Beginning and Ending: TLP


“In my beginning is my end.” –T. S. Eliot

Arthur Schopenhauer, who was an early, deep influence on Wittgenstein, says of his own masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, that it is a book necessary to read twice. His reason: not only does the book’s ending presuppose its beginning, but its beginning presupposes its end. This structure of reciprocal presupposition makes two readings crucial, since the beginning’s dependence on the ending cannot be appreciated until the beginning has been read after the ending.

Something of the same is true of both TLP and PI. I will not just now go into structural detail about the two books–I will do that soon enough–but I will insist that the beginnings of each of the two books presupposes its ending. And radically so: it is not that the ending supplies a premise, say, that is necessary to explicate an early enthymeme, and so the question of the beginning’s truth is undecided until the end. Rather, it is that the ending supplies the point, the point, of the beginning, and so the question of the beginning’s meaning is undecided until the end.  This happens differently in TLP than it does in PI of course.

Consider TLP. On a first reading, the book begins by speaking light into the face of the deep: “The world is everything that is the case.” But it ends with a darkling hush:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Notice that the world figures in both beginning and ending, but more importantly (at least for now) the ending tells us something about the point of the beginning. On a second reading, the beginning that seemed a triumphal metaphysical revelation, a sounding of horns, is revalued as elucidation, hushed. “The world is everything that is the case”: a rung on a ladder, ladder-language, to be surmounted, not proclaimed.

We will of course talk much more about these last lines (6.54-7) of TLP. For now I just want to make clear how the book’s beginning presupposes its end. I harp on this by way of warning you. Do not assume that you know what Wittgenstein is up to as he opens either of the books. TLP opens as if it were metaphysics. PI opens as if it were philosophy of language. But Wittgenstein is no more doing metaphysics in TLP than he is doing the philosophy of language in PI.

Wittgenstein is doing something original in each book, something that is neither metaphysics nor the philosophy of language. And what he is doing in TLP is not the same as what he is doing in PI, despite the fact that what he is doing in each is like what he is doing in the other, and despite the fact that in neither is he doing metaphysics or philosophy of language.

In practical terms, this does not mean that you should be agnostic about what Wittgenstein is saying as he opens the books. You have to try to understand what he is saying as he is saying it; you cannot read the books otherwise. But you should regard any understanding you have as potentially sacrificial, as an “understanding” that may be taken from you later. The path up Mt. Moriah is long. Who knows what, among our possessions as we begin, may be demanded from us by the end of the climb?

2 responses

  1. Thanks for putting this up. Interesting. With regards to the structure of the PI, it touches on something that’s occurred to me recently: the end is connected to the beginning not in the way that a conclusion is connected to the rest of the syllogism, but in the way that the wheels are connected to the rest of the bike.

  2. Pingback: Some Clarifications | "Problems of the Spirit"

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