The Ethical Purpose of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Open Access
Armstrong, Brian Arthur
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 07, 2007
Committee Members:
  • Dale Jacquette, Committee Chair
  • Vincent M Colapietro, Committee Member
  • Emily Rolfe Grosholz, Committee Member
  • Denise Haunani Solomon, Committee Member
  • Tractatus
  • Wittgenstein
  • ethics
The purpose of this dissertation is to develop an account of the ethical purpose of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I argue that the primary ethical concern in the work (exhibited most fully at 6.3751-6.3752) is with our tendency to reduce to humans to “what can be said,” i.e., to the facts that science makes available to us. In doing this, we run the risk of ignoring the transcendent and transient dimensions of human existence, i.e., that that can only be shown and the fact that things can be other than what we anticipate. Given Wittgenstein’s concern with this risk, I argue that the ethical purpose of the work is to help us to attend to what can be gathered from looking closely at the world as it is, since doing so will (he believes) lead us to recognize the marks of transcendence and transience that make us human. In developing this argument, I reject two current strains of interpretation. First, I reject the “ineffabilist” reading of the Tractatus, according to which its ethical purpose requires that we posit both ethical value and the will as metaphysical, nonnatural entities. Second, I reject the “resolute” reading of the Tractatus, according to which all talk of ethics is pure nonsense. Finally, I reject the implication (found in both readings) that Wittgenstein endorsed a form of moral quietism that would have us acquiesce to the world as it is and maintain literal silence on ethical matters. Instead, I argue that Wittgenstein offers us a project of committed, intentional, discursive engagement with ourselves and others in order to make the world better than it is.