Who really understands Wittgenstein’s ‘bible’ of modern philosophy?

Unthinkable: A short book, the Tractatus has had a big impact, says author David Edmonds

If the influence of philosophical works could be measured on a word-for-word basis, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is possibly top of the pile. Less than 80 pages long, it was the only book Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. Once he finished it, he left academic life for many years on the presumption that the major problems of philosophy had been answered.

The book became a bible for the Vienna Circle, a group of brilliant thinkers who gathered in the Austrian capital on the eve of the second World War. It formed the basis of logical positivism, a more scientific approach to life's big questions whose supporters included Bertrand Russell. And it's a vital point of reference for analytic philosophy, the dominant Anglo-American school of thought of the past century.

But does anyone fully understand the Tractatus? In 1923, the precociously talented British thinker Frank Ramsey travelled to see Wittgenstein in the village of Puchberg, spending long nights discussing the book. "It's terrible when he says, 'Is that clear?' and I say no and he says, 'Damn! It's horrid to go through all that again'," Ramsey wrote in a letter home.

A few years later, Wittgenstein appeared before Russell and another philosophical giant, GE Moore, to explain the Tractatus for his PhD. As legend has it, he turned to the two older men as he left the viva and said: “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”


If Wittgenstein believed such near-geniuses couldn’t comprehend what he was on about, what chances have the rest of us?

David Edmonds, for one, counsels against despair. The author of several works of popular philosophy and co-founder, with Nigel Warburton, of the hugely successful Philosophy Bites podcast series, he believes most philosophy – including the Tractatus (and not just the easy bits at the end of the book) – can be understood by the average person.

Edmonds’s latest work, The Murder of Professor Schlick: the Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, traces Wittgenstein’s influence within a wider movement that encompassed such thinkers as Rudolf Carnap, Rose Rand and Kurt Gödel. As pacy as a thriller, the book brings to life a collection of characters whose esoteric concerns suddenly assume the highest stakes as Nazism closes in.

Who were the Vienna Circle and what united them?
David Edmonds: "They almost all came from mathematical or scientific backgrounds. Wittgenstein was their philosophical hero but their scientific hero was Einstein, partly because he had shown that things we assumed were a priori – that, you know, we could work out [by theory rather than observation] – were just not the case.

“The other crucial thing they had in common was a suspicion of metaphysics – a suspicion of propositions that had zero connection to the empirical world. I think that was also – and I hadn’t understood this at all when I went into the book – why they were deemed a threat to the right. . . and of course they were closed down as soon as the fascists took over.

“They opposed lots of things that fascism took for granted, for example, the claim that we are more than the sum of our parts – that as a group, or people, we are something over and above the set of individuals that make us. The romanticism in fascism, the connection to the land, those sorts of things they were opposed to as well, again because it wasn’t rooted in anything empirical.”

A criticism of the Vienna Circle is that its focus was too narrow by obsessing over the rules of language. Was this limitation exposed over time?
"In some ways I think of it as an ambitious project. They wanted to delineate what can be said legitimately and what couldn't be said. That's an enormous project.

“What happened was this very ambitious project turned out to be very complicated. The verification principle sounds very straight forward on the face of it but the more you look into it the more it is riddled with issues and problems, and they couldn’t get it straight and they argued about it internally and very bitterly.

“I think what I like about them, and where my sympathies still lie with them, is they were onto something. The idea that what you claim should be amenable to some kind of empirical test strikes me as important.”

It is hard, though, to discern a specific ethical standpoint from logical positivism.
"Yes, well, ethics was a particular problem for them. The whole normative question of what's good and bad, and what grounds can we use to object to something, divided them because ethics wasn't subject to empirical testing. . . There was a big disagreement over how political they should be."

One of the heroes of the book is Esther Simpson, about whom you'd previously made a BBC radio documentary.
"Yes, I got totally obsessed with her. I just came across her one day. There was this thing called the Academic Assistance Council, which helped academics escape from fascist Europe, and her name came up on all these letters as the secretary but she clearly ran the place.

“She helped so many people. She never had any children and she called these people her children and 16 of her children went on to win the Nobel Prize.”

You highlight in the book how many of Wittgenstein's own disciples struggled to understand the Tractatus? Do we have to accept that some philosophy is impenetrable?
"Are there bits of philosophy that are very difficult to explain? I think there must be, just as there are parts of mathematics and physics that are just beyond most people. I don't put Wittgenstein in that category. Maybe I fool myself but I feel like I understand him and I don't think he is beyond explanation.

“Actually much tougher are bits of Ramsey and definitely Carnap. I mean, Carnap’s technical philosophy would be hopeless trying to explain to 99.99999 per cent of the population. Heidegger is an interesting example; he is someone I wouldn’t know how to translate because I’ve never understood him.

“But if you take Hegel, Wittgenstein, or Nietzsche you could translate them in a way they wouldn’t translate themselves but in a way that doesn’t do disservice to them, and in a way people can understand.”

A criticism today of logical positivists is that they are too limited in scope and don't address issues that are very important to people, such as the question of meaning. Is that fair comment?
"I think that is one of the reasons people don't warm to them, but I think it's slightly unfair about them because it's something they themselves embraced and recognised. What they said is there are these important aspects of life – music, poetry, novels, ethics – that are vital. They didn't dismiss them as unimportant in the way humans live their lives. They just thought philosophy wasn't the way to access what these other things did. [They said:] If you wanted to be a great poet don't be a bad philosopher. Be a great poet. Write poetry. Don't write pseudo-profound prose, claiming it's philosophy."