Ludwig Wittgenstein Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1889-1951

Austrian-born English philosopher.

Wittgenstein is widely considered to be the most important and influential philosopher of the twentieth century. His works, which are divided into two major periods represented by his early treatise Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the later Philosophical Investigations, spawned two distinct philosophical schools, the second of which is a reversal and sustained criticism of the first. Wittgenstein is the only philosopher known to have developed antithetical but equally respected theories.

Biographical Information

Born to a wealthy family in Vienna, Austria, Wittgenstein was educated by private tutors until 1903, when he was sent to a technical school at Linz. He went on to study mechanical engineering in Berlin and in 1908 moved to Manchester, England, to study aeronautics. In 1912 he read Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's Principia Mathematica and applied to Trinity College, Cambridge, where Russell lectured. Wittgenstein studied logic and mathematics at Cambridge until 1914, when, plagued by depression, he left for Norway, where he led an austere and isolated existence that was conducive to the extended contemplation he sought. When World War I broke out later that year, Wittgenstein returned to Austria to enlist in the army. He saw active service and was captured by the Italians and held in a prisoner-of-war camp until the end of the war. While in the service, Wittgenstein kept a notebook of philosophical observations that would later evolve into his first major study, as well as the only work published in his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Following the book's publication in 1922, Wittgenstein fell into a near-suicidal depression, abandoning philosophy to teach elementary school in an Austrian village. Influenced by the Gospels and the mystical writings of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, he renounced his family's fortune and determined to live a simple, rural life. The favorable reception of the Tractatus among his former associates in England and among the Vienna Circle—a group of philosophers who were founding figures in the movement of Logical Positivism—led Witttgenstein back to Cambridge in 1929 to lecture and continue his work in philosophy. There he was granted a Ph.D. and a research fellowship at Trinity. In 1939 Wittgenstein assumed the professorship of philosophy after the retirement of G. E. Moore. At the outbreak of World War II, Wittgenstein, who had become a British subject, interrupted his studies to serve as a medical orderly. After the war, he resumed his teaching but became dissatisfied with academia and resigned his chair in 1947. He subsequently took an extended vacation, traveling in Norway, rural Ireland, and the United States. With the deterioration of his health, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and died there in 1951.

Major Works

Wittgenstein's canon is represented by his two definitive works, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. In the Tractatus, he developed a linguistic theory whose main postulate is that a distinction exists between what can be said-that is, what language is able to communicate in a rigorously logical sense-and what cannot be said. His concern was ultimately to determine how a statement could be revealed as true or false, meaningful or nonsensical. Wittgenstein also contended that rules of grammar fail to provide the logic necessary to determine whether or not a sentence is meaningful since a fully grammatical sentence may be composed of words that render it nonsensical, as in the sentence, "It is five o'clock on the Sun." Collected from years of notes and published after Wittgenstein's death, Philosophical Investigations is a critique of the system he had set forth in the Tractatus. In the Investigations he rejected the notion that meaning is determined by truth or falsity, positing instead that language achieves meaning only through the way it functions in everyday life. Rather than understanding language through a formal set of rules, he argued that we can only understand it in its natural context.

Critical Reception

Critics concur that in making the social function of language—as opposed to the philosophical function—its primary context for analysis, Wittgenstein revolutionized linguistic study. While both of his theoretical positions emphasize the inadequacy of abstract principles to explain the genesis and role of language, many scholars consider the premise he advanced in his later work to have been more influential to the modern study of both linguistics and logic. Commentators write that by abandoning the possibility of finding unequivocal knowledge, Wittgenstein helped legitimize a less structured and more creative philosophical method.