Book Review: Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein

4.003    Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless. We cannot, therefore, answer questions of this kind at all, but only state their senselessness. Most questions and propositions of the philosophers result from the fact that we do not understand the logic of our language.
(They are of the same kind as the question whether the Good is more or less identical than the Beautiful.)
And so it is not to be wondered at that the deepest problems are really no problems.


I’ve been promising this review for some time. The problem has been – since this is a book not of philosophy but about philosophy – I’ve needed time for it to sink in. Furthermore, as much as I hate prefacing my opinion (or anyone else doing the same), due to the nature of this book I feel it fair to say a few words: I’m not an academic who specializes in philosophy. I do not have the names and concepts of all the world’s great thinkers at my fingertips. As such, I tackled this book as a reasonably intelligent layman. What I have to say about it should be seen through this particular lens. This is not a dissertation and most certainly this is not an academic exercise. So there.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus though only clocking-in at a svelte 108 pages, is a monster of a book. It is a perception-altering, densely laid treatise that attempts to clarify not a particular theory per se, but rather, pulls its focus back to comment upon the very scaffolding of philosophical understanding itself.

The way Wittgenstein sees it, there are too many fundamental errors and/or assumptions that sabotage philosophical propositions before they’re even written down on paper. The key is to first lay down exactly what a sound proposition is and to understand it in its elemental form. Technically, linguistically, even mathematically Wittgenstein has taken his understanding of what makes a philosophical proposition sound and distilled into a dense uber-logical lexicon.

It’s a fascinating (if insufferably semantic) approach: each point and sub-point are laid down like a revolutionary manifesto:


4.023    The proposition determines reality to this extent, that one only needs to say “Yes” or “No” to it to make it agree with reality.
Reality must therefore be completely described by the proposition.
A proposition is the description of a fact.
As the description of an object describes it by its external properties so propositions describe reality by its internal properties.
The proposition constructs a world with the help of a logical scaffolding, and therefore one can actually see in the proposition all the logical features possessed by reality if it is true. One can draw conclusions from a false proposition


Wittgenstein is intent on defining the way in which we attempt to interpret the world rather than the specifics of content. Wittgenstein’s reverence for the power and importance of how language is utilized in articulating the world is infectious. His approach, however, requires careful reading. I will be honest in saying that it’s difficult to review such a book without having spent a number of weeks re-reading it, making notes, checking out other people’s feelings about it, etc.. I have not had the time to do this, and have only managed to read Tractatus twice – however, I will say that while the first reading was a slog in the mud, during the second reading things became suddenly more clear and fascinating.

Who should read this book? Anyone interested in expanding their practical and theoretical understanding of language and logic. While Tractatus is dense and unsparing to the casual reader, those who give Wittgenstein’s treatise the time and effort it deserves will undoubtedly walk away richer for the experience (if not wiser). If Aristotle wrote the book on metaphysics, then Wittgenstein has written the book on metaphilosophy.

Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (ISBN 0-486-40445-5) is available at a fine independent bookstore near you. Also available online at various merchants. Note: this review is based upon the 1999 Dover republication (using the translation by C.K. Ogden, which is thought to be the definitive text).


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