Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1880

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 philosophy. So, he left philosophy and pursued various other professions. He became a village schoolteacher in the Austrian mountains, a gardener in a monastery, and a worker at sculpture and architecture. In 1929, however, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and to philosophy. His Tractatus, already acknowledged as a classic work, was accepted as his Ph.D. dissertation, and he became first a research fellow and later a professor. Until his death in 1951, Wittgenstein wrote many volumes of philosophy (almost always in German) but did not publish any of these (or have them translated into English). He taught philosophy at Cambridge, but, instead of lecturing, he used a method of discussion and thinking aloud. Most of his influence—and it was considerable—occurred through the students who attended his discussions and those who took dictation from him (in English). Wittgenstein, however, found the atmosphere of Cambridge life to be sterile. He would sometimes leave to spend weeks and months in out-of-the-way places in Norway and Ireland and would write philosophy there.

The new philosophy that Wittgenstein developed in the 1930’s and 1940’s retained its focus on language but gave up the monolithic idea that language always functions in merely one way, that is, via the picturing relation. He now came to emphasize the great variety of uses of language and the fact that language is intertwined with the rest of human life. His later work, best seen in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953), provides some explicit criticism of the views earlier taken in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein went on to develop his thoughts in new and positive directions.

Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of philosophical problems changed. He now came to see problems as tied to individuals. Thus he said, for example, that the philosopher’s treatment of a problem is like the treatment of an illness. Just as in medicine there is always a patient (and never an illness alone) who is to be cured, in philosophy there is a person who is the bearer of philosophical questions or confusions. The doctor does not treat diseases in the abstract, and the philosopher does not treat problems in the abstract.

The later philosophy of Wittgenstein has been characterized as a therapeutic approach. A philosophical problem is seen as a sort of difficulty. A person who has such a problem is lost, in a sense, and Wittgenstein’s aim is to show this person how to get out of the difficulty. One image he used was that of knots. Although philosophy should be simple, he said, in order to untie the knots of our thinking it must be at least as complicated as those knots.

Wittgenstein believed that language itself was exceedingly tricky and often extremely misleading. At one point he said that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language. In emphasizing the variety of ways in which language is used, Wittgenstein opposed the idea that any one form of language or thought—the scientific, for example—is in some sense basic or foundational. If anything is foundational, according to Wittgenstein, it is one’s practice or way of life.

Wittgenstein believed that some of the occasions on which people are most likely to be misled occur in thinking and talking about mathematical abstractions, psychological concepts, and language itself. Although he did not confine his thought and writing to these areas, he did concentrate his attention on what he regarded as the temptations that are likely to appeal to thinkers in these areas and on the means of overcoming these temptations.


Ludwig Wittgenstein’s influence spread rapidly from Cambridge to other areas of the English-speaking world and to Scandinavia. This influence operated largely through his students and by word of mouth. Since his death in 1951, more and more of his philosophical writings have been published, and his influence has spread, although it remains significantly stronger in English-speaking countries and in Scandinavia and weaker on the European continent, Latin America, and elsewhere.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Wittgenstein was a leader in a philosophical revolution. The revolution focuses particular attention on language and on the ways in which people can be confused or misled, especially by ordinary language.

One recent movement that takes its inspiration from Wittgenstein is known as “ordinary language” philosophy. Herein, the emphasis is on the ordinary meanings of customary terms, clarity of expression, and down-to-earth common sense rather than special philosophical or technical terminology, impressive-sounding but vague language, and high-flown metaphysical notions.

Although it is true that Wittgenstein’s own views and practice in philosophy changed over time, and many scholars distinguish sharply between the earlier and the later approaches, one constant concern of his focuses on the idea that clarity of thought and expression is of the first importance and nonsense is always to be rejected, and sometimes even fought against.


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 Wittgenstein. Included are articles on Wittgenstein as a person, a teacher, and a philosopher, and treatments of various aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophical work.

Janik, Allan, and Stephen Toulmin. Wittgenstein’s Vienna. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. An illustrated survey showing the many connections between Wittgenstein’s philosophical development and modern movements in architecture, literature, music, psychoanalysis, and other fields, in the setting of late nineteenth century Viennese culture.

McGinn, Colin. Wittgenstein on Meaning: An Interpretation and Evaluation. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984. The long first chapter of this work is especially useful in providing a large-scale view of the later Wittgenstein views on meaning, understanding, and language.

McGuinness, Brian. Wittgenstein, A Life: Young Ludwig, 1889-1921. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. The first volume of a projected two-volume authorized biography, providing by far the fullest account to date of Wittgenstein’s early life. This first volume concludes with a discussion of the Tractatus. Includes illustrations.

Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This book is a gem, written by Wittgenstein’s most prominent American philosophical student. Malcolm allows the reader to see the force of Wittgenstein’s personality as well as his particular way of practicing philosophy. The second edition includes numerous letters that Wittgenstein wrote to Malcolm.

Pears, David. The False Prison. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987 and 1988. The first volume covers Wittgenstein’s early philosophy; the second covers the time from 1929 to his death. Pears focuses clearly on Wittgenstein the philosopher rather than on Wittgenstein the person. His treatment of Wittgenstein’s work is scholarly and reliable.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Edited by G. H. von Wright, in collaboration with Heikki Nyman. Translated by Peter Winch. 2d ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980. A bilingual edition of sentences and paragraphs taken from all periods of Wittgenstein’s life, arranged chronologically, addressing a wide range of topics in art, music, philosophy, religion, science, and the like.

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