Georgia O'Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: Philosophy, Fact, and Silence

Instructor: Michael Stevenson
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus remains one of the most significant but enigmatic philosophical texts of the 20th century. Writing in the trenches of World War I, Wittgenstein believed the Tractatus, “essentially and finally solved all the problems (of philosophy).” Drawing from and expanding on Gottlieb Frege’s and Bertrand Russell’s revolutionary reflections on logic and language, the Tractatus argues that the world is composed fundamentally not of objects but of facts, and that the relation of thought and language to the world is achieved by the isomorphic mapping of propositions onto objective states of affairs. For Wittgenstein, the world, thought, and the proposition all share a deeper logical form which enables us to discern and avoid all nonsense and senseless discourse. Wittgenstein’s precise, numbered arguments famously culminate in the strange, almost mystical claim: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” What can this possibly mean? And how is it established by the hundreds of numbered arguments that precede it? What is the philosophical legacy of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? And how should we read it—what can we learn from it—today?

In this class, we’ll read the Tractatus in its entirety, concerning ourselves both with understanding its arguments and the metaphilosophical problems posed by its famous denouement. There, Wittgenstein claims that the propositions of the Tractatus are themselves, by its own standards, strictly speaking nonsense, and that they represent a ladder that must be thrown away in order to “see the world rightly.” It is also here that Wittgenstein introduces the idea of the “mystical,” the ineffable that can only be shown rather than said. We will be just as concerned with debates about the meaning of these surprising remarks for an interpretation of the text as a whole (including the suggestion that we should read it as essentially an “ethical” text), as well as its relationship to Wittgenstein’s later work. As we delve into the questions posed by Wittgenstein’s brief but incredibly dense text, we will also read selections from leading Wittgenstein scholars, including Cora Diamond, Alice Crary, Juliet Floyd, and Warren Goldfarb. 

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 17 — November 07, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open