Wittgenstein’s ladder: to climb or not to climb?

The happiest are those who have never heard of Wittgenstein’s Ladder.  If asked, they assume it’s something you buy in Homebase.

As with the existentialists, I am way past caring what the sad fellow meant by it. It has become part of my own lore; I have interpreted it as I  see fit and in a way I find useful.

My own interpretation is as follows. I have spent my entire life questioning, worrying, looking for answers which do not exist.  Recently I have decided to kick the ladder away as Wittgenstein recommends, realizing that most of what I had learnt was useless, peripheral nonsense.

The question therefore is should I have begun the climb in the first place or should I have burnt the ladder and not bothered?

I have engaged in a search for meaning in a sea of random noise. A search for pattern where none exists. A master of arts in history from a venerable English university, a qualification in the law.  And endless study, even after those few initial years. The philosophers, from the ancient Greeks to David Chalmers and those who ponder consciousness. Religion and the charming tales of the ancient desert Jews, who believed they had found the one true god. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Confucius, the Tao.  The Odyssey.  The Bhagavad Gita, the Christian mystics.  And more latterly a serious if uninformed interest in science.

Here is what Wittgenstein said:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)   He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Most of what I have read has turned out, on reflection, to be unhelpful at best.  The world, and in particular the human condition does not have to be seen in terms of absurd complexity.

We do not have to ponder our origins or that of the universe and most spend a lifetime not doing so. They are the clever ones, even if they do not know it.

Despite the acceleration of science in my own lifetime, we are still an infinity from the sort of questions I would like to have answered. Progress seems glacial for those with a finite lifetime.

The cure for cancer never quite comes in time. The Higgs Boson, while eventually unearthed, does not actually do very much for my sense of well-being or understanding.  The New Scientist contains almost identical articles week after week which are mostly questions rather than answers.

The answer is to avoid the questions.  Ludwig was right all along.


  1. I think Hegel said something similar in regards to understanding his own phenomenological system of thought. Once you’ve grasped it, you no longer need it.
    This also reminds me of some sayings in the Tao te Ching. The paradox is that we learn these things in order to unlearn them. Nice post


    1. Thank you Robert. I am afraid I become increasingly focused on the same issues but I fear that those issues become ever more important to me. Of course I never actually learn anything and never get anywhere. But one has to keep trying.


    1. Interesting that more or less the same advice is offered by Zen Master DaeWon’s book, Experience of Reality. You can not learn from the scriptures but only by direct experience. That certainly rings true with me – even DaeWon can only point you along the path, not travel it for you. I much enjoyed the book but again, it is a ladder.


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