Essay 02


A hardcopy (typed, printed) essay is due in class Tuesday, 9/11. I do not mind students working on the essays in groups--it is, in fact, encouraged--but your answers must be your own. Be sure that each answer is as complete, well-expressed, clear, and precise as you can make it. If you have any question, puzzle, or require clarification, please do not hesitate to contact me (; 3976, 944-2756). Finally, the following maximums and minimums must be scrupulously observed:

  • No less than 10pt font.
  • No less than 1.5 line spacing.
  • No less than 1 inch margins on all sides.
  • No more than 1 side of 1 page for this problem set.

Note that these are maximums and minimums only. You may, for instance, write less than one page or use greater than a 10pt font.

In light of these admittedly serious constraints on the space available for answers, it is extremely important that you excise any and all extraneous or redundant material. For example, the phrases "It can be argued that", "I claim that", "I think that", or their kin preceding a sentence add absolutely nothing to the sentence, take up valuable space, and are in fact wholly redundant. Of course it can be argued that, claimed that, or thought that, or you would never have written it!

Every word must count for answering the question. Philosophical writing is thus austere, but terribly precise. Such is its virtue. That said, writing philosophy can be jarring at first, especially for those who have labored and suffered under the delusional five-paragraph essay regime.

Please not that no quote from the text ever stands on its own, unexplained. Quoting should be judiciously, even cautiously done in light of the laughably short space you have in which to write.

For additional advice on writing philosophy, I encourage you to study some of the advice linked at the bottom of the resources page. Not all of the advice applies directly to these problem sets, as even in philosophy they are atypical. Nevertheless, there is much sound and helpful advice to be had about writing in general and writing philosophy in particular.

One final note of caution before getting to the question for this essay. It can be tempting to delve into the secondary literature on Wittgenstein in an attempt to get 'the right' answer. I invite you, though, to think not of getting the right answer--as if there could be one--and instead focus on getting the most comprehensive and defensible answer as you can conceive. It need not be 'right' to be a damn good answer, in short.


As we discovered in class today, we encounter many problems reading and interpreting Wittgenstein's Tractatus as carefully as we are attempting to do. We find Wittgenstein using familiar terms in unfamiliar ways, appropriating ordinary verbiage and elevating it to philosophical term-of-art. We face the challenge of grasping the meaning of these terms while grappling studiously with what he says about them. Once we think we have a sense of what he means by 'object', 'state-of-affairs', 'fact', 'simple', 'complex', 'substance', 'logical space', and so forth, we test our understanding by seeing whether it comports with what he goes on to say--or, working backwards, what he has previously said--about these concepts. Whether we agree with what he says or not, if what he says is at least intelligible to us, we begin to suspect we're on the correct interpretive course.

Our interpretive course is threatened, however, when we encounter statements which seem (prima facie, at least) incompatible with one another. One imagines several of a number of possible responses:

  1. Accuse Wittgenstein of not being consistent in his usage of special terminology. (Tsk, tsk, no wonder we were having so much trouble understanding this incompetent. No fault ours!)
  2. Accuse Wittgenstein of committing a gross error in philosophical reasoning. (J'accuse Wittgenstein, you sniveling philosophical interloper you!)
  3. Jettison our reading of Wittgenstein altogether and begin anew with an eye towards eliminating the apparent incompatibility.
  4. Use our reading of Wittgenstein to try to gain insight into how the apparent incompatibility can be understood as a misreading on our part of the statements in question.

In reading original philosophy, the Principle of Charity requires that we eschew (1) and (2), assuming that Wittgenstein was smart enough to avoid those kinds of problems. (To be sure, we may be reluctantly driven to (1) or (2) if we must in order to rescue other, more vital parts of the text.)

The upshot is that under charitable interpretation of the text, the problem is ours. So as not to wipe clean all the hard work we've already done interpreting the text, we avoid (3), unless as a last resort. Our goal, then, is to use our interpretation and study the apparently incompatible statements so as to show that the apparent absurdity evaporates on analysis and does so without requiring us to unduly mutilate our hard-won interpretation in the process.

Please note that everything I've said thus far applies equally well to any philosopher, not just Wittgenstein. These lessons generalize, in short.

Now, with the above discussion in mind, consider the following propositions from the Tractatus:

2.04 The totality of existing states of affairs is the world.

2.06 The existence and non-existence of states of affairs is reality.

2.063 The sum-total of reality is the world.

Think about these three propositions in terms of identity:

2.04* The world = the totality of existing states of affairs.

2.06* Reality = the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.

2.063* The world = the sum-total of reality.


The world = the totality of existing states of affairs.


The world = the totality of existing and non-existing states of affairs.

which is apparently absurd because it straightforwardly implies that

The totality of existing states of affairs = the totality of existing and non-existing states of affairs.

as bizarre a statement as one could ever fear encountering on the written page.

Yet how can this be? Is there a way to read the three propositions which avoids this vexing implication altogether? Alternatively, might there be a way to read the implication itself so as to render it harmless and not at all vexing? [Hint: Propositions always occur in a context of other propositions. Nearby propositions may help.]