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Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951) is regarded as the father of Analytical (or Linguistic) Philosophy, and one of the 20th Century's most influential thinkers.


Coming to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell in 1911, from a background in engineering, he began exploring the foundations of mathematics and logic. Russell was involved in the Hilbert project to derive all of maths from logic, and he predicted that Wittgenstein would take 'the next big step in philosophy'. Unfortunately for Russell, however, Wittgenstein became fiercely critical of Russell's work in the foundations of mathematics1 and even more of his political and ethical writings, and to the end of his life Wittgenstein was something of a thorn in Russell's side2.

Wittgenstein moved to an isolated house in Norway in order to work on his attempt to derive the whole of logic from one 'primitive proposition'. When World War I broke out, he happened to be at home in Austria, and, finding it impossible to get out, he joined the army as a volunteer (unlike his elder brothers3 who were officers). He was decorated twice for bravery, but he believed the English were 'the best race in the world' and sure to win the war; he hated army life, yet found a sort of confirmation from facing death, that made him say the war had saved his life.

In a prison camp at the end of the war he completed the only book he would publish in his lifetime: the slim, densely-argued and highly-influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was published in 1921 in German and in 1922 in English (with Russell's help)4. This had grown from a treatise on logic to a work encompassing ethics and the mystical. Its essential message is that there is a limit to what language can deal with; he made a stark distinction between what we could sensibly talk about (facts) and what we couldn't (including values), and claimed to have thereby proved that much classical 'philosophy' is an attempt to do the impossible. Later he softened this position, but he continued to regard most philosophy that was not linguistic analysis as a criminal waste of effort.

That which can be said can be said clearly, but:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.

This, he believed, essentially concluded the classical quest of philosophy.

Having published his solution, he abandoned philosophical work and became a primary-school teacher, then a gardener. He also co-designed and oversaw the building of a modernist house - which can still be visited in Vienna - for his sister. He was brought back to philosophy by scholars seeking clarification of his book; he became a Research Fellow in Cambridge, where he was made Professor of Philosophy in 1939.

His later writings largely question, and even contradict, his earlier certainties, but it is possible to extract some central pointers from the early and late writings.

Unless otherwise stated, in what follows, only those words in italics and blockquotes are translations of Wittgenstein's own.

Early Wittgenstein: the Tractatus

This book combines an uncompromising logicality with an equally strongly-expressed mysticism. It has been described as 'an examination of the possibility of truth in language' which proposes the theory that language achieves veracity by 'picturing' or 'measuring up to' reality.

The totality of true thoughts is a picture of the world.

More ambitiously - and the young Wittgenstein was certainly ambitious - the Tractatus was an attempt to formulate 'the logical structure of the world', while strictly limiting 'the world' to that which we can meaningfully discuss5.

The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

The 'Picture Theory' of meaning recalls the use of model cars in a court case, to recreate the conditions of an incident:

The proposition is a picture of reality.

A proposition can only have sense if it asserts something factual; a proposition with sense is something whose truth is only to be found out by checking it against the facts.

Wittgenstein goes through a table of formulae that manipulate and combine simple propositions (negation and implication, for example) and establishes a spectrum with tautology at one end and contradiction at the other. Logic and maths all fall within the realm of tautology, as their assertions are true no matter what the facts are. Anything that is false, whatever the facts, is self-contradictory.

In between are assertions whose truth varies with the facts; only these can have sense, and tell us about the state of the world. This would exclude for instance6:

  • Two plus two equals four

    Mathematical propositions express no thoughts.

    Later he was to say that this kind of truism is given within with the definition of 'two' and 'four'; the possibility of such definitions presupposes the usage which gives them meaning.

  • Eating people is wrong

    ... there can be no ethical propositions. ... Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)

    You cannot say what is ethical, you can only show it.

  • The Lord upholdeth all that fall

    God does not reveal himself in the world.

    Religious claims are not only unprovable but essentially unstateable; value is outside the world, just as the observing eye is outside its field of vision.

The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive for ever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.

What can we say then about what is most important?

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Persistent theme

Throughout his life, Wittgenstein pointed out in different ways that most, if not all, of the problems of philosophy arise from expecting one kind of language to behave as another kind. This is why one should teach philosophy not by talking about philosophy at all, but by teaching other subjects, and merely pointing out whenever a student makes an unwarranted philosophical assumption, or (which is the same thing) oversteps the usage proper to their current use of language.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

The Self-defeating Nature of the Tractatus

If you accept its theory of meaning, then, by its own principles, the propositions of the Tractatus are themselves nonsense - as Wittgenstein admits towards the end of the work.

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

The implosion of the Tractatus lays the ground for the later work.

The Later Writings

Wittgenstein's papers are still being edited and gradually published; the first collection, which he had put into shape in his last years, while living in Ireland, was published shortly after his death as Philosophical Investigations. Here he admits that his younger self had had no right to lay down the law on what language must and must not do; he now sees 'language' as a loosely-connected set of activities - like different games, ranging from those which have strict rules to those that are just horseplay7. Included in this set of activities are such things as religious language; Wittgenstein compares religious observance with the act of kissing a photograph (one doesn't expect this to have any effect on the photograph, on the person photographed, or on anything else in the world; one simply does it, for one's own reasons).

Of 'the theory of predestination' he states:

It simply isn't a theory. Or, to put it another way: If this is truth, it is not the truth that seems at first sight to be expressed by these words. It's less a theory than a sigh, or a cry.

Some of his conclusions may appear surprising8, but once they sink in their effect is transforming. Rule-following, for instance, is not a blind but a creative activity in human situations, because there cannot be rules for 'How to follow a rule'. The convention, for instance that a pictured arrow (→) points beyond itself in the direction its head faces must be learnt by human co-operation.

The description of language is part of the description of how we live.

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.

Grammar is always of enormous importance in Wittgenstein's view.

A gift for philosophy consists in the capacity to receive a strong and enduring impression of a fact of grammar.
I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking.
It is correct to say 'I know what you are thinking', and wrong to say 'I know what I am thinking'.
(A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)

Language, like 'the world', cannot be seen as a whole. Our best hope is to make a picture of the landscape by travelling through it in different ways, some of which will intersect, giving us new insights.

One thing a language cannot be is private; you can use codes, as Wittgenstein did in his army days, but what you experience, and what you think, cannot be essentially incommunicable or untranslatable.

Wittgenstein didn't approve of the pretensions of professional philosophy, but knew he had an outstanding talent combined with the obsessive nature to see it through. He also had a strong sense of duty, and perhaps his ideal was to cure the world of philosophical nonsense such as looking for answers where there really isn't a question.

What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.
All philosophy can do is destroy idols. - And that means, not making any new ones - in the 'absence of an idol'.
The results of philosophy should be entirely simple: if the process appears complicated it is because we must make the same movements, in reverse, untying the knots that our mistaken use of language has got us into.

Further information

Wittgenstein's is a fascinating story; born into one of the richest families in Austria, he gave away a fortune and lived a life of extreme frugality. In World War II he left Cambridge, but, unable to take a job where information was sensitive (on account of his being a 'hostile alien' in Britain) he worked for a while as a hospital porter, persuading as many patients as he could not to take their pills as they were doing them no good. He died of cancer at the age of 62, and his last words were 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life'.

  • An excellent biography has been written by Ray Monk (Vintage, 1991).

  • A characteristic incident, in which he may or may not have threatened the philosopher Karl Popper with a poker, is brilliantly expanded into a revealing book Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Faber & Faber 2001).

  • The Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations mix brilliantly chosen, and often startling, images and good sense with tricky concepts that are not immediately digestible on first reading. As near as possible, philosophy should always be read in its writer's own words, but excellent commentaries on many Wittgenstein topics are found in A Wittgenstein Dictionary by Hans-Johann Glock (Blackwell,1996).

  • A most useful collection of his writings has been edited by Anthony Kenny and published as The Wittgenstein Reader (Blackwell 1994).

1The Hilbert plan was to be fatally undermined with the publication in 1930 of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems.2Russell, taking Wittgenstein's criticisms to heart, abandoned mathematics. He even flippantly refused a lifeline thrown to him much later by Gödel, which could have revitalised his earlier work; the story is told in the second volume of Ray Monk's biography of Russell.3Ludwig was the youngest of eight children. Three of his brothers committed suicide. The fourth lost an arm in the war, but continued his career as a concert pianist, commissioning Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand as well as works by Strauss, Britten and Prokofiev.4The title was suggested by G E Moore, whom Wittgenstein was to succeed as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge; in German Wittgenstein had called it Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung, 'Logical treatment of philosophy'. Spinoza had published a Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in the 17th Century, but, while Russell greatly admired Spinoza, Wittgenstein did not.5Trouble arises from the fact that 'logical structure' does not come within that limit; it is one of those things that can only be shown and not stated.6Not Wittgenstein's examples.7Wittgenstein remained sharply observant and analytical of what various language-games do, and cannot do; this is his philosophical legacy.8Both early and late in his life Wittgenstein remarked that philosophy should produce no surprises. Despite himself, some of his findings take some getting used to.

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