Wittgenstein: When Philosophy Becomes Poetry

Wittgenstein is another one of those warrior-poets I love. One of the greatest philosophical works of the 20th century—and indeed, perhaps in the history of the subject—was written by him while in the trenches of World War I.  Not only is it an incredible philosophical piece, but it is also one of the most beautiful works I have ever read.

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnis
Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnis


Before he had even turned thirty, Wittgenstein believed that he had solved all the problems of thousands of years of philosophy.  His thesis was composed into what The Times called “a logical poem,” published in 1921 as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  By propositions, Wittgenstein set about to demonstrate that the problems with philosophy are based in the imperfect nature of language, and that a precise use of language could bring about resolution. Here is the first part of the work:

1. The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

1.2 The world divides into facts.

1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

2. What is the case—a fact—is the existence of states of affairs…

Follow that? Don’t worry if you didn’t. According to authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow in Wittgenstein’s Poker, at the end of his doctoral defense at Cambridge (the Tractatus serving as his thesis) Wittgenstein “slapped his examiners on the shoulder, and said, ‘Don’t worry. I know you’ll never understand it.’” Nevertheless, one of his examiners stated on the form for the submission, “It is my personal opinion that Mr. Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius.”

First edition in English of the Tractatus, with parallel German text and an intro by Bertrand Russell
First edition in English of the Tractatus, with parallel German text and an intro by Bertrand Russell


The point of this post is not to get you to understand some extremely difficult philosophical ideas—that would take much longer than the amount I allot here—but simply to share with you a bit of my thoughts on beauty and serendipity. I personally find the Tractatus incredibly beautiful. I am also painfully aware that Wittgenstein had the chance to avoid fighting in World War I, but instead he went to the front lines.


Wittgenstein had an operation for a hernia while a teenager that actually relieved him from any kind of service during the war. Instead, he used his family’s significant influence to receive an assignment to the front. He is said to have been known for holding his position as artillery forward long beyond the requirements of duty. Eventually he was captured and spent the last years of the war in a POW camp, where he guarded his Tractatus and corresponded with the great philosopher Bertrand Russell about getting it published. But what if Wittgenstein hadn’t survived? Even knowing that he did, I still feel a deep terror from the idea.


Wittgenstein later changed his philosophical views dramatically—so dramatically, in fact, that Edmonds and Eidinow refer to his two philosophical stages as Wittgenstein I and Wittgenstein II. But I am still in love with some of his early ideas, like this one, the last part of his preface to the Tractatus:

I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems. And if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

And this, the last line of the Tractatus:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.



15 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Interesting post. I have two books with the name Wittgenstein in them on my to-read list. Wittgenstein’s Nephew and Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

    1. I’m dying to read Wittgenstein’s Mistress! I’ve only recently discovered David Markson via Vanishing Point, and I’m a little obsessed with that book.

  2. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Miss Romney’s blog comes highly recommended, by real people as well as me.

    1. Are you a fake person?

      1. undoubtedly, well every second Thursday I dabble with being imaginary…does that count?

  3. Jesse Miller says:

    How did you come to understand what Wittgenstein was saying?

    1. Well, I’m not going to give myself too much credit and say that I completely understand Wittgenstein. After reading Bertrand Russell’s introduction to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein complained that Russell clearly missed the point. So I fully admit there’s a large possibility that I don’t completely get it. But what I personally interpret from his words is what I find beautiful and compelling. And that interpretation simply came from studying his works and works about his works.

  4. Steve P. says:

    “Wittgenstein later changed his philosophical views dramatically—so dramatically, in fact, that Edmonds and Eidinow refer to his two philosophical stages as Wittgenstein I and Wittgenstein II”

    Just curious: why did you find his revised views relatively unremarkable?

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t actually find them unremarkable. I like to keep my posts somewhat short and simple, but getting into his later work (i.e. Philosophical Investigations) would have opened up a very large can of worms that I wasn’t willing to get into, considering that an explanation of his philosophy wasn’t the main goal of this post.

      In point of fact, Wittgenstein’s current reputation rests mostly on his later work. I’d be happy to do a Wittgenstein II post, but again, it would be separate from this one, and for good reason.

  5. SAHarris says:

    “But what if Wittgenstein hadn’t survived? Even knowing that he did, I still feel a deep terror from the idea.”

    More than 10.6 million people died in World War I – both military and civilian. Even though Ludwig Wittgenstein wasn’t one of them, imagine how many philosophers, scientists, and other greats that we did loose.

    1. Yes, exactly. I feel the terror thinking of all the potential lost.

  6. bibliostyle says:

    Reblogged this on bibliostyle.

  7. David Yerle says:

    I recently read the Tractatus and agree with you: it is both difficult, somewhat poetical and deep. What I really love about him is he points out the problems of using language to understand the world.
    I did not know he fought in Word War I and I agree it would have been a great loss should he have died. Though, as SAHarris points out, it’s even scarier to think about all the people we did lose…

  8. Brian says:

    Your article has piqued my interest in the author and while I love philosophy, I am only beginning to understand the beauty of poetry. It seems that Poetry is a good means of transmitting philosophy because poetry can be experiential, i.e. goes beyond the senses. Language depends on the senses to a large extent. Sort of like drawing an analogy between knowledge is to wisdom what writing is to poetry. Wisdom cannot be transmitted through language,i.e. it can be learned but not taught.

  9. Dallas Jacobs says:

    It was only after reading of them that I felt that to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein, one had to consider Bertrand Russell. Clarity and exactness was their desire fueled by a search for facts and thruth. I can appreciate and laud your use of the word “beauty” in describing your thoughts of Wittgenstein’s polemics…dj

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