A Program Is Articulate

Rearing its head out of Helen’s corner of the twitter-sphere around the occassion of the great Austrian’s 112th birthday (and sixty years since his death) comes the Tractatus Digito-Philosophicus, a recasting of Wittgenstein’s landmark first book into software terms.

2.0122 […] (It is impossible for words to appear in two different roles: by themselves, and in programs.)

There are several appealing elements to this self-described “odd venture”. One is that the translation is to a degree automatic, based on a simple search and replace table found at the end. It is logical positivism via sed. Another is that the Tractatus was produced during and soon after Wittgenstein was working as an actual engineer – first as an aviation research engineer at Manchester University, and later supervising technicians in a supply depot in World War I. He was not temperamentally very well suited to engineering work. Biographers have traditionally downplayed this as an intellectual influence, though Susan Sterett explores interesting parallels and possible influences around the idea of engineering models in the well-titled and readable Wittgenstein Flies A Kite.

The Tractatus Digito has the virtue of poetry (metaphor, simile, and so on) in presenting the same information from a different perspective and so firing different connections in the brain. But it’s more systematic than poetry as well. It’s not just a martial arts metaphor, as rhetorically useful as they can be. To contrast with an example close to hand, attempting to describe software in Confucian terms is a project fuelled as much by juxtaposition and analogy as correspondence. The mapping to that world will always be a partial one.

Ainsworth, rather, has noticed what every undergraduate programmer should know: that programs are sequences of logical propositions. So Wittgenstein is necessarily writing about software, or perhaps more specfically, because there is no social dimension, about programs. Our thinking about software is intertwined with its origins in the 1920s. This partial recasting is valuable in the same way a Turing Machine simulator is valuable. Sure, some of the resulting sentences don’t really make sense. Yet bringing registers and sorting algorithms into the book that invented truth tables feels less like visiting a foreign land, and more like hearing a friend talk excitedly on their return to the old family home.


A program is not a blend of instructions. – (Just as a theme in music is not a blend of notes.)

A program is articulate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.