Tactility in the Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus

I’ve written before about the later writings of Wittgenstein and the metaphor of the word as a manual tool. However, in Ludwig’s first published work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his theory of language is that sentences represent states of affairs, the so-called picture theory of language. Although he later abandoned that viewpoint for the tool-based one, I was intrigued by this historically significant switch-up, so I read through the Tractatus with special attention to its visual and tactile metaphors. Here are a few examples.

Each thing is, as it were, in a space of possible states of affairs. This space I can imagine empty, but I cannot imagine the thing without the space.
A spatial object must be situated in infinite space. (A spatial point is an argument-place.)
A speck in the visual field, though it need not be red, must have some colour: it is, so to speak, surrounded by colour-space. Notes must have some pitch, objects of the sense of touch some degree of hardness, and so on.

This is a prime example of a sensory metaphor used throughout the book. Objects are described in a visual way, as being seen as situated within a possibility space or belief space. They themselves have extension, but we perceive them as taking up some amount of the visual field (surrounded by context, which here is represented as other possibilities for their position or physical attributes).

Pictorial form is the possibility that things are related to one another in the same way as the elements of the picture.
That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.
It is laid against reality like a measure.
Only the end-points of the graduating lines actually touch the object that is to be measured.

Again we get a visual metaphor described in terms of physicality. How is a picture “attached” to reality? It reaches out to it. And while it touches reality, it only just touches it, in a tangential way. Wittgenstein starts with a visual image and then writes “attached”, “reaches out”, “laid against”, and “touch”—all haptic metaphors.

The pictorial relationship consists of the correlations of the picture’s elements with things.
These correlations are, as it were, the feelers of the picture’s elements, with which the picture touches reality.

Now we have moved from the picture as a “measure,” a passive geometry tool, to a picture as an agent. Not just any agent, but an agent with a capacity for haptic perception. What is a “feeler”? To me that word means a mobile extremity with sense organs which can be used to find out about the world. So, what Wittgenstein seems to be saying here is that when we generate a picture in our mind, it’s as if we are extending our hand into the world.


Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.

In other words, thoughts are like physical objects. A word envelops a thought. We have a thought and then we toss a word-robe over it and shove it onto the stage of discourse where it can interface with other enrobed thoughts.

It immediately strikes one as probable that the introduction of elementary propositions provides the basis for understanding all other kinds of proposition. Indeed the understanding of general propositions palpably depends on the understanding of elementary propositions.

Once again, a tactile metaphor (“palpably”) is used for emphasis and to indicate comprehensive understanding.


What belongs to its application, logic cannot anticipate.
It is clear that logic must not clash with its application.
But logic has to be in contact with its application.
Therefore, logic and its application must not overlap.


Is “overlap” a haptic metaphor or a visual one? It could be either, or both.

How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world.
The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution.
It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.
To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.
Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical.

To feel is to know, silently, mystically.

I was pretty surprised at how easy it seems to foresee Wittgenstein’s turn from the eye to the hand. He presents what he calls a picture theory of language, but it repeatedly leads to a description of solid objects in space, or bodies moving and feeling and contacting each other. Of course I’m reading with a very biased perspective. Not only is my goal to hunt for tactile metaphors but I also know how the story ends some 30 years later. Still, I can’t help but feel that the tactile language in the Tractatus may foreshadow the shift to come.

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