Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

8. Variant interpretations of the Tractatus

The above account summarizes what the Tractatus seems to say. Wittgenstein’s overall intention in writing it is disputed. One traditional ‘metaphysical’ reading takes him to present a strongly realist outlook. There is a world of simple objects with a determinate structure independent of thought and this structure constrains and explains the nature of meaningful representation. We cannot say what this structure is, or describe the relation between reality and language. But the book aims to show us these things.

A second ‘therapeutic’ reading sees Wittgenstein as seeking to undermine the temptation to make such metaphysical claims. ’ “Is wise” is wise’ is plain nonsense, like ‘Frabble is wise’, because we have given no meaning to ‘is wise’ as a referring expression. No further explanation of its nonsensicality is needed or could be given. The attempt to find one, by appeal to some further fact about the nature of what predicates represent just leads us to formulate more nonsensical verbiage. We may explore the form of our language from the inside but we cannot explain that form by appeal to something external to it. Reflection on the articulation of reality must at the same time be reflection on the articulation of representation since the idea of reality can only be the idea of what makes representations true. ‘What is not representable by meaningful representations’ can only mean ‘what is represented by nonsense’. But nonsense represents nothing.

Defenders of this second interpretation believe that Wittgenstein’s intention in writing the Tractatus was to release us from the temptation to fruitless philosophical theorizing. Some of them also believe that Wittgenstein intends the completion of the therapy to be relinquishing the show-say distinction itself as nonsensical, and hence relinquishing also the idea of there being any insights to be gained by reading the book. In favour of this so-called ‘resolute’ interpretation are the facts that some therapeutic intentions are plainly embodied in the work and that Wittgenstein’s project looks inconsistent without the final move. He strives to make apparent to us what he takes to be the requirements for any speech to be meaningful, namely that it be capable of picturing contingent states of affairs. Can it be that he then, in all seriousness, suggests that there are linguistic moves by which things are shown (moves which are therefore meaningful in some sense) which do not meet the requirements?

Against the resolute reading one may note that the removal of a muddle which hinders fruitful thought may also present itself as an increase in self-understanding or a coming to know better how to think. The process of reflection which dissolves the muddle and the better view it results in may both have natural verbal expressions. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus view of language, as solely a system for picturing contingent states of affairs, does not allow for the meaningfulness of such utterances. But his later view recognises a greater variety of kinds of meaningful speech, including (for example) utterances which have the form of indicative statements but whose role is that of acknowledgements of rules of language. We may thus think of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus as either irresolute and inconsistent but in practice already recognizing the variety of human discourse, or as resolute and consistent but closing his eyes to that variety.

The Tractatus, whether read in a metaphysical or a therapeutic way, shows Wittgenstein gripped by the conviction that there is just one set of possible concepts. The basic constituents of thought and of reality are, he takes it, fixed once and for all, independent of any contingencies of the interests and circumstances of human beings. And sentences have an analysis which if spelt out would make clear to us something we are not now (explicitly) aware of, namely the nature of the fundamental objects which compose states of affairs and which are represented by the simple signs of any meaningful language. These commitments - to analysis, objects and simplicity - themselves embody substantial philosophical claims and they provide central targets for Wittgenstein’s later reconsiderations.

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. Variant interpretations of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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