Ludwig Wittgenstein Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Wittgenstein is one of the most important and influential philosophers of the twentieth century and perhaps of all time. In his later, mature period, he did not produce a systematic philosophy or even claim to teach new doctrines. Instead, he professed to offer new methods and techniques for work in philosophy.

Early Life

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born into a prominent and highly cultured family in turn-of-the-century Vienna. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a leading Austrian industrialist and had in fact made a fortune in the iron and steel industry. Originally educated at home, at the age of fourteen Wittgenstein entered school at Linz in Upper Austria and later attended the Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Wittgenstein developed a strong interest in physics, technology, and engineering. In 1908, he went to England, where he experimented with kites at the Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station and became a student at the University of Manchester. His early studies took him into airplane engine design, mathematics, and the philosophical and logical foundations of mathematics. He went to Jena, Germany, to visit Gottlob Frege (the “father of modern logic”), where he was advised to study with Bertrand Russell at the University of Cambridge. Russell had published The Principles of Mathematics in 1903, and, together with Alfred North Whitehead, had published in 1910 the first volume of their Principia Mathematica, a monumental and definitive work in modern logic. In 1912, Wittgenstein was accepted at the University of Cambridge and took up his formal studies there under Russell.

Although Russell and Wittgenstein later drifted apart, there was at this early period a closeness and a mutual seriousness that show themselves in many stories, still told, that date from this time. According to Russell, at the end of Wittgenstein’s first term at Cambridge he came to Russell and asked, “Do you think I am a complete idiot?” The idea was that Wittgenstein was thinking about becoming a pilot (if he was an idiot) and a philosopher (if he was not). Russell said to write a paper during the term break. Wittgenstein did, and when Russell saw it he immediately said that Wittgenstein should not become a pilot. On another occasion, Wittgenstein came to Russell’s rooms late one night and paced up and down, in a distraught mood, for hours. Russell asked him whether he was thinking about logic or his sins, and Wittgenstein answered “Both!” Russell was convinced that, although Wittgenstein was eccentric, he was a genius.

In 1913, Wittgenstein’s father died and left him a huge fortune. This Wittgenstein gave away, some of it in the form of anonymous benefactions to Austrian poets and writers. Wittgenstein himself assumed a rather austere lifestyle, which he maintained for the rest of his life. He ate simply, dressed simply, had no family, and lived in very humble rooms.

Life’s Work

Wittgenstein’s early masterpiece, and the only philosophical book that he published during his lifetime, is best known by the title Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—or, for short, the Tractatus. This was published in the original German in 1921 and first appeared in an English-German bilingual edition in 1922. Wittgenstein stated in the preface that the gist of the book lies in the following statement: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” The book is quite terse and follows a special numbering system in which each section (sometimes only a single sentence) receives a number based on its relative importance to the whole. The main statements are given the numbers one through seven. Number one says “The world is all that is the case”—that is, the world is the totality of facts or situations. One of the essential features of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, as expressed in the Tractatus, is that the most basic statements (or elementary propositions) of language achieve meaning by picturing facts. More complicated factual statements are built up from these. Thus, when all the true propositions have been stated, everything that can be said has been said; the rest is silence. As Wittgenstein claimed in the Tractatus, there are some things that are inexpressible—he spoke here of things that are mystical—and to try to express these in language will only result in nonsense.

Wittgenstein claimed that his Tractatus solved the problems of...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edmonds, David, and John Eidenow. Wittgenstein’s Poker. New York: Ecco Press, 2001. Starting with a ten-minute confrontation between Wittgenstein and fellow philosopher Karl Popper in 1946, the authors present a wide-ranging exploration of the philosophies of the two men and the biographical contexts that produced the altercation.

Fann, K. T., ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy. New York: Dell, 1967. A collection of articles by friends, students, and scholars of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Included are articles on Wittgenstein as a person, a teacher, and a philosopher, and treatments of various aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Hacker, P. M. S. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1996. A monumental work by a leading authority of Wittgenstein. This book thoroughly treats philosophical history before, during, and after the time of Wittgenstein.

Hallett, Garth L. Essentialism: A Wittgensteinian Critique. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Strictly speaking, this book is an...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (VIHT-guhn-stin) has been a controversial figure in philosophy, but he is second only to Bertrand Russell among philosophers of the twentieth century. Though his academic career was spent largely in England, he was born in Vienna to a wealthy and talented family, originally Jewish but for two generations Christian. He was at first educated by tutors but in 1903 was sent to a Realschule, or technical school, at Linz. The choice of a nonclassical school indicates that his father considered his son suited to a career such as engineering; in fact, he did study engineering in Berlin and, after 1908, in Manchester, where he also interested himself in aeronautics. (He was to put his technical knowledge to good use during World War I and later practiced briefly as an architect.) His interests, however, shifted to mathematics and philosophy, and on the advice of the distinguished philosopher Gottlob Frege, a professor at the University of Jena, he went to the University of Cambridge to study under Bertrand Russell. Russell was at first puzzled by the young man but before long thought that he should abandon the field of logic to Wittgenstein, who combined abject feelings of unworthiness with an arrogant aggressiveness on professional subjects.

In early 1914 Wittgenstein was staying in an isolated hut in Norway, but when World War I broke out he returned to Austria and immediately volunteered for active service. He proved to be a loyal, brave, and capable soldier and officer, who ended the war in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. His period of active service was far from being an intellectual vacuum. In part as a result of reading such authors as Leo Tolstoy, he developed a mystical bent that annoyed Russell when they were reunited. Throughout the war he carried with him notebooks in which he recorded his philosophical reflections;...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Wittgenstein, who criticized many aspects of traditional philosophy, developed an account of the logical structure of language in his early period, then largely abandoned this view for one involving language-games. In his later years, he came to view philosophy as a therapeutic practice.

Early Life

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born into a prominent and highly cultured family in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a leading Austrian industrialist and had in fact made a fortune in the iron and steel industry. Originally educated at home, at the age of fourteen Wittgenstein entered school at Linz in Upper Austria and later...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Wittgenstein’s philosophy is divided into early and later periods. The early period is marked by his interest in the formal semantics for possible languages. Wittgenstein believed that language could only be meaningful if sentences are analyzable into ultimate atomic constituents that, in a one-one correspondence, exactly mirror possible facts, thereby providing a picture of the world. The sentence that describes a fact about the world is a concatenation of names for simple objects that corresponds to a juxtaposition of the named objects. The implication is that language is meaningful only if it describes contingent empirical states of affairs. This means that sentences that purport to express...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)