The Origin of Fact

What should we make of Wittgenstein's paradoxical claim at the end of the Tractatus that the propositions contained therein are nonsensical?

The paradoxical claim at the end of the Tractatus has led to significant debate about how to interpret its contents. This is as it seems that, throughout the Tractatus, Wittgenstein is giving some sort of theory of meaning, only to claim at the end, that everything he has said is nonsense. This has led some, who give credibility to the standard reading of the Tractatus, to be unable to let go of the idea that there is some theory at play that is shown and not said, and that the propositions in the Tractatus are nonsense as a result of violating this theory. However, I think the propositions contained therein must be taken as simply nonsense and not putting forward any theory, and the point of the Tractatus can be understood as showing that, despite appearing to provide a logical argument, we cannot give any justification for the logic of our language as it shows itself in the propositions used and attempts to justify it will therefore be nonsensical.

In the preface to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein clearly states that “the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather - not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts”(TLP,p.3). He asserts that the problems of philosophy are caused by misunderstanding of the logic of our language, and that by drawing a limit to the expression of thought it can be shown that the problems considered in philosophy are in fact pseudo-propositions and are nonsensical and therefore, as he says, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”(TLP,6.54). For instance, Wittgenstein believes that the philosophical problems of the logical properties of the language and the world; ethics, aesthetics and the mystical; lie beyond the limits of language and thus, they are not problems, and are nonsense and we should remain silent on them. Throughout the Tractatus it appears as though Wittgenstein is systematically presenting some theory of meaning. However, at the end of the book at 6.54, he says:

“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them-as steps-to climb 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.” (TLP.6.54)

This closing remark has resulted in a great deal of confusion in how to interpret and understand the Tractatus. As Russell says, in the introduction he wrote for the Tractatus, “Mr Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said”(TLP,xxiii). It becomes difficult to understand how he has drawn a limit to the expression of thought if all he has said to achieve it is nonsense. For instance how Wittgenstein says “My fundamental idea is that ‘logical constants’ are not representatives; that there can be no representatives of the logic of facts” (TLP,4.0312). This is as he argues that, to represent logical form we would have to take ourselves outside of logic and this, he argues, we cannot do. So although the logical form is mirrored in the propositions, it cannot be represented as the “logic of facts is not some additional fact or piece of information”(Kremer(2013),p.12). Wittgenstein is here telling us something we cannot do, represent logical form, “but that attempt to describe what we cannot do is itself a nonsensical attempt to represent logical form”(Kremer(2013),p.11). A key issue in understanding the nonsense of the Tractatus is the saying/showing distinction and Wittgenstein believes that logical form, possibility, necessity and impossibility is shown not said. That is, it is mirrored in propositions that make sense but it cannot itself be spoken about. “What expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language”(TLP,4.121). This saying/showing distinction has led some to interpret the Tractatus as showing ineffable truths that cannot be said, but that if they could be said would be true. However I believe the whole of Tractatus must be taken as nonsense in the normal sense of the word. I believe that Wittgenstein is not trying to express ineffable truths and his propositions contained within the Tractatus are simply nonsense and the Tractatus can be explained in this light. The key is to realise the reader is meant to be understanding the author and not the content of the book. This is in line with the resolute reading of the Tractatus which I will use in my discussion of the Tractatus and I will also compare it with the standard reading of Wittgenstein that he is expressing ineffable truths.

I believe that the standard reading of the Tractatus results in problems in enabling an understanding of the paradoxical claim at the end of the Tractatus. The standard reading of the Tractatus holds that although the propositions in the Tractatus are nonsense they are nonetheless showing ineffable truths and that they are nonsense as a result of violating these ineffable truths. Cora Diamond dismisses this, as she says, “That is what I want to call chickening out” (Diamond(1988),p.7). This is as they are not really ‘throwing away the ladder’ as Wittgenstein has said. For instance, according to the Tractatus, logical form is something which shows itself but cannot be expressed, but on the standard reading there is still something gestured at when we speak of logical form. There are particular problems with the version of the standard reading given by Meredith Williams, in that here there seems to be a desire to show that the nonsense is underwritten by a theory but that the theory is composed of the nonsense given in the Tractatus. This would mean that the nonsense in the Tractatus is nonsense because it is a violation of some kind of logical conditions of legitimate sentence construction which are given through the Tractatus but the conditions themselves would be nonsense and this seems to be an inconsistency. However it could be argued that Wittgenstein would tolerate inconsistency as he would have been in the grip of a philosophical picture but as Diamond and Conant(2004,p.51) say “We do not wish to deny that later Wittgenstein did come to view the author of the Tractatus as in various ways in the grip of philosophical picture”. This would not have been the case for early Wittgenstein and his claim that he was not putting forward a theory and was actually doing a job of clarification must be taken seriously and so the propositions contained therein, and thus the Tractatus, cannot be taken as giving some sort of theory. It is also argued by Williams that “Wittgenstein in the Tractatus ‘tolerates paradox’, in particular, by putting forward in the book a theory of meaning that ‘undercuts the meaningfulness of the sentences used to state that theory”(Diamond and Contant(2004),p.51), and it is claimed that this is done through ‘the doctrine of showing’. This is the claim that although Wittgenstein has said his propositions in the Tractatus are nonsense they still manage to show the ineffable truths that the standard reading claims are there. For instance Peter Hacker (2000) tried to argue that there is misleading nonsense that can be recognised easily and illuminating nonsense, which is the nonsense contained in the Tractatus; and the misleading nonsense and the illuminating nonsense violate the rules of logical syntax. However the illuminating nonsense does so self-consciously, so the illuminating nonsense can be taken to be showing something. However “It is self refuting to say ‘if p, then p can’t be said’ and to take yourself to have said something. It is no help to say that this too can’t be said, but can only be shown; the same problem arises”(Kremer (2001).p.45). So the idea that the sentences in Tractatus show some sort of ineffable truths and some sort of theory seems to be plainly inconsistent with the sentences being nonsense and meaningless. It is also important to distinguish between ‘showing’ in the sense of showing contradictions and tautologies with which Wittgenstein would have agreed and ‘showing’ in the sense of ineffable truths, the existence of which Wittgenstein does not seem to give any indication. “What Wittgenstein says about showing in the Tractatus has no obvious or direct application to those propositions of his book that are not senseful, tautologous, or contradictory”(Diamond and Contant(2004),p.52). Reading it in this way would explain the sentences as, in someway, being meaningful, which would be inconsistent and not paradoxical. So to sum up, this standard way of interpreting the paradox of the Tractatus fails as, if it was trying to show a theory of meaning, the problems of the fact that the sentences used are nonsense means that anything they try to convey would not be graspable including the theory of meaning. Hence it cannot be a theory of logic as sentences cannot be nonsense whilst providing a logically coherent argument. As Wittgenstein says in the preface “what lies on the other side will be simply nonsense” (TLP, p.4) and in 6.54 he says his propositions “we are meant to overcome” would suggest that this standard way of reading the Tractatus does not succeed in showing how we are meant to understand the Tractatus with its paradoxical claim at the end.

The resolute reading of the Tractatus, I believe, succeeds in explaining the Tractatus with its paradoxical claim at the end. This is as those who propose this reading take seriously the claim that the sentences contained within the Tractatus are simply nonsense and are consistent with Wittgenstein. This avoids the problems of the standard reading as it rejects the idea that the nonsense of the Tractatus is a result of violating some sort of theory of meaning and logic. For instance the reason such sentences as ‘A is an object’ are nonsense is not a result of violating the bipolarity condition as “you cannot establish the nonsensicality of a sentence by any appeal to features that it would have if it were meaningful” (Diamond and Contant(2004),p.58). The reason that a sentence is nonsensical is that “it contains a word or words to which no meaning has been given.”(Diamond and Contant(2004),p.59) and sentences are shown to be nonsensical through clarification rather than an appeal to some theory. So for instance the reason that a sentence such as ‘bottle razor’ has no meaning is that we have given no meaning to razor standing to the left of bottle. This resolute reading therefore seems to be consistent with Wittgenstein's paradoxical claim at the end of the Tractatus as it accepts that the propositions contained therein are simply nonsense and thus cannot be putting forward ineffable truths and theories. It could be argued however that to give the charge of nonsense presupposes that there must be a theory of what nonsense is. However, according to the resolute reading, nonsense is not a technical term, it is just being used in the everyday use of the word nonsense, and thus there is no need for a theory to show what the nonsense is. The resolute reading is also successful in explaining the saying/showing distinction in way that works with the paradox given at the end of the Tractatus. This is as, instead of saying, as the standard reading does, that the showing is the showing of ineffable truths, “The Tractatus shows what it shows by letting language show itself”(Diamond and Conant(2004),p.65) and thus is consistent with the paradoxical claim that the propositions are nonsense. Therefore, attempts to justify rules of inference turn out to be nonsensical, as “the relation of logical implication is internal, can be perceived from the structure of the propositions alone”(Kremer(2004),p.53) So the rules are shown through looking at propositions containing them and any further attempt to justify them will just be nonsense. This resolute reading works by taking the preface and the concluding sections as the frame of the book and as instructions on how to read it which is what Diamond does. For instance, where Wittgenstein talks about setting the limits to language, he says “and what lies on the other side will simply be nonsense” (TLP,p.4) and the penultimate remark where he says “anyone who understands me eventually recognises my propositions as nonsense….”(TLP,6.54). So the argument rests of taking the ‘frame’ seriously and seeing the propositions contained as nonsensical and not giving forward any theory. However the idea of this frame could come under attack of methodological inconsistency as, as Hacker (2000,p.9) says, “apart from the frame Diamond and Conant implicitly exempt TLP 4.126 - 4.1272, 5.473 and 5.4733 from condemnation as nonsense, since these are passages upon which their argument depend”. However there does not seem to me, to be a significant problem in taking these passages to count as the frame of the book as well as the preface and the conclusion. So the point of the Tractatus, with its paradoxical claim at the end and its being understood in a resolute way with the propositions contained therein, being nonsensical could be that we don’t need to look for ultimate justification for logic and life. “Tractatus aims to relieve us of this need for ultimate justification by revealing that all such justificatory talk is in the end meaningless nonsense”(Kremer(2004),p.51). This ties in with how Wittgenstein says logic must look after itself as it can be shown through the propositions that use it but it cannot be spoken about or further justified as these attempts will just be nonsense. So attempts at justification must be rejected and “we must remain silent, and let logic, and life, speak for itself- let the justification for what we think and do ‘show itself’”(Kremer(2004),p.52). So the paradoxical claim at the end of Tractatus must be taken to be showing that the propositions contained therein are nonsense in the ordinary use of the word nonsense and thus can the Tractatus can be understood as an attempt to try and show that searching for justification for logic will inevitably be nonsensical. I think it is significant that Wittgenstein says “anyone who understands me” as he is making it clear that it is the author that is being understood and not a book of nonsense.

What is to be made of the paradoxical claim at the end of the Tractatus is that the propositions contained therein are simply nonsense in the normal sense of the word. It is the author of the Tractatus being understood rather than the propositions that are contained in the book and its point is to show that any attempts at justifying the logic of our language will be nonsensical. To try and hold that there are ineffable truths that are being shown in the text, or that there is actually some theory at play that the propositions violate and which makes them meaningless, would be inconsistent. Firstly it would be inconsistent with Wittgenstein as he says that he is not trying to give some sort of theory but he is doing a job of clarification and secondly it is difficult to see how proposition that were actually complete nonsense could be showing ineffable truths and how the propositions could be shown to be nonsense as a result of the a theory composed of the nonsense.


Conant James and Diamond Cora (2004), “On reading the Tactatus Resolutely: Reply to Meredith Williams and Peter Sullivan, in M. Kölbel and B.Weiss (eds.) Wittgenstein’s Lasting Significance. London:Routledge.

Diamond Cora (1988), “Throwing Away the Ladder”. Philosophy, Vol.63, No. 243.

Hacker Peter (2000), “Was He Trying to Whistle it”, in Crary and Read (eds.) The New Wittgenstein: London:Routledge.

Kremer Michael (2001), “The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense”, Nous 35.

Kremer Michael (2013), “The Whole Meaning of a Book of Nonsense: Reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in M. Beaney (ed), The Oxford Handbook of The History of Analytic Philosophy: Oxford.

Williams Meredith (2004), “Nonsense and Cosmic Exile: The Austere Reading of the Tractatus, in B. Weiss (eds) Wittgenstein’s Lasting Significance, London:Routledge.

Wittgenstein Ludwig (1961), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Trans. D.F Pears and B.F McGuinness: Routledge: London and New York.

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