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The Early Wittgenstein: Mysticism and the Limits of Philosophy

Lecturer: Paul Daniels

Originally Taught: Summer School 2012

From Plato onwards, philosophers had often recognised language to be of philosophical interest, but only with Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) did language come to comprise a complete basis from which to critique and derive philosophy. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s only published work during his lifetime, appeared in 1921 and measured a scant 70-odd pages, with its author promising, “I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems [of philosophy].” The work exhausted the greatest minds of the day, and while Wittgenstein would move away from some of the central claims of the Tractatus, the text cemented itself as the groundwork for much of 20th Century continental and analytic philosophy.

The central premise of the work is that philosophers have fundamentally misunderstood the limits of language. Philosophising about ‘the good’, ‘the beautiful’, God and metaphysics transgresses the logical structure of the proposition and so results, Wittgenstein tells us, in nonsense. The deepest problems, he holds, are not able to be formulated as questions and nor are coherent answers possible. This revelation is liberating and compels us to engage with these most important topics beyond the limits of philosophy, and to regard them with somewhat of a mystical reverence.

The Tractatus is a strange and cryptic work. It was published in the milieu of Frege’s and Russell’s magnum opera and gained early fame with its positive reception by the intellectuals of the Vienna Circle. Yet as Wittgenstein read poetry aloud at Vienna Circle meetings rather than confer his good will upon their interpretations, it should have dawned upon them that the Tractatus was a different animal than they first thought. For all the logical apparatus and structured architectonic of the Tractatus, a chief motive of the text is to destroy itself – and early analytic philosophy with it. What can we say of this curious approach to philosophy? Is the destruction of philosophy the ultimate statement of the critical philosopher? Does Wittgenstein’s early philosophy indeed end with the final proposition of the Tractatus, or does it only mark the beginning of a deeper and more intimate understanding of ineffable subjects such as the ethical?

Course Schedule
Monday: Wittgenstein’s life and the motives of the Tractatus
This lecture gives an account of the culmination, writing and reception of the Tractatus through the lens of Wittgenstein’s early life. Born into one of the wealthiest families in Europe, young Ludwig was an enigmatic character whose natural intensity found expression in the pages of the Tractatus. In the space of a decade he fought in WWI, spent almost a year as a prisoner in Italy, announced to Bertrand Russell that he was wrong about everything, published the Tractatus, and believed of himself that he had solved all the problems in philosophy (with many believing it possible of him).

Tuesday: The picture theory of meaning
Following an epiphany while reading an account of a courthouse session about a traffic accident, Wittgenstein proposed that propositions are isomorphic to reality in much the same way that a topographical map represents the terrain of a mountain. Propositions are like a picture, and are a ‘showing’ as much as a ‘saying’. The general form of a proposition mirrors the general form of the reality.

Wednesday: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
Wittgenstein maintained that it was impossible to draw a limit to thinking, since doing so involves thinking what is unthinkable. Drawing the limits of language, however, demarcates the border between sense and nonsense. The limits of language, then, reflect our philosophical knowledge of the world. Arising from this is Wittgenstein’s solipsism – but far from constituting an epistemological cop-out, it forms the basis for a sobering position of the subject in reality.

Thursday: Mysticism and the limits of philosophy
The great paradox of the Tractatus comes with Wittgenstein’s declaration that the text itself is nonsense, or that it transgresses the very limits of language it sets out to demarcate. Wittgenstein believed, though, that the performative destruction of the Tractatus at its conclusion was instructive in showing the limits (and limitedness) of philosophy. The stunning conclusion to the Tractatus also ventures into diverse subjects including the mystical (das Mystische), God, value, ethics and aesthetics, and the nature of eternity – all in the space of only several pages, yet with groundbreaking importance.

Friday: Wittgenstein on ethics and aesthetics
Wittgenstein wrote to a friend that “my work consists of two parts: the one presented here [in the Tractatus] plus all that I have not written.” A lecture on what Wittgenstein did not write may seem odd, but the silence of the Tractatus provides an imperative to seek out what lies beyond the expressive power of the proposition: as Wittgenstein himself qualified of the above quote, it is precisely what he did not write which is more important. Through various posthumous writings and accounts we can piece together Wittgenstein’s more complete worldview, in which aesthetics and ethics are fundamental to the subject’s relationship with life – and it is here that Wittgenstein’s deeper conversation with Western philosophy takes place.

No prior reading is necessary. A course reader will be provided which includes significant excerpts from the text alongside other primary and secondary reading. Having your own copy of the Tractatus is ideal. Two translations exist, both available in bilingual editions (highly recommended):

After its initial 1921 appearance in the journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie, the Tractatus was published in 1922 as a bilingual edition with a translation by C. K. Ogden and F. P. Ramsey. This edition can be purchased second-hand or can be found at Project Gutenberg ( since it is in the public domain.

The translation by David Pears and Brian McGuinness was published in 1961 and is widely available, though the bilingual edition can be hard to find.

Level of Difficulty: This course is intended to be introductory, but some background in philosophy or of the history of philosophy (especially Kant, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche) would be an advantage. For Wittgenstein’sTractatus, no background knowledge in analytic philosophy or philosophical logic is necessary, as the lectures will be concerned with the overall structure and movement of the text.