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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 345-363

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Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
A "Poem" by Ludwig Wittgenstein

David Rozema

In the Fall term of 1911 the 22-year-old Ludwig Wittgenstein presented himself to the Cambridge philosopher of mathematics, Bertrand Russell, as a prospective student of philosophy. Wittgenstein had left off his studies as a promising young aeronautical engineer because, in the course of his engineering studies, he had become obsessed with problems in the foundations of mathematics, the very problems Russell himself had tried to solve in his Principia Mathematica, a work he had completed just the year before. Wittgenstein, it seems, did not consider Russell's work to be the end of the matter, and so he had planned a book of his own on the subject. Although this work never materialized, Wittgenstein's interest in philosophy grew under his studies with Russell. And although Wittgenstein's early work in the philosophy of mathematics and logic were the initial impetus for his interest in philosophy, the events of his life soon led him back to the concerns which have always been central to the spirit of philosophy: How ought a man to live? What constitutes the good for man? What sort of life is a worthy or a beautiful one?

It is likely that Wittgenstein's concern with these questions was heightened by what he saw in Russell, who followed a notoriously loose way of life outside of his academic studies. 1 If Wittgenstein ever wondered whether or not there was any connection between Russell's philosophical commitments and Russell's way of life, he never directly confronted Russell with the question. Russell was, after all, his benefactor, his mentor, and the source for his initial interest in philosophical problems. 2 Nevertheless, I maintain, Wittgenstein did confront Russell indirectly: he confronted the part of himself that was like Russell and, by attempting [End Page 345] to describe it in writing—the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—he discovered its barrenness. Insofar as such an act of writing is elucidatory of a person's soul in what and in how it pictures, it can legitimately be called a kind of poetry, for it bears the essential feature of all poetics: it serves to shape, through catharsis, the passions.

Thus, though Wittgenstein neither considered the Tractatus to be a poem nor intentionally wrote it as a poem, it turned out to be a kind of poem in the sense that its form fits its content, both of which, in turn, accurately picture a specific form of life, and the passional result of this poetic construction is (and was, for Wittgenstein) a certain appropriate disdain for the form of life it pictures. This is what I suggest with regard to the Tractatus: it is most helpful and is best read as a poem. I will also try to show that this is how Wittgenstein himself came to think it should be read, which in turn helps to explain why he initially allowed and later continued to allow its publication.

What does it mean to read the Tractatus as a poem picturing the form of life implicated by a philosophy like that of Russell's? In this poem Wittgenstein takes the fundamental principles of Russell's philosophy—that all words are signs that stand for objects or kinds of objects and that all meaningful propositions represent a possible arrangement of these objects—and draws out the full-blown implications of these principles. In the last section of the poem Wittgenstein shows the practical consequences of a life lived on these principles, concluding: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." 3 The two-edged nature of this remark carries the force appropriate to the last line of a poem, for it is both descriptive and imagistic. It describes Wittgenstein's own thought when he realizes that, because of his Russellian philosophical commitments, he has nothing to say with regard to the good, the truth, and the beauty of life; and it is an image of the necessity that a...


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