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Ludwig Wittgenstein



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Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most original and influential philosophers of the 20th century. He was by birth an Austrian of Jewish descent. He received most of his early education at home before studying engineering at Berlin and Manchester, which led to an interest in pure mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics, and in 1912 he moved to Cambridge to become a pupil of Bertrand Russell. His work from 1914-18 led to the writing of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was published in Germany in 1921 and in London in 1922. Wittgenstein served in the Austrian army in World War I and was captured in Italy, and on his release after the war he gave away a considerable fortune he had inherited. From 1920-26 he went to work as an elementary schoolmaster in Austria, then returned to Cambridge in 1929. During the next few years he came to a new position in philosophy, which was first stated in the Blue and Brown Books, a set of lecture notes from 1933-35 and published posthumously in 1958, and later in his Philosophical Investigations (published 1953). He became Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge in 1939, succeeding G. E. Moore. In 1947 he resigned to devote himself to research, but his health soon deteriorated and he died of cancer in 1951.

The Tractatus, the definitive account of his earlier views, is a modern classic of philosophy. He states that the world consists entirely of independent, simple facts out of which complex ones are constructed. Language has as its purpose the stating of facts by picturing these facts. Thus an informative statement pictures a state of affairs as a sketch pictures furniture in a room. The nature of the picturing relationship cannot be stated because it is not a fact or an object, it can only be shown. Even though the relation cannot be articulated, it is possible to see it, and it must hold if language is to represent the way the world is. Language can also state tautologies as in logic and mathematics which are vacuously true. Beyond picturing facts and stating tautologies there is no legitimate use of language; any other attempt will be nonsensical, in particular ethical and metaphysical statements will be pseudo-propositions since they are neither empirical nor tautologies. This led Wittgenstein to denounce his own theory of language in the Tractatus as nonsense, for to say that language pictures facts is to try to give a picture of the pictorial relation which holds between statement and fact, which is absurd since this pictorial relation shows itself, and what shows itself cannot be said. He called his metaphysics important nonsense which helped one to recognize it as nonsense, and thought that philosophers tend to talk nonsense because of the untidy character of ordinary language, and he devoted much attention to the problem of constructing an ideal language which would never tempt anyone to talk nonsense. Once the Tractatus is understood there will be no more concern for philosophy, which is neither empirical likes science nor tautological like mathematics. The traditional problems of philosophy ask for answers to questions that are nonsensical. Once the nature of meaning is grasped, the problems cease to exist. One will then abandon philosophy which is rooted in confusion, which is what Wittgenstein did for many years.

Wittgenstein's later philosophy is given in the Blue and Brown Books and Philosophical Investigations. The basis of the new approach is a new view of language; the old view in the Tractatus that there is in principle a perfect language is abandoned and language is seen as a set of social activities, each serving a different kind of purpose. Each different way of using language is a "language game" which we learn by training in childhood. Though we learn to play these games correctly we are liable to become over-impressed with a possible way of using language, giving us an over-simplified account of these. We tend to think of a word being the name of something to be learnt by pointing ("that is a cat"), and when we reflect on uses of language that are different we try to force them into one pattern. An example is the language game of "wishing"; we try to force it into a pattern by taking it as a "description of my present mental state" and and then introspectively attempt to isolate the special mental event of wishing. Wittgenstein sees here that philosophical puzzlement arises when we misunderstand the functioning of our conceptual tools; we need to see that we are misconstruing the concept of wishing if we take "wishing" as the name of a psychic process. Having a philosophical problem is like being a fly in a bottle buzzing against the side instead of flying out of the top. What is needed is not a subtle theory but a reminder of the purposes for which we make use of concepts so that we cease to be blind to what "already lies open to view." Given this view of philosophy Wittgenstein could find no place for any philsophical theories or doctrines. This makes the content of his later works almost impossible to summarize. He offers no rule of procedure for banishing puzzlement, one must simply describe things in such a way to end the confusion.

Although he thought statements about ethics and religion ran into the boundaries of language, that didn't mean he ignored them. He had a lifelong interest in religion and worried about being morally good. Some have thought that he believed in mystical truths that could not be said but were of the utmost importance. He made some remarks on ethics to suggest a certain view -- value and meaning cannot be found in this world, living the right way involves acceptance of or agreement with the world -- while other remarks suggest no particular view, that one just had to get through life "the bloody hard way." He opposed doctrinal approaches to religion but was drawn to ritual and symbolism, and considered ritual to be a great gesture, as when one kisses a photograph.

Wittgenstein has had a great influence on modern philosophy. The Tractatus had its greatest influence on logical positivism. Few modern analytic philosophers accept his views that the whole object of philosophy is to banish puzzlement, but few dispute that among analytic philosophers he stands out as an original philosophical genius.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, J. O. Urmson and Jonathan Rée, editors. London: Unman Hyman, 1991.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, James Fieser, editor, Copyright 1997.