Roughly speaking..

I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus for a class I’m teaching tomorrow and the following line just kills me:

[2.0232] Roughly speaking, objects are colourless.

I think it’s because, before reflection, it sounds as if it has a lot in common with these sentences:

Roughly speaking, you’re going to get an F.


Roughly speaking, teddy bears eat people.


Roughly speaking, Elvis wrote “As you like it”.

I think these are funny in two different respects. Firstly, the embedded sentence is so absurd that the fact that the author takes the care to say “roughly speaking” – as if you might be about to jump in and correct him on some small point – is hilarious. And secondly, it’s hard to see how the state of affairs described could be “roughly” right. One wants to say: look mate, do teddy-bears eat people or not? I might have children to save! What’s all this “roughly” business?

But after some consideration I suppose Wittgenstein’s sentence isn’t really like that. He thinks that objects are strictly property-less, and so “objects are colourless” might seem like one way to express that they don’t have any colour properties. But of course to say that would strictly be to ascibe a property to them (the property of being colourless) and so it isn’t strictly true either.

My German copy is in my office, otherwise I’d be checking the original of the “roughly speaking” – maybe this is a translation thing.