‘The world is all that is the case’

Pearson asked:

‘The world is all that is the case’ (Wittgenstein). I am struggling to see the point of this. Isn’t it obvious? What is the case, is the case, and what is not the case is not the case. How things are in the world depends on what is the case. End of discussion.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Wittgenstein is not trying to make some deep philosophical point here. He does not expect us to lean back in our chairs and say ‘Wow man, the world is all that is the case. I never realised that before.

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from which this quote came is a discussion of the connections between logic, language and the world. The point Wittgenstein is making here is roughly as follows:

1. Every language has a finite number of words.

2. Therefore the number of meaningful statements in every language is finite.

3. Statements about the world can be true of false

4. The set of true statements (which vary over time) are a complete description of our world.

So there is no point in trying to see the point of all this, it has no hidden depths. Wittgenstein was never trying to be deep. If you want to understand Tractatus then try to understand it as a whole and don’t agonise about the deep meaning of individual sentences. There is no deep meaning.

Of course in his later work he repudiated the ideas in Tractatus. As far as he was concerned it contained grave mistakes. He still kept to the idea that in philosophy the things that interest us are not hidden, they are always on the surface.


Geoffrey Klempner

End of discussion indeed. Wittgenstein’s ultimate conclusion is that, ‘The correct method of philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science… and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions’ (Tractatus 6.53).

What would be a ‘metaphysical’ (and therefore meaningless) proposition? According to Wittgenstein, any statement to do with values, aesthetic or ethical, for example. No meaningful statement, true or false, can be made about the value of a work of art or the goodness of an ethical action.

Less obvious, perhaps, is something that we believe about our experience, that it is a fact that I am here, or that the time is now, and not some other time. Any attempt to explain the meaning of such ‘indexical reference’ ultimately resolves into an empty tautology. (I challenge this view in my book Naive Metaphysics.)

Although few analytic philosophers today would count themselves as adherents to the strict semantics of the Tractatus, many accept, explicitly or implicitly, that the meaning of a proposition — of ‘something said’ — is given by ‘truth conditions’, i.e. the factual conditions under which what the proposition states is either the case or not the case. So you could say that, despite Wittgenstein’s later reservations, the core idea of the Tractatus has survived up to the present day.


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