Encyclopedia > Ludwig Wittgenstein

  Article Content

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1930

Ludwig Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889 - 1951) was an Austrian and English philosopher who was mainly concerned with the meaning and limitations of language. In his life he only published one work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was very influential amongst the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, although Wittgenstein did not consider himself part of that school. The Tractatus was later heavily criticised by Wittgenstein himself, in the Blue and Brown Books[?] and in the Philosophical Investigations, both published after his death. He studied under Bertrand Russell at Trinity College, Cambridge and later taught there.

Table of contents


He was born as Ludwig Joseph Johann Wittgenstein in Vienna. His paternal grandparents, after they had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, moved from Saxony in Germany to Vienna, where Ludwig's father, Karl Wittgenstein, gained wealth and esteem as one of the leading businessmen in the iron and steel industry of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ludwig's mother, Leopoldine (née Kalmus) was a Catholic, but her father was also of Jewish descent. Ludwig was baptized in a Catholic church (and when he died he would be given a Catholic burial although he never was a practicing nor a believing Catholic).

Ludwig grew up as the youngest of eight children in a family that provided an intellectually and artistically stimulating environment. Ludwig's parents were both very musical and all their children were both artistically and intellectually gifted. Moreover the Wittgenstein's house attracted many people of culture, especially musicians. The family was often visited by artists such as Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. All his life music would remain important to Ludwig and he used many musical examples in his philosophical writings. Another less fortunate inheritance would be his suicidal tendencies; three of his four brothers committed suicide. The other, Paul Wittgenstein, became a famous pianist.

Until 1903 Ludwig was educated at home; after that he began three years of schooling at the Realschule in Linz, a school emphasizing technical topics. Adolf Hitler was a student there at the same time, but there is no evidence that the two met. In 1906 Ludwig took up studying mechanical engineering in Berlin. In 1908 he went to the University of Manchester to study for his doctorate in engineering. For this purpose he registered as a research student in an engineering laboratory. There he did research on the behavior of kites in the upper atmosphere of the earth. From that he moved to aeronautical research on the design of a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades. He successfully designed and tested it.

For his research Wittgenstein needed to study more mathematics than he knew, and he became interested in the foundations of mathematics, especially after he had read Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics (the predecessor of Principia Mathematica).

He studied in Germany briefly under Gottlob Frege, arguably the greatest logician since Aristotle and who had in previous couple of decades laid the foundations of modern logic and logical mathematics. Frege urged him to read the work of Bertrand Russell, who had discovered certain crucial contradictions in Frege's own theories. In 1912 Wittgenstein went to the University of Cambridge and studied with Russell. He made a great impression on Russell and G. E. Moore and started to work on the foundations of logic and mathematical logic. In this period he had three big interests: philosophy, music and travelling.

In 1913, Wittgenstein inherited a great fortune when his father died. He donated some of it (initially anonymously) to Austrian artists and writers including Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. In 1914 he would go to see Trakl when the latter wanted to meet his benefactor, but Trakl killed himself days before Wittgenstein arrived.

Because he felt that the discussions he had with other academics lacked depth, he retreated in 1913 to a life of solitude in a mountain cabin in Skjolden[?] in Norway, so remote it could be reached only by horseback. This turned out to be a very productive period where he developed his ideas on logic and language that would provide the basis for the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The outbreak of World War I in the next year took him completely by surprise as he was living a secluded life at the time. He volunteered for the Austria-Hungarian Empire army, hoping that nearness of death would improve him. He first served on a ship and then in an artillery workshop. In 1916 he was sent as a member of a howitzer regiment to the Russian front where he won several medals for bravery. The diary entries of this time reflect his contempt for the baseness of his fellow soldiers.

During the war Wittgenstein wrote his philosophical contemplations in his notebooks that he kept with him. At the end of the war in 1918 he was sent to north Italy in an artillery regiment, and there he became a prisoner of the Italians. When he was taken prisoner they found a ready manuscript of the Tractatus in his rucksack. He was allowed to send it (with help from John Maynard Keynes) from his prison camp in Italy to Bertrand Russell in Cambridge. Despite Russell's efforts it was not published until 1921 and then only in German and in Wilhelm Ostwald's journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie. A year later it would be published as a book in a bilingual (English and German) edition under the Latin title, suggested by G. E. Moore, with perhaps a deliberate resemblance to Spinoza's Tractus Theologico-Politicus[?]. It was translated by Frank Ramsey, himself only just out of his teens, and given an introduction by Russell. Of the original notebooks only the three remain that were published in 1961.

In prison Wittgenstein read Tolstoy's commentary on the gospels, and as a result when released in 1919 he gave away the family fortune that he had inherited when his father had died. Much of it he gave to his siblings, insisting they promise never to give it back. Giving money to the poor, he felt, could only corrupt them further; the rich would not be harmed by it.

Because in his own opinion Wittgenstein had now solved all problems of philosophy, he returned to Austria and trained as a primary school teacher. He was educated in the methods of the Austrian School Reform Movement[?] which advocated the stimulation of the natural curiosity of children and their development as independent thinkers, instead of just letting them memorize facts. Wittgenstein was enthusiastic about these ideas but ran into problems when he was appointed as a elementary teacher in a small village in rural Austria. Although the children seemed to appreciate him, he had a long series of disagreements with the children's parents and his colleagues. During this period Wittgenstein was very unhappy and came on a few occasions close to committing suicide. In 1925 he gave up his job as a teacher with the feeling that he had failed miserably as a primary school teacher.

After that he worked as a gardener's assistant in a monastery near Vienna. In the period 1926-28 he would work on the design and construction of a mansion house near Vienna for his sister Margaret ("Gretl") Stoneborough. At the end of this period Moritz Schlick brought him in contact with the Vienna Circle. He accepted the invitation but only on the precondition that they would not criticize any of his philosphical positions.

During this whole period that Wittgenstein was away from university he was not completely isolated from the study of the foundations of mathematics and philosophy. On several occasions he met Frank P. Ramsey who was making a special study of the Tractatus and had travelled several times from Cambridge to Austria to meet with Wittgenstein and also with philosophers of the Vienna circle. As Wittgenstein later admitted, these discussions showed him that there might be some "grave mistakes" in his work presented in the Tractatus.

In 1929 he decided, at the urging of Ramsey and others, to return to Cambridge. He was met at the train station by a crown of England's greatest intellectuals, discovering rather to his horror that he was one of the most famed philosophers in the world.

Despite this fame, he could not initially work at Cambridge, as he did not have a degree, so he applied as an undergraduate (!). Russell noted that his previous residency was in fact sufficient for a doctoral degree, and urged him to offer the Tractatus as a doctoral thesis[?], which he did in 1929. It was examined by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defense, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder "Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it." Moore commented in the examiner's report to the effect that: "In my opinion this is a work of genius; it is, in any case, up to the standards of a degree from Cambridge." Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College.

Wittgenstein's political sympathies lay on the left, and while he was opposed to Marxist theory, he described himself as a "communist at heart" and romanticized the life of labourers. In 1934, attracted by Keynes' description Short View of Russia, he conceived the idea of emigrating to the Soviet Union with his close friend (or lover) Francis Skinner[?]. They took lessons in Russian and in 1935 Wittgenstein traveled to Leningrad and Moscow in an attempt to secure employment. He was offered teaching positions but preferred manual work and returned three weeks later.

From 1936 to 1937, Wittgenstein lived again in Norway, leaving Skinner behind. He worked on the Philosphical Investigations. In the winter of 1936/37, he delivered a series of "confessions" to close friends, most of them about minor infractions, in an effort to cleanse himself.

After G. E. Moore's resignation in 1939, Wittgenstein, who was by then considered a philosophical genius, was appointed to the chair in Philosophy at Cambridge. He acquired the British citizenship soonafter.

After exhausting philosophical work, Wittgenstein would often relax by watching an American western or reading detective stories. These tastes are in stark contrast to his preferences in music, where he rejected anything after Brahms as a symptom of the decay of society.

By then, Wittgenstein's view on the foundations of mathematics had changed considerably. Earlier, he had thought that logic could provide a solid foundation, and he had even considered updating Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. Now he denied that there were any mathematical facts to be discovered and that mathematical statements were "true" in any real sense: they simply expressed the conventional established meanings of certain symbols; he also denied that a contradiction should count as a fatal flaw of a mathematical system. He gave a series of lectures which were attended by Alan Turing and in which the two argued vigorously about these matters.

During a period in World War II he left Cambridge and volunteered as a hospital porter in Guy's Hospital[?] in London and as a laboratory assistant in the Royal Victoria Infirmary. He taught at Cambridge until 1947 when he resigned to concentrate on his writing. He never like the intellectual's life at Cambridge, and in fact he encouraged several of his students to pursue non-academic careers.

Wittgenstein communicated with the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, who succeeded Wittgenstein as professor at the University of Cambridge.

Much of Wittgenstein's later work was done in the rural isolation that was so much preferred by him, on the west coast of Ireland. By 1949, when he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer, he had written most of the material that would be published after his death as Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) which arguably contains his most important work. The last two years of his life were spent by him working in Vienna, Oxford and Cambridge. His work from this period has been published as On Certainty. He died in Cambridge in April 1951. His last words were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

The Tractatus

The Tractatus could be fit with little difficulty into fifty pages. It consists of a series of numbered propositions, 1, 1.1, 1.11, 1.12, etc., so that 1.1 is a comment on or elaboration of 1, 1.11 and 1.12 comment on 1.1, and so forth. There are seven "main" propositions; The first is "1. The world is everything that is the case" (also translated "...all that is the case." This is probably a significant ambiguity, since the former appears to define "world" and the latter appears to delimit what is (or could be) the case); the last, with no supplementary remarks is "7. What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence."

In rough order, the first half of the book sets forth the following theses: the world consists of independent atomic facts--existing states of affairs--out of which larger facts are built. Language consists in atomic,and then larger-scale, propositions that correspond to these facts by sharing the same "logical form." Thought, expressed in language, "pictures" these facts. We can analyse our thoughts and sentences to express (*show*, not say) their true logical form; those we cannot so analyse are in a literal sense meaningless. Philosophy consists in no more than this form of analysis.

"Picture Theory of Language" "Logical Atomism" "Logical Analysis" "Ideal Language philsophy"

Under 4. and 5. and their subsidaries, Wittgenstein develops "truth tables," which are now the standard method of explaining semantics for sentential logic, and gives a rigorous if rather opaque account of formal logic generally, covering notation, Russell's paradox, and the notions of tautology and contradiction, and truth-functions. He moves increasingly into questions of language, connections with science, belief, and induction, giving a rather austere view of all these things ("Superstition is just belief in the causal nexus.")

In 6. he moves on to more philosophical reflections on logic, which connect to ideas of knowledge, thought, and the "a priori" and "transcendental." The final pages suggest logic and language can supply no meaning, and that since they perfectly reflect the world, neither can it. Ethics and aesthetics can say nothing. He begins talking of the will, life and death, and veers rather deliberately into strangely mystical remarks ("If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present," "The riddle does not exist") all the while increasingly hinting that his own project of trying to explain language is impossible for exactly these reasons. He compares the book to a ladder that must be thrown away after one has climbed it, then the book ends with 7.

See also: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Intermediary Works

Between the Tractatus and his death Wittgenstein published only a single paper, "Remarks on Logical Form," and two very brief letters to a philosophical journal. The paper was to be read to the Aristotelian Society, where members would comment on it, but by that time he had repudiated it as worthless and insisted on talking about the concept of infinity instead. He also gave a lecture on ethics that was reprinted.

He wrote copiously, however, and arranged much of his writing into an array of incomplete manuscripts. Some thirty thousand pages existed at the time of his death. Much, but not nearly all of this has been sorted and released in several volumes.

The bulk of his work in the twenties and thirties involved attacking from various angles the sort of philosophical perfectionism embodied in the Tractatus.

The Philosophical Investigations

Published posthumously in 1953, Philosophical Investigations comprises two parts. Part I, consisting of 693 numbered paragraphs, which was ready for printing in 1946, but was rescinded from the publisher by Wittgenstein and Part II which was added on by the editors, trustees of his Nachlass.

In PI Wittgenstein presents an analysis of our use of language which he sees as crucial to the carrying out of philosophical research. In brief, Wittgenstein describes language as a set of language-games within which the words of our language function and receive their meaning. This view of meaning as use represents a break from the classical view (also presented by Wittgenstein in his earlier Tractatus) of meaning as representation.

Late Work

  • "On Certainty" - A collection of aphorisms discussing the relation between knowledge and certainty, extremely influential in the philosophy of action.
  • "Remarks on Colour"

Important Publications

  • Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, Annalen der Naturphilosophie, 14 (1921)
    • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by C.K. Ogden (1922)
  • Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953)
    • Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1953)
  • Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik, ed. by G.H. von Wright, R. Rhees, and G.E.M. Anscombe (1956) (a selection from his writings on the philosophy of logic and mathematics between 1937 and 1944)
    • Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe, rev. ed. (1978)
  • The Blue and Brown Books (1958) (Notes dictated in English to Cambridge students in 1933-35)
  • Philosophische Bemerkungen, ed. by Rush Rhees (1964)
    • Philosophical Remarks (1975)

Other references

  • Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 1990. A biography that also attempts to explain his philosophy.

External links

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
List of anatomical topics

... Splanchnology[?] -- spleen -- sternum[?] -- stomach -- subclavian artery[?] -- suboccipital muscle[?] -- Superficial anatomy -- superficial cervical muscle[?] -- sympathetic ...