Form and Content

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Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the twentieth century’s most renowned as well as most difficult philosophers. His fame began with the publication of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921; English translation, 1922), a work that sought to delimit and clarify the relationship between logic, language, and reality. In his posthumously published Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953; Philosophical Investigations, 1953), he shifted his focus from the influence of logic on language to the effects which various “forms of life” have on the creation of certain linguistic usages and practices that he called “language games.” Wittgenstein became convinced that many major philosophical problems and their eventual solutions could be traced to either total ignorance or improper understanding of the particular language games and concomitant forms of life that underlay them. Yet Wittgenstein was not exclusively preoccupied with obtuse and highly technical logical and linguistic issues. Throughout his life, he was also deeply concerned with such basic and, for the nonspecialist, far more interesting questions as the meaning of life and the nature of the good—that is, fundamental questions of existence, ethics, and value. Indeed, it was his abiding concern with these “big questions” that prompted him to make the observations on the course and character of modern civilization that have been published under the English title Culture and Value.

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It must be emphasized, however, that this is not an original work. Rather, as is the case with most of the books attributed to him (the two exceptions being the originally authored Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations), it is actually a compilation of miscellaneous remarks culled from Wittgenstein’s unpublished jottings and manuscripts by his literary executors, most of whom were former students or close acquaintances. Thus, it is not known how Wittgenstein himself would have arranged these remarks. The editors have adopted a simple chronological scheme, beginning with the year 1914, then skipping to 1929, finding noteworthy observations in every subsequent year through 1951, the year of his death. The years selected were not uniformly fruitful. For example, 1914 yielded only one remark, while 1931 produced eighty. As is the case with all British and American editions of Wittgenstein, the original German text is printed on the page facing the English translation. Wittgenstein insisted on this since he was convinced that certain nuances of expression are beyond the skill of the translator, regardless of his expertise.

The book also has a comprehensive German-English index, with both subject and name headings. In a work of this sort, a good index is indispensable; without it, the reader seeking Wittgenstein’s opinion of a particular person or issue would be forced to rummage randomly through various years, hoping to hit upon it by chance. Accordingly, one can easily look up his remarks on such notables as Francis Bacon, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, William Shakespeare, Oswald Spengler, Leo Tolstoy, and Otto Weininger, as well as on all kinds of subjects from art, architecture, and the atomic bomb to wonder, words, and work. Wittgenstein admired the music of Brahms and Bruckner and detested that of Mahler (although his favorite composer was Franz Schubert). He also had a strong antipathy to Freud—perhaps, as some argue, because he actually underwent analysis for a short time with Freud. As might be expected, a number of these remarks are introspective. Not only does Wittgenstein assess himself as a philosopher and the possible effects of his work, but he also expresses some very private concerns and fears, of madness in particular.

Despite his interesting and perceptive commentary on such topics, personalities, and himself, however, Wittgenstein is much more than a mere cultural commentator. His underlying concern in these remarks is the influence and effects of modern science and technology, particularly the prospects that a scientifically based civilization could meet man’s need for ultimate meaning and value. For Wittgenstein, modern civilization does not address the really important issues. It only provides a better understanding of facts and increasingly improved means for manipulating them. It makes people’s lives comfortable but not meaningful. Hence, although progress is the stated goal, true progress—that is, a genuine solution to the problem of the meaning of life—is not forthcoming. “Our civilization is characterized by the word ‘progress,’” he observes. “Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure.” Wittgenstein, in contrast, is far more interested “in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings. So I am not aiming at the same target as the scientists and my way of thinking is different from theirs.” Indeed, Wittgenstein does not even share the scientists’ qualms regarding their most “progressive” creation: the atom bomb. The salutary effect of the bomb for Wittgenstein is the possibility that it will inaugurate a fundamental change in people’s attitude toward science and technology by sensitizing them to a “truly apocalyptic view.”It isn’t absurd, e.g., to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76

Ayer, Alfred J. Wittgenstein, 1985.

Finch, Henry L. Wittgenstein—The Early Philosophy: An Exposition of the “Tractatus,” 1971.

Finch, Henry L. Wittgenstein—The Later Philosophy: An Exposition of the “Philosophical Investigations,” 1977.

Hartnack, Justus. Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy, 1965. Translated by M. Cranston.

Janick, Alan John, and Stephan Toulmin. Wittgenstein’s Vienna, 1973.

MacKenzie, Ian. “Wittgenstein and Aesthetic Responses,” in Philosophy and Literature. XI (April, 1987), pp. 92-103.

Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, with Biographical Sketch by Georg Henrik von Wright, 1958.

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