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Wittgenstein's Picture Theory in the Tractatus

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Wittgenstein created the picture theory of meaning in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a way to look at how design and the mechanics of artistic drawing are translated from an interaction with the physical world as well as to expound on his interests in ethics and the mythical state of existence. This paper explores Wittgenstein’s picture theory as it is explained within his work, Tractatus, in order to understand the true dynamics of what he was trying to propose and how it is still relevant today.

Before delving into the obtuse philosophical ideas that Wittgenstein puts forth in his first book, the Tractatus, it is important to take a moment to first get a sense of why the book was written and why it seemed to be so difficult to digest. This book was written while Wittgenstein was serving with the Austrian army during World War I and whilst a prison of war in Italy (Jago 2006: 1). The idea of the book sprung out of his work related to the “analysis of complex sentences into symbolic components” (Cashell 2005: 6). His theory was that “if a proto-sign was discovered to represent the universal form of the general proposition, then such a sign would somehow also demonstrate the logical structure underlying language: that which enables language to describe…a reality apparently indifferent to our description of it” (Cashell 2005: 6). His conclusion that “the relational form (logo) co-ordinating thought, language and the world was pictorial in nature” (Cashell 2005: 6), setting the foundation for the Tractatus.

The book is written in a condensed writing style that reflects the depth and complexity of what Wittgenstein was trying to express in as logical manner as possible (Jago 2006: 1). Wittgenstein divided the book up into a series of numbered paragraphs that represented seven integer propositions and created an outline of the book (Hauptli 2006: 6). The Tractatus was the vehicle that Wittgenstein used to explain his picture theory.

It is important to note that the picture theory did not just mean visual images. The theory also incorporated language, music, art, and engineering. Primarily, Wittgenstein relied on engineering, or projection drawing, as the basis for the picture theory because it seemed like the easiest way to explain his ideas (Biggs 2000: 7). His main objective in creating the Tractatus was to “determine the limit of expression of thought” and “establish the notion of the projective form in his picture theory” by making “a logical correspondence between the language and reality” (Actus 2007: 2-3).

The picture theory is defined as “a theory of intentionality, i.e. aboutness” (Mandik 2003: 2). The premise of this theory attempted to make “an explicit distinction between what can be said and what can be shown” (Biggs 2000: 7). In simplifying what he was trying to say, the basic idea of the theory “says the function of language is to allow us to picture things” (Jago 2006: 1). Wittgenstein was fascinated with the idea of how to achieve pure realism in visual, artistic, and language mediums (Mandik 2003: 1). It is about using these mediums to create “the identification of aboutness with resemblance: something is about that which it resembles” (Mandik 2003: 2). Everything is based on the fact that observations are made of “how paintings and photographs represent their subjects,” meaning they have the properties of those objects but have the inability to be the same as those objects (Mandik 2003: 3). Since anything can resemble a number of objects without being those objects, there is much that is open to interpretation just like words used in sentences can have a lot of meanings (Mandik 2003: 4). However, Wittgenstein did suggest that there had to be a logical connection between the reality and the picture projected of that reality (Actus 2007: 1).

In delving farther into the idea of what can be said and what can be shown, many who have studied the picture theory believe that it is based on the analogy of depiction where “an engineering drawing is derived by means of projection from the object, and the way in which language and/or thought is derived from the world around us” (Biggs 2000: 1). This analogy does not mean that the world is like the representation but instead is based on an interpretation of what the artist or mechanical engineer sees from their perspective (Biggs 2002: 2). This means that “language or other forms of representation stand in a relationship to the objects that they represent, and this relationship is analogous to the relationship that subsists between pictures and objects” (Biggs 2000: 7). Wittgenstein’s depiction of performance spoke about the ability to “reconstruct an object from its representation, to reconstruct a thought from a sentence, etc.” (Biggs 2000: 4). It is important to emphasize here that “what a picture means is independent of whether it is a truthful representation or not” (Jago 2006: 1). What is more important is the idea “that the lines in the diagram are related together in a way that mimics the way the things they correspond to are related” (Jago 2006: 1).

In this way, he made the distinction between showing and saying (Mandik 2003: 1). It is important that pictures showed something instead of said something, doing this through grammar, form, or logic within the human and natural languages (Hauptli 2006: 3). Instead of simply trying to interpret what the world appears to look like, Wittgenstein took it to the next level by trying to “operate within the model and draw conclusions about properties in the world” (Biggs 2000: 3). Labelled the “theory of description, he elucidates logically the essential situation when the languages describe the reality” (Actus 2007: 3). This is where the “thing is whether it keeps a proper (right) relation to the reality (Actus 2007: 3). This involved actual mathematical calculations rather than simple depictions and moved the person toward “graphical statics and dynamic models” (Biggs 2000: 3).

In carrying this thought process over into the world of language, Wittgenstein then believed that a method could be constructed that enabled decisions related to ethical matters and other intangible ideals (Biggs 2000: 3). Overall, Wittgenstein was looking to achieve “a perfect language” (Biggs 2000: 6). His theory of language says that “sentence work like pictures: their purpose is also to picture possible situations” (Jago 2006: 2). His philosophy was not concerned with mental pictures that come from language but relied on “a more abstract notion of a picture, as something that either agrees or disagrees with any way the world might have been, and which says, this is the way things actually are” (Jago 2006: 2). In other words, “For sentences to have sense, they can not depend exclusively on the sense of other sentences – ultimately there must be elementary propositions which get their sense not from other sentences, but rather directly from the world” (Hauptli 2006: 3). To Wittgenstein, the world is comprised of “simples, which are named by certain words” that are put into a certain number of combinations that create reality (Hauptli 2006: 3).

This other viewpoint on Wittgenstein’s picture theory has become known as the “form-of-life,” which was about the “general relationship of notation and conceivability” (Biggs 2000: 7). This invoked the idea that Wittgenstein proposed that humans try to “live from the nature of the world” rather than just imitating or depicting it (Biggs 2000: 7). This would allow humans to “understand the reality of life” which is currently unexplainable because it is hard to see directly (Actus 2007: 3). Going back to the original simplified idea about the theory, language then becomes a way for humans to get in touch and experience the true reality of life and nature.

It is this idea of being connected to nature on another level that suggests that Wittgenstein’s picture theory also included his ideas about and interest in the metaphysical. In fact, Albert Levi concluded that the Tractatus represented “a picture of traditional metaphysical dualism (Cashell 2005: 3). This is evident in his metaphor of the eye in which “it can see only that which his other than itself” as he says that “from nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seem from an eye” (Mandik 2003: 7). In connection to metaphysical beliefs, Wittgenstein “took language, logic, world and self to be coextensive” and concluded the Tractatus by stating that anyone will truly understand the world once they move beyond his limited suggestions about the world (Mandik 2003: 8-9).

His comments here at the end of Tractatus emphasised his belief that “all philosophical reflection is meaningless” (Jago 2006: 4). Wittgenstein illustrated the difference between that meaninglessness and what he was attempting to do in this book by showing his readers things instead of attempting to draw conclusions for them (Jago 2006: 4). In this way, his book concludes with his interest in the mystic and metaphysical, taking the reader on a journey through his thoughts and creating pictures through the language he uses within the book to show instead of tell.


Actus. (2007). Wittgenstein and his picture theory. Available at: http://www.actus.org/witt.html.

Biggs, M.A.R. (2000). Visualisation and Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus.” Faculty of Art and Design, University of Hertfordshire, 1-9.

Cashell, K. (2005). Attempt to understand Wittgenstein’s picture theory of the proposition. Available at: http://www.ul.ie/~philos/vol2/cashell.html.

Hauptli, B. W. (2006). Hauptli’s introduction to the Tractatus. Available at: http://www.fiu.edu/~hauptili/IntroductiontoWittgenstein’sTractatus.html.

Jago, M. (2006). Pictures and nonsense. Philosophy Now. Available at: http://www.philosophynow.org/issue58/58jago.htm.

Mandik, P. (2003). Picturing, showing, and solipsism in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Available at: http://www.petemandik.com/philosophy/papers/witt.html.

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