This is the only book that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. At the onset of the first world war Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austrian army. He was captured and served out the end of the war in an Italian POW camp. It was here that the manuscript for the Tractatus was completed (haze confirms that this is documented in Wittgenstein's Poker)

The book was first published in 1921 in German in the periodical Annalen der Naturphilosophie. The first English translation was made by C. K. Ogden and his student F.P. Ramsey and appeared in 1922. My edition was first published in 1961 and translated by D.F Pears and B.F McGuinness working from notes that Wittgenstein had made about the Ogden and Ramsey translation. The copyright is currently held by Routledge.

The book was used as his doctoral thesis for obtaining his Doctorate from Cambridge. This was really more of a formality. It was clear, by the time that Wittgenstein came to this position, that he was one of the most important philosophers in the world. His viva was conducted by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore.

In the actual examiner’s report, Moore wrote ‘It is my personal opinion that Mr. Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius; but, be that as it may, it is certainly well up to the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy’.

On the Royal Institute of Philosophy web page there is a very entertaining article entitled "Wittgenstein’s Ph.D Viva - A Re-Creation" (The author of this essay contends that had the examiners not been overawed by Wittgenstein's personality then the Tractatus would have failed a viva. I would advise reading the essay)

The Tractatus is made up of n propositions, 7 major propositions with sub proposition following as 1.1, 1.11, 1.12, ... 2, 2.01, 2.011 etc. Wittgenstein says, in the only footnote in the book, "the decimal numbers assigned to the individual propositions indicate the logical importance of the propositions, and the stress laid out on them in my exposition. The propositions n.1, n.2, n.3 etc. are comments on proposition n0. n: the proposition n.m1, n.m2, etc, are comments on proposition n.m; and so on."

In this way Wittgenstein attempts an axiomatic analysis of philosophy.

The book is quite short, but dense. I have managed to get close to proposition 6, then I put the book down and pick it up and start from the beginning again. I've been doing this for a few years now. Far more has been written about the book, and I have read a lot more material about the book than I have read of the book.

The first proposition reads "The world is all that is the case", the last proposition "What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence". These make great epigrams.

I think Wittgenstein's preface to the work gives a very clear indication of what he is about. He tells us "The book deals with the problems of philosophy, and shows, I believe, that the reason why these problems are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood"

The motto to the work is taken from Kurnberger and states " ... and whatever a man knows whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words"

In proposition 4.116 Wittgenstein tells us "Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly."

His goal, as I see it, is to clarify what we mean when we speak. He believes that most, if not all, of the problems in philosophy are due to confusion, and if we could be clear about our terms it would become apparent that these are merely language puzzles and not problems of any merit whatsoever. He constantly tells us that a proposition shows it's meaning. It cannot say anything, it can only display things.

Broadly, the first third of the Tractatus sets out the terms of discourse about the world, facts, objects and their logical relation to one another. The second third of the book deals with logical inference and attempts to show how it is purely probabilistic matter based on the permutations of objects in the world and how we are limited by what we can say about these permutations. The last third speaks about what all of this may mean for our lives.

The logical positivists seem to have latched onto the earlier sections. They seem to have seen it as a template for reductionism. Wittgenstein himself saw the book as more of an ethical work.

The entire work hinges on being able to identify atomic units of language. Wittgenstein later came to the conclusion that this is not possible, that language is created in a bootstrapping way, through use. This forms the theme of most of his later philosophy.

Although the Tractatus might be wrong, it is still important. It is still thought provoking and it remains one of the most influential books on philosophy written.


I finally finished it, woo hooo! Actually, I finished it about 18 months ago, tis magical. In writing about the book Wittgenstein mentiones that he felt it was primaraly an ethical work, and this never made sense to me unitl I got to the last few pages. It transforms in a way that I have only experienced with 100 years of solitude, without question it is one of the greatest books that I have ever read.
I feel it may be necessary to expand on this by stating the 7 propositions from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
From the CK Ogden translation:

1: The world is all that is the case.
2: What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.
3: The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
4: The thought is the significant proposition.
5: Propositions are truth functions of elementary propositions.
(An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself)
6: The general form of a truth-function is:
|ρ ,Ε, N(Ε)|
7: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

And in the original German as given in my copy:

1: Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.
2: Was der Fall ist, die Tatsache, ist das Bestehen von Sachverhalten.
3: Das logische Bild der Tatsachen ist der Gedanke.
4: Der Gedanke ist der sinnvolle Satz.
5: Der Satz ist eine Wahrheitsfunktion der Elementarsätze.
(Der Elementarsatz ist eine Wahrheitsfunktion seiner selbst.)
6: Die allgemeine Form der Wahrheitsfunktion ist:
|ρ ,Ε, N(Ε)|
7: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

One final note, you may have noticed in 5 and 6 the notion of the truth function. In any logic class you may find yourself in, you learn how to process logical statements by using their form to denote their meaning, for ease of notation Wittgenstein created the Truth table, which logic students know and love. It is in the expansion on the 4th proposition that he develops this form.

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