Picturing, Showing, and Solipsism in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


Pete Mandik

Philosophy and Cognitive Science, William Paterson University, New Jersey




         Of all the enigmatic remarks running through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, none are a greater source of puzzlement to this reader than the endorsement of solipsism in 5.6-5.641.  Wittgenstein writes “I am my world”, but, even though “what solipsism means, is quite correct...it cannot be said, but it shows itself” (5.63; 5.62).  More intriguing still, he writes:

5.64  Here we see that solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism.  The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it. 

What sense can be made of these remarks?  In what way, if any, are these comments on solipsism continuous with the semantical project that dominates the Tractatus?

         Note that in 5.62, Wittgenstein employs his famous distinction between showing and saying.  Getting clear on what this distinction amounts to is crucial to understanding his remarks on solipsism.

         In this paper I attempt to show how Wittgenstein’s Tractatarian views on solipsism follow from a certain construal and elaboration of the picture theory of intentionality.  I do this by first reconstructing Wittgenstein’s famous distinction between showing and saying in terms of the key notion of the picture theory: that aboutness is equivalent to resemblance.  I interpret the distinction between showing and saying as a distinction between two different ways that facts can manifest intentionality (aboutness).  It is only with this construal of the distinction in hand that Wittgenstein’s remarks on solipsism can be properly understood.

         The organization of this paper is as follows.  In §1 I briefly remark upon the central idea of the picture theory.  This discussion carries over to §2 in which I present my reconstruction of the distinction between showing and saying.  In §3 I attempt to show how the Tractatarian take on solipsism follows from the notions of picturing and showing.  In §4 I focus on the parts of 5.6-5.641 that concern the enigmatic “metaphysical I”.


         The picture theory is a theory of intentionality, i.e., aboutness.  At the heart of the theory is the identification of aboutness with resemblance: something is about that which it resembles. 

2.161  In the picture and the pictured there must be something identical in order that the one can be a picture of the other at all.


2.171  The picture can represent every reality whose form it has.

The spatial picture, everything spatial, the coloured, everything coloured, etc.

This intuition is pumped by observations of how paintings and photographs represent their subjects.  A color photograph represents a red ball in virtue of having properties like redness and roundness in common with the ball. 

         Equating aboutness with resemblance allows a world view whereby the exhibition of aboutness by our thoughts is a wholly mundane affair.  For Wittgenstein, unlike Brentano, intentional properties are not indicative of ontological extravagance: the bearers of intentional properties are chunks of reality--facts--just like any other (2.141  “The picture is a fact).   

         I take several points to follow from the identification of aboutness with resemblance.  First, a particular thing can resemble many other things.  For instance, a penny resembles the moon in being round and shiny, but resembles a dime in being able to fit in my pocket.  Thus, a particular thing can be about as many other things as it can resemble. 

         Second, since resemblance admits of degrees (he penny resembles the dime more than it resembles the moon, and it resembles another penny even more), it would seem, then, that aboutness admits of degrees also.  According to this construal of the picture theory, then, what some fact most resembles is what that fact is most about.  This point is extremely important to the main arguments of this paper.  It is foundational to my reconstruction of the Tractatarian points regarding solipsism and the saying/showing distinction.


         In the picture theory, aboutness is not the only semantic property defined in terms of resemblance--truth is also cashed out in pictorial terms.  This is a correspondence theory of truth in which correspondence is a species of resemblance. 

         A picturing fact has aboutness in virtue of resembling some possible states of affairs.  A picturing fact is true if and only if the possible state of affairs also happens to be actual. 

         What a picturing fact most resembles is that with which it has the most properties in common.  Thus, that which it is most accurately about is that with which it has the most properties in common. 

         What a fact most resembles is itself--what a fact has the most properties in common with is itself.  Thus, that which it is most accurately about is itself. 

         In being about itself, a fact cannot fail to be true of itself.  The possible state of affairs that a fact most resembles is a possible state of affairs that has all of its properties in common with the fact.  Since the fact is actual, the possible state of affairs that it most resembles is an also actual state of affairs. 

         Since the state of affairs that the fact is most about is actual, in being about itself a fact is necessarily true.  It could only be false if the possible state of affairs it most resembles was non-actual i.e., a nonexistent state of affairs.  But if the state of affairs it is about is nonexistent, and it is about itself, then it is non-existent, i.e., it is not a fact.   

         A fact about itself is necessarily true, it is a tautology.  A tautology conveys no information because it does not get beyond itself. 

         There are two ways that a fact instantiates aboutness.  The first  way is in being about itself.  The second way is in being about something else.  In other words, the first is self-directed, the second other-directed.

         One way in which the other-directed mode of aboutness differs from self-directed aboutness is that facts exhibiting other-directed aboutness are not necessarily true.  The things that a fact resembles that are not itself differ from it in varying ways and varying degrees.  One of the ways that it may differ from that which it represents is in being actual.  Some of the possible states of affairs that the fact resembles will be actual and some will not.  Thus, some of the things that fact is about will be truths and others falsehoods.  The truth values of a picturing fact considered under the other-directed mode of aboutness is not intrinsic to the picturing fact itself.  They are not given a priori.  They are true or false not of necessity but of contingency.  Indeed, it is only in virtue of being other-directed that picturing facts can fail to be false at all:

2.173 The picture represents its object from without (its standpoint is its form of representation), therefore the picture represents its object rightly or falsely.

         I take the distinction between two modes of aboutness to map directly onto Wittgenstein’s distinction between showing and saying.  I take showing to be the same as self-directed aboutness and saying to be the same as other-directed aboutness. 

         Wittgenstein often talks about that which cannot be said (described, mentioned, represented) but can only be shown.  On my interpretation, I take this to mean that for such things, the only things that can be about them is themselves.

         That that which Wittgenstein describes as shown is the same as what I’m calling “self-directed aboutness” is evident in Wittgenstein’s language in such descriptions.  When Wittgenstein talks about that which is shown, the shown shows itself.  For instance, at 5.62 he writes “that the world is my world, shows itself....”

         That Wittgenstein construes saying (representing, describing, etc.) as other-directed is evident when he writes:

2.173 The picture represents its object from without....

         Wittgenstein holds that “What can be shown cannot be said” (4.1212).  This necessary exclusiveness is explained by construing the distinction in terms of self- and other-directedness.  What is shown is shown by itself.  What is said is said by something else.  Thus, what is shown is necessarily not sayable, since what something is is necessarily not something other than what it is.



         Given this construal of picturing and the distinction between showing and saying, how does a version of solipsism follow? 

         A world is that which something can be about.  Think of a mind as a set of ideas, that is, a set of things that manifest aboutness.  That which these ideas most resemble are themselves.  Thus, as per the picture theory, that which these ideas are most about are themselves.  This is the sense in which the mind is its world.  This is the sense of Wittgenstein’s remark at 5.63 that “I am my world.  (The microcosm.)”.

         How, then, are we to derive Wittgenstein’s point at 5.64 about solipsism coinciding with pure realism?  The solipsistic result of the last paragraph was reached by starting with a mind and deriving its identity with its world.  A similar result can be had by starting with the world. We must begin with realism, that is, we must begin by assuming the existence of the world. 

1.1  The world is the totality of facts.... 

As facts, they can be construed as pictures.  And as pictures, that which they most resemble is themselves.  That is, that which the totality of facts most represents is itself.  But if a mind just is a collection of ideas, that is, a collection of facts exhibiting aboutness, then construing the world, the totality of facts, as manifesting aboutness, is to construe it as a mind.  The solipsist result again obtains, this time by assuming realism.  This is one way in which solipsism and pure realism coincide.  Given the picture theory, the I is identical to its world even on the assumption of realism.

         Wittgenstein writes that even though “what solipsism means is quite correct [i.e., that I am all that exists],” it nonetheless cannot be expressed but instead only shown.  On my reading, the inexpressibility of solipsism follows from its truth.  If all that exists is my mind, a collection of ideas, then there is nothing that those ideas can be about except themselves.  The aboutness they manifest cannot be other directed (since there is nothing else)--they can only be self-directed.  Thus, if only I exist, then that only I exist cannot be said but only shown.

         Another way in which solipsism coincides with pure realism involves the vanishing of the I.



         If I am identified with my ideas, my expressible thoughts, then that which I can say or describe cannot be myself.  What I can say is that which my ideas are about in the other-directed mode of aboutness.  Thus, I cannot appear among that which is describable by me.  Insofar as my world is that which is describable, etc. by me, I do not appear in it.

 5.631  The thinking, presenting subject; there is no such thing.

If I wrote a book “The world as I found it”, I should also have therein to report on my body and say which members obey my will and which do not, etc.  This then would be a method of isolating the subject or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject: that is to say, of it alone in this book mention could not be made.

That of which mention could not be made is that which can only be shown, which is to say that the only thing that can be about it is itself.  It must be passed over in silence. Wittgenstein continues:

5.632  The subject does not belong to the world but is a limit of the world. 

5.633  Where in  the world is a metaphysical subject to be noted?

You say that this case is altogether like that of the eye and the field of sight.  But you do not really see the eye.

And from nothing in the field of sight  can it be concluded that it is seen from an eye.

5.6331  For the field of sight has not a  form like this:

5.634  This is connected with the fact that no part of our experience is also a priori.

Everything we see could also be otherwise. 

Everything we can describe at all could also be otherwise.

There is no order of things a priori.

Everything I can see, experience, and describe is that which is other than myself.  Seeing, experiencing, and describing are only manifestations of aboutness in the other-directed mode.  This point is nicely illustrated in Wittgenstein’s metaphor of the eye: it can see only that which is other than itself.  Further, that there is an eye is a necessary condition of there being a visual field.  The existence of a visual field necessitates the existence of the eye.

         That there is an eye is shown by the existence of the visual field.  This is entirely compatible with Wittgenstein’s remark that “from nothing in the field of sight  can it be concluded that it is seen from an eye.”  Here Wittgenstein points out that the existence of the eye is not entailed by any particular thing seen in the field.  That there’s a field at all, however, does entail that there is an eye.  There is a strong sense in which the eye is not separate from the from the field of view.  Even though the eye is not an object visible in the field of view, that it is a necessary condition of the existence of a visual field makes it, in a sense, constitutive of the field. 

         Analogous to the eye is the I.  Analogous to the field of view is language (logic).  Analogous to visible objects are describable states of affairs-- things that may or may not obtain.  Analogous to the eye being constitutive of the field of view is the subject being constitutive of the world.

5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

5.632  The subject does not belong to the world but is a limit of the world.

In a sense, the subject is not merely constitutive of the language, but identical to it.  Like language (logic), the subject limits the world. 

5.61 Logic fills the world: the limits of the world are also its limits. 

We cannot therefore say in logic: This and this there is in the world, that there is not.

For that would apparently presuppose that we exclude certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case since otherwise logic must get outside the limits of the world: that is, if it could consider these limits from the other side also.

What we cannot think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think.

Since logic fills the world, it cannot be other-directed towards it.  Infusing the totality of the world, the way in which is about the world must be self-directed.  The aboutness of logic and the world, then, is the aboutness of showing, not of saying. 

         There is much in these remarks to lead one to believe that Wittgenstein took language, logic, world, and self to be coextensive.  If this is so, then nothing that has been “said” in the Tractatus can really be said, but only shown.  This would be one way in which to derive the famous closing remarks of the Tractatus:

6.54  My propositions are elucidatory in this way:  he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them.  (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

7  Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.


         It is notoriously difficult to see how Wittgenstein’s remarks on solipsism fit with the rest of the text of the Tractatus.  While I am not confident that I’ve settled these issues here, I hope to have shed some light on a possible connection between these remarks and the rest of the text.  Specifically, I’ve tried to show a link between the remarks on solipsism and the picture theory.  I’ve argued that the link is a reconstruction of the distinction between showing and saying in terms of two types of intentional phenomena, two modes of aboutness: aboutness which is self-directed and aboutness which is other-directed.