Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Translated from German by Alexander Booth); Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Translated from German by Michael Beaney) - review by Jonathan Rée

Jonathan Rée

Silence Please

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


Penguin Classics 144pp £14.99

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


Oxford University Press 100pp £8.99

The canon of Western philosophy contains some very odd books, but none is odder than the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was the work of a wealthy young engineer from Vienna called Ludwig Wittgenstein, who completed it while serving in the Austrian army during the First World War. His aim was to yoke together two different topics, one ‘logical’ and the other ‘mystical’. As far as logic was concerned, he built on the recent work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, who had broken with the traditional dualism of ‘subjects’ and ‘predicates’ in order to concentrate on entire ‘propositions’. But he hoped to show that this new turn in logical theory reinforced the old ‘mystical’ doctrine that the real problems of human existence cannot be put into words and the only way we can do them justice is, as Søren Kierkegaard once said, by keeping ‘essentially silent’.

After working on the project for the best part of a decade, Wittgenstein believed he had got as close as he could to ‘hitting the nail on the head’. His typescript was austere: hundreds of short paragraphs adding up to little more than twenty thousand words, organised in a hierarchical system of numerals running to five decimal places. The going could be tough, especially when he used an eccentric notation to explain what was in fact a simple idea: that the truth or falsity of complex propositions flows automatically from the truth or falsity of the simpler propositions they contain. But readers who stayed the course would find themselves transported from a dry logical starting point – ‘the world is everything that is the case … the totality of facts, not of things’ – to a mysterious, mystical conclusion: ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

It was a bold literary experiment, and on the whole it works. Wittgenstein was on strong ground when he maintained that Frege and Russell misunderstood the implications of their new approach to logic. They imagined they were creating a brave new discipline dealing with what Russell called a ‘timeless … world of universals’, but according to Wittgenstein they were simply explaining what is implicit in everyday thinking, however childish or wrong-headed. We cannot ‘think illogically’, as he put it, or ‘get outside the limits of the world’, so when we achieve mystical insights into the world as a ‘limited whole’ we must accept that the experience is ‘inexpressible’ and learn to hold our peace.

Wittgenstein approached his work with a combination of self-assurance and humility. It resolved all the issues ‘in essentials’, he said, but it also showed ‘how little has been done when these problems have been solved’. In 1918, he tried to get it published – under the neat title ‘Der Satz’, meaning both ‘proposition’ and ‘musical movement’ – in the avant-garde literary journal Der Brenner, which had previously published a translation of Kierkegaard’s essay on ‘keeping silent’. When it was turned down, he abandoned it and decided to become a teacher in a village school. But he had entrusted the typescript to Russell, who had it placed – to Wittgenstein’s dismay – in a German journal of popular science. Russell then got it translated into English by his friend C K Ogden, who gave it the pretentious Latin title it has gone by ever since. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published by Kegan Paul in 1922, with the original German on the left-hand pages and Ogden’s English translation on the right, preceded by a preposterous introduction by Russell, who was under the impression that Wittgenstein was trying to construct a ‘logically perfect language’.

Ogden’s translation was quite satisfactory (it is the source of the formulations quoted above), but the publishers produced a more rigorous version (by David Pears and Brian McGuinness) in 1960. Their rights lapsed in 2022, however – seventy years after Wittgenstein’s death – and several rivals spotted an opportunity. Penguin has entered the fray with a translation by the poet Alexander Booth, who is influenced by the two previous translations but sometimes strikes out on his own, often with unhappy results. He chooses to replace ‘is the case’ with ‘happens to be the case’, which is both clumsy and misleading, and he describes the rigid logical structures of complex propositions as ‘constellations’, as if they were nebulous and indefinite. Strangest of all, he tries to capture Wittgenstein’s parting injunction by saying that mystical truths must be ‘left to silence’, as if they were impertinences we should try to ignore, whereas Wittgenstein regarded them as great mysteries in whose presence we should have the decency to shut up.

Penguin’s effort is at best half-baked. Oxford University Press has come up with a superb alternative: a fresh version – philosophically alert and poetically sensitive – by Michael Beaney, who also contributes excellent notes and a fine introduction. We know we are in good hands from the beginning (‘The world is everything that is the case’), and it is a relief to be back with logical ‘combinations’ (instead of ‘constellations’). Beaney acknowledges that there will be doubts, but he makes a good case for his final flourish: ‘Of what one cannot speak, about that one must be silent.’

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