses the latter sense, for example, in his Notebooks: Als Ding unter Dingen
ist jedes Ding gleich unbedeutend, als Welt jedes gleichbedeutend (NB, p. 83). I will return to
this claim, which ties signicance to having a world.

Making Sense and Recognizing Meaning


life or the organism and everyday language. Usually we think of the use
of everyday language as indicating an average existence, a way of taking
things merely as familiar, failing to recognize their internal constitution.
Wittgenstein points out that it is everyday language that gives us the
proper eld of application of signs and allows us to recognize meaning.
It is only in everyday language that the enormous complexity of meaning in language can be recognized. Rather than set everyday language
aside to gain the recognition of meaning, this dimension can be opened
only in everyday language, insofar as language is taken as part of the human organism. The everyday is where things can appear meaningful,
presenting possibilities for me, becoming part of my world.
We may be misled by Wittgensteins comparison of language to clothing that does not reveal the real form of the body.
Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form
of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath
it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal
the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.

However, if we follow the analogy between language and the body

throughout this proposition, we perceive that what is beneath the clothing is the enormous complexity covered by tacit understanding, namely,
meaning as it appears in the human world. Language does not immediately reveal the form of the world, but this does not mean that it is itself
out of order. We must consider language as part of the human organism,
in the life or application of those signs:
What signs fail to express, their application shows. What signs slur
over, their application says clearly. (3.262)

According to Wittgenstein, the essential feature of human language is

the split between the capacity to produce sense, given our means of expression, and the recovery of the object, the body of meaning, that can
show through our making of sense. It is not necessary to know meanings, objects, in order to produce sense. This means that the lack of
transparency in language has to do with the very nature of the distinction between the activity of representing and the recovery of its conditions. The split is a feature of human language as such: It is not humanly possible to gather immediately from [everyday language] what
the logic of language is.


Signs of Sense

It is tempting, yet in my view misguided, to read Wittgenstein as implying that the problem has to do with everyday language and would be
avoided in an ideal language. Let us recall his insistence that in fact, all
the propositions of everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect
logical order (5.5563). The problem is, rather, that this order is not immediately perspicuous. But this lack of immediacy is a feature of every
language we construct, including a so-called ideal language, namely a
language whose syntactical means of expression would be clearly displayed in the signs. Language in use, language that has a life and is not
merely an articial construct, will always manifest this gap between the
making of sense and the recovery of what constitutes our human world.
Meaning is not ours to make. Hence the level of signicant communication as such is impossible to anticipate, but can only be recovered
through what shows itself in language. Our ability to make sense is an
intrinsic part of our being in a human world, and that world is accessible
through its reection in language; it must be recognized after the fact.
The Tractatus establishes a sharp distinction between facts and objects, between what we can do when we investigate facts, make hypotheses, ask ourselves how things are, and give answers of the form this is
how things are on the one hand, and the recognition of meaning on the
other, the realization of what things are. As we have seen, Wittgenstein
stresses that it does not make sense to ask questions about the ultimate
form of reality.
It would be completely arbitrary to give any specic form. (5.554)
If I cannot say a priori what elementary propositions there are, then
the attempt to do so must lead to obvious nonsense. (5.5571)

The form of the realm of representation is what is given as logical space.

It should be kept distinct from the form of objects. Logic indeed determines the form of representation, thus the form of how things are, but it
is not constitutive of what things are.
Logic is prior to every experiencethat something is so.
It is prior to the question How?, not prior to the question What?
The application of logic decides what elementary propositions there
are. (5.557)

This does not mean that the application of logic decides which among
all possible elementary propositions are true, but rather that it gives the

Making Sense and Recognizing Meaning


constitution of elementary propositions. Elementary propositions consist of objects, and the form of objects is what spans the possibility of
our human world and any world we can humanly imagine. This means
that the grammar of reality, what determines the possibility of our world,
cannot be given a priori, once and for all, systematically and in advance
of our encounter with experience. The grammar of reality must be recognized without anything to go by but what we are willing and unwilling to say in language, in judging the world. My emphasis on recognition as constitutive of meaning therefore accords with this afrmation of
ordinary language, of what we already have, and the critique of any
metaphysical attempt at grounding meaning, reducing a priori the nature of the possible.5
Wittgenstein repeats this theme, which will become so central to his
later thinking, in Some Remarks on Logical Form:
Now we can only substitute a clear symbolism for the unprecise one by
inspecting the phenomena which we want to describe, thus trying to
understand their logical multiplicity. That is to say, we can only arrive
at a correct analysis by what might be called the logical investigation of
the phenomena themselves, i.e. in a certain sense a posteriori, and not
by conjecturing about a priori possibilities. One is often tempted to ask
from an a priori standpoint: What, after all, can be the forms of atomic
propositions, and to answer, e.g. subject, predicate, and relational
propositions with two or more terms further, perhaps propositions relating predicates and relations to one another, and so on. But this, I believe, is mere playing with words. An atomic form cannot be foreseen.
And it could be surprising if the actual phenomena had nothing more
to teach us about their structure.6

It might be helpful to distinguish Wittgensteins understanding of the

recognition of meaning from Russells conception of analysis and of objects that are the end point of such analysis. Wittgenstein would say that
analysis must lead us to elementary propositions containing names in
immediate combination. This is very different from saying that analysis
leads us to logically structured propositions containing ultimate constituents. Wittgensteins scheme gets rid of the logical scaffolding to arrive
5. Thus we see once more that the traditional complaint about the Tractatus, namely that
Wittgenstein gives no examples of simple objects, is wholly misguided. What there is, objects
forming a human world, is not within the scope of the Tractatus and the kind of work the book
6. SRLF, p. 32.


Signs of Sense

at a level of names in immediate combination, incorporating logical

structure. Logical structure, as it were, schematically marks the internal
relations between propositions which allow us to recognize the object.
Russells scheme complicates logical structure to arrive at constituents
that cannot be further broken down: the most basic building blocks put
together with the cement of logic. According to Russell, the discovery of
objects involves an ever more complex breaking down of the proposition, whereas Wittgenstein is concerned with perspicuously presenting
all propositions that can be shown to be internally connected, and by
showing that internal connection, he seeks to bring out the nature of the
object. In contrast to a Russellian metaphor of depth correlated with the
process of analysis, Wittgenstein, so to speak, forms a surface, a mirror
that shows inner connection between propositions. For Wittgenstein,
grasping meaning is always a matter of recognizing form, never a discovery that penetrates beneath the surface of language into some hidden
depth of logical structure where mysterious objects lie buried.
The thoughtfulness associated with the recognition of the body of
meaning can be elaborated by associating it with Wittgensteins use of
showing as distinct from saying. The concept of showing involves a
fundamental passivity with respect to meaning. Showing involves something that is already there, which we turn or return to; it is a realm of
presence and not a realm of activity that generates projects, anticipations, hypotheses, discoveries, hierarchies, systematization, or enumeration. Showing characterizes our access to the level of form or meaning.
Our access to the body of meaning is precisely opposed to our activity of
making sense, to our capacity to operate with pictures. It is not a representation but a laying out, or presenting, of the ligaments that hold the
body together, thus showing the form of the body.
Russells conception of analysis requires us to make various assumptions concerning the objects that are the end point of analysis. Once we
go beyond what can be recognized in the functioning of everyday language, we need criteria for determining the end point of the process of
analysis. It becomes necessary to ground language in some metaphysical
outlook. According to Wittgenstein, the showing that is characteristic
of the recognition of form is linked to the acceptance of the form of everyday language and the rejection of any a priori hypothesizing about
the ultimate structure of reality. Wittgensteins fundamental distinction
between philosophy and the form of scientic work, with its possibili-

Making Sense and Recognizing Meaning


ties of advance and discovery, also explains his distaste for Russells construction of the external world and later for Carnaps Aufbau project.
This is also the reason that thinking in terms of meta-languages does not
resolve the issues raised by Wittgensteins notion of showing (as Russell
proposes in his introduction to the Tractatus, or Carnap in his Logical
Syntax of Language). This approach completely misses Wittgensteins intention in introducing and using that term.
Showing is not intuition, in the sense of a special recognitional capacity. It does not mean that analysis comes to an end with an intuition of
what the world is really like. Rather, it is to be thought of as an acknowledgment of the conditions of saying, which means the complete presence of those conditions.
Coming into presence is the way things show.7 One can speak here of
presentness, in the sense that nothing can happen in the sphere of conditions. All happenings, all facts are determinations of the conditions
(Wittgenstein calls them congurations of objects). This sense of an everlasting present can be the basis for the visual analogy between the recognition of possibilities and showing. Showing depends on the absolute
cancellation of any hiddenness, the absence of deep structure. Conditions appear completely; there is no partial achievement or things left for
future inquiry. Now we can discern the close connection between the
nature of showing and the fundamental importance Wittgenstein attributes to everyday language:
In fact, all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they
stand, are in perfect logical order.That utterly simple thing, which
we have to formulate here, is not a likeness of the truth, but the truth
itself in its entirety. (Our problems are not abstract, but the most concrete that there are.) (5.5563)

The note of urgency in this assertion arises from the perception that
such a relation to everyday language is of concern to the subject, is related to the assumption of subjectivity.
7. I put it this way in order to form an initial connection between this discussion and
Wittgensteins sense that presentness is grace, as when he says, eternal life belongs to those
who live in the present (6.4311).

Signs of Sense

Subject and World

Subject and World

The mode in which Wittgenstein presents the discovery of what there is,
the form of objects, involves a dimension of recognition, acknowledgment, or appropriation of what is given in language. This in turn raises
the question of the relation between subject and world. What is it for the
subject to assume or avoid the limits that must be recognized in language? Is it possible to think of the subject in terms of the very movement of appropriation and avoidance? In Wittgensteins elaboration of
the possibility of claiming the world to be my world, appropriation appears as a dimension of ontology.
At the outset note a structural feature of Wittgensteins account of the
subject, which links his appearance to the recovery of what cannot be
anticipated: the form of experience. Wittgensteins account of the subject starts in 5.54, stops abruptly in 5.55 with a rather long discussion of
the relation of logic to its application, and returns to the subject in 5.6.
This insertion of matters seemingly unrelated to the question of the subject gives us in fact a crucial clue to Wittgensteins approach. The initial
discussion concerns how not to speak of the subject, that is, it shows the
nonexistence of the thinking subject. It opens with what may be considered a formulation of the general relation of representation: In the general propositional form propositions occur in other propositions only as
bases of truth-operations (5.54). The disappearance of the thinking
subject therefore seems to be closely linked to the proper understanding
of the most general form of the proposition, of what can be given in advance of experience. The reappearance of the subject, that is, the way to
speak of the subject in philosophy, follows the assertion that the specic
forms of elementary propositions cannot be given a priori. Here the re112

Subject and World


appearance of the subject is closely linked to the understanding that the

limits of experienceset by the objects or the specic forms of elementary propositionscannot be anticipated.
Wittgenstein asserts: There is no such thing as the subject that thinks
or entertains ideas (5.631); that is, there is no subject that stands in
some external relation to thoughts, ideas, or propositions. I have already
explained the basis for this statement in my interpretation of picturing.
Indeed, if thinking is the operation of making sense, then sense is not
some entity to be grasped by the thinking subject. Rather, what we could
call the thinking subject is assumed in the very notion of producing
sense. This is why Wittgenstein says that the real form of propositions in
psychology such as A believes that p or A has the thought p, which apparently involve an external relation between a subject and a sense, is
actually p says p. The thinking subject is assumed in what it is for p
to express the sense p.
We can now understand Wittgensteins assertion that Russells conception of judgment cannot explain why it is impossible to judge nonsense. If we had a proposition whose form was A judges that p, then
there would be an external relation between the simple A and the complex p, and we would be unable to explain why it is impossible for A to
stand in that external relation to, say, an object. There is nothing to explain why A must stand in that relation only to propositions. Only an internal connection between the act of thinking or judging and the constitution of the judgment is capable of explaining why a subject cannot
judge what is not sense, what is nonsense.
It is signicant that in this context Wittgenstein presents us with a
preliminary statement of the issue which will come to be known in his
later work as the seeing of aspects:
To perceive a complex means to perceive that its constituents are related to one another in such and such a way.
This no doubt also explains why there are two possible ways of seeing the gure





Signs of Sense

as a cube; and all similar phenomena. For we really see two different
facts. (5.5423)

We should resist the temptation to explain such phenomena by assuming the existence of a subject who can change his attention in relation to
a self-same object: if the object does not change, then it must be something in the subject that changes. This line of reasoning falsely assumes
an independent subject standing in relation to objects. Wittgenstein,
however, argues that what we are tempted to call seeing the same object
with different subjective attitudes is precisely seeing different facts.
What is grasped is not the object as such but relations of constituents
given a certain background of form.
The appearance of the subject, then, does not involve the usual way of
associating subjectivity and the realm of representation, but rather involves what I shall call the appropriation of the form of experience. This
is how I intend to approach the series of propositions that reintroduce
the subject as a concern for philosophy (5.65.641).
Wittgenstein writes: The limits of my language mean the limits of my
world (5.6). Note here the sudden appearance of the fundamental concepts limit and world and of the possessive pronoun my in relating
those concepts to the subject. Any interpretation of Wittgensteins understanding of the subject must consider his specic use of these concepts.
An initial elaboration of the concept of world would introduce some
idea of connectedness, of unity, of things taken as a whole. We should
distinguish this concept of totality, or world as a limited whole, from
various other ideas associated with the concept. Wittgenstein does not
use world to mean the universe, or nature as a systematic whole obeying physical laws. Such an understanding would think of the world and
limits through the form of the factual. He seeks rather to separate the
concept of world and limits from the factual, which is always capable of
being localized, of being distinguished from other possibilities in the
same space. A fact is always this as opposed to that; it is logic, with its
eithers and ors, that establishes the separability characteristic of the
realm of the factual. This is made clear by proposition 5.61:
Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.
So we cannot say in logic, The world has this in it, and this, but not
For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain

Subject and World


possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that
logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way
could it view those limits from the other side as well.
We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we
cannot say either.1

From the perspective of logic, of what can be said or represented, we

cannot express what the limits of the world are, we cannot speak of the
world as a delimited totality or as a limited whole.2
If limits are conceived in terms of sense-making, it may be tempting to
read Wittgensteins alignment of subjectivity, world, and limits as presenting a picture of epistemological solipsism. This temptation is both
elicited and defeated through the complex network of ambiguities that
governs proposition 5.62:
This remark provides the key to the problem, how much truth there
is in solipsism.
For what the solipsist means [meint] is quite correct; only it cannot
be said, but makes itself manifest.
The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of
language (of that language which alone I understand) mean [bedeuten]
the limits of my world.

At rst sight it might appear as if Wittgenstein viewed the subject as captive of his own sense-making, unable ever to break away from the veil of
representation. We would thus read him as afrming, in contrast to his
later self, the essential privacy of meaning, and we would interpret the
parenthetical remark in 5.62 as positing a language which I alone can
understand, a private language, or a private ground for language. But
this remark should also be read as the claim that it is in language alone
that I reach understanding; I understand nothing but language.3 Indeed,
Wittgenstein intends here to recast the truth of solipsism: For what the
solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself
manifest (5.62). The solipsist, as it were, means well (meinen), but in
1. I note in passing that the last sentence of proposition 5.61 bears some resemblance to
proposition 7. Although there are important differences between the formulations, their similarity testies to the importance of the moment. On this issue see my Chapter 10 below.
2. Signicantly, for Frege and Russell logic emerges as the most general science. It does not
incorporate the concept of totality.
3. See J. Hintikka, On Wittgensteins Solipsism, in Copi and Beard (eds.), Essays on Wittgensteins Tractatus, pp. 157162.


Signs of Sense

effect his way of expressing himself completely misses the mark; he fails
to mean (bedeuten) the limits of the world.
Nonetheless, Wittgensteins contrast between saying and manifestation might in itself cause a further misreading, as if there were some understanding that went beyond language and, for that reason, could never
be shared. Although Wittgenstein indeed recognizes a certain truth to
solipsism, a sense of isolation tied to the advent of subjectivity, this must
be understood in terms of a dimension of being in language. How, then,
can we avoid the aporia formed by the impossibility of saying the limits
of language and the need to avoid positing an understanding beyond
language? What are the limits of language?
It is crucial to note that Wittgenstein speaks of the limits of language
as meaning (bedeuten) the limits of the world. This is precisely the reverse of the solipsistic predicament, which turns representation into a
screen veiling our access to the real. Our interpretation of Wittgensteins
differentiation of sense and meaning must be brought to bear on the understanding of limits in language. Limits are recognized in the realm of
meaning, where language and objects are brought together rather than
separated. The body of meaning emerges at the limits, manifesting the
shared origin of subject and world.
Wittgensteins concept of limit cannot be understood in terms of the
representation of the world. From the point of view of representation
there is no limit whatsoever. This is the point of Wittgensteins analogy
between the visual eld and the eld of experience as such.
Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found?
You will say that this is exactly like the case of the eye and the visual
eld. But really you do not see the eye.
And nothing in the visual eld allows you to infer that it is seen by an
eye. (5.633)
For the form of the visual eld is surely not like this



Subject and World


This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is at

the same time a priori.
Whatever we see could be other than it is.
Whatever we can describe at all could be other than it is.
There is no a priori order of things. (5.634)

Picture and sight are indeed made for each other. One of the consequences of Wittgensteins account of representation was the claim that
no proposition is a priori. An a priori proposition would be a limit proposition, for it would give a denite and necessary form to the possibility
of experience. There is no a priori picture, just as there is no limit to the
visual eld. Hence the impossibility of locating the subject in the world
is not merely the impossibility of recognizing an object in space and
time that is a genuine subject. More importantly, it is the impossibility of
representing limits to the world, that is, of having a complete and systematic account of its form.
Traditionally, since Kant at least, the unity of the subject has been correlated with the unity of the object of experience. Wittgensteins account
makes the realm of objects intrinsically impossible to anticipate systematically. The subject cannot be given in advance, once and for all, by being correlated with a necessary unity of the manifold of experience. Insofar as we have a concept of limit that is derived from the discovery
of objects, these limits will be given as it were a posteriori, or rather,
through the temporality proper to the recovery of meaning. Wittgenstein proposes, then, a concept of limit understood in relation to meaning, associated with the form of objects rather than the logic of facts. The
limit is what brings out a thing in its essential possibilities of being. Such
a concept of limit does not divide a space into two sides as negation
does, but opens the space in which a thing is.
But if the essence of a thing cannot be determined a priori as a necessary structure of experience, what can determine the limit? What makes
us recognize what something is? We can now understand why Wittgenstein introduces the concept of limit in relation to world rather than to
facts or objects, for it is the belonging of the thing to a world that determines the limit. In his Notebooks Wittgenstein writes:
As a thing among things, each thing is equally insignicant; as a world
each one equally signicant.
If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all
you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this rep-


Signs of Sense

resents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many
things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my
world, and everything else colorless by contrast with it.4

Here Wittgenstein suggests that what we might tend to call a small part
of the worldif we think of the world as the totality of facts, say from
the perspective of the opening of the Tractatuscan, when invested
with signicance, be properly called a world in itself. Wittgenstein also
notes that such signicance might appear from the outside, from the
perspective of facts, completely worthless, trivial. The force of a world
cannot be experienced from outside. It is all but dismissable. This insight also points to the difculty of assessing philosophically the place of
such a concept as world, for the very experience of worldhood is liable
to be missed. A certain perspective on things may leave it behind, as the
opening word of a book, or push it indenitely ahead, to its closing
Moreover, Wittgenstein thinks of a thing such as a stove as something
that is capable of gathering a world around it. The thing in itself bears an
afnity to the world; or, more precisely, the essential form of the thing
appears when it is placed in its world, as a signicant appearance compared with which everything else seems colorless. Most importantly, this
example, by associating world with signicance, shows that the possibility of world depends on the involvement of a subject. It can be said that
the concept of world belongs to a unied structure which places a subject in relation to a world. The central notion is that of being in the
world, of which the concept of world partakes. Understanding the subject in terms of being in the world or being in language might be called
an existential understanding of subjectivity.
What are the essential dimensions of an existential analysis of world
and subject? For Wittgenstein this belonging of subject to world is manifested by the possessive pronoun, the world is my world. Appropriation
is the central determination of existence, and it is expressed in the claim
the world is my world as it appears in 5.641, the last in the series of
propositions concerned with the subject.5
4. NB, p. 83.
5. Schopenhauer opens The World as Will and Representation with the claim: The world is
my representation; this is a truth valid with reference to every living and knowing being (vol.
1, p. 3), and adds further that there is another truth which must be very serious and grave if
not terrible to everyone, . . . that a man also can say and must say: The world is my will (ibid.,

Subject and World


Thus there really is a sense in which philosophy can talk about the
self in a non-psychological way.
What brings the self into philosophy is the fact that the world is my
The philosophical self is not the human being, not the human body,
or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the worldnot a part of it. (5.641)

I detect here a sense of relief or even astonishment in rediscovering the

self after it was seemingly cast out of the realm of representation: there
really is a sense in which philosophy can talk about the self. The surprise here is also related to the fact that this understanding is eeting; it
disappears and reappears, as it were. Because of its very structure it must
always disappear and be recovered, or appear through the recovery of
A second point of interest is that Wittgenstein uses the term Rede to
describe how philosophy speaks of the self. This act of speech, I take it,
is to be distinguished from the making of sense. Philosophy has a say
that is of concern to the self. Moreover, what brings the self into philosophy need not be interpreted as meaning that philosophy is about the
self, that the self is its topic in a propositional sense, but rather suggests that the self is brought into the orbit of philosophizing. Hence we
should give due attention to the question of the form of expression necessary to philosophy when the self is its concern. In particular, this issue
should be kept in mind when reading the end of the Tractatus.6
Perhaps the most signicant point in this proposition is that Wittgenstein speaks here of the self, the I, the rst person.7 This is a point that is
easy to miss, and it is not unrelated to the likelihood of missing the signicance of world for Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is not speaking of a
subject in general but of how I assume meaning in language.8 What is at
p. 4). Wittgensteins assertion that The world is my world (5.641) gives the impression that
he both associates himself with and distinguishes himself from Schopenhauer. The association
is in the very statement about the world as my world, the dissociation in collapsing both
claims onto one.
6. What brings the self into philosophy can also be read as the claim that one can philosophize with the self, bring oneself to philosophy. Those issues will be taken up in my interpretation of the appearance of the self (the author) at the end of the Tractatus (6.54).
7. This is brought out in Ogdens translation, which simply gives I for the German Ich.
8. We can now come closer to understanding Wittgensteins statement in the Preface, in
which he addresses the book to the one person who would get pleasure from reading it with
understanding. That there is one person every time is a logical, and not a psychological, point.


Signs of Sense

stake is not merely the appearance of an abstract transcendental subject,

but a connection between the metaphysical subject and the concrete
problem of saying I, of taking language upon oneself. This idea establishes a contrast between an abstract, objectivized understanding of the
sphere of the possible, and the formation of possibility in relation to my
life. The pronoun my is thus crucial in marking the fact that the range
of possibilities always depends on the concrete use I make of language. Possibilities are always possibilities of existence for a subject. The
subject cannot be given apart from my acknowledgment and denial of
what there is. The subject is always given as an I, acknowledgment is
always in the rst person. This sense of individuation is how the truth of
solipsism manifests itself.9
In the realm of representation possibilities exist independently of the
involvement of a subject. It is only by opening the gap between representation and meaning that a thematics of appropriation can be developed: that one can be said to own experience and not merely to be surrounded by facts. Only in the sphere of meaning can the rst person be
introduced as the possibility of assuming that world, or of falling out of
attunement with it.
I am my world means, then, that I nd meaning in the world, meaning not determined by my active mastery of sense. The question who
am I? must be answered by way of the question what is there? or,
more precisely, by my capacity to assume or avoid such meaningfulness.10 As Wittgenstein writes in his Notebooks: I have to judge the
9. This interpretation makes sense of certain remarks in the Notebooks, such as: There really is only one world soul, which I for preference call my soul and as which alone I conceive
what I call the souls of others (NB, p. 49). Indeed, I appear through the way in which I relate
to the intelligence of language, call it the world soul.
10. It should be clear that although such a conception of the body of meaning derives from
Schopenhauers understanding of the world as will, it does not give the same primacy to my
body as he does. Indeed, for Wittgenstein there is no privileged position to my body, but only to
the body of meaning in language. Proposition 5.631 can be seen as a direct critique of Schopenhauer: If I wrote a book called The World as I Found It, I should have to include a report on my
body, and should have to say which parts were subordinated to my will, and which were not,
etc., this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important
sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book (5.631). This can be
read as isolating the subject by identifying it with the parts of my body which obey my will. I
think, however, that Wittgensteins point here is that if I came to the world from somewhere
outside it, I would have to include in my report of the world the phenomenon that parts of my

Subject and World


world, to measure things.11 This presents a concept of experience and

its limits which is bound up with the advent of the subject. Experience is
judgmental by its very nature, that is, it requires a subjects involvement
to make it manifest, and that subject is to be thought of as exercising
judgment (not as being determined by pre-existing sense). Judgment
must be taken in the most radical way. The emphasis is on the need for
an encounter to create experience (whereas mere facts need no recognition).
That appropriation is involved in having a world implies that there is
always the possibility of loss. Loss of world is itself a dimension of the
world as well as of the subject. As always in the Tractatus, this possibility
should not be elaborated psychologically but as a dimension proper to
language, to the subject that inhabits language. Where is that dimension manifested in the clearest way? What is the symptom in language
that allows us to recognize such negativity and its signicance in the
fullest way? Logical negation, which always produces a division of reality into two sides, cannot provide the required understanding of the
relation of limit and negativity. But what is negativity beyond logical
Wittgenstein raises this issue of limits and negativity in the preface of
the Tractatus:
Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather
not to thought but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able
to draw a limit to thought, we should have to nd both sides of the
limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be
It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be drawn, and
what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be non-sense.

What is particularly signicant in this statement is the claim that both

sense and nonsense belong to language. It could be argued that when
Wittgenstein speaks of nonsense as belonging to language, he uses a thin
conception of language associated merely with the presence of linguistic signs arranged according to supercially correct syntax. Were we to
body obey my will. But this would make them part of the report and not matters of special signicance. From that vantage point my body will nd its place among things, and this would
therefore show that in an important sense there is no subject.
11. NB, p. 82.


Signs of Sense

take the full-blown view of language as signs that express a sense, then
clearly nonsense would not be part of language. This is undeniable, it is
even tautological. Clearly nonsense is not some kind of content of language. But this is not to say that the empty manipulation of signs is not
related to the level of sense. This issue is analogous to Wittgensteins
statement that tautologies and contradictions belong to language, for
they also constitute a case where the syntax allows for constructions that
defeat their own attempt to make sense and result in senselessness. In
the case of nonsense, we might say that the very demand made on you
by signicant communication is connected internally with the possibility of nonsense.

Signs of Sense

Ethics in Language

Ethics in Language

I have claimed that the motto of Wittgensteins Tractatus. . . and

whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that
he has heard, can be said in three wordsis intended to convey the
innite difculty of expressing the ethical point of the book. The innite
difculty of expression is the other side of the utter simplicity of the
truth it aims to convey. Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, but
a sign of otherness or transcendence. This means that the truth to be expressed is of the order of a revelation, or at least concerns the way a religious understanding of revelation translates into the order of language.
Monk reports that Wittgenstein considered for the motto of his Philosophical Investigations one such utterly simple truth: Bishop Butlers
Everything is what it is and not another thing.1 This statement is already quoted in the Notebooks and can serve to introduce us to the ethical point of the Tractatus, for we encounter a transcribed version of it in
the propositions concerned with the issue of value.2 After opening his
elaboration of that issue with the statement that All propositions are of
equal value (6.4), Wittgenstein writes:
The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no
value existsand if it did exist, it would have no value.
If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the
1. R. Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, p. 451.
2. NB, p. 84.



Signs of Sense

whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and
is the case is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it
did it would itself be accidental.
It must lie outside the world. (6.41)

There is something odd about the writing here; it sounds empty and
repetitive. Not only is the claim everything is as it is, and everything
happens as it does happen empty, tautological, but it is followed by an
implied wish to deny, despite all, this tautology: in it no value exists
and if it did exist, it would have no value. We may interpret the writing
as recreating the urge to nd, in fact, absolute signicance, combined
with the sense of the utter futility of such a quest. The writing expresses
the feeling that even if we were to receive what we wished for, it would
turn out to be something that would fail to satisfy our original desire. It
is as if, precisely at the limit where what one says is empty and tautological, the dissonant urge itself came to the fore, beyond content. What is it
that makes our desire so out of joint with its aim? What is the real source
of this problematic condition of desire?
Ethics is transcendental (6.421). Ethics is essentially concerned
with what is higher. If something had value, it would stand out, be signicant in itself. Value is the transcendence beyond the level of the
equal, which is why Wittgenstein starts from the claim: All propositions are of equal value (6.4). As is now clear, this means that they are
equally valueless, or valueless because equal, and indeed follows from
the understanding that a proposition always exists as one amongst many
possibilities in the same space. It is always contingent, that is, it represents a fact against the background of equally possible alternatives. It
cannot therefore be intrinsically higher or signicant. It is impossible to
state something that is nonaccidental: So too it is impossible for there
to be propositions of ethics. Propositions can express nothing that is
higher (6.42).
One could therefore say that when something is of value, it presents
itself to be other, or higher, than it is in fact. This is why Bishop Butlers
statement expresses a fundamental tension for ethics: how in a world
governed by such a principle is ethics possible at all? This question is
surely applicable to the world called forth at the opening of the Tractatus, the world that is the totality of facts. That the very possibility of
questioning the starting point arises here indicates that the ethical mo-

Ethics in Language


ment will involve a profound shift of perspective. It pregures the end of

the book, when all that has been said will be revoked.
Wittgenstein contrasts the ethical with what can be said, but this does
not mean that ethics is not manifested in and through language, or that
there is no condition of language that manifests the ethical, but simply
that no propositional content could express it. The making of sense that
is described in the activity of picturing has nothing to do with transcendence. Yet Wittgenstein does relate the question of transcendence to the
question of sense, as when he writes, To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning (Sinn) of life.3 So what is that
sense that cannot be given a propositional content?
In the Introduction I mentioned that in A Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein illustrates this condition of the valuelesness of facts by means
of the gure of an omniscient being who writes a book containing a
complete description of the world:
What I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we
would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply
such a judgment . . . all the facts described would, as it were, stand on
the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same
level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial. Now perhaps some of you will agree to that
and be reminded of Hamlets words: Nothing is either good or bad,
but thinking makes it so. But this again could lead to a misunderstanding. What Hamlet says seems to imply that good and bad, though
not qualities of the world outside us, are attributes to our states of
mind. But what I mean is that a state of mind, so far as we mean by that
a fact which we can describe, is in no ethical sense good or bad. If for
instance in our world book we read the description of a murder with
all its details physical and psychological, the mere description of these
facts will contain nothing which we could call an ethical proposition.
The murder will be on exactly the same level as any other event, for instance the falling of a stone. Certainly the reading of this description
might cause us pain or rage or any other emotion, or we might read
about the pain or rage caused by this murder in other people when
they heard of it, but there will simply be facts, facts and facts but no
3. NB, p. 74.
4. LE, pp. 67.


Signs of Sense

My rst reason for quoting this passage at length is to counter from the
outset the argument that Wittgenstein establishes a distinction, so popular among his logical-positivist followers, between factual statements
and the expression of emotions, and views the latter as constituting the
actual essence of ethical statements.5 Emotional states, insofar as they
are described as psychological states of mind, exist exactly at the same
level as facts in the external world. This does not mean that the ethical
does not have an affective dimension; indeed, I will show that affects are
essential to it. But such affects cannot be separated from the dimensions
of language as such. They are tied to the assumption of the limits of language, to our being in language.
Secondly, the great book of facts, as I called it, reveals the contrast between the perspective of facts and the mode in which we exist in a meaningful environmentin a world. Meaningfulness is a dimension of our
very existence in language, not something external to it. It is not a subjective or psychological phenomenon. My interpretation of Wittgensteins account of meaningfulness is intended to provide a way of thinking about the signicance of things apart from propositional content,
that is, apart from the factuality of what can be said. Such signicance
should not be thought of in terms of the miraculous, the outstanding,
or the extraordinary. The miraculous is an event that in itself has absolute signicance, that stands absolutely higher than anything else. Signicance, for Wittgenstein, is ordinary experience presenting a face of
meaningfulness. As a thing among things, each thing is equally insignicant, as a world, each one equally signicant.6 This statement implies that a certain sense of equality appears in a condition of signicance as well as insignicance. The equality of insignicance is of the
one amongst the many; the equality of signicance is of that which
forms a whole, a world. Signicance is correlative with the concept of
world. Hence there is no thing that is signicant amongst a plurality of
insignicant things. Whereas the sensicality of a proposition is always a
matter of fact, signicance makes a world of difference. It is not one part
5. The supposititious sentences of metaphysics, of the philosophy of values, of ethics (in
so far as it is treated as a normative discipline and not as a psycho-sociological investigation of
facts) are pseudo-sentences; they have no logical content, but are only expressions of feeling
which in turn stimulate feelings and volitional tendencies on the part of the hearer. R. Carnap,
The Logical Syntax of Language, p. 278.
6. NB, p. 83.

Ethics in Language


of the world that has of itself absolute value in itself or is the ground
for signicance as such. It is, rather, the world as a whole that is illumined with signicance, that waxes and wanes for us. That kind of signicance, associated with having a world, is never partial, which is why
it seems at times so remote, so inaccessible.
This account of the fundamental dimension of value relates to the account of the subject I have so far elaborated. The subject is associated
with the assuming of possibilities. It is not to be identied with some object in the world, but always with possibilities of existence revealed in
language. This does not mean that to be a subject is only to be an authentic subject who has assumed the limits of language, but rather, that
to be a subject is essentially to assume ones utmost possibilities or to
avoid them; the subject is essentially happy or unhappy.7
While the acknowledgment of meaning is the fundamental normative
dimension of existence, the fundamental relation to value, it still needs
to be related to our understanding of morality, in particular to concepts
such as action, will, law, reward, and punishment. Wittgenstein offers an
elaboration of such relations at 6.422:
When an ethical law of the form, Thou shalt . . ., is laid down, ones
rst thought is, And what if I do not do it? It is clear, however, that
ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the usual
sense of the terms. So our question about the consequences of an action
must be unimportant.At least those consequences should not be
events. For there must be something right about the question we
posed. There must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and ethical
punishment, but they must reside in the action itself.
(And it is also clear that the reward must be something pleasant and
the punishment something unpleasant.) (6.422)

This proposition relates to various traditional positions in ethics. It

clearly rejects any simple consequentialist position that would understand the rightness of an act in terms of the goodness of its consequences. To understand the ethical will in terms of consequences re7. This association of the subject with the appropriation or avoidance of possibilities of existence shows the afnity between Wittgensteins and Heideggers thinking. The latter writes:
In being-ahead-of-oneself as the being toward ones ownmost potentiality-of-being lies the existential and ontological condition of the possibility of being free for authentic existentiell possibilities. It is the potentiality-for-being for the sake of which Dasein always is as it factically is.
Being and Time, p. 180.


Signs of Sense

quires a logical connection between the ethical will and what it can
effect in the world. Wittgenstein emphatically denies such a connection
to events or facts:
The world is independent of my will. (6.373)
Even if all that we wish for were to happen, still this would only be a
favor granted by fate, so to speak: for there is no logical connection between the will and the world, which would guarantee it, and the supposed physical connection itself is surely not something that we could
will. (6.374)

We could view the will as a kind of psychological cause and thus calculate its effects as part of a general law, but this would be of no interest to
It is impossible to speak about the will insofar as it is the subject of
ethical attributes.
And the will as a phenomenon is of interest only to psychology.

This approach, which denies any necessary connection between the will
and what it effects in the world and sees the will as nding reward in the
very action rather than its consequences, may tempt us to read Wittgensteins ethics as Kantian in its outlines, as grounding the ethical in the
power of an unconditional law of self-determination. But this reading
seems doubtful, if only because the very concept of an unconditional
law is problematic for Wittgenstein, as shown by his understanding of
the necessity of logic and its relation to the concept of law.
Wittgenstein stresses that Just as the only necessity that exists is logical necessity, so too the only impossibility that exists is logical impossibility (6.375). Given his view of the nature of logic, this means that all
necessity is conditional, that is, it derives from the very structure of the
realm of representation. There is no contentful necessity; all necessity
derives from the recognition of structural relations in the sphere of representation:
The propositions of logic describe the scaffolding of the world, or
rather they represent it. They have no subject-matter. They presuppose that names have meaning and elementary propositions sense; and
that is their connection with the world. It is clear that something about

Ethics in Language


the world must be indicated by the fact that certain combinations of

symbolswhose essence involves the possession of a determinate
characterare tautologies. This contains the decisive point. We have
said that some things are arbitrary in the symbols that we use and that
some things are not. In logic it is only the latter that express: but that
means that logic is not a eld in which we express what we wish with
the help of signs, but rather one in which the nature of the absolutely
necessary signs speaks for itself. If we know the logical syntax of any
sign-language, then we have already been given all the propositions of
logic. (6.124)

Necessity, then, must be reduced to an understanding of how the nature

of the absolutely necessary signs speaks for itself. But this necessity does
not lie in things. Logic, for Wittgenstein, is not a ground.8 In denying
that there are logical laws, Wittgenstein is claiming that logical necessity
is always conditional. Conditionality means here that the necessary relations between propositions derive from the form of our means of representing reality. One could argue that since these are the only means of
representation we have, there is no sense in saying that necessity is conditioned by our modes of representation. But I would reply that the
Tractatus aims to turn us to the recognition of meaning in the object
apart from the form imposed on facts by our means of representation.
8. It is fruitful in this connection to think of Wittgensteins understanding of logic in relation to Schopenhauers treatment of the principle of sufcient reason as expressed in the following statement: The principle of sufcient reason in all its forms is the sole principle and
sole support of all necessity. For necessity has no true and clear meaning except that of the inevitability of the consequent with the positing of the ground. Accordingly, every necessity is
conditioned; absolute or unconditioned necessity is therefore a contradictio in adjecto. For to be
necessary can never mean anything but to follow from a given ground. On the Fourfold Root of
the Principle of Sufcient Reason, p. 225. On the surface, Wittgenstein disagrees with this assessment when he claims: Just as the only necessity that exists is logical necessity, so too the only
impossibility that exists is logical impossibility (6.375). The principle of sufcient reason itself seems to be relegated to a secondary status: Laws like the principle of sufcient reason,
etc. are about the net and not about what the net describes (6.35). But I think that we can go
beyond this apparent disagreement. Wittgenstein might indeed think of the principle of sufcient reason as having no privileged status when he thinks of it, say, as the principle that there
is causality in nature. But at a deeper level there is a clear parallel between his understanding of
logic and Schopenhauers claim that all necessity is only conditional necessity. Indeed, for
Schopenhauer the principle of sufcient reason is the determining principle of the very realm
of representation. In that sense it functions precisely in the way that logic does for Wittgenstein.


Signs of Sense

This in no way means going beyond language, but recognizing through

language the forms of the objects that constitute our world.
In Chapter 1, in my account of the opening intuition of the Tractatus,
I claimed that one can be turned to the world apart from logic. That intuition has gone through many renements, in particular by identifying
logic with the form of our representation of the world, the form of our
making sense. But as I have argued, we can also recognize, through our
making sense, a meaning that is not ours to make, that is not structured
by our modes of representation. It is in that sense that logic must not be
thought of as a ground; its necessity does not determine the form of
what there is.
Insofar as logic is the condition for making sense, it can be called transcendental (6.13). But logic is not itself a contentful ground or foundation. Logic is what makes thinking in terms of grounds possible at all.
Thinking in terms of grounds means thinking as it is tied to justication,
to the very idea of lawfulness. The scope of the logical thus includes
all that is lawful: The exploration of logic means the exploration of everything that is subject to law. And outside logic everything is accidental (6.3).
Wittgenstein elaborates this understanding of necessity by considering the proper way to explain the necessity that is deemed to characterize science.
We do not have an a priori belief in a law of conservation, but rather
a priori knowledge of the possibility of a logical form. (6.33)
All such propositions, including the principle of sufcient reason,
the laws of continuity in nature and of least effort in nature, etc. etc.
all these are a priori insights about the forms in which the propositions
of science can be cast. (6.34)
Mechanics is an attempt to construct according to a single plan all
the true propositions that we need for the description of the world.

Wittgenstein emphasizes that confusion can arise from treating such

insights into forms of descriptions (which we choose) as providing substantive explanations for the necessity of our worlds being what it is.
This illusion is typical of what Wittgenstein calls the modern conception
of the world:

Ethics in Language


The whole modern conception of the world is founded (zugrunde)

on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of
natural phenomena. (6.371)
Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages.
And in fact both are right and both are wrong: Though the view of
the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledged
terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything
were explained. (6.372)

Challenging the modern conception of the world opens us up to the

world beyond justication and ground. Nonetheless, despite his criticism of the modern world view, Wittgenstein claims that in a certain
sense both the ancient and the modern views are right. The latter is
wrong in the assumption that everything demands a ground and has a
ground in the laws of nature, but it is right insofar as it does not posit
anything beyond these laws that may serve as a further, deeper ground.
There is no ground beyond science, but there is a possibility of apprehending the world apart from thinking in terms of grounds, thus beyond
logic and the conditions of lawfulness. There is a possibility of relating
to experience beyond lawfulness, to open to it in another way.
We can now see how problematic it would be to attribute to Wittgenstein a Kantian conception of ethics. For Kants categorical imperative
expresses a connection between law and the unconditioned, whereas
Wittgenstein denies the very meaningfulness of the concept of unconditional law. We are, then, faced with a peculiar problem. Wittgenstein rejects any empirical or psychological underpinning of ethics. He insists
on retaining the absoluteness or transcendence associated with the ethical. But he also rejects the idea of a categorical imperative, at least in the
sense of a law from which one can derive all ethical obligations. To clarify his position we must try to elaborate further the position of the ethical subject with respect to language.
Wittgensteins account aims in the rst place at shifting the position of
the ethical will with respect to representation. In general, our conception of willing depends on the priority of representation, rst laying out
possibilities and then determining oneself to act through the choice of
one such possibility. Wittgensteins challenge to the conception of the
thinking subject will also involve a drastic repudiation of any view of the
willing subject that depends on the priority of representationand, in


Signs of Sense

particular, of the conception of the will as a capacity to choose a course

of action after representing to itself a range of possibilitiesand the associated view of free will as liberum arbitrium indiferentiae.9
Wittgenstein denies that the freedom of the will is to be thought of as
a possibility of determining oneself to choose one way rather than another. The future is essentially unknown:
We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present.
Superstition is nothing but the belief in the causal nexus. (5.1361)
The freedom of the will consists in the impossibility of knowing actions that still lie in the future. We could know them only if causality
were an inner necessity like that of logical inference. (5.1362)

Wittgenstein does not say that the freedom of the will is an illusion that
derives from our lack of knowledge of the future. Since the future is not
in the space of possible knowledge for us, it is not the object of justied
choice. But this does not mean that he is advocating causal determinism;
indeed, he identies the belief in a causal determination with superstition. Moreover, by claiming that future actions are essentially unknown,
he is not expressing skepticism concerning the laws of nature. He acknowledges the regularity expressed by a law of nature. Yet there is a further dimension of our relation to the world, and it is in its light that we
must think of the freedom of the will. From that perspective, what lies in
the future is meaning insofar as I have to take it upon myself. The problem of knowledge about the future lies in the radical independence of
that sphere of meaning. Thus the problem of the ethical will lies in the
necessity of appropriating meaning, of judging, of making the world
Wittgenstein addresses the problem of the independence of future
9. For Schopenhauer the realization of the ethical dimension requires going beyond the
sphere of representation. The problematic understanding of willing is that which is subordinated to representation. Schopenhauer links the issue of representation and the incorrect
conception of will as follows: The maintenance of an empirical freedom of will, a liberum
arbitrium indifferentiae, is very closely connected with the assertion that places mans inner nature in a soul that is originally a knowing, indeed really an abstract thinking entity, and only in
consequence thereof a willing entity (The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, p. 292); and
further, the decision of ones own will is undetermined only for the spectator, ones own intellect, and therefore only relatively and subjectively, namely for the subject of knowing. Ibid.,
p. 291.

Ethics in Language


events in the context of asserting the independence of elementary propositions. What is at stake is entering into an order of signicance closed
upon itself.10 Exercising the ethical will involves entering into a world.
Only insofar as the future is not in a space of knowledge is it possible to
speak of the assumption of meaning, the entry into a sphere of signicance. Willing is conceived through the very entering into a space of
signicance that structures ones deeds. The opening of possibilities of
being is the fundamental act of will; it is the basis of all normativity and
of actions undertaken in that sphere of meaning. One might say, then,
that the primary ethical dimension has to do with inhabiting language,
with acknowledging its conditions, with opening the space for action.
The fundamental ethical act is the act of assuming signicance, the
manifestation of the subject through the sphere of signicance, its possibilities and its demands. The correlate of that act, in respect of the subject, is the world rather than a particular fact in the world.
If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can
only alter the limits of the world, not the factsnot what can be expressed by means of language.
In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different
world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.
The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man. (6.43)

From the perspective of the opening of the Tractatus, in which the world
is characterized as the totality of facts, it is hard to see how the limits of
the world could be altered without altering the facts. But here we must
shift away from that picture of our relation to the world. The exercise of
the will (not necessarily what we would think of as any specic act of
will) coincides with the complete alteration of the world involved in entering a sphere of meaningfulness, and Wittgenstein also associates this
alteration with an affective change. This affective dimension must be un10. In thinking of the ethical in terms of the assumption of signicance or meaning, it is
imperative not to revert to a contemplative understanding of meaningfulness. As I emphasized,
the assumption of meaning has to be considered at the level of language as part of the human
organism, that is, as a sphere of action and life. There is no prior understanding of the structure
of language followed by a decision to act upon such a representation. This order of things
would necessarily assume that a representation of a purpose or a content is prior to the act of
willing; it would make the act of willing something sayable. This problematic model of the will
can only be avoided if meaning appears in coordination with action.


Signs of Sense

derstood in relation to the existence of the subject in language, or in the

world, rather than psychologically. It is in this light that I understand
Wittgensteins parenthetical remark Ethics and aesthetics are one and
the same (6.421). I do not think that Wittgenstein recommends an aesthetic detachment as a true ethical standpoint; rather, he claims that the
source or origin of those realms is one. Indeed, he does not say that ethics and aesthetics are identical but speaks of them as being one (sind
Eins). Their common source can be understood by adding language to
them. Affects can have a fundamental place in ethics if we understand
their internal connection to such concepts as language, subject, and
world. The feeling Wittgenstein speaks of, that of the happy man and his
happy world, is the feeling that accompanies the accession to meaning.
It is not a phenomenon distinct from language but an affect pertaining to
being in language. In the early version of 6.43, in Wittgensteins Notebooks, this relation between feeling, world, and sense is very clear: The
world must so to speak wax and wane as a whole. As if by accession or
loss of sense [Sinnes].11 The appearance of affect is crucial to the earlier
discussion of the reward associated with the ethical act, for such pleasure can be spoken of as pertaining to the ethical only if it is associated
with being in a meaningful world. This pleasure is not in any sense the
kind that derives from the satisfaction of desire by some state of affairs
or other.
I want to call this affect a mood because of its association with the
world rather than with any particular thing. A mood is different from
what we ordinarily call a feeling. It is not reducible to a psychological
event taking place inside an individual, a subjective state. Nor is it necessarily attached to the causal inuence of a particular thing. A mood
can come from nowhere in particular, can pervade the world. It is not a
lter through which we color the world, but rather something that invades us.
Hence Wittgensteins assertion that the world of the happy man is a
happy world challenges our ordinary way of thinking about feeling. The
mood is correlative to the world as such. It reveals the subjects intimacy
with the world, or the emergence of the subject from the world. The possibility of moods is the possibility of claiming I am my world. Being attuned to the emergence of meaning can thus be described as the condition in which the world puts us in a happy mood.
11. NB, p. 73, my emphasis.

Ethics in Language


The alteration of the world and the affective dimension associated

with the assumption of limits must be distinguished from another experience, which Wittgenstein calls the world coming to an end. Those are
not independent matters but are internally related. One could think of
the relation between the meaningful appearance of a world and the
world coming to an end as two sides of the limit. This requires an explanation. I have claimed that conceiving of the limit through the object allows us to avoid the difculty posed by formulating the limit by means
of an assertion, something that falls within the province of logic. Since
any such formulation will have a negation that is sensical and therefore
possible, it could not function as a genuine limit. The negation would lie
on the other side of the limit, where there can be nothing. The form of
the object, on the other hand, includes all possibilities, and can thus
provide a limit that truly determines what there is without positing
something beyond it.
Yet we must not assume that because there is nothing on the other
side of the limitbecause the limit is, as it were, one-sidedthat nothingness has no power over our relation to what there is. It is precisely for
the purpose of elaborating the force of that negativity or nothingness
that Wittgenstein introduces the notion of the coming to an end of the
world.12 In order to begin with the elaboration of this other experience,
or this other face of experience, of the absolute limit of the possible,
Wittgenstein provides a parallel with the limit of life: death.
So too at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.
Death is not an event in life; we do not live to experience death.
If we take eternity to mean not innite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.
Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual eld has no
limits. (6.4311)

Just as Wittgensteins earlier claim that The world and life are one established the connection between language and life, so too his thinking
about mortality concerns dimensions that pertain to language.
12. This formulation is intended to evoke the famous encounter between Carnap and
Heidegger concerning the force of the nothing, or whether it means anything to assert that the
nothing nothings. Later on I suggest what position Wittgenstein might have taken in this encounter by considering his remark on Heidegger in his discussions with members of the Vienna


Signs of Sense

In what sense does the nature of our relation to the absolute limit as
such, to death, determine our relation to what there is? Is that relation
itself formative of life, of experience? If we read Wittgensteins assertion
that death is not an event in life to mean that there is no sense in speaking of the relation to death as structuring the events of life, then death
would be wholly external to life.
But suppose Wittgenstein wants to explain the limit of that totality
which is the world by reference to my relation to my death. I have
claimed earlier that the notion of world is tied essentially to the way in
which a subject is made manifest by appropriating meaning. Such appropriation of meaning is an existential determination tying subject and
world. Thus the notion of world cannot be understood as a contentful
concept. On the basis of the analogy between our relation to life as a
whole and our relation to the world as a whole, we should then say that
there is no concept of completeness or human ourishing or virtue that
determines the proper relation to life as a whole. Or to put it differently,
death is the only form of completion of human life. Thus no preconceived meaning or goal can direct a person in relation to life as a whole.
With death, the possibilities that formed my world do not alter but
come to an end. Such possibilities are mine and do not survive my
death. Possibilities are essentially dependent on my taking language
upon myself; they are always fraught with the possibility that nothing
may happen any more. The possible is to be understood not as an objective space external to the subject, but as something which always contains within its horizon the possibility that nothing be possible, that of
my death. In this case, the possibility of having possibilities, of having a
world, is internally related to the possibility of losing a world.
Moreover, the awareness of that ultimate possibility of human life is
the awareness of life as essentially enigmatic or as always demanding
meaning. This awareness colors life with a sense of incompleteness, or
an essential lack.
Thus we can say that it is this awareness of the limit that turns us onto
life as something that demands meaning, something that could be called
a riddle. This is what drives us to recover meaning, to nd signicance.
Thinking of death as the limit of life is thus intrinsically tied to the enigmatic nature of life or experience and to the assumption of meaning.
This is elaborated in Wittgensteins criticism of the futility of resorting to
the idea of the immortality of the soul:

Ethics in Language


Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the

human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any
case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for
which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our
present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (6.4312)

Insofar as a certain sense of limitation colors experience with incompleteness, thus presenting it as a riddle, then merely thinking of the continuation of the existence of the soul as it is solves nothing.
The problem with the conception of the immortality of the soul is that
it takes death to be completely external to meaningful life and thus in
principle eliminable for the human soul, if not for the body. This denial
of the condition of nitude fails to solve the problem; it does not accomplish its purpose. But as we saw above, Wittgenstein draws a further distinction between innite temporal duration and timelessness which provides another way of facing that condition:
If we take eternity to mean not innite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Living in the present expresses Wittgensteins sense of what it means to

alter the limits of the world. It is to have present the conditions in which
ones living takes place, to be in an environment of meaning. It is the assumption of the form of experience that faces the threat of possibilities
coming to an end. This forms the internal connection between the concept of the worlds coming to an end and that of the alteration of the
The condition of grace or happiness which Wittgenstein also describes as living in the present is not a matter of intuition or a wordless
feeling of being one with the world. It must be understood in terms of
Wittgensteins acceptance of everyday language as the true locus of such
presentness or grace. Everyday language is language that is signicant in
itself, as the site of sense and meaningfulness. This pregures Wittgensteins claim that
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the


Signs of Sense

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period
of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?). (6.521)

We are now able to understand why it is that, in claiming that everyday

language is in perfect logical order, Wittgenstein introduces for the rst
time a note of urgency or an ethical dimension into his discourse: Our
problems are not abstract, but perhaps the most concrete that there are.
The very possibility of entering a signicant world thus depends on
the experience of limitation as such. There is an inner connection between the alteration of the limits of the world that constitutes the condition of presence and the experience of the absolute limits of life. Just as
the feeling of presence was interpreted as the assumption of language,
the description of the experience of absolute limits, at the subjective-existential level, has an ontological-linguistic correlate. There is another
experience, or another aspect to the experience of signicance elaborated in the Tractatus, which may be called the religious side of the ethical, or in Wittgensteins words, the mystical. This is what Wittgenstein
calls feeling the world as a limited whole.
To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a wholea limited whole.
Feeling the world as a limited wholeit is this that is mystical.

Viewing the world as a limited whole at rst evokes the image of being
able to stand, as it were, outside the world and survey it as a whole. This
image could be related to the opening of the Tractatus, which creates the
sense that we have all facts laid out in front of us. But is that what Wittgenstein means? By adding the qualication limited to the idea of
viewing the world as a whole, is he merely reiterating that everything is
to be taken together, or is he addressing the perspective of the nite,
thus reconceiving the metaphysico-religious idea of the world seen sub
specie aeterni? Does limitation emphasize here the qualication of totality or of partiality? Or does it show a way of thinking them together,
that is, of thinking beings as a whole from the perspective of the nite?
Wittgensteins previous discussion of the relation between limits and
death essentially connected the concept of limitation with that of
nitude. At proposition 6.45, the sense of limitation as nitude is fur-

Ethics in Language


ther emphasized by the shift from viewing to feeling. Anschaung, which

is translated here as viewing, also has connotations, at least since Kant,
of intuition, thus of what is given or what gives itself. Playing on that
double meaning makes clear the shift from the activity of viewing to the
passivity of feeling. Associating the sense of the world with feeling removes Wittgenstein even further from the classical metaphysician and
his way of conceptualizing the world as a whole. This is also a shift in
the place of the subject: to view something as a whole does indeed demand an external perspective on the thing viewed, the object being present to you, while to feel limits emphasizes the limitation you will experience in relation to the world as a whole.13 It expresses the sense of
limitation that the world places on you when you are in the midst of
things. This is a different feeling from the feeling of the happy world,
which Wittgenstein mentions in 6.43. As I argued, there is an inner connection between these two types of affects, for the possibility of a signicant world depends on the experience of the world as a limited
Wittgensteins thinking on ethics is essentially religious. Its central
concern is that of transcendence. In Culture and Value he remarks:
What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics. Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.15 In
the Tractatus the connection between ethics and religion must be seen
through the relation of the experience of the appearance of the form of a
signicant world and the experience of the very existence of a signicant world. It is this last experience that Wittgenstein calls mystical:
It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists
(6.44). To feel the world as a limited whole is to be affected by the very
existence of the worldthat there is a world rather than nothing. It is in
this sense that limitation pertains not just to the position of the subject
in the world but also to the world as a whole. There is that which makes
13. Feeling does not preclude being in the midst of things, experiencing the whole that surrounds us. But in this case limitation is then no longer taken in the spatial visual sense, as contours or borderlines of the world, but rather in the sense that the whole that one is part of is itself nite. To think of the world as nite is to think that there is a difference between Being and
beings. We can then say that there is a sense in which we can conceive of the emergence of beings, that is, of creation.
14. They are related in the way that the beautiful can be said to be related to the sublime.
15. CV, p. 3.


Signs of Sense

itself manifest beyond beings, but this excess of being can only be characterized through the feeling of the existence of the world as such, not in
relation to something or other. The limitation of the world as such can
then be thought of as the gap between beings and world. What is in excess to what there is can only be thought of as the very existence of the
The original experience of the very possibility of a signicant world is
characterized in Wittgensteins Lecture on Ethics in terms of the sense
of wonder at the very existence of the world, or alternatively, at the very
existence of language:
I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the
world by saying: It is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle.
Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the
miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not a proposition in
language, is the existence of language itself.16

The source of signicance, the transcendence involved in signicance as

such, can be related to the concept of a miracle. But this is not a miracle
that occurs at one time in a particular place in the world. There is no
burning bush. Rather, the only sense that can be given to this miraculousness is related to the existence of signicance altogether. The existence of a meaningful world, or, what comes to the same, the existence
of language as such, is to be considered a miracle. It is in this sense
that the Tractatus can be regarded as dealing with creation itself. For
when it comes to this dimension, one does not feel the happiness associated with the recognition of what things are, with the showing of signicance, but rather ones experience concerns the very existence of a
signicant world rather than nothing.
But how do we become aware of the existence of language, in language? What does the existence of signicance contrast with? In contrast to what does the world appear as a limited whole? One could say
that the world exists in contrast to chaos or, speaking in terms of language, that it exists in contrast to nonsense.
Let us return to the relation formed between life as a whole coming to
an end and the awareness of the world as a whole. I have claimed that
the awareness of limitation reveals a movement of avoidance, of ight
16. LE, p. 11.

Ethics in Language


from this inner limitation. The limits of language, or of the world, are
not merely inert borderlines but are essentially where the movement of
avoidance and recovery takes place. This movement of avoidance is at
the very heart of the ethical; it is a fundamental drive. In relation to language as such it is the destruction of the conditions of meaningfulness,
the drive to nonsense. It is against that background of chaos in language
that we can think of the revelation of the very existence of language or of
Thus the ultimate expression of the ethical demands thoughtfulness
in relation to the appearance of nonsense. The showing of what there is
was interpreted through the assumption of ordinary conditions of meaning, but the feeling of the existence of language will manifest itself only
through the destruction of the condition of meaningfulness, in the drive
to nonsense. How is nonsense linked to the expression of the ethical?
When language attempts to express the absolute ground of evaluation
(the possibility of the absolute elevation of something above facts)
when it attempts to claim that something is innitely more worthy
than it is in factit attempts to say something that absolutely escapes
signication. This kind of speech will always miss the mark, for it constitutes a vain attempt to present the transcendence of absolute value
by means of something that can be said, a fact. Presenting something
through the appearance of something else is one way of characterizing
what a metaphor or simile is. In his Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein diagnoses our ethical language as inherently tending to the simile. Our understanding of the ethical provides us with an account of the generation
of similes (call them pictures) and at the same time explains that there is
nothing behind them.
A gure can be viewed at the most basic level as a translation from one
space to another. But what ethical language manifests is a movement of
translation to which no literal meaning would correspond. The similes
used are essentially empty. Recognizing that fact brings translation or
movement as such to the fore.
Thus in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using
similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by mean of a simile I must be able to drop the simile and to
describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop
the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we nd


Signs of Sense

that there are no such facts. And so, what at rst appeared to be a simile now seems to be mere nonsense.17

The effort to generate replacements in the attempt to hold on to some

gure of meaning is what Wittgenstein thinks of as the generation of
nonsense. Such nonsense reveals the intrinsically problematic position
of the human will with respect to the nding of value, what I have called
the condition in which desire is out of joint with its object. To avoid the
Wittgensteinian understanding of limits as limitation would be to place
something beyond the limits of facts, something we would feel could
never be said directly but must be expressed by means of a simile. Such
a simile operates as a defense to hide the condition of limitation or
nitude. This is why we can be gripped by a picture or a simile (Wittgenstein will further elaborate this psychology in his later thinking
about pictures).
There is therefore an excess in language, a generation of noise disguised as signicant communication, in attempts to produce an absolute
evaluation. But this excess is in itself signicant, for it is a sign of the
ethical manifesting itself wrongly. To recognize nonsense as such is to be
able to acknowledge this condition instead of reacting against it, for this
is the only condition in which the very existence of language manifests
itself. This is why Wittgenstein regards such a drive to nonsense in language with the utmost seriousness and includes himself among those
moved by such attempts:
My whole tendency, and I believe the tendency of all men who ever
tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion, was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to
say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good,
the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to
our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the
human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I
would not for my life ridicule it.18

We can better understand Wittgensteins concept of the mystical by noting that in 6.522 Wittgenstein speak of it in terms of revelation: There
17. LE, p. 10.
18. LE, pp. 1112.

Ethics in Language


are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves
manifest. They are what is mystical.19
Wittgensteins use of the passive form, Make themselves manifest,
stands in the starkest contrast with his initial description of our activity
of sense-making as making pictures to ourselves. Manifestation, or revelation, should be distinguished from the active making of pictures, but
also from the dimension of showing.20 What this distinction implies in
the rst place is that we cannot do anything to bring about the experience of the mystical (as opposed to discovering an answer to a question,
or actively seeking it). Of course, showing is not of something that we
produce either: we make sense, but showing is of something that is already there as the horizon of form of our active engagement with things.
But even showing is distinct from the passivity of manifestation. It is
through suffering from nonsense that we can experience manifestation.
We acknowledge meaning but suffer from nonsense. Manifestation and
showing form what might be called the two sides of the event of coming
into presence of meaning. Showing and manifestation depend on each
other. The showing of experience involves the manifestation of world;
the truth in language demands the truth of language. The return from
nonsense is essential to the way in which recovering the limits of experience is associated with happiness.
This relation between manifestation and nonsense makes it clear that
manifestation always involves a dimension in which the failure to signify turns into a sign in itself. Therefore, strictly speaking, revelation involves an affect of pain or anxiety, deriving from failure, which is the
affect that is associated with the experience of limitation as such. Although in the Tractatus itself Wittgenstein does not speak of anxiety as a
revelation of limitation as such, in his conversations with members of
the Vienna Circle he proposes the following interpretation of Heideg19. Ogdens translation of this passageThere is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mysticalconveys more accurately Wittgensteins use of the locution Es gibt,
which does not assume that some thing is revealed. The translation of Pears and McGuinness,
with its reference to things that make themselves manifest, makes the ending most problematic.
Signicantly, the locution Es gibt will later be used systematically by Heidegger for very similar purposes.
20. In German the distinction is between zeigt sich and zeigt. It is important to recognize
the dimension of manifestation or revelation in what shows itself, yet it would be better to retain, as Ogden does in translating zeigt sich by shows itself, the association with showing.
This reinforces the sense that what is shown is not ours to make.


Signs of Sense

gers understanding of anxiety with reference to the language we have

used to discuss the Tractatus:
I can readily think what Heidegger means by Being and Dread. Man has
the impulse to run up against the limits of language. Think, for example, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer
to it. Everything which we feel like saying can, a priori, only be nonsense. Nevertheless, we do run up against the limits of language. This
running-up-against Kierkegaard also recognized and even designated
it in a quite similar way (as running-up-against Paradox). This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics. I hold that it is truly
important that one put an end to all the idle talk about Ethics
whether there be knowledge, whether there be values, whether the
Good can be dened, etc. In Ethics one is always making the attempt
to say something that does not concern the essence of the matter and
never can concern it. It is a priori certain that whatever one might offer
as a denition of the Good, it is always simply a misunderstanding to
think that it corresponds in expression to the authentic matter one actually means (Moore). Yet the tendency represented by the runningup-against points to something. St. Augustine already knew this when
he said: What, you wretch, so you want to avoid talking nonsense?
Talk some nonsense, it makes no difference!21

Insofar as that anxiety appears in the Tractatus, it will be associated

with the failure to signify, the awareness of the repeated generation of
nonsense. There will essentially be a moment of frustration or withholding of satisfaction associated with this affect. That moment is indeed
mentioned in proposition 6.54, which leads us to realize that philosophical teaching essentially provokes dissatisfaction. Thus as we work our
way to the last propositions of the book, we are confronted with the
question of how to attune ourselves to this manifestation. How can a
book turn us toward that event? How can it be so pointed as to puncture
our constant demand for meaning? Such a book demands a relation to
language that is more fundamental than is our being guided by established meanings. It must work its way toward the possibility of an event
that itself exceeds the means of expression. This is the event of the
21. WVC, p. 69. See E. Friedlander, Heidegger, Carnap, Wittgenstein: Much Ado About
Nothing, in A. Biletzky and A. Matar, eds., The Story of Analytic Philosophy.

Signs of Sense

A Demanding Silence


A Demanding Silence

An intriguing aspect of the ending of the Tractatus is its development of

variations on the theme of questioning and response. To bring out how
insistent is this elaboration of questioning and response, I put together
the various instances where Wittgenstein raises that issue:
[Or] is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not the eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the
riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.
(It is certainly not the solution of any problem of natural science
that is required.) (6.4312)
The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution. (6.4321)
When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question
be put into words.
The riddle does not exist
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it. (6.5)
Skepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries
to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.
For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only
where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be
said. (6.51)
We feel that even when all possible scientic questions have been
answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of
course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.


Signs of Sense

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period
of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?) (6.521)

This emphasis on the theme of question and answer is striking. Wittgenstein uses a number of terms when raising that issueRatsel, Problem,
Aufgabe; Losung, Frage; Antwort, Zweifel. The various terms may seem to
support the claim that the question does not exist, but this does not explain why he returns to the theme so many times. It seems, rather, that
this theme should be seen in the context of what is probably the most
evident feature of the books end, its enigmatic concluding sentences.
The end of the Tractatus, with its demand to throw away the ladder,
leaves us astonished. It seems, then, that Wittgensteins constant return
to the theme of questioning is an attempt to separate this astonishment
and the enigma of the end from our usual modes of understanding a
question, a problem, a doubt.
In his discussions with members of the Vienna Circle as well as in the
Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein speaks of the kind of astonishment
that is not expressible as a question:
Think, for example, of the astonishment that anything exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is
also no answer to it.1

Astonishment at the existence of the world is not a specic question to

which an answer could be found. Wittgenstein precludes this way of addressing the issue:
When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question
be put into words.
The riddle does not exist.
If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it. (6.5)

To put such astonishment in the form of a question would be to make it

into a specic problem that demands an answer. But astonishment is not
a question. It is internally related to what I called the assumption of language. Indeed, that possibility of acknowledgment presupposes a loss,
1. WVC, p. 68.

A Demanding Silence


the questionability of experience as a whole, and the astonishment that

accompanies recognition of the nonsensicality of attempted answers.
The alleged solution to such a condition points us once more to existence in language, in its ordinariness. Accepting the ordinary as a standard is suggested by Wittgensteins statement that The solution of the
problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem (6.521).
Astonishment has no object but the world, or the very existence of
language. Metaphysics can be seen as an attempt to react to such astonishment by providing an answer, a thematic view of the world as a
whole. Thus to recognize the nonsensicality of metaphysics opens the
moment of astonishment. Wittgensteins Tractatus exemplies that the
turning to the world cannot be sustained by any concept. The world is a
place of nondetermination. It is inherently questionable or enigmatic.
The end of the Tractatus presents in the most vivid form the sense of the
tension arising from the pressure to think the world as a whole. In such
a limit state, language brings us into the proximity of what is not a question but an enigma.
How does the Tractatus as a whole presents us with the enigmatic? An
enigmatic text is not a riddle for which one needs to seek a solution. It is
a text whose difculty implicates the reader by demanding that he transform his mode of approach. In other words, such a book, beyond its
manifest content, has a dimension in which the very act of reading, the
relation of reader and text, exemplies something about the concerns of
the work. Its concerns are exemplied in concreto, here and now, in
the act of reading itself. The readers own reactions, especially his difculties, are in themselves evidence of what the text is about. Hence
there is a certain parallel between the experience of reading the Tractatus
and the experience of the world, or of the ethical that it directs us to. At
the end of the book we can consider most clearly how the experience of
reading is linked to the experience of the world. (He must transcend
these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.)
Astonishment has no answer, but it can provoke a response to a demand
that is almost emptya demand to recover language as such. The famous last sentence of the Tractatus, What we cannot speak about we
must pass over in silence, can be read as precisely such a demand, as
the ethical imperative in language. The very form of that sentencethe
demand to be silent about what we cannot speak ofis at rst sight puz-


Signs of Sense

zling, for if something cannot be done there is no point in prohibiting it.

The demand seems redundant, especially in the light of Wittgensteins
earlier statement at 5.61: We cannot think what we cannot think; so
what we cannot think we cannot say either. Hence, at the end, it is clear
that something more is involved.
The sense of redundancy is generated by misconstruing the opposition of speech and silence. It would indeed be tautological to say that
sense cannot be made beyond the bounds of sense, but Wittgenstein
does not state: What we cannot say, we must not say. He uses the term
sprechen (speaking) rather than sagen (saying), and thus opposes
speech and silence. He demands silence. What is at stake here is, then,
an actual intervention with speech rather than the abstract opposition of
the sayable and the unsayable.
Moreover, the opposite of silence is not necessarily speaking with
sense but, rather, making noise. Speaking without sense is one way of
being noisy. The ending of the Tractatus should therefore be read in conjunction with the epigraph of the book, which places the act of expression against a background of noise: . . . and whatever a man knows,
whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said
in three words. The implication is that the noise of empty talk, whether
it be nonsense or mere mindlessness, conceals something. To be silent
means primarily not to fall prey to the rumbling and roaring of rumor.
Silence is what we need in order to be attentive to what there is, to the
showing of truth.
But why should it be difcult to accept language? Why the tendency
to cover up language with noise? It is the simultaneous recognition of
the groundlessness of meaning and of the dependence of the very being
of the subject on the assumption of meaning that generates anxiety, and
the concomitant tendency to conceal that anxiety by seeking to ground
meaning systematically in metaphysics.
We can now form a connection between proposition 7, with its demand for silence, and proposition 6.53, which addresses the correct
method of philosophy and describes the formative experience of philosophy as that of being robbed of such ultimate meaning. Language is
drawn into meaninglessness, in the very attempt to cover its own
The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to
say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural sci-

A Demanding Silence


encei.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophyand

then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical,
to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain
signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the
other personhe would not have the feeling that we were teaching
him philosophythis method would be the only strictly correct one.

Thus being denied the illusion of meaning produces anxiety or makes

manifest the anxiety at the heart of our being in language. This is what
establishes the underlying mood of the books ending and shows how
the demand to maintain oneself resolutely within this anxiety might indeed be conceived as an imperative. This posture is demanded in the
face of the urge to run up against the limits of language. The dissatisfaction that the other person would evince by being shown the meaninglessness of the terms he uses would cause him to redouble his efforts,
until he came to recognize the urge in that repetition itself. Recognizing
the signicance of that moment is the primary condition of philosophical learning.
The imperative, the must of the last sentence, which must be kept
distinct from, yet related to, the familiar understanding of the ethical
ought, has to be read in conjunction with the sense of astonishment I
have elaborated. The answer to the impossible question is a response
to a voice that commands meaning as such. It does not command this or
that but is a demand to maintain oneself within language.
In his remarks on Heidegger to the Vienna Circle Wittgenstein cited
Augustines saying with reference to this impulse to run up against the
limits of language: What, you swine, you want not to talk nonsense! Go
ahead and talk nonsense, it does not matter!2 The context here is
unclear, but years later Wittgenstein returned to this very remark of
Augustine in a conversation with Maurice Drury. In response to Drurys
assertion that a professor of philosophy had no right to keep silent
concerning such an important subject [as religion] Wittgenstein commented:
You are saying something like St. Augustine says here. Et vae . . . But
this translation in your edition misses the point entirely. It reads, And
woe to those who say nothing concerning thee seeing that those who
say most are dumb. It should be translated And woe to those who say
nothing concerning thee just because the chatterboxes talk a lot of
2. WVC, p. 69.


Signs of Sense

nonsense. Loquaces is a term of contempt. I wont refuse to talk to

you about God or about religion.3

It would seem that nothing could be easier than to be silent, and that a
demand for silence would be superuous. But such an easy silence
would not address the anxiety or the sense that the limits of language
place a demand on the subject. If we decide in advance that what is important is the silence, we might just as well sit back and avoid nonsense
by not speaking of anything important. The attempt to avoid nonsense
by remaining silent, Wittgenstein argues, is swinish behavior. The recognition of signicance always involves returning from the temptation of
nonsense. Wittgenstein views the very urge to nonsense as signicant or
as manifesting the ethical dimension. Indeed, what is imperative is not
what one says, but ones ability to recognize this disintegration of language.
For human beings, silence manifests itself in the form of a demand.
This is not the Kantian imperative arising from the division between nature and reason, but rather, it is the sign that the source of the signicance of speech manifests itself only through the drive to nonsense.
The imperative in language cannot be heard apart from the temptation
to nonsense, to noise. This is precisely why being silent is possible only
as an imperative.4 The imperative to listen in silence is the demand to
do away with the noisy elements of nonsense that surround us, but the
imperative form precisely means that silence is ever to be achieved
through overcoming the temptation to noise. We cannot listen to pure
The propositions of the Tractatus can serve as elucidations. What is it
that is elucidated and what particular function do these propositions
serve when used as elucidations? Wittgenstein characterizes elucidations in 3.263:
The meanings of primitive signs can be explained by means of elucidations. Elucidations are propositions that contain the primitive signs.
3. R. Rhees, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, pp. 9091.
4. Listening has always been a favorite philosophical gure for the appearance of the ethical
imperative, the voice of conscience.
5. This will develop into the voices of the Philosophical Investigationsbetween temptation
and return, ever manifesting the imperative of silence or the need to give philosophy peace.

A Demanding Silence


So they can only be understood if the meanings of those signs are already known.

Elucidations appear in the process of clarication involved in analysis.

Analysis presents a primitive term in a context that makes its use perspicuous. Such a work assumes from the start an understanding of the
meaning of signs, although in a confused form. It is in that sense that
Wittgenstein writes:
Philosophy aims at the logical clarication of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
Philosophy does not result in philosophical propositions, but
rather in the clarication of propositions.
Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct:
its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.

This claim concerning the nature of a philosophical work must be contrasted, on the one hand, to Wittgensteins description of the strictly correct method in philosophy in 6.53, and on the other, to the elucidatory
nature of the Tractatus. The strictly correct method in philosophy raises
the question of the relation between elucidation and demonstrating to
someone that he has failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. An elucidation operates in a context where meaning appears
cloudy and indistinct and must be made perspicuous. The demonstration of nonsense occurs when all our attempts at clarication have failed
to provide a meaning to some term we have used. But this demonstration is produced by means of elucidating meaningful terms. It is precisely by clarifying the functioning of our terms that we can realize that
we have missed our aim, we have failed to provide meaning.
A connection is thus established between the work of elucidation and
the demonstration of nonsense. But this also makes clear the contrast
between such work, which Wittgenstein calls the strictly correct method
in philosophy, and the work of the Tractatus itself. If the Tractatus does
not exemplify the strictly correct method, how does it differ from it? It
could be seen as presenting a case in which a termhere, the term that
opened the book, the worldhas not been given meaning, for all propositions that attempted to produce such a meaning have turned out to be
nonsense. But the peculiar thing is that it is precisely by virtue of that


Signs of Sense

failure that the Tractatus is an elucidation. The elucidation is no longer

one of meaning: My propositions serve as elucidations in the following
way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical. It is this recognition of nonsense that provides the elucidationthat at the heart of language is a place of nonmeaning. It requires
us to recognize such a place in the midst of our dealings with meaning.
The Tractatus is an elucidation of that which can be no meaning. It
perspicuously presents an empty place. This is a task that is intrinsically
contradictory; it can succeed only by bringing us close to the failure or
disintegration of language in such a way as to illuminate or provide an
How can nonmeaning be elucidated? I have indicated the relation that
Wittgenstein forms between the drive to metaphysics, the quest for absolute value, and the apparent generation of similes or gures. Those gures strictly speaking stand for nothing. They are nonsensical attempts
to say more than can be said. That excess beyond what can be said is
what lends to such utterances the appearance of gures. As long as we
remain gripped by such gures we do not recognize their nonsensicality.
But can there be a gure that is able to make manifest its very emptiness,
that it is a gure of nothing?
The Tractatus contains such a gure, namely the gure of the ladder at
the end of the book. This is where the thought of nonsense and the question of the gurative come together. The rst thing to note about the
ladder is that it is a gure. We have encountered other gures in the
Tractatus: to speak of the proposition as a picture is a gure of sorts, as is
Wittgensteins use of the human organism to characterize everyday language. But the fact that this gure is placed here, at the limit of what philosophy can do, is itself suggestive and evokes various other mythical
moments in philosophy.
The gure of the ladder does not relate to a specic moment in the
book, to a certain claim or argument. It is a gure for the book itself and
for our mode of reading it. Moreover, it makes the issue of achieving the
proper relation to the world dependent on the relation we bear to the
text itself. One might say that it presents an analogy between our relation to the text and our relation to the world.
The elaboration of the analogy precludes grasping the Tractatus as a
closed totality, as something wholly self-sufcient that we can encompass in our reading, for at the last moment of the attempted closure

A Demanding Silence


everything falls apart. Hence the ladder is a gure for the world as that
which eludes us; it is a gure for the recognition of the very absence of
sense in our relation to the world.
However, the ladder also presents the whole text as a gure of sorts,
showing it to be an attempt that misses its mark, a generation of an
excess of meaning in language in an attempt to elucidate the world. It
reveals the work of the Tractatus as the creation of an immense myth.
The Tractatus does not merely include a gure for what it is to read
it. The ladder is a gure that presents that work itself as a gure for
nothing. Think of it this way: the Tractatus is shown, by means of the gure of the ladder, to be illusion rather than thought; although in itself
nonsense, it presents itself as something other than it is. Now such an illusion, far from being a deceitful mask that hides the truth, emerges
as profoundly revelatory. The presentation of truth by means of a displacement from literal meaning is what I understand to be a successful
I mentioned in my introduction the similarity between the Tractatus and
the impossible book of ethics. What are the implications of this similarity, and of the fact that the apocalyptic book is clearly a book of fantasy?
Did Wittgenstein aim to write such a book but was simply unable to produce the intensity of explosion that would destroy all other books? Or,
as I think Wittgenstein implies, is the thought of writing a book with the
power to destroy all other books itself an illusion?
But how does the gure of the ladder t in this comparison? Throwing away the ladder could also be said to be something of a fantasy, at
least if it is to be understood as solving once and for all the problems of
philosophy (see the preface). For why should the last two propositions
be excluded from the threat of nonsensicality when they too belong to
the book and must be thrown away? That would mean that we must
overcome the fantasy of throwing metaphysics away, once and for all,
like a ladder. The metaphysical urge has to be recognized and deconstructed time and again. This might be one reason why the Tractatus is
not an example of the strictly correct method in philosophy (see 6.54)
but does characterize the need for that method. There is no place where
we could stand to contemplate such a scene of destruction. The wish for
the ultimate silence is as misleading as the wish for the omniscient perspective on all that is the case.


Signs of Sense

Meaning may have been lost, but does that leave us with nothing?
Maybe it is precisely when no thoughts are left that the simple presence
of the one who writes is revealed, followed by the awareness of myself,
the implicated reader.
The gure of a ladder as a gure for reading allows this shift of registers. If the ladder leads us anywhere, it is from our immersion in the text
to the point where we can raise the question of our relation to the text. It
allows us to understand that our relation to the work as a whole presents
an analogue of our relation to the world and to another person, thus
bringing to the fore author, reader, and text.
At the end of the Tractatus, it is speech rather than thought that is
withheld. The dimension of speech was barely apparent in the previous
considerations. This is therefore the place to inquire what properly belongs to speech as such, and how speech relates to the other moments of
language disclosed by the text. What are the conditions of speech?
I have contrasted speech and saying, and also silence and noise. I now
want to think of speech as essentially a matter of address. Speech is
something that is given and accepted, withheld or denied among subjects. Speech reveals a moment which is essential to ethics and which
has been strangely absent from Wittgensteins considerations up to now:
the presence of another human being as essential to the opening of the
domain of the ethical. That speech is unavailable here, at the end, means
that we have reached the limit of the relation to another person, the limit
that reveals something essential about that relation. This is also the limit
on the intervention on the part of Wittgenstein himself.6
It is signicant that this moment occurs within a scene of education
which starts with 6.53 and deals with how to respond to someone who
comes to philosophy.7 Here the teacher himself appears in person, and
6. This way of thematizing the end makes it a moment of solitude, even in the presence of
another human being. Many interpretations that consider the end of the book in the context of
the problem of the relation to others tend to emphasize a return to communality, to a shared
language (see, for example, J. Floyd, The Uncaptive Eye: Solipsism in Wittgensteins Tractatus; T. Ricketts, Pictures, Logic and the Limits of Sense in Wittgensteins Tractatus). This
approach ignores the way in which agreement in judgment depends upon the moments of utter
isolation, works against the threat of nonsensicality.
7. Wittgenstein speaks of method in the context of the teaching of philosophy, thus using
the term method in the traditional philosophical way (see, for example, Kants understanding
of the doctrine of method). The separation between the strictly correct method in philosophy
and the work of the Tractatus should not be identied with the claim that the Tractatus is not a
textbook (Preface).

A Demanding Silence


the limits of his capacity to intervene are determined. In these last propositions Wittgenstein brings together the ethical, the nature of philosophical teaching and learning, as well as the literary space spanned between author, reader, and text.
The moment we face, as a limit moment, is not a communication of content based on understanding but an encounter pure and simple. The appearance of the reader can be thought of through a peculiar temporal
determination of the possibility of coming to terms with the work. Consider the contrast between the description of the readers position at the
beginning and at the end:
Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in itor at least similar thoughts.So it is not a textbook.Its purpose would be achieved
if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it. (Preface,
p. 3)
[A]nyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used themas stepsto climb up beyond them.
(He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up
it.). (6.54)

A rst striking difference between these two passages is that whereas the
Preface denies that the Tractatus is a textbook, namely a text that can be
used as a ladder to advance step by step, the end suggests that it must be
treated as a textbook in order to ultimately learn from it beyond what is,
strictly speaking, teachable. This must be related to the claim I made in
the rst chapter: that the work has a structure of return, and that the
place we return to is the world. And we do not need a ladder to reach the
world.8 We nevertheless need the fantasy of climbing a ladder that leads
us to some external theoretical perspective on the world and of failing in
this attempt, precisely in order to be eventually returned to the world. In
throwing away the ladder we do not throw away something that has
served its purpose in bringing us to a different place than the one we
started from. We throw it away because we have realized something
about our urge to construct ladders. But that insight itself cannot be
achieved without working through the fantasy of the ladder.
8. I might say: if the place I want to get to could only be reached by way of a ladder, I
would give up trying to get there. For the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be
at now. Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me (CV, p. 7).


Signs of Sense

The second striking difference between the two passages, related to

the rst, concerns the temporal dimension that is evoked. In the Preface
Wittgenstein emphasizes the already had of truth: the reader must already possess what the book strives toward in order to be able to read it
with understanding. The latter proposition indicates a future moment,
after all that could have been done has been done. Understanding will
occur eventually, after the fact of reading. The time lag between the
completion of reading and the moment of realization expressed in the
eventually can be read in conjunction with the temporality of the already had. For, if in respect to the linear reading of the book realization
can only be late, then whoever understands already has in mind the
thoughts expressed here, is pregnant with the possibility of understanding.
Throwing away the ladder is not an action dictated by the reading, but
a distinct moment temporally separated from such reading; hence the
time gap between reading and recognition. This idea shifts the burden of
meaningfulness onto the reader. Throwing away the ladder involves a
decisiveness that is not dictated by the reading. Decisiveness reveals my
position as a reader with respect to what was read.9 It is in this gap that
the very existence of a reader, by way of his resoluteness in throwing
away the ladder, becomes the issue.
We still have not explained the appearance of the author, of Wittgenstein in person, standing apart from his propositions.10 Anyone who
understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical (my emphasis). It is tempting to misread this shift to mean that Wittgenstein holds
some key that has been withheld from us in the writing, that there is
some information that he knows but has not conveyed in his propositions, especially in the light of the opening remarks of the preface: Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself
9. Such decisiveness is not distinct from the facing and assuming of possibilities on the part
of the reader himself, in his own place. It is to be distinguished from Diamonds idea of not
chickening out, which, I take it, still assumes the possibility of getting rid of metaphysics absolutely. (See Throwing Away the Ladder, in The Realistic Spirit).
10. Mounce points at this shift only in order to deny its signicance: Note that he speaks
not so much of our understanding what he says as of our understanding him. He is suggesting,
in other words, that even if we cannot, strictly speaking, grasp the sense of what he says, we can
certainly grasp what he is getting at in saying it. See Wittgensteins Tractatus: An Introduction,
p. 101.

A Demanding Silence


already had the thoughts that are expressed in itor at least similar
thoughts (Preface, p. 3). Why else is the author mentioned if not to indicate that he holds some knowledge that has been denied to all those
who did not share the same thoughts themselves before reading the
text? One is tempted to place Wittgenstein in the position of the subject
who is supposed to know. Moreover, the numbering of the last proposition, 7, would seem to place him in the position of the author of that
world, the one who holds all the answers, in silence. Yet it should be
clear by now that Wittgenstein does not take his authorship as deriving
its authority from the place of transcendence occupied by the divinity.
The point is not that Wittgenstein possesses some knowledge that is
hidden, withheld from us, for in the end there is nothing; and this is precisely what turns the reader towards the author. His attraction as a master derives solely from his ability to make this nothingness manifest.
This is also what I see as the source of both the fascination and the paralysis provoked by the end.
Wittgensteins statement that whoever understands him will eventually reject his propositions as nonsensical sounds strange. If we were to
attribute to him some form of esoteric knowledge, we would expect him
to say that whoever rejects his propositions as nonsensical will understand him beyond what he said. The formulation chosen by Wittgenstein indicates that the relation one forms to the teacher provides the
support for the resolve to eventually reject the propositions. If the recognition of the nonsensicality of the very language we use is at stake, there
must be someone else who supports that understanding as our language
disintegrates. It is this condition that necessitates the appearance of the
rst person.
In his conversation with the Vienna Circle Wittgenstein is reported to
have said:
At the end of my lecture on ethics I spoke in the rst person: I think
that this is something very essential. Here there is nothing to be stated
any more; all I can do is to step forth as an individual and speak in
the rst person. For me a theory is without value. A theory gives me

The appearance of the rst person at the end of the Lecture on Ethics
or at the end of the Tractatus does not mean that we have reached a mo11. WVC, p. 117.


Signs of Sense

ment of sincerity, as opposed to the deceit of all that has gone before; nor
can it be attributed to Wittgensteins wish to express his personal belief,
for it appears precisely when all views are put aside. Rather, the necessity of the appearance of the rst person is linked with the disintegration
of meaning as such.
Put differently, when we throw away the ladder, we are confronted
with the question of what we can stand on (until we realize that we have
been brought back to earth). What can support us in that realization? In
particular, if the realization is something of an abyss for the reader, what
is necessary at this point is the presence of another human beingnot
to help the subject to understand, but to support the realization.
The condition is one in which the reader is individuated through facing limits. It is in relation to the books power to isolate the reader at
the end that Wittgenstein writes in the preface: Its purpose would be
achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding.12 That the book is aimed at one person does not mean that Wittgenstein had no ambition for his work to make an impact; nor does it indicate his doubt in the possibility of nding one reader who might
understand such a difcult book. Rather, it is essential to the books turn
of thought that it always be aimed at one person, in turn.
12. I have modied the translation to t the sense that what is at stake is not the understanding of the books content but reading it with understanding.

Part Two

Signs of Sense

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


On Some Central Debates Concerning

the Tractatus

In presenting my interpretation of the Tractatus I tried to stay as close as

possible to the movement of the text itself. This meant foregoing any
comparison between my interpretation and the central interpretative positions concerning the Tractatus. Here I would like to remedy this lack to
some extent, without making a systematic attempt to present the various
interpretative debates concerning the Tractatus but simply placing my
interpretation in relation to certain exemplary positions.
A further aim of this second part is to form broad connections between the different topics of the Tractatus. While my exposition of the
various topics will follow more or less their order of exposition in the
book, I will also try to indicate their interdependence. Thus this chapter
presents connections between the various issues in the Tractatus in a
more schematic, perspicuous, and condensed way than in the main body
of the text above.

1. Facts, Objects, and the World

The structure of my interpretation depends on maintaining a threefold
distinction between the various perspectives opened by the Tractatus: to
separate as well as to relate the perspectives of facts, of objects, and of
the world. Each of these terms introduces a set of concepts that enables
its elucidation. Thus, for example, facts will be associated with an elaboration of logical, inferential relations, with the notion of structure, with
how things are. It is from this perspective that our making of sense, of
what can be said, will be primarily elaborated. Facts are importantly said


Signs of Sense

to be valueless. The perspective of objects gives us a grasp of the notion

of realized form, or of real possibilities. The recovery of objects is the
recognition of meaning and signicance in language. It is from this perspective that the force and the point of Wittgensteins notion of showing,
and its contrast with saying, become apparent. The perspective opened
by the term world is accompanied by an elaboration of the concept of
limits, and it introduces an understanding of the subject as existing in
language. It is from this perspective that we understand Wittgensteins
use of the concept of revelation or manifestation (in contrast both to
showing and to saying) and its relation to the drive to nonsense. It is
also this perspective that raises the question of our relation as readers to
the text of the Tractatus as a whole and to its injunction to throw away
the ladder.
This very schematic division of the main concepts of the Tractatus
can, I think, indicate my initial disagreement with various central interpretations of the Tractatus. Most interpreters, when considering the relation between the grasping of facts and the recognition of objects, agree
that facts are precisely what is straightforwardly accessible, they are
what is said in language. There is far less agreement among interpreters
about our access to objects, a notion that is thoroughly problematized in
the Tractatus. There is no agreement as to what objects are, or even if we
can ever know them. Some interpreters tend to associate them with a
particular kind of things (for instance, J. and M. Hintikka think of them
as objects of acquaintance); others, such as D. Pears, view the postulation of objects as the result of an a priori argument concerning the necessary conditions for language, and think of such objects as unlike anything we are acquainted with.
In my view, the rst question to ask is what is at stake in the revelation
of objects. Why would the revelation of objects be something that is of
fundamental value for Wittgenstein? Alternatively, we could ask what is
problematic in treating our access to the world merely in terms of facts.
The problem arises towards the end of the Tractatus, when we realize
that a world of facts is a world without value. By focusing on facts as the
real constituents of our world, we are led to place all value outside the
world. We end up facing a stark contrast between a world of facts and a
transcendent source of value, as well as the apparently insurmountable
problem of relating the one to the other. That contrast leaves no room
for a conception of experience that is in itself valuable.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


The stark contrast between facts and transcendent value is in part due
to the problematic elaboration of the perspective of the objects. A distinct feature of my interpretation is that it links the recognition of objects to the opening of signicance, to a dimension of value. The recognition of objects is the revelation of the real possibilities of experience.
This claim certainly requires a reconception of our understanding of
value. In particular, it places great emphasis on the idea that the fundamental condition of willing is the recognition of real possibilities for the
will and for action. It is this identication of objects with what is signicant for a subject that is ultimately at stake in the decision to think of
objects as something that can and must be revealed in language. It is primarily for that reason that I assume that objects cannot be thought of
merely as necessary, yet unknown, logical requirements of language.
Having said that, it is clear also that if objects are not merely what is
signied in language but are the source of signicance, the access to
them cannot be straightforward. Hence the various interpretations that
make such objects into objects of acquaintance seem to me problematic
insofar as they do not provide an account of how the recovery of the object has any value. In attempting to problematize the access to objects
while retaining their relation to our mode of making sense, I have interpreted such objects as providing us with the conditions of the sense we
make. This approach is, I think, in line with Wittgensteins later emphasis on the notion of grammar as giving us the condition of possibility of
phenomena. The perspective of the object thus forms one of the central
lines of continuity between the early and the later Wittgenstein.
As opposed to facts and objects, the third perspective, that of the
world, is one of the most neglected in interpretations of the Tractatus.
The world is seldom viewed as a concept that needs elaboration, or that
brings with it a whole grammar of terms that clarify it (such as the notions of limits, of the I, of affects pertaining to its appearance or veiling). As against the intense effort of interpretation devoted to such terms
as facts and objects, the world is often seen merely as some kind of sum
of those (taking, as it were, the opening claim of the bookThe world
is all that is the caseas the central characterization of the notion of
world).1 This can lead to identify the world as it is presented at the be1. An indication of that neglect is that the term world does not even appear in the index of
the central interpretations of the Tractatus.


Signs of Sense

ginning of the book with the world that appears as a limited whole at the
end.2 Such an identication leaves us unable to account for the relation
of the world to the ethical. It remains unclear how the totality of facts
can be accessible to feeling, or why such a totality should be of such signicance.
But there is also a danger in separating the world of the beginning
from that of the end, or differentiating too sharply the world of facts
from a mystical experience of totality. In this case the world appearing at
the end would be thought of as a mysterious object of mystical experience, and we would be tempted to appeal to Wittgensteins doctrine of
unsayability to conceal the unclarity of such a mysterious relation to the
Both interpretationsthose that treat the world as a sum total of
facts, and those that treat it as some mystical wholereify this concept
and make of it a graspable totality, an object of contemplation, as if one
could have various attitudes toward that object, or various pictures of
the world as a whole. This approach implies a subject that stands apart
from the world of facts and can change mysteriously his attitudes to
facts. But what such a change of attitude towards facts can be is mostly
left unexplained. For a fact is just plainly . . . a fact.
My interpretation seeks to elaborate the notion of world as part of
understanding what it is for a subject to be in the world or in language
what I call an existential elaboration of the world. This approach enables
the concept of world to be related both to the subject and to an affective
dimension that pertains to the subjects assumption or avoidance of limits. The elaboration of these existential dimensions of the subject depends on the above-mentioned distinction between facts and objects.
Hence a shift in the relation to the world as a whole is not a matter of
subjective attitudes but is made possible by a distinction that lies at the
very heart of language itself.3
2. Thus E. Anscombe writes concerning the appearance of world toward the end of the
book: The world as a limited whole is not suddenly introduced here as a new topic. We encounter the world conceived as a wholeas all that is the caseand as limitednamely by being all that is the caseat the very outset of the book; the feeling of the world as a whole appears in the remark at 1.2: The world splits up into facts, for it is only of a whole that we can
say it splits up. An Introduction to Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 169.
3. It is this neglect of the existential dimensions of world that explains why many interpreters fail to sense the afnities of Wittgensteins early thought with that of Heidegger, an

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


2. Form and Structure

To elaborate in more detail the difference between my interpretation and
central readings of the Tractatus, let us rst consider the concept of
form, which is crucial to our understanding of all the issues in the book.
The concept of form must be elaborated primarily in contrast to that
of structure. That distinction has puzzled many commentators of the
Tractatus, but most commentators agree that the distinction between
form and structure is related to Wittgensteins understanding of possibility.
In his Critical Notice on Wittgensteins Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, F. Ramsey related the distinction between form and structure
to the distinction between possibility and actuality. Relying on Wittgensteins claim that form is the possibility of structure, he writes: The
only point which I can see in the distinction between structure and
form, is that the insertion of possibility may include the case in which
the alleged fact whose form we are considering is not a fact, so that we
can talk of the form of the fact aRb, whether or not aRb is true, provided

afnity I try to indicate in my interpretation. Indeed, the central concept in the elaboration of
the analytic of Dasein in Being and Time is precisely that of being-in-the world. The intricacy of
that analysis of the phenomenon of world, and in particular the relation Heidegger establishes
between the appropriation of possibilities and affective dimensions pertaining to being-in-theworld as such can be fruitfully compared with Wittgensteins analysis.
J. Edwards does propose a reading of Wittgenstein with Heidegger, but his reading focuses
on analogies between the thinking of the later Wittgenstein and that of Heidegger. The Tractatus is considered in contrast to the later view: The Tractarian account of the nature of the
proposition as world-representation, as a picture of reality, leads in that book to the discovery
of the metaphysical self, the limit of the world (5.362) which is the necessary condition of any
such representation. From there it is an easy path to the idea that this godhead, this self-conscious will to world-representation that originally makes linguistic meaning by connecting
names to simple objects, also makes, through its own self-created attitude (Notebooks, p. 87),
the ethical meaning that the world as a whole has for the happy or unhappy human being
(Tractatus, 6.43). The Tractarian metaphysical self is the ultimate narcissist: utterly independent of the body and the world, . . . Such a self oats free from the world it surveys and whose
meaning it creates . . . The Authority of Language, pp. 192193. This activist characterization
of the self in the Tractatus clearly stands in stark contrast to a Heideggerian sensibility, which
construes the subject as openness to meaning that is given in the world. But once the subject is
properly construed through the existential possibility of appropriation of meaning, it is possible to sense the afnities of Wittgensteins and Heideggers accounts.


Signs of Sense

it is logically possible.4 The implication is that a structure is merely an

actualized form, or form is a possible structure. There is no real distinction in nature between form and structure, but only with respect to
actual existence. According to Ramsey, form is associated with a possibility, whereas a structure is an actualized form.5 So why not just distinguish possible structures from actual structures?
I argue that the claim that form is the possibility of structure does not
mean that form is a possible structure, but rather that form conditions
all possible structures. When Wittgenstein writes Form is the possibility of structure, he is not denying that we can speak of possible structures. Indeed, possibility is as structured as actuality. The central difference is that form is the manifestation of the whole space of possibilities,
thus the condition of all possible structures.
Form, thought of as the condition of possibility of facts, is a substantive and powerful notion. In particular, when the notion of form relates
to our understanding of the object, it determines the distinction between the internal properties of an object and its factual or material
properties. I have attempted to map this distinction into the form-structure distinction by thinking of internal properties, the form, as giving us
what the object is, and material properties as being determined by the
structure of combination of objects, by how things are arranged. In that
pair the most substantive notion is that of form, whereas structure is the
mere way things are congured. Such congurations have the form of
logical space, that is, the form of facts. Several interpretations of the notion of form and its relation to the understanding of the object reverse
that relation and make the notion of form something rather thin and insubstantial. This is the result of misreading how Wittgenstein thinks of
the relation of internal and external properties, which makes them into
two separate set of properties, the rst giving a bare form and the second
lling it with content. For example, P. M. S. Hacker writes that
4. F. Ramsey, A Critical Notice of L. Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in J. V.
Caneld, ed., The Philosophy of Wittgenstein: A Fifteen Volume Collection, vol. 1, p. 35.
5. Black endorses a position close to Ramseys when he writes that It is doubtful whether it
[the form-structure distinction] is needed. A Companion to Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 66. His
explanation makes it clear how he came to this conclusion: one would expect that a fact has a
structure and form, while a possible state of affairs has only form. Ibid., p. 66. Pears works
with a similar conception of the form-structure distinction. He writes, for instance: the form
of a fact is a possibility projected into the sentence that depicts it The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 26,
my emphasis.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


The forms of an object are its internal or formal properties . . . In addition to its formal properties an object has external properties. The form
of an object is its possibility of occurring in the various states of affairs
in which it can occur . . . its form is thus determined by the sum of its
formal properties, for it is they that determine with what kind of other
objects it can combine to constitute a fact. This is what constitutes its
ontological type. The contingent concatenations into which a specic
object does as a matter of fact enter are the external properties of the

Construing the form-content distinction as a distinction between kinds

of properties leads Hacker to identify the form of objects with bare syntactical properties devoid of substantial meaning. This, as I will argue
later on, is the source of many problems in his interpretation.
I have attempted to construct my understanding of the distinction between saying and showing on the basis of the distinction between structure and form. Indeed, the impossibility of saying, or the need to show
form, means precisely that form is not equated with a specic fact or
proposition but rather with a whole space of propositions internally related to each other. It is the recognition of the internal relation that constitutes the recognition of form that cannot be said. Wittgensteins claim
that form can only be shown and not said becomes clear when we realize
that the term form expresses the whole space of possibilities. Saying is
always a fact, a structure. Thus misreading the use of the term form can
lead to a misinterpretation of the ineffability of form, for example, by
identifying it with the ineffability of the mystical. To relate to form is
precisely to take into account in language use all the possibilities that
determine the space of form. The awareness of form is thus the incorporation of possibilities into ones use of language. It is for this reason that
the concept of form plays a role in our understanding of the subject, or
determines a dimension of subjectivity. Hence it is far from being a
merely technical or logical notion.

3. Objects and Simplicity

The question of the nature of the object and its simplicity cannot, I
think, be separated from a more general assessment of Wittgensteins
aim and task in the Tractatus. Our understanding of objects affects such
6. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion, pp. 1920.


Signs of Sense

issues as Wittgensteins supposed realism, his understanding of the relation between language and world, and his understanding of the place of
everyday language.
The question of the nature of the object is made particularly difcult
because of the lack of any examples of objects in the Tractatus. This very
lack can be interpreted as suggesting that objects are to be identied
with theoretical posits that might never be discovered. Thus Russell
writes in his introduction to the Tractatus: It is not contended by Wittgenstein that we can actually isolate the simple or have empirical knowledge of it. It is a logical necessity demanded by theory, like an electron.7
Among contemporary interpreters, D. Pears elaborates this approach
most forcefully: [Wittgenstein] argued a priori from the existence of
factual sentences with senses to the existence of an underlying grid of elementary possibilities, with simple objects at the nodal points.8 Pearss
fundamental starting point is to bring together Wittgensteins understanding of language and Russells logical atomism. Yet Pears wants a
logical atomism without Russells requirement of acquaintance as a determination of the end point of analysis. The criterion of simplicity he
attributes to Wittgenstein is that a thing is simple, and so what he calls
an object, if and only if, its nature does not generate any necessary connections between a sentence in which it is named and other sentences
belonging to the same level.9
Pears thus relates the understanding of the object to the claim that
elementary propositions are logically independent of each other. This
leads him to attribute to Wittgenstein the claim that the objects should
be entirely devoid of internal complexity. But how is such an understanding compatible with Wittgensteins statement that objects contain
the possibility of all situations (2.014)? In Pearss account it is hard to
see how an object can be said to have form, or how possibilities of combination are part of the nature of that object. Pears does indeed acknowledge that the object has various possibilities of combination inherent to
it, but he fails to think of those as being in any way reected in language.
The claim that the object contains its possibilities of combination becomes a dogmatic metaphysical assertion, since nothing in language re7. B. Russell, Introduction to the Tractatus, p. xiii.
8. D. Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 64.
9. Ibid.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


ects those possibilities. The way in which Pears conceives of the simplicity of the object makes it a totally inert point whose sole signicance
is to mark the end of analysis. It is unclear how the logical dependencies
of facts are in any way related to the possibilities of the object. But
Wittgenstein seems to think of the object in much more substantial
terms. Objects make up the substance of the world (2.021). They contain all the material from which logical elaboration gives us whatever
facts there are. Conceiving of their form as the condition of facts provides, I think, a better understanding of the substantial role they play in
Wittgensteins account.
Pearss approach to objects can explain why Wittgenstein does not
give any examples of simple objects. Such objects are introduced as an
priori requirement; they must exist if sense is to be possible, but we
might not ever be able to specify what they are. Yet Wittgensteins silence
on this matter could be accounted for in a different way. Insofar as it is
part of the task of the Tractatus to turn us onto language, onto the proper
attention to language, which means precisely the attention to the objects
which embody for us signicant possibility, it would be self-defeating to
provide examples of objects, as if these could be derived theoretically.
The recognition of the object is something that cannot be separated
from the application of logic to specic situationsfrom our use of language.10
Pearss approach does accord to some extent with Wittgensteins dislike for a priori theorizing about the form of reality. It precludes any attempt to give a substantive answer to the question of what there must be
if there be sense. But the question is whether the postulation of the very
existence of such mysterious simple objects is not itself another form of
problematic a priorism. The issue for Wittgenstein is, I think, how to
avoid opening a gap between signication as it appears through lan10. Pears describes logical form as immanent to factual discourse: The system of the
Tractatus is built on an idea that is the exact opposite of Russells idea: the forms revealed by
logic are embedded in the one and only world of facts, and therefore, in the language that we
use to describe it. If Russells view is Platonic, this view is approximately Aristotelian. Logic is
immanent in factual discourse from the very beginning, and it emerges when we take factual
sentences and combine them in various truth-functional ways. The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 23.
But Pears thinks of the immanence of logic only on the sentential level, and overlooks the possibility that the form of objects is immanent to our discourse. He writes later on in a footnote:
But of course, Wittgensteins forms, unlike Aristotles, are sentential. It is only his view of their
source that is Aristotelian. Ibid., p. 29.


Signs of Sense

guage, and the world. A theory of objects that makes them essentially
distinct from any meaning we can relate to will necessarily appeal to
some mysterious relation that somehow forms itself between objects and
language. In this reading, the Tractatus would be committed to making
substantive metaphysical claims about the relation between language
and world, which would make the nal gesture of throwing away the
ladder something done in bad faith.
Deciding the question concerning the possibility of revealing the objects thus depends on how we interpret Wittgensteins attitude to ordinary language. Pearss approach would make objects as distant from familiar meaning as possible: the surprising thing is not just that the user
of the sentence does not know its analysis, but, rather, that he has no
idea what kind of thing would be mentioned in its analysis, and might
even nd that he was not familiar with that ultimate kind of thing when
he was told what it was.11
The main difculty I see in arguing that objects are wholly mysterious
and unfamiliar is that they cannot then be viewed as worth recovering.
Objects are, so to speak, taken out of circulation; they do not form an
important part of the picture and task of the Tractatus. This view stands
in contrast to the understanding that the recognition of objects is the
recognition of the signicance of the sense we make. This is why it is not
enough to assert the mere necessity for objects to exist, but also the possibility of recognizing objects in relation to the familiar sense we make,
in everyday language.
Pearss approach forms a connection between a certain understanding
of simplicity and the idea that objects are unlike all that we are familiar
Wittgensteins a priori requirement, that objects should be entirely devoid of internal complexity, drove his analysis of factual discourse beyond the terminus that satised Russell. Objects might turn out to be
things no philosopher had ever suggested as the ultimate targets of reference. Indeed, they would have to be new and strange, because noth11. Ibid., p. 69. Pears senses that Wittgenstein also says different things about the objects
but interprets them as a matter of inclination that is then repressed in the full edged view of
the Tractatus: In the Notebooks Wittgenstein evidently feels misgivings about this extreme
view of logical analysis, and he says things that betray a strong inclination to pull back the terminus to a point that is not so remote from the consciousness of ordinary speakers. Ibid.,
p. 69.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


ing with which we are familiar could get past his total embargo on internal structure.12

But this move might result from misunderstanding simplicity. We can

hardly imagine what an object lacking any complexity could be. But
once we see that the simplicity of the object is compatible with its having internal properties, we need not make such a sharp distinction between the object and the possibilities revealed in everyday language.
Pearss interpretation of what the simplicity of the object means derives from a misreading of Wittgensteins concept of form. Pearss picture
of analyzed language is that of an underlying grid with utterly simple
and unfamiliar objects occurring as nodal points. This picture seems at
variance with Wittgensteins description of elementary propositions as
direct connections of objects (like links of a chain). Pearss description
may be an accurate account of how things appear from the perspective
of facts, but once we shift to the perspective of objects, the logical grid is
precisely incorporated so as to bring out the form, the internal properties of the objects. This is why a state of affairs consists solely of objects.
Hence there is a need for an analysis that brings out the logical relations of dependence between propositions, and a showing or recognition of the internal network of possibilities that characterize the object
for us.
Pearss approach to the issue of simple objects can be contrasted to another approach in the secondary literature, which I label the acquaintance approach. It is inspired by bringing together Russells account of
acquaintance with Wittgensteins understanding of objects. According to
this approach, simple objects can be identied with a certain category of
things. Those things must be such as to exist necessarily. They cannot be
ordinary material objects, since supposedly their existence is always
contingent. A good candidate for such a category of simples whose existence cannot be doubted are objects of acquaintance.
The identication of simples with objects of acquaintance introduces
external epistemological concerns into the argument of the Tractatus,
such as: what kinds of things in our world are truly partless? Are elements in our visual eld undecomposable? Is that a characteristic of
sense data in general? Is the perception of sense data evident? Are sense
data necessarily existing? Such investigations do not seem compatible
12. Ibid., p. 68.


Signs of Sense

with Wittgensteins criticism of any a priori theorization as to what the

ultimate elements of experience must be. Moreover, these considerations seem to miss something that is fundamental to Wittgensteins positions, both early and late, namely, that we discover what something is
through our use of terms in language.
Failing to identify objects through language, as the conditions of the
sense we make, we start uncritically with whatever objects we seem to
know and then separate them into complex and simple objects. Such a
division does not accord with Wittgensteins use of the term object in
the Tractatus. As I have pointed out, Wittgenstein writes Objects are
simple (2.02). He thus sees simplicity as constitutive of the very notion
of the object (just as he takes complexity to be constitutive of the notion
of the fact).
A further problem with taking objects to be objects of acquaintance is
that it makes it difcult to understand how objects contain possibilities
of combination, that is, that knowing an object is knowing possibility
and not just what is actual. Acquaintance seems to provide us primarily
with what is actual, since it requires an immediate relation to the object.
Starting from actual acquaintance leads us to think of possibilities as being constructed on the basis of actual data. Thus possibility is always a
matter of logical operations on what is actually given. Possibility always
involves logical structure and cannot be seen as embedded in the nature
of the object.
An exception to this idea that acquaintance gives us what is actual is
advanced by M. Hintikka and J. Hintikka in Investigating Wittgenstein.
They argue that our acquaintance with the object also involves an acquaintance with forms: Wittgenstein not only countenanced logical
forms of simple objects but placed a considerable emphasis on them . . .
In the Tractatus the forms of simple objects govern the way in which
these objects can be combined with each other. The form of an object is
what is true of it a priori.13 The authors then develop a complex and interesting argument for identifying simples with objects of acquaintance
primarily as a consequence of what they call the ineffability of semantics
in the Tractatus. Thus they do not start with epistemology but rather
with a thesis concerning language in the Tractatus. We cannot raise
questions about the existence or nonexistence of objects, because the re13. J. Hintikka and M. Hintikka, Investigating Wittgenstein, pp. 5354.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


lation of naming is ineffable, the existence of a simple object is shown

by the fact that its name is used in the language (p. 47).14
Identifying the objects of the Tractatus with objects of acquaintance
derives from the thesis of ineffability of the name-object relation. Indeed, even given such an ineffability, we can still say what the object at
the receiving end of the relation is like (p. 50). Hence the question
raised by M. Hintikka and J. Hintikka is, which kinds of objects are such
that we cannot raise questions as to their naming? They seek an answer
in Wittgensteins background:
The sense data out of which Russell constructs the external world exhibit a similarly perplexing ambivalence between the phenomenal and
the objective. On the one hand, they are the data which sense give us,
hence subject to all the vagaries of sense perception. On the other
hand, they are not a part of ones psychological process of sense-perception . . . They are the objects of perception, part of the perceptual
contents, not an aspect of the act of perceiving. Hence they exhibit the
same ambivalence as do Wittgensteins objects.

Although I am in complete agreement with the idea that Wittgenstein

does not provide a substantive account of the name-object relation in
the Tractatus, I distinguish the claim of the ineffability of that relation
from the claim I make that depicting depends on the identity of form in
picture and reality. Once this identity is acknowledged there is, I think,
even less temptation to think of simple objects as a specic subset of
things. They can be identied precisely with the form of depiction that is
to be recovered beyond the form of our means of representation.15
It might be argued that in the account provided by J. and M. Hintikka,
the revelation of the form of objects is brought close enough to a general
14. J. Hintikka and M. Hintikka elaborate Wittgensteins use of the concept of showing primarily in relation to the ineffability of semantics. But I would think of it primarily in relation to
the uncovering of form, thus primarily in relation to the revelation of the internal relations that
constitute the object or determine the symbol. But in that case there is no further issue of determining the reference of the symbol. The identity of form between language and world is the
starting point of the account of picturing.
15. This move is supported by correlating Wittgensteins practice with phenomenology, as
well as broadening the concept of phenomenology to the description of the range of possibilities that an object allows. Investigating Wittgenstein, p. 150. In this sense of phenomenology,
there is no need to invoke acquaintance as the primary mode of relating to objects. Phenomenology would be the description of the conditions of possibility that constitute what a thing is.


Signs of Sense

idea of phenomenology to dispense with the need to insist on the specialized use of acquaintance, as they do. If anything remains from the
idea of acquaintance in relation to objects, it should be sought in the understanding that objects are shown. To know an object is to show its
form as it appears through language. Showing, like acquaintance, refers
us to a certain nondiscursive recognition, but it is a term that is freed
from all connections to sensibility. It is used solely to characterize our
capacity for recognizing the internal relations that constitute the forms
of objects, or for recognizing the meaning of the sense we make.
The Hintikkas also propose a link between Wittgensteins notion of
showing and the view that the objects of the Tractatus are objects of acquaintance. But their understanding of showing is primarily related to
the semantic dimension of the relation between name and objectto
the need for an act of pointing or ostension:
According to Russells sometime theory, there are in our language only
two logically proper names for particular objects other than oneself, to
wit, this and that. If so, Russellian objects of acquaintance are introduced by displaying them and pointing to them, that is by showing
them. This is a perfect precedent of Wittgensteins mystical sounding
doctrine of showing in contradistinction to saying. It seems to us unmistakable that this Russellian idea was in fact one of the models on
which Wittgensteins notion of showing was based . . . Thus the gist of
Wittgensteins seemingly delphic doctrine of showing turns out to be a
sober corollary to a semantics based on acquaintance.16

I prefer, however, to think of the notion of showing primarily in terms of

the grammatical dimension, since it is in that dimension that the internal relations that constitute the object are revealed. There then remains
no further task of assigning any meaning to the terms, since the form
shown in language is the form of objects.
J. and M. Hintikka also develop a notion of mirroring, which they
contrast to picturing and which indeed seems to capture the idea that
internal properties are reected in language. But I see no reason to distinguish it from the notion of showing, which they use to indicate the
semantic dimension. In 4.121, for example, the terms mirrored, reected, express itself, show, and display are used interchangeably.
The approach I nd closest to the one I adopted in this book, and
16. Ibid., p. 64.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


which can be labeled contextualist, is the one presented by H. Ishiguro

in Use and Reference of Names.17 Ishiguro views objects as wholly determined by the propositional contexts in which the name of the object
occurs: In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is anxious to stress that we cannot
see how the name refers to an object except by understanding the role it
plays in propositions. Instead of stressing the primacy of the vertical
dimension of naming as the key to understanding Wittgensteins notion
of the object, Ishiguro focuses on the horizontal dimension, on the
various propositional contexts in which the name occurs, as the determinants of signication. Objects viewed in this way are related to the
notion of form and are said to possess internal properties determined by
the propositional contexts in which the names appear. Ishiguro makes
this point perfectly clear in discussing Wittgensteins notion of elucidation: The elucidations make us see what the object is by showing its internal properties. By making us grasp the kind of object which is in
question they make us see in what sort of state of affairs the object could
occur. What kind of propositions the elucidations are depends on the
nature of the particular object in question.18 This interpretation has the
merit of bringing out the relation between the understanding of the object and the recognition of form, itself exhibited by the internal connection between a series of propositions.
Ishiguro fails to make the distinction that I think is operative in the
Tractatus between being a representative (vertreten) and meaning (bedeuten), which makes her interpretation vulnerable to certain criticisms
advanced by Pears. He objects to Ishiguros position on the ground that
Wittgenstein speaks of objects having signs as their representatives,
which he reads as meaning that the object is independently existing and
must be referred to in language. But I argue that the relation of representativeness is not a relation of reference. Thus one can maintain both that
objects must have names as their representatives, and that the form of
the object is revealed by the propositional context in which the name appears. It is the meaning that is thus revealed, and such meaning involves
the recognition, through linguistic contexts, of the form of the object.19
17. A similar approach is advanced in B. McGuinness, The So-called Realism of Wittgensteins Tractatus., pp. 6074.
18. H. Ishiguro, Use and Reference of Names, p. 107.
19. Similarly, Pears argues against Ishiguros interpretation that Wittgenstein allows for a
determination of an object through a denite description. Thus an object cannot be correlative


Signs of Sense

4. Pictures
A proper understanding of Wittgensteins so-called picture theory is a
fundamental crossroads in grasping the signicance of the Tractatus as a
whole. In my account I aim to address a fundamental interpretative
problem which I see as forcing false issues on the Tractatus. This is the
attempt to think of the book as an effort to provide a thick, substantive
account of the relation between language and reality. The rst question,
then, is whether we have in the Tractatus a theory of picturing.20
E. Anscombe presents the problem of the Tractatus as follows: It is
clear enough . . . that the principal theme of the book is the connection
between language, or thought, and reality. The main thesis about this is
that sentences, or their mental counterpart, are pictures of facts.21 Similarly, P. M. S. Hacker writes:
Philosophy, as practiced in the Tractatus, has one overarching goalto
render an account of the essence of the world . . . the overarching goal
is pursued by searching for the essential nature of the proposition.
Once this is revealed, all lesser philosophical problems will solve
themselves. The key to the search is the notion of depiction . . . The
Picture Theory of the Proposition contains Wittgensteins answer.22

to all the sensical contexts in which its name appears, since the object is identied by certain
contingent, factual properties that it actually possesses. This criticism also seems to me misguided. Indeed, there is no problem in saying things about the object, attributing to it properties through a description, but this does not reveal what the object is, it does not reveal its form.
Thus a denite description cannot give us a grasp of what the object is.
20. The view that the Tractatus provides a substantive theory of the relation between language and world originates in Russells Introduction to the work: The essential business of
language is to assert or deny facts. Given the syntax of a language, the meaning of a sentence is
determinate as soon as the meaning of the component words is known. In order that a certain
sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be
something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact. This
is perhaps the most fundamental thesis of Mr Wittgensteins theory (p. x).
What allows Russell to speak, for example, of a fundamental thesis concerning picturing is
his focus on the agreement of structure between the picture and reality. Thus he ignores Wittgensteins claim that there must be at bottom an identity of form between language and reality.
More precisely, Russell seems to use form and structure interchangeably.
21. E. Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 19.
22. The Rise and Fall of the Picture Theory, in I. Block, ed., Perspectives on the Philosophy
of Wittgenstein.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


I view this notionthat providing an account of the relation of language

and world is a central task of the Tractatusas inimical to our grasp of
the other issues of the book, for it obliges us to think of the realm of language as essentially distinct from that of reality. According to that view,
certain forms of metaphysical realism can be attributed to Wittgenstein.
Alternatively, Wittgenstein is presented as a linguistic idealist. In that
idealist picture, securing the relation between language and the world
becomes the essential task of the metaphysical subject (through a theory
of projection). Consequently, such an account of picturing colors our
understanding of the subject, and ultimately of the ethical point of the
Tractatus as a whole.
The problems encountered with the account of picturing are related
to the misunderstandings I have noted with regard to Wittgensteins notion of form. A proper grasp of his use of form makes us realize that at
the deepest level language and world are one. One might ask what point
there is then in an account of picturing if an identity of form of language
and world is assumed from the start. If that is the case, what is there to
explain? Indeed, if it is correct that no substantial theory of the relation
of language and world is at stake, then the whole point of the account of
picturing is precisely to make us realize that we discover our world
through language; that form conditions our making of sense and it has to
be recovered to reveal the possibilities of our world. Thus what is at
stake in properly describing picturing is not a theoretical project but
rather an attempt to lay the ground for an ethical imperative in language.
The emphasis on identity of form of language and world brings out
the equiprimordiality of language, of a world of objects and of the subject. What there is reveals itself through language, and it is in language
that the subject nds itself in the world. Such an approach to the account of picturing allows us to view it as directing us to a task of recovering meaning rather than as providing a theoretical framework of the
working of language. It thus sheds light on our understanding of the
task of the Tractatus as a whole. This deation of the account of picturing is in line with the understanding that the Tractatus cannot be a substantial bit of theorizing, precisely because at the end Wittgenstein demands that we throw away the ladder.
It is signicant that many accounts that seek for a substantive answer
to the question of the relation of language to reality fail to take this claim
of identity of form seriously. Thus in P. M. S. Hackers Insight and Illusion


Signs of Sense

we are told that a metaphysical conception of the harmony between language and reality is implicit in the Tractatus. He even contrasts such a
conception with Wittgensteins later view in which everything happens
at the level of grammar.23 D. F. Pears similarly avoids the claim of identity and opens a gap between objects and language: [Wittgensteins]
view was that a form is the possibility of a certain combination of objects, and he thought that these possibilities are taken up and expressed
by language, not by acquaintance and naming but by the kind of osmosis that he describes in the picture theory.24 This comment reveals that
part of the problem in Pearss account of picturing derives from his misinterpretation of the notion of form. Pears thinks of form as a possible
structure, rather than as the possibility of structure. Thus even if an
identity of form is acknowledged at the basis of representation, there is
still a need to coordinate the possibilities of objects with possibilities in
language by means of a substantive relation.25 If, on the other hand, we
were to take form as a whole space of possibility, then the identity of
form would not need to be supplemented by a further correlation between language and world.26
23. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion (2nd. ed.), pp. 116118.
24. D. F. Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 116.
25. If a structure is going to count as a picture, it is not enough that it should realize a certain possibilityevery structure does that: it must also be related in a certain way to what it depicts. It follows that pictorial form is partly derivative and partly intrinsic. An example will
make the two aspects of pictorial form clear, taking the intrinsic rst. A eck of paint is put on
a canvas at a certain point, and that realizes a possibility which, of course, existed before it was
realized, namely the possibility that the point chosen on the canvas should be that color. But if
the possibility is going to count as a pictorial form, it must be linked to the possibility that in
the scene depicted the point that is correlated with this bit of the canvas should be that color
too. That is the derivative aspect of pictorial form. Ibid., p. 130. Remaining with the analogy
to painting, and also thinking of the history of modern art, I would suggest that form, insofar as
it has to do with the possibility of a picture, is something like color itself, rather than a particular color, possible or actual. There is then no relation between picture and world but only identity of form.
26. In his Pictures, Logic and the Limits of Sense, Thomas Ricketts refers to many of the
central terms I distinguish in my interpretation of the account of picturing. Yet he also avoids
the strict understanding of the identity of form between picture and world. He claims that there
is a need for a coordination of the possibility of combination of objects with those of names:
There is for a language only the single rule that projects the sentences of that language onto
reality, onto states of affairs (see 4.0141). The rule does this by coordinating names and the
ways that names can form sentences with objects and the ways that objects can form states of

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


One possible way of acknowledging Wittgensteins claim about the

identity of pictorial form of picture and world while avoiding its consequences is to think of it as providing only very general, merely formal
conditions of identity. Thus form is dissociated from objects. It does not
provide an understanding of what a thing is. Hackers understanding of
form, which I described above, leads to such a reading:
To know the meaning of . . . a simple name is to know what object is its
meaning. To know an object is to know all its possible occurrences in
states of affairs, i.e. its internal properties . . . The logical syntax of a
name must mirror the form of the object which it names. For names
too have both form and content. Their content is their meaning. Their
form is their logico-syntactical combinatorial possibilities.27

I note that Wittgenstein does not say that a name has form and content,
as if these were two separate elements that are put together to form a
name. He writes, An expression is the mark of a form and a content
affairs. The coordinations spoken of in the 2.15s are thus thick, nonextensional correlations
made by the rule of projection for a language. It is these thick correlations that constitute sentences as models of reality, that give names feelers so that sentences composed of those names
are laid like measuring sticks against reality (p. 75).
Ricketts recognizes that there is also a shared form between the picture and reality, but
thinks there is a need for a further projection rule so that the specic combinatorial properties
of names can match those of objects. This results from the fact that alternative arrangements
could equally well represent a certain arrangement of objects. For example: We can specify a
general rule that projects arrangements of blocks on the scene of the accident by assigning
blocks to cars and stipulating that the relative spatial positions of the blocks are to represent
that the cars they name at the time of the accident had the same relative spatial positions . . . Although this rule of projection is salient, it is not the only one. We might use an arrangement of
blocks to represent cars to stand in the mirror image of this arrangement (ibid.).
This example of a permutation that retains the isomorphism of structure seems to demand
the introduction of an additional act of projection into the account of picturing, thus the postulation of a thinking subject that must essentially exist for picturing to work. That subject must
do something for the picture to represent. But is that the case? We can appreciate the problem
in Rickettss account if we avoid thinking of one picture representing reality and rather conceive of a specic language, a notation. It is in the context of such a notation or system of signs
that Wittgenstein introduces the notion of projection. It is indeed possible to think of a notation in which a certain arrangement should be read as a mirror image of the arrangement of
things in the world, but this just means that form is reected in that notation differently than in
other more straightforward notations. There is still complete identity of form and no need for
a further act of correlation.
27. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion (2nd. ed.), p. 20.


Signs of Sense

(3.31). Furthermore, for Wittgenstein content means propositional content, rather than the object which is the meaning of a name. (See, for example, 3.13: The content of a proposition means the content of a proposition that has sense.) I take it then that when Wittgenstein stresses
that an expression is the mark of a form and a content, he means that the
expression, insofar as it is part of a proposition that states a fact, functions to give us a content. It marks a form when it is considered in relation to other propositions, when its internal properties are brought out.
This is precisely similar to the case of objects that are said to be form and
content. Insofar as they occur in facts they determine content, that is,
material properties. Insofar as we know them as possibilities of combination, they determine a form. So the form that is at stake in 3.31 is precisely the form of the object, and not a merely syntactical form to which
the meaning of the object is to be added.
Since Hackers interpretation makes no connection between the pictorial form and uncovering the form of objects, it requires that we assume
a further relation between names in the picture and objects in the world.
The merely formal signs must be lled with content. This leads to what I
see as a problematic distinction imposed on Wittgensteins account between a syntax which is merely formal, that is, empty of content, and a
semantics that lls it with content.
P. M. S. Hacker identies Wittgensteins use of the notion of projection
with establishing meaning for names:
Understanding a proposition requires . . . knowledge of the correlation
between its constituent names and the objects they name. This will be
the case either if I have endowed the name-signs with a Bedeutung by
correlating them through a mental act with elements in my experience,
or alternatively if they have been explained to me by means of elucidations . . . Either way a mechanism of a psychological nature is generated to
project lines of projection onto the world.28

Thus the harmony Hacker invokes between language and world is ultimately secured by the subject, who injects meaning into empty formal
structures. As he puts it in the rst edition of Insight and Illusion:
The view that the skeleton of language only takes on esh and blood
through occult mechanismsthat the logical syntax, which is a priori
28. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion (1st. ed.), p. 51, my emphasis.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


determined, is given a semantic dimension by means of a hypothetical

psychological process which the natural science of psychology must
investigateis implicit in the Notebooks. Only in thought do signs become symbols, for it is only in thought that a method of projection is

In the second edition we nd the same idea expressed in connection

with a transcendental willing subject rather than an empirical subject:
That such congurations in thought or language, actually represent
(and do not merely contain the possibility of representing (TLP 3.13)
is a function of the will, of the metaphysical self . . . It is a mental act
(albeit of a transcendental self, not of the self that is studied by psychology) that injects meaning or signicance into signs, whether in
thought or in language. One might call this conception The Doctrine
of the Linguistic Soul, for it is the soul that is the fountainhead of language or representation.30

Hackers position on form, pictures, and projection thus leads him to

grant a very substantive role to the subject in securing the functioning of
language.31 While the activity of injecting meaning into signs cannot be
identied with any empirically recognizable process, it remains nevertheless the case that the transcendental self is necessary for language to
acquire meaning. The Tractatus turns out to contain a thick transcendental psychology of the faculties. A tension arises between such a substantive theorizing and Wittgensteins clear stricture against the possibility of sensically asserting any such theory. Any commitment to such
29. Ibid., p. 47.
30. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion (2nd. ed.), p. 75.
31. Hacker develops his understanding of the subject, as the subject that supplies meanings
to empty signs, into an interpretation of solipsism: Anything which I can understand as language must, as it were, have a substance as well as an appearance. The appearance is the propositional sign, spoken or written. The substance is the mental accompaniment. The substance of
language must be supplied by me. Things acquire Bedeutung only in relation to my will is
not an ethical principle, but a semantic one. This thin semantic route to linguistic solipsism,
i.e. the identication of language with my language, is paralleled by a semantic route to the
metalinguistic soul as the analogue of the metaphysical self. For the self which thinks the
method of projection cannot, so it might seem, be captured by the language it creates. The
metalinguistic soul, is, as it were, the blind spot upon the retinal image to which nothing in the
visual image corresponds. Insight and Illusion (1st. ed.), pp. 7677.


Signs of Sense

theorizing will create a serious problem when attempting at the end to

throw away the ladder.32
There is a further reason to oppose this conception of the subject as
the source of meaning when one attempts to relate Wittgensteins views
in the Tractatus with his later criticism of mentalism. Indeed, the supposed reliance on a mental act to secure the relation between thought
and the world seems to such interpreters as Hacker to stand in stark
contrast with Wittgensteins later critique of mentalism. Hans-Johann
Glock, apparently adopting Hackers view of the matter, writes: [The
Tractatus] remains wedded to the doctrine that it is the mind which
gives meaning to language by breathing life into sounds and inscriptions
that would otherwise be dead . . . Wittgenstein [later] criticized the view
that thinking is a mental process which accompanies speech and endows it with meaning.33
It is indeed possible that the early Wittgenstein upheld doctrines that
were so strongly opposed to his later views, but I think that we should
seek a more nuanced account of the distinction between the various periods of Wittgensteins philosophizing. My interpretation of picturing
and in particular of projection as the reection of the space of form in
the logical space of signs is intended to avoid these assumptions about
mental acts that accompany our use of signs. Thus it also allows us to
recognize the afnities between Wittgensteins early and late thinking,
despite appearances to the contrary.

5. Logical Syntax
In developing Wittgensteins understanding of the relation between
making sense and recognizing meaning I have claimed that there is an
32. When discussing Hackers account in Wittgenstein and Idealism, Bernard Williams is
fully aware of this tension and expresses the sense that the apparent discovery of the transcendental self must be recognized as provisional: The sense in which [the subject] is a limit, also
means that at the limit, it is nothing at all. Quoting 5.64, Williams adds: Indeed, granted this,
I nd puzzling why Wittgenstein can say (5.641) that there really is a sense in which philosophy can talk about the self in a non-psychological way. But I take this to mean that philosophy
can talk about it the only way in which by the end of the Tractatus, we nd that philosophy can
talk about anything: that is to say, not with sense. B. Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 146.
33. Hans-Johann Glock, A Wittgenstein Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 358.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


essential element of passivity in our relation to meaning. Meaning is not

ours to make, it is not arbitrarily determined, but rather something to
assume or recognize in language.
The question of discerning what is ours to make and what we must
recognize in language is elaborated in Wittgensteins distinction between
the sign and the symbol. Hence interpretations that emphasize human
control over the generation of meaning will in general avoid recognizing
particular features of the symbolic order. This is, I think, typical of
Carnaps adoption of the Tractatus in his Logical Syntax of Language.
Carnap explicitly thinks of the Tractatus as a source of inspiration for his
It is Wittgenstein who rst exhibited the close connection between the
logic of science (or philosophy, as he calls it) and syntax. In particular, he made clear the formal nature of logic and emphasized the fact
that the rules and proofs of syntax should have no reference to the
meaning of symbols . . . Wittgensteins view is represented, and has
been further developed by the Vienna Circle, and in this part of the
book I owe a great deal to his ideas. If I am right, the position here
maintained is in general agreement with his, but goes beyond it in certain important respects.34

Although Carnaps account in The Logical Syntax of Language is not

properly speaking an interpretation of the Tractatus, a consideration of
the problems in Carnaps development of Wittgensteins thought can
lead to valuable insights about the central aims of the Tractatus. An important aspect of Carnaps account in The Logical Syntax of Language is
the complete freedom he allows in the postulation of the rules of syntax
and the consequent determination of meaning on the basis of such postulation: let any postulates and any rules of inference be chosen arbitrarily; then this choice, whatever it may be, will determine what meaning is to be assigned to the fundamental logical symbols.35
Thus for Carnap it is our choice of rules of syntax that determines
what our fundamental terms mean. This stands in sharp contrast to
what I see as Wittgensteins view, according to which symbols are not determinable arbitrarily but rather are the reection of our use of signs,
34. R. Carnap, The Logical Syntax of Language, p. 282.
35. Ibid., p. xv.


Signs of Sense

that is, they reect the form of objects in our use of language. Signs indeed contain much that is arbitrary, but such arbitrariness disappears as
one brings out the symbolic form.
Even as one considers the form of our means of representation, it is in
no way conventional. One could say that the form of representation is
determined by the understanding of the possibility of representation as
such. This is elaborated in Wittgensteins account of picturing, particularly in the idea that the form of representation must be identical with the
form of facts. There is no signicant conventionalism in Wittgensteins
understanding of language.
This point may elucidate the difference between Wittgensteins claim
that logic is not part of the constitution of reality and the position taken
by the positivists. Carnap writes in his Intellectual Autobiography:
For me personally, Wittgenstein was perhaps the philosopher who, besides Russell and Frege, had the greatest inuence on my thinking. The
most important insight I gained from his work was the conception that
the truth of logical statements is based only on their logical structure
and on the meaning of the terms. Logical statements are true under all
conceivable circumstances; thus their truth is independent of the contingent facts of the world. On the other hand, it follows that these
statements do not say anything about the world and thus have no factual content.36

In the Logical Syntax of Language Carnap takes this insight to mean that
the logic of a language is to be identied with syntax and that it is conventional. Whereas Wittgenstein, as I understand him, uses that insight
to point to a perspective on the world apart from logic. Carnap indeed
would readily adopt a distinction between the logical and the factual,
but for Wittgenstein the critical distinction is the one between facts in
logical space and objects. The turn to the object is part of the legacy of
the Tractatus that positivism could not accept, for it is related to the appearance of nonlogical internal relations between propositions, something akin to the traditional notion of the synthetic a priori.
This central distinction between Wittgenstein and Carnap is also related to another crucial point of difference in their views concerning the
possibility of a meta-perspective on language. Indeed, in Carnaps view,
36. R. Carnap, Intellectual Autobiography, in P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Rudolf
Carnap, p. 25.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


the essential freedom of syntax is possible precisely because we can determine a standpoint from which all those different languages can be described:
The sentences, denitions, and rules of the syntax of a language are
concerned with the forms of that language. But, now, how are these
sentences, denitions, and rules themselves to be correctly expressed?
Is a kind of super-language necessary for the purpose? And again, a
third language to explain the syntax of this super language and so on to
innity? Or is it possible to formulate the syntax of a language within
that language itself? . . . We shall see later that without any danger of
contradictions or antinomies emerging it is possible to express the syntax of a language in that language itself, to an extent which is conditioned by the wealth of means of expression of the language in question.37

That possibility seems to constitute Carnaps solution to the problem

posed by Wittgensteins distinction between saying and showing. Carnap nds it inadmissible that logical form cannot be said. He thus elaborates on Russells suggestion,
that every language has, as Mr. Wittgenstein says, a structure concerning which, in the language, nothing can be said, but that there may be
another language dealing with the structure of the rst language, and
having itself a new structure, and that to this hierarchy of languages
there may be no limit. Mr. Wittgenstein would of course reply that his
whole theory is applicable unchanged to the totality of such languages.
The only retort would be to deny that there is any such totality.38

By claiming that the description of the syntax of a language can be expressed in that language itself, Carnap believes he avoids the regress that
worries Russell. But both Carnap and Russell miss Wittgensteins deepest intentionsthat form is not the postulation of rules for the use of
signs but rather something that must be recovered through the recognition of internal relations between the various propositions we use.
Wittgensteins notion of showing emphasizes that meaning is revealed
through language, and that we can never control the appearance of such
meaning but are required to be attentive to it. The idea of a meta-language is thus revealed to be allied with a conception of the control of
37. R. Carnap, Logical Syntax of Language, p. 3.
38. B. Russell, Introduction to the Tractatus, p. xxii.


Signs of Sense

meaning, with the possibility of anticipating meaning by making it the

result of human conventions that are completely surveyable and describable. It is in this difference of sensibility between Carnap or Russell
and Wittgenstein that one must locate the real force and point of Wittgensteins use of the notion of showing, his emphasis on what expresses
itself in language and is not ours to construct or control.
A further issue arises from Russell and Carnaps attempts to address
the say-show distinction in the Tractatus. It concerns the place accorded
to everyday language in Wittgensteins thought. If, indeed, the distinction between the sign and the symbol is a distinction primarily between
what is arbitrary in language, what is up to us to determine, and what reveals itself through languagewhat shows itself or is mirrored in languagethen I think it is signicant that The Logical Syntax of Language
presents us with a conception of language in which the possibility of
stipulating rules of syntax is taken to an extreme. This stands in stark
contrast to Wittgensteins notion that form reveals itself in language. It
also can be contrasted with the necessity of accepting language, which I
see as the rst step in Wittgensteins lifelong turn to everyday language.

6. Everyday Language
Everyday language certainly occupies a central place in Wittgensteins
later philosophy, but can the seeds of that conception already be discerned in the Tractatus? Part of what hinders us from attributing to Wittgenstein the afrmation of everyday language is that he invokes the need
to devise a logically adequate notation to remedy the defects of ordinary
language. Understanding this idea hinges on making the proper distinction between sign and symbol, as well as between the logical space of
representation and the space or form of objects.
As I have argued, Russell has misunderstood Wittgensteins position
on both those issues. It is not surprising then for him to conclude that
the elaboration of a logically perfect language (as opposed to a notation)
is what Wittgenstein requires to remedy the logical defects of everyday
In order to understand Mr. Wittgensteins 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 condi-

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


tions which would have to be fullled by a logically perfect language

. . . He is concerned with the conditions for accurate symbolism, i.e.
form symbolisms in which a sentence means something quite denite.
In practice, language is more or less vague, so what we assert is never
quite precise . . . Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned with the conditions for
a logically perfect languagenot that any language is logically perfect,
or that we believe ourselves capable, here and now, of constructing a
logically perfect language, but the whole function of language is to
have meaning, and it only fullls this function in proportion as it approaches to the ideal language which we postulate.39

The rst thing to note is Russells assertion that the problem of language
has to do with the level of meaning, with the signs capacity to mean anything at all. This is quite different from Wittgensteins emphasis, which
is that the defects of ordinary language are a matter of notation, not a
question of the capacity of language to signify at all. Russells problem is
to devise a language that can secure signication, which for him means a
complete devaluation of ordinary language. Wittgensteins problem is to
make the signication inherent in ordinary language perspicuous, whatever it is. As he puts it in the Notebooks: My method is not to sunder the
hard from the soft, but to see the hardness of the soft.40
In his Critical Notice, F. Ramsey points out that Russells assumption that Wittgensteins theory is concerned with the construction of a
logically perfect language is not an infallible guide to Mr. Wittgensteins
meaning, and that in general [Wittgenstein] seems to maintain that
his doctrines apply to ordinary languages in spite of appearance of the
contrary.41 But Ramsey himself might not have grasped the role that ordinary language plays for Wittgenstein. It is one thing to claim that the
doctrine of the Tractatus applies to ordinary languages, and another to
see something like language in its everydayness as a standard of signicance. Moreover, Ramsey speaks of ordinary languages (in the plural), apparently referring to such languages as English, French, Hebrew,
etc. But Wittgenstein uses the term in the singular, showing that he is
concerned with the everyday or the ordinary in language as such. The
afrmation of everyday language, at this stage of Wittgensteins think39. Ibid., p. x.
40. NB, p. 44.
41. F. Ramsey, Critical Notice of L. Wittgensteins Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in I. M.
Copi and R. W. Beard, eds., Essays on Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 34.


Signs of Sense

ing, is tantamount to the afrmation of language as it stands, in contrast

to attempts to devise a perfect language or to discover a ground of meaning that would secure the proper functioning of language.
The possibility of afrming language as it stands depends on recognizing the impossibility of a mistake at the symbolic level, that is, the
impossibility of what is usually called a category mistake. In her discussion of nonsense, Cora Diamond has shown extremely convincingly
how the very notion of a category mistake is confused.42 Her claim that
there is no informative nonsense, although mainly made in relation to
the interpretation of the ending of the Tractatus, is crucially relevant to
the question of the afrmation of everyday language.43 For what stands
in the way of such an afrmation is precisely the notion that we have to
take care of logical defects at the symbolic level.
The intuition that there are no logical defects in language is expressed
early on in Wittgensteins Notebooks, when he writes that Logic must
take care of itself. Such a claim is, I take it, equivalent to the claim that
we cannot make mistakes in logic (5.473). That is, logic is not ours either to use correctly or to use incorrectlyit takes care of itself.
Yet Wittgensteins claim here could still be taken to refer only to the
system of truth-functional and quanticational logic, to what I have
called the logic of facts, which is how Pears reads it:
Logic is a self-contained system which can be validated only from
within. Its formulae, therefore, must be completely different from factual sentences, which have to measure up to something outside themselves, the contingent layout of the world . . . If logical formulae are
tautologies, logic really does take care of itself, because tautologies do
not depend on anything that happen in the world. They are not hostages to contingency.44

There is of course a clear contrast between statements of facts (all that

can be said) and tautologies. But I take it that Wittgenstein extends the
insight that logic takes care of itself to the very form of signication as
well, to the identity of form between the symbol and the object. Indeed,
that insight appears in the Notebooks in the context of the discussion of
signication, or of the relation of sign and thing. Once more: logic must
42. See C. Diamond, On What Nonsense Might Be, in The Realistic Spirit.
43. Ibid.
44. D. Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 22.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


take care of itself. A possible sign must also be capable of signifying. Everything that is possible at all, is also legitimate. Let us remember the explanation why Socrates is Plato is nonsense. That is, because we have
not made an arbitrary specication, NOT because a sign is, shall we say,
illegitimate in itself.45 This passage is repeated almost identically in the
Tractatus at 5.473. It is then followed by the claim that In a certain
sense, we cannot make mistakes in logic. It is clear from the context
that this remark elucidates something important about signication. It is
precisely signication, that is, meaning, that takes care of itself. There is
an inherent aboutness in language, an intentionality that does not depend on our intentions but rather takes care of itself.
The Tractatus does not mean to determine what the world must
be like for language to be possible. But the attempts made by various
commentators to provide a self-evident ground of language testify that
Wittgensteins insight that language takes care of itself has not been understood. These attemptswhich have involved, for instance, characterizing a priori what the simple objects must berun counter to Wittgensteins imperative to recognize the meaning inherent in everyday
language, to recognize what takes care of itself. This is why Wittgenstein
follows 5.473 with a remark on Russells introduction of the notion of
self-evidence into logic: Self-evidence, which Russell talked about so
much, can become dispensable in logic, only because language itself
prevents every logical mistake (5.4731).

7. Realism or Idealism
The assumptions made concerning the nature of simple objects, the nature of picturing, and in general the relation between language and
world determine to a large extent whether a given interpretation conceives of Wittgensteins position as, broadly speaking, realist or idealist.
D. Pears presents Wittgensteins position as essentially realist: The
Tractatus is basically realistic in the following sense: language enjoys
certain options on the surface, but deeper down it is founded on the intrinsic nature of objects, which is not our creation but is set over against
us in mysterious independence.46 The mysterious independence of the
45. NB, p. 2.
46. D. Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 8.


Signs of Sense

object, hence the realism Pears attributes to the Tractatus, results in part
from the inability to appreciate the fact that the form of objects is indeed
mirrored in language. Pearss emphasis on inferential relations as the
sole component of form does make it wholly mysterious how precisely
objects are operative in determining what can be done in language, or
what the limits of language are.
Interpretations that take Wittgensteins view in the Tractatus to be realist usually contrast it unfavorably with his later philosophical sensibility. Thus Pears presents Wittgenstein as a clear case of what he calls uncritical realism:
nothing is said about the way in which we manage to go on using a
name correctly after its original attachment to an object. The assumption is that, if that problem arises, the nature of the object will take care
of it . . . Our minds contribute nothing positive at this point and there
is no admixture of intellectual labor. Now the objects of the Tractatus
are the only ultimate constituents of the world, and so this account of
the way in which they acquire and keep their name is intended as a
general explanation of the attachment of language to the world. It is
wholly un-Kantian, a clear paradigm of uncritical realism.47

Pears argues that in the name-object relationship, the object is the

dominant partner in the relationship, and its inherent possibilities decide whether the name thereafter represents it.48 But it is hard to square
this statement with his earlier claims. For one thing, if the object is entirely devoid of internal features, how can language trace its inherent
possibilities? Moreover, if the object is entirely unfamiliar, as Pears
would propose, one can hardly imagine how the human side of that
relationship ever manages to follow the dominant partner. In these conditions it is not surprising that Pears regards Wittgensteins realism as
uncritical, and the relation between names and objects as a kind of mysterious osmosis.
Considering the afnities of Wittgensteins and Schopenhauers thinking can shed light on the formers relation to idealism. Those afnities
are treated in D. Wieners Genius and Talent. He argues that the Tractatus
47. Ibid., p. 9.
48. Ibid., p. 111.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


accepts Schopenhauers world as representation, but rejects the world

as will:49
The argument of the Tractatus can be neatly mapped onto The World as
Will and Representation. The limits of my language mean the limit of
the world as my representation. There is no secret passageway from the
world as representation to the thing-in-itself. Schopenhauers metaphysics of will is a nonsensical effort to speak about the thing-in-itself;
only the rst book should have been written; the second should have
been passed over in silence.50

Such a diagnosis of the nature of Wittgensteins achievement overlooks

that he establishes a fundamental distinction between the form of representation (which is the form of facts) and the form of objects. Trying to
grasp the thing-in-itself is indeed a nonsensical effort. But Schopenhauer
allows for relating to the world as will through identifying with the
objectication of the will in appearance. It is in that sense that Wittgenstein directs us to meaning beyond the form of representation, or conceives of the subject through identication with such meaning. This
calls for identifying with the appearance of meaning in the world, beyond the structuring effects of the subject of representation, beyond
what Schopenhauer would think of as the realm of the principle of sufcient reason. It is the appearance of groundless meaning and our essential passivity in respect to that meaning that allows, in Wittgensteins
view, for the transcendence of representation.
A problematic form of idealism appears, I think, in Hackers understanding of what Wittgenstein inherited from Schopenhauer. He too sees
the inuence as restricted to the structuring activity of the transcendental subject and identies Wittgensteins understanding of the truth in solipsism with Schopenhauers transcendental idealism:
Wittgensteins solipsism was inspired by Schopenhauers doctrines of
transcendental idealism. These he adapted to his own peculiar transcendental form of theoretical egoism . . . They express a doctrine
which I shall call Transcendental Solipsism. They involve a belief in
the transcendental ideality of time (and presumably space), a rather
perverse interpretation of the Kantian doctrine of the unity of apper49. D. Weiner, Genius and Talent, p. 11.
50. Ibid., p. 72.


Signs of Sense

ception together with the acceptance of Schopenhauers quasi-reication of the unity of consciousness, and other related and obscure theories about ethics, the will, aesthetics, and religion. Wittgensteins
originality in the matter lies in his attempt to dovetail these doctrines
into the sophisticated account of representation with which most of
the Tractatus is concerned.51

By adopting only the rst part of Schopenhauers idealism one nds oneself afrming something like the transcendental egoism that is always a
danger for an idealistic position. But the ethical standpoint involves going beyond the specular predicament of the transcendental subject. It involves the essential passivity of the subject in relation to the appropriation of meaning, which is registered in Wittgensteins Notebooks in such
claims as:
In order to live happy I must be in agreement with the world. And that
is what being happy means.
I am thus, so to speak, in agreement with that alien will on which I
appear to be dependent. That is to say: I am doing the will of God.52

The acknowledgment of the presence of that alien will makes the very
recognition of the body of meaning a recognition of life or will beyond
the perspective of representation. It is only the renunciation of control
of the world by means of representation that opens an ethical perspective in our relation to meaning.
I would therefore like my interpretation to avoid both idealism and realism. What I want to avoid in the realist picture is the notion that objects are independent of language, that they exist on their own, and that
language in some way must correspond to them. Objects, I would argue,
are given through language, indeed through the fundamental identity of
language and world at the level of form. But, as against the idealist picture, I would also like to avoid making the object a product of our structuring subjectivity. What I emphasize, following Wittgenstein, is the way
in which the object cannot be anticipated; that is, the object is given
only through our recognition of the internal relations in language. The
recognition of objects, of meaning, rather than its projection or determination, is viewed as the central feature of subjectivity.
Instead of metaphysical realism, I attribute to Wittgenstein what
51. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion (2nd. ed.), pp. 99100.
52. NB, p. 76.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


C. Diamond calls a realistic spirit. Its highest achievement is the openness of the human subject to experience that cannot be anticipated,
openness in the face of the drive to impose false necessities on experience. Instead of an idealistic position, I attribute to Wittgenstein the notion that truth of solipsism involves the recognition that true subjectivity depends precisely on assuming the impersonal limits of experience,
that is, in being realistic in the sense described above. One could say that
the realistic spirit and the truth in solipsism are one.

8. Solipsism and the Subject

Wittgensteins conception of the subject is often discussed in relation to
his remarks on solipsism. Traditionally, the force of the solipsistic position depended to a large extent on a broadly empiricist picture of sensation and acquaintance. It is such a picture that enables the world to be
identied with my experience.
This brings out the difculty in assessing Wittgensteins idea that
there is a truth in solipsism, for he is concerned with limits as given by
language. This makes it difcult to place an I in relation to the limits of
language.53 Language seems essentially to have limits that are impersonal. This recognition leads D. Pears to claim that Wittgenstein introduced solipsism in the Tractatus as a failed attempt to impose a personal limit on language. It is true that language is limited, but only in a
general, impersonal way: anything we can say is a truth function of elementary sentences mirroring arrangements of objects.54
The problem with dismissing solipsism is that Wittgenstein clearly
claims that there is a truth in it. How can we express that truth in relation to language? One possible response to this problem is to take the
objects of the Tractatus to be indeed objects of acquaintance. Thus we
can rehearse the solipsistic predicament even in the midst of language by
thinking of our relation to the objects that are the ground of the possibility of representation. We could then interpret Wittgenstein as advancing
something like the claim that a speaker of language is acquainted only
with the contents of his own mind and therefore has something like a
private language. This interpretation is based on reading 5.62 as claim53. Thus the desire to adhere to the traditional account of solipsism might lead interpreters
to misread Wittgensteins account of objects, that is, precisely to view them as sense data.
54. D. Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 153.


Signs of Sense

ing that I alone understand my language. As J. Hintikka has pointed out

in On Wittgensteins Solipsism, this reading seems to result from an
ambiguity in the German text.55 It probably should be read as saying that
it is in language alone that I reach understanding.
Acknowledging that there is only one language can lead to an alternative interpretation of what Wittgenstein means by the truth of solipsism.
Thus Mounce writes: There is, as it were, a truth behind solipsism, but
it cannot be stated and solipsism is the confused result of trying to do so.
The truth is not that I alone am real but that I have a point of view of the
world which is without neighbors. This last claim, properly understood, amounts to saying that there is no language but language and
therefore no conception of the world other than the one that language
gives.56 Thus the very idea of neighbors is revealed to be nonsensical. It
remains to be explained in what way this is the truth behind solipsism;
for according to that interpretation, the truth behind solipsism could
also be the truth behind realism or behind any position. According to
this interpretation, nothing would justify Wittgensteins attempt to express the truth of solipsism in terms of the world being my world.57
An alternative understanding of the relation between solipsism and
acquaintance which does not depend on the assumption of private
meaning is given by J. Hintikka and M. Hintikka in their Investigating
Wittgenstein. They think of the objects of acquaintance as the ground of
shared meaning in language, but at the same time as objects that must be
given to the subject, that thus can be said to be mine: If we construe
Tractarian objects as objects of acquaintance, the only objects I have are
the objects of my acquaintance. And if these objects dene the world,
then the world cannot but be my world. Hence Wittgensteins qualied
solipsism becomes not only understandable but positively predictable
on this interpretation.58 Such a reading can apparently be supported by
Wittgensteins references to the visual eld in his account of the subject.
But this would be using a gure to make a literal claim about Wittgensteins ontology. Just as the gure of the picture in Wittgensteins discus55. Mind, 67, pp. 8891.
56. H. O. Mounce, Wittgensteins Tractatus, pp. 9192.
57. Hackers elaboration of solipsism in relation to a transcendental subject suffers from
similar problems, for there is no clear sense in which that transcendental subject can be identied with an I.
58. J. Hintikka and M. Hintikka, Investigating Wittgenstein, pp. 6566.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


sion of representation is not to be identied with a visual picture, so the

use of the visual eld to elaborate the concept of limits does not imply
only the eld of our senses.59
Moreover, J. and M. Hintikkas account raises the following problem:
our understanding of the perspective on experience which can be called
mine depends on how we elaborate the notion of limits. In the rst
place, it depends on whether we think of such limits in terms of facts or
objects. Thus if we try to speak of limit in terms of facts, it will be all the
facts that I, as an empirical self, have encountered in my life; facts that
dene the limit or my perspective on experience. It of course makes
sense to speak of someone elses perspective in that way. But this is precisely the reason that it is problematic to identify those limits with the
limits of the world. If, on the other hand, we think of the limits of language in terms of the grammar of the objects given to us, if we construe
acquaintance in a broader phenomenological sense, then to have experience is to recognize possibilities. But this implies that the limits are not
determined by the facts I have encountered. The limit becomes a wholly
impersonal one, and it no longer makes sense to speak of the limit as intrinsically my perspective on experience. I have emphasized repeatedly
that it is that latter notion of limit that comes into play in Wittgensteins
discussion as he speaks of the limits of my language meaning the limits
of my world. (5.6)
In her The Uncaptive Eye: Solipsism in Wittgensteins Tractatus, J.
Floyd presents an interpretation of Wittgensteins discussion of solipsism which seems to me in many ways extremely accurate. She particularly emphasizes his anti-apriorism: Any attempt to completely x or
demarcate the form of the so-called elementary propositions without allowing for the full role of the and so on fails, ending in nonsense . . .
genuine logical syntax is a matter of use.60
Solipsism turns out, for Floyd, to be the last defense of apriorism:
The appeal to my meaning, to a private mental act or self-conscious
perception of an intention, is just one more attempt to lay down general
59. D. Pears has convincingly criticized the reading of Wittgensteins treatment of solipsism
as supporting the identication of objects with objects of acquaintance by pointing at the uses
Wittgenstein makes of the visual eld. The important thing is that it serves as a gure not
merely for the total eld of the solipsists senses, but for the question of the limits of language as
60. J. Floyd, The Uncaptive Eye: Solipsism in Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 10 (Draft).


Signs of Sense

conditions on meaning. She thus views all of Wittgensteins elaboration

of specic topics, including his discussion of solipsism, entirely dialectically.
While I fully agree with Floyds assessment of Wittgensteins antiapriorism, it seems to me that he does aim to point at a truth of solipsism. I attempt to show how both the anti-apriorism, the sense that
meaning in the world cannot be determined in advance, and the sense
that the world is my world can be brought together. This requires interpreting the appearance of the individual subject by means of the idea of
the appropriation of meaning. This makes subjectivity, the possibility of
attaining authentic selfhood, correlative precisely with the attunement
to meaning that is not determinable in advance of experience, but nevertheless provides the form or limits of experience.
It is signicant that Floyd interprets the ethics of the Tractatus as primarily concerned with the personal as opposed to the public or the theoretical.61 Basing herself in part on Wittgensteins biography and on his
diary entries from the period of the writing of the Tractatus, she recognizes in his life a fundamental struggle with loneliness. She takes this
personal dimension as evidence that there is a kind of solipsism haunting the Tractatus. But it is a personal, not a transcendental or metaphysical one. Floyd thinks of Wittgensteins response to this sense of isolation in the following terms: I believe that one deep need Wittgenstein
saw wrongly gratied in idealism and solipsism was a wish for a total absorption in the world and in life, in the feeling of there being no space,
no gaps, between the language I understand, the world I contemplate,
and the life which I live.62
This formulation captures something essential in Wittgensteins understanding of the release from metaphysics. Nevertheless, I think that
conceiving this absorption in the world merely as a personal attitude to
life fails to take into account that Wittgenstein also thinks of it through
his understanding of language, as the recognition of meaning in the
world. And such meaning, the condition of experience, is wholly impersonal. The identication with meaning in the world can sustain authentic self-understanding only if it is nonpersonal, that is, only if it constitutes an identication with the limits of meaning as such.

61. Ibid., p. 27.

62. Ibid.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


Floyds interpretation leaves no room for the possibility of such identication, because she does not think it possible to make sense of the
notion of the limits of language in the Tractatus. She argues that any
concept of limit imposes an a priori structure on the world, and thus
goes against Wittgensteins innermost convictions. My elaboration of the
realm of objects and of the form of objects is intended precisely to enable
us to think of limitation without identifying it with the a priori and the

9. Ethics
Many of the problems of interpretation concerning the place of the subject in the Tractatus affect the account given of the ethical. Thus Wittgensteins claim that facts do not provide the ground for value is taken to
mean that values are to be identied with the attitudes of a subject towards the facts.63 H. O. Mounce, for example, writes: The facts do not
solve ethical problems; they can only give rise to them. The solutions are
found in the attitudes one adopts towards the facts. But Wittgenstein
means all the facts, psychological as well as physical.64 This position
gives rise to many questions. In what sense do facts give rise to problems
at all? If we take seriously the idea that a fact is merely the conguration
of things, no essential problem seems to arise from things being congured in such and such a way rather than another. Facts, one might say,
do not solve any ethical problems, but precisely for the same reason they
do not give rise to them either. If a fact could give rise to an ethical problem, it could also solve it. Wittgenstein writes that The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution (6.4321). But I take
it that setting the problem does not mean giving rise to the problem.
Facts are in that sense entirely indifferent to what is higher.
A further question raised by Mounces account is: what is an attitude
63. This is often perceived as a problematic dead end of the Tractatus conception of ethics.
Thus, for example, P. Johnston writes: Here Wittgensteins investigation comes to a dead-end;
unable to discover the basis of action in the facts, he is forced to look elsewhere. Thus in the
Notebooks he considers the notion of the will and treats this as the origin of our actions. However, since the world is motivationally inert he transports the will to beyond the world . . . Thus,
ethically speaking, what our actions are taken to reect is the transcendental relation of world
and willsomething of which one literally cannot speak. Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy,
p. 78.
64. H. O. Mounce, Wittgensteins Tractatus, an Introduction, p. 97.


Signs of Sense

toward the world, and in what sense is it not part of psychology? How
can we understand the act of a subject involving a shift of attitude toward the world? What does such a shift include? If we speak of an empirical self, then such a shift is just another psychological fact in the
world. But psychological facts are supposed to be part of what one
changes ones attitude toward. Conversely, if it is the transcendental subject which is shifting its point of view on the world, how can such a subject relate to the essentially personal dimension of ethics? How can such
a metaphysical subject be said to be happy or unhappy?
Consistent with his position, Mounce rejects as a mere analogy the affective dimension that is explicit in Wittgensteins understanding of the
will and its relation to the world: We must be careful, however, not to
misread Wittgensteins analogy. In speaking of the world of the happy
man, he is of course referring obliquely to a common phenomenon. The
man with a happy temperament looks on the bright side, accepts the
very fact that throw the unhappy man into despondency. It is important
to see, however, that this is merely an analogy.65
The assumption that speaking of the happiness and unhappiness of
the subject is merely an analogy is a symptom of the difculty in explaining what exactly a shift of attitudes amounts to, and in what sense
affects that seem to be always psychologically determined can have anything to do with a transcendental subject that stands outside the world.
But for Wittgenstein such affects are surely real, for he relates them to
the reward and punishment that pertain to the ethical (6.422). There is
indeed a serious problem in elaborating the relation of pleasure and pain
to Wittgensteins conception of ethics. For pleasure and pain seem to be
essentially related to particular aims of our empirically determined will.
Wittgenstein clearly does not hold the position that identies the goodness of an action with its consequences understood in terms of providing pleasure and removing pain, since he speaks of the will as altering
the world as a whole.
Mounces problem then starts with his juxtaposition of a world of fact
against a transcendent subject and leads to the impossibility of explaining the nature of a relation to the world as a whole which involves an affective dimension. This can be overcome only by construing the subject
as essentially in a world. The fundamental affects that pertain to the sub65. Ibid., p. 96.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


ject are then determined by the dimension of this being in the world. My
attempt to consider a psychology that has to do with the very existence
in the world or in language is intended to merge both the individual perspective and the universality of language, as well as allow for an affective
dimension as an essential dimension of existence in language. The subject is not outside the world but is essentially determined through assuming the limits of the world.
However, in order for such an account to be possible at all, it is necessary to replace the talk about a shift in attitude with an elaboration of
how language contains within itself the duality of perspectives that can
explain our task of assuming meaning. I have done this by systematically distinguishing between the perspective of facts and that of objects.
What is at stake in ethics, then, is not a shift of attitude, a shift that assumes that in some unexplained way we see or interpret the facts differently; rather, the subject is understood as essentially related to the movement between perspectives opened by language itself. The perspective of
facts is indeed valueless, but that of the object gives us the form of our
world, of our possibilities of existence. This is not a matter of our attitude but rather of what there is. Our attitude can at most be described as
one of acknowledgment or avoidance of those possibilities.
To speak of a psychology of our very existence in language might
seem extremely problematic. Indeed, what are the manifestations of
such a psychology? What are feelings or affects that pertain to the world
as a whole, or to language as a whole? As I have argued, a central component of that psychology, against which the recovery of meaning truly appears as the entrance into a signicant world, is the urge to nonsense.
That is, the generation of nonsense is not a mere mistake but the manifestation of a fundamental human urge to avoid the conditions of language. The last parts of my interpretation concern the manifestation of
that drive.
This conception of the ethical might seem rather remote from anything pertaining to ethics. Indeed, I think that in the Tractatus Wittgenstein directs us to something that is more fundamental than what we
usually think of when we construe the ethical as a particular domain of
philosophy. This is an attempt to locate the source of value in the very
place where we uncover the limits of language, that is, where we recognize through language what there is. It is a perspective that locates the
fundamental normative dimension in the revelation of the meaningful-


Signs of Sense

ness of phenomena. This connection of ethics with ontology, or with being in language as such, can be thought as being founded on an imperative of meaningfulness.
The claim that Wittgensteins ethics is essentially religious can to
some extent justify basing ethics on the imperative to meaning. This is a
feature of P. Shieldss interpretation, in which he attempts to link Wittgensteins concern with drawing limits to language and his concern with
ethics. The broad outlines of this interpretation construe Wittgensteins
injunction to accept the arbitrariness of grammar as an ethical or even
religious injunction, as doing the will of God. Shields quotes the passage cited above from Wittgensteins Notebooks:
In order to live happy I must be in agreement with the world . . . And
that is what being happy means.
I am thus, so to speak, in agreement with that alien will on which I
appear to be dependent. That is to say: I am doing the will of God.66

Shields relates this form of amor fati to the acceptance of the arbitrariness of grammar in language. Although I agree with the general direction of his interpretation, I think nevertheless that it must be supplemented with an account of how logical form in the Tractatus comes
to have such a signicance. Indeed, Shieldss interpretation of the ungroundedness of grammar accords well with Wittgensteins Philosophical
Investigations, but less obviously with the Tractatus. Much needs to be
said as to how we nd in the Tractatus the access to that level of reality
which we need to accept. My attempt to think of objects as being revealed apart from the form of justication pertaining to the logic of facts
means to convey that what is revealed is something like the ungroundedness of meaning. We stand beyond justication, accepting what is
given, for the sphere of justication is precisely that determined by the
logic of facts. Acceptance of the object thus goes beyond the demand for
justication and proof. Contrary to Shields, I think that such an acceptance is essentially the acceptance of everyday language. Indeed, part of
what is involved in acknowledgment and avoidance of meaning must include an elaboration of our relation to everyday language. For what
needs to be acknowledged must be, in a sense, in plain view. This is precisely why, as Shields himself emphasizes, the problem is a problem of
66. NB, p. 76.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


will rather than knowledge. To avoid making the recovery of meaning a

problem of knowledge, we must not open a gap between language as it is
and another ground of meaning which we do not yet have or know. This
is how the idea of groundlesness in language relates to the afrmation of
the everydayness of language.
With regard to Wittgensteins account of the ethical, it is necessary to
address his understanding of what cannot be said, which is too often reduced to a simple dichotomy between what can be said and what can
only be shown. While all agree that Wittgenstein thinks of the unsayable
in two central contexts, that of the logical and that of the ethical, how
both these notions can be encompassed in one account is largely left unclear. As I understand it, this is where there is a need for a third notion,
that of manifestation.67 Manifestation reveals to us primarily our very
existence in language or the very existence of language for a subject. It is
intrinsically related to the recognition of the signicance of nonsense.
The notion of manifestation must be distinguished from that of the
showing of form. Confusing showing and manifestation can lead to various misreadings of how the ineffability of logic relates to ethics in the
Tractatus. Thus identifying the unsayability of the ethical with Wittgensteins sense that objects can only be shown can lead to a claim such as
the one presented by J. and M. Hintikka in their Investigating Wittgenstein:
some of Wittgensteins pronouncements on ethics and aesthetics . . .
can be understood on the basis of the idea that the objects of the
Tractatus are objects of acquaintance in Russells sense, conjoined with
67. The following passage by P. R. Shields is an example of how the tripartite distinction between saying, showing, and manifestation is reduced to the dichotomy between saying and
showing: Wittgensteins reasoning for treating logic and ethics along similar lines begins with
the supposition that the world is composed entirely of facts, . . . and he proceeds to point out
that what is non-accidental, which would include both logical necessity and ethical value, is
united in being not of the world. When Wittgenstein asserts that what we cannot talk about we
must pass over in silence, he is not carelessly introducing an ambiguity between two kinds of
must, but drawing a limit which shows the unity of a logical and an ethical demand. Logic
and Sin in the Writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 11.
In Glocks A Wittgenstein Dictionary we nd the same lack of distinction between showing
and manifestation: The Tractatus has indeed two parts, a logical one . . . and a mystical one . . .
The real signicance of the saying-showing distinction lies in the fact that it holds the two together by proscribing both propositions about the essence of symbolic representation and mystical pronouncements about the realm of value (p. 330).


Signs of Sense

a theory of value not unlike what is expressed in the famous last chapter of Moores Principia Ethica, . . . If these immediate objects of
Moorean valuable experiencesthe emotional cousins of Russells and
Moores sense-dataare among Wittgensteins objects in the Tractatus,
it will literally be true that the world (the totality of objects) of a person who has valuable experiences is different from that of a person
who does not. This is precisely what Wittgenstein says of the difference
between a happy and an unhappy person.68

It is symptomatic that here the world is identied with the sum of objects, so that there might be objects of valuable experience in the world
of the happy man which do not exist in the world of the unhappy man.
This interpretation fails to account for Wittgensteins idea that for the
unhappy man the world as a whole seems to lose signicance, whereas
the happy mans world gains signicance: The world must so to speak
wax and wane as a whole. As if by accession or loss of sense.69
The idea that the existence of nonsense and of a drive to nonsense is
signicant should be distinguished from the idea that nonsense in itself
conveys some meaning. Here I fully agree with Diamonds interpretation
that nothing can be said or shown in nonsense (using both terms strictly
as I use them in my interpretation). But something is made manifest by
the existence of nonsense, and it is this manifestation that is at stake at
the end of the Tractatus.

10. The Signicance of Nonsense

Broadly speaking, interpreters take two kinds of approaches to Wittgensteins demand to throw away the ladder, that is, the demand to recognize the nonsensicality of the Tractatus itself. The rst assumes that although the picture of the world, of language, of the subject, and of value
presented in the body of the text is strictly speaking unsayable, this
unsayability is due to certain technical limitations of language.70 The
complex structure of reality supposedly presented by the text is nevertheless grasped by the reader of the Tractatus, although it cannot be
68. J. Hintikka and M. Hintikka, Investigating Wittgenstein, p. 68.
69. NB, p. 73.
70. J. Conant divides the interpretations of that kind into four groups. See Kierkegaard,
Wittgenstein and Nonsense, in T. Cohen, P. Guyer, and H. Putnam, eds., Pursuits of Reason,
p. 198.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


said.71 The second approach denies emphatically that anything can be

shown by means of nonsense; it denies any distinction between illuminating nonsense and plain rubbish. In particular, it denies that we retain
anything of the supposed picture of the world presented in the Tractatus
after throwing away the ladder.
Hackers interpretation of the Tractatus would seem to be in line with
the rst approach to the nal act of the Tractatus. He writes: Wittgenstein was quite correct and consistent; the Tractatus does indeed consist
largely of pseudo-propositions. Of course, what Wittgenstein meant by
these remarks (like what the solipsist means (TLP, 5.62)) is, in his view,
quite correct, only it cannot be said. Apparently what someone means or
intends by a remark can be grasped even though the sentence uttered is
strictly speaking nonsense.72 The test as to whether the Tractatus is
viewed as illuminating nonsense is the extent to which the interpreter
attributes to the work substantive theses (which cannot be stated) about
the working of language or the constitution of the world. In Hackers
case, the doctrine of the metaphysical subject that projects meaning into
empty signs is precisely such a substantive bit of theorizing. This is
something that cannot be consistently rejected at the end, for the interpretation is committed to its truth. If we want to throw away the ladder,
we must construct an interpretation that does not leave behind any theoretical commitments. The interpretation must lead us beyond the book
without any remainder.
Hacker therefore appears to be in an inconsistent position when he
writes: The Tractatus itself, though a manifestation of our natural disposition to metaphysics, is a justiable undertaking which has been
fully discharged. It is not a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics, but
the swan song of metaphysics. If indeed the Tractatus provides a correct
point of view on the world that can only be indicated but not said, then
why should it be given up and discharged? Alternatively, if the Tractatus
is a manifestation of our natural disposition to metaphysics, in what
sense is it a justiable undertaking?
71. D. Pears, for instance, writes: When Wittgenstein excludes the solipsists claim from
factual discourse, he implies that it literally lacks sense, but he does not imply that it is rubbish.
On the contrary, he allows that among the theses of metaphysics, all of which are literally
senseless, there are some that are acceptable for a deeper and more interesting reason than they
make successful claims to factual truth. The False Prison, vol. 1, p. 164.
72. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion (2nd. ed.), p. 26.


Signs of Sense

The second approach to the question of the nonsensicality of the

Tractatus is mainly elaborated in a series of essays by C. Diamond and J.
Conant concerning the method of the Tractatus. In his Kierkegaard,
Wittgenstein and Nonsense Conant writes: If one argues . . . as I have,
that the Tractatus undercuts a distinction between kinds of nonsense,
then one will be forced to embrace what might, at rst, appear to be an
intolerable conclusion: namely, that when Wittgenstein says nonsense
he means plain nonsense, and when he says throw the ladder away
he means throw it away.73 But the main problem encountered by this
austere reading of the Tractatus is to explain what possible value the
Tractatus could have. This predicament is expressed by Cora Diamond:
I believe that the Tractatus takes what you might call an austere view of
nonsense. Nonsense is nonsense . . . And yet I do not believe that Wittgensteins consigning of ethical talk to the realm of nonsense should be
likened to that of the positivists. But that leaves me with the task of explaining how one can distinguish Wittgensteins view of ethics from
that of the logical positivists, without giving up the ascription to him
of what I have called an austere view of nonsense.74

Although I am inclined to some form of the austere view of nonsense, I

differ from both Conant and Diamond in my understanding of the relation of nonsense to the method and ethical point of the Tractatus. The
Tractatus, I argue, points us to a task of the recovery of meaning, but certainly not in order to dwell upon the meaning of the work itself, of the
distinctions presented in it. Rather, it opens onto the meaning embodied
in our use of language. Thus the Tractatus points beyond itself, but this
beyond is in no way a realm of unsayable things that we grasp in silence. It is rather the scene of our lives and of our everyday use of language.
Furthermore, I think that my interpretation would support the claim
that from the perspective of the end the work should be treated as
utterly nonsensical. But this claim must be understood in relation to
thinking of the Tractatus as a whole. It is only when we try to grasp what
73. Ibid., p. 198. Conants understanding that one should not distinguish between kinds of
nonsense, i.e. between mere rubbish and nonsense that is in some way important, elaborates on
Cora Diamonds extremely convincing treatment of those issues in her Throwing Away the
Ladder, Frege and Nonsense, and What Nonsense Might Be. See her The Realistic Spirit.
74. C. Diamond, Ethics, Imagination and the Method of the Tractatus, in R. Heinrich and
H. Vetter, eds., Bilder der Philosophie, p. 60.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


the work as a whole aims to do that we can see it disintegrating into

nonsense. It is only by subordinating all that is treated in that work to its
overall aim that the drive to nonsense manifests itself. There is no piecemeal nonsense in the Tractatus. This or that sentence taken by itself is
not nonsensical. The work shows itself to be nonsense only when it tries
to express or elucidate the world as a whole. It then proves that it elucidates nothing.75 I would further say that the very recognition that
language disintegrates in such a condition is itself of the utmost signicance. It points to something, and to indicate that is itself part of the
point of the Tractatus. Such a manifestation is internally related to our
being directed by the work to language as it stands. The recovery of the
ordinary scene of language is a return from the urge to nonsense.
Conant assumes that it is necessary to read the Tractatus carefully despite its being at the end revealed as utter nonsense. In his reading the
Tractatus is an illusion that is eshed out and slowly unraveled: the
only procedure that will prove genuinely elucidatory is one that attempts to enter into the philosophers illusion of understanding and explode it from within. The implication then is that we are no longer
tempted to such theses ourselvesthat we throw them away.76
For Conant, in reading the Tractatus we start with a thesis which

75. I remark in this context how deep certain misinterpretations of the Tractatus can be. I
have evoked the expression the Nothing nothings to characterize the appearance of the drive
to nonsense, to form a connection between Carnaps famous attack on Heideggers What Is
Metaphysics and Wittgensteins concerns in the Tractatus. The irony is, of course, that Carnap
takes himself to be the inheritor of Wittgensteins view, and this fuels his attack on Heidegger.
Whereas I think that Wittgenstein is in fact very close on this issue to Heidegger, as witness his
remark to the Vienna Circle on Heidegger quoted above.
76. J. Conant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Nonsense, p. 218. In the light of this description of the aim of philosophical teaching, I note the following: in the rst place, the therapeutic method suggested seems to me to t better Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations,
where certain illusions are addressed locally, rather than as part of one totalizing movement.
I do not see that there are any such therapeutic achievements on the way of reading the
Tractatus. Both the issue of nonsense and the recognition that in our reading we are drawn into
nonsense come together toward the end of the book.
It would seem that a good form of therapy would at the end make us loosen our grip on
what has long been unattractive. This eventually does happen, but only because the end of the
Tractatus is such a serious and ultimate effort of expression. Moreover, it seems that the
Tractatus is not an example of a certain point of view that can be adopted and which is brought
to its patent nonsensical conclusions. It seems to be an effort to relate each and every philosophical problem to a whole presented by the text.


Signs of Sense

expresses the fundamental (illusory) beliefs of the philosopher, and

we slowly unravel it until we end up with nonsense. But the Tractatus
strikes me more as a work that strives to express the highest beliefs of
the philosopher, and in so doing precisely touches upon the limits of expression. It expresses the fact that such limits are reached. If this is indeed an illusion, then the force of the problem is that we are speaking of
an illusion that is constitutive of what is highest in human nature. The
point is not that we are no longer tempted to advance such theses ourselves, but rather that we understand this temptation as internal to our
existence in language. To throw it away is to throw away something belonging to human nature. The Tractatus leads the reader to the limits of
language. To bear witness to this tendency of the human mind is not just
to present a piece of nonsense, but to present ones highest beliefs so that
they culminate in the recognition of the drive to nonsense.
It is signicant that Conant speaks of the drive to metaphysics as
something that the philosopher (that is, the metaphysician) and not
Wittgenstein himself is drawn to, as if Wittgenstein were in some way
beyond that temptation, released from it; as if it belonged to the past of
the Tractatus rather than to the very attempt at writing that constitutes
this book. My emphasis on the idea that the Tractatus is a truly enigmatic
text, a running against paradox as Wittgenstein, quoting Kierkegaard,
puts it, means precisely that we must recognize both that it constitutes
Wittgensteins highest effort of expression, and that it disintegrates into
nonsense when it touches upon the extreme.
This idea is related to the distinction suggested by Conant, and which
I also nd myself inclined to make, between understanding the propositions of the book and understanding the author:
The distinction implicitly drawn in section 6.54 of the Tractatus between understanding the propositions in the book (which we are not
asked to do) and understanding the author of the book (which we are
asked to do) depends on this idea that although we cannot understand
what an utterer of nonsense says, we can understand the uttereri.e.,
enter into the point of view from which this piece of nonsense appears
to say something . . . The goal here is not to grasp what the other says,
but to make his impulse to these particular words humanly intelligible
to oneself.77
77. J. Conant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Nonsense, p. 218.

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


Conant does not see the use of the rst person at the end as the appearance of Wittgensteins own voice. He sees it as determining a shift from
the supposed understanding of the propositions to the understanding of
the utterer of nonsense. But who is the utterer of nonsense? I take it that
here Wittgenstein occupies an exemplary position, he speaks for himself. The Tractatus is, one might say, Wittgensteins self-analysis. This is
what Wittgenstein expresses in the Lecture on Ethics, when he includes himself among those who run up against the limits of language:
My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever
tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run up against the boundaries of language. He further stresses in his conversations with members of the Vienna Circle that speaking in the rst person in that lecture
was something essential. I read this as meaning that what is expressed is
a tendency of the human mind which cannot be denied or left behind,
and which is exemplied by the Tractatus. It is only against nonsense
that signicance is achieved. It is in that sense that Wittgenstein can
claim: This running up against the limits of language is Ethics (WVC,
p. 68). Peace in philosophy is achieved in the midst of that struggle, not
by avoiding it.78
A different way of making this point is to recall what Wittgenstein
says in his letter to Ficker I quoted in the Introduction. There he writes
that his book delimits the ethical from within. C. Diamond interprets
this claim as follows: Working from the inside of what can be said, we
see that in the totality of what can be said, nothing is ethical. And this is
indeed put explicitly by Wittgenstein. He says that it is impossible for
there to be ethical propositions; ethics cannot be put into words.79 This
claim is surely correct, but does it represent what Wittgenstein means by
delimiting ethics from within? It merely follows from the traditional distinction between facts and values, together with Wittgensteins understanding that to say something is always to represent a fact. In my reading, to delimit the ethical is to bring understanding to the limits of
language. We must truly work through the Tractatus as a whole to reach
that limit condition.
In order to give content to Wittgensteins intuitions concerning ethics,
78. I nd that Stanley Cavells treatment of skepticism expresses this sense that the inner
struggle between metaphysics and the release from metaphysics are part of our human constitution.
79. C. Diamond, Ethics, Imagination and the Method of the Tractatus, p. 60.


Signs of Sense

Diamond writes of certain views she is inclined to attribute to Wittgenstein. She contrasts the characteristic position on ethics in the Englishspeaking tradition, according to which ethics is a particular branch of
philosophy with a specic content, with Wittgensteins view that there
are no ethical propositions:
Just as logic is not, for Wittgenstein, a particular subject, with its own
body of truths, but penetrates all thought, so ethics has no particular
subject matter; rather an ethical spirit, an attitude to the world and life,
can penetrate any thought or talk. Wittgenstein, like some other writers, speaks of two different as it were attitudes to the world as a whole;
he refers to them as that of the happy and that of the unhappy. The
happy and the unhappy as it were inhabit different worlds.80

But if indeed ethics pervades all of language, then language must itself
be accounted for in such a way that it can bear such signicance. There
must be a perspective opened by language itself through which we can
recognize the signicance of our world. In Diamonds account, language
is elaborated primarily in relation to the perspective of facts. We nd her
thus having recourse, like Mounce, to the problematic idea that the attitudes of a subject as it were change the world.
Diamond gives another account of what she is inclined to say concerning Wittgensteins ethics by considering the idea of the independence of the world from the individual will. She views Wittgensteins remarks on suicide toward the end of the Notebooks as pointing to a
conception of the ethical that demands to accept what there is in the
world, and thus its highest prohibition is suicide.81 But we need to elaborate precisely in what sense the world is alien to the individual will.
What is it that the individual has to accept? Can we accept anything but
what is meaningful? If meaning or language is not at stake in this attitude of acceptance, we are in danger of falling into a problematic
psychological understanding of imaginary identication. But if it is
meaning in language that has to be acknowledged, then language must
80. Ibid., p. 61.
81. If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed. If anything is not allowed then suicide
is not allowed. This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin. And when one investigates it, it is like investigating mercury vapor in order to
comprehend the nature of vapors. Or is even suicide in itself neither good nor evil? (NB,
p. 91).

Debates Concerning the Tractatus


be indeed described in such a way as to open such a perspective on

Having said that, it is important to emphasize that Diamond distinguishes what she is inclined to say from what she ultimately says. She acknowledges that there is no way to translate such inclinations as were
presented in these two accounts of ethics above into terms that will not
fall into nonsense. Analyzing later in the essay the locution I am inclined to say . . . in the context of uttering sentences that appear to be
ethical but are recognized as nonsense, she writes: Words like This
is what I am inclined to say, used to frame such sentences, may thus
mark both that they are recognized by the utterer as nonsense, and
that that recognition does not involve their losing their attractiveness,
their capacity to make us feel that they express the sense we want to
make.82This is opposed to metaphysical propositions whose attractiveness vanishes with the recognition of nonsense.
Diamond, it seems, attempts to keep together both the expression of
fundamental beliefs and the recognition that such an attempt is doomed
to nonsensicality. Thus one might say that she distinguishes between
different kinds of nonsense in relation to the utterer of nonsensenonsense that, upon being revealed as nonsense, loses its attractiveness, and
nonsense that retains it nevertheless. I would like instead to speak of the
task of writing that is demanded in order to exhibit something both
as the highest tendency of the human mind and as degenerating into
nonsense. It is this task of writing that Wittgenstein undertakes in the
82. Ibid., p. 74.

Signs of Sense

On Wittgensteins Dissatisfaction with the Tractatus


On Wittgensteins Dissatisfaction with

the Tractatus

My interpretation of the Tractatus can also shed light on Wittgensteins

later dissatisfaction with the work, for it requires us to reassess the shift
both in Wittgensteins understanding of logic and language, and in his
conception of the task of philosophy. In my view the seeds of Wittgensteins later concern with grammar, everyday language, and the therapeutic aims of philosophy can already be discerned in the Tractatus.
Here, however, I would like to discuss a specic problem that is usually advanced as the reason for Wittgensteins shift from his early to his
later philosophy: the color exclusion problem. This problem is raised by
Wittgenstein in Some Remarks on Logical Form, the text of a lecture
Wittgenstein prepared but never presented.
According to the common view of this essay, Wittgenstein presents in
it his discovery of nontautological internal relations between simple objects. The case of colors is taken as paradigmatic of such a discovery.
Such an understanding of Some Remarks on Logical Form would
seem to lay my interpretation of the Tractatus open to the following criticism: it cannot be the case that Wittgenstein had a concept of form that
was as elaborate as I have attributed to him in the Tractatus. In particular, he could not have had a concept of form that included nontautological internal relations that constitute what an object is. In Some Remarks Wittgenstein indeed seems to raise for the rst time the notion
of the existence of such internal relations, an admission that could be
seen as paving the way for the transition to his later view of grammar. In
this case grammar would be the spelling out of those internal relations,
which are not strictly speaking logical (or not logical according to a narrow Fregean or Russellian conception of logic).

On Wittgensteins Dissatisfaction with the Tractatus


So let us reconsider the problem of colors as it bears on internal relations, starting with a claim Wittgenstein makes in the Tractatus:
For example, the simultaneous presence of two colors at the same
place in the visual eld is impossible, in fact logically impossible, since
it is ruled out by the logical structure of color.
Let us think how this contradiction appears in physics: more or less
as followsa particle cannot have two velocities at the same time; that
is to say, it cannot be in two places at the same time; that is to say, particles that are in different places at the same time cannot be identical.
(It is clear that the logical product of two elementary propositions
can neither be a tautology nor a contradiction. The statement that a
point in the visual eld has two different colors at the same time is a
contradiction.) (6.3751)

This is the statement that Wittgenstein seems to refer to when he later

writes in Some Remarks: The mutual exclusion of unanalyzable
statements of degree contradicts an opinion which was published by me
several years ago and which necessitated that atomic propositions could
not exclude one another. I here deliberately say exclude and not contradict, for there is a difference between these two notions, and atomic
propositions, although they cannot contradict, may exclude one another.1
But what exactly is the nature of and reason for Wittgensteins shift?
The common view of the relation between Wittgensteins statement in
the Tractatus (6.3751) and his revocation of it in Some Remarks on
Logical Form is advanced by D. Pears:
[Far-reaching analysis] pushes the level of complete analysis downwards until there are no underlying facts left, but only objects devoid
of internal structure. In other words, all the factual implications in a
sentences total demand are brought to the surface and included in
what it says. The simple objects that remain, when logical analysis has
been completed, are the pivots on which all factual discourse turns.
This is directly connected with his view of logic. He says that all necessity is logical necessity, reducible to the tautological combinability of
sentences. This view would have to be abandoned if it turned out that
some necessary connections were embedded in the unanalyzable natures of things. For if that were the situation, the properties on which
these exceptional necessary connections depended could not be ex1. SRLF, p. 35.


Signs of Sense

tracted and their names could not be included in the analyses of sentences mentioning the things that possessed them, and so the connections themselves could not be represented tautologically. It is from this
point of view that we should see his refusal in the Tractatus to treat colors as simple objects. If color words could not be analyzed, the undeniable incompatibilities between colors would force him to retract his
sweeping claims about necessity. In 1929 he gave up the thesis that
color-words are analyzable and allowed them to occur in elementary
sentences. That amounted to an abandonment of the sweeping claims
made about necessity in the Tractatus, and his more subtle account followed later.2

Pears starts from the assumption that there is an undeniable incompatibility between colors, but he argues that such ascriptions must be further analyzed in order to reveal that incompatibility as a matter of logical
necessity. Pears claims that if color words could not be analyzed, the
undeniable incompatibilities between colors would force [Wittgenstein]
to retract his sweeping claims about necessity. This implies that color
terms are logically complex and must disappear in the analysis. Furthermore, their analysis will show us that there is indeed a logical incompatibility between two color ascriptions. In 6.3751 Wittgenstein argues indeed that because the incompatiblity is logical, we have not reached the
level of elementary propositions. But the question is, what does it mean
for Wittgenstein to reach that level of description in which the contradiction disappears? Does it mean that color terms will disappear, or that
when we reach that level of description, we grasp the proper form of the
space of colors, say, in relation to time and space?
Indeed, Wittgenstein remarks in 2.0251: Space, time, and color (being colored) are forms of objects; and further, in treating the form of depiction of a picture: A spatial picture can depict anything spatial, a colored one anything colored, etc. . . . (2.171). This strongly suggests that
color has a form that is to be shown.3 And the showing of that form is
precisely the basis for the description in terms of elementary propositions.
2. D. Pears, The False Prison, vol. 1, pp. 7273.
3. E. Anscombe concludes from her reading of 6.3751 that elementary propositions cannot
be simple observation statements: Indeed quite generally, if elementary propositions are simple observation statements, it is very difcult to see how what Wittgenstein says [in 6.3751]
can possibly hold good of them; for any proposition, which could reasonably be called a simple

On Wittgensteins Dissatisfaction with the Tractatus


To make this clearer, consider the way Wittgenstein describes the apparent contradiction in physics. The claim that a particle has two different velocities is turned into a claim that a particle cannot be in two different places at the same time; that is, particles that are in different
places at the same time are not identical. We might ask why we would
think of particles that are in different places at the same time as different.
This seems to follows from the very form of space, time, and particles,
that is, of what we will call space, time, or a particle. So, as we bring out
the form of space or of the existence of particles in space, we would arrange such propositions in a formal series. The different terms of such a
formal series can serve to derive a contradiction from a statement such
as a particle has two different velocities at the same time, but it is only
the whole formal series that provides us with something of the form of
what we call the place of particles in space. This is made clear by the remark in the Notebooks on which 6.3571 is based:
A point cannot be red and green at the same time: at rst sight there
seems no need for this to be a logical impossibility. But the very language of physics reduces it to a kinetic impossibility. We see that there
is a difference of structure between red and green.
And then physics arranges them in a series. And then we see how the
true structure of the objects is brought to light.
The fact that a particle cannot be in two places at the same time does
look more like a logical impossibility.
If we ask why, for example, then straight away comes the thought:
Well, we should call particles that were in two places different, and this
in turn all seems to follow from the structure of space and of particles.4

I note that the true structure of the object is brought to light by such a
series. Moreover, as Wittgenstein points out, we should call particles
that were in two places different, and this in turn all seems to follow
from the structure of space and of particles. That is, we understand
what the object is, what its form is, what we call a place in space occuobservation statement, one could nd another that would be incompatible with it and precisely analogous to it logically. An Introduction to Wittgensteins Tractatus, p. 27. I agree with
Anscombe that the objects need not be identied with objects of acquaintance, but this does
not mean that colors do not have a form that can be shown and symbolized in elementary propositions.
4. NB, p. 81.


Signs of Sense

pied by a particle, by presenting what we say in a formal series. That formal series is the basis for the representation of states of affairs in terms of
elementary propositions where the form of the objects (of space and particles) is brought out in the notation. The logical incompatibility appears between structures in the formal series, but the formal series as a
whole is what brings out the form that should be reected by elementary
Referring to the view of the Tractatus in Some Remarks, Wittgenstein reiterates the claim that he has taken into account the internal constitution of entities: I have said elsewhere that a proposition reaches up
to reality, and by this I meant that the forms of the entities are contained
in the form of the proposition which is about these entities. For the sentence, together with the mode of projection which projects reality into
the sentence, determines the logical form of the entities (p. 36).
It seems therefore that the problem presented in Some Remarks
does not concern Wittgensteins discovery of internal relations that constitute the objects, but rather the distinction made between the form of
objectsthe internal relations that constitute the objectsand the logical form of facts. Far from discovering the internal relations of objects,
the statement of the problem assumes that distinction from the start. Indeed, the problem lies precisely in the assumption of a sharp demarcation of those two realms (a demarcation I presented in Chapter 6). In the
Tractatus Wittgenstein thought that he could clearly separate the rules
for the logical constants that can be given in advance of experience and
characterize the general form of representation, from the internal form
that can only be uncovered, as it were, by inspecting phenomena. What
Wittgenstein realizes and expresses in Some Remarks is that the grammar of the object and that of the logical constants are not separable, not
According to the Tractatus, which assumes that the grammar of facts
can be separated from the grammar of objects, we are allowed to form
the proposition A is red and A is green. Since every conjunct is a
sensical proposition, and the conjunction of two propositions yields in
turn a proposition, that conjunction must be allowable. Now, when such
5. In their Investigating Wittgenstein, J. Hintikka and M. Hintikka suggest a similar solution
to the color exclusion problem. Their solution is similarly motivated by the understanding that
Wittgenstein attributes form to objects and that form is the basis for the complexity of the factual.

On Wittgensteins Dissatisfaction with the Tractatus


an operation results in tautologies and contradictions, we are given allowable combinations with no content whatsoever. These are the senseless, limit propositions. But the proposition A is red and A is green
yields something that must be thought of as nonsense from the perspective of the internal form of the object, yet is an allowable combination
from the perspective of facts. It is in this clash of perspectives that the
real problem arises.
This is why Wittgenstein states in Some Remarks that in such a case
we would have a truth table that contains only three rows. One supposed option of combination (according to the syntax of the logical constants) would be ruled out as nonsensical. This is what distinguishes
this case from the tautologies and contradictions which can be expressed as standard truth tables despite their senselessness.
In his conversations with the members of the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein makes this aspect of the problem perfectly clear:
I used to have two conceptions of an elementary proposition, one of
which seems correct to me, while I was completely wrong in holding
the other. My rst assumption was this: that in analysing propositions
we must eventually reach propositions that are immediate connections
of objects without any help from logical constants, for not, and, or,
and if do not connect objects. And I still adhere to that. Secondly I
had the idea that elementary propositions must be independent of one
another. A complete description of the world would be a product of
elementary propositions, as it were, these being partly positive and
partly negative. In holding this I was wrong, and the following is what is
wrong with it. I laid down rules for the syntactical use of logical constants, for example p.q, and did not think that these rules might have
something to do with the inner structure of propositions. What was
wrong about my conception was that I believed that the syntax of logical constants could be laid down without paying attention to the inner
connection of propositions. That is not how things actually are. I cannot, for example, say that red and blue are at one point simultaneously.
Here no logical product can be constructed. Rather, the rules for the logical constants form only a part of a more comprehensive syntax about
which I did not yet know anything at that time.6

Here Wittgenstein clearly says that the problem lies in separating the
syntax of the logical constants from the inner relations of elementary
6. My emphasis, WVC, pp. 7374.


Signs of Sense

propositions (that is, from the forms of objects). He is not discovering

here for the rst time the existence of such nonlogical inner relations,
but is rather admitting to having assumed their independence from the
syntax of logical constants!
This description of the problem does not make it any the less acute.
On the contrary, much of the argument of the Tractatus, as I presented it,
depends on separating the form of our means of representation from
the grammar expressing the form of the object. The very task of the
Tractatus, which is to provide an account of the general form of the
proposition apart from the provision of specic examples of elementary propositions, depends on that separation. The very idea that the
Tractatus could complete the task of exhibiting the grammar of our
means of representation while leaving the inner form of experience to be
assumed by human subjects in the fabric of their lives seems to be problematic. It is Wittgensteins distinction between the completion of the
task of logic and the later appropriation of the form of experience, and
with it the entire progression of the Tractatus, that need to be reassessed.

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Aesthetics, 8, 134
Affect, 134, 143144 . See also Feeling
Agreement, 50, 176; and truth, 5860; with
the world, 192, 200
Analysis, 4344, 68, Chapter 6 passim, 109
111, 151; and the nature of objects, 168
171, 211212
Anscombe, Elizabeth, 6, 21, 164, 176, 212
Astonishment, 119, 144, 146149
Augustine, 144, 149
Benjamin, Walter, 13, 15
Carnap, Rudolf, 74, 135, 144, 205; The
Logical Syntax of Language, 1, 2, 111, 126,
183186; Aufbau, 126
Cavell, Stanley, vii, 8, 10, 207
Complex, 4243, 72, 81, 113, 172, 212
Conant, James, 6, 202207
Conceptual notation, 81, 83, 89
Conditions, 5, 11, 54, 162163, 166, 172
173, 177, 196, 199; as form, 40, 4546; of
representation, 5962, 68; recognizing,
105, 107, 111; conditionality of logical
necessity, 131, 133; presence of, 137
Conguration, 3640, 44, 197
Creation, 15, 17, 56, 139140
Depiction, 50, 52, 5558, 64, 66, 103, 212
Diamond, Cora, 6, 35, 90, 156, 188, 193,
202, 204, 207, 208209
Dreben, Burton, vii
Elementary propositions, 2729, 32, 72, 168,
171; and analysis, 4243, 98; cannot be
anticipated, 108113; and the will, 133;
and color exclusion, 211216

Engelmann, Paul, 2, 4
Enigmatic, xiii, xvi, 16, 136, 146147, 206
Ethics, 13, 16, 92, 164, 192, 196201, 204,
209; ethical point of the Tractatus, 26, 8,
Chapter 10 passim; and language, Chapter
9 passim
Facts, 6, 7, 9, 12, 1417, 9192, 95, 98, 102,
104106, 114, 141142, 161167, 197
200; and logic, Chapter 1 passim; and
objects, Chapter 2 passim; representing
facts, Chapter 3 passim; propositonal sign
as fact, 63, 6770; have no value, 124129
Feeling, 126, 134, 137141. See also Affect
Ficker, L. von, 3, 8, 23, 207
Figure, xviii, 4, 10, 13, 22, 51, 52, 125, 141
142, 150, 152154, 194195
Finitude, 23, 137142
Floyd, Juliet, 7, 23, 154, 195197
Form, 31, 89, 129, 130, Chapter 11 passim;
of objects, Chapter 2 passim; pictorial,
Chapter 3 passim; of signs, Chapter 4
passim; symbolic, Chapter 5 passim; and
analysis, 92102; recognizing, Chapter 7
passim; and limits, 116119; and color
exclusion, Chapter 12 passim. See also
Logical form
Formal concept, 8087
Frege, Gottlob, xv, xix, 1, 21, 26, 30, 37, 40,
59, 68, 69, 7476, 8385, 87, 8990, 94,
115, 184, 204; Begriffsschrift, 4, 89;
Foundations of Arithmetic, 72, 89
Freud, Sigmund, 51, 56
Friedlander, Eli, 11, 144
Hacker, P. M. S., 4, 24, 51, 166167, 176
182, 191192, 194, 203




Heidegger, Martin, xxi, 1, 127, 135, 143

144, 149, 164, 205
Hintikka, Jaakko, 115, 162, 173174, 201
Hintikka, Merrill, 162, 173174, 201
Hylton, Peter, 25
Ishiguro, Hide, 175
Kant, Immanuel, xiii, xix, 1, 11, 21, 23, 45,
117, 128, 131, 139, 150, 154, 190191
Kierkegaard, Sren, 6, 144
Ladder, 56, 1011, 13, 22, 146, 152158,
162, 202204
Limits, 4, 8, 17, 2223, 25, 121, 126127,
149150, 155, 158, 193, 195197, 206,
207; and the subject, 112117; ethics and
the experience of, 133144
Logic, 18, Chapter 1 passim, 4044, 47, 55
58, 62, 70, 72, 7787, 8998, 101103,
107112, 114115, 128131, 169, 183
184, 188189, 208
Logical constants, 57, 69, 7172; are not
representatives of objects, 26, 29, 32, 42,
57, 70, 9192, 94, 96; are not functions,
8487; and grammar of objects, 214216
Logical form, 37, 49, 57, 63, 69, 7475, 200,
Logical space, 2831, 39, 56, 62, 74, 182
McGuinness, Brian, 8, 1566, 143, 175
Malcolm, Norman, 24
Manifestation, 143, 201
Meaning, 1617, 26, 29, 5051, 6972, 75
78, 86, 99100, Chapter 7 passim, 115
117, 120, 129130, 132137, 143144,
148153, 162, 167, 175192, 195, 196,
199204, 208209
Metaphysics, 2, 10, 13, 126, 147148, 152
153, 156, 203, 206207
Moore, G. E., 10, 144, 202
Mounce, H. O., 156, 194, 197198, 208
Mystical, 11, 138144
Name, 4243, 78, 88, 109, 110, 173175,
178180; vs. proposition, 6873,
Nonsense, 17, 35, 54, 98, 108, 113, 121122,
162, 188189, 195, 199, 201, 215;
nonsensicality of the Tractatus, 5, 6, 21,

202209; and formal concepts, 80, 83;

signicance of, 140144, 148153
Object, in states of affairs, 3033; form of,
Chapter 2 passim, 161176; and
depiction, 50 58, 179180; name and, 69,
70, 72, 73, 188; and analysis, 97102,
190192, 110; and subject, 113114, 117;
grammar of, 210-216
Ontology, 21, 2829, 44, 79, 112, 200
Operation, 29, 57, 8587, 112
Ordinary language, 8891, 100102,
Chapter 7 passim, 170, 186189
Pears, David, 24, 44, 54, 66, 77, 143, 162,
166, 168171, 175, 178, 188190, 193,
195, 203, 211212
Philosophy, 8, 10, 1213, 90, 94, 9798, 101,
110, 114, 119, 144, 148149, 150154,
182, 207208
Picture, Chapter 3 passim, 61, 65, 105, 173
180; metaphysical, 21, 133, 142; protopictures, 77, 86, 87
Presentation, 5057
Projection, 6367, 177182, 214
Quantication, 75, 8687
Ramsey, Frank, 165166, 187
Representation, 4950, 5562, 67, 69, 73,
78, 9293, 104, 105, 107108, 110, 112,
114, 116120, 128, 129133, 184, 191
193, 214, 216
Representative, being a, 26, 5057, 70, 72
73, 7677, 9192, 96, 101, 175
Ricketts, Thomas, 21, 26, 154, 178
Russell, Bertrand, xv, xix, 1, 7, 21, 2528, 30,
32, 37, 43, 51, 7475, 8384, 87, 89, 97
98, 109111, 113, 115, 168171, 173
174, 184, 189, 201202; Principia
Mathematica, 4; Introduction to the
Tractatus, 111, 176, 185187
Schopenhauer, Arthur, xix, 93, 118, 120,
129, 132, 190192
Sense, 55 60, Chapter 4 passim, 99101,
180; and meaning, Chapter 7 passim, 113,
115116; of the world, 123, 134, 138, 146
Senseless, 26, 83, 215

Shields, Philip, 200201
Showing, 29, 55, 70, 78, 81, 83, 93, 101
102, 110111, 140, 143, 162, 167, 171,
173175, 185186, 201, 212
Sign, Chapter 4 passim, 7178, 8184, 86
98, 101, 181, 183188
Signicance, 1617, 48, 106108, 117118,
124, 126127, 133, 136142, 150, 162
163, 199202
Silence, 23, 15, 16, 24, 147150, 153, 157
Simple, 9, 25, 27, 29, 42, 43, 9192, 96102,
109, 113, 123, 168173, 210212
Solipsism, 115120, 191196
Space, 27, 63, 6570, 75, 81, 8586, 137,
182, 212214; and form, 3646, 166167,
178; pictorial, 5059. See also Logical
Speech, 154
States of affairs, 72, 99, 167, 214; and facts,
Chapter 1 passim; and objects, Chapter 2


Structure, Chapter 1 passim, 65, 73, 75, 85,

104, 109110, 165167, 172, 178, 211,
213, 215; vs. form, Chapter 2 passim; and
representation, Chapter 3 passim
Subject, 14, 4749, 51, Chapter 8 passim,
127, 131136, 139, 148, 150, 157, 158,
162165, 177, 180182, 191203, 208
Sublime, 11, 12, 125, 139
Symbol, 54, 61 62, 66, 70, Chapter 5
passim, 8890, 9293, 173, 183186, 188
Truth, 9, 94, 96, 123, 143, 153; of pictures,
58 60; simple truth, 9192, 102; of
solipsism, 115116, 120, 191, 193194,
World, the, xvii, xxi, 1317, 2126, 4548,
106108, 161164, 191202, 205, 208;
and the subject, Chapter 8 passim; as a
limited whole, Chapter 9 passim; at the
end of the Tractatus, Chapter 10 passim