On Wittgenstein’s Later Metaphilosophy

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“Now that my ladder’s gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”, — William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”


It is unfortunate that when those trained in non-analytic contexts confront the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, they tend to be far more attentive to propositions 5.6 (“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”) through 7.0 (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”) than those that precede them. The closing propositions of the Tractatus include those of the “ethical” and “mystical” Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein interested in showing what cannot be said, the spokesperson for all the “important nonsense” essential to “seeing the world aright”. This Wittgenstein is taken to be worth serious consideration, rather than the severe logical atomist of propositions 1.0 through 5.571. The Tractatus gets “deep” only near its conclusion, and not before: its general theory of representation — the “picture theory” of meaning — is assumed to be merely preparatory to the concluding invocation of ineffable truth.

This attitude — understandable but not commendable — is blind to the role that Wittgenstein’s logical prep-work plays in making his claims about philosophical nonsense plausible. His atomistic theory of meaning is geared to distinguish genuine propositions with determinate senses from propositions that lack sense (logic), and propositions that are nonsensical. All the propositions of the Tractatus stand or fall together. The work must be approached and understood as a coherent whole.

So, if the inferences drawn between propositions 1.0 through 5.571 are invalid, or its assertions unsound, both its conclusions about philosophical propositions being nonsense and its ethical/mystical musings are unsound. Wittgenstein’s assumptions about that whereof we cannot speak will be unfounded, the distinction between the speakable and the showable will collapse as self-referentially inconsistent, and that which was tagged as nonsense would not be nonsense at all. However, if they are valid and sound, then Wittgenstein’s final propositions, which qualify as sayings as much as showings, would not simply lack sense, like the propositions of logic, but would be nonsense. Any philosophical proposition, including the picture theory of meaning, would likewise be nonsense. In fact, the entire book, interested as it is in elucidating that general, a priori theory of meaning, would be nonsense. Is Wittgenstein’s entire Tractatus enterprise an exercise in futility, then?

Perhaps it is. Maybe the Tractatus establishes something quite at odds with Wittgenstein’s intentions in writing the book. Frank Ramsey, Wittgenstein’s colleague at Cambridge when he returned in 1929, quipped that if Wittgenstein’s argument ends in the judgment that if philosophy, along with the ethical-mystical, is nonsense, then “we must take seriously that it is nonsense, and not pretend, as Wittgenstein does, that it is important nonsense”. “What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either’.

Ramsey lays out the dilemma that all interpreters of the Tractatus face. Either Wittgenstein was “trying to whistle it”, in which case his earlier Tractatus project was from the start incoherent (and the Philosophical Investigations its correction), or else Wittgenstein was not “trying to whistle it”, and his efforts both early and late are best seen as dismissals of philosophy as it is commonly understood. Then, to the extent that the Tractatus dabbles in metaphysics, mysticism, and an attempted theory of meaning, the whole book itself is genuine nonsense, intentional nonsense, and not an oracle of some “higher” realm of “showing.”

Resolute” readers of the Tractatus, such as Cora Diamond, James Conant, and Alice Crary, gladly grab the second horn of this dilemma. The resolute reading of the Tractatus holds that the logical-atomist schematism and picture-theory of meaning neither says nor shows anything. Metaphysical propositions, such as “There are objects”, “phenomenal objects are mind-dependent”, or “the proposition ‘p’ is necessarily true if and only if it is true in all possible worlds”, are as nonsensical as “there are schplortzes”, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously, or “bibbity-bobbity boo.” Wittgenstein’s intention was to display philosophical nonsense as the nonsense it is, by writing a self-consciously nonsensical tract.

The resolute reading has the advantage of unifying the projects of both the Tractatus and the Investigations, and of rendering the argument of the former consistent. It has the major disadvantage, however, of also depicting the entire book as a self-consuming artifact. Under the resolute reading, the atomistic picture theory of meaning, which underpins the case Wittgenstein makes in Tractatus 1.0–5.571, is not important, “whistle-able” nonsense, but nonsense proper. This in turn makes the “mystical/ethical” point of the book (which Wittgenstein insisted, in his letter to Ludwig von Ficker, was the intended message of the Tractatus) something of a cruel joke.

Defenders of the “traditional” reading of the Tractatus, including Elizabeth Anscombe, Max Black, and Peter Hacker, believe that the hermeneutic cost of reading the Tractatus as genuine nonsense is too great. For traditional readers Wittgenstein, in some way, was “trying to whistle it”. The logical atomism of propositions 1 through 5.571 are supposed to show rather than say what makes meaning possible, i.e., how propositions can be literal pictures of states-of-affairs/atomic facts configured in logical space. The ethical/mystical pseudo-propositions of 5.6 through 7 are then meant to try to show the limits of the sayable by gesturing beyond them. But this quasi-transcendental strategy does not work. Nonsense is nonsense, and what cannot be said cannot be said. The Tractatus is a failure, and Wittgenstein eventually realizes this. Thus, in the Investigations, Wittgenstein drops the picture theory of meaning as well as his oracular musings on what lies beyond the limits of language. He refashions philosophy into a purely descriptive enterprise, a series of grammatical reminders that do not solve philosophical problems but dissolve them through a synoptic overview of individual cases.

In this essay, I want to split the difference between resolute and traditional readings of the Tractatus and sail between the horns of the dilemma that Ramsey identified. I think the resolute readers are right to hold Wittgenstein to his word that the propositions of philosophy, including those of ethics and “the mystical”, are straightforward, intentional nonsense. But I also think the traditional readers are right to insist that this undercuts the program of the Tractatus, and that the Investigations is more of a new beginning for Wittgenstein than a reworking of the Tractatus in a new idiom.

To invoke Richard Rorty, Wittgenstein was not trying to “eff the ineffable” in the Tractatus: he wished to indict traditional, metaphysical philosophy for trying to do so. But Wittgenstein wound up effing the ineffable anyway, despite his intentions, because he was attached to a metaphor — that of “the ladder”, whereby one ascends up out of the forest of disguised nonsense until one breaches its canopy where one can “see the world aright”, whereupon the ladder can be thrown away. The key difference between the Tractatus and the Investigations was not just in dropping the picture theory of meaning (indeed any theory of meaning), but in dropping the aspiration of philosophical ascent altogether. Philosophy is not an ascent but a descent into the messy thickets of sound linguistic practice.


The metaphor of philosophic ascent has a long and distinguished pedigree. You can spot it in Plato’s “Divided Line” and “Myth of the Cave”, in Aristotle’s championing of theological contemplation as the highest form of life, in Kant’s elevation of the transcendental over the empirical, in Hegel’s path from conditioned understanding to unconditioned rational knowledge of absolute Geist.

While all of these are high-concept, metaphysical narratives of ascent, the ascent metaphor that Wittgenstein employs in the Tractatus is the one he shared with Frege and Russell: the move from everyday, informal language to a logically perfect, formal language. Wittgenstein uses the tropes of logical atomism because they lay ready-to-hand, the latest and most rigorous version of the ascent metaphor, the one most likely to capture the imaginations of the analytic philosophers with whom Wittgenstein identified. But Wittgenstein wished to explode the pretentions of analytic philosophy to have established the philosophy of language or meaning as “first philosophy.” The gist of the Tractatus is that there is no “first philosophy”, because all such attempts at philosophical ascent are doomed. Traditional and analytic philosophies fail by presupposing that when one ascends to the higher level of understanding, one can employ the methods and retain the habits that serve us well at ground-level. The movement of analytic philosophy from thinking outside thought (characteristic of western philosophy since Descartes) to speaking outside speech will fail for precisely the same reason: analytic philosophy begs the question about whether speech as suchis legitimate from the vantage of a higher perspective.

The higher perspective of the Tractatus was supposed to show how a logically perfect language represents the world in an exact, fully determinate manner. Hence: the world is all that is the case, a set of fully determinate facts that are themselves configurations of states-of-affairs (Pears/McGuinness translation) or atomic facts (Ogden/Richards) translation. States of affairs are understood to be configurations of objects in logical space; they are pictured by logically proper names (a la Russell’s theory of descriptions), which combine objects and their configurations in logical space into elementary or atomic propositions, which concatenate into ordinary propositions. The ordinary propositions are truth-functions of their atomic constituents. A diagram of world and language in the Tractatus, drawn from the position of philosophic ascent, would look something like this:

Thus the Tractatus is an account, from something like a transcendental standpoint, of how propositions picture facts, and picture them determinately. It assumes a “sideways-on” perspective on the world-language connection, to use John McDowell’s metaphor. It shows how propositions work through their sharing logico-pictorial form with the world, which in turn shows why meaningful propositions are truth-functionally complete, and absolutely determinate.

Three difficulties arise, however. First, the propositions of logic, like modus ponens, do not say something determinate about something determinate. Connectives like “and” or “if…then” do not seem to get their meaning by resolving into names with correlative objects — what object does “or” refer-to? But this is a pseudo-problem for Wittgenstein, insofar aslogical propositions do not represent objects but the “scaffolding” for their possible configuration in logical space. The propositions of logic are tautological but lack sense in that they do not say anything determinate about determinate reality. One can say that “‘It is raining or it is not raining’ is necessarily true”, but while the logical proposition is itself true it says nothing and lacks sense: it tells you nothing about the weather.

Second, it seems to alienate the propositions of ethics, aesthetics, religion, and what Wittgenstein called “the mystical.” The Tractatus confronts this difficulty by admitting that these propositions say nothing, and to try to say them is to utter nonsense. This does not mean that the above are unimportant however: they indicate or gesture to the limits of one’s language, and thus the limits of one’s world. Here, Wittgenstein’s quasi-transcendentalism is made clear: one cannot express in language that which is the condition of the language-world correlation’s very possibility:

6.41 The sense of the world [as a whole –LMN] must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value — and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.) (Emphasis mine)

The propositions of aesthetics, ethics, and “the mystical” are straightforward nonsense — they do not say something determinate about determinate states-of-affairs. But that does not mean that the aesthetic/ethical/mystical are unimportant insofar as — and only insofar as — they shape the contours of the way in which the world manifests itself to us:

6.43 The world of the happy man is different from the world of the unhappy man.

6.45 The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

Wittgenstein is not a nihilist about the aesthetic/ethical/mystical: he is not denying them but transcendentalizing them. He is however, undermining the possibility of aesthetic or ethical theory. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel et. al. fashion philosophical accounts of the ethical, as if it were something that pertained to states-of-affairs in the world that correlate to elementary propositions with determinate, truth-functionally complete senses. As such, ethical (and by extension aesthetic and mystical) propositions are nonsensical. What cannot be said shows itself to those receptive to it.

Third, it renders philosophical propositions nonsensical. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language –these subdisciplines claim to articulate general truths about the nature of being, knowledge, and meaning. But general truths would require general facts, general states-of-affairs. This is incoherent nonsense. So all explanations that require or imply a transcendental perspective fail, because they say what can only be shown and therefore count as nonsense, plain and simple.

And the price that Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, willingly pays for this is that the content of the Tractatus is itself plain nonsense. It enables one’s philosophical ascent, only to reveal that from that higher perspective one cannot put into words that which is disclosed. When one throws away the ladder of philosophical nonsense which ransports oneself to a view sub specie aeternitatis, one also throws away the need for articulating that view in a theory. And it is that impulse to theoretical generality in philosophy that Wittgenstein, throughout his philosophical life, opposed with moral intensity. We can aspire to a “God’s eye view” of, or a “sideways-on” perspective on reality, but once attained, we cannot theorize about it. We cannot speak outside the limits of speech that make speech itself possible.

A price that Wittgenstein was not willing to pay, however, is the dismissal of “the ethical” point of the Tractatus, which is also an aesthetic and a mystical point. For if Plato’s Theatetus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason are theoretical nonsense, so too are not only Republic Book 2, the Nicomachean Ethics, and the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and also The Cloud of Unknowing, the Dark Night of the Soul, and the Tao te Ching. Therefore Wittgenstein’s resolute readers are right to interpret him as writing a self-consuming text in the Tractatus: the book is revealed to be nonsense by the time the reader arrives at “Whereof we cannot speak…” But when one throws away Wittgenstein’s ladder, leaving nonsense to itself, one also must admit that ethics, aesthetics, and mysticism, all of which obtain their life and influence through speech and writing and human agency, are not just beyond the sayable but also species of nonsense. And here the traditional readers of Wittgenstein are in the right. If the point of the Tractatus is “an ethical one”, then not only is the text of the Tractatus nonsensical, but its very aim and ambition. If ethics is important, than it is not plain nonsense, but if its propositions say what can only be shown, than it is plain nonsense. You cannot whistle it.


This is the pivot-point around which Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy rotates. Tractatus metaphilosophy requires a transcendental standpoint, a view sub specie aeternitatis, from which it can pronounce philosophical speculation to be nonsensical, even as it includes the Tractatus itself in its indictment. In the Investigations metaphilosophy, Wittgenstein comes to the realization that attaining a “God’s eye view” is not only un-speakable but “an unnecessary shuffle” that far from providing philosophical clarity is just another muddle. We need no ladders to achieve that kind of “crystalline” clarity:

§108. — The preconception of crystalline purity can only be removed by turning our whole inquiry around. (One might say: the inquiry must be turned around, but on the pivot of our real need).

Our real need for clarity will not be found by way of any philosophical theory — even a self-consuming philosophical theory. The Tractatus’ agenda was not only self-undermining but unnecessary. What is needed is not transcendental ascent but a descent, from the clouds of theory, into a description of the thickets of sound linguistic practice:

§109. We may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light — that is to say, its purpose — from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; but they are solved through an insight into the workings of our language, and that in such a way that these workings are recognized a despite an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by coming up with new discoveries, but by assembling what we have long been familiar with. Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language.

This seems to entail a rejection of philosophy tout court. But this is not so. Philosophy has always aimed at clarity, the resolution of problems that vex and frustrate us. But it has failed to deliver. Because philosophy has proceeded by way of theoretical explanation rather than a return to describing ordinary, everyday linguistic practice, it does not resolve anything. It does not provide the clarity we need.

Thus it is not philosophy itself that is infirm: it is philosophy in the grand style, or philosophy as metaphysics or “onto-theology”, as Heidegger put it in Division 1 of Being and Time. Thus Wittgenstein, like Heidegger, is committed to deflating the pretentions of philosophy-as-metaphysics:

§118. Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards (Luftgebäude, or “castles in the air” — LMN) , and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.

§119. The results of philosophy are the discovery of some piece of plain nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language. They — these bumps — make us see the value of that discovery.

Wittgenstein retains the idea of “plain nonsense” that he articulated in the Tractatus, but arrives at it not globally but piecemeal, through the thick description of sound linguistic practices, or the reconstruction of the requirements of practice by imagining other ordinary contexts where the problem does not, and cannot arise:

§116. When philosophers use a word — “knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, proposition/sentence”, “name” — and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language in which it is at home? — What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

This might suggest that Wittgenstein’s methodological anti-essentialism is a sign that he is a kind of linguistic idealist, for whom the intelligibility of the world is a product of our minds structuring the world as our minds see fit, given their structures. Pace Platonic realism, which seeks to “carve reality at its joints”, Wittgenstein seems to imply that reality has no joints — our concepts alone carve it into kinds (i.e, there are no “natural kinds”). This interpretation of the Investigations as a brief for idealism has been expressed, in different ways, by Elizabeth Anscombe, Bernard Williams, and A.C. Grayling.

Tellingly, Heidegger has also been interpreted as a kind of idealist, since Dasein projects its world by encountering it as ready-to-hand. But this interpretation does not fit either philosopher. As with Heidegger, Wittgenstein was neither a realist nor an idealist/antirealist. Both realism and idealism/antirealism are philosophical theories about the relation (or lack thereof) between mind and world; both are inevitably onto-theological; and both presuppose that mind and world as coherent wholes are surveyable by way of a sideways-on metaphysical theory.

Wittgenstein’s therapeutic metaphilosophy rules this out from the start. We can survey, piecemeal, only those language-games embedded in forms-of-life in which we are involved. Attaining the global, spectatorial point-of-view, sub specie aeternitatis, is an illusion:

§122. A main source of our failure to understand is that we don’t have an overview of the use of our words. — Our grammar is deficient in surveyability. A surveyable representation produces precisely that kind of understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’. Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate links . . . The concept of a surveyable representation is of fundamental significance for us. It characterizes the way we represent things, how we look at matters. (Is this a ‘Weltanschauung’?)

§123. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.”

The notion of attaining an übersichtlich Darstellung ­– a surveyable or perspicuous representation, or a synoptic view — of linguistic practice is an important one for Wittgenstein in two ways. First, it is what is accomplished by those descriptions of language-games (Sprachspielen, which could also be parsed as “(inter)play of language”) in which we are lost, and need to find our way about. Surveyable representations help us untie the knots of understanding which we find when are puzzled by rule-following, or sensation-language, or private languages, all specific issues treated by the surveyable representations of the Philosophical Investigations. But second, an übersichtlich Darstellung cannot make everything perspicuous or surveyable, all at once. This is the folly of metaphysics, of grand philosophical theory, a folly both exposed by and instantiated in the logical atomism of the Tractatus.

Because of this, Wittgenstein can use idealist-sounding language without committing himself to idealism or antirealism, just as he can use realist-sounding language without being a metaphysical realist. For example:

§371. Essence is expressed in grammar.

§373. Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)

§381. How do I recognize that this colour is red? — One answer would be: “I have learnt English.”

If Wittgenstein were positing a theory of meaning, or an ontology of properties or universals, these pronouncements would seem idealistic/antirealistic. But he is not theorizing. When he asks “Is this a Weltanschauung?” in §122, he hints that the answer is “not exactly”, because he is articulating not a world-view but a perspicuous overview of a particular language-game embedded in a particular form-of-life. He is not reducing “essence” to grammar, or saying that grammar creates essences in §371, as this would imply the sort of onto-theological, sideways-on grand theory Wittgenstein opposes throughout the Investigations.

“Essence is expressed in grammar” is akin, then, to “Don’t look for the meaning: look for the use” (§43, §197). It is not a definition of anything. It is a specific strategy, or therapy, geared to a specific puzzlement — in this case, the metaphysical problem of universals. Eliminate the metaphysics through therapy, however, and there is no longer any “problem of universals” to puzzle over. The problem of universals is then not solved but dissolved. Likewise, one answer to recognizing the universal “red” is “I have learnt English”, but that is one answer among many possible answers. Wittgenstein is not advancing a conventionalist/antirealist theory of universals, because he is not advancing a theory of universals at all. We have no need of it. Ordinary, everyday linguistic practice needs no foundation. It is the foundation.

Nor is Wittgenstein replacing the Tractatus’ truth-conditional theory of meaning with an assertion-condition theory, an interpretation advanced in different ways by Michael Dummett and Saul Kripke. He denies that communally-sanctioned norms of agreement replace realistic fact-sanctioned constraints on meaning, because there is nothing to meaning outside the role that sound linguistic practice — language-games — plays in involving us in meaningful forms-of-life:

§241. “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?” — What is true or false is what human beings say; and it is in their language that human beings agree. This is agreement not in opinions, but rather in form of life.

§242. It is not only agreement in definitions, but also (odd as it may sound) agreement in judgements that is required for communication by means of language. This seems to abolish logic, but does not do so.

“Agreement in judgment of form-of-life” seems to “abolish logic” only if the essence of all sound linguistic practice needs to be underwritten by a formal or transcendental logic. But this is the result of a “picture holding us captive” (§115) that tempts us to think that only with a firm theoretical foundation can we mean anything and agree on what we mean. Our practices — our language-games involving forms-of-life — provide the attunement with each other that we need to agree in our judgments and mean what we say. (The word translated as “agreement” by Anscombe, Hacker, and Schulte, Übereinstimmung, has connotations of “attunement” and Heideggerian shared “mood”.) It is only a misleading picture of how meaning must work that entices us to try to ground meaning in a theory that establishes a singular meaning of “meaning”. For all its insistence on philosophical “nonsense”, the Tractatus was nevertheless seduced by the illusions of this picture.


It is difficult to appreciate just how unique, and radical, Wittgenstein’s later metaphilosophy is. It is far more radical than, say, Heidegger’s metaphilosophies, despite the considerable ground they share as regards the priority of practical involvement in the world, as opposed to contemplative, disengaged speculation. Heidegger’s Being and Time project of a fundamental ontology of Dasein could be viewed as an attempt at a non-theoretical, self-deconstructing theory of practical human involvement in its world, and his later work a refashioning of that project into the “task of thinking” outside metaphysics. But from Wittgenstein’s vantage in the Investigations, this remains far too attached to philosophy in the grand style, even as it foreswears metaphysics. Heidegger sought a kind of non-theoretical synoptic view of Being-as-a-whole, even as he denied that Being is sheer presence that can be grasped in and as a concept. If not theoretical, his philosophy remains contemplative rather than therapeutic. For Wittgenstein, philosophy done properly is strictly therapeutic. It unties knots in our understanding, and when the knots are untied, philosophy stops, and gives us the peace we sought when we started on philosophy’s way.

One can wonder, however, when all the bumps in our understanding are flattened-out, what philosophy can do. I think the answer implied in Wittgenstein’s Investigations metaphilosophy is: nothing. After philosophy, there is withdrawal until the next set of Gordian knots confronts us, whereupon we assemble philosophical reminders about the interplay of language, untie the knots, and begin to know our way about again.

I confess I find this conception of philosophy unsatisfactory: it is far too austere. The austerity is a major point of contrast with another philosophical style with which Wittgenstein has many affinities: the pragmatism of Peirce, James, and Dewey, who all rejected high theory and insisted on the primacy of practice. In On Certainty Wittgenstein rejected “pragmatism”, dismissing it as a kind of Weltanschauung, which was never what he was seeking. Maybe so, but world-views can be critically important. American pragmatism, especially that of Dewey, reconstructs philosophy as “the criticism of criticisms”, thus supplying one with a standpoint for a robust ethical practice, and a skill for the political. Wittgenstein’s later metaphilosophy rules this out in principle as nonsense. After therapy, after clearing away all the conceptual rubbish, after one gets the “absolute clarity” that promotes inner peace — what then?

Of this, Wittgenstein passes over in silence.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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