Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Kwasi Wiredu, B.Phil.

Co-Major Professor

Stephen P. Turner, Ph.D.


Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Resolute reading, Logical empiricism, Metaphysics


There are historically three main trends in understanding Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The first is the interpretation offered by the Vienna Circle. They read Wittgenstein as arguing that neither metaphysical nor normative propositions have any cognitive meaning, and thus are to be considered nonsense. This interpretation understands Wittgenstein as setting the limits of sense, and prescribing that nothing of substantive philosophical importance lies beyond that line. The second way of reading the Tractatus, which has became popular since the 1950s, is the interpretation which most currently accept as the early Wittgenstein's view; for this reason I refer to it as the 'standard reading.' According to this interpretation, Wittgenstein did not consider metaphysical and ethical discourse as nonsense. Rather, relying upon the distinction between saying [sagen] and showing [zeigen], he meant that these truths cannot be uttered, but instead are only shown.

The standard reading can perhaps be best understood in contrast with the third interpretation, dubbed the "resolute reading." The resolute reading takes seriously Wittgenstein's remark at 6.54 that "[m]y propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as nonsense [unsinnig]." According to the resolute interpretation, Wittgenstein is not advancing a series of philosophical theses in the Tractatus. Rejecting the distinction characteristic of standard readings, between propositions without sense [sinnlos] and just plain nonsense [unsinnig], these interpreters read Wittgenstein as treating ethical and metaphysical inquiry, as well as a bulk of the doctrines in the text, as nonsense. To them, Wittgenstein did not intend to put forth any theses in the the text. Instead his methodology is therapeutic, similar to the later philosophy.

It In this essay I explain each interpretation, and evaluate them in terms of textual and philosophical viability. I conclude by arguing that the biases which exist in the tradition of analytic philosophy substantively temper the interpretation of historical texts, which ultimately leads to the fundamental distinction between these three interpretations.