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Philosophical Investigations 20:2 April 1997

ISSN 0190-0536

Wittgenstein, Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Caleb Thompson, State University of New York, Buffalo

Tolstoy’s religious writings clearly had an enormous influence on

Wittgenstein during the time that he was writing the Tractatus.
Wittgenstein carried with him a copy of Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief
during the First World War, and he said that this book had ‘virtually
kept [him] alive’.1 As Russell describes it, Wittgenstein came to pos-
sess and to admire Tolstoy’s Gospel in the following way:
[Wittgenstein] went on duty to the town of Tarnov in Galicia,
and happened to come upon a bookshop, which, however,
seemed to contain nothing but picture postcards. However, he
went inside and found that it contained just one book: Tolstoy on
the Gospels. He bought it merely because there was no other. He
read it and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him,
under fire and at all times.2
Paul Engelmann, who met Wittgenstein during the First World War,
accordingly reports that ‘Wittgenstein felt unreserved admiration and
respect for Tolstoy, at least when I knew him. Among Tolstoy’s
writings he had an especially high regard for The Gospel in Brief and
the Folk Tales’.3 Engelmann describes an evening at the house of his
brother (the cartoonist Peter Eng) which suggests the intensity of
Wittgenstein’s enthusiasm for Tolstoy’s writings:
My brother had composed a short dramatic satire entitled ‘An
Evening at the Stonborough’s’ (Mrs. Stonborough was
Wittgenstein’s sister Margerete, who lived in Vienna). There
Tolstoy is presented as a kind of spectacular monster under the
name of ‘Lew Fux Nikolajewitsch Tollhaus’, led like a bear on a
chain. The most offensive aspect of the satire, of course, was its

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Letters to Ludwig von Ficker’, trans. B. Gillette, ed. A.

Janik, Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives, ed. C. G. Luckhardt (Sussex, England:
Harvester Press, 1979) 90.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore, ed. G. H. von Wright
assisted by B. F. McGuiness (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974) 82.
3. Engelmann, Letters from Wittgenstein with a Memoir, trans. L. Furtmüller. Ed. B. F.
McGuinness (New York: Horizon, 1968) 79–80.
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX14 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA.
98 Philosophical Investigations
lampooning of Wittgenstein’s ideological convictions. But when
my brother read the uncensored text of the satire to the devout
Tolstoy admirer Wittgenstein – in the presence of only myself and
my brother’s wife – the reaction was unexpected. Wittgenstein
slipped from the sofa and, shaken by spasms of uncontrollable
laughter, literally rolled on the carpet. It was a grotesque scene to
witness, especially from a man who normally exercised exceptional
This anecdote may raise more questions in your mind than it
answers, since it presents a picture of Wittgenstein so unlike that
which can be found anywhere else. The whole episode –
Wittgenstein’s reaction to the skit and his investment in the ideas of
Tolstoy – may be best explained as a manifestation of the stress of
war. But these special circumstances in no way detract from
Wittgenstein’s seriousness about Tolstoy’s ideas during the time that
he was writing the Tractatus. Commentators have hesitated, how-
ever, to extend Tolstoy’s influence to Wittgenstein’s philosophy.
Indeed, one commentator writes that while Tolstoy’s works ‘were
clearly read by Wittgenstein and in some sense deeply admired by
him, there generally appears to be little direct influence’.5 Another
maintains that ‘Among philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein . . . had
the profoundest admiration for Tolstoy . . . But his philosophy . . .
[does] not reflect Tolstoy’s impact’.6
The view may arise out of a sense that Tolstoy is unworthy as a
thinker to be an influence on a philosopher so original as
Wittgenstein. Isaiah Berlin, however, has given a persuasive account
of Tolstoy as a poser of fundamental questions and as a consistent
defender of enlightenment conceptions of education, politics and
religion. ‘As a thinker’, Berlin writes,
he had profound affinities with the eighteenth century philosophes.
Like them he looked upon the patriarchal Russian state and
Church, which the Slavophils defended, as organised and hypo-

4. Engelmann, 66. ‘Tollhaus’, as Brian McGuinness explains in a footnote, is a

German word for ‘madhouse.’ ‘Fux’ is an archaic variant of ‘Fuchs’, the German
word for ‘fox.’ ‘Fuchs’ denotes, as does the English ‘fox’, both the animal and a cun-
ning person. (By extension, it is also a word for the Devil.) The result may be
something like the English expression ‘crazy like a fox.’ Tolstoy is well known for
having taken the moral highground while living the life of a landed aristocrat.
5. Philip Shields, Logic and Sin in the Writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1993) 7.
6. Walter Kaufmann, Religion from Tolstoy to Camus (New York: Harper and Row,
1964) 7.
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Caleb Thompson 99
critical conspiracies. Like the great thinkers of the Enlightenment
he looked for values not in history, nor in the sacred missions of
nations or cultures or churches, but in the individual’s own per-
sonal experience.7
Tolstoy’s belief in the wisdom of the peasants and in the essential
correctness of natural human impulses and his distrust of the intellec-
tual and technological products of civilisation are an inheritance
from Rousseau. These notions in turn make their appearance in
Wittgenstein’s well-known interest in ordinary language and in the
connection between language and practice. It is true that Tolstoy
was not an academic philosopher, but one must keep in mind that
Wittgenstein was one only reluctantly. In other words, far from dis-
qualifying Tolstoy as an influence, it makes him all the more likely as
a candidate.
As my remarks suggest, there are a variety of parallels that could
be drawn between Wittgenstein and Tolstoy. In this essay, however,
I want to argue in particular for the influence of Tolstoy’s A
Confession on the writing of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. The structure
and conception of philosophical resolution of the former, I suggest,
brings into focus that of the latter. The aim of both these works is to
throw the reader back onto her native capacities and back into the
activities of her life. I want to begin by noting some of what has
been said already by other commentators about the connection
between Wittgenstein and Tolstoy, and then I will develop in more
detail the parallels between A Confession and the Tractatus.


Towards the end of the Tractatus, at §§6.52 and 6.521, Wittgenstein

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered,
the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course
there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.8
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of
this problem.

7. Isaiah Berlin, ‘Tolstoy and Enlightenment’, Russian Thinkers (New York: Viking
Press, 1978) 241.
8. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981) §6.52.
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100 Philosophical Investigations
(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting
the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this
sense consisted?)9
One way to read these remarks is as saying that there is no question
of the meaning of life and therefore nothing that is knowing the
answer to the question of the meaning of life. When we see our-
selves as having in some sense found an answer, it is only that we
have begun to live and not that there is anything that we have
learned. Another way to read them is as saying that there is some-
thing that is the meaning of life only one cannot say what it is.
Situated at the end of the Tractatus these remarks suggest themselves
as offering a paradigm of philosophical resolution and they are there-
fore a battleground (as are many of the remarks of the Tractatus) for
the argument over what we are intended to take away from the
Tractatus, if anything. If we read it in the first way, then we take
nothing from it; we are simply relieved of our feeling of uneasiness,
our feeling that there is something we do not know. If we read it in
the second way, then we take from it ineffable truths.
These passages appear to be making a veiled reference to Tolstoy,
and therefore it makes sense to look to Tolstoy for some clue as to
how we should read them. The reason for thinking that
Wittgenstein has Tolstoy in mind here is that the problem of life, or
the question of life’s meaning, is the central concern of Tolstoy’s A
Confession (as well as a persistent theme throughout his writings).
Tolstoy arrived at a point in his life at which he could find no reason
for living; he could think of nothing in life that death would not
inevitably destroy. As a consequence, life became for him intolera-
ble. A Confession is an account of where the question of life’s
meaning led him up to the point at which he saw that there were
people, namely the peasants, for whom life was possible, and he
decided to study the Gospels. The Gospel in Brief, which is a retrans-
lation and harmonising of the gospels, and which Wittgenstein
carried with him in the trenches, is the product of that labour. Since
we already know that Wittgenstein was an avid reader of Tolstoy, it
is natural to think that in writing of the ‘problem of life’ he has
Tolstoy in mind.10
9. Ibid., §6.521.
10. The evidence that Wittgenstein read Tolstoy’s A Confession is circumstantial,
though nonetheless compelling. Given the importance that The Gospel in Brief had
for him it is hard to imagine that he would not have read A Confession. Furthermore,
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Caleb Thompson 101
In her commentary on these sections of the Tractatus, G. E. M.
Anscombe also suggests that Wittgenstein was probably thinking of
Tolstoy. She sees Tolstoy functioning, however, largely as an exam-
ple, as one who tried to say wherein the sense of life consists and
failed. Wittgenstein, as she puts it,
probably had Tolstoy especially in mind, whose explanations of
what he thought he understood are miserable failures; but whose
understanding is manifested, and whose preachings come through,
in a story like Hadji Murad.11
There is no doubt that Wittgenstein preferred some of Tolstoy’s
works to others. And Anscombe’s reading of the passage is probably
based upon remarks like those which Wittgenstein made to Norman
Malcolm. He sent a copy of Hadji Murad to Malcolm, saying, ‘I
hope you get a lot out of it, because there is a lot in it’. In contrast,
he did not like Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection. In his letter to Malcolm,
he explains:
You see, when Tolstoy tells a story he impresses me infinitely
more than when he addresses the reader. When he turns his back
to the reader then he seems to me most impressive . . . It seems to
me his philosophy is most true when it’s latent in the story.12
In his later works, Tolstoy writes explicitly of Christianity as express-
ing the meaning of life, and in Resurrection in particular there is little
difference between the thoughts that he puts into the mind of his
hero and passages of his tract ‘What I Believe’.
Anscombe’s account, however, (besides suggesting a somewhat
misleading picture of Tolstoy’s works) obscures the possibility, sug-
gested by Wittgenstein’s remarks, that while Tolstoy may have in
some cases got something wrong, he did in other cases get some-
thing basically right. That is, rather than thinking of Tolstoy simply
as an example of someone who tried and failed to say the ineffable,
one might find in his works the basis for the idea that the answer to

Wittgenstein would have been familiar with A Confession from William James’ The
Varieties of Religious Experience which he read with enthusiasm before the war. James
quotes from Tolstoy’s work at length in the chapters entitled ‘The Sick Soul’ and
‘The Divided Self.’ It may even be (despite Russell’s colourful story) that
Wittgenstein was led by A Confession to The Gospel in Brief.
11. G. E. M. Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971) 170.
12. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1984) 97.
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102 Philosophical Investigations
the question of life’s meaning is found in the disappearance of the
question. As Tolstoy says of Levin near the end of Anna Karenina,
‘He even married at just this time, had many joys, and was happy
whenever he wasn’t thinking about the meaning of life’.13
The danger to Anscombe’s account of allowing more fully
Tolstoy’s influence on the Tractatus is that that influence threatens to
undermine her conception of the Tractatus as pointing to inexpress-
ible truths. As she puts it,
[A]n important part is played in the Tractatus by the things which,
although they cannot be ‘said’, are yet ‘shewn’ or ‘displayed’. That
is to say: it would be right to call them ‘true’ if per impossibile, they
could be said.14
In the case of the meaning of life, Anscombe accordingly argues that
Wittgenstein thinks not that it is never possible to state the meaning
of life but ‘that it is never possible to state it as one would state an
indifferent truth’.15 If one were to take seriously the idea that the
only answer to the question is the disappearance of the question,
then one would have to reject the idea of ineffable truth which one
fails to express.
In an essay called ‘Tolstoi and the Meaning of Life’, Antony Flew
argues that there is an infelicity in the question of the meaning of
life, as it is described in A Confession, of which Tolstoy is implicitly
aware. Notice how Tolstoy describes his condition:
At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as
though I did not know what to do or how to live . . . these
moments of perplexity began to recur oftener and oftener . . .
They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for?
What does it lead to?16
Implicit in these remarks is the idea that – whatever Tolstoy may
have thought at the time – his questions were not really requests for
information, but rather simply expressions of what he calls his ‘arrest
of life’. As Flew says,

13. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Joel Carmichael (New York: Bantam, 1960)
14. Op. cit. note 11, 162.
15. Ibid., 170.
16. Tolstoy, A Confession, The Gospel in Brief and What I Believe, trans. Aylmer
Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1940) 14–15.
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Caleb Thompson 103
interpreted as requests for information the questions he was asking
would be rather silly. It is better to interpret them as expressions of
‘arrest of life’ formulated in a way which is partly misleading.17
As questions they are silly because Tolstoy rejects anything which
would ordinarily serve as answers. Flew continues:
He asks himself why he is making plans for the education of his
son. The obvious reply is that he wants to do his best for the boy.
Since this is both what he wants to do and what he ought to do it
is hard to see what further or better reason there could be for
doing what he is doing . . . [T]o go on, as Tolstoi does, asking
‘What for?’ after you have already seen how your contemplated
course of action is rooted in your fundamental sentiments and
affections might seem just silly, an indication of a failure to appre-
ciate the scope and function of the question ‘What for?’18
Tolstoy’s resolution of his difficulties suggests that ultimately he saw
his questions as misplaced; what he learns is not that the meaning of
life is such and such, but how to live in such a way that these ques-
tions no longer arise. Tolstoy saw that the peasants, unlike ‘that
narrow circle of rich, learned, and leisured people to which I
belonged’19 lived without these questions. And he thought at a cer-
tain point that what the peasants possessed was an irrational
knowledge (whatever that is) of the relation between the infinite in
which there is meaning and finite human existence in which there is
inevitably only death and disease. What Tolstoy learned from the
peasants, however, is, as Flew emphasises, ‘not knowledge that the
finite and the infinite are thus and thus arranged, but knowledge of
how to go on living’.20
The evidence that Tolstoy came ultimately to see the answer to
his troubles as a matter of living in a certain way and not as a matter
of knowing certain mystical truths is seen, Flew argues, both in his
novels and in his writings on religion. Certainly the peace of mind
which Levin or Pierre or Hadji Murad or the peasant Platon
Karataev possess or come to possess does not presuppose ‘any propo-
sitions about some infinite shadow world outside the world’.21
Similarly, the teaching in the Gospel in Brief and in What I believe is

17. Antony Flew, ‘Tolstoi and the Meaning of Life’, Ethics Vol 73 (1963) 111.
18. Ibid.
19. Op. cit. note 16, 45.
20. Ibid., 116.
21. Ibid., 117.
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104 Philosophical Investigations
without ‘any eschatological threats and promises’.22 It is useful, I
think, to actually have a look at some of these texts. So, here, for
example, is Tolstoy’s description in War and Peace of Platon Karataev:
His face, despite its fine, rounded wrinkles, had an expression of
innocence and youth, his voice was pleasant and musical. But the
chief peculiarity of his speech was its directness and appositeness. It
was evident that he never considered what he had said or was
going to say, and consequently the rapidity and justice of his into-
nation had an irresistible persuasiveness.
His physical strength and agility during the first days of his
imprisonment were such that he seemed not to know what
fatigue and sickness meant. Every night before lying down, he
said: ‘Lord, lay me down as a stone and raise me up as a loaf !’ and
every morning on getting up, he said: ‘I lay down and curled up, I
get up and shake myself ’. And indeed he only had to lie down, to
fall asleep like a stone, and he only had to shake himself, to be
ready without a moment’s delay for some work, just as children
are ready to play directly they awake. He could do everything,
not very well but not badly. He baked, cooked, sewed, planed,
and mended boots. He was always busy, and only at night allowed
himself conversation – of which he was fond – and songs. He did
not sing like a trained singer who knows he is listened to, but like
the birds, evidently giving vent to the sounds in the same way that
one stretches oneself or walks about to get rid of stiffness, and the
sounds were always high-pitched, mournful, delicate, and almost
feminine, and his face at such times was very serious.
. . . The proverbs, of which his talk was full, were for the most
part not the coarse and indecent saws soldiers employ, but those
folk sayings which taken without a context seem so insignificant,
but when used appositely suddenly acquire a significance of pro-
found wisdom.
He would often say the exact opposite of what he had said on a
previous occasion, yet both would be right. He liked to talk and
he talked well, adorning his speech with terms of endearment and
with the folk sayings which Pierre thought he invented himself,
but the chief charm of his talk lay in the fact that the commonest
events – sometimes just such as Pierre had witnessed without tak-
ing notice of them – assumed in Karataev’s speech a character of
solemn fitness. He liked to hear the folk tales one of the soldiers
used to tell of an evening (they were always the same), but most of
all he liked to hear stories of real life. He would smile joyfully
when listening to such stories, now and then putting in a word or
asking a question to make the moral beauty of what he was told
clear to himself . . .

22. Ibid.
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Caleb Thompson 105
Sometimes Pierre, struck by the meaning of his words, would
ask him to repeat them, but Platon could never recall what he had
said a moment before, just as he never could repeat to Pierre the
words of his favorite song: native and birch tree and my heart is sick
occurred in it, but when spoken and not sung, no meaning could
be got out of it. He did not, and could not, understand the mean-
ing of words apart from their context. Every word and action of
his was the manifestation of an activity unknown to him, which
was his life. But his life, as he regarded it, had not meaning as a
separate thing. It had meaning only as part of a whole of which he
was always conscious. His words and actions flowed from him as
evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a
flower. He could not understand the value or the significance of
any word or deed taken separately.23
One might reject this description as a romantic fantasy, as the
description of no possible person. But it is as Flew claims completely
lacking in any talk of worlds beyond this world. And similarly in
What I Believe, Tolstoy attacks the idea that he sees in Orthodox
doctrine that Christianity is not a way of living in this world but a
story about a ‘future, blissful, eternal life’.24 Tolstoy argues that
Christ denies the personal, the corporeal resurrection, but
acknowledges a restoration of life in a man who merges his life in
God’s . . . the restoration of true life here on earth.25
Flew is correct in saying that Tolstoy is aware that the question of
the meaning of life is somehow confused. I will say more about that
in a moment. Flew is also correct in pointing out that Tolstoy came
to see the answer to the question as a matter of living in a certain
way and not as a matter of knowing mystical truths. Indeed, this is
essential to Tolstoy’s works as a whole. But Flew is wrong in think-
ing that Anscombe’s reading of the passages in the Tractatus depends
upon seeing Tolstoy as in search of mystical otherworldly truths.
Wittgenstein might well have seen the solution to the question of
life’s meaning as being simply turning back to life, as was said, and

23. Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1942) 1078–9. This passage is particularly striking because it indicates a
kinship not just between Tolstoy and the early Wittgenstein but between Tolstoy and
the later Wittgenstein. It anticipates Wittgenstein’s concern in the Philosophical
Investigations with the place of language in human activity and brings out the ethical
dimension of Wittgenstein’s remarks in the Investigations, a dimension which readers
often feel but cannot necessarily characterise.
24. Op. cit. note 16, 421.
25. Ibid., 435–6.
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106 Philosophical Investigations
still have rejected Tolstoy’s efforts to say how one should live as fur-
ther attempts to say wherein the sense of life consisted. Therefore,
Flew errs in not taking into account the differences between
Tolstoy’s works which Anscombe notes, differences between stories
like Hadji Murad and Resurrection. I suggest that Wittgenstein
embraces Tolstoy the confessor, for whom the question of the mean-
ing of life falls away, and rejects Tolstoy the Christian proselytiser.
There is a part of Wittgenstein that is Leo Tolstoy, but there is also a
part of Wittgenstein that is Karl Kraus.26 In the sections that follow,
I will develop further the parallels between A Confession and the
Tractatus which Flew’s account suggests.


Flew’s claim is that Tolstoy’s question about the meaning life is ‘silly’
and that ultimately Tolstoy rejects the idea that there is any answer
to it in the sense in which it was being asked. Flew’s argument
depends upon Humean considerations about the relation between
human sentiments and affections and the question ‘What for?’ These
Humean considerations aside, however, the silliness of the question
follows quite naturally from what Tolstoy says in A Confession about
meaning, not in the broad sense but in the narrower sense that has
primarily concerned twentieth century philosophers. In fact, the
question is for Tolstoy not only silly but unsinnig in Wittgenstein’s
sense, that is, nonsensical. Tolstoy’s A Confession engages the reader’s
temptation to see the problem of life as an intellectual problem, by
exhibiting the course of Tolstoy’s thinking in a temporal narrative,
only in the end to reveal the enterprise as leading to its own aban-
Tolstoy sees philosophy as an activity of clarification. Tolstoy’s
concern is with the question of the meaning of life; but the labour of
‘real’ philosophy, he says, lies not in answering the question of the

26. I take the idea that ‘What can be shown cannot be said’ to originate with Kraus.
(See Wittgenstein’s remarks to Engelmann on the Uhland poem ‘Count Eberhard’s
Hawthorn’ and Engelmann’s comments in Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, pp.
82–85.) On the one hand, Tolstoy was extremely skilled at showing – at bringing out
the strengths and weaknesses of a person’s character. On the other hand, he was
prone to moralising, to try to say (and failing on Wittgenstein’s view) what he was so
good at showing.
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Caleb Thompson 107
meaning of life, but ‘merely in trying to put that question clearly’.27
He asks, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death
awaiting me does not destroy?’28 His reasoning leads him at first to a
conclusion which he takes to be the uniform reply of philosophers
to this question. As he puts it, ‘Where the philosopher does not lose
sight of the essential question, the reply is always one and the same
. . . It is all – vanity! Happy is he who has not been born: death is
better than life, and one must free oneself from life’.29 Further con-
sideration of the issue, however, leads him to a new conclusion, that
he is mistaken in thinking that philosophy can arrive at a positive
answer to the question at all. This new conclusion follows from his
inchoate thoughts about meaning, not in this very broad sense, but,
as I said, in the narrower sense.
He argues that the question of the meaning of life demands a con-
nection between the infinite and the finite, and at the same time any
attempt to discuss the infinite in relation to the finite leads to non-
sense. Therefore neither ‘experimental science’ which deals with
finite phenomena nor ‘abstract science’ which deals with the ‘pri-
mordial essence of life’ can intelligibly answer the question of the
meaning of life. As Tolstoy puts it,
The problem of experimental science is the sequence of cause and
effect in material phenomena. It is only necessary for experimental
science to introduce the question of a final cause for it to become
nonsensical. The problem of abstract science is the recognition of
the primordial essence of life. It is only necessary to introduce the
investigation of consequential phenomena . . . and it also becomes
It turns out, then, that putting the question clearly just means show-
ing that it makes an incoherent demand. In trying seriously to
answer it, one will inevitably, in Wittgenstein’s words, fail to give
meaning to certain signs of one’s propositions. The effort to relate
the finite to the infinite in the way that the question demands, emp-
ties the terms of the question of meaning. One can see this in
Tolstoy’s earlier analysis of his ‘superstitious’ belief in progress. He

27. Op. cit. note 16, 29.

28. Ibid., 24.
29. Ibid., 32–8.
30. Ibid., 28–9.
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108 Philosophical Investigations
. . . and it became clear to me that there could be no law of end-
less development; it became clear that to say, ‘in infinite space and
time everything develops, becomes more perfect and more com-
plex, is differentiated’, is to say nothing at all. These are all words with
no meaning, for in the infinite there is neither complex nor simple,
neither forward nor backward, nor better or worse.31
Any genuine attempt to answer the question of the meaning of life
must in this same way relate the infinite with the finite, and there-
fore to give any answer will be to use words, as in Tolstoy’s own
belief in ‘progress’, in such a way that they have no meaning.
If the attempt to answer the question of the meaning of life does
not lead to nonsense, it leads to a statement of identity. If one is not
trying to relate the finite with the infinite, one is merely relating the
finite with the finite or the infinite with the infinite. For example, a
purely materialist account of human existence, as Tolstoy suggests,
begs the question of life’s meaning. One description of physical
existence is simply replaced by another and no ground is gained on
the question of what transcendent meaning this physical existence
has. Tolstoy compares this outcome to the case where one is work-
ing on the solution for a mathematical equation and finds that one is
working on an identity. He writes,
The line of reasoning is correct, but results in the answer that a
equals a, or x equals x, or 0 equals 0. The same thing happened
with my reasoning in relation to the question of the meaning of
my life. The replies given by all science to that question only
result in – identity.32
In essence, Tolstoy is left with only the forms of reasoning divested
of all content. They are not nonsense but they do not say anything
either. He says at one point that all his reasonings turn
in a vicious circle like a wheel out of gear with its pinion.
However much and however well we may reason we cannot
obtain a reply to the question; and 0 will always equal 0, and
therefore our path is probably erroneous.33
31. Ibid., 26. The italics are mine.
32. Ibid., 49.
33. Ibid. This image and others like it appear in various places in Wittgenstein’s later
philosophy. In conversation with the Vienna Circle in 1929 Wittgenstein said, ‘If I
turn away, the stove is gone. (Things do not exist during the intervals of perception.)
If “existence” is taken in the empirical (not in the metaphysical) sense, this statement
is a wheel turning idly. Our language is in order, once we have understood its syntax
and recognized the wheels that turn idly.’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, 48.)
In the Philosophical Investigations at §132 he writes, ‘The confusions which occupy us
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Caleb Thompson 109
Thus, through his analysis of the question of the meaning of life,
Tolstoy comes to see that his problems are not in any sense scientific
problems, for in addressing the question he must either relate the
finite with the infinite and produce nonsense or fail to approach the
question altogether. Resolution of his problems cannot be a matter
of discovering that such and such is the case. The question of the
meaning of life is resolved, instead, by discovering a way of life in
which there is meaning, in which these questions do not arise.
Indeed, Tolstoy sees that ‘all mankind who sustain life – millions of
them – do not doubt the meaning of life.’ He continues, ‘from the
most distant times of which I know anything, when life began, these
people lived knowing the argument about the vanity of life which
has shown me its senselessness, and yet they lived attributing some
meaning to it.’
Likewise, language has meaning – is a wheel in gear with its pin-
ion – when it is connected to the activities through which life is
sustained. Tolstoy writes,
From the time when any life began among men they had that
meaning of life, and they led that life which has descended to me.
All that is in me and around me, all, corporeal and incorporeal, is
the fruit of their knowledge of life. Those very instruments of
thought with which I consider this life and condemn it were all
devised not by me but by them. I myself was born, taught, and
brought up thanks to them. They dug out the iron, taught us to
cut down the forests, tamed the cows and horses, taught us to sow
corn and to live together, organized our life, and taught me to
think and speak. And I, their product, fed, supplied with drink,
taught by them, thinking with their thoughts and words, have
argued that they are an absurdity!34
Thus, on Tolstoy’s account, meaning in the narrow sense comes
together with meaning in the broad sense. Life and language both
have meaning when one is engaged in the activities which sustain
life. When one is disengaged from those activities, one loses one’s
sense that life has meaning and expresses that loss in language that is
itself meaningless. At the same time, standing at a distance from life
and language, one thinks that one has a special perspective on them
and imagines that one can acquire at that distance some knowledge
arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work.’ At §271, he
writes, ‘Here I would like to say: a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves
with it, is not part of the mechanism.’ (All the italics are mine.)
34. Ibid., 44.
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110 Philosophical Investigations
of their bases. Of course it is not Tolstoy’s ancestors nor the life and
language that is his inheritance that are the absurdity, but Tolstoy
himself. Having torn the language away from the life-sustaining
activities which give it significance, he turns around with it and
questions the significance of life.
On Tolstoy’s account, then, there is no science of the meaning of
life, and there is no special perspective on the meaningful use of lan-
guage either, apart from that of people using the language in their
day-to-day lives. Tolstoy emphasises, as the later Wittgenstein clearly
does, the integration of language and activity. And in his confronta-
tion with science and philosophy, Tolstoy may be seen as attacking
the idea that living and speaking meaningfully are matters of know-
ing something or other in favour of the idea that living and speaking
meaningfully are matters of doing. The point of A Confession, how-
ever, is not to say in particular what activity a life should contain,
nor even to say that the meaning of life is found in activity, but to
provoke us to act, to abandon the intellect disconnected from some
The desire to see the problems of life or of language as problems
of knowing something is very strong. In taking up the narrative
form, however, Tolstoy can both appease that desire and constantly
undermine it. Throughout A Confession, Tolstoy writes as if it is a
fact that there is or is not a meaning to life. We as readers go along
with him to the point where we see that the question breaks down,
that there neither is nor is not an answer to the question of the
meaning of life. Lest we persist in the end in thinking that Tolstoy’s
A Confession is telling something, some facts about life or language,
Tolstoy concludes his work with a dream rather than with argument.
In the dream he is suspended precariously over an abyss, or so it
seems to him. But staring into the ‘infinite space’ above him he feels
calm and safe. After all, he is supported, he sees, and ‘there can be no
question of falling’. A voice seemed to say to him, ‘see that you
remember’. He writes,
This dream expressed in condensed form all that I had experienced
and described, and I think therefore that, for those who have
understood me, a description of this dream will refresh and eluci-
date and unify what has been set forth at such length in the
foregoing pages.35

35. Ibid., 81. The italics are mine.

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Caleb Thompson 111
How does the dream elucidate what Tolstoy’s A Confession contains?
It is a shift from the philosophical mode to the imaginative. It is a
stylistic gesture by which Tolstoy acts out for us the abandonment of
the purely abstract use of the intellect.
One might ask whether this was a case of Tolstoy trying to say
wherein the meaning of life consists. Perhaps. But I would not want
to call it an ‘explanation’, to use Anscombe’s word. In contrast to
Tolstoy’s later discourses on religion, it looks more like an admission
that there is nothing here to be said, nor for that matter anything
here that goes unsaid.


If what I have said about Tolstoy in the last section is correct, then
(contrary to what Anscombe says) it is possible to see Tolstoy not
simply as an example of someone who tried to say in what the
meaning of life consists, but as someone for whom the problem of
life disappeared and who at least momentarily conceived of that as
the answer. A Confession does not endeavour to say in what the sense
of life lies but rather leads the reader out of the trap in which Tolstoy
had found himself. Contrary to what Flew says, it is important for
understanding his influence on Wittgenstein that he is not trying to
communicate, except through this collapse, what sort of life one
should live. Having seen then what model of philosophical resolu-
tion is exhibited in Tolstoy’s A Confession, I want now to turn to the
question of the extent to which this model is exhibited in the
Tractatus and so to the question of the extent to which A Confession
can be seen as exerting an influence on that work. While I think that
what the books are aiming to do is what is essential to understanding
them, the way in which they do it (that is, the actual content of the
books) is relevant for seeing the connection between them. So first I
want to just point out some parallels.
To anyone who has read the Tractatus there is a great deal in my
description of Tolstoy’s A Confession which will have sounded famil-
iar; not only do Tolstoy and Wittgenstein both conceive of
philosophy as a clarificatory activity, but the details and aims of that
clarification are in some important respects the same. Wittgenstein
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112 Philosophical Investigations
The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propo-
sitions’, but to make propositions clear.
Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts
which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.36
At the end of the Tractatus he describes how this activity should be
applied. ‘The right method of philosophy’, he writes at §6.53,
‘would be this’:
To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of
natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philo-
sophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say
something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given
no meaning to certain signs in his propositions.37
Wittgenstein’s description of ‘the strictly correct method’ closely
corresponds with Tolstoy’s analysis of his ‘superstitious’ belief in
progress and his efforts to answer the question of the meaning of
life. To ask and attempt to answer the question is to use words, as
Tolstoy puts it, ‘with no meaning’.
In Tolstoy’s work this clarification is based upon implied distinc-
tions between utterances with sense and, on the one hand, those in
which the words have no clear meaning and, on the other hand,
those in which the words are coherently used but nonetheless say
nothing. This implied distinction is explicitly made in the Tractatus
by the distinction between what has sense and what on the one hand
is nonsense (unsinnig) and on the other senseless (sinnlos). Senseless
utterances are tautologies. Tautologies (like contradictions) are
important in the Tractatus because they are limiting cases of the use
of the symbolism. ‘Tautology and contradiction’, as Wittgenstein
explains, ‘are . . . not nonsensical; they are part of the symbolism, in
the same way that “0” is part of the symbolism of Arithmetic’.38 They
are not unsinnig; they are sinnlos. Wittgenstein continues, ‘Tautology
and contradiction are not pictures of reality. They present no possi-
ble state of affairs. For the one allows every possible state of affairs,
the other none’.39 Like Tolstoy, Wittgenstein sees mathematical

36. Op. cit. note 8, §4.112.

37. Ibid., §6.53.
38. Ibid., §4.4611.
39. Ibid., §4.462.
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Caleb Thompson 113
propositions in the same terms. The propositions of mathematics, he
says, ‘are equations and therefore pseudo-propositions’.40 They
‘express no thoughts’.41 Mathematical propositions serve only to get
us from one set of facts to another:
In life it is never a mathematical proposition which we need, but
we use mathematical propositions only in order to infer from
propositions which do not belong to mathematics to others which
equally do not belong to mathematics.42
Mathematical propositions are not nonsense on Wittgenstein’s
account, but they do not say anything either. Mathematical symbols
alone cannot generate knowledge of what is or is not the case.
The idea that philosophy is an activity of clarification follows
directly in Wittgenstein’s work, as it does in Tolstoy’s, from the idea
that philosophy is not a science. Immediately preceding the remarks
concerning philosophy as clarification, Wittgenstein writes that
‘Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences’.43 This idea is in turn
tied up with the idea that runs throughout Wittgenstein’s work, that
‘Logic must take care of itself.’44 Wittgenstein’s ‘fundamental
thought’ is, as he says, that the “logical constants” do not represent.
That the logic of the facts cannot be represented.’45 On Wittgen-
stein’s view, therefore, speaking a language is not a matter of
knowing, say, what the logical constants stand for, but of doing
something with sounds or symbols. And speaking a language logic-
ally is not a matter of technical knowledge. It is important to the
Tractatus’ conception that ordinary language be logically in order. In
this idea we see something of Tolstoy’s views about the relation of
language to the activities of ordinary people. In the Tractatus
Wittgenstein writes,
Man possesses the capacity of constructing languages, in which
every sense can be expressed, without having an idea how and
what each word means – just as one speaks without knowing how
the single sounds are produced.
Colloquial language is a part of the human organism and is not
less complicated than it.

40. Ibid., §6.2.

41. Ibid., §6.21.
42. Ibid., §6.211.
43. Ibid., §4.111.
44. Ibid., §5.473.
45. Ibid., §4.0312.
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114 Philosophical Investigations
From it it is humanly impossible to gather the logic of the lan-
Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form
of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they
clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed
with quite another object than to let the form of the body be rec-
The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are
enormously complicated.46
What we see then if we place the Tractatus and A Confession along-
side of one another is a cluster of shared ideas. (1) Philosophy is not
science. (2) Philosophy is an activity of clarification. (3) That clarifica-
tion allows us to see what sentences have meaning, what sentences are
coherent but contentless uses of symbolism (tautology) and what
senses are constructions to which no clear meaning has been given
(nonsense). And (4) this clarification does not depend upon any spe-
cial technical knowledge; it simply engages our native abilities.

As I have said, what Wittgenstein intends his readers to take away

from the Tractatus is a matter of controversy. We will not here go
deeply into the details of that debate.47 Nonetheless, the structure of
A Confession as we have seen it here described and the close parallels
between it and the Tractatus suggest the way in which we should
read the remarks about the meaning of life. The remarks in turn
have implications for how we should understand the book’s concep-
tion of philosophical resolution and therefore how we should
understand the book as a whole. Consider again Wittgenstein’s
46. Ibid., §4.002.
47. The idea that Wittgenstein means for us to take quite seriously his characterisa-
tion of his sentences as nonsense and his instructions to throw them away has been
persuasively defended by Cora Diamond in ‘Throwing Away the Ladder: How to
Read the Tractatus’ (The Realistic Spirit (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991)), by
Thomas Ricketts in ‘Facts, Logic and the Criticism of Metaphysics in the Tractatus’
(unpublished) and by James Conant in ‘Must We Show What We Cannot Say?’ (The
Senses of Stanley Cavell (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1989)). I have argued
for the analogy between the structure of the Tractatus so described and the confes-
sional form as seen, for example, in Tolstoy’s A Confession in ‘The Confessional
Narrative of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus’ (delivered as the third of the 1995 Hourani
Lectures at the State University of New York at Buffalo (unpublished)).
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Caleb Thompson 115
We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered,
the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course
there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.48
The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of
this problem.
(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting
the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this
sense consisted?)49
Given what has been so far said about A Confession and the parallels
between it and the Tractatus, I suggest we read these remarks as say-
ing that there is no question of the meaning of life, and that coming
to see meaning in life is just a matter of living. Anscombe, it should
be said, argues that you cannot read Wittgenstein as saying that the
people who try to say wherein the meaning of life consist ‘have
nothing in them but a lot of nonsense’, because Wittgenstein speaks
of people ‘to whom the meaning of life has become clear’.50 This
expression can be seen, however, simply as a place holder for the
idea of the disappearance of the question and no more than that.
One might object further that Wittgenstein follows the remarks in
question by saying ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows
itself; it is the mystical’.51 But the inexpressible may be said to show
itself only in the fact that the question had disappeared and there is
no account that one can give of its disappearance. One is again able
to live and there is no reason why.
This discussion of the problem of life, as was mentioned, has a
prominent place at the end of the Tractatus. It immediately precedes
the discussion of the ‘right method in philosophy’. It may therefore
be seen as paradigmatic of philosophical problems and of their
proper resolution. That Wittgenstein saw analogies between the
problems of life and the problems of logic (much as Tolstoy does) is
seen even more clearly in a remark which he wrote soon after his
return to philosophy in 1929:
If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life and feels
like telling himself that everything is quite easy now, he can see
that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this
‘solution’ had not been discovered; but it must have been possible
to live then too and the solution which had now been discovered

48. Op. cit. note 8, §6.52.

49. Ibid., §6.521.
50. Anscombe, 170.
51. Op. cit. note 8, §6.522.
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116 Philosophical Investigations
seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then. And it is the
same in the study of logic. If there were a ‘solution’ to the prob-
lems of logic (philosophy) we should only need to caution
ourselves that there was a time when they had not been solved
(and even at that time people must have known how to live and
In talking about A Confession, I pointed out that Tolstoy concludes
his book with a dream rather than with an argument in order to
direct his reader away from the arguments of the book as its proper
result. This is underscored by Tolstoy’s saying not, ‘for those who
have understood my book, a description of this dream will refresh
and elucidate and unify’, but rather ‘for those who have understood
me’. At the end of the Tractatus, we find the same peculiar emphasis
on the importance of understanding the author, his intentions rather
than the content of the book. Wittgenstein writes,
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands
me finally recognizes them as nonsense, when he has climbed out
through them, on them, over them.53
Unlike Tolstoy, Wittgenstein does not conclude his book with
any kind of dream or myth. He simply exhorts us to be silent:
‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.54 One
might see this as an important difference between the two works.
One might even see it as Wittgenstein’s attempt to head off the
impulse which Tolstoy ultimately could not resist, namely, to speak
where one cannot. But even if we see Wittgenstein as reacting to
Tolstoy in this way, we are more likely to take seriously and to
understand Wittgenstein’s final exhortation if we take seriously the
analogies between A Confession and the Tractatus.55
Dept. of Philosophy,
State University of New York at Buffalo,
Buffalo, NY 14260–1010.

52. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans, Peter Winch, ed. G. H. von Wright
(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980) 4.
53. Op. cit. note 8, §6.54.
54. Ibid., §7.
55. A version of this essay was first delivered as the second of the 1995 Hourani
Lectures at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I am indebted to the mem-
bers of the Department of Philosophy there for their hospitality while I was working
on these lectures, and to Newton Garver in particular for his comments and encour-
© Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1997