Understanding the Mysticism of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

by epistemicepistles

This epistle is addressed specifically against uncharitable blinkered readings of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.  The catch cry; ‘analytic philosopher’ has unfortunately been adopted by many to exclusionary short-sited ends. Such a view suffers from a lack of feeling for the mystical subject matter that the Tractatus exhibits. In what follows i shall construct a possible (hopefully plausible) reading of Wittgenstein’s mystical project, and argue that such a reading of the Tractatus provides a coherent response to the central Paradox of the Tractatus. 


Understanding Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and evaluating the alleged mystical element of the text, has been an ongoing topic of contention and confusion since its publication. I argue that properly understanding Wittgenstein’s intention in the Tractatus requires conceiving of the Tractatus as a mystical project, intended to acquaint us with mystical experience, rather than an attempt to communicate analytic ‘truths’. Whether or not we agree with the Tractatus’s mystical views, to undervalue the mystical in reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is to misconceive Wittgenstein’s project. I’ll outline this argument in three steps.

Firstly I consider in passing the incoherence of responses to the Tractatus paradox which hold Wittgenstein’s intention is to communicate truths. I present an alternative ‘no-truths-at-all’ interpretation on which we can understand the Tractatus as describing a non-philosophical ‘mystical project’.

Secondly by pulling together what I consider to be the Tractatus’s mystical project, we see how mysticism encapsulates Wittgenstein’s notions on ethics, logic and metaphysics. This reading of the Tractatus gains credibility i believe, through outlining how this mystical project shares essential commonalities with historical characterisations of ‘genuine mystical experiences’.

Thirdly and finally I consider the value of the mystical perspective, how our bias for or against such ‘mystical knowledge’ will be based and biased by whether we can experientially relate to it. Further that our attitude towards this mysticism is affected by the analytic methodology’s limited ability to make sense of, or grasp the key ideas presented in this mystical project.

Responses to the Paradox of the Tractatus

The Tractatus aims to chart the limits of thought, by revealing the relationship between language and the world, what can be said and what can only be shown. Given the picture theory of meaning espoused in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein claims the only meaningful propositions are those which picture contingent states of affairs. This renders nonsensical all propositions concerning; the logical properties of language and the world; ethics, aesthetics, the meaning of life, the mystical; and philosophy itself.  If the propositions of the Tractatus itself are nonsensical this generates a serious paradox; as Wittgenstein claims: Assumption (1): “that the Tractatus communicates thoughts whose truth is unassailable and definitive.” (TLP: p. 29) But given the Tractatus’s picture theory of meaning, how can true thoughts be communicated by nonsensical pseudo-propositions? A non-sympathetic response it to say the Tractatus theory of meaning implies its own nonsensicality, we should reject it and leave it at that. Alternately several interpretations try and defend Assumption(1) – that the Tractatus communicates truths – yet still argue the Tractatus is coherent. These include the not-all-nonsense and ineffable truth readings, however these are both undermined due to the inability to isolate a coherent ‘frame’ of the Tractatus, and a misunderstanding of the nature of ‘true thoughts’ respectively.[1] However the more sympathetic reading I outline emphasises the distinction Wittgenstein makes between what cannot be said but only shown, and the notion of the mystical manifesting itself.

If we jettison assumption 1, and adopt a ‘no-truths-at-all’ interpretation, considering Wittgenstein to be self-consciously producing an incoherent text with the aim to do ‘something other’ than communicate truths. The Tractatus’s inability to be a source of propositional knowledge actually supports a reading of Wittgenstein’s intent being to bring us into acquaintance with the mystical. Consequently it is contended that Wittgenstein is aware that the theory of meaning outlined in the Tractatus is incoherent, and that it should be abandoned. This provides a means of understanding how the incoherence of the Tractatus is supposed to be elucidatory; in leaving us with a feeling of the worlds limits that amounts to acquaintance with the boundaries of ‘sense’.

What the ‘something other’ than communicating truths is, is elucidated through understanding the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein remarks “my work consists of two parts; that presented here plus all I have not written. It is this second part that is important.[2]  This second part, not written, seems to refer to something which cannot be said but only shown. In referring to the Tractatus’s propositions Wittgenstein says one must “surmount these propositions and see the world rightly” (TLP6.54) indicating again that the Tractatus intends not to convey propositional truths but to have the reader adopt another perspective on life altogether; mysticism. Mysticism provides the link with what cannot be expressed but only shown “there is indeed the inexpressible, this shows itself; it is what is mystical” (TLP6.5222).  ‘Showing’ seems inextricably linked with an experience, ‘seeing the world rightly’ (TLP6.54). And on a mystical reading this is fitting as where analytic philosophy aims to produce propositions, which can be assessed for truth, mysticism involves having a mystical experience which ‘shows’ you how things are, acquaints us with the limits of the world (TLP6.45).

One may object; asking how can we justify rejecting assumption (1); that Wittgenstein himself claimed that the truths communicated in the Tractatus were ‘unassailable and definitive’?  I argue there are reasonable grounds for disregarding (1),  given Wittgenstein wrote this as a preface to the book, he could hardly declare that the whole book and the preface is nonsensical, given he intends the readers to adopt the philosophical perspective espoused in order to later abandon it in recognising its incoherence. And if you don’t find this compelling, it can instead be argued that there is a sense in which the truth of the Tractatus’s propositions are definitive; as in Wittgenstein’s view the truths of the Tractatus cannot be undermined except by means of the incoherence which renders all philosophy incoherent, the limit of all philosophy.

Outlining the mystical ‘project’ of the Tractatus

Having argued for a mystical interpretation of the Tractatus I should spell out exactly what this mystical project amounts to.  A clear way to structure this ‘mystical project’ is to describe how these beliefs can all emerge from a single ‘mystical experiential’ realm, and how these are characteristic of ‘genuine mystical experiences.’ Russel’s four characteristics of the mystics ‘beliefs’ in ‘mysticism and logic’[3] provide a good starting point.

Firstly Russel claims the mystic experiences (1) a belief in having insight into reality; which is das mystiche for Wittgenstein, an inexpressible feeling of having ‘solved the problems of life’.  This is arrived at by the second characteristic (2) A conviction in the unity and indivisibility of reality, which is brought out in Wittgenstein’s seeing the world as ‘a limited whole’ (TLP6.45). Wittgenstein holds that to have experience of the world at all requires grasping the general nature of reality; which Wittgenstein claims requires the experience presupposed by classical logic, that something ‘is’(TLP6.124). Not knowledge of the truth of an existential propositions but an experience of objects. This logical experience is part of the mystical experience that ‘there is a world’ given only with experience that something is; are we aware that there are objects whose possibilities of combination mean there is a world for those possibilities to be realised in.

That ‘there is a world’ in turn connects with Wittgenstein’s ‘ethical experience,’ which parallels Russel’s view (3) that ethics involves acceptance of the world; this is as the mystical experience of there being a world leads to an attitude towards the world; the individual may finds life becomes clearer or that he remains in doubt whether life has sense; distinguishing the happy from the unhappy man. The ‘ethical reward’ for the man of good conscience is in the addition of meaning to his existence, due to his acceptance of the world’s existence and non-attachment to the contingency of the life of one person (i.e. himself). As when Wittgenstein states “I am my world” (TLP5.621) we can take him to be refusing to identify himself with a sole life but rather associate with the whole world.

This goes further to rejecting association with the future and past of one particular individual. Similar to Russel’s (4) Feeling that time is unreal; expressed by Wittgenstein’s conviction that the ‘eternal life’ belongs to the man who lives in the present (TLP6.45). As in the mystical experience; space and time are merely aspects of the world that are contemplated and accepted. In this way there is an experience of ‘timelessness’. The similarities between Russel’s account, and views espoused in the Tractatus are striking, similarly the distinct mystical ‘beliefs’ can be seen as belonging to a single realm of experience.

It seems the Tractatus describes a ‘genuine mystical experience’ – or at least is characteristic of commonly portrayed mystical experiences. The well respected characterisation of nature mysticism by Professor Zaehner[4] comes close to the Russelian and Wittgenstein’s description above. Including; intense communion with nature; abdication of the ego; a sense of passing beyond morality and emphasis on the sense of ‘naked existence’.[5] The Marks of the experience referred to by Wittgenstein are common place in accounts of mystical experience.

Evaluating the Tractatus’s Mystical Project

So should we adopt this ‘mystical’ project?   As argued, mysticism fosters a spirit of reverence for existence, and many have contended that elements of wisdom are found in mystical experiences. Whether we see value in this ‘mystical project’ will necessarily be a matter of whether we can relate experientially to some of the experiences Wittgenstein describes, including on timelessness, eternity, living in the present and the nature of ethics.

Our hesitancy in engaging with mysticism may in part stem from the narrow analytic methodology we usually adopt in understanding the world; seeking solely truth-evaluable propositions. This view necessarily suffers from a lack of feeling for the mystical subject matter that Wittgenstein wishes to ‘show’. It is in part for this reason that Wittgenstein outlines a nonsensical theory of meaning, to have us abandon the analytic approach, and recognise something beyond propositional truths. However clearly the mystical experiences the Tractatus ‘relates’ may be incommunicable by any means, not only the analytic approach. The Tractatus requires a mystical reading, and perhaps we’re in the wrong place to fully draw out this reading; but in lieu of shamanistic rituals, deep jhana meditation states and potent hallucinogens, the best we can do is try and suggestively show this mystical experience and the ‘knowledge’ Wittgenstein claims is attainable.

In constructing a possible reading of Wittgenstein’s mystical project, I have showed that such a reading of the Tractatus provides a coherent response to the central Paradox of the Tractatus. Further it has been argued that the Tractatus’s notions on ethics, logic and metaphysics are characteristic of ‘genuine mystical experiences’ which supports a mystical reading of the Tractatus. The attitude we adopt towards mysticism should by no means be dismissive.  Whether or not the mysticism of the Tractatus is fully explicable, and whether or not we adopt Wittgenstein’s mystical attitude, we should certainly recognise the strong grounds for a mystical reading of the Tractatus, as not doing so would result in a misconceived superficial reading. Even for those not experientially acquainted with the mystical – for who ‘the reality or unreality of the mystic’s world’ is unknown – should follow Russel’s lead: ‘I have no wish to claim (mysticism) reveals no genuine insight.’[6]


–         Atkinson, J, R., The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings, Routledge, 2009.

–         Child, W., 2011, Wittgenstein, Routledge.

–         Fogelin R, 1987, Wittgenstein  London: Routledge.

–         Morris, Dodd. 2007, Mysticism and Nonsense in the Tractatus, Journal compilation, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2007.

–         Morris, M., 2008,  Wittgenstein and the Tractatus (Routledge) Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks.

–         McGuinness, B., 1966, The Mysticism of the Tractatus Reviewed work.  The Philosophical Review, Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review.

–         Russel, B., 1917, Mysticism and logic and other essays, Published London : G. Allen & Unwin.

–         WhiteR., 2006 Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:A Reader’s Guide, London: Continuum.


[1] The counter arguments undermining these interpretations are not outlined here as this essay is not exclusively concerned with responding to the Tractatus paradox. full refutations of these views, Morris, M, Dodd, J., 2007, Mysticism and Nonsense in the Tractatus

[2]  Letter to Ludwig Ficker of circa September-October 1919, tr. McGuinness

[3]  Russel, B., 1917, Mysticism and logic and other essays Published London : G. Allen & Unwin

[4] An in-depth comparison of Wittgenstein’s mysticism and recorded mystical experiences can be found in Mcguiness’s ‘Mysticism and the Tractatus’.

[5] A parallel exists here between Wittgenstein and Huxley’s experiences under the influence of Mescalin; in which the phenomenal worlds seems far from unreal the subject has an intensified sense of reality.

[6] Russel, B Mysticism and logic.