Ludwig Wittgenstein Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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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)...

(The entire section is 1,880 words.)