In philosophy, Wittgenstein's ladder is a metaphor set out by Ludwig Wittgenstein about learning. In what may be a deliberate reference to Søren Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated from the original German) reads:
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.
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.
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. Proposition 6.54, then, presents a difficult interpretative problem. If the so-called picture theory of language 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 language 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 language 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.
In his notes of 1930 Wittgenstein returns to the image of a ladder with a different perspective:
I might say: if the place I want to get could only be reached by way of a ladder, I would give up trying to get there. For the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now.
Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.
- Kierkegaard, Søren (2009). Hannay, Alastair (ed.). Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Cambridge University Press. p. xiii. ISBN 978-0-521-88247-7.
It is not out of the question that Wittgenstein, himself an admiring reader of the Postscript, actually borrowed the ladder metaphor from Climacus. The latter’s name, not entirely incidentally, is that of a certain seventh-century abbot who lived for many years as a hermit in a monastery in the neighbourhood of Mount Sinai. Known initially for his learning as Johannes Scholasticus, he taught the vanity of human wisdom and received the name Johannes Climacus from his work Κλι̑μαξ του̑ παράδεισου (or in Latin Scala paradisi: the ladder to heaven, or heavenly ladder). The analogy gains further credibility from the fact already noted that towards the end of his almost 500 pages (of Part Two) Climacus revokes everything. Perhaps he is throwing away the ladder.
- Schönbaumsfeld, Genia (May 5, 2013). Kierkegaard and the Tractatus (in Wittgenstein's Tractatus: History and Interpretation). Oxford University Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-0199665785.
Climacus is intimating that a personal appropriation of the book’s message is more important than its content: once the perspective that the book is trying to convey has been grasped — once the book has, that is, been 'understood'—author and text 'annul' themselves and are, in this sense, 'revoked'.
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Klement, Kevin C. (ed.). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Side-by-Side-by-Side ed.). University of Massachusetts. Retrieved January 27, 2019.
- TLP 6.53
- TLP 6.54
- 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.
- Wittgenstein L., Culture and Value, ed. by G.H. von Wright with H. Nyman, transl. P. Winch, U of Chi Press 1980 p. 4