Ludwig Wittgenstein Introduction

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Reply Tue 16 Dec, 2008 01:02 pm
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein is believed by many to be one of the twentieth century's most important philosophers. It is rather ironic then that he is probably more widely remembered for waving a poker at Karl Popper in order too make his point and then abruptly leaving. It is clear that he was an intense and compelling personality.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on the 26th of April 1889 into the large and wealthy Wittgenstein family. His father Karl Wittgenstein was one of the most successful businessmen in the Iron and Steel and enjoyed a position of some prominence within Viennese society at the time. Though wealthy, home life was far from easy for the young Wittgenstein, being the youngest of eight children with three of his four brothers committing suicide.

He also enjoyed a rather unorthodox formal education, he did not attend school until the age of 14 and then he was not particularly successful. Wittgenstein failed in his ambition to read Physics at University and it was then assumed that he would become an engineer like his father having shown some aptitude in this direction. Ludwig first went too study mechanical engineering at Berlin and then moved onto Manchester where he undertook research in aeronautics. It was at Manchester that he became interested in Philosophy, having read and been impressed by Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics. In 1912 on the advice of Frege, he went to Cambridge to study with Russell.

He stayed at Cambridge for a relatively short period of time, though it was clear he was a brilliant thinker, he instead opted to travel. This was interrupted by the First World War in 1914 which saw Wittgenstein immediately sign up to the Austrian Army where he served on the eastern front winning several medals for bravery. It was also during this time that he began work on the manuscript of the book which became the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was eventually published in 1922 with the help of his mentor Russell. This is Ludwig Wittgenstein major work of his early period and its decidedly a young mans work. The Tractatus was only 70 pages long which essentially elaborated seven propositions.

Some of the important representative propositions are these:

1 The world is all that is the case.
1.2 The world divides into facts.
1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.
4.01 A proposition is a picture of reality.
4.0312 ...My fundamental idea is that the 'logical constants' are not representatives; that there can be no representatives of the logic of facts.
4.121 ...Propositions show the logical form of reality. They display it.
4.1212 What can be shown, cannot be said.
4.5 ...The general form of a proposition is: This is how things stand.
5.43 ...all the propositions of logic say the same thing, to wit nothing.
5.4711 To give the essence of a proposition means to give the essence of all description, and thus the essence of the world.
5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Being a logical and mathematical kind of guy, the book consists of numbered propositions. For example proposition 1.2 belongs to the first set and is a comment on proposition 1. With 1.21 is about proposition 1.2, and so on.

The book set out what is known as the picture theory of meaning. The world consists of a set of atomic facts. Propositions such as the 'Cat Is Black' are logical pictures of the actual world or they present possible facts. In other words propositions stand for possible states of affair within the world. If the state of affair presented by the proposition obtains in the world then the proposition is true. It was Wittgenstein's view that underlying logical structure of language therefore mirrors the logical structure of the world.

What is generally interesting in the Tractatus is Wittgenstein's view that things can be said clearly or not at all 'When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.' Language marks the limit of human thought, if it is not possible to say something clearly, it isn't possible to think it without falling into nonsense.

The young man that had written the Tractatus believed he had solved all possible Philosophical questions. Anything that cannot be stated in the way Wittgenstein demands, anything else is essentially poetry, religion or neurosis and is not too be taken seriously. Having felt he had solved all the problems of Philosophy he went back to Austria to become a schoolteacher where it was said that his methods where strict and unpopular but effective.

He eventually gave up teaching and became a gardener at a monastery. He began to talk with some of the members of the Vienna Circle a group of logical positivists based in Vienna at the time, who placed reverence on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein evening mentioning him in there manifesto as one of the '"Leading representatives of the scientific world-conception".

It was around this time he began to feel some misgivings about the Tractatus and that it may have not solved all Philosophical problems after all. This reassessment lead the second phase of his Philosophical career, and his first major work after the publishing of the Tractatus. Philosophical Investigations was not completed when Wittgenstein died in 1951 and was published in 1953 too years after his death.

In many respects the idea's he developed in the Investigations were completely at odds to those displayed in his earlier philosophy. He came to believe that the idea of language being a determinate system, where propositions stand for states of affairs in the world, was fundamentally misconceived. Rather that meaning is inextricably tied to the behaviour of language users and the context that the language is employed.

In Philosophical investigations says that "For a large class of cases--though not for all--in which we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language." Though it is quite clear that he is not offering the theory that meaning is use.

A rather unique approach is used in the Investigations with Wittgenstein having the reader work through various problems making the reader participate actively in the investigation, treating Philosophy as an activity rather than just theory. Wittgenstein asks the reader to come up with a definition for the word game, though this may seem a simple task. It quickly come's apparent that there is no universal quality that all games share and that only game's share, any definition which focuses on amusement leaves us unsatisfied since the feelings experienced by a world class chess player are very different from those of a circle of children playing Duck Duck Goose. Any definition which focuses on competition will fail to explain the game of catch, or the game of solitaire. And a definition of the word "game" which focuses on rules will fall on similar difficulties.

What Wittgenstein shows us that that we don't have a definition, and we don't need one, because even without the definition, we use the word successfully, within the boundary's of the language game that we are playing at that time. In one language game the word 'game' might mean one thing and in another it may mean another thing, but as long as everyone understands us we have no problem and if they don't we can add an extra degree of clarity too the language game we are playing too the point that we all have a common understanding and the word can be successfully used.

He frees from us the Socratic demand for essential definition. In Meno we are asked for the definition of virtue ,Socrates points out that that Meno lists many particular virtues without defining a common feature inherent to virtues which makes them thus, but Wittgenstein would propose that what allows us to call them virtues is the fact that they share a family resemblance. In this analogy we are shown how we recognize a family due to the fact they share certain traits among one another though they may not be identically the same but they may have the shame jaw, nose, chin or hair. This helps us explain why we can consider Olympic Target shooting a game but we are extremely unlikely to consider military sharp shooting a game.

In the Investigations Wittgenstein also ask the question whether it is possible for a private language to exist. To consider this possibility, he imagines a case where a person writes down 'S' in a diary whenever they experience a particular sensation. In this way it seems possible to arrive at a private definition of 'S' with it being possible to establish a permanent connection between 'S' and the sensation. However Wittgenstein establishes a crucial problem, in a private language there is no clear difference between remembering the correct application of a sign, and believing that one has remembered the correct application of a sign. Which means that the sign lacks meaning nothing can establish if it is being used correctly. It follows that a private language is not possible and that language gains its meaning from public context.

It was Wittgenstein's believe that the role of philosophy was to uncover the various ways that we are baffled and confused by language as he put it in Investigations philosophy 'is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language'. He holds an interesting place in Philosophy maybe due to his lack of traditional Philosophical background and the fact he never felt the need to go back through the history of Philosophy and often told his students not to bother too. He has left a significant mark on philosophy with the Vienna Circle being very much impressed by the Tractatus which had great influence on them. The ordinary or Oxford school language are particularly indebted, with these thinkers being more interested in his later work and his attention too grammar. It is quite easy to understand how Bertrand Russell considered Wittgenstein to be perhaps the greatest intellect of his day.

Important other Works

The Blue and Brown Books
Published in 1958, several years after the death of Wittgenstein, these books originate from the mid 30's. They were dictated by Wittgenstein to his students and constitute a useful introduction to the writings of his later period.

On Certainty
Also published after his death, this collection of writing's on epistemology are taken from the last few year's of Wittgenstein's life and are primarily sourced from within his notebooks.

Useful Resources

The Blue Book (ENG)

A lecture On Ethics By Wittgenstein

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Reply Tue 16 Dec, 2008 01:48 pm
Nice introduction, thank you!
Extra Gravy
Reply Wed 10 Jun, 2009 02:15 pm
Regarding L.W.'s early education:
He benefited from the personal attention of a small army of tutors that his father employed to educate his children (at one point they numbered in the twenties). He may have entered formal educational environments late (due to family loss causing a change of opinion in his father) but that does not mean that he did not have an excellent and highly developed educational foundation.

---------- Post added at 03:21 PM ---------- Previous post was at 03:15 PM ----------

Grayling in his Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction makes an interesting case for why Wittgenstein was not the most influential philosopher of the 20th, as well as why he didn't really influence the Vienna circle or positivists that much. I was surprised and intrigued by his discussion and recommend the book as a great introduction to his work, although I'm not sure I fully agree with his assessment :-)

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