The Conflicts of Modernity in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s «Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus»

by Marek Dobrzeniecki (Author)
©2016 Thesis 273 Pages


The author offers a new look at one of the most influential books in the history of philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He presents the Tractatus as expressing the intellectual anxieties of its modernist epoch. The most intriguing but usually unanswered question concerning the Tractatus is why Wittgenstein had to think that only propositions of natural science have meaning. The author reviews the most popular interpretations of the Tractatus and comes to the conclusion that the early Wittgenstein was an ethical subjectivist. With this insight, he solves the tension between Tractarian theses that influenced neopositivism and its mystical part.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Problem of Ontology in the Tractatus
  • 1.1 Anti-metaphysical interpretation of the Tractatus
  • 1.1.1 Anti-metaphysical interpretation and the tasks of philosophy
  • 1.1.2 The context principle in the Tractatus
  • 1.1.3 In defence of semantic atomism
  • 1.2 The Argument for Substance
  • 1.2.1 The argument from the false judgement or thinking what is not
  • 1.2.2 The argument from the determinateness of sense
  • 1.2.3 Zalabardo’s objections
  • Summary
  • Chapter 2. The Simple Objects of the Tractatus
  • 2.1 Phenomenalistic interpretation of the simples
  • 2.1.1 The question of Russell’s influence on the Tractatus
  • 2.1.2 Arguments in favour of the phenomenalistic interpretation
  • 2.1.3 Counterarguments
  • 2.2 Materialistic interpretation of the simples
  • 2.2.1 Simple objects as material points, point-masses or physical atoms
  • 2.2.2 Arguments in favour of the materialistic interpretation
  • 2.2.3 Advantages of the materialistic interpretation
  • 2.2.4 Counterarguments
  • 2.3 Resolute interpretation of the Tractatus
  • 2.3.1 The principles of the resolute interpretation
  • 2.3.2 The notion of philosophy in the Tractatus
  • Summary
  • Chapter 3. Wittgenstein’s Theory of Judgement
  • 3.1 The context of Wittgenstein’s theory
  • 3.1.1 Russell’s theory of judgement
  • 3.1.2 The notion of the empirical self
  • 3.2 Wittgenstein’s criticism of Russell’s views on judgement
  • 3.3 The Tractatus 5.54-5.5422
  • 3.3.1 Conceptual clarifications
  • 3.3.2 The form of “A believes that p” according to Wittgenstein
  • 3.3.3 Consequences of Wittgenstein’s theory of judgement
  • 3.3.4 The repudiation of the existence of the complex soul (TLP 5.5421)
  • 3.4 Other interpretations of TLP 5.54-5.5422
  • 3.4.1 Anscombe: TLP 5.54-5.5422 and the extensionality principle
  • 3.4.2 Hacker: Hume’s influence on Wittgenstein’s theory
  • 3.4.3 Jacquette: the distinguishability problem
  • Summary
  • Chapter 4. The Transcendental Self
  • 4.1 The transcendental philosophy of Schopenhauer
  • 4.1.1 Schopenhauer and the notion of the transcendental self
  • 4.1.2 Schopenhauer and the safeguarding of values
  • 4.2 The willing subject
  • 4.2.1 Examples of transcendental interpretations referring to Wittgenstein’s ethics
  • 4.2.2 Counterarguments
  • 4.3 Solipsistic theses of the Tractatus
  • 4.3.1 The transcendental self as the owner of the phenomenal world
  • 4.3.2 The transcendental self as the linguistic soul
  • 4.3.3 Arguments in favour of Tractarian transcendental solipsism
  • 4.4 Tractarian understanding of death
  • 4.5 General remarks about the transcendental interpretation
  • 4.5.1 Is the nonsense of solipsism illuminating?
  • 4.5.2 Transcendental reasoning
  • Summary
  • Chapter 5. Ethics in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings
  • 5.1 The nonsense of ethics in the eyes of early Wittgenstein
  • 5.1.1 The absoluteness of moral values
  • 5.1.2 The sense of proposition and the idea of objectivity
  • 5.2 Early Wittgenstein’s subjectivism
  • 5.2.1 Ethical sentences as expressions of attitudes
  • 5.2.2 Ethical subjectivism and Tractarian silence
  • 5.2.3 Wittgenstein’s subjectivism and early Russell’s emotivism
  • 5.3 Solipsistic theses of the Tractatus under a subjectivist reading
  • Summary
  • Final Thoughts. The Defence of Human Values by early Wittgenstein
  • Bibliography

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One of the main questions in the following dissertation reads as follows: What reasons did Wittgenstein have to think that only propositions of natural science have meaning?

The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences) (TLP 4.11)1.

One could expect such a statement from an admirer of natural science (of its progress, results, clarity or influence on everyday life). One could also expect this statement to be the beginning of some philosophical programme in which the progress of all other branches of culture hinges on a scientific conception of the world. Yet the Tractatus has nothing to do with these kinds of views. In a letter to his publisher, Ludwig von Ficker, Wittgenstein informed him that his work consisted of two parts: the written part – the text that the reader has before his or her eyes, and the unwritten part – topics about which Wittgenstein was intentionally silent2. To Bertrand Russell, who believed that one should implement scientific methods into the practice of philosophy3, he wrote: “How different our ideas are, for example, of the value of a scientific work”4. He was explaining to the first English translator of the Tractatus, Charles Kay Ogden, with respect to thesis TLP 6.5 (“The riddle does not exist”), which could be interpreted straightforwardly as proof of Tractarian positivism, that he did not wish “anything ridiculous or profane or frivolous in the word when used in the connection ‘riddle of life’ etc.”5. Wittgenstein was ← 9 | 10 → afraid that his views would be understood as merely negating the meaningfulness of philosophy. According to Drury’s testimony, he once said: “Don’t think I despise metaphysics or ridicule it. On the contrary, I regard the great metaphysical writings of the past as among the noblest productions of human mind”6 and, according to Carnap’s recollection, the result of the Tractatus, i.e. the thesis that metaphysical and ethical utterances are senseless, was “extremely painful for him emotionally, as if he were compelled to admit a weakness in a beloved person”7. Therefore, there is clearly tension in the Tractatus between theses that could as well have been expressed by the proponents of neo-positivism or scientism8 and its mystical part, where Wittgenstein writes, among others, that “there are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (TLP 6.522)9.

One of the explanations for such tension comes from Wittgenstein’s biography. If it was not for his war experiences, the Tractatus would contain only considerations on logic and language. As Ray Monk writes:

The Austrian Eleventh Army, to which Wittgenstein’s regiment was attached, faced [in the June of 1916] the brunt of the attack and suffered enormous casualties. It was at precisely this time that the nature of Wittgenstein’s work changed (Monk 1991, p. 140).

It was in the same month, on 11 June 1916, when Wittgenstein noted in his Notebooks the famous entry which begins with the question: “What do I know about God and the purpose of life?” (NB 11.6.16. p. 72). The mystical-ethical part of the Tractatus (TLP 6.4–7) is strictly connected with the religious conversion Wittgenstein experienced during World War I. Distressed and depressed by the evil ← 10 | 11 → and malicious company of his fellow soldiers and faced with the danger of losing his life, he started seriously considering problems which up to that point he had thought to be “philosophical” in the worst possible meaning of the word. The reference here to Wittgenstein’s biography, however, does not provide a suggestion as to what the correct interpretation is of the solipsistic (TLP 5.6-5.641) or the ethical theses of the Tractatus.

In order to address the aforementioned issues one has to put the Tractatus in a broader context of the history of philosophy at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Among the philosophers of that time there prevailed convictions which I will call in this dissertation ‘modernist’. The most important feature of modernist thinking is granting science the primary role in the task of describing reality10. Impressed by new physical achievements, such as Maxwell’s theory of electro-magnetism (1873), philosophers and scientists began to believe in the possibility of a unitary physical description of the world – one of such projects was taken up by Heinrich Hertz in his Principles of Mechanics (1894). Moreover, Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859) showed that we can explain events of the biological world exclusively in terms of causes and effects without mentioning the notion of an aim, which was always tinged with theological associations. Darwin’s theory explained the rise of the human species in a fully naturalistic way, therefore the explanation for the existence of the human being (with all of its magnificent mental abilities) was done without reference to the special act of God’s creation11. In effect, some philosophers believed that the progress of science would make philosophical and theological doctrines, such as the philosophical doctrine of the immortal soul or the theological doctrine of the creation of the world, useless. Summing up, the first feature of the modernist way of thinking is ascribing to science (and especially natural science) the primary role in searching for the truth about the world.

On the other hand, it was exactly this “rise of science” that resulted in anxiety that the scientific worldview might flatten the complexity and sophistication of our perception of the world. Many philosophers, who came from different traditions, ← 11 | 12 → began to wonder: “What is the place for religion and ethics in a worldview dominated by scientific thinking?” and “How can such notions as the notion of a free will, the notion of the self or the notion of a moral value be accommodated in the scientific worldview?”12. I see, after Charles Taylor, posing these kinds of questions as the second feature of modernism13. My main interpretational hypothesis of the Tractatus assumes that in this book both of these characteristics of modernism are present14. In this sense the Tractatus shared the intellectual interests and anxieties of its epoch. If I am right then the main problem of the Tractatus reads as follows: “How can one safeguard the world of human values from the claims of science?”. I shall call up this question later in my work on the fundamental problem of the Tractatus. The aforementioned tension between some of its formulations will then find an explanation in the fact that the Tractatus is an example of the modernist way of thinking. On the one hand, it acknowledges the progress and success of natural science at the beginning of the 20th century and, on the other, it tries to find ← 12 | 13 → a way to express the problem of the meaning of life and of moral values in a world governed by the laws of science.

The fundamental problem of the Tractatus in its present formulation needs clarification. First, what do I mean by the world of human values? Roughly speaking, it is the world described from the anthropocentric perspective15. Human values, in this sense, are those objects which occur only in the anthropocentric description of the world. Bertrand Russell, in On Scientific Method in Philosophy, indicated that, for instance, if one describes the development of species from protozoa through primates to human beings as progress, then one takes exactly the anthropocentric perspective16. This is because from a strictly objective standpoint there is no such thing as progress in the development of species, i.e. there are no better and worse species. This means that the concept of progress refers to a human value, and a description of the world which contains this notion is a description from the anthropocentric point of view. In the narrow sense, human values are those which address a group of issues which Wittgenstein named “the problems of life” in the Tractatus17. In this meaning one can include moral and aesthetic values to the human values, as well as values that make life worth living.

The next issue to clarify is why these values need to be defended from the claims of science? By answering this question I shall point to the fact that the natural sciences, as an effort to describe the world objectively, sub specie aeterni, contain no concepts which are necessarily connected with the anthropocentric perspective. This fact, combined with the acceptance of the authority of science as the only source of truth about the world, posed a problem for some thinkers. The mechanical worldview which emerges from the convictions that:

the scientific description of the world contains ultimately only concepts of material particles, and

the scientific description of the world is complete; there is no aspect of reality which cannot be captured by science ← 13 | 14 →

seemed to be too depressing. For instance, in the book which contributed the most to Wittgenstein’s religious conversion18, The Gospel in Brief, Leo Tolstoy wrote:

When fifty years old, having questioned myself, and having questioned the reputed philosophers whom I knew, as to what I am, and as to the purport of my life, and after getting the reply that I was a fortuitous concatenation of atoms, and that my life was void of purport, and that life itself is evil, I became desperate, and wished to put an end to my life (Tolstoy 1896, p. 8).

In ethics we describe human beings as persons who possess dignity and rights. Physics, on the other hand, describes human beings as a “concatenation of atoms”. This view on the human being as a complex of its material elements, “unimportant agents in an aimless and senseless universe that is ruled by blind natural forces”19, amounts to a reification of persons, treating them like objects among other objects, which could lead, in the eyes of some of the commentators of Wittgenstein, to catastrophic social and political consequences20. In this sense, human values need to be defended from the claims of science.

In the second meaning, one needs to safeguard human values because of positivism’s mistake consisting in the conviction that both science and religion or metaphysics have the same goal, which is to describe the world, with the difference being that science does so more accurately. Therefore, in order to acquire the proper worldview, one has to overcome these temporary, i.e. religious and metaphysical, stages of the intellectual development of humankind. Those who want to adopt the scientific worldview must reject naive ethical and religious convictions which are necessarily connected with false and unjustified anthropocentrism. This was the claim of some philosophers, for instance, Russell and ← 14 | 15 → Schlick21, which provoked Wittgenstein to defend the right to hold ethical and religious convictions22.

Apart from distorting the meaning of ethical and religious notions and the claim that ethics, metaphysics or religion represent bad science, or sad testimonies of periods of history when humankind was plunged into the darkness of ignorance, one can also discern the third reason for defending the world of human values from the consequences of the rise of science. One can express this reason, after Wittgenstein, as the danger that a scientific description of the world impoverishes our life and culture23. The basic reason for this impoverishment lies in the fact that the problem of the meaning of life is not a scientific one:

Our conception on the contrary is that there is no great essential problem in the scientific sense (CV, p. 20).

Apparently, for Wittgenstein, if our culture and education are dominated by scientific thinking, then we will cease to ask questions about the meaning of life or about moral goodness. This means we will cease to wonder about the most important things in our lives24. It was in this sense that moral values needed to be protected from the claims of science – the danger consisted, in the eyes of Wittgenstein, that enchanted by the success of scientific explanations we will forget to pose questions about the meaning of life.

The task, therefore, was to safeguard the notions of ethics and religion from scientific distortion to defend the right of a rational person to hold ethical and religious convictions and to justify the importance of posing the problems of life. In the conclusions to this dissertation I hope to show in which respect Wittgenstein’s solutions either fulfil or do not fulfil this task. What I find, however, ← 15 | 16 → the most intriguing in the Tractatus, and the reason I wrote this dissertation, is that by answering the question: “What is the place of ethics and religion in the scientific worldview?” Wittgenstein did not abandon his conviction, expressed in TLP 4.11, that natural science is the only source of truth about the world. He admitted the rightness of the most radical versions of scientism and naturalism, and it was from this point of view that he tried to see how one can talk about moral or aesthetic values. His point of interest was the question whether one, without giving up his or her rationalism, can still search for the meaning of life or whether one, without undermining scientific claims about the world, can still make sense of his or her own religious experiences? By answering this fundamental problem he did not choose the easy way out, consisting in belittling the value and possibilities of natural science. One could say that in fulfilling the task of safeguarding human values he agreed with his possible positivistic opponent regarding all of that opponent’s views on science and metaphysics. In my opinion, this is what makes his effort so fascinating and worth analysing also today. Wittgenstein reveals himself in the Tractatus as a doubly serious philosopher – he acknowledges the progress and explanatory powers of science and, at the same time, concedes the importance of safeguarding the values of the human world.

This conviction about what is especially interesting in the philosophy of early Wittgenstein determines the structure of this work. In its first part I concentrate on proving that Wittgenstein, although he experienced some kind of spiritual illumination during the World War I, did not withdraw from his scientism. In the first chapter I shall discuss the basic, i.e. from the point of view of my work, problem whether the Tractarian theory of meaning is an example of the realistic theories of meaning. I shall argue in favour of this thesis and against the claims of the anti-metaphysical interpretation of the Tractatus. I find this problem crucial because if proponents of the anti-metaphysical interpretation are right, and early Wittgenstein was indeed not interested in ontological topics, and if the notion of a simple object was a purely formal one (that is, if Wittgenstein, when writing the Tractatus, had no concrete candidacy for the referent of this concept in mind), then, obviously, there is no fundamental problem of the Tractatus as I formulate it here. Then Wittgenstein could not pose the question about the place of ethics in the scientific worldview simply because he did not raise the problem of a proper worldview at all. The second chapter analyses the two main candidacies for the referents of the Tractarian concept of a simple object: simple units of experience (as the phenomenalistic interpretation of the Tractatus argues) and the most elementary particles of matter (as the materialistic interpretation proposes). I shall defend in that chapter the materialistic ← 16 | 17 → interpretation of the Tractatus, i.e. I shall show that Wittgenstein’s position in his early oeuvre could be classified as radical naturalism – a view according to which the world consists only in physical particles and their movements.

According to Putnam’s description of scientism, this position not only assumes “that science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself” independently of an anthropocentric perspective but it also claims “that science leaves no room for the independent philosophical enterprise”25. In my opinion, one can notice in the Tractatus also this second aspect of scientism. Wittgenstein claims, among others, that “philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. (The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)” (TLP 4.111). He also suspects that traditional metaphysical concepts are empty26. Wittgenstein’s scepticism towards philosophy is directed at metaphysics as a doctrine about the world27, i.e. a doctrine which attempts to describe the world more comprehensively than science or which assumes that there is an aspect of reality which is a special subject-matter for philosophy. Wittgenstein fought with this conception of philosophy also in less obvious fragments of his book. In this context I shall present in Chapter 3 Wittgenstein’s discussion of the Russellian theory of judgement (TLP 5.54-5.5422). Obviously, the main topic of this fragment of the Tractatus is to reconcile the existence of propositional attitudes with a strong extensionality thesis28, but I shall argue that Wittgenstein’s solution to this problem: “It is clear, however, that ‘A believes that p’, ‘A has thought p’, and ‘A says p’ are of the form ‘ “p” says p’ ” (TLP 5.542) as its background has Wittgenstein’s conviction that Russell did not confer any meaning in his theory of judgement on the notion of the mind. I will also analyse this topic because it strengthens the view that the author of the Tractatus was a naturalist. In my interpretation, Wittgenstein’s theory of judgement does without the dualistic notion of the self. In contrast to Russell’s theory it is able to explain the fact that propositions ← 17 | 18 → communicate content without referring to the realm of the mental, which is allegedly distinct from the realm of the material.

In Chapter 4 I shall discuss the transcendental interpretations of the Tractatus. The proponents of this kind of reading of Wittgenstein’s early work agree that its fundamental problem consisted in finding a place for ethics and religion in the world of scientific facts, but, in contrast to what I believe, they believe that Wittgenstein, when addressing this issue under the influence of the philosophy of Schopenhauer, accepted an idealistic or even a solipsistic point of view at the expense of his naturalism. After a close examination of the arguments advanced in favour of this interpretation and the fragments of the Tractatus which supposedly speak in favour of this reading, I shall hope to prove that early Wittgenstein was consequent in his naturalism and did not adopt transcendentalism. If he wanted to “defend” the world of human values against the claims of science, he had to do so in another way.

I shall try to reconstruct what his strategy and his answer to the fundamental problem of the Tractatus were in the last chapter of my dissertation. The main difficulty of this effort consists in the fact that an answer to the fundamental problem belongs (invoking Wittgenstein’s letter to von Ficker) to the “unwritten” part of the Tractatus – the book which its author ends with a call to silence. However, on the basis of what we know about the position of the Tractatus (for instance, that one can classify its ontological position as materialism) and Wittgenstein’s later remarks (especially on the basis of A Lecture on Ethics, which, as I suspect, differs from the Tractatus with respect to views on ethics only in that in his lecture Wittgenstein was less consequential and gave in to the temptation of expressing necessarily nonsensical ethical convictions), I shall formulate the hypothesis of Wittgenstein’s subjectivism with respect to ethics. This means that I shall defend the view according to which Wittgenstein held ethical expressions to be nonsensical and aiming to express a speaker’s attitude to the world as a whole.

In general, I have read the Tractatus as a modernist oeuvre29. I have read it as a sign of the times when philosophers, having acknowledged the importance ← 18 | 19 → of the results of scientific research, began to question the status of traditional philosophical doctrines. In my opinion, Wittgenstein, in his book, skilfully manoeuvred between Scylla of neo-positivism and Charybdis of transcendental idealism. It is a book worth reading, among others, for the consequence in drawing morals from naturalistic positions it holds. Up until today it shows us what the possible and most substantial position is of someone who, on the one hand, accepts the ontological authority of natural science but, on the other, does not want to see religion or metaphysics merely as past stages in the intellectual history of humankind.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (January)
Transcendentalism Ethical subjectivism Logical atomism Philosophy of Language
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 273 pp., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Marek Dobrzeniecki (Author)

Marek Dobrzeniecki is Lecturer in Philosophy at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Warsaw and at the Centre for Thought of John Paul II in Warsaw.


Title: The Conflicts of Modernity in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s «Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus»
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