Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

I have been re-engaging Wittgenstein's Tractatus logico-philosophicus. It is one of the most difficult books I've read, and now reread, and even translated to get a bearing on my reading. With the most difficult thinkers I engage, I enjoy stopping in the middle of my writing and drawing a diagram of the argument/metaphysic in order to have a visual representation of the argument as I go along that I can modify, reconnect, and have at the end to remind myself of key points. The list of thinkers that had been on that list is now expanded by one, and Wittgenstein's diagram is the messiest version (though Kant is still the one that has forced me to start from scratch more than any other).

Last night I believe I obtained an important key to understanding this work: It ought to be read as a lament. The book claims to have solved all the problems of philosophy in its introduction, and to claim that the size of the Tractatus shows how insignificant these problems are. And so he begins:

1. The World is everything that is the case

which lays a foundation, of sorts, upon which the Tractatus digs into. I think it important to understand this as a digging downward, because the emotional feel of this work is best understood as a negative plot: the sharpness of this descent can first be sharply felt within section 3. Section 2 begins to outlay the connection between "the case", "objects", "facts", "atomic facts/states of affairs", and other common-place things which are talked of "in the world".

In 3 one can feel the descent because this is where one understands in what way we understand the world. 4 displays how thinking is connected with itself, and this is why the serious logic begins here. The outline of propositions is significantly different from the outline of atomic facts and objects. We can only mention atomic facts and objects, as we can only mention atomic propositions and their truth values. 5 shows how truth values are derived. I think the nadir occurs around proposition 5.5, but I'm being somewhat arbitrary about that. That I have a feeling for this text, now, is a significant leap forward in understanding it. I can not explain all of the text, but I have an idea of its predominant thrust.

The end of 5, right before 6, signifies an upward slope. But it isn't a hopeful upward slope. It's the beginning of building back upwards from the hole that has been dug into the foundations lain in the beginning.

6 begins to show in what way this digging and explicating, while part of what philosophy has been doing, doesn't answer what philosophy asks -- the world is understandable, but the whole is tautologous. It places mathematics and natural science in a "place" within understanding, and reflects that while some persons think these things are ultimately true that this is a sort of superstition. Science, causality, and so on is logical, and all we can know is logic. And, even more than that, I think a very important proposition for understanding the catharsis/melancholy of the ending is:

6.4 All propositions are of equal value.

From this it follows that the important questions, important to Witty at least, can not be answered. They have no sense. Or that this is the answer to the important questions: That the question, having no answer, can't even be sensibly formulated -- and so the secret to immortality and happiness lies not in philosophical speculation, but in a mental nowness: Which is entirely unsatisfying.

This is why I think one needs to read Wittgenstein's "correct method" as sort of tongue-in-cheek preperation for his final proposition. If "correct philosophy" consists in correcting the errors of metaphysical speculation, and others feel that they are not then learning philosophy, then how is philosophy philosophy? Why is it that philosophy is, correctly done, unphilosophical?

Naturally the ending is a bit enigmatic, but I think the final proposition in 6 can be understood in that all what has been said is senseless -- in Wittgenstein's specific way of using this word. The outline that the Tractatus is has no reference. As the entire thing does not refer to "the case", and one finds that out by the time they begin to build "the world" back into a whole from which it has been disassembled, there can't actually be a sense to any of these propositions. However, if we, after having crawled through, on, and over these propositions, one would be wise, having reached the limit of our world at the barrier of language, to throw the ladder down. What has been taken apart is no longer needed -- it is senseless, and with that understanding of senselessness, the world is made right.

However, There is proposition 7. I get the feeling that Wittgenstein did not take his own advice. He did not "see the world right". The entire book is a detailed struggle to understand ethics and related philosophical problems, and it ends in failure. It's horribly dissapointing, and with 7 we see that Wittgenstein will not give up that chase -- he will simply remain silent, and melancholy.

Man, I'm probably going to reread the Tractatus, as I'm not entirely certain on what everything in it means -- but the effort I've spent in reading and rereading this book has been well worth it. Once I seemed to "Get it"... it was an absolutely incredible feeling.


  1. Good read, thanks.
    I don't know whether you already know the work by Luciano Bazzocchi "The tree of the Tractatus" (here is a link to a short critical description, in Italian http://www.recensionifilosofiche.it/crono/2011-01/bazzocchi.html) where he uses the oroginal manuscript and the Prototractatus to suggest a novel way of reading the Tractatus itself. Instead of reading it following the succession of the printed pages (hence reading 5, then 5.1,then 5.1.1, etc.) he proposes to read it following a hierarchical mode (hence 5.1, then 5.2,then 5.3 etc. and only after that reading the sequence of second order commentaries, etc.). According to Bazzocchi the new modality changes profoundly what we take to be the main task and content of the Tractatus, and seems to solve some of the aporetic nodes and obscurities of the text.

  2. That's awesome that someone else did that! After I read the Tractatus the first time, left it on my shelf for awhile. In coming back to it I decided to type out the tractatus so that I could read in exactly that manner. I thought it helped to gain a bearing on it.

    I also used an online version of the Tractatus before tackling it straight through again. With this, I searched for key words (Such as "Sense" and "the case" "Fact" "the World" and so on), and copy and pasted those propositions so that I could read every proposition in the Tractatus that used that word. I found myself unable to remember the distinction I was looking for by the time I got around to the word I was questioning.

    Then I reread the Tractatus straight through, again, and this is why I got an interpretation from it and felt like I began to understand the work.