(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Culture and Value is a devastating critique of the nature and character of modern civilization. This is not an original work, however, for all the remarks published by Wittgenstein’s literary executors are actually adumbrations and elucidations of the views developed systematically in his two main works, Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations. Hence, any analysis of the remarks collected in Culture and Value must necessarily entail a brief account of the positions which originally gave rise to them.

The basis for Wittgenstein’s critique of science is developed most clearly in the Tractatus. There he argues that science cannot provide a proper view of reality because the foundation of its view, natural law, does not really explain anything at all. Law, Wittgenstein points out, is based on necessity, and necessity, in turn, is exclusive to logic, not experience. Causality, the heart of so-called natural law, is a good case in point. It is an inductive generalization derived from experience. Since nothing is absolutely certain in experience, however, one thing does not of necessity follow from another as it does in logic, where one deduces conclusions from fixed premises. In experience, he reminds the reader, “there is no compulsion making one thing happen because another has happened. The only necessity that exists is logical necessity.” Accordingly, “the exploration of logic means the exploration of everything that is subject to law. And outside of logic everything is accidental.” Wittgenstein understands “natural law,” then, as a special kind of descriptive device rather than as an intrinsic feature of reality itself. “The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” All natural science does is create a uniform description of the world, and this description, in turn, constitutes the so-called order of the world. Thus, for Wittgenstein, “philosophy sets limits to the much disputed sphere of natural science.”

Yet exposing the limits of the scientific view was not Wittgenstein’s only concern in the Tractatus. In this work he also explores the basis for attaining ultimate meaning. Meaning, he argues, is only a problem as long as one approaches it incorrectly as a scientifically amenable issue. Once one recognizes that it has nothing to do with ascertaining, describing, and manipulating facts—that is, creating a world to one’s liking, in which one ostensibly fulfills oneself—one realizes that one has to take a completely new approach to life and the world, from the outside as it were, sub specie aeterni, mystically. Approached this way, there is no problem. The world, now...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)