Why Worry about the Tractatus?

Abstract

Why worry about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus? Did not Wittgenstein himself come to think it was largely a mistaken work? Is not Wittgenstein’s important work his later work? And does not his later work consist in a rejection of his earlier views? So does not the interest of the Tractatus mostly lie in its capacity to furnish a particularly vivid exemplar of the sort of philosophy that the mature Wittgenstein was most concerned to reject? So is it not true that the only real reason to worry about the Tractatus is to become clear about what sort of thing it was that the later Wittgenstein was most against in philosophy? Is the interest of the book therefore not largely exhausted by its capacity to show us what the later Wittgenstein did not think? Much of the secondary literature on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, either implicitly or explicitly, answers these questions largely in the affirmative. The aim of this paper is to suggest that the manner in which it has done so has done much to obstruct the possibility of an understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy – both early and late. The aim is not to suggest that these questions should be answered instead in the negative, but rather to furnish a prolegomenon to the possibility of a proper understanding of what – and how much – ought to be affirmed in answering them in the affirmative. As the present volume makes evident, there is currently a debate underway about how to read (and how not to read) Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. This paper will not attempt a direct contribution to that debate,2 it will attempt instead to bring out some of what might be at stake in that debate. It is natural to think that all that ought to be at stake is a fairly parochial question concerning the proper interpretation of Wittgenstein’s work during a single, relatively early phase of his philosophical development. Thus it is natural to conclude that, whatever differences may divide the parties to this debate concerning how to read the Tractatus, nonetheless, au fond these interpreters of Wittgenstein may be in broad agreement about how to read most of the rest of Wittgenstein’s work – or, at least, whatever their disagreements may be about the early work, they are ones that can be independently adjudicated, without substantial cost to anyone’s prior....

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James Ferguson Conant
Universität Leipzig

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