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Wittgenstein on Ethics:
A Struggle Towards Perfection

by V. Prabhu[1]

This paper attempts to position Wittgenstein's views on ethical values as a struggle towards perfection between his existential predicament and philosophical commitment. Wittgenstein's position regarding the nature of values is singular; where one can see the constant turmoil exhibited between his philosophical (rational) thought process, and his existential struggle. The struggle he had was with finding the meaning of life, of his existential situation but he was unable to rationally explain the universal human predicament. Unlike other philosophers, who view that values do not have universality, Wittgenstein strongly believed that they have such a status. But at the same time, his technique of language and philosophical justification did not give him scope to universalize it. Thus, this paper aims to show how his views on values are a constant attempt to bridge the gap between the two.

There are two stages in Wittgenstein's thoughts — earlier and later — with respect to language. In his earlier approach to language, he had clearly laid down the criteria for a sentence to be of sense. In the Tractatus (his earlier work) the essence of language is assumed to reside in its fact-stating function. Those sentences that cannot fulfill these criteria are termed as nonsensical, under which religious, cultural, ethical and all other value based and metaphysical sentences fall. He relegated them to the realm of 'mystical', that which cannot be brought under the purview of language, i.e., communication.

Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus made a number of gnomic remarks about values. In Tractatus, Wittgenstein held that there are no values in the world, for there are no propositions to mirror the values of the world. All values, the meaning of the world and of life, are in some sense stand outside the reality (world). It follows that values cannot be expressed in propositions, for there are no ethical propositions. To quote Wittgenstein:

If there is any value that does have value, it must be outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental.[2]

According to his Tractatus conception of language, no value exists in the world. If anything exists in the world, it has no value. In that context, he says that ethics cannot be put into words, because ethical attributes cannot alter facts. They can only alter one's own world, but not the world shared by all of us. Therefore, they are ineffable. They belong to the realm of mystical.

A statement is nonsensical when it cannot be verified empirically or when it is not analytic (tautology). Those statements that cannot fulfill either of the two criteria are termed as nonsensical. As a matter of fact, in his preface to Tractatus, Wittgenstein mentions that anything that lies beyond the limits of language will simply be treated as nonsense. However, we cannot simply draw a conclusion that Wittgenstein did not show any interest in these subjects. The statements concerning these subjects may be treated nonsensical, because any attempt to explain them in terms of truth-functional language results in a miserable failure. This is clear from the following statement of Wittgenstein:

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.[3]

Whether Wittgenstein was concerned about that which he described as nonsense was a contentious issue for some period of time but it is almost for certain now that he was very deeply bothered about it. Many thinkers believe that Tractatus is basically a metaphysical work. Suresh Chandra opines thus:

Tractatus is primarily an essay in Metaphysics, and only secondarily that it is concerned with language, i.e. the meanings of the words and sentences. He is primarily concerned with reality, and only secondarily concerned with language. He is first a metaphysician then a philosopher of language. And his metaphysics has influenced his views on language. Therefore any understanding of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language by delinking it with his transcendentalism will be an utter failure. His transcendentalism is a necessary presupposition of his philosophy of language.[4]

Wittgenstein himself was of the view that his work has to be understood from a transcendental viewpoint. In one of his letters to Ludwig Ficker, he claimed his work Tractatus to be an ethical one.[5] To understand Wittgenstein's contention regarding the ethical, thereby transcendental nature of Tractatus, we have to look into some other source of information that includes his life and thought. Wittgenstein's enigmatic life style and his constant botheration about leading an ethical life gives the impression that he was more concerned with what he termed as 'mystical' rather than what is not mystical in his Tractatus.

To substantiate this view we can quote Wittgenstein's remark in his letter to Ludwig von Ficker:

My work consists of two parts; of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one.'[6]

It is clear that Wittgenstein in Tractatus maintained a distinction between what can be said and what cannot be said. Such a distinction is logically necessary, as,

It must set limits to what can be thought; and, in doing so, to what cannot be thought... It will signify what cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said.[7]

But contrary to logical positivist's claim, Wittgenstein was concerned with that which cannot be said. Interpreters of Wittgenstein's philosophy such as Tilghman held the view that Wittgenstein's 'purpose in making these distinctions was to emphasize the importance of that area he called the mystical and to preserve it from the tyranny of the sciences, not to dismiss it.'[8] One can make a distinction between the attitude of Logical Positivists and that of Wittgenstein towards life. To the former, what matters in life is anything that can be spoken about significantly; but to the latter what is significant in life is that which cannot be spoken about.

However, the tacit dimension of the work certainly reveals the emotional side of his life. Of course, no one would openly claim that his work is a treatise on ethics. But his inner urge is to look for those transcendental aspects of life that exist outside the purview of this world of facts. It was his wish to make Tractatus a treatise on ethics. This is revealed from his personal letter written to Ludwig von Ficker in 1919 incidentally after the publication of Tractatus. Wittgenstein writes in his letter:

The point of the book is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I'll write to you now because they might be a key for you.[9]

Perhaps this was his intention. Now it poses a problem to the reader. How can one defend Tractatus as a treatise on ethics? If we concede the point of Wittgenstein, we must ask ourselves in what sense it is ethical. As an answer to our query, Wittgenstein remarks:

The ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I'm convinced that strictly speaking it can only be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of that which many are babbling today, I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it.[10]

One who is familiar with Wittgenstein's writings on these topics can come across a number of expressions such as goodness, value, life, God's will, and so on. As a matter of fact, he was very critical of those who tried to find meanings of these expressions in this world of facts. Obviously, Wittgenstein did not want to equate values with facts. His argument is that if the values can exist in this world of facts, then they are no more values. In other words, the world of facts being logical in its structure, cannot accommodate anything that goes beyond the laws of logic. Hence, according to Tractatus, there is no value in the world since all facts and all propositions representing the facts are all on the same level. All value, the meaning of the world and of life, in some sense stands outside the world. It follows from that values cannot be expressed in propositions. Consequently, there are no propositions of ethics.

The mystical nature suggests that they are not easily comprehensible. Wittgenstein says:

What is eternal and important is often hidden from man by an impenetrable veil. He knows: there is something under there but he cannot see it. The veil reflects the daylight.[11]

To know the importance of these values is, for Wittgenstein, not a matter of 'understanding' in terms of science, but it is a matter of seeing beneath the veil. They need a different sort of perception and treatment. The values therefore, for Wittgenstein, need a transcendental treatment. He opined that:

The problems of life are insoluble on the surface and can only be solved in depth. They are insoluble on the surface dimension.[12]

Wittgenstein, the earlier and later, strongly held that neither the science nor even philosophy was able to grasp these essential concerns. According to Tilghman:

Both the preface to the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations... suggest that Wittgenstein's mind was occupied by the thought that modern technical progress, whether in science or philosophy, has not come to grips with our moral concerns.[13]

This shows that he is bothered more about his existential concerns, than about his scientific knowledge. For him, to solve the problems of life and to 'see' the 'thing' under the veil is important in his life.

According to him, values are something absolute. Therefore, they cannot be reduced to facts. Consequently, they cannot be expressed in terms of propositions. At the same time, Wittgenstein was much concerned about this issue. His very attempt to deliver a lecture on the nature of ethical values itself is an indication that Wittgenstein was serious about moral issues. His lecture on ethics also reveals why he distrusted systematic treatment of ethics. In this lecture, he did not talk of ethics in the normal sense by giving a code of conduct or having a discussion on the code of conduct. But, he speaks in a broader sense in which he includes issues like 'what is valuable', 'what makes life worth living', 'the most essential part of what is generally called aesthetics' and like.[14] He held that ethics as an absolute value manifests itself in certain ways in one's own experience. But it is the proclivity of the human mind to express this experience through linguistic expression that results in miserable failure. The reason is that such experiences cannot be overtly exhibited. Philip Shields says:

Absolute values are incompatible with language because they presume to transcend the arbitrarily predetermined conditions that make language possible. The only expressions of value, which make sense, are relative expressions of value, and they are not really about value because they can be reformulated as expressions of mere facts.[15]

They are purely the internal matters of the individual. Therefore, any attempt to make one's internal experiences public through the medium of language bound to be nonsensical. Wittgenstein gives an example in his 'Lecture on Ethics' about an event of lying, he says: 'I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better.' As a reaction against this, we would say something like, 'Well, you ought to want to behave better.' Wittgenstein calls this 'an absolute judgement of value.'[16] But he knows very well that they cannot be reduced to statement of facts. Hence, they are nonsense, though Wittgenstein is very sympathetic towards such a value statement. Therefore, Wittgenstein writes:

My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk on Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.[17]

From the above passage of Wittgenstein, it is clear that ethics cannot be treated as a science. Hence, it does not yield any knowledge. Consequently, we do not make any claims to knowledge in the field of ethics. Since all our claims to knowledge are expressed through propositions, there are no ethical propositions. Although his contemporaries held that ethics is a moral science, Wittgenstein was critical of such an attitude. Though Wittgenstein regarded ethics as a realm in which nothing can be said, there is no let up in his deep concern for moral problems. In his personal life Wittgenstein always struggled in overcoming the temptations presented by his pride and vanity.

Here we can see the struggle experienced by Wittgenstein. On one side, he cannot propose any moral theories or value hierarchies as it is beyond the scope of philosophy. On the other side, he always believed that there is universality in values. These values do not just belong to the realm of human beings and he strongly held that man could not be the measure of values. This struggle is exhibited in his writings. Hence, Wittgenstein throughout in his writings concentrated on the 'transcendental' nature of values and on the impossibility of holding on to a theory of values or finding the essence of any value. According to Philip Shields:

There is something about the notion of 'the will of God' which he thinks is crucial and sadly lacking in our modern view of life. By evoking 'the will of God' Wittgenstein is suggesting that in an important sense man is not the measure of all things, the world and our forms of life are not of our own making, and there are standards thrust upon us which are not of our own choosing.[18]
On the one hand, just as a judgement of relative value is not really about value, an anthropocentric ethics would not really be about Ethics, because it could always be reduced to a description of the human activities that fulfill the conditions set by a particular preexisting form of life. Thus, for Wittgenstein, Ethics must still reflect absolute judgements of value, or in other words, it must reflect something like 'the will of God.'[19]

In 1930, Wittgenstein said: 'What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics. Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.'[20] This view is further substantiated from the following statement of Wittgenstein: 'You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other. The good is outside the space of facts.'[21]

Thus, Wittgenstein maintained that any value, for that matter, could only be articulated within a form of life. And it means to obey the rule and for him it is obeying blindly. And if one does not partake in such a form of life, there is no way one can explain the significance of the value, be it ethics or aesthetics or any other value. That is, universal account of values is not possible. But Wittgenstein personally lived with such a conviction that values exist in a different realm altogether, independent of subjective attitudes, resulting in a constant struggle in his life, particularly when it comes to the question of ethical values and moral perfection. In a sense, maybe he wanted to show the importance of values in the human life by the way he led, than by proposing theories.


1. Senior Lecturer, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati

2. Wittgenstein, Ludwig., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (TLP) trans. C. K. Ogden. London: Routledge, 1922, sections.6.42&6.421

3. TLP, section.6.432

4. Suresh Chandra, Wittgenstein: New Perspectives, (New Delhi: 2002), p.34.

5. C.G.Luckhardt (Ed.), Wittgenstein Sources and Perspectives, (Sussex: 1979), p.94.

6. Ibid.

7. TLP, sections. 4.114 & 4.115.

8. B.R. Tilghman, Wittgenstein, Ethics and Aesthetics, (London: 1991), p.17

9. C.G.Luckhardt op.cit., p.94.

10. Wittgenstein Ludwig, Philosophical Remarks, eds. G. H. von Wright and G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, (Oxford:1953), p.7.

11. Wittgenstein, Ludwig , Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright, trans. P. Winch, Oxford: Blackwell, 1980, p.80

12. Ibid., p.74.

13. B.R. Tilghman, op.cit., p.19.

14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'Lecture on Ethics' in The Philosophical Review, Vol. LXXIV, 1965, pp.4-5; hereafter cited as LE.

15. Philip R. Shields, Logic and Sin in the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Chicago:1993), p.42.

16. LE, p.5.

17. Ibid., p.4.

18. Philip R. Shields, op.cit., p.36.

19. Philip R. Shields, op.cit., p.43.

20. CV, p.3.

21. Ibid.

© V. Prabhu 2007

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V. Prabhu
Senior Lecturer
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati