In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes:

6.54: 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—climb up 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.

At least two interesting things are going on here. First, what do “elucidations” mean? What kind of proposition is an elucidation? Second, what do “aright” and the command “must” mean here? Clearly, they carry ethical significance, but of what sort? This article aims to answer these two questions.

In answering the first question, we can look to other parts of the passage to help us. In particular, Wittgenstein says his propositions, understood correctly, ought to be recognized as “nonsensical.” In other words, his propositions are neither true nor false (not truth-evaluative), but rather something like a gesture, that is, a speech-act that does something with words without saying anything true or meaningful. Now, what do the words qua elucidations do? This brings us to answering the second question. That is, the elucidations of the Tractatus are on the whole an ethical command, having an ethical point that leads us to see the world “aright” once the point is grasped. The ethical point is, simply: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (7). This first-personal ethical command teaches us very straightforwardly to be quiet about what cannot be said (i.e., metaphysics, essential properties, theorizing, or more simply the “what” versus the “how”).

Though the ethical point is summarized at the end of the Tractatus, he alludes to it throughout, even using Occam’s razor as analogy: “If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless. That is the meaning of Occam’s razor” (3.328). As Michael Kremer points out, “and just before explaining that if a possible proposition has no sense, this must be because we have given no meaning to some of its parts, he repeats this idea: ‘Occam’s razor … simply says that unnecessary elements in a symbolism mean nothing. … signs which serve no purpose are logically meaningless’ (5.47321).”1 In a sense, the ethical point of Occam’s razor can be reduced to a familiar command issued in grade school: ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.).’ The very German word Wittgenstein uses in his command emphases this point. He says that we “must pass over in silence” about the unsayable, or “schweigen” in German, which can also mean, rather crudely, “be quiet!” Indeed, the ethical point of the Tractatus now starts to reveal itself as a simple ethical command, told through meaningless language, like a gesture by a father to his son of tapping him on the back to stay on the beaten path, having practical importance about how to live, while saying nothing truth-evaluative. Hopefully, this paternal analogy shows the ethical point of the Tractatus to be for our own good as language-users, while not in the advancement of truth by any measure.

To be clear, in arguing the Tractatus to have an ethical point while not dispensing any meaning based on Wittgensteins very own words, I have been arguing for what’s called the resolute reading. Now, some may say the elucidations gesture at an ineffable truth, like a riddle that dispenses truth, thus lending support for the ineffabilist reading. But Wittgenstein is clear to say “the riddle does not exist” (6.5). Indeed, for Wittgenstein, his “propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: … He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it” (6.54). That is, his propositions are to be used in a one-and-done activity as a tool to see the world “aright.” As to what it means to see the world “aright,” we can look to parts around the ethical point, namely where Wittgenstein says: “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem” (6.521; my emphasis). In other words, the goal of philosophy is to dissolve philosophical problems, so that they aren’t problems anymore, and all we have is either what can be shown or what can be said. This is to see the world “aright:” to cut the fat, to cut the meaningless philosophical puzzles in metaphysics about the “what” and just think and talk about what can be said and what can be shown: the “how.” For what can be said, we’ll leave the work to empirical investigation; for what can be shown, we’ll leave the work to logic. Kremer incisively states the ethical point of cutting metaphysical analysis from philosophy in other words:

The ethical point of the Tractatus is to get us to see that logic and ethics are groundless – that we cannot provide justifications for them in any kind of theorizing – or even in the grasping of ineffable insights into the nature of reality, or the “higher.” This is why those who “to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted.” The clarity they have achieved is not a clarity about anything like a theoretical proposition, even an ineffable one. It is rather a clarity about how to live. The ethical point of the Tractatus is to free us from the need for justification, to enable us to live. Understanding this we see the world rightly.2

Indeed, in being simple and corrective, the ethical point of the Tractatus is supposed to be liberating. It is a command to get back onto the beaten path of clear, simple and meaningful propositions, which leads us to where we need to be: the clear, simple, and meaningful. It is a command to cut distractions like meaningless metaphysics and return to just figuring out what can be shown and what can be said. It is a command to figure out how to just walk the path we set out on in the first place, not what the path is. Answering the latter is an easy distraction from the path – distraction being like that nectar in a fly bottle that a fly is condemned to be attracted to, rather than the fly escaping the bottle and freely pursuing its own life plan. That is, the distraction is what can’t be shown and what can’t be said; it’s what’s outside the limits of logic and language.

Joseph F. Diller


  • Kremer, Michael. “The Whole Meaning of a Book of Nonsense: Reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2013. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199238842.013.0035.

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.


  1. Kremer, “The Whole Meaning of a Book of Nonsense: Reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus,” 15. [return]
  2. Ibid., 51. [return]