Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Germanic & Slavic Languages & Literature

First Advisor

Davide Stimilli

Second Advisor

Henry Pickford

Third Advisor

Patrick Greaney


In the mid 1920s, reflecting the common concern of the so-called "Sprachkrise" [Crisis of Language], both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Franz Kafka were composing writings deeply concerned with language’s ability to express human thought. In his Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, Wittgenstein established the foundation of his early linguistic theory and attempted to draw the boundary of meaningful language. At the same time, Kafka developed his thoughts of language and ethics in the third and fourth volumes of the Oktavhefte. The analog between the Tractatus and the Oktavhefte is evident not only in their philosophical concepts of language, but also their choice of the aphoristic style. This parallel is not a mere coincidence, but rather motivated by historical possibility and theoretical necessity.

My paper compares these two works, showing that Wittgenstein and Kafka shared an understanding of language as a domain bound within the physical world and hence incapable of expressing our spiritual being. Both emphasized the importance of this limitation, suggesting that we should be conscious of the boundary in order to transcend it into a “higher realm” of the ethical and the aesthetic. However, Wittgenstein and Kafka adopted different methodologies to achieve this transcendence. Presenting itself as a rigorous philosophical writing, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus constantly reminds its reader of the limitation of its own logical and philosophical language by claiming itself to be “nonsense” and only a transcendent ladder which the reader should get rid of after climbing up. Without constructing rigorous logical arguments, Kafka was able to criticize language, especially the unnaturalness of natural language, from within language itself. Furthermore, his writing indicates that the poetic nature of language once made manifest can transcend the boundary of language.