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States of Affairs, Facts and Situations in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

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This paper addresses the problem of providing a satisfying explanation of the Tractarian notions of state of affairs (Sachverhalt), fact (Tatsache) and situation (Sachlage), an issue first raised by Frege and Russell. In order to do so, I first present what I consider to be the three main existing interpretations of these notions: the classic, the standard and Peter Simons’. I then present and defend an interpretation which is closer to the text than the classic and standard interpretations; one which is similar to Peter Simons’ but which differs from it concerning one important point with respect to the nature of situations. Accordingly, the above mentioned should be seen as three wholly distinct categories. States of affairs are to be understood as Russellian complexes, facts as the subsistence and non-subsistence of states of affairs and situations as possibilities of the subsistence and possibilities of the non-subsistence of states of affairs.

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  1. 1.

    Wittgenstein sent a copy of his manuscript to Russell via Keynes in June 1919 when he was still a prisoner of war in Italy. Keynes acknowledged receipt of the MS on June 28th and Russell writes in a letter dated 13 August 1919 that he has read the manuscript twice. As for Frege, Wittgenstein managed to have a copy sent to him from Vienna. Cf. Wright 1982 and Wittgenstein 1992, pp. 92–99.

  2. 2.

    For the Frege-Wittgenstein correspondence, cf. Frege (1989). Unfortunately, Wittgenstein’s replies to Frege appear to have been lost with Frege’s papers. Russell’s first reactions to the Tactatus were published in Wittgenstein 1992. Extracts of these letters as well as answers from Wittgenstein were reproduced in Wittgenstein 1979.

  3. 3.

    My own translation of the following original passage: “Ich finde Sie schwer verständlich (…) Sie gebrauchen gleich am Anfang ziemlich viele Wörter, auf deren Sinn offenbar viel ankommt. Gleich zu Anfang treffe ich die Ausdrücke “der Fall sein” und “Tatsache” und ich vermute, dass der Fall sein und eine Tatsache sein dasselbe ist. Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist und die Welt ist die Gesamtheit der Tatsachen. Ist nicht jede Tatsache der Fall und ist nicht, was der Fall ist, eine Tatsache? Ist nicht dasselbe, wenn ich sage, A sei eine Tatsache, wie wenn ich sage, A sei der Fall? Wozu dieser doppelte Ausdruck? (…) Nun kommt aber noch ein dritter Ausdruck: “Was der Fall ist, die Tatsache, ist das Bestehen von Sachverhalten”. Ich verstehe das so, dass jede Tatsache das Bestehen eines Sachverhaltes ist, so dass eine andre Tatsache das Bestehen eines andern Sachverhaltes ist. Könnte man nun nicht die Worte “das Bestehen” streichen und sagen: “Jede Tatsache ist ein Sachverhalt, jede andre Tatsache ist ein anderer Sachverhalt”. Könnt man vielleicht auch sagen “Jeder Sachverhalt ist das Bestehen einer Tatsache”?”.

  4. 4.

    Frege’s other important critiques were that Wittgenstein had not justified his theses or had not justified them enough and that he had expressed his thoughts in an everyday language not suitable for such technical matters. Wittgenstein, who had high hopes that Frege would understand his book, complained about his reaction in a letter to Russell: “I’m in correspondence with Frege. He doesn’t understand a single word of my work and I’m thoroughly exhausted from giving what are purely and simply explanations” (Wittgenstein 1992, p. 103). Around this time Wittgenstein apparently gave up any hope Frege would ever understand the Tractatus.

  5. 5.

    Because I disagree, like Pears and McGuiness, with the translation of “Sachverhalt” as an atomic fact, I stick to their translation. However this, as I shall show, doesn’t mean that I understand the same thing as they and other scholars usually understand by “state of affairs”, “fact” and “situation”.

  6. 6.

    Actually, what Russell says here is that “what is complex in the world is a fact” (my emphasis). But, Russell never talked of the Tractatus as admitting “complex entities not in the world” and so this idea was explicitly rejected by commentators who followed Russell on the question of the nature of complex entities.

  7. 7.

    Cf. Anscombe 1959, pp. 29–30; Black 1964, pp. 27–72; Griffin 1964, pp. 29–38; Maslow 1961, pp. 1–9.

  8. 8.

    On arguments in favour of Russell’s position on the distinction between Sachverhalt and Tatsache, see Anscombe 1959, p. 30n and Griffin 1964. For all references to Wittgenstein 1979, number n in parentheses corresponds to n th paragraph in the page mentioned.

  9. 9.

    The list of theses constitutive of the classic interpretation here is not intended to be an exhaustive one, but rather a list of all the theses that have to be taken into account in order to get a general idea of the entities falling under the three categories we are concerned with and the relationship that obtains between these categories. This is why nothing is said here about the mutual independency of Sachverhalte, their structure, form, contingency, etc.

  10. 10.

    One example of a distinct view of situation within SI comes from Ray Bradley. According to him, Wittgenstein would use “Sachlage” “as a general-duty term to refer to one or more states of affairs, to one or more facts, or to one or more whole worlds” (Bradley 1992, p. 107).

  11. 11.

    Cf. Simons 1985, 1993, 2001 and Dietrich 1973. Simons’ interpretation is mainly presented in his 1993 papers, but his position on the distinction between facts and states of affairs is already to be found in Simons 1985 and he returns to the subject matter briefly in Simons 2001. Since his 1993 paper has not been published in English, but only in French, it has remained unknown to the majority of Wittgenstein scholars.

  12. 12.

    This last argument is, however, partially wrong. As a matter of fact, contrarily to what Peter Simons says here and to what the majority of commentators on the Tractatus believe, Wittgenstein does not hold that propositions represent states of affairs. I shall come back to this in section 5.

  13. 13.

    Thanks are due to an anonymous referee of Philosophia for pointing out that issue to me.

  14. 14.

    Cf. supra, §2.

  15. 15.

    In fact, Peter Simons on this question is not as unequivocal as is here presented. Simons thinks that Wittgenstein wanted to get rid of complexes, mainly because he didn’t want to have a kind of entity that was complex and could be named by a simple sign, or else, because he wanted every complex entity to be such that it could only be described by using complex signs that are propositions. But at the same time, Wittgenstein found, according to Simons, “something natural” in the idea that when a proposition is true, a complex exists, and as a result of this he couldn’t discard complexes. This is partly the reason, according to Simons in his 1985 paper, Sachverhalte, which had been introduced in order to replace complexes, was later conceived to be and characterized as, merely complexes. This is why, according to Simons, Wittgenstein’s position on the matter is not clear, and also why Sachverhalte are best seen as complexes, though they were not intended to be regarded as such by Wittgenstein. Cf. Simons 1985, pp. 331–338. Kevin Mulligan discusses this issue at length in Mulligan 1985.

  16. 16.

    The admission of negative facts as consisting in the non-subsistence of states of affairs allows Bonino to come up with a new and very interesting interpretation of negation and the relationship between negation and the picture theory which challenges our current understanding of Wittgenstein’s position on negation and takes seriously Wittgenstein’s idea that negations of elementary propositions do describe reality without renouncing the Tractarian idea that logical constants do not denote (Cf. Bonino 2008, pp. 68–112). I also defended a closely related re-interpretation of Wittgenstein’s position on that issue in Plourde 2015.

  17. 17.

    One may wonder here how we are going to make sense of the fact that 1–1.12 says what the world is, namely the totality of facts, and that 2.04–2.05 says what the world is, namely the totality of states of affairs, if the totality of facts or the totality of what is the case is not the same as the totality of states of affairs. My answer to this is the following: the description of the world as all that is the case or the totality of facts and the description of the world as the totality of states of affairs are descriptions of the world from two different levels. Since positive facts are the obtaining of states of affairs and negative facts the non-obtaining of these states of affairs, and, furthermore, since the determination of the totality of subsisting states of affairs determines which states of affairs do not subsist, to say that the world is the totality of states of affairs is enough to determine what is the totality of entities that are the case and, therefore, to know that the world also consists of all the entities that are the case. The converse is also true: if you say that the world is everything that is the case, all positive and negative facts, since these consist in the obtaining and the non-obtaining of states of affairs, you determine the totality of states of affairs. Thus, given the logical dependence holding between facts and states of affairs, it is possible to produce, with states of affairs and facts, two non-synonymous partial descriptions of the world that nonetheless tell us what the world is: one which is a description from the level of states of affairs, another one which is a description from the level of facts.

  18. 18.

    When it comes to what makes a proposition a picture, Wittgenstein uses three different verbs to express this, namely: “vorstellen”, “darstellen” and “abbilden” which I translate into “presenting”, “representing” and “depicting”. “Vorstellen” occurs however only three times in the whole book and it clearly seems to be taken as a synonym for “darstellen”. This is how I understand them, just as Black and Simons do.

  19. 19.

    SI supporters might be tempted to say here, in response, that since states of affairs are atomic situations and since the quoted remarks are about that which propositions in general, elementary and molecular as well, represent, all remarks where propositions are said to represent situations may be taken to imply that elementary propositions represent states of affairs. There is however at least one problem with this point of view: it may only be granted if states of affairs are atomic situations. But, as we saw, this can only be the case if there is no distinction to be made between “the subsistence of …” and “a … that subsists”. It is by ignoring this distinction that Stenius could invoke 2.11 and 4.1 as evidence for the thesis that situations are molecular states of affairs. But this idea that these expressions are mere wordplay is problematic and has never been established. Therefore, though clever, such a response would not do by itself as a counter-objection to my demonstration (My thanks go to an anonymous referee of Philosophia for making that objection to me).

  20. 20.

    These three entries are 8(4), 37(2) and 8(9) and were transcribed in the Tractatus as 4.031, 4.04 and 4.462.

  21. 21.

    For considerations on the origin of the notion of situation in Wittgenstein’s thought, as those possible entities represented by propositions or “shadows” of propositions, Cf. Plourde 2005.


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I wish to thank both Kevin Mulligan and Peter Simons for discussions and comments on earlier versions of my interpretation. I also which to thank Jocelyn Benoist for his kind invitation to present my interpretation in the seminar he gave in Lausanne on the Tractatus.

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Correspondence to Jimmy Plourde.

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Plourde, J. States of Affairs, Facts and Situations in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus . Philosophia 44, 181–203 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-015-9660-0

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  • Wittgenstein
  • Tractatus logico-philosophicus
  • Ontology
  • State of affairs
  • Fact
  • Situation