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Wittgenstein's Tractatus as a Constructivist Work

Assoc. Professor, Dr. Kamen Dimitrov Lozev

South-West University, Blagoevgrad



We are in the eve of celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This small book, just a little longer than a philosophical article, was first published in the end of 1921, but it is well documented that it was written, or rather completed, three years prior to its publication. It is also well known how difficult it was for young Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951) to find a publisher for his book in Austria or Germany right after the Great war. No help came from Frege, nor from fon Ficker who benefited from Wittgenstein's wealth.

The Tractatus is an exclusively readable book - commentators of Wittgenstein compare it to a 'piece of poetry'. But to understand it is not easy at all - in his later years Wittgenstein himself agreed that all propositions in the book were very condensed and laconic, and that 'every sentence in the Tractatus should be read as the heading of a chapter, needing further exposition' (Glock 1995: 363). The book, however, is extraordinary not so much because it is difficult to understand or because it was difficult to be published (many of the great works were misunderstood or had difficulties in finding a publisher; Popper's Open Society is one such example amongst many) but because in fact it was the only published work (together with a review and small article) which ever came out within the lifetime of a philosopher who exerted such an immense influence on the philosophical world without publishing anything else at all. To a great extent this could be explained by the influence of the Tractatus itself - both when it was rejected and criticized and when it was accepted and hailed.

The book was 'Dedicated to the memory of my friend David Pinsent' (Wittgenstein 2001: 1), Ludwig's closest friend during the first stay in England. We have a vivid picture of Wittgenstein on the verge of committing suicide when he first read of the death of his English friend, tragically turned by the war into an enemy of his country. (Monk 1991: 118) It is only natural to believe that in fact Wittgenstein sought with such persistency a publisher for his book because it was dedicated to Pinsent.

The book was written during the war time drawing from no less than seven sources - some manuscripts Wittgenstein managed to keep with himself while at the front. An interpreter of the Tractatus said that one could smell the trenches when reflecting over the lines of the book and there is no doubt that the conditions under which Wittgenstein was put, especially during the first two years when he served as an ordinary soldier, contributed most to the sharpness of the expression of his thought. The book was so difficult to understand because it is a result of intense thinking for years on the most difficult topics of logic, language, pictorial projection of the world in expression, sense, nonsense, etc. The second - and according to Wittgenstein himself - the more important part of the book where ethical and religious themes are discussed - is obviously produced as an echo of the thoughts induced by the war.

Part of the enormous fame which Wittgenstein's Tractatus won is due to the generous efforts of 'my friend Bertrand Russell'. No matter how much Wittgenstein loathed what Russell produced as 'Introduction to the Tractatus' to facilitate the book's publication, it is clear that without this interference on Russell's part and his pronouncements on the work both at the very beginning:

Mr Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, whether or not it

prove to give the ultimate truth on the matters with which it

deals, certainly deserves, by its breadth and scope and profundity,

to be considered an important event in the philosophical world. (Russell 2001: ix)

and also at the very end:

As one with a long experience of the difficulties

of logic and of the deceptiveness of theories which seem

irrefutable, I find myself unable to be sure of the rightness of a

theory, merely on the ground that I cannot see any point on

which it is wrong. But to have constructed a theory of logic

which is not at any point obviously wrong is to have achieved a

work of extraordinary difficulty and importance. This merit, in

my opinion, belongs to Mr. Wittgenstein's book, and makes it

one which no serious philosopher can afford to neglect. (Russell 2001: xxv)

the book would have hardly received the acclaim it deserved.

So the real life of this most extraordinary of all philosophical books ever written during the 20th century (or maybe throughout the whole history of philosophy) started when young Wittgenstein decided to send the manuscript of his Abhandlung (Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung is how Wittgenstein always used to refer to his only published book (Glock 1995: 362)) to Bertrand Russell and sought for his opinion. All who have read and thought on the Tractatus know how useful Russell's Introduction is for understanding the Sibylline lines (Glock) of the small book. Even though we can side with Wittgenstein and his complaints against Russell's inability to get to the fundamental aim of his Tractatus we can hardly blame Russell for being more interested in Wittgenstein's views on logic than on his ethics and religion.

It is the aim of what follows to present briefly the Tractatus from the aspect of being a constructivist work. I shall survey several influences on Wittgenstein's development as a philosopher and show how they all contributed to the characteristic constructivism exhibited by the Tractatus.



He [Wittgenstein] was perhaps the most perfect example 
I've known of genius as traditionally conceived, 
passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.

Bertrand Russell (Russell 2000: 152)

It can hardly be contested that Bertrand Russell played the greatest role in the rise and growth of young Ludwig as a logician and philosopher. The years 1912th and 1913th were the decisive 'formative years' for Wittgenstein. It is generally acknowledged that without Russell's guidance, patience and recognition of Wittgenstein's genius it is difficult to predict whether Wittgenstein would have turned to be one of the most famous philosophers of the Twentieth century.

What was Russell concerned with during 1912-13? Principia Mathematica was well under publication then and in the summer of 1911 Russell had written a small book The Problems of Philosophy, 1912, showing all signs of his intention to return to general philosophy explaining that the tedious logical reasoning for so many years had dealt a heavy blow on his mind from which he would never recover for more technical work. (Russell 2000: 159) His decision was accompanied with the intention to show in what way the physical science perceives its subject-matter, the physical objects. Russell's project was very ambitious and very controversial. It led him to develop a typically constructivist view on 'matter'; at one point he even believed that physical objects are constructed out of sense-data (Miah 1987: 16). Wittgenstein was obviously immersed in all these attempts of his master; the 'apprentice' vehemently criticized them (sometimes leading Russell to despair) but nevertheless his thought must have been influence by his master's approach to the problem. The sudden outburst of the Great War put an end to Russell's work in this field. In a somewhat modified way, however, we see the project renewed in 1918 with the series of lectures on Logical atomism. In the opening pages of his Philosophy of Logical Atomism, 1918, Russell explicitly states:

"The following articles are the lectures of a course of eight lectures delivered in London in the first months of 1918, and are very largely concerned with explaining certain ideas which I learnt from my friend and former pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein. I have had no opportunity of knowing his views since August, 1914, and I do not even know whether he is alive or dead. He has therefore no responsibility for what is said in these lectures beyond that of having originally supplied many of the theories contained in them." (Russell 1985: 1)

I take these words not only as a proof that both men, Russell and Wittgenstein, influenced each other but also as a proof that Wittgenstein shared the dominant 'analytical atomistic' framework of thought. To me there is a clear analogy between Russell's atoms which ontologically can be treated as the building blocks of the world and Wittgenstein's objects which are obviously such. On the other hand, 'atomic propositions' and Wittgenstein's elementary sentences' are similar in many ways. Through all of the latter, and the knowledge that they are all, Wittgenstein was able to analyze and describe the world completely (Wittgenstein 2001: Propositions: 3.2 - 3.202).

However, there are at least two interesting differences between Russell's logical atoms and Wittgenstein's objects. Russell reached his atoms as a result of what he called 'honest toil', that is as a result of hard analytical activity, while Wittgenstein's objects are resolutely postulated like ukazi of the Russian tzar. Wittgenstein's world is really constructed through postulates, while Russell's is rather re-constructed on the basis of an antecedent analysis.

The second difference I find is this. Although Russell was famous for having frequently changed his views throughout his career, in this particular case he stood adamant on the doctrine of logical atomism and logical analysis to the end of his life. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, in his mature philosophy totally rejected all postulates concerning objects, names, elementary propositions, logical form, etc., and nearly the whole of his Tractatus. He considered the first period of his development (what Russell called 'Wittgenstein I') as 'dogmatic'. According to him this was the time when the dogma of logicism had a strong grip over his thought. (Schakenraad 2016)



There can be no quarrel with the idea that Hertz 
had an enduring influence on Wittgenstein...

John Preston (Preston 2008: 54)

In 1931 Wittgenstein enlisted, in a somewhat confessional way, ten names which fundamentally influenced his work (Wittgenstein 1980: 19). Beside the names of Frege and Russell there stood the names of Boltzmann, Hertz, Helmholtz, Loos, etc. There is a vast unanimity among interpreters of the Tractatus on the influence which Hertz exerted upon the early Wittgenstein, and especially when writing his Tractatus. A vivid discussion is still ongoing as to whether Wittgenstein was first introduced to Boltzmann and through him came to realize the importance of Hertz or vice versa (Kjaergaard 2004: 141), but nearly all Wittgenstein scholars agree that the first encounters with Hertz must have occurred during Wittgenstein 's teen years as a pupil at the Realschule of Linz, 1913 - 1916. It is only right to see a direct link between the mechanical theories of Hertz and Helmholtz and the doctrine of objects and the famous Picture theory developed by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus (Wittgenstein 2001: Propositions: 2.1 - 2.225). Hertz must have been regularly read: obviously in England but undoubtedly also before the final completion of the Tractatus since its text explicitly mentions 'Hertz' and his 'Mechanics' (The Principles of Mechanics Presented in a New Form, 1894) (Wittgenstein 2001: Propositions: 4.04; 6.361). There are also several references to (Hertz's) 'mechanics' (Wittgenstein 2001: Propositions: 4.04; 6.361; 6.341 - 6.343; 6.3432)

Why was Hertz so important to the constructivist viewpoint developed in the Tractatus? My position on this question is in agreement with Sara Bizarro's 'Hertzian' interpretation of the Tractatus (Bizarro 2010). She looks at Wittgenstein's ideas about 'simple objects' and compares them with Hertz's 'material particles'. The result of her analysis is that if we understood the latter as logical entities that are more co-ordinate like than simply and exclusively physical, we can reach an interpretation of the Tractatus that will be deliberately silent about the nature of reality (Bizzaro 2010: 151), telling us - just as Wittgenstein insists - how the world is and not what the world is (Wittgenstein 2001: Proposition 3. 221: '... Propositions can only say how things are, not what they are.').

Bizarro's interpretation is also helpful in understanding better the other fundamental idea which Wittgenstein most probably borrowed from Hertz's Mechanics and implemented it, namely the idea of Bild. The famous Picture theory of language, developed in detail on the pages of the Tractatus with all the requirements and logical conditions which have to obtain in order the picture to be an adequatecorrect and free-of-logical-contradictions projection of reality (Wittgenstein 2001: Propositions: 2.1 - 2.171) are all analogous to the requirements which Hertz put to his scientific Bild(Preston 2008: 56). Both influences, Russell and Hertz, contributed to convincing Wittgenstein of the somewhat 'Leibnizian' (monadological) atomistic structure of the world - a structure allowing 'complete analysis' to the most fundamental bricks of the world which cannot be further analyzed (Wittgenstein 2001: Propositions: 2.02; 2.021)



Like all the Wittgensteins, 
Paul and Ludwig were exceptionally musical.

Alexander Waugh (Waugh 2010: 14)

There is one last interesting 'source' of the specific Wittgensteinian constructivism which let itself show while he was still a child. A well-documented episode, 'famous' amidst the family members of the Wittgensteins, involved little Lucki who at the fragile age of ten constructed a working model of a sewing machine (Lozev 2009: 33). The boy had developed a keen 'constructivist skill' which allowed him to construct out of wire and wooden sticks an adequate 'model' of a 'part of the world'. Like his other siblings (Lucki was the last child in the family) Wittgenstein was also artistically gifted. However, unlike his brothers, and much to the taste of his stern bullying father who insisted his sons to inherit his vast industrial empire, Ludwig was born with an engineering talent and obviously possessed a special ability to construct things. (It is not for nothing that commentators of Wittgenstein have invented a special 'definition' of him consisting of the three 'Ms', namely MechanicMystic and Monk!) This ability led him in 1911 to devise and patent at the University of Manchester a novel aero-engine (Monk 1991: 32). Seven years later, however, this ability allowed him to complete his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and present a constructivist picture of the whole world.







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Glock, H.1996. A Wittgenstein Dictionary, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kjaergaard, P. 2002. Hertz and Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Science // Journal for General Philosophy of Science, NO 33121-149.

Lozev, K. 2009. The Earlier Wittgenstein - Life and Philosophy, Sofia; Лозев, К. 2009. Ранният Витгенщайн: живот и философия, С.

Miah, S. 1987. The Emergence of Russell's Logical Construction of Physical Objects // RUSSELL: The Journal of Bertrand Russell, Summer 1987, 11 - 24.

Monk, R. 1991. Wittgenstein - the Duty of Genius, London: Vintage.

Preston, J. 2008. Hertz, Wittgenstein and Philosophical Method // Philosophical Investigations, 31 (1), 48 - 69.

Russell. B. 1918. The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, New York: Simon and Schuster

------------- 2000. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Routledge Classics.

------------- 2001. Introduction // Wittgenstein, L. 2001. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ix - xxv.

Schakenraad, J. 2016. Living in Silence: the End of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Lecture on Ethics // (reached on 30 November 2017)

Waugh, A. 2010. The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Aukland: Doubleday.

Wittgenstein, L. 2001. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London and New York: Routledge

------------------- 1980. Culture and Value, Oxford: Basil Blackwell