Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Ladder Illusion

“Pay attention to the patter by means of which we convince someone of a truth of a mathematical proposition. It tells us something about the function of this conviction. I mean the patter by which intuition is awakened.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein


For Rudolf Otto, silence anticipates the numinous, the fearful and fascinating mystery of the holy and that which is ineffable. When it comes to that which cannot be described, Wittgenstein says silence is the answer:

“Whereof what cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Presumably, when we speak, write, and even read, we do so in a way that perpetually illuminates what it means to be a human being. For Wittgenstein, there is a dark shadow hovering over our ability to see the world rightly:

“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” (6.54). 

Ludwig Wittgenstein - Tractatus Logico PhilosophicusIf each proposition that Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus puts forth is a rung on the ladder to enlightenment, then what Wittgenstein says, here, is alarming. Every proposition he put forth is retracted on the final page where he instructs us to throw them all away — or at the very least, recognize them as senseless. 

In this brief passage, the second to last proposition of his entire work, Wittgenstein invokes the spirit of Soren Kierkegaard, specifically a tactic Kierkegaard employs in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.” Writing under the pen name, Johannes Climacus, which he borrowed from a Greek monk who wrote a book called, Ladder of Paradise, Kierkegaard similarly revokes all that he put forth in his own work. 

“The Tractatus and the Postscript each conclude with a revocation. Wittgenstein writes that anyone who understands him will recognize his propositions as nonsensical and will use them as steps to climb beyond them, after which he will throw them away. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, says that everything in the Postscript is to be understood in such a way that it is revoked, adding that to write a book and revoke it is not the same as not writing it. According to Conant, Climacus and Wittgenstein constructed these elaborate works that seem to be meaningful in order to show how prone we are to the illusion of meaning where there is none. Climacus, in Conant’s view, exposes the folly of thinking that philosophy can clarify what it is to be a Christian and Wittgenstein shows the emptiness of thinking that there might be something ineffable that transcends logic and language.”

These confusing moves show just how sensitive these thinkers are to their insights being mistaken for philosophical doctrine. These final utterances affirm a powerful current in Wittgenstein’s thought – simply, that one cannot use language to explain language: “That which expresses itself in language, language cannot represent” (4.121). This is rather problematic since in a previous passage, he just declared philosophy’s task is to clarify thought:

“The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of philosophical propositions, but to make propositions clear. Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.” (4.112)

Each rung of Wittgenstein’s metaphorical ladder is placed in such away that as we ascend, we recognize the logical placement of one step after another. The problem with the ladder metaphor is in its rigidity – when we say this is how we climb, we approach philosophy as doctrine. This is not only dangerous for Wittgenstein, but deeply problematic. 

Instead of doctrine, what if we approach philosophy as therapy, celebrating the dynamic ways in which each rung is used for a specific function? We are reminded of Nietzsche’s bold claim that truths are illusions about which we have forgotten that that is what they are. If we pretend the rungs on the ladder are universal propositions, while forgetting we invented them in the first place to explain the world, then we really ought to throw the ladder away. If we remind ourselves those rungs were placed there to describe a specific ascent, we have reason for holding onto it. 

In a beautiful work, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, in which the author conceives a different kind of ladder, Helene Cixous writes: 

“I was saying: this H, this ladder is writing. This is how I figure it: the ladder is neither immobile nor empty. It is animated. It incorporates the movement it arouses and inscribes. My ladder is frequented. I say my because of my love for it: it’s climbed by those authors I feel a mysterious affinity for; affinities, choices, are always secret.” 

Not only can we hold onto this version of the ladder, we can celebrate it. With the gentle humility of Wittgenstein, and the perpetual motion of Helene Cixous, we might have a wholly different ladder, ascending to heights we can barely imagine.  

Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Ladder Illusion