Luis Villoro – The Unsayable in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

from Luis Villoro, La Significación del Silencio y otros ensayos (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2016)
translated by Andrew Crossley, August 2020


The majority of commentators writing about the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus see it as a work that concerns itself fundamentally with logic. Without a doubt, the book’s structure lends itself to such an interpretation: matters concerning language, its logical structure, and its relationship with the world form the biggest part of the work; the final part, which contains the most important propositions on “ethical” and “metaphysical” themes, comprises little more than a few enigmatic and hard-to-comprehend aphorisms. The positivist interpretation, as well as Bertrand Russell’s own reading, both cast aside—not without a measure of disdain and annoyance—the section of the work that deals with the “unsayable,” as if it were merely an incongruous addition to the rest of the book. Bertrand Russell and Frank Ramsey embody two different examples of that same attitude. The former admits his intellectual discomfort when it comes to Wittgenstein’s mysticism, and he puts forth a logical hypothesis that allows him to bypass it. According to Russell’s hypothesis, that which cannot be said in a certain language could nevertheless be articulated in another language with a different structure—a process that could carry on successively, with no limit to this hierarchy of languages.1 In this formulation, the existence of the unsayable, towards which the whole of the Tractatus is oriented, must be conjured up with an ad hoc hypothesis: that it is a problem to be solved. 

Ramsey charts a different course, but one that reveals a similar disinterest towards that part of the book. According to him, Wittgenstein should have taken his own thesis about the unsayable more seriously—in other words, he should not have attempted to communicate anything about it. If anything that exceeds scientific propositions is meaningless, Wittgenstein should have taken a harder line and not have attempted to give any importance to nonsense.2 Subsequent authors have taken a similar position. It is symptomatic that a commentary as extensive as Max Black’s—which is 451 pages long—devotes only 15 of its pages to the final propositions of the Tractatus.3 

And yet, these propositions aim to reveal the meaning of the work in its totality. It is not by mere coincidence that they are placed at the end of the book, as if they were its consequence. The second-to-last proposition in the Tractatus, before falling to silence (6.54), is the key to its own reading. The work aims to lead the reader towards a “right” (richtig) seeing of the world, but in order to do so it is vital that we “overcome” the propositions of the Tractatus themselves. A purely logical reading doesn’t carry out this operation. Wittgenstein himself explicitly stated this point, and he didn’t consider the text to be a work of logic. 

“The book’s point is an ethical one, [he wrote to Fricker]My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits.”

Janik and Toulmin are right to ask for a re-reading of the Tractatus that is better attuned to this notion, even if they themselves did not provide it for us. The meaning of the work changes if seen in this light, and moreover, it is only when seen in such a way that its message can be received—what the author truly meant to communicate. That message, in Wittgenstein’s estimation, is of much more interest than any of the logical doctrines included in the work. What is truly important in the Tractatus is not what is said in it, but rather that which cannot be said in it and which is only communicated after this incapacity is understood. 

The Tractatus has as its goal to establish the limits of meaningful language in a clear way. “Thus, the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather—not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts.”5 The analysis of meaningful language leads us to establish the ultimate conditions that make it possible. But these conditions don’t themselves form part of meaningful language, they are not “within” it. The limits of language can’t be “spoken” by language as any other describable fact can be. In this way, the work takes a path from the analysis of that which is sayable through language to its unsayable conditions. 

However, “[t]he limits of my language mean (bedeuten) the limits of my world.” (5.6) The analysis of meaningful language leads, at the same time, from the consideration of facts that can be described by language—facts that compose the world—to the vision of its indescribable limits. The whole of the Tractatus thus leads towards a vision of the world as a “limited whole.” 

It is only then that we are in the situation of having a “correct vision” of the world (“seeing the world aright”). Unfortunately, in order to arrive here, a seemingly incomprehensible paradox must be overcome: to speak about the limits of language or the limits of the world is to speak in nonsense. The message of the Tractatus can only be grasped when it is “understood” that its most important propositions attempt to speak about what is unsayable—thus, they lack meaning. This paradox can be formulated in a different way: the propositions of the Tractatus must communicate something if we are able to understand that they lack meaning. Nonsensical propositions must be able to communicate something if they are to lead to a “correct” seeing of the world. Comprehending this paradox is the only thing that can give us the key to the Tractatus.  

The following essay will ask three questions: 
How does the Tractatus lead to a vision of the world as a limited whole? 
How is it possible to communicate that vision through nonsensical propositions? 
What is the “correct” vision that makes this communication possible? 

The Conditions of the Sayable

Proposition 6.4 (“All propositions are of equal value”) marks the beginning of the final part of the Tractatus, which deals with the unsayable. With the exception of the propositions between 5.6 and 5.641—which deal with the “limits” of language, of the world, and of the “metaphysical subject”—all of the book’s propositions up until this point concern the form and components of figurative language, that which it represents, and the conditions that make that language possible. The statements from 6.4 until the end (along with 5.6-5.641) aim to speak instead about the totality of the world and of language, as well as about that which is “outside” of the world and “beyond” language. How do we come to take this step? 

The analysis of figurative language shows that such language presupposes certain conditions that act as its limits and that are themselves unsayable by it. 

In the first place, the analysis leads ultimately to the acceptance of simple elements, which are no longer analyzable, and which are represented in propositions by simple signs. They are the objects. Objects must be admitted in order for language to be determined. The existence of simple objects is a precondition for all figurative language. But even if the objects are a condition of the sayable, they themselves are not sayable—they can not be represented by a picture (Bild).6 “I can only speak about them: I cannot put them into words. Propositions can only say how things are, not what they are.” (3.221) Evidently, we cannot construct a picture that represents an object, given that objects are the elements that make the construction of any picture possible. Only that which can be represented in pictures is sayable. It follows that objects are in actuality unsayable. They can only be designated as “that” to which simple signs refer; they can only be named. (3.221) 

The object is pure “this,” the ultimate substrate from which qualities may be predicated and which can’t itself be predicated from anything. It is thus the substance in an Aristotelian sense. (2.021)7 What this substance is cannot be said—it is indescribable in such a way. Objects—the substance of the world—are supposed in every fact that can be represented by language, but they themselves are not facts. If the world is “all that is the case” (1), or the totality of facts (1.1), then substance—itself not a fact—isn’t part of the world. “Substance is what subsists independently of what is the case.” (2.024) 

In this sense, we can say that objects are not part of the world, and yet at the same time they are the ultimate elements that must be supposed in any of the world’s facts. Substance is not “within” the world as one of its constituent parts, but it establishes the “limit” within which a world might be given. Objects can’t be said with language but they are the condition that is demanded if a proposition is to say something meaningful. Thus, the analysis of the sayable leads ultimately to unsayable elements; these, in turn, point towards the suppositions under which a thing might be pictured (“represented,” or “thought”). The object is the initial manifestation of the limits of the world and of language—it appears as the pure existence of an indescribable “something.” 

Secondly, the analysis of figurative language leads us to accept logical form as its a priori condition. Every proposition supposes what it has in common with the fact that it represents—logical form. But logical form itself can’t be represented by language. “Propositions can represent the whole of reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it—logical form.” (4.12) Logical form is nevertheless displayed in any meaningful proposition. (4.121) Just as the object, logical form is unsayable and can only be shown in the sayable.  

In any meaningful use of language—in any thought—a supposition is shown without being mentioned: objects as the ultimate substrate to which language refers, and logical form as the “space” in which all pictures are constructed. But this supposition is not the last one; it supposes in turn a basic “experience”—the existence of the world in that space. “The ‘experience’ that we need in order to understand logic is not that something or other is the state of things, but that something is: that, however, is not an experience. Logic is prior to every experience—that something is so. It is prior to the question ‘How?’, not prior to the question ‘What?’” (5.552) And it is precisely that “experience,” which is presupposed in logic, that Wittgenstein calls “mystical.” “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” (6.44) 

Thus, we must admit into the fold of the logical suppositions of language another extra-logical supposition, a “second level” one as it were. The whole of the Tractatus leads towards showing this last supposition. Let us see how. 

The World as a Limited Whole

Proposition 6.4 is the first proposition in the final part, which deals with the “mystical,” but it can also be seen as the result of the theses that immediately precede it. In those preceding pages we have arrived at the following: 

1. Logic is the a priori condition of the world—a condition that can only be shown in the propositions that talk about the world. “Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.” (5.61) Logic thus establishes the “total form”—the “space” in which the world may come into being.

2. Laws of science can be reduced to logic, and there is no other necessity than logical necessity. (6.37) But logical necessity is tautological and does not describe any of the world’s facts. Thus the world, as totality of facts, is absolutely contingent. It is a group of facts that could have been other than they are or, simply, not have been at all. Because of this, any event (for example, the sun rising tomorrow) could be any other way than it is. (6.36311) “Whatever we see could be other than it is.” (5.634) Neither science nor logic “explain” the existence of the world’s facts. (6.371)

3. This absolutely contingent world is present, whether one wants it or not, independent of one’s will. (6.373)

The propositions that precede 6.4, then, establish a consequence—the existence of the world as a whole that is limited by logical space and that is absolutely contingent in a double sense: that it could have been other than it is (or not have been at all) and that it is something that is encountered independent of one’s will. We are now prepared to accept 6.4: all propositions of which we may speak are “equivalent” (gleichwertig), that is to say, none of them has more value than the others—value judgement is excluded from them. The contingent world that extends in logical space is indifferent to all value judgements—it is simply there, as an unexplainable fact. But to say that the world that exists in logical space doesn’t comprehend value is to say that any and all matters of value (such as any dictum of ethics or aesthetics) is “outside the world.” (6.41) 

If we refer to something as being “outside” the world, we regard the world as having an “outside” and an “inside;” in other words, we regard the world as having a limit. The vision of the world as a limited whole is not an experience, because it does not refer to a fact in relation to other facts; rather, it refers to the condition that a fact (and any group of facts) is… that it is there as a simple fact. It is a vision (Anschauung) and a feeling (Gefühl) that does not fall within the remit of what is representable by language. “Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical.” (6.45) 

Wittgenstein doesn’t use the word mystical haphazardly. Regarding the world as an unexplainable and gratuitous event—an event that could have not been at all and yet is—is cause for indescribable awe. Here is the world, a miracle sprouted from nothingness. In place of an infinite vacuum, we have the ineffable presence of the universe. It is not only reason’s perplexity before that which is incomprehensible to it, but a feeling of astonishment and awe before the strange par excellence: the other, the presence—as such—of the world. 

This sense of being overwhelmed by the other is the foundation of all genuine religious experience. It should be clear that we aren’t talking about a belief in a supernatural being—god or demon—nor about a “hierophanic” experience through which we might come to an insight of the otherworldly, but about a feeling of the universe as what is other par excellence: the Sacred. Rudolf Otto was right in seeing that astonishment before the Sacred, experienced as a “tremendous and fascinating mystery,” is at the root of all religious experience.8 This is because what constitutes pure and simple wonder is not this-or-that fact that takes place in the world, but rather the inexplicable existence of the world itself. There are many miracles in the world, as St. Augustine says, but this world is “itself the greatest miracle of all.”9 Or, to quote Wittgenstein’s inverse formulation: awe before the existence of the world is “the experience of seeing the world as a miracle” (als ein Wunder).10

This could also be the root of aesthetic experience. At least that’s how Wittgenstein seemed to understand it: “Aesthetically, the miracle (das kunstlerische Wunder) is that the world exists. That there is what there is.”11 And this could be the ultimate root of all ethical behavior as well. 

“Think for example of the astonishment that anything at all exists. This astonishment cannot be expressed in the form of a question, and there is also no answer whatsoever. Anything we might say is a priori bound to be nonsense. Nevertheless we do run up against the limits of language. Kierkegaard too saw that there is this running up against something, and he referred to it in a fairly similar way (as running up against paradox). This running up against the limits of language is ethics.”12

Religion, aesthetics, ethics—any and all attitudes oriented towards absolute values, all questions about the “meaning” of the world and of life—crash against the limits of language and are based on grasping the world as an unexplainable wonder. 

The existence of the world as a limited whole is the condition of all figurative language. Accordingly, it is shown in any use of language that we carry out according to logical rules. However, it only elicits our astonishment when we are able to wordlessly apprehend the silent presence of the world as pure inexpressible wonder. Because of this, it is accompanied by a peculiar feeling. 

The use of the term “limited” is, of course, a metaphorical—and, as we shall see, “nonsensical”—manner of speaking. To regard something as being limited means contrasting it with something that would be “outside” of it. And yet, strictly speaking, there is nothing outside of the world. That is because the world is the totality of all that is the case, and there are no facts that it doesn’t cover. To think of the world as limited, then, is to contrast it with that which is not a fact, with what is not the case—to see it as  being positioned “on the edge” of nothingness. But, this is an overtly obscure and confusing way of expressing, through words that lack meaning, the feeling of the world’s existence as something that could have not been at all. To feel the world as a limited whole means grasping it, devoid of all thought, as something finite, outside of which there is nothing; it is there without explanation. 

This vision doesn’t correspond to thought, nor does it fall within the sphere of what is presented. To arrive at it, that sphere must be overcome and the world must be allowed to offer itself to our feeling. Thus, it depends on the disposition we have towards the world and, for this reason, corresponds to will. The manner in which the world in its totality presents itself to each person depends on that person’s value choices and their attitude towards the world. “If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts—not what can be expressed by means of language. In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane (abnehmen oder zunehmen) as a whole. The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” (6.43) 

Any fact of the world is independent of will (6.373)—no event can be altered by the use of will. Be that as it may, our experience of the universe varies, such that we are able to apprehend it, according to our will, as a world with varying degrees of “richness”—varying degrees of meaning.  

It should go without saying that Wittgenstein doesn’t understand “will” as a conscious wanting, the result of rational deliberation. The term is borrowed from Schopenhauer’s philosophy, where it is placed in opposition to “representation.” Will, here, refers to the realm of impulses, emotions, and vital dispositions that cannot be the object of representation, and thus don’t fall within the field of that which is sayable through pictures or that which can be thought (given that only what is sayable can be thought). 

Before falling into silence, amidst the propositions about the characteristics of the world that can be pictured and about the silence that the unsayable demands, Wittgenstein cedes to the temptation of muttering something about that which strictly cannot be said. That muttering communicates the vision of the world towards which the Tractatus leads. But that global vision is what underlies the whole of the book’s exposition as a sort of bedrock upon which all of its propositions are inscribed. Indeed, the very first proposition, from which all others are derived, supposes it: “The world is all that is the case.” This definition expresses a vision of the world as a whole made up of contingent facts. Proposition 6.44 (“It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”) is thus connected with proposition 1. It is not seeing how the world is—a grouping of things that have differing qualities and relationships—that is mystical, but seeing it in its pure factical existence: a “totality of facts, not of things.” (1.1) 

The very same vision of the world that brings the Tractatus to an end is what precedes it—its full stop is also its beginning. The whole of the work is inscribed upon this vision of the world. 

Propositions Regarding the Unsayable

How can we express that vision of the world? Propositions that attempt to do so cannot be facts in the world and thus cannot be pictures of any fact. That which they attempt to express is not a particular fact either, but rather the totality of facts. How can we speak about the totality if all propositions are facts representing facts? 

The propositions that explicitly refer to the unsayable are primarily located in two places: between 5.6 and 5.641 and, in the final section, from 6.4 to 6.522. In very broad terms they can be grouped in the following three ways: 

1. Negative propositions. They either say that something is not in the world, or that a given pseudo-proposition is not a part of language. The majority of these propositions belong to this group. For instance: 

“If I wrote a book called The World as I found it … [the subject] alone could not be mentioned in that book.” (5.631) 
“The subject does not belong to the world.” (5.632) 
“All propositions are of equal value.” (Or, what is the same, “no proposition has value.”) (6.4) 
“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. … What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world.” (6.41) 
“So too it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics.” (6.42) 
“It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.” (6.421) 
“It is impossible to speak about the will in so far as it is the subject of ethical attributes.” (6.423) 
“God does not reveal himself in the world.” (6.432) 
“Death is not an event in life.” (6.4311) 
“When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words.” (6.5) 

That the world exists is just the “fact” that there is a totality of facts. But this “fact” is not an event of the kind that constitute the world. Strictly speaking, then, it is meaningless to call it a “fact,” because facts take place in the world, but the world does not itself take place anywhere. The mystical (“that the world exists”), then, does not refer to any event of the world. 

On the other hand, the value and meaning of the world and of life—that which ethics and aesthetics attempt to speak about—cannot be found in facts. An exhaustive description of the components that make up facts could never include a value, as it is not a factical quality that can be described. If we were to describe the totality of what is the case we would not find—as we would any other fact—meaning nor absurdity, good nor bad, beauty nor ugliness. If the world is the totality of facts in logical space, and if in these facts one does not find value nor meaning, then we cannot say that they are in the world. Consequently, negative propositions do not describe anything about the mystical, nor about value and meaning, but rather communicate only what they are not; they communicate that they are not facts, that they are “outside” of the world. 

Moreover, statements about value and meaning are not propositions. Every proposition is a picture (Bild) of facts, a description of what is the case. Because of this, all propositions are indifferent to the notion of value. (6.4) The value and meaning of life are not facts that can be represented in language. Thus, sentences in which we find these terms are pseudo-propositions that do not represent any reality. Negative propositions do not speak to what the pseudo-propositions of religion, ethics, and aesthetics are, but communicate only what they are not—that they are not a part of meaningful language. 

But to communicate that the mystical does not exist in the world does not mean to say that it does not exist at all. The negative propositions we examined presuppose the affirmation of the existence of something “outside” of the world and of language. 

“The sense of the world must lie outside the world,” for example, implicitly affirms that there is such a thing as “the sense of the world.” (6.41) 
“Ethics is transcendental” (6.432) claims that there is such a thing as ethics. 
How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world” (6.432) takes as given, of course, that there is such a thing as “what is higher,” and so on. 

Only one proposition affirms explicitly the existence of the mystical: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” (6.522) We could formulate this proposition negatively: “The mystical is not sayable, it is manifested.”  

2. Propositions about the whole, or about the limits of the world and of language. For example: 

“Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.” (5.61) 
“The subject […] is a limit of the world.” (5.632) 
“To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.” (6.45) 
“If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts. […] [The world] must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.” (6.43) 
“Ethics is transcendental.” (6.421) 

The mystical encompasses that which is not representable as a fact in the world, but which manifests in the vision of the world as a limited whole. Saying that it is “outside” of the world does not mean that it is in a sort of “hinterworld,” nor in a sort of “overworld,” because beyond the world there is strictly nothing. We can say, borrowing a Kantian distinction, that the mystical is not transcendent to the world, but rather transcendental. The “transcendent” is that which exceeds possible experience and thus is understood to exist beyond its limits. It refers to the existence of things and facts that are not graspable in experience nor able to be expressed by scientific language, but that subsist in an altogether different entitative region to that of experience. That vision of transcendence does not have a place in the conception of the Tractatus. The “transcendental,” conversely, is not “beyond” all experience, but “before” it, according to Kant. It is the totality of conditions that make experience possible: they cannot themselves be experienced because they are not part of experience, but they must be granted for the whole of experience.  

In a similar manner, logic in Wittgenstein’s work is “transcendental.” (6.13) That is because it is the condition of all language that is capable of representing the world, and yet, it cannot itself be represented by language. In the same way, the vision of the world as a limited whole is the condition of all experience but isn’t itself an experience. The mystical, thus, is not “beyond” the world, but rather is presupposed in any experience of it. 

Ethics, just like logic, is “transcendental.” (6.421)13 “Ethics,” according to Wittgenstein, is the enquiry “into what is valuable, or, into what is really important,” into “the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living.”14 It is one and the same thing as aesthetics (6.421) and for this reason it encompasses all value propositions. Ethics and aesthetics are not “transcendent.” Indeed, the value and meaning of life aren’t part of the experience of a fact. But they aren’t found in “facts” that surpass the world either; nor do they require any sort of extraordinary experience oriented towards a “supernatural” entitative region. The value and meaning of life are shown in life and the world considered as a whole; they are general presuppositions of the experience of the world. Just like logic, ethics is presupposed in the perception of the world as a whole. 

If the transcendental is not in the world nor in any otherworldly region, then where is it? It is not in any place, it corresponds to the whole qua whole. The whole, then, is in the transcendental—this is what Wittgenstein means by the word limit. The limits of the world are determined precisely by logic, and they correspond to the limits that figurative language traces. (5.61, 5.62) 

Of course, the “limits” of the world cannot be understood as a border that separates the totality of facts from something that lies outside of them. The transcendental limits the world in the sense that it establishes the general conditions within which the world arises, and without which it couldn’t arise. Logic determines the limits of the sayable because it points out the “space” within which a given proposition might be formulated. Ethics determines the manner in which the world may present itself as a whole in the face of good or bad will. When will is altered, the facts of the world don’t change, but the totality of facts does take on a different appearance: “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” (6.43) Will determines the overarching way in which the world arises. Thus, though the circle takes as its supposition the circumference that limits it, the circumference is not itself in the circle, nor is it beyond it—it is, so to speak, in the whole of the circle, or rather, the whole of the circle is in it. Similarly, logic, as well as the meaning and value of the world, are not in the world, but rather “encompass” it as a whole. Mystical feeling and mystical vision refer precisely to that whole that is determined by logical space, as well as by good or bad will. 

Therefore, in order to express the mystical, one can only make use of propositions that point out that it is not in the world, or on the other hand, propositions that state that it concerns the whole. 

We can see a variant of the latter category in propositions that affirm the identity or the correspondence between two different ways of referring to the whole; for instance: 

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (5.6) 
“The world and life are one.” (5.621) 
“I am my world.” (5.63) 
“Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.” (6.421) 

These propositions serve only to establish an identity or a correspondence between two signs that refer to conditions of the whole. The paradoxical nature of some of them is caused by our being able to take the terms identified in them as referring to a part of the whole, to a fact or a grouping of facts—for this reason, their identification appears strange. As an example, 5.621 and 5.63 seem absurd if by “life” and by “I” we understand a collection of particular events that take place in a region of the world (in “individuality”). But they are not absurd if by “I” or by “life” we understand precisely a limit to the world that encompasses the whole. (“The subject … is a limit of the world.” – 5.632) The terms that refer to totality are identified. 

3. Propositions concerning the right way of asking certain questions and giving certain answers. For example: 

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.” (6.521) 

These propositions are scarce and don’t refer to the unsayable as such, but rather to matters that can be stated. 

In the parts we have been considering, only a handful of propositions don’t belong to any of the three aforementioned categories and rather predicate some quality or relation of something that is not in the world. The only propositions of this kind are, in my estimation, the following: 

6.422: on ethical reward and punishment.
6.431, 6.4311, and 6.4312: on death and eternity. 

Apart from these few exceptions (which I would not succeed in justifying), none of the propositions concerning the unsayable predicate some of its qualities or relations, nor do they aim to describe its nature. Therefore, we cannot say what “God” or “the highest” is like, what makes “good or bad will,” what we are to understand by the “meaning of life,” etc. The propositions that were found in the Notebooks 1914-1916 that refer to similar things in a descriptive way are absent from the Tractatus—we can conclude that Wittgenstein did not think them pertinent. Those propositions in the Tractatus that deal with the unsayable are limited to one of two purposes, then: either they point out what the unsayable is not, or they communicate that the unsayable refers to the whole. But the latter, strictly speaking, could be reduced to the former: to say that the unsayable corresponds to the whole is merely to say that it is not a part of the whole, that it is not in the whole (the world). Thus, propositions concerning the unsayable are limited to communicating the same thing always: the unsayable is such that it is not found in the world. They do not say more. In expressing the unsayable there is only the “negative way.” 

This realization opens up a path for us to understand how these propositions are able to communicate anything. 

The Communication of the Unsayable

To begin with, the rules of logic are not mentioned in meaningful propositions, but rather used in them—they are evident in the correct use of signs. But it is their incorrect usage which reveals how far the rules can be applied, and thus determines their limits. If we weren’t able to contrast the correct use of a symbol with counterexamples of its incorrect usage, we would not have a clear delimitation of the rules. Nonsense, insofar as it does not conform to the rules of logic, does not show the rules directly, but rather allows them to be seen clearly in propositions—it marks the limits of logic’s application. In this way, through pointing out these limits, pseudo-propositions allow us to direct our attention towards the logical structure of propositions. 

An example from Wittgenstein himself: the word “object” may only be correctly expressed by a variable (4.1272). “So one cannot say, for example, ’There are objects’, as one might say, ’There are books’.” Why is there, then, a pseudo-proposition (“there are objects”) in this entry? If we compare it with the correct proposition (“there are books”), we can realize that the first proposition is nonsensical; and when we see this we can see what constitutes the correct usage of the formal concept object in meaningful propositions. Thus, in any proposition in which the variable expressed by the object is instantiated, both the formal concept and the unmentioned rule that determines its usage are shown. “A formal concept is given immediately any object falling under it is given.” (4.12721) The nonsensical proposition (“there are objects”) serves to direct our attention towards the formal concepts which are shown but not mentioned in meaningful propositions. Nonsense, in attempting to say what is shown in a proposition, draws attention precisely to that which is shown. 

Nonsense does not show anything in itself, but rather orients the speaker towards what language shows when it is used correctly. Being understood as nonsense, these propositions delineate the limits of meaningful language and make it possible for us to notice, within those limits, that which remains unsaid by language. They index that which is shown by language and the world—shown in such a way that others may see it in their own right. They attempt to indicate that which each of us must wordlessly intuit. 

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (5.6) Thus, pseudo-propositions concerning the limits of language have a sense of “reference.” Proposition 4.115 seems to corroborate this: philosophy, it says, “will signify (Sie wird… bedeuten) what cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said.” The unsayable, then, can be the object of reference. How is that? Clearly, in these propositions, “reference” cannot have the same meaning it has in the rest of the book: namely, the relationship between a name and the object it represents. Indeed, a sign only has referential meaning in a proposition (3.314)—nonsense contains no names as such and it is not a proposition. “Reference” must therefore mean something altogether more vague here, such as “hint” or “suggestion.” Certain nonsensical propositions could “refer” the speaker, albeit indirectly, towards that which they attempt to say, so that she may see what her language and her world are showing her. “To refer” in this sense would mean to “hint” towards that which the other can only see for herself. 

This is why the “negative way” is so important. It is only when they have a negative form that nonsensical propositions are able to avoid the fallacy of attempting to represent an objective situation. Affirmative pseudo-propositions (such as “God is the meaning of the world,” or “value depends on will”) would seem, because of their formulation, to represent an objective situation. But this is an impossibility—when we formulate these pseudo-propositions, they lead us to search in the world for an objective situation that does not exist. Meanwhile, negative pseudo-propositions (such as “God does not reveal himself in the world” or “there is no value in the world”) do not presume to represent an objective situation. Rather, they aim to communicate precisely what is never part of an objective situation; and later, they may lead us to see what we would have never seen had we gone looking for it in an objective situation. 

Perhaps now we might have a better understanding of the paradox in 6.54. Nonsense “refers” to the unsayable by way of a triple operation: 1. It cancels the vague reference towards facts in the world of analogous, ordinary-language propositions. 2. It transfers that “reference” towards the limits of the world and of language. 3. It directs, thus, our attention towards that which can be shown in our language and our world. It is only “eventually” (Am Ende), once these pseudo-propositions have been used “as steps” (durch sie, auf ihnen), that we recognize them clearly as lacking meaning and see that they are incapable of representing anything of the world—rather, they “do” something else. And it is only when we understand them as nonsensical that we can have access to seeing “the world aright,” because it is only then that we stop looking for the references of pseudo-propositions in representable facts, and we can now be shown what is analogous in the unrepresentable whole. Once this function has been fulfilled, nonsense becomes useless; all we are left with is the direct vision of the world that is present before feeling and will, which “we must pass over in silence.” (7) 

Seeing the World Aright

The Tractatus doesn’t do away with ethics and metaphysics. On the contrary, it aims to make them possible through liberating them from the illusion that hinders their “correct” understanding. Traditionally, the illusion of ethics and metaphysics has been to make us believe that we can find that to which they refer in the world that is representable by language. As long as we don’t understand that this path can’t be traversed—as long as we don’t accept that any attempt to present the ethical and the metaphysical leads necessarily to nonsense—we will remain unable to see that which is analogous to what they attempt to communicate. This is because it is only when we do understand this that we may see, in the sphere of will and feeling, something similar to what the pseudo-propositions of ethics and metaphysics presumed to show in the sphere of representation. 

Renouncing this illusory path makes way for the vision of the world as a limited whole. The very thing that the illusion hindered us from seeing is manifested in this vision. Thus, it is only when we understand that it is meaningless to formulate propositions about the “meaning of life” that we are able to stop painstakingly searching for that meaning in any of the world’s events—such as, for instance, the realization of a work, or the obtainment of a material good, or the achievement of a goal—because we come to understand that “the meaning of life” does not refer to any fact. It is then that we are able to grasp meaning in the totality of life, because we understand that it is not located in any of life’s events, but rather in life itself: the meaning of life is to live life in all its fullness. (“we could say that the man is fulfilling the purpose of existence who no longer needs to have any purpose except to live.”15

Similarly, once we understand that God does not reveal himself in the world, we stop looking for him in some supernatural entity, no matter how “high” this entity may be, and we renounce any attempt to describe him with words, as if he were “something.” Only then are we free to see the Sacred in the astonishment produced by the incomprehensible miracle of the universe’s existence. Here we can grasp that God is not different from the world or life, but rather is the meaning itself of both. (“The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God”; “to believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.”16

In the same way, as long as we don’t realize that good and evil are not in the world as a quality of facts, we will continue to search for them in carrying out certain actions, or will keep attempting to express them in terms of general moral principles. 

Only when we understand that good and evil—just like happiness and sadness—are not qualities nor consequences of any of the world’s actions, will we be able to perceive good and evil in will’s disposition towards the world and in the fullness or scarceness with which the world presents itself to us. Only then are we able to have peace, to accept the world fully, “to be in agreement” with it—only then can there be a possibility for us to be truly good and happy. (“In order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world”; “simply the happy life is good, the unhappy bad.”17

Once we have understood that the whole of the Tractatus results in pseudo-propositions, we are liberated from the illusion of finding the value and meaning of life in representable facts of the world. This understanding facilitates, thus, the correct vision of the meaning and value of the world and of life, which are manifest in the very existence of the world and of life. We are no longer able to grasp this with the use of thought. We must rather live it, wordlessly, in feeling the “miracle” of the universe, and in my will being in agreement with it. Understanding that metaphysical questions lack meaning is the only way to grasp for ourselves that about which they ask. 

By restricting meaningful language in scientific propositions, the Tractatus radically banishes ethics and metaphysics from the sphere of representation, and consequently, from thought. This position would coincide with a “radical positivism.” However, this radical elimination does not function to suppress ethics and metaphysics, but rather to open the door to the only metaphysics that is fully coherent with that “positivist” position: that which can be shown “outside” of the realm of thought. We can say, then, playing on Kant, that the Tractatus sought to limit thought in order to make way for feeling and will. 



1 Bertrand Russell, “Introduction” in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), p. XXIV
2 Frank Ramsey, The Foundations of Mathematics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 263
3 Max Black, A Companion to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964)
4 Quoted in Allan Jalnik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), p. 192
5 Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 3
6 [Villoro makes use of the word “figura,” following Tierno Galván’s lead, and maintains a consistent usage of that word throughout his essay. I use the most commonly used English translation, “picture,” which also remains largely unchanged throughout the essay. For a more thorough discussion of the subtleties in translating what is a highly nuanced and flexible term in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, see Sergio Torres Martínez, ‘A semiosic translation of the term “Bild” in both the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and The Philosophical Investigations, Semiotica, Vol. 2019, Issue 227, 2019. -Trans.]
7 Substance, for Aristotle, is on the one hand the ultimate concrete substrate of all qualities, the mere particularity of “this” that is supposed in any attribution; on the other hand, it is the subject that cannot itself be predicated from anything. (cf. Metaphysics, Book Delta, 1017b.)
8 Rudolf Otto, Das Heilige (Munich: Biederstein Verlag, 1947)
9 St. Augustine, Civitas Dei, Book XXI, Chapter 9
10 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics, Edoardo Zamuner, Ermelinda Valentina Di Lascio, and D.K. Levy, eds. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), p. 50
11 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p.86
12 Quoted in Joachim Schulte and B.F. McGuinness, eds., Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), p. 68
13 Cf. also: “Ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic,” in Wittgenstein (1998), p. 77
14 Wittgenstein (2014), p. 44
15 Wittgenstein (1998), p. 73
16 ibid., pp. 73-74
17 ibid., pp. 75, 78

Published by Andrew Crossley

Mexican-British artist / writer / translator based in Berlin

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