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Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1930

Ludwig Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889 - April 29, 1951) was an Austrian-born philosopher who contributed several groundbreaking works to modern philosophy, primarily on the foundations of logic and the philosophy of language. Although numerous collections from Wittgenstein's notebooks, papers, and lectures have been published since his death, he published only one philosophical book in his own lifetime — the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At first Wittgenstein believed that the Tractatus definitively solved all the problems of philosophy, and he subsequently gave up philosophical work for several years. During this time he worked as a schoolteacher, a gardener at a monastery, and finally as an architect for his sister's new house in Vienna. Eventually, Wittgenstein returned to philosophy and criticized elements of the Tractatus. The development of a new philosophical method and a new understanding of language would culminate in his second magnum opus, the posthumously-published Philosophical Investigations.

Although Wittgenstein was raised in Vienna, and considered himself an Austrian, today he is perhaps most closely associated with Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under Bertrand Russell. He returned to Cambridge in 1929 to continue his research and eventually took a position there as a teacher. His early work was deeply influenced by Russell's work on logic, and by his earlier brief study with the German logician Gottlob Frege. When the Tractatus was published, it was taken up as a major influence by the Vienna Circle positivists. However, Wittgenstein did not consider himself part of that school and alleged that logical positivism involved grave misunderstandings of the Tractatus. Both his early and later work have been major influences in the development of Analytic philosophy, especially in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and action theory. Former students and colleagues who carried on Wittgenstein's methods included Gilbert Ryle, Friedrich Waismann, Norman Malcolm, G. E. M. Anscombe, Rush Rhees, and Peter Geach; contemporary philosophers heavily influenced by Wittgenstein include James Conant, Peter Hacking, Stanley Cavell, and Saul Kripke.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Work
3 Quotations
4 See also
5 References
6 External links

Life

He was born as Ludwig Joseph Johann Wittgenstein in Vienna. His paternal grandparents, after they had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, moved from Saxony in Germany to Vienna in Austria-Hungary. Here is where Ludwig's father, Karl Wittgenstein, gained wealth and esteem as one of the leading businessmen in the iron and steel industry. Ludwig's mother, Leopoldine (née Kalmus) was a Catholic, but her father was also of Jewish descent. Ludwig was baptized in a Catholic church and would be given a Catholic burial by his friends when he died, although he was not a believing or practicing Catholic in his later life.

Early life

Ludwig grew up as the youngest of eight children in a household that provided an intensely stimulating environment. Ludwig's parents were both very musical and all their children were both artistically and intellectually gifted. Karl Wittgenstein was a leading patron of the arts, and the Wittgenstein house hosted many figures of high culture--above all, musicians. The family was often visited by artists such as Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. Ludwig's brother Paul Wittgenstein went on to become a world-famous concert pianist (even after he lost his right arm in World War I). Ludwig himself did not have prodigious musical talent, but his devotion to music remained vitally important to him throughout his life--he made frequent use of musical examples and metaphors in his philosophical writings, and was said to be unusually adept at whistling lengthy and detailed musical passages. A less fortunate inheritance was a tendency to intense self-criticism, to the point of depression and suicidal tendencies. (Three of Ludwig's four brothers committed suicide.)

Until 1903 Ludwig was educated at home; after that, he began three years of schooling at the Realschule in Linz, a school emphasizing technical topics. Adolf Hitler was a student there at the same time, and the two can be seen together in a school photograph of all the students. Author Kimberly Cornish, in The Jew of Linz, attempted to show that not only did the young Wittgenstein and Hitler know each other, but also that they hated each other, that Wittgenstein was the Jew that Hitler refers to (in Mein Kampf) from his schooling days at Linz, and even that key elements of Hitler's anti-Semitic writings were in fact projections of the young Wittgenstein's traits onto the whole Jewish people. Most biographers of Wittgenstein, however, contend that Cornish's evidence is exceedingly thin (most of the arguments adduced in favor of the claim are based on circumstantial associations and speculation), and hold that there is little evidence that Hitler and Wittgenstein knew each other, and none at all for the more sensational claims that there was a personal antagonism between Hitler and Wittgenstein, or that Hitler's personal hatred of Wittgenstein shaped the course of Nazi anti-Semitism.

In 1906 Ludwig took up studying mechanical engineering in Berlin, and in 1908 he went to the University of Manchester to study for his doctorate in engineering. For this purpose he registered as a research student in an engineering laboratory. There he did research on the behavior of kites in the upper atmosphere. From that he moved to aeronautical research on the design of a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades. He successfully designed and tested a prototype of this design.

For his research Wittgenstein needed to study a lot of mathematics, and he became interested in the foundations of mathematics, especially after he had read Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics (the predecessor of Principia Mathematica).

He studied in Germany briefly under Gottlob Frege, arguably the greatest logician since Aristotle, who had in the preceding decades laid the foundations of modern logic and logical mathematics. Frege urged him to read the work of Bertrand Russell, who had discovered certain crucial contradictions in Frege's own theories. In 1912 Wittgenstein went to the University of Cambridge and studied with Russell. He made a great impression on Russell and G. E. Moore and started to work on the foundations of logic and mathematical logic. In this period he had three big interests: philosophy, music and travelling.

In 1913, Wittgenstein inherited a great fortune when his father died. He donated some of it (initially anonymously) to Austrian artists and writers including Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. In 1914 he would go to see Trakl when the latter wanted to meet his benefactor, but Trakl killed himself days before Wittgenstein arrived.

Although he was invigorated by his study in Cambridge and his conversations with Russell, Wittgenstein came to feel that he could not get around his most fundamental questions while surrounded with other academics. In 1913 he retreated to the solitude of a remote mountain cabin in Skjolden, Norway, which could only be reached by horseback. The isolation allowed him to devote himself entirely to his work, and he later saw this period as one of the most passionate and productive times of his life. While there, he wrote a ground-breaking work in the foundations of logic, a book entitled Logik, which was the immediate predecessor and source of much of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I in the next year took him completely by surprise, as he was living a secluded life at the time. He volunteered for the Austria-Hungarian army, hoping that nearness of death would improve him. He first served on a ship and then in an artillery workshop. In 1916 he was sent as a member of a howitzer regiment to the Russian front where he won several medals for bravery. The diary entries of this time reflect his contempt for the baseness of his fellow soldiers.

Throughout the war, Wittgenstein kept notebooks in which he frequently wrote philosophical and religious reflections alongside personal remarks. At the beginning of his tour of duty Wittgenstein devoured Tolstoy's commentary on the Gospels, and became a devoted, if troubled and doubting, Christian. Wittgenstein's work on Logik began to take on an ethical and religious significance. With this new concern with the ethical, combined with his earlier interest in logical analysis, and with key insights developed during the war (such as the so-called "picture theory" of propositions), Wittgenstein's work from Cambridge and Norway was transfigured into the material that eventually became the Tractatus. In 1918, toward the end of the war, Wittgenstein was sent to north Italy as part of an artillery regiment where he was captured by the Italians. When he was taken prisoner, the Italians found a German manuscript entitled the Logische-Philosophische Abhandlung (Logical-Philosophical Treatise) in his rucksack. This manuscript would eventually become the Tractatus. Through the intervention of his Cambridge friends, Wittgenstein managed to get access to books, prepare his manuscript, and send it back to England. Russell recognized it as a work of supreme philosophical importance, and after Wittgenstein's release in 1919, he worked with Wittgenstein to get it published. An English translation was prepared, first by Frank Ramsey and then by C. K. Ogden, with Wittgenstein's involvement. After some discussion of how best to translate the title, G. E. Moore suggested Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in an allusion to Baruch Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Russell wrote an introduction, lending the book his reputation as one of the foremost philosophers in the world.

However, difficulties remained. Wittgenstein had become personally disaffected with Russell, and he was displeased with Russell's introduction, which he thought evinced fundamental misunderstandings of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein grew frustrated as interested publishers proved difficult to find. To add insult to injury, those publishers who were interested proved to be mainly interested in the book because of Russell's introduction. At last, Wittgenstein found a publisher in Wilhelm Ostwald's journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie, which printed a German edition in 1921, and in Routledge Kegan Paul, which printed a bilingual edition with Russell's introduction and the Ramsey-Ogden translation in 1922.

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The "lost years": life after the Tractatus

At the same time, Wittgenstein was a profoundly changed man: he became a passionate convert to Christianity, faced harrowing combat in World War I, and succeeded in crystallizing the upheavals in his intellectual and emotional life with the exhausting composition of the Tractatus. It was a work which transfigured all of his past work on logic into a radically new framework that he believed offered a definitive solution to all the problems of philosophy. These changes in Wittgenstein's inner and outer life left him both haunted and yet invigorated to follow a new, ascetic life. One of the most dramatic expressions of this change was his decision to give away his portion of the family fortune that he had inherited when his father had died. Some of the main beneficiaries were avant-garde German and Austrian artists (among them Rainer Maria Rilke). He also gave much of it to his siblings, insisting that they promise never to give it back. He felt that giving money to the poor could only corrupt them further; the rich would not be harmed by it.

Since Wittgenstein thought that the Tractatus had solved all the problems of philosophy, he left philosophy and returned to Austria to train as a primary school teacher. He was educated in the methods of the Austrian School Reform Movement which advocated the stimulation of the natural curiosity of children and their development as independent thinkers, instead of just letting them memorize facts. Wittgenstein was enthusiastic about these ideas but ran into problems when he was appointed as a elementary teacher in the rural Austrian villages of Trattenbach, Puchberg-am-Schneeberg, and Otterthal. During his time as a schoolteacher, Wittgenstein wrote a pronunciation and spelling dictionary for his use in teaching students; it was published and well-received by his colleagues. This would be the only book besides the Tractatus that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime.

Wittgenstein's teaching methods were intense and exacting, and his students enjoyed a level of education very rarely available in impoverished rural schools. However, Wittgenstein had very little patience for his slower students, and his severe disciplinary methods (often involving corporal punishment) — as well as a general suspicion amongst the villagers that he was somewhat mad — led to a long series of bitter disagreements with some of his student's parents. During this period Wittgenstein was prone to miserable bouts of depression. In April 1926, he resigned his position and returned to Vienna, feeling that he had failed as a school teacher.

After that he worked as a gardener's assistant in a monastery near Vienna. He considered becoming a monk, and went so far as to inquire about the requirements for joining an order. However, at the interview he was advised that he could not find in monastic life what he sought.

Two major developments helped to save Wittgenstein from this despairing state. The first was an invitation from his sister Margaret ("Gretl") Stoneborough to work on the design and construction of her new house. He worked with the architect, Paul Engelmann (who became a close friend of Wittgenstein's during the war), and the two designed a spare modernist house after the style of Adolf Loos (whom they both greatly admired). Wittgenstein found the work intellectually absorbing, and exhausting — he poured himself into the design in painstaking detail, including even small aspects such as doorknobs and radiators (which had to be exactly positioned to maintain the symmetry of the rooms). As a work of modernist architecture the house evoked some high praise; G. H. von Wright said that it possessed the same "static beauty" as the Tractatus. The effort of totally involving himself in intellectual work once again did much to restore Wittgenstein's spirits.

Secondly, toward the end of his work on the house, Wittgenstein was contacted by Moritz Schlick, one of the leading figures of the newly-formed Vienna Circle. The Tractatus had been tremendously influential to the development of the Vienna positivism, and although Schlick never succeeded in drawing Wittgenstein into the discussions of the Vienna Circle itself, he and some of his fellow circle members (especially Friedrich Waismann) met occasionally with Wittgenstein to discuss philosophical topics. Wittgenstein was frequently frustrated by these meetings — he believed that Schlick and his colleagues had fundamentally misunderstood the Tractatus, and at times would refuse to talk about it at all. (Much of the disagreements concerned the importance of religious life and the mystical; Wittgenstein considered these matters of a sort of wordless faith, whereas the positivists disdained them as useless. In one meeting, Wittgenstein refused to discuss the Tractatus at all, and sat with his back to his guests while he read aloud from the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.) Nevertheless, the contact with the Vienna Circle stimulated Wittgenstein intellectually and revived his interest in philosophy. He also met with Frank P. Ramsey, a young philosopher of mathematics who travelled several times from Cambridge to Austria to meet with Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle. In the course of his conversations with the Vienna Circle and with Ramsey, Wittgenstein began to think that there might be some "grave mistakes" in his work as presented in the Tractatus — marking the beginning of a second career of ground-breaking philosophical work, which would occupy him for the rest of his life.

Returning to Cambridge

In 1929 he decided, at the urging of Ramsey and others, to return to Cambridge. He was met at the train station by a crowd of England's greatest intellectuals, discovering rather to his horror that he was one of the most famed philosophers in the world. In a letter to Lydia Lopokova Lord Keynes wrote: "Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train."

Despite this fame, he could not initially work at Cambridge, as he did not have a degree, so he applied as an advanced undergraduate (!). Russell noted that his previous residency was in fact sufficient for a doctoral degree, and urged him to offer the Tractatus as a doctoral thesis, which he did in 1929. It was examined by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defense, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder "Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it." Moore commented in the examiner's report to the effect that: "In my opinion this is a work of genius; it is, in any case, up to the standards of a degree from Cambridge." Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College.

Wittgenstein's political sympathies lay on the left, and while he was opposed to Marxist theory, he described himself as a "communist at heart" and romanticized the life of labourers. In 1934, attracted by Keynes' description of Soviet life in Short View of Russia, he conceived the idea of emigrating to the Soviet Union with his close friend (or lover) Francis Skinner. They took lessons in Russian and in 1935 Wittgenstein traveled to Leningrad and Moscow in an attempt to secure employment. He was offered teaching positions but preferred manual work and returned three weeks later.

From 1936 to 1937, Wittgenstein lived again in Norway, leaving Skinner behind. He worked on the Philosophical Investigations. In the winter of 1936/37, he delivered a series of "confessions" to close friends, most of them about minor infractions, in an effort to cleanse himself.

After G. E. Moore's resignation in 1939, Wittgenstein, who was by then considered a philosophical genius, was appointed to the chair in Philosophy at Cambridge. He acquired the British citizenship soon afterwards.

After exhausting philosophical work, Wittgenstein would often relax by watching an American western or reading detective stories. These tastes are in stark contrast to his preferences in music, where he rejected anything after Brahms as a symptom of the decay of society.

By then, Wittgenstein's view on the foundations of mathematics had changed considerably. Earlier, he had thought that logic could provide a solid foundation, and he had even considered updating Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. Now he denied that there were any mathematical facts to be discovered and that mathematical statements were "true" in any real sense: they simply expressed the conventional established meanings of certain symbols; he also denied that a contradiction should count as a fatal flaw of a mathematical system. He gave a series of lectures which were attended by Alan Turing and in which the two argued vigorously about these matters.

During a period in World War II he left Cambridge and volunteered as a hospital porter in Guy's Hospital in London and as a laboratory assistant in Newcastle Upon Tyne's Royal Victoria Infirmary. He taught at Cambridge until 1947 when he resigned to concentrate on his writing. He never liked the intellectual's life at Cambridge, and in fact he encouraged several of his students to pursue non-academic careers.

Wittgenstein communicated with the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, who succeeded Wittgenstein as professor at the University of Cambridge.

Although Wittgenstein was involved in a relationship to Marguerite Respinger (a young Swiss woman whom he had met as a friend of the family), his plans to marry Marguerite were broken off in 1931, and Wittgenstein never married. Most of his romantic attachments were to young men. There is considerable debate over how active Wittgenstein's homoerotic life was--inspired by W. W. Bartley's claim to have found evidence of several casual liaisons during Wittgenstein's time in Vienna. What is clear, in any case, is that Wittgenstein had several long-term homosexual attachments, including an infatuation with his friend David Pinsent and long-term, active affairs with Francis Skinner and Ben Richardson.

Much of Wittgenstein's later work was done in the rural isolation that he so much preferred, on the west coast of Ireland. By 1949, when he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer, he had written most of the material that would be published after his death as Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) which arguably contains his most important work. He spent the last two years of his life working in Vienna, the United States, Oxford, and Cambridge. His work from this period, published posthumously as On Certainty, was inspired by conversations with his friend (and former student) Norman Malcolm during a long vacation at the Malcolms' house in the United States, concerning Malcolm's work on external world skepticism and G.E. Moore's response to it.

Wittgenstein died in Cambridge in 1951, just a few days before his friends arrived to pay their last respects. His last words were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

Work

The Tractatus

The book is dealt with in detail in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In rough order, the first half of the book sets forth the following theses: the world consists of independent atomic facts—existing states of affairs—out of which larger facts are built. Language consists in atomic, and then larger-scale propositions that correspond to these facts by sharing the same "logical form." Thought, expressed in language, "pictures" these facts. We can analyse our thoughts and sentences to express ('express' as in show, not say) their true logical form; those we cannot so analyse cannot be meaningfully discussed. Philosophy consists of no more than this form of analysis. Though no other type of discourse is, properly speaking, philosophy, Wittgenstein does imply with some of his more cryptic propositions in the last sections of the Tractatus that those things which "must be passed over in silence" may be important or useful.

Intermediary works

Wittgenstein wrote copiously after his return to Cambridge, and arranged much of his writing into an array of incomplete manuscripts. Some thirty thousand pages existed at the time of his death. Much, but not nearly all of this has been sorted and released in several volumes. During his "middle work" in the 1920s and 1930s, much of his work involved attacks from various angles on the sort of philosophical perfectionism embodied in the Tractatus. Of this work, Wittgenstein published only a single paper, "Remarks on Logical Form," which was submitted to be read for the Aristotelian Society and published in their proceedings. By the time of the conference, however, Wittgenstein had repudiated the essay as worthless, and gave a talk on the concept of infinity instead. Wittgenstein was increasingly frustrated to find that, although he was not yet ready to publish his work, some other philosophers were beginning to publish essays containing inaccurate presentations of his own views based on their conversations with him. As a result, he published a very brief letter to the journal Mind, taking a recent article by R. B. Braithwaite as a case in point, and asked philosophers to hold off writing about his views until he was himself ready to publish them. Although unpublished, the Blue Book, a set of notes dicated to his class at Cambridge in 1933-1934 contains seeds of Wittgenstein's later thoughts on language (later developed in the Investigations), and is widely read today as a turning point in his philosophy of language.

The Philosophical Investigations

Although the Tractatus is a major work of philosophy it is for the Philosophical Investigations that Wittgenstein is best known today. Published posthumously in 1953, Philosophical Investigations (PI) comprises two parts. Part I, consisting of 693 numbered paragraphs, which was ready for printing in 1946, but was rescinded from the publisher by Wittgenstein and Part II which was added on by the editors, trustees of his Nachlass.

In PI Wittgenstein presents an analysis of our use of language which he sees as crucial to the carrying out of philosophical research. In brief, Wittgenstein describes language as a set of language-games within which the words of our language function and receive their meaning. This view of meaning as use represents a break from the classical view, also presented by Wittgenstein in his earlier Tractatus, of meaning as representation.

Undeniably the most radical difference between the "earlier" and the "later" Wittgenstein is his view of the task of philosophy. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein adopted the "conventional" view of philosophy that had been accepted by almost every Western philosopher since Plato: the philosopher's task was to solve a small number of seemingly intractable problems via logical analysis (for example, the problem of "free will", "is there a God?", what is "the good" or "the beautiful" and so on). By the time of the Investigations however, his view had changed radically. He now argued that these "problems" were in fact pseudo-problems that arose from philosopher's misuse of language. Wittgenstein's new philosophical methodology was to continually remind the philosopher of the facts of linguistic usage which they had forgotten in their search for abstract "truths". It would then become obvious that the great questions posed by philosophers had arisen because they presupposed a mistaken view of language and its relation to reality. Philosophers in the Western tradition were not "wiser" than anyone else, as had been assumed - they were simply ordinary men and women more likely to entrap themselves in linguistic confusion. The task of the true philosopher (i.e. Wittgenstein) was to "show the fly out of the fly bottle": to show that the "problems" with which philosophers tormented themselves were in fact not really problems at all. So the true philosopher becomes more like a therapist removing distress and confusion than someone who creates or discusses philosophical theories or positions.

Needless to say, this viewpoint has not been popular amongst academic philosophers, and Wittgenstein's position in philosophical history is ambiguous. He is generally regarded as a great philosopher, perhaps the greatest since Immanuel Kant (or even Plato), and yet in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s his work was unfashionable. However, with the decline of pure Analytic philosophy and the continued lack of progress on traditional philosophical problems, his stock seems to be rising again.

Later work

Important publications

Quotations

See also

References

External links


This article is part of the Influential Western Philosophers series
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