In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in his preface denies that he depends on the thoughts of any philosopher aside from Frege and Russell, gives his view of the world, and man’s knowledge of it. As an analytical philosopher he does his best to be as precise, in his use of language, as possible. His work is divided into small statements which are packed full of great philosophical insights. It is no wonder that this book shook the philosophical world. In his writing, it seems, especially when we get into the section on man’s knowledge of the world, that Wittgenstein follows Kant, as he sketches a line in reality, and says that beyond this line, though there must be something, man can know nothing of it. On the other side of the line we find, at least, meaning, value, ethics, and metaphysics. This division is reminiscent of Kant’s noumenal world, and phenomenal world. In this short paper we will look at Wittgenstein’s conception of the world.
The Tractatus begins with the phrase “The world is all that is the case.” This phrase, by itself, is loaded with metaphysical significance, however, Wittgenstein does not think that we can talk about metaphysics, so, we will leave this problem for now, and let Wittgenstein explain himself. He goes on to explain what he means by something “that is the case”. That which is the case, is the “existence of states of affairs.” The existence of states of affairs is a fact. Therefore, the world is a fact, which is to say, the existence of states of affairs. Wittgenstein says, a little bit later, that “the totality of existing states of affairs is the world.” He does not stop to analyze the term “existence”. It would, most likely, fit into those metaphysical principles about which we cannot speak.
A state of affairs is a combination of objects. Wittgenstein explains that objects are simple, contain possibility, and are unalterable. He does not explain what he means by simple. However, his explanation of possibility definitely resounds in the ears of the Thomist. Wittgenstein says that that “Objects contain the possibility of all situations.” This is similar to the Aristotelian/Thomistic claim that anything which is in act contains within itself all of its potencies. Wittgenstein, however, does not place the potency of the object in its matter; in fact, he does not seem to think much of material properties. Rather, he places the possibilities of the object in its form. The concept of form will be explained in due time.
According to Wittgenstein, “objects make up the substance of the world.” Substance is another term which is loaded with metaphysical significance. Wittgenstein defines substance as that which “subsists independently of what is the case.” This seems strange, because, if substance is that which subsists independently of what is the case, then it seems that it is not the world, but outside of the world. Remember, Wittgenstein said that “the world is all that is the case.” If substance is that which subsists independently of what is the case, then it subsists independently of the world. However, here we run into a problem, because, for Wittgenstein, “Objects make up the substance of the world.” “A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects (things).” “What is the case – a fact – is existence of states of affairs.” Finally, “the world is all that is the case.” It seems, in light of the above, that, if we understand Wittgenstein properly, he is claiming that the substance of the world is that which subsists independently of the world. This seems to be a contradiction. How can one and the same thing subsist independently of itself?
We will leave behind this problem for the time being, and continue exposing his view of the world. Wittgenstein continues to explain objects by discussing how they relate to each other. He explains that objects are, in relation to each other, like links in a chain, which stand in a determinate relation to each other. This leads back to his usage of the term form. He says that “The determinate way in which objects are connected in a state of affairs is the structure of the state of affairs.” The possibility of structure is the form. So, the form is the possible structure of the world. It would be nice to have a better idea of what he means by “possible structure”, but he does not explain these concepts.
Wittgenstein then returns to the term fact, and specifies that the structure of a fact, which he previously explained as being that which is the case – the existence of a state of affairs, is “the structure of states of affairs.” The possibility of structure, as we saw above, is what is called a form. From this, and the preceding points, it follows, according to Wittgenstein, that “The totality of existing states of affairs is the world.” We have almost come full circle. Wittgenstein began by saying that the world is all that is the case, and has now specified that what he meant by that was that the world is the totality of existing states of affairs. States of affairs are combinations of objects, which are the substance of the world. At this point, one gets the feeling that, in spite of all these explanations and precisions, we still have not advance one iota from the opening sentence.
Wittgenstein goes on to specify that “The totality of existing states of affairs also determines which states of affairs do not exist.” This point almost goes without saying, however, Wittgenstein’s point is that this fact tells us what reality consists of, namely, the totality of existing states of affairs (positive facts), and the totality of non-existing states of affairs (negative facts). In other words, positive facts + negative facts = reality. Now Wittgenstein is able to sum up the entire discussion, bringing us full circle. “The sum-total of reality [positive facts + negative facts] is the world.” This is exactly what he began with in his second sentence. “The world is the totality of facts [positive and negative], not of things.” What this means is that the world is not just all those states of affairs that exist, but also, all those states of affairs that do not exist. If the world was only the existing states of affairs, then it would make sense to say that the world is the totality of things, not facts. But, facts, includes both existing, and non-existing things.
There are three problems with Wittgenstein’s view of the world that we should note as we conclude. First of all, though Wittgenstein frequently makes use of the term existence, he never tells us what it means “to exist”. The closest that we might come to some form of description is to say that, that which exists is that which is the case, or, that which subsists. It is impossible to tell which is which, because Wittgenstein seems to think that substance is that which subsists independently of that which is the case, therefore, they cannot both mean, existence. Furthermore, there still seems to be a contradiction in saying that the world is all that is the case (both negative and positive facts), that all that is the case is combinations of objects (states of affairs), which are the substance of the world; but that substance is that which subsists independently of the world. In other words, all that is the case subsists independently of all that is the case, or, the world subsists independently of the world. Finally, we are left with the feeling that we still do not know what the world is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” in Modern and Contemporary, vol. 2 of Classics of Philosophy, ed. Louis P. Pojman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1148-56. Due to the nature of his work when we make a quotation from Wittgensetein we will note the section division and not the page number. The citation will appear as follows: N.x.
N. 6.53, 7.
N. 2.023, 2.027.
N. 2.03, 2.031.