1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
Max Black (p. 27) says that this distinction is “the outstanding innovation of Wittgenstein’s ontology,” distinguishing him from all the most famous philosophers from Aristotle to the early Russell. The universe is implicitly not a thing, not something that can be referred to by a name. See Black pp. 27-28. Black takes Wittgenstein’s references to “the world” to mean the universe, explaining on p. 29 that this use is more common in German than it is in English.
Ostrow (pp. 21-22) notes that 1.1 sounds like a statement of metaphysical realism, and has been taken as such by numerous commentators, while others read him as being a kind of idealist (for instance, a solipsist). Yet 5.64 suggests that Wittgenstein rejected the realism-idealism dichotomy. On p. 23, Ostrow quotes Wittgenstein later saying to Desmond Lee that the opening of the Tractatus says that: “The world does not consist of a catalogue of things and facts about them (like a catalogue of a show)…. What the world is is given by description and not by a list of objects.” Ostrow (p. 73) says: “The logical object is not a thing, but, we might say, a way of regarding the components of our genuine propositions; it is the propositional constituent viewed in a special light.” At 4.1272 Wittgenstein calls the concept of an object a pseudo-concept.
Like 1, this remark sounds metaphysical, since a fact seems to be a certain combination of things, so relations are presented as part of the ultimate nature of the world. Atomism of a certain kind seems to be denied (to go beyond the level of things-in-relations is to go too far), but the plural of Tatsachen (facts) seems to deny the kind of all-is-one(-big-fact) metaphysics that people attribute to Bradley, et al. (quite rightly, as far as I know, which is not far). On the other hand, it could be another uninformative definition, of "the world" or of "facts." We might think that we know what facts and things are, but we should not presume too much. At A292 (B 348) Kant gives a table showing the division of the concept of nothing [des Begriffs des Nichts], and says that the division of something [Etwas] follows from this. The “object of a concept to which no assignable intuition whatsoever corresponds is = nothing.” [“der Gegenstand eines Begriffs, dem gar keine anzugebende Anschauung korrespondiert, = Nichts”] (A 290/B 347) He compares such a concept without an object to noumena, saying they cannot be reckoned among the possibilities, but must not be declared impossible. “The supreme concept with which it is customary to begin a transcendental philosophy is the division into the possible and the impossible. But since all division presupposes a concept to be divided, a still higher one is required, and this is the concept of an object in general, taken problematically, without its having been decided whether it is something or nothing.” (A 290/B 346) Cf. A 279/B 335: “the representation of an object as a thing in general is not only insufficient, but, when taken without sensible determination, and independently of any empirical condition, self-contradictory.” So, according to Kant, the very notion of a thing in general without sensible determination (is this what Wittgenstein means by ‘thing’?) is self-contradictory. If a “thing” is the object of a concept to which no assignable intuition whatsoever corresponds, then, according to Kant, we are dealing with nothing. And the concept of the thing would in that case be the concept of the nothing, something we associate with Heidegger far more than with Wittgenstein, his supposed opposite and implied enemy. But, of course, Wittgenstein’s notion of a thing might not be this at all. We simply do not know what it is, which is my main point. He certainly was not trying to say anything about Heidegger, whose Being and Time would not be published until several years after the Tractatus. But both would have been familiar with Kant’s thoughts on des Begriffs des Nichts and the problematic concept of an object in general. It is worth pointing out here that “problematic” is something of a technical term for Kant. Kant A 254/B 310: “If the objective reality of a concept cannot be in any way known, while yet the concept contains no contradiction and also at the same time is connected with other modes of knowledge that involve given concepts which it serves to limit, I entitle that concept problematic.” The concept of a noumenon (made much of by Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein’s teenage philosophical hero) is such a concept, and so the idea of a problematic concept is of great importance to Kant, and would have been well known to Wittgenstein (and Heidegger). To repeat: I am not saying that Wittgenstein meant his reader to think of Kant at this point, nor that what Kant says is right. My main point is simply that we should not be too confident that we know what ‘thing’ means, just because it is such an ordinary word. It might mean something trivial, something difficult and Kantian, or something else entirely. We simply do not know yet. (My secondary point is that we ought to take the possibility of something Kantian going on here quite seriously.)
Another way to see this is to consider the work of Wittgenstein’s main teacher, Bertrand Russell. Consider The Problems of Philosophy, the introductory philosophy book that Russell published in 1912, just when he was introducing Wittgenstein to philosophy. In this book on p. 49 “my seeing the sun” is called an object, and on p. 51 he says that: “when I am acquainted with my seeing the sun, the whole fact [NB] with which I am acquainted is ‘Self-acquainted-with-sense-datum’.” The difference between objects and facts is not commonsensical in Russell’s philosophy, and we should not simply assume that it is in Wittgenstein’s. Consider also Russell’s notion of a term in The Principles of Mathematics: “Whatever may be an object of thought, or may occur in any true or false proposition, or can be counted as one, I call a term. This, then, is the widest word in the philosophical vocabulary. I shall use as synonymous with it the words unit, individual, and entity. … A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimaera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term; and to deny that such and such a thing is a term must always be false.” (p. 43) Facts and things, it would seem, would both count as terms, and the difference between them, if any, would remain to be explained. See also Frege: “Places, instants, stretches of time, logically considered, are objects,” p. 42— “On Sinn und Bedeutung” in The Frege Reader.
Frege also has a notion of fact that is worth bearing in mind here. The only thing that can be true is the sense of sentences (as distinct from their tone, which is irrelevant to their truth). This Frege calls a thought. Thoughts are senses of sentences, but not every sense of a sentence is a thought. Thoughts are imperceptible. We may see the sun rise, but we do not in the same sense see that the sun rises. That the sun is rising, is a thought. The sentence “The sun is rising” expresses this thought. Thoughts are not external, perceptible objects, but neither are they private, subjective, individual, psychological ideas. “A third realm must be recognized.” (see The Frege Reader p. 69)
Think also of Russell in Logical Atomism. These were lectures given in early 1918, which Russell describes as “very largely concerned with explaining certain ideas which I learnt from my friend and former pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Russell had not seen or heard from Wittgenstein since August 1914. “The reason that I call my doctrine logical atomism is because the atoms that I wish to arrive at as the sort of last residue in analysis are logical atoms and not physical atoms. Some of them will be what I call “particulars”—such things as little patches of colour or sounds, momentary things—and some of them will be predicates or relations and so on. The point is that the atom I wish to arrive at is the atom of logical analysis, not the atom of physical analysis.”
In his Notebooks Wittgenstein wrote that “Properties and relations are objects too.” (16/6/1915) Anscombe says (p. 109, footnote) that he no longer holds this view in the Tractatus. If he did, it would have been “an incredible omission” not to have made it clear, and other things he says about functions and elementary propositions could not be reconciled with each other. And yet, as Ostrow notes (p. 49), in 1930-31 Wittgenstein is reported to have said that, “’Objects’ also include relations: a proposition is not two things connected by a relation. ‘Thing’ and ‘relation’ are on the same level. The objects hang as it were in a chain.” (
Anscombe also (p. 19) writes: “The world is the totality of facts—i.e. of the counterparts in reality of true propositions. And nothing but picturable situations can be stated in propositions. There is indeed much that is inexpressible—which we must not try to state, but must contemplate without words.” This “much” would then not belong to the world. Odd. She also says (p. 162): “the things that would be true if they could be said are obviously important.”
Frege asked Wittgenstein how “The world is the totality of facts” differs from “The world is everything that is the case.” Wittgenstein’s reply was that: “The meaning of these two sentences are one and the same but not the conceptions (Vorstellungen) that I associated with them when I wrote them down.” This is in Gottlob Frege “Briefe an Ludwig Wittgenstein” in Brian McGuinness and Rudolf Haller (eds) Wittenstein in Focus – Im Brennpunkt: Wittgenstein, Amsterdam: Rosopi, 1989, pp. 3-33, p. 22, quoted in Nordmann p. 124, note 70. Nordmann comments that: “Frege takes this to agree with his own distinction between sense and reference,” but this cannot be right. While Frege does indeed distinguish between what he calls (as Nordmann goes on to quote) “the actual meaning of the sentence” and “the conceptions someone associates with the sentence,” this is not the distinction he makes between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung). For Frege, Vorstellungen (conceptions or ideas) are purely, indeed necessarily, individual or private, while sense can be common property. Ideas are irrelevant, while sense determines reference. See p. 29 (p. 154 in Beaney’s reader) for Frege’s explicit distinction between Vorstellung and both Sinn and Bedeuntung. One wonders whether the meaning that is the same is precisely no meaning at all (as Nordmann suggests on p. 168), and whether individual, psychological associated ideas are all that is meant to distinguish other sentences in the TLP. See 6.54. Nordmann’s view is that these two sentences have no sense but are able nevertheless to make sense. I think this is a problematic idea.