The Way Out of the Fly-Bottle: Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” at 100

November 7, 2021   •   By Jared Marcel Pollen

IT SURPRISES US to learn how much literature was penned in the trenches of World War I. The poems of Wilfred Owen or the early tales of Tolkien, for example, are all the more exceptional when we consider that they were composed amid states of mortal terror. But the most incredible and most stupefying example perhaps is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Less than a hundred pages long, it is a slender book that, according to its author, set about to find a “final solution” to the problems of philosophy (a phrase made even more cryptic by the knowledge that Wittgenstein and Hitler were once schoolmates). And indeed, when the Tractatus was published in the fall of 1921, Wittgenstein effectively “retired” from his trade, believing that he’d found the basement of Western philosophy and had turned off the lights when he left.

The Tractatus began as a series of notes that Wittgenstein kept in his bag throughout his tours with the Austrian army. While studying at Cambridge before the war, he was famously averse to writing down his ideas (so much so that his mentor, Bertrand Russell, would often scribble on his behalf), and it was the fear that he would almost certainly be killed that forced the book’s composition. The project was officially completed when Wittgenstein was on leave late in the summer of 1918, after the harsh Austrian offensive against Italy. But its publication was delayed for nearly three years when he, along with half a million other Austrian soldiers, was taken prisoner, not to be released until after the Versailles treaty. Wittgenstein kept up a correspondence with Russell during this time, and his arrogance was effervescent: “I believe I’ve solved our problems finally,” he wrote. “[I]t upsets all our theory of truth, of classes, of numbers and all the rest.” He also told Russell that he believed nobody would understand his work, even though he felt it was “clear as crystal.” 

Inspired by the numbered structure of Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief (Wittgenstein’s vade mecum in the mud-warrens of the Eastern Front), the Tractatus attempts to reduce philosophy to the level of mathematical certainty (a series of “facts” rather than “things”), unfolding in a logical progression of statements that are taken to be self-evident. It begins with a cold declarative — “The world is all that is the case” — and ends with a darkly poetic prompt: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” The reason we must choose silence is because all philosophical problems are fundamentally problems of language.

Wittgenstein understood that language is pictorial: it summons images in the mind in order to establish a “state of affairs.” Inspired by the way lawyers in French courts used toy cars to reenact traffic accidents, he knew that the truth of a proposition rested on our ability to accurately represent it in the world. In that sense, most propositions are really representations, which are language-based. In a way, it’s a problem of mimesis, of faithful imitation, though Wittgenstein never uses these words.

For Wittgenstein, the fact that so many philosophers come armed with their own flurry of terminology indicated that philosophy attempted to deal with what is unsayable. Most philosophers were “bewitched” by language, and their neologisms were a form of flailing, a frustration that betrayed how our most profound propositions were essentially grammatical quandaries. A simple proposition would be something like, “the tree is in the yard” or “the cat is on the mat.” But since most philosophy dealt with abstract principles, much of its grammar amounted to “patent nonsense.” Wittgenstein’s goal was to dispense with many of the old philosophical disputes that rested on nonsensical or tautological language and to focus only on what could be represented, stating: “The limits of my language mean the limit of the world.”

Though the Tractatus was praised upon its release, Wittgenstein nonetheless felt that most people, even his mentors Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, failed to fully grasp his vision. Ironically, many of these misinterpretations were due to the book’s unique diction and literary style (leading Frege to remark that the book was “an artistic rather than a scientific achievement”). Statements that Wittgenstein took to be self-evident were pored over, line by line. He disliked defending his ideas publicly and shirked talks and conferences whenever he could. He was invited regularly to discuss his work with the thinkers of the Vienna Circle, but he became so frustrated by these sessions that he took to reading poetry out loud when it was his turn to speak, usually with his back to the room.

Like all those who publish young, Wittgenstein was doomed to have to change his mind in public. Perhaps afraid of this, he never published another book during his lifetime, though he wrote several, the most notable being Philosophical Investigations (published in 1953, two years after his death), which immediately set up epochs in his canon: early Wittgenstein versus late Wittgenstein. Though his ideas would change radically over time — to the point of disowning most of the Tractatus — his insistence on language as the thing that plugs us into reality remained the linchpin of his pensée. The Tractatus then was not the end of Wittgenstein’s philosophy but its point of departure.

In his later work, the emphasis on the pictorial quality of language is demoted in favor of the idea that meaning is based on usage. This involves more than just faithfully tagging objects with names, since this tagging is only a preparation for something (i.e., how we are going to use words). For example, the statement “Water!” could mean any number of things: it could be a command (me telling you to get some), a request (me asking for some), a declaration (me saying I’m thirsty), an item in a list, the first line of a poem, the answer to a question, or the question itself. The meaning of its usage depends on my anticipation that you will understand it. Thus, we evolve language socially in order to meet the demands of our environment. It is our shared negotiation of reality.

Wittgenstein referred to this as a kind of “game,” an activity he called “a form of life.” In the Investigations, he wrote: “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him” — the assumption being that a lion’s world is so foreign to our own that we would share very little that is communicable. We can’t know the world as a lion knows it, so it follows that we wouldn’t be able to talk about it. In this idea lurks the solipsism that language circumscribes our reality. We use it to build a pen around ourselves so that we can figure out how to live within it.

The implications of these ideas for fiction were profound. Like Freud and Einstein, Wittgenstein’s influence is imprinted on modernist literature, even if we can be confident that most authors hadn’t actually read him. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Tractatus appeared just shy of 1922, that high-water-mark year for the avant-garde, when Jacob’s Room, Ulysses, and The Waste Land were published and the English language seemed to be in full revolt. The games played by Joyce and Stein clearly tease the epistemic qualities of language. But the most obvious example is Beckett, whose insistence on sans, or less-ness, was opened up by Wittgenstein’s idea of the unsayable, and whose early novels, like Molloy (1951) and Watt (1953), mock with relentless comedy the philosophical rigor of the Cartesian cogito.

Beckett’s comment that “[e]very word is like an unnecessary stain on silence” is essentially early Wittgenstein, while his assurance that we still have “the obligation to express” is late Wittgenstein. The fact that Wittgenstein never felt confident enough to publish another book during his lifetime suggests that he didn’t wish to stain silence with imperfection. But the obligation to express is the true takeaway from the Investigations. It is, if anything, a radical call to arms for literature. If our reality rests on certain load-bearing fictions, then our “grammatical fictions” are the stress equations. Fiction and poetry thus become not only necessary but also essential to understanding how language unfolds our environment. In his personal notebooks (published as Culture and Value in English in 1980), Wittgenstein said that “philosophy should only be written as one writes poetry.” (The word he uses is dichten, which doesn’t have an adequate translation in English, but the closest approximation would be “to compose poetic or narrative language.”)

In other words, certain kinds of truth can only be expressed using certain kinds of language. What we call “poetic truth” is an example of this. It is something that we accept as true even if it turns out to be nonsense (this led Wittgenstein to suggest that the meaning of the Gospels would remain intact even if we believed that, historically, they were “demonstrably false”). Metaphor is poetic truth. Taking two essentially different things and yoking them together by a common conceit is essentially nonsensical — the sea is not “wine-dark,” and the dawn is not “rosy-fingered” — but its resonance is unquestionable.

Literature thus becomes the space where the game of language can be played at its highest and most explosive level, where meaning is finessed and caressed, where the use of words is the most open and unexpected. This, at least, is true of all literature that doesn’t approach language as mere utility (most books don’t meet this standard). But novels like Finnegans Wake and The Making of Americans are Wittgensteinian to the core. More recent examples would be David Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress and much of David Foster Wallace’s work up to Infinite Jest (1996), while the idea of using reenactment to establish knowledge is brilliantly illustrated in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005).

Some ideas are best expressed discursively, whereas others can only come alive when dramatized. Always in Wittgenstein we get this sense of groping, of trying to say what is unsayable, which pushes his prose into poetic frequencies –– the anecdotal, the mystical, the koanish. He writes like a poet trapped inside a philosopher, plagued by the awful knowledge that, while philosophy can describe the world, fiction can live it, by showing us how language is intrinsic to perception and how we rig up worlds with our words. He is, in many ways, the most literary of modern thinkers.

The terminal question of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is whether our understanding of the world can ever step outside of language. If language is a kind of container for human experience, can that experience exceed it? The conclusion seems to be that it cannot. Language as the limit of the world is a constant, but whereas the Tractatus ends with a call for silence, the Investigations ends with an invitation to play. This is our “obligation to express,” even if it proves futile. If Wittgenstein had truly believed that philosophy ended with the Tractatus, then the book’s legacy is the challenge of discovering what you’re left with after you’ve reached the end.

What we’re left with is Dichtung, the stuff of poetry and fiction, which offers us the opportunity to poke holes in the container, or, as Wittgenstein put it, “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” At its best, literature can attempt this, if it dares. And from a Wittgensteinian standpoint, it must. Literature is not just a social form; it is “a form of life,” not just communication between minds but the communion of minds. It is the closest we can ever come to knowing what the lion’s life is like. That is, if we’re still curious enough to ask.

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Jared Marcel Pollen is a novelist and essayist living in Prague. His work has appeared in Quillette, Tablet, 3:AM, and The Millions. He is the author of a collection of stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness. You can follow him on Twitter @JaredMPollen.