Wittgenstein's ladder

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In a what may be a deliberate reference to Søren Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments,[citation needed] the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, reads:[1]


   My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
   He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

   Meine Sätze erläutern dadurch, dass sie der, welcher mich versteht, am Ende als unsinnig erkennt, wenn er durch sie—auf ihnen—über sie hinausgestiegen ist. (Er muss sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist.)
   Er muss diese Sätze überwinden, dann sieht er die Welt richtig.

Given the preceding problematic at work in his Tractatus, this passage suggests that, if a reader understands Wittgenstein's aims in the text, then those propositions the reader would have just read would be recognized as nonsense. From Propositions 6.4–6.54, the Tractatus shifts its focus from primarily logical considerations to what may be considered more traditionally philosophical topics (God, ethics, meta-ethics, death, the will) and, less traditionally along with these, the mystical. The philosophy presented in the Tractatus attempts to demonstrate just what the limits of language are—and what it is to run up against them. Among what can be said for Wittgenstein are the propositions of natural science, and to the nonsensical, or unsayable, those subjects associated with philosophy traditionally- ethics and metaphysics, for instance.[2] Curiously, the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus, proposition 6.54, states that once one understands the propositions of the Tractatus, one will recognize that they are nonsensical (unsinnig), and that they must be thrown away.[3] Proposition 6.54, then, presents a difficult interpretative problem. If the so-called 'picture theory' of meaning is correct, and it is impossible to represent logical form, then the theory, by trying to say something about how language and the world must be for there to be meaning, is self-undermining. This is to say that the 'picture theory' of meaning itself requires that something be said about the logical form sentences must share with reality for meaning to be possible. This requires doing precisely what the 'picture theory' of meaning precludes. It would appear, then, that the metaphysics and the philosophy of language endorsed by the Tractatus give rise to a paradox: for the Tractatus to be true, it will necessarily have to be nonsense by self-application; but for this self-application to render the propositions of the Tractatus nonsense (in the Tractarian sense), then the Tractatus must be true.

Other philosophers before Wittgenstein, including Zhuang Zhou, Schopenhauer and Fritz Mauthner, had used a similar metaphor.[4]

In 1930, Wittgenstein rejected his own ladder: "Anything that can be reached with a ladder does not interest me." (Quoted in Gakis 2010.)

In other words: when reading philosophy, one better bring pencil & paper; not the aforementioned contraption, lest one falls off.


  1. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Klement, Kevin C., ed. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Side-by-Side-by-Side ed.). University of Massachusetts. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
  2. ^ TLP 6.53
  3. ^ TLP 6.54
  4. ^ Gakis, Dimitris (2010). E. Nemeth, R. Heinrich, W. Pichler, eds. Throwing Away the Ladder Before Climbing It. 33rd International Wittgenstein Symposia in Kirchberg am Wechsel. Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society. Retrieved January 27, 2019.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)