In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ludwig Wittgenstein: Early Works

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Primary Sources
  • Wittgenstein’s Life and the Background to the Composition of the Tractatus
  • The Influence of, and Response to, Frege and Russell
  • Objects, Facts, Simples, and Substance
  • Propositions and Pictures
  • The Logic of the Tractatus
  • The Tractatus on Mathematics and the Paradoxes
  • Subjectivity, Solipsism, and Idealism in the Tractatus
  • Ethics and Religion
  • Resolute Approaches
  • Criticism of Resolute Approaches
  • An “Elucidatory” Third Way?
  • The Tractatus And The Emergence Of A Later Wittgenstein

Philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein: Early Works
Denis McManus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0126


Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the few widely recognized great philosophers of the 20th century. His career is typically—though not uncontroversially—divided into an early and late phase, each associated with a particular magnum opus: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP) and the Philosophical Investigations respectively. This entry focuses on the first of these phases. TLP is a short but difficult work that explores questions of logic, ontology, subjectivity, language, ethics, and metaphilosophy. It is a work for which its author had stratospheric ambitions, claiming that its “definitive” and “unassailable” truths provide “on all essential points, the final solution” to the problems of philosophy (TLP preface), and it represents one of the founding works of analytic philosophy. Nevertheless, most commentators, following Wittgenstein’s own later judgment, now regard TLP as an insightful but ultimately confused piece of work. Saying precisely what that confusion is has never been easy and is made significantly more difficult by the fact that, in TLP’s penultimate paragraph, we read: “He who understands me finally recognizes my propositions as nonsensical,” as rungs of a “ladder” that “he must so to speak throw away . . . after he has climbed up on it.” Different responses to this infamous remark (including ignoring it) have always played an important role in the interpretation of TLP, and recent discussion of TLP has been dominated by one in particular, that of so-called “resolute” readings (and by responses to that response). Exactly what it is for a reading of TLP to be “resolute” is a controversial issue, but one central commitment is a rejection of the notion that TLP’s propositions, though nonsensical, are somehow meant to convey certain inexpressible philosophical insights. Discussion of what one might call the more “material” topics of TLP—logic, ontology, subjectivity, etc.—continues intensely. But the debate between “resolute” readers and their critics concerning the kind of work TLP is (and the kinds of objectives it sets for itself) currently provides—some feel, unhelpfully—a shaping context for much of that discussion. In what follows, the literature is divided up into a number of distinct categories; but, as will be apparent, there is a certain artificiality to many of the distinctions in question. Readers should take care to read the commentary that accompanies each set of citations: one will find references to other relevant items listed for various reasons under other headings. Readers ought not to assume that the topics with fewest citations “of their own” are less intensively discussed or that these particular citations are the most important for the topics in question. (The literature in this area is, of course, large and has burgeoned in recent years; in constructing this bibliography I have had the benefit of the views of a number of colleagues and I would like to thank Cora Diamond, Oskari Kuusela, Adrian Moore, Ian Proops, Peter Sullivan and Daniel Whiting.)

Introductory Works

Wittgenstein himself provided no introduction to the Tractatus, and he saw in Russell’s little more than “superficiality and misunderstanding” (letter to Russell, 6 May 1920, in Wittgenstein 2008, cited under Primary Sources). The Tractatus is a forbidding book, and anyone attempting an introduction has a tough job on their hands. The best known “introduction” (Anscombe 1971, cited under General Overviews) is far from introductory, but there are several worthwhile books that are. Kenny 2006 takes in early and later Wittgenstein and is accessible, as is Pears 1985. Particularly well thought of is Morris 2008; White 2006 also has its fans. None of the existing introductions to TLP belongs to the “resolute” camp (see Resolute Approaches).

  • Kenny, Anthony. Wittgenstein. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 2006.

    An engaging and clear introduction to both the early and the later Wittgenstein.

  • Morris, Michael. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Tractatus. London: Routledge, 2008.

    A recent, comprehensive, and well-thought-of introduction.

  • Pears, David Francis. Wittgenstein. 2d ed. London: Fontana, 1985.

    More accessible than the now better-known Pears 1987 (cited under General Overviews).

  • White, Roger M. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: A Readers’ Guide. New York: Continuum, 2006.

    A clear, careful, step-by-step guide to the text.

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