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
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
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
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.