Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein - Biography

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was a major twentieth century analytic philosopher whose work had importance for continental philosophy, especially for philosophies of language. Wittgenstein’s first work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) was to bring about a whole new school of philosophy. His last work, entitled Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953), remains one one of the most important works of twentieth-century philosophy. Wittgenstein has been considered by many as the most influential Western philosopher since Immanuel Kant.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on April 26, 1889. He was the youngest of eight children and first went to school in Linz (Austria) and then Berlin (Germany). Subsequently, Wittgenstein went to England to study engineering at the University of Manchester. There Wittgenstein worked both on theoretical and practical exercises, such as building a propeller, testing it, and thereby gaining a deep understanding of theoretical designs. Wittgenstein eventually developed an interest in pure mathematics, which directed him to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, to study with Bertrand Russell. It is there that Wittgenstein switched his focus from math to philosophy.

In 1912 Wittgenstein presented his first philosophical paper, called What is Philosophy?, to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Already in this work we can see evidence that Wittgenstein appreciated early the importance of searching out appropriate methods for approaching philosophical problems. While at Cambridge, Wittgenstein continued to work on the foundations of mathematics and mathematical logic. Wittgenstein found the philosophical discussions at the school shallow, however, and sought a new place to work. He chose Skjolden in Norway and lived there in isolation for the whole winter of 1913. The work on logic and language that he would produce there during what clearly was a fruitful period would lead years later to his first, and momentous book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921; 1922 in English).

In 1914 Wittgenstein moved to Vienna to join the Austrian army, serving in a ship and then in an artillery workshop. In 1916 he went to the Russian front, gaining numerous distinctions for bravery. In 1918 he was sent to north Italy with an artillery regiment, and was taken prisoner there at the end of the first World War. While in active service he had continued to write his Tractatus, carrying the manuscript in his rucksack. While he was in prison Wittgenstein was given permission to send the manuscript to the famous Cambridge professor of philosophy and one of the founders of analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). As a result Wittgenstein groundbreaking work was first published in English in 1922, only one year after its first edition in German.

In this early work, Wittgenstein was inspired by Russell's logical analysis. He describes a logically structured language that expresses thoughts that are pictures of a world composed of facts. In this structure, while atomic sentences can express the data of sense experience, the analytic propositions of logic and mathematics are only formal tautologies. Wittgenstein saw any other use of language as an attempt to say what cannot be put into words. Not surprisingly therefore, Wittgenstein was at this point in his life critical of both metaphysics and ethics because they try and reach beyond the limitations of our linguistic ability. This was to change later, however. The Tractatus is a series of reminders of the limits of human language. This monumental work was to become the basis for the principles of the branch of philosophy called logical positivism, which clearly marked its anti-metaphysical philosophical stance. Wittgenstein first assessed the Tractatus as holding the final solution to his own questions about philosophy. Satisfied, Wittgenstein turned away from philosophy and went to teach elementary school in an Austrian village for a few years.

It would not be until 1929 that Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, going back to Cambridge to finally submit the Tractatus as his doctoral thesis. Shortly after, Wittgenstein took a position with the faculty of Trinity College. According to notes taken by his students, Wittgenstein never prepared notes for his lectures, but preferred the exercise of first recollecting live the course of inquiry from the previous lecture, summarizing this for the class, and then continuing from there to advance the investigation. This is because Wittgenstein felt that to read the lecture from notes made the ideas seem dead. Therefore in a sense every lecture was basically composed of entirely new research.

Ludwig Wittgenstein began to rethink sections of the Tractatus and develop the ideas he would present in Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953). Wittgenstein’s early theories had begun to transform contemporary philosophy, yet he grew dissatisfied with them. For example, Wittgenstein now felt that they required too much precision and in this sense were too reductive. Wittgenstein would go as far as stating that what matters most is precisely what is not in the Tractatus. In this way Wittgenstein became discontented with how his early work came to be interpreted and re-appropriated. Wittgenstein’s friend, colleague and successor at Cambridge, the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik Von Wright (1916-2003), puts it in the following enlightening way: “[Wittgenstein] was of the opinion [...] that his ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples. He doubted he would be better understood in the future. He once said he felt as though he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein had ended the Tractatus with proposition 7 which states: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” or “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.” depending on the translation. We can sense in this last sentence a similar appreciation for the limits of language as Derrida et al. would later come to investigate. In fact, similarities between Wittgenstein’s work and that of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) are now generating interest amongst critical theorists, and Wittgenstein may well end up showing to be an important thinker for the emergence of today’s post-analytic philosophy. In short, we can say that Wittgenstein moved from a conception of language as monolithic, where abstraction and logical atomism predominated, to that of an open design of the cultural diversity of language uses. Interestingly, moreover, the last two propositions in the Tractatus have often been singled out as non-important or even problematic by the very people who essentially made Wittgenstein’s Tractatus famous, i.e. the logical positivists, Russell, and others after them.

As we saw, Wittgenstein himself came to become critical of a fair amount of the Tractatus. This came to light in particular in his second and last philosophical work, Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein became critical of his early work in part because he saw that it had been thoroughly misinterpreted. Evidence of this can be found in remark #23 of the Investigations where Wittgenstein points out that the practice of human language is more complex than the simplified views of language that have been held by those who seek to explain or simulate human language by means of a formal system (as had been largely done in the Tractatus).

It would be terribly mistaken, according to late Wittgenstein, to see language as being in any way analogous to formal logic. And yet, that is exactly what many philosophy departments are largely about today. Indeed, a lot of is has to do, to varying degrees depending on the program, with tautologies and deductive exercises. If truth is indeed, something that is beyond logical uses of language, how can logic and indeed the study of statements that are true by necessity or by virtue of their logical form have anything to do with it? To simplify, the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is interested in truth-value and truth-function and the Wittgenstein of the Investigations is after a different kind of truth, which for him includes the study of ethics, religion and psychology, but which traditional philosophy cannot offer. Philosophical investigations, however, may question the nonsense in the things that philosophers (he includes himself) try to assert.

One of the Tractatus’ general interpretations seems to have remained in the Investigations, however. That is, Wittgenstein argued that anything that can be said should be said clearly or not at all. Clarity remained a constant for Wittgenstein. Interestingly, moreover, we can notice that that can be interpreted in at least two ways. Indeed one, it seems to mean to most that we need to create a logically perfect language, which is after all what Russell and the Vienna Circle were largely after. Or two, Wittgenstein early argument can point the very last statement of the Tractatus that indeed “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” thereby indicating an appreciation for silence. After all, Wittgenstein himself pointed out that he wanted to show what can and cannot be put into language.


It seems consistent, therefore, that the later Wittgenstein made the move from the realm of logic to that of ordinary language as the center of the philosopher's attention. He went from an emphasis on definition and analysis to ‘family resemblance’ and ‘language-games’; and from systematic philosophical writing to an aphoristic style. All of this has to do with a transition towards anti-dogmatism. For there is no such thing as an identifiable origin, truth, or even God in language, it’s all relational.

In summary, Ludwig Wittgenstein became first important for the development of analytic philosophy, but became out of fashion because of his complex ideas, as well as his anti-theoretical and anti-scientism stance. In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein explores the idea of the “language games” of ordinary language in which the meaning of words is only loosely connected to their use. He argues that there are many ways in which language works, and that direct reference is only one. Wittgenstein pointed out that philosophy operates under the enchanting belief that language can successfully capture reality. Wittgenstein’s own philosophy, therefore, is a therapeutic activity, relieving the confusion caused by philosophical misuses of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein saw a great error in the Western philosophical tradition in that it has accepted reports of subjective individual experience as primary sources for human knowledge, about which subsequently more scientific attempts are made in order to justify it in the name of logic. Wittgenstein demonstrated such problems in the philosophy of mind and blamed equally the use of private languages to express interior mental states, stating that this was an avoidable mistake. There is more to it than just what is logically sayable, whether with personal or scientific language. There is what Wittgenstein came to refer to as the logic and use of “language-games”, something not unrelated to what Derrida later would call “the logic of the supplement”, or Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1998) concept of “metanarratives,” which he acknowledged as being derived from Wittgenstein’s logic of “language-games.” Later in his work, Wittgenstein would apply these beliefs and method of analysis to epistemological, mathematical, and ethical problems.

Wittgenstein was known as both a sensitive and intense man, with a confident personality, and who spent much time alone and went through bouts of depression. Wittgenstein was also known for the memorable impression he left to those who came in contact with him. Wittgenstein lived simply and hated pretense. In 1947 Wittgenstein retired. In 1949 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Undaunted, Wittgenstein claimed he did not want to live any longer anyway. Wittgenstein continued working on his ideas until he died in Cambridge on April 29, 1951, just three days after his 62nd birthday.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian-British Philosopher. (April 26, 1889 – April 29, 1951)