Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1930

Ludwig Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889 - April 29, 1951) was an Austrian-born philosopher who contributed groundbreaking works, primarily in the foundations of logic and the philosophy of language. Although numerous collections from Wittgenstein's notebooks, papers, and lectures have been published since his death, he published only one philosophical book in his own lifetime — the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At first Wittgenstein believed that the Tractatus definitively solved all the problems of philosophy; and he subsequently gave up philosophical work for several years and went on to work as a schoolteacher, a gardener at a monastery, and finally as an architect for his sister's new house in Vienna. Eventually, Wittgenstein returned to philosophy and criticized elements of the Tractatus. The development of a new philosophical method and a new understanding of language would culminate in his second magnum opus, the posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations.

Although Wittgenstein was raised in Vienna, and considered himself an Austrian for his whole life, today he is perhaps most closely associated with Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under Bertrand Russell, and where he returned in 1929 to continue his research and eventually to teach. His early work was deeply influenced by Russell's work on logic, and by his earlier brief study with the German logician Gottlob Frege. When the Tractatus was published, it was taken up as a major influence by the Vienna Circle positivists — although Wittgenstein did not consider himself part of that school, and alleged that logical positivism involved grave misunderstandings of the Tractatus. Both his early and later work have been major influences in the development of Analytic philosophy, especially in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and action theory. Former students and colleagues who carried on Wittgenstein's methods included Gilbert Ryle, Friedrich Waismann, Norman Malcolm, G. E. M. Anscombe, Rush Rhees, and Peter Geach; contemporary philosophers heavily influenced by Wittgenstein include James Conant, Peter Hacking, Stanley Cavell, and Saul Kripke.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 The Tractatus
3 Intermediary Works
4 The Philosophical Investigations
5 Late Work
6 Important Publications
7 Quotations
8 Other references
9 External links


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 would be given a Catholic burial by his friends when he died, although he was not a believing or practicing Catholic in his later life).

Early Life

Ludwig grew up as the youngest of eight children in a household that provided an intense intellectual and artistic environment. Ludwig's parents were both very musical and all their children were both artistically and intellectually gifted. Karl Wittgenstein was a leading patron of the arts, and the Wittgenstein house hosted many figures of high culture--above all, musicians. The family was often visited by artists such as Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. Ludwig's brother Paul Wittgenstein went on to become a world-famous concert pianist (even after he lost his right arm in World War I). Ludwig himself did not have prodigous musical talent, but his devotion to music remained vitally important to him throughout his life--including frequent use of musical examples and metaphors in his philosophical writings. A less fortunate inheritance was a tendency to intense self-criticism, to the point of depression and suicidal tendencies. (Three of Ludwig's four brothers committed suicide.)

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, who had in the preceding 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.

Although he was invigorated by his study in Cambridge and his conversations with Russell, Wittgenstein came to feel that he could not get around his most fundamental questions surrounded with other academics. In 1913 he retreated to the solitude of a mountain remote cabin in Skjolden, Norway (which could only be reached by horseback). The isolation allowed him to devote himself entirely to his work, and during this period (which he later saw as one of the passionate and productive times of his life) he made ground-breaking work in the foundations of logic. The eventual outcome was a book entitled Logik, the immediate predecessor and source of much of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the magnum opus of Wittgenstein's early career.

World War I

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.

Throughout the war, Wittgenstein kept notebooks in which he frequently wrote philosophical and religious reflections alongside personal remarks. At the beginning of his tour of duty Wittgenstein devoured Tolstoy's commentary on the Gospels, and became a devoted (if troubled and doubting) Christian, and in his philosophical writings Wittgenstein's work in Logik began to take on an ethical and religious significance. This new concern with the form of the ethical combined with his earlier interest in logical analysis, and with key insights developed during the war--such as the so-called "picture theory" of propositions--Wittgenstein's work from Cambridge and Norway was transfigured into the material that eventually became the Tractatus. In 1918, toward the end of the war, Wittgenstein was sent to north Italy in an artillery regiment, where he was captured as a prisoner of war by the Italians. When he was taken prisoner they found a German manuscript entitled the Logische-Philosophische Abhandlung (Logical-Philosophical Treatise) in his rucksack. This manuscript would eventually become the Tracatus: through the intervention of his Cambridge friends--especially John Maynard Keynes--Wittgenstein managed to get access to books, prepare his manuscript, and send it back to England. Russell recognized it as a work of supreme philosophical importance, and after Wittgenstein's release in 1919 he worked with Wittgenstein to get it published. An English translation was prepared, first by Frank Ramsey and then by C. K. Ogden, with Wittgenstein's involvement. After some discussion of how best to translate the title, G. E. Moore suggested Tracatus Logico-Philosophicus, in an allusion to Baruch Spinoza's Tracatus Theologico-Politicus. Russell wrote an introduction, lending the book his reputation as one of the foremost philosophers in the world.

However, difficulties remained. Wittgenstein had become personally disaffected with Russell, and he was displeased with Russell's Introduction, which he thought to evince fundamental misunderstandings of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein grew frustrated as interested publishers proved difficult to find. To add insult to injury, those publishers who were interested proved to be mainly interested in the book because of Russell's introduction. At last, Wittgenstein found a publisher in Wilhelm Ostwald's journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie, which printed a German edition in 1921, and in Routledge Kegan Paul, which printed a bilingual edition with Russell's introduction and the Ramsey-Ogden translation in 1922.

The "Lost Years": Life After the Tractatus

At the same time, Wittgenstein was a profoundly changed man: he had become a passionate convert to Christianity, faced harrowing combat in World War I, and crystallized the upheavels in his intellectual and emotional life with the exhausting composition of the Tractatus--a work which transfigured all of his past work on logic into a radically new framework that he believed to offer a definitive solution to all the problems of philosophy. These changes in Wittgenstein's inner and outer life left him both haunted and yet invigorated to follow a new, ascetic life. One of the most dramatic expressions of this change was his decision to give away the family fortune that he had inherited when his father had died. Some of the main beneficiaries were avant-garde German and Austrian artists (among them Rainer Maria Rilke). He also gave much of it to his siblings, insisting that 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.)

Since Wittgenstein thought that the Tractatus had solved all the problems of philosophy, he left philosophy and returned to Austria to train 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 the rural Austrian villages of Trattenbach, Puchberg-am-Schneeberg, and Otterthal. During his time as a schoolteacher Wittgenstein wrote a pronunciation and spelling dictionary for his use in teaching students; it soon published and well-received by his colleagues. (It would be the only book besides the Tractatus that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime.)

Wittgenstein's teaching methods were intense and exacting, and his students enjoyed a level of education very rarely available in impoverished rural schools. However, Wittgenstein had very little patience for his slower students, and his severe disciplinary methods (often involving corporal punishment) — as well as a general suspicion amongst the villagers that he was somewhat mad — led to a long series of bitter disagreements with some of his student's parents. During this period Wittgenstein was prone to miserable bouts of depression. In April 1926, he resigned his position and returned to Vienna, feeling that he had failed as a school teacher.

After that he worked as a gardener's assistant in a monastery near Vienna. He considered becoming a monk, and went so far as to inquire about the requirements for joining an order. However, at the interview he was advised that he could not find in monastic life what he sought.

Two major developments helped to save Wittgenstein from this despairing state. The first was an invitation from his sister Margaret ("Gretl") Stoneborough to work on the design and construction of her new house. He worked with the architect, Paul Engelmann (who became a close friend of Wittgenstein's during the war), and the two designed a spare modernist house after the style of Adolf Loos (who they both greatly admired). Wittgenstein found the work intellectually absorbing, and exhausting — he poured himself into the design in painstaking detail, and poured himself into the design of even small details such as doorknobs and radiators (which had to be exactly positioned to maintain the symmetry of the rooms). As a work of modernist architecture the house evoked some high praise; G. H. von Wright said that it possessed the same "static beauty" as the Tractatus. The effort of totally involving himself in intellectual work once again did much to restore Wittgenstein's spirits.

Secondly, toward the end of his work on the house, Wittgenstein was contacted by Moritz Schlick, one of the leading figures of the newly-formed Vienna Circle. The Tractatus had been tremendously influential to the development of the Vienna positivism, and although Schlick never succeeded in drawing Wittgenstein into the discussions of the Vienna Circle itself, he and some of his fellow circle members (especially Friedrich Waismann) met occasionally with Wittgenstein to discuss philosophical topics. Wittgenstein was frequently frustrated by these meetings — he believed that Schlick and his colleagues had fundamentally misunderstood the Tractatus, and at times would refuse to talk about it at all. (Much of the disagreements concerned the importance of religious life and the mystical; Wittgenstein considered these matters of a sort of wordless faith, whereas the positivists disdained them as useless. In one meeting, Wittgenstein refused to discuss the Tractatus at all, and sat with his back to his guests while he read aloud from the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.) Nevertheless, the contact with the Vienna Circle stimulated Wittgenstein intellectually and revived his interest in philosophy. He also met with Frank P. Ramsey, a young philosopher of mathematics who travelled several times from Cambridge to Austria to meet with Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle. In the course of his conversations with the Vienna Circle and with Ramsey, Wittgenstein began to think that there might be some "grave mistakes" in his work as presented in the Tractatus — marking the beginning of a second career of ground-breaking philosophical work, which would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Returning to Cambridge

In 1929 he decided, at the urging of Ramsey and others, to return to Cambridge. He was met at the train station by a crowd 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 advanced 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 Philosophical 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 soon afterwards.

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 Newcastle Upon Tyne's Royal Victoria Infirmary. He taught at Cambridge until 1947 when he resigned to concentrate on his writing. He never liked 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.

Although Wittgenstein was involved in a relationship to Marguerite Respinger (a young Swiss woman who he had met as a friend of the family), his plans to marry Marguerite were broken off in 1931, and Wittgenstein never married. Most of his romantic attachments were to young men. There is considerable debate over how active Wittgenstein's homoerotic life was--inspired by W. W. Bartley's claim to have found evidence of several casual liasons during Wittgenstein's time in Vienna. What is clear, in any case, is that Wittgenstein had several long-term homosexual attachments, including an infatuation with his friend David Pinsent and long-term, active affairs with Francis Skinner and Ben Richardson. (As a result, Wittgenstein is often cited as a prominent example of famous gay, lesbian, or bisexual philosophers.)

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 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 philosophy"

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

Wittgenstein wrote copiously after his return to Cambridge, 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. During his "middle work" in the 1920s and 1930s, much of his work involed attacks from various angles on the sort of philosophical perfectionism embodied in the Tractatus. Of this work, Wittgenstein published only a single paper, "Remarks on Logical Form," which was submitted to be read for the Aristotelian Society and published in their proceedings. By the time of the conference, however, Wittgenstein had repudiated the essay as worthelss, and gave a talk on the concept of infinity instead. Wittgenstein was increasingly frustrated to find that, although he was not yet ready to publish his work, some other philosophers were beginning to publish essays containing inaccurate presentations of his own views based on their conversations with him. As a result, he published a very brief letter to the journal Mind, taking a recent article by R. B. Braithwaite as a case in point, and asked philosophers to hold off writing about his views until he was himself ready to publish them.

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

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)


  • Proposition 6.54 from the Tractatus: "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as non-sensical.."..."-as steps-to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)"
  • "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" (proposition 7 and final sentence of the Tractatus). An alternative version sometimes quoted is "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent"; and the related paragraph from the introduction to the Tractatus:
  • "...the aim of this book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather- not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable..."

Other references

  • Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, 1990. A biography that also attempts to explain his philosophy.
  • Norman Malcolm: 'Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Memoir', 1958. A moving portrait by someone who knew Wittgenstein well.

External links