Hauptli’s Introduction to Wittgenstein


     Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


I. Wittgenstein’s Life (1889-1951):


Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, Austria in 1889 (he died in 1951).  His family was a prominent one (it was a noted patron of the arts, and frequent visitors to the family home (“Palis Wittgenstein”) included Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Johannes Brahms, and Clara Schumann).  Wittgenstein’s great grandfather, Moses Mayer, worked for the aristocratic Wittgenstein family, and took on that family’s name after the Napoleonic degree of 1808 which demanded that Jews adopt a non Jewish surname.  Wittgenstein’s grandfather took the further step of adding the middle name “Christian.”  The family became very prosperous, but Wittgenstein’s father, Karl was very independent, and was committed to “making it on his own.”  He went to America, and when he returned he didn’t follow in the family business (real estate, but pursued engineering.  He became a major Austrian manufacturer of iron and steel, and the family friends included the Carnegies, Krupps, and Schwabs (who visited one another at their various homes and country houses). 


     Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius[1] and William W. Bartley’s Wittgenstein[2] provide excellent pictures of Wittgenstein’s life, and a good portion of this introductory picture is drawn from these works.  Additional valuable accounts of his life include: Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It (a fascinating fictional biography), Norman Malcolm’s Wittgenstein: A Memoir (which also has a biographical sketch written by G.H. von Wright), and Stephen Toulmin and Alan Janik’s Wittgenstein’s Vienna.[3]  I recommend any and all of these to you. 


     In 1902, Wittgenstein’s brother Hans who was a musical genius (and who was gay) killed himself in Havana, Cuba.  In 1904 his brother Rudolf who was a student of chemistry (and who was also gay) killed himself in Berlin because his companion had died and he found life no longer worth living.  These events had a marked effect upon Ludwig. 


     At the age of 19 [in 1908], Wittgenstein went to Manchester University in England to study engineering (he worked on the design of a propeller for jet engines and held several design patents).  These studies were largely mathematical in nature, and led him to study logic.  One of his fellow students recommended Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics, and reading this work had a transformative effect upon Wittgenstein.  He became obsessed with “foundational” problems in mathematics, and he traveled to Jena to discuss with Gottlob Frege whether he should study mathematics.  On the advice of Frege, he went to Cambridge University to consult further with Bertrand Russell, and in 1912 he withdrew from Manchester University and enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge to work with Russell. 


     In a very short time Wittgenstein moved from being Russell’s student to being his teacher, and Russell came to believe that any further progress in formal logic would be made by Wittgenstein rather than by himself.[4]  At Cambridge Wittgenstein also met and befriended G.E. Moore, and J.M. Keynes, and was elected to “The Apostles”—a select secret society that included most of the male members of the Bloomsbury group.  In 1912 he met David Pinsent, perhaps his dearest friend (to whom he dedicated the Tractatus), and they made holiday trips to Iceland and Norway.  According to Norman Malcolm,


Pinsent found Wittgenstein a difficult companion: irritable, nervously sensitive, often depressed.  But when he was cheerful he was extremely charming.  Sometimes he was depressed by the conviction that his death was near at hand and that he would not have time to perfect his new ideas in logic, sometimes by the thought that perhaps his logical work was of no real value.  Even so, his general frame of mind was less morbid than before he had come to Cambridge.  For a number of years previously there had hardly been a day, he told Pinsent, in which he had not thought of suicide “as a possibility.”[5] 


All accounts of Wittgenstein’s life portray him as driven to do philosophy, as relentless in his pursuit for clarity of thought, as unforgiving of sloppy thinking, as deeply pessimistic, as obsessed with purity of thought and self, and as dissatisfied with his efforts.  William Bartley contends that his ascetic life-style and obsession with purity was partially rooted in his views about sexuality (Wittgenstein was a homosexual for whom, Bartley contends, sexuality and intellectual activity could not mix—he saw sex as impure and thought as pure).  Wittgenstein was constantly dissatisfied with his writings and ideas (though Russell, Moore, and others throughout his life encouraged him to publish his notes), and he was also constantly afraid that he might die before he had fully and clearly worked his ideas out. 


     In his Autobiography, Bertrand Russell says:


he was perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.  He had a kind of purity which I have never known equaled except by G.E. Moore.[6] 


At the end of his first term at Trinity, he came to me and said: “Do you think I am an absolute idiot?”  I said: “Why do you want to know?”  He replied: “Because if I am I shall become an aeronaut, but if I am not I shall become a philosopher.”  I said to him: “My dear fellow, I don’t know whether you are an absolute idiot or not, but if you will write me an essay during the vacation upon any philosophical topic that interests you, I will read it and tell you.”  He did so, and brought it to me at the beginning of the next term.  As soon as I read the first sentence, I became persuaded that he was a man of genius, and assured him that he should on no account become an aeronaut.  At the beginning of 1914 he came to see me in a state of great agitation and said: “I am leaving Cambridge....”  “Why” I asked.  “Because my brother-in-law has come to live in London, and I can’t bear to be so near him.”  So he spent the rest of the winter in the far north of Norway.[7] 


Later on in his autobiography (quoting a letter he had written to a friend much earlier):


do you remember that at the time...I wrote a lot of stuff about Theory of Knowledge, which Wittgenstein criticized with the greatest severity?  His criticism...was an event of first-rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since.  I saw he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.  My impulse was shattered, like a wave dashed to pieces against a breakwater.  I became filled with utter despair...I had to produce lectures for America [where he was going to lecture], but I took a metaphysical subject although I was and am convinced that all fundamental work in philosophy is logical.  My reason was that Wittgenstein persuaded me that what wanted doing in logic was too difficult for me.  So there was no really vital satisfaction of my philosophical impulse in that work, and philosophy lost its hold no me.  That was due to Wittgenstein more that to the war.[8] 


     In 1913, to go back to the chronological story for the moment, Wittgenstein’s father died and he inherited a very large fortune (his father had placed much of this fortune in American bonds, and, by the end of the first world war Ludwig was one of the richest men in Europe).  In that year, Wittgenstein left Cambridge since he found it distracting as he tried to work through his new ideas in logic, and moved to Norway to live in a hut which he built for himself and to think in seclusion.  Before he left, he dictated his “Notes on Logic” [1913] to Bertrand Russell because both he and Russell wanted some record of the ideas that Wittgenstein had and was working upon.  Ray Monk notes that:


Wittgenstein’s feeling that he might die before being able to publish his work intensified during his last week [of an earlier vacation] in Norway, and prompted him to write Russell asking if Russell would be prepared to meet him ‘as soon as possible and give me time enough to give you a survey of the whole field of what I have done up to now and if possible to let me make notes for you in your presence’.  It is to this that we owe the existence of Notes on logic, the earliest surviving exposition of Wittgenstein’s thought.[9] 


During his longer stay in Norway, Wittgenstein was visited several times by G.E. Moore, and another set of notes was dictated there.[10]  As G.H. von Wright relates,


it was Wittgenstein’s habit to write down his thoughts in notebooks.  The entries are usually dated, and thus they comprise a sort of diary.  The contents of an earlier notebook are often worked over again in a later one.  Sometimes he dictated to colleagues and pupils.  In the spring of 1914 he dictated some thoughts on logic to Moore in Norway.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s he dictated to Schlick and Waismann.  The so-called Blue Book was dictated in conjunction with lectures at Cambridge in the academic year 1933-4.  The so-called Brown Book was dictated privately to some pupils in 1934-5.[11] 


     In August of 1914, upon the outbreak of World War I, Wittgenstein joined the Austrian army.  During the war his brother Paul, a brilliant piano player, lost an arm at the Russian front (Paul remained a very accomplished pianist, and Ravel wrote his “Left Handed Concerto” for him), David Pinsent died in battle, and in 1918 Wittgenstein’s brother Kurt killed himself after his troops fled the field in dishonor.  During the war Wittgenstein further developed the logical ideas he had worked on at Trinity and in Norway, and worked them into a book which he tentatively called The Proposition.  His experiences at the Eastern Front intensified his mystical and religious tendencies giving his work the ethical, first-person metaphysical, and mystical final form it has (earlier versions had concerned themselves almost exclusively with issues of logic).  As Ray Monk notes,


if Wittgenstein had spent the entire war behind the lines, the Tractatus would have remained what it almost certainly was in its first inception of 1915: a treatise on the nature of logic.  The remarks in it about ethics, aesthetics, the soul and the meaning of life have their origin in precisely the ‘impulse to philosophical reflection’ that Schopenhauer describes, an impulse that has as its stimulus a knowledge of death, suffering, and misery. 

  Towards the end of March 1916 Wittgenstein was posted, as he had long wished, to a fighting unit on the Russian front.  He was assigned to an artillery regiment attached to the Austrian Seventh Army, stationed at the southernmost point of the Eastern Front, near the Romanian border.  In the few weeks that elapsed before his regiment was moved up to the front line, he endeavored to prepare himself, psychologically and spiritually, to face death.[12] 


After the Russians withdrew from the war, his unit was transferred to Italy, and Wittgenstein was captured.  While he was a prisoner of war, J.M. Keynes (a mutual friend of Russell and Wittgenstein) was able to arrange for Wittgenstein to be able to correspond with Russell, and Wittgenstein sent Russell a copy of his book. 


     Their correspondence shows how far apart their ideas had become, but believing he had solved all interesting philosophical problems, feeling an obligation to help Austria recover from the war, and suffering from depression and serious internal torments, Wittgenstein returned from the war and immediately gave away his considerable inherited fortune.  Wittgenstein’s depressions at this stage in his life truly scared his family members who agreed to his plans to dispose of his fortune not out of greed but because they feared that he might do something utterly unpredictable if they did not support his ideas.  As Monk notes:


the hardship suffered during the war was not experienced by him as something from which he sought refuge, but as the very thing that gave his life meaning.  To shelter from the storm in the comfort and security which his family’s wealth and his own education could provide could provide would be to sacrifice everything he had gained from struggling with adversity.  It would be to give up climbing mountains in order to live on a plateau.[13] 


     Wittgenstein then enrolled in a teacher-training school and became a grammar school teacher in rural Austria.  Between 1920 and 1926 he worked as an elementary school teacher in three towns or villages, and while he was a successful teacher, the parents feared both him and new the educational “reform movement,” and Wittgenstein was eventually accused of extreme corporal punishment of students.[14]  It is clear that the people recognized him as an excellent teacher, but his desire to further their education ran counter to the parent’s economic needs—they needed their children working rather than studying.  Moreover the village people thought he was rich, socialist, non-Catholic, and progressive.  Wittgenstein’s sojourn as a grammar school teacher seems to many utterly out of character, but Bartley points out that:


confronted with the economically ruined strip of land now known as the Austrian Republic, the Wittgenstein family immediately engaged in wide-ranging social work.  The family had a long tradition of public service, which most of its members treated, literally, as a duty....In the prewar days, the Wittgensteins were prominent patrons of the arts....Karl Wittgenstein...built the great Viennese exhibition hall, the Secession, and patronized many important contemporary painters.  In 1914, over a year after his father’s death, Ludwig made his own famous gift of 100,000 Kronen to Ludwig von Ficker to aid poets and writers, explaining to Flicker that he did so according to the custom of his class. 

  In the immediate postwar years, however, social welfare more than the arts engaged the attention of Karl Wittgenstein’s children.  Herbert Hoover named Margarete Stonbrough [one of Ludwig’s sisters] his personal representative for Austria in charge of work for the American Food Relief Commission, a role which put her in close touch with socialist and other political leaders....Ludwig’s eldest sister, Mining, opened a day school for poor Viennese boys...and eventually helped him with his own pupils from the countryside.  In this context, Wittgenstein’s decision to enter elementary school teaching...was hardly eccentric.[15] 


     While Wittgenstein was teaching, he had considerable difficulty securing a publisher for his book.  He corresponded with Russell (who was then in China for several years), and, finally, with Russell’s help it was published in 1921 as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.[16]  This work had an important influence upon logical positivism.[17]  In 1926 a “wordbook” which Wittgenstein had developed for his grammar school classes was published—it was the only other of his books which was published while he was alive (his other non-posthumous works were a book review, and two short philosophical essays).  Much of Wittgenstein’s work circulated in unpublished manuscripts throughout his life, and these manuscripts had a major influence upon the philosophic thought of the twentieth century). 


     After he quit teaching, Wittgenstein worked briefly as a gardener’s assistant in a monastery at Hutteldorf near Vienna (he had considered entering the monastery as he was attracted to the ascetic, pure, devoted life), and then he acted as the co-architect of his sister’s house in Vienna.  This latter activity pulled him out of his deep depression.  By the summer of 1927, he was meeting regularly with a group of philosophers lead by Morris Schlick (including Frederick Waismann, Rudolf Carnap, and Herbert Feigel) that came to be known as the Vienna Circle.  They took Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to be one of the foundational texts of their “movement,” and thought he was, like them, a logical positivist. 


     As Ray Monk notes,


in March 1928 Brouwer came to Vienna to deliver a lecture entitled “Mathematics, Science and Language,” which Wittgenstein attended, together with Waismann and Feigel.  After it the three spent a few hours together in a cafe, and, reports Feigel:

...it was fascinating to behold the change that had come over Wittgenstein that evening...he became extremely voluble and began sketching ideas that were the beginnings of his later writings...that evening marked the return of Wittgenstein to strong philosophical interest and activities.[18] 


     In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge as a research student.  As von Wright notes, this was a


...somewhat unusual status for a man whom many already regarded as one of the foremost living representatives of his subject.  The idea was that he should work for a Ph.D.  It turned out, however, that he could count his pre-war residence at Cambridge as credit towards the degree and could present his book...as a thesis.  He received his degree in June 1929.  The following year he was made a Fellow of Trinity College.[19] 


Russell and Moore examined Wittgenstein for the Ph.D. at one of Russell’s educational communes, and Russell’s account of this is of some interest!  A briefer account from Monk will have to do here however:


as Russell walked into the examination room with Moore, he smiled and said: ‘I have never known anything so absurd in my life.’  The examination began with a chat between old friends.  Then Russell, relishing the absurdity of the situation, said to Moore: ‘Go on, you’ve got to ask him some questions—you’re the professor.’  There followed a short discussion in which Russell advanced his view that Wittgenstein was inconsistent in claiming to have expressed unassailable truths by means of meaningless propositions.  He was, of course, unable to convince Wittgenstein, who brought the proceedings to an end by clapping each of his examiners on the shoulder and remarking consolingly: ‘Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.’[20] 


     Wittgenstein began to lecture at Cambridge in 1930, and as von Wright notes, his lecture style was hardly conventional:


he nearly always held them in his own room or in the college rooms of a friend.  He had no manuscript or notes.  He thought before the class.  The impression was of tremendous concentration.  The exposition usually led to a question, to which the audience were supposed to suggest an answer.  The answers in turn became starting points for new thoughts leading to new questions.  It depended on the audience, to a great extent, whether the discussion became fruitful and whether the connecting thread was kept in sight from the beginning of one lecture to another.  Many members of his audiences were highly qualified people in their various fields.  Moore attended Wittgenstein’s lectures for some years in the early 1930s.  Several of those who later became leading philosophers in England, the United States, or Australia heard Wittgenstein lecture at Cambridge.[21] 


Norman Malcolm rounds out this picture of Wittgenstein’s lectures when he says of lectures delivered in 1946:


Wittgenstein lectured for three terms that year on topics belonging to the philosophy of psychology.  I took notes for the first two or three lectures but gave up this practice when I found that Wittgenstein was addressing a great many questions to me and that it was impossible for me to say anything intelligent in reply if I was occupied with writing.  (Peter Geach took notes of all the lectures, which are preserved.)  Wittgenstein said to me at the conclusion of one of the first classes that he expected me to take an active part in the discussions.  I resolved to do my best, and throughout the year I made a great effort to follow his thought during those meetings, an exertion that left my mind utterly exhausted at the end of two hours.[22] 


I.A. Richard’s poem “The Strayed Poet” provides another recollection of Wittgenstein’s lectures.  Wittgenstein’s Fellowship lasted until 1935, and in 1936 he returned to his hut in Norway where he endeavored to turn his notes and workbooks into what was to be his second major work. 


     In 1938 Wittgenstein first returned to Vienna, but the unfolding events there caused the family to, in effect, trade a substantial portion of its fortune in return for being declared Michlinges (individuals of mixed Jewish blood).  Wittgenstein found Vienna depressing, could not find work, and though he wished to simply write, his finances were insufficient for this.  He, thus, returned to Cambridge to teach (though he really did not want to do so).  When G.E. Moore retired, Wittgenstein decided to apply for the post of Professor of Philosophy.  As Monk notes:


by 1939 he was recognized as the foremost philosophical genius of our time.  ‘To refuse the chair to Wittgenstein,’ said C.D. Broad [no fan of his philosophical orientation], ‘would be like refusing Einstein a chair of Physics.’  Broad himself was no great admirer of Wittgenstein’s work; he was simply stating a fact. 

  On 11 February Wittgenstein was duly elected Professor.  It was, inevitably, an occasion for both expressing pride and condemning it.  ‘Having got the professorship is very flattering & all that’, he wrote to Eccles, ‘but it might have been very much better for me to have got a job opening and closing [railroad] gates.  I don’t get any kick out of my position (except what my vanity & stupidity sometimes gets).’  This in turn helped with his application for British citizenship, and on 2 June 1939 he received his British passport.  No matter how illiberal their policy on the admission of Austrian Jews, the British government could hardly refuse citizenship to the professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge.[23] 


     During the Second World War, Wittgenstein worked with a medical research unit that was researching “shock,” first at a London hospital, and then in Newcastle.  Following this work, he took a leave of absence and lived in Ireland talking to Rush Rhees (one of his former students) and working to develop his notes and notebooks into his second book.  


     In October of 1944 he returned to teaching at Cambridge and taught until 1947 when he retired to devote himself to writing and thinking.  He lived in Dublin, rural Ireland, Dublin again, and Cambridge.  He visited Malcolm in the United States.  Monk relates one account of Wittgenstein in America that is useful in trying to complete this introductory picture of the man:


at the beginning of the autumn term [1949] Malcolm took Wittgenstein along to a meeting of the graduate students of philosophy at Cornell University.  His presence there, as John Nelson has recalled, had a tremendous impact.  ‘Just before the meeting was to get underway’, Nelson writes, ‘Malcolm appeared approaching down the corridor’:

  On his arm leaned a slight, older man, dressed in a windjacket and old army trousers.  If it had not been for his face, alight with intelligence, one might have taken him for some vagabond Malcolm had found along the road and decided to bring out of the cold. 

  ...I leaned over to [William] Gass and whispered, ‘That’s Wittgenstein.’  Gass thought I was making a joke and said something like, ‘Stop pulling my leg.’  And then Malcolm and Wittgenstein entered.  [Gregory] Vlastos was introduced and gave his paper and finished.  [Max] Black, who was conducting this particular meeting, stood up and turned to his right and it became clear, to everyone’s surprise...that he was about to address the shabby older man Malcolm had brought to the meeting.  Then came the startling words; said Black; ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Professor Wittgenstein...’  Well, when Black said ‘Wittgenstein’ a loud and instantaneous gasp went up from the assembled students.  You must remember: ‘Wittgenstein’ was a mysterious and awesome name in the philosophical world of 1949, at Cornell in particular.  The gasp that went up was just the gasp that would have gone up if Black had said ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Plato...’[24] 


Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge.  In November of 1949 he learned he had cancer, and he died on April 28, 1951. 


II. An Overview of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy:


Many conceive of Wittgenstein as a British philosopher, but this is a serious mistake.  As William Bartley notes, such people need to attend to the fact that


...every decade in his life was an Austrian one, save that period of some nine years immediately before, during and after the Second World War when he was forced by circumstances quite beyond his control to remain in Britain.  Any person who might be surprised by this statement would do well to reflect that the three Cambridge academic full terms are after all only eight weeks each in length, that Wittgenstein rarely arrived or lingered in Cambridge more than a few days before and after term, and that it was his habit, even in some of his most active Cambridge years, to spend twenty-five or twenty-six weeks each year in Vienna or on one of the family estates.... 

  If one accepts that the ways in which one styles oneself...say a lot about who one is or would like to be, then how revealing it is to find out that Ludwig Wittgenstein characterized himself in the...the Viennese City Directory, in each edition from 1933 to 1938, as Dr. Ludwig Wittgenstein, occupation: architect,” a resident of Vienna, living, together with his sister Hermine and brother Paul, at Palais Wittgenstein....[25] 


     Many accounts of Wittgenstein’s intellectual life have him not actively doing philosophy during most of the 1920s while he was teaching school, gardening, and acting as an architect.  But this is clearly wrong.  He was actively engaged during this period, but he began to move away from the views he had developed in the Tractatus. 


     Wittgenstein’s philosophizing is generally divided into three periods:


the early period (e.g., his Tractatus),


the middle period (e.g., his Blue and Brown Books), and


the late period (e.g., his Investigations). 


There are many other notebooks and collections of his writings, and these show him continuously working and reworking his ideas.  In what follows I will briefly characterize his central concerns in each of these periods, and we will then work through his works in more detail. 


     A characteristic of Twentieth-Century philosophy was its concern with language.  Richard Rorty provides an excellent account of what is called the “linguistic turn” of philosophy and characterizes linguistic philosophy as:


...the view that philosophical problems are problems which may be solved (or dissolved) either by reforming language, or by understanding more about the language we presently use.[26] 


Rorty’s essay is an excellent introduction to the Twentieth-Century concern with language.  A.J. Ayer offers what may be considered the classic formulation of this orientation when he says:


our charge against the metaphysician is not that he attempts to employ the understanding in a field where it cannot profitably venture, but that he produces sentences which fail to conform to conditions under which alone a sentence can be literally significant.[27] 


Like earlier “philosophical revolutions,” the linguistic turn amounts to a methodological recommendation (the recommendation that we adopt a new method of philosophizing) which is designed to allow us to avoid fruitless controversies.  As the above citation makes clear, the linguistic philosophers believed that these controversies are generally the result of a misuse of language.  In fact, they generally held that previous philosophers were often uttering meaningless statements.  A good example of this sort of claim is provided in Rudolf Carnap’s “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through the Logical Analysis of Language:”


in saying that the so-called statements of metaphysics are meaningless, we intend this word in its strictest sense.[28] 


Let us now look as some examples of metaphysical pseudostatements of a kind where the violation of logical syntax is especially obvious, though they accord with historical-grammatical syntax.  We select a few sentences from that metaphysical school which at present exerts the strongest influence in Germany. 

  “What is to be investigated is being only and—nothing else; being along and further—nothing; solely being, and beyond being—nothing.  What about this nothing?...Does the Nothing exist only because the Not, i.e. the Negation, exists?  Or is it the other way around?  Does Negation and the Not exist only because the Nothing exists?...We assert: the Nothing is prior to the Not and the Negation....Where do we seek the Nothing?  How do we find the Nothing....We know the Nothing....Anxiety reveals the Nothing....That for which and because of which we are anxious, was ‘really’—nothing.  Indeed: the Nothing itself—as such—was present....What about this Nothing?—The Nothing itself nothings.[29] 


The linguistic turn constitutes a rejection of such “metaphysical philosophizing,” which many of the newer philosophers found to be barren.  Their view was that many of the endless disagreements that arose in philosophy were the result of linguistic confusion. 


     Rorty does an excellent job of introducing the two “schools” of Twentieth-Century linguistically inclined philosophizing (the ideal language philosophers and the ordinary language philosophers), and he does an excellent job of showing that this linguistic turn is not without its own [metaphysical] presuppositions.[30]  The former (the ideal language philosophers) endeavor to specify or uncover an ideal language which will correctly portray the structure of the world—they believe that much mistaken (and metaphysical) philosophy arises because individuals are unclear in their use of language.  The ordinary language philosophers believe that there is no need to construct (or seek) an ideal language—our ordinary language is fine as it is.  They contend that philosophical mistakes (and bad metaphysics) arise as the result of our being misled by grammatical analogies, and they endeavor to provide a corrective therapy to such misuse of language. 


     Wittgenstein’s philosophizing clearly displays the Twentieth-Century concern with language.  But he occupies a unique position in Twentieth-Century philosophy—he is, in a sense (and, of course, at different points in his life), the champion of both the ideal and the ordinary language orientations. 


     Throughout his life, Wittgenstein was concerned with determining what language can and can not do.  As David Pears points out,


this is a more radical enterprise than fixing the scope and limits of human knowledge, because knowledge is expressed in sentences, which have to achieve sense before they can achieve truth.  He develops his critique of language in two quite different ways in the two periods of his philosophy.  In the Tractatus a general theory of language is used to fix the bounds of sense, while in the Philosophical Investigations no such theory is offered, and the line between sense and senselessness is drawn not on any general principle but with an eye on the special features of each case that is reviewed.  If his first book is like a map with a superimposed grid, his second book is like the diary of a journey recording all the deviations which looked so tempting but would have ended in the morass of senselessness.[31] 


In his The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Pears contends that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is “critical” (in the Kantian sense—though Pears contends that whereas Kant offered a critique of thought in general, Wittgenstein “...offers a critique of the expression of thought in language.”).[32]  In critical philosophy, the human intellect is “turned back upon itself” in an effort to discover its limitations.  While I believe it is misleading, “critical philosophers” are often contrasted with philosophers who concern themselves with the development of speculative metaphysical systems.  This characterization would have the critical philosophers avoiding the development of metaphysical systems, and this hardly seems to generate a true picture of Kant (the paradigmatic “critical philosopher”).  Pears contends that the dichotomy between speculative metaphysics and critical (and non-metaphysical) philosophy is too simplistic:


...there is an alternative to dogmatic metaphysics.  A metaphysician does not have to be so overweening.  He does not have to extend our concepts beyond the limits of their legitimate use, because he can avoid questions about the ultimate structure of reality and confine himself to reality as it is apprehended by us, the so-called ‘phenomenal world’.  For example, instead of arguing that there must be a first cause of everything that exists, he can argue that causality is a necessary ingredient in the mixture taken in by our minds.  To put the point in Kant’s way, he may offer a metaphysic of experience instead of a dogmatic metaphysic.[33] 


It seems clear that Kant offers an extremely complex metaphysical system, but the important thing to note is that it is supposed to be based upon his critical reflection regarding the limits of thought.  In his “Preface” to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein says that:


the book deals with the problems of philosophy, and shows, I believe, that the reason why these problems are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood.  The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. 

  Thus the aim of the book is to set a limit to thought, or rather—not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts; for in order to be able to set a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). 

  It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense. [34] 


While the early Wittgenstein may not limit himself to the critical enterprise (like Kant, he develops substantive [and speculative] metaphysical theses), the later Wittgenstein may be more consistent—he may be seen as more carefully limiting himself to the exploration of the limits of the expression of thought. 


III. A Very Brief Overview of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:


Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (which he had wanted to call “The Proposition”) develops a conception of propositions[35] as pictures of the world.  In his Notebooks, 1914-1916 (which predate the Tractatus), Wittgenstein contends that


my whole task consists in explaining the nature of the proposition.  That is to say, in giving the nature of all facts, whose picture the proposition is.[36] 


Wittgenstein sees the world as composed of objects that are arranged together into states-of-affairs.  Names are “signs” of simple objects, and their meaning just is the object.  Wittgenstein sees “elementary propositions” as arrangements of names so that a possible state-of-affairs in the world is pictured.  William Bartley characterizes this portion of the early Wittgenstein’s theory as follows:


in his view, the world is composed of objects arranged as facts.  A true elementary proposition pictures such a fact, called an atomic fact, and such facts are, like the elementary propositions which picture them, independent one from the other.  An elementary proposition may be meaningful without being true if it pictures a possible combination of objects (a state of affairs) which does not happen to obtain.  Elementary propositions and the states of affairs which they picture have a common form.[37] 


Of course more complicated propositions would be composed of elementary propositions which were joined together.  The connections which so “join” them were, for Wittgenstein, logical connectives (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘if, then’, ‘not’, etc.).  Their truth or falsity is a “logical product” of the truth (or falsity) of the elementary propositions. 


     While many thinkers conceived of the “objects” mentioned above as sensory experiences, so that the sort of atomism which Wittgenstein advanced would fit fully into the sort of empiricistic picture advanced by the logical positivists, it is important to note that Wittgenstein never gives any examples of such objects (or of names)—his study is motivated by logical and grammatical considerations far more than by epistemological ones.  Passages like the following helped encourage the view that the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is a logical positivist primarily concerned with drawing a line of demarcation between meaningful (scientific) and meaningless (metaphysical) discourse:


6.53 the correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has noting to do with philosophy—and when, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.  Although it would not be satisfying to the other person—he would not have the feeling that we are teaching him philosophy—this method would be the only strictly correct one. 


These passages must be placed in context however.  In a letter to his friend Ludwig von Ficker characterizing the Tractatus, Wittgenstein maintained that:


the book’s point is an ethical one.  I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here, because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you.  What I meant to write, then, was this: My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written.  And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.  My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside, as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits.  In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it.  And for that reason, unless I am very much mistaken, the book will say a great deal that you yourself want to say.  Only perhaps you won’t see that it is said in the book.  For now, I would recommend you read the preface and the conclusion, because they contain the most direct expression of the point of the book.[38] 


It is clearly not the case that he is simply advancing the positivistic (and Humean) program of distinguishing the empirical from the nonempirical so that the latter can largely be “committed to the flames.” 


     The other main themes of the Tractatus may be quickly indicated by citing the following from Ray Monk:


if Wittgenstein had followed Russell’s suggestion, the work that would have been published in 1916 would have been, in many ways, similar to the work we now know as the Tractatus.  It would, that is, have contained the picture theory of meaning, the metaphysics of ‘logical atomism’, the analysis of logic in terms of the twin notions of tautology and contradiction, and the distinction between saying and showing (invoked to make the theory of types superfluous), and the method of truth-tables (used to show a logical proposition to be either a tautology or a contradiction).  In other words, it would have contained almost everything the Tractatus now contains—except the remarks at the end of the book on ethics, aesthetics, the soul, and the meaning of life. 

  In a way, therefore, it would have been a completely different work.[39] 


     Wittgenstein did not hold on to all these doctrines throughout his life however.  William Bartley contends that the interest which Wittgenstein developed in children’s psychology during his period as a teacher, helped him move from his early doctrines to his later ones:


Zettel, The Blue and Brown Books, and Philosophical Investigations must be read in a number of different ways, but two necessary ways are as polemics against the atomism represented by the Tractatus or by Russell...and as attempts to develop the outlines of a child psychology of language.  How, after all, does the Investigations open except as a critique of Saint Augustine’s account of how a child learns a language?”[40] 


The later Wittgenstein rejected as simplistic the view of language offered in the Tractatus.  It allowed only one function of language—that of picturing the world.  The later Wittgenstein noted that first, there were many other functions.  Secondly, he noted, picturing is always for a purpose, and this means that we must pay more attention to the fact that our linguistic behavior is embedded in our lives.  Thus a significant difference emerges between the early and later Wittgenstein—the former offers an essentialistic, detached, and “pure” conception of language, while the latter offers a non-essentialistic, integrated, and impure theory of human language use.   


     However, before we can talk about how his views change, we need to look at his earliest views more carefully. 



Notes: [click on note number to return to the text for the note]

[1] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (N.Y.: Penguin, 1990). 

[2] William W. Bartley, III, Wittgenstein (second edition) (LaSalle: Open Court, 1985). 

[3] Cf., Bruce Duffy, The World As I Found It (N.Y.: Tichnor and Fields, 1988); Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (second edition) (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1984); and Steven Toulmin and Alan Janik, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1973). 

[4] A sentence like this should not just be read, it requires, indeed demands, critical thought!  Russell was one of the colossal figures in logic at the time in the world (perhaps he will be judged one of the colossal figures of the history of the subject), and the comment I make comes almost directly from his own words.  While the accomplishments of students clearly can surpass those of their professors, rarely does it happen so quickly.  Wittgenstein was full of self-doubt, and in this case, he seems to have caused Russell, who was rarely subject to this malaise to become deeply moved by it.  See the text to note 8 below! 

[5] Norman Malcolm, "Wittgenstein," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 8, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 327-340, p. 327.

[6] Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1914-1944 (N.Y.: Bantam, 1969), p. 132. 

[7] Ibid., pp. 132-133. 

[8] Ibid., p. 64. 

[9] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 88. 

[10] Both sets of notes are reproduced in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, eds. G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (N.Y.: Harper, 1961), the former in Appendix I and the latter in Appendix II. 

[11] G.H. von Wright, “A Biographical Sketch,” in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, op. cit., p. 9. 

[12] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 137. 

[13]Ibid., pp. 170-180. 

[14] Of course, such punishment was the norm in Austria before and after the war.  It is important to note that in defending himself against the charges, Wittgenstein had to lie (saying that this instance of punishment was no worse than what he often administered), and this is just the sort of compromise which made him feel “impure.”  Throughout his life such instances caused him great distress. 

[15] William Bartley, III, Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 76-77. 

[16] The most important assistance which Russell offered was an “Introduction” which more or less guaranteed that a publisher would publish the work—anything by Russell was almost guaranteed to sell well!  Since Russell did not understand the very core of the work, however, Wittgenstein felt that including his “introduction” was a compromise that was far too great to allow the work to go forward.  Nonetheless, it did go forward, and Wittgenstein again made just the sort of “compromise” which, he felt, left him impure and violated his “duty to himself.” 

[17] The logical positivists maintained that too much philosophical thought was meaningless discourse.  They held that all statements were either empirically verifiable (subject to experiential check) or meaningless, and they recommended that we limit our attention to the meaningful statements.  This school of philosophy (which arose at the end of the 19th Century) suffered a rather quick demise when it became clear that the core statement of the positivists (the second sentence of this note) was not empirically verifiable! 

[18] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 249. 

[19] G.H. von Wright, “A Biographical Sketch,” op. cit., p. 12. 

[20] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 271. 

[21] G.H. von Wright, “A Biographical Sketch,” op. cit., pp. 15-16.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[22] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, op. cit., p. 40. 

[23] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 415. 

[24] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 558.  In his “A Memory of a Master,” the American writer and philosopher William Gass masterfully recounts this meeting (cf., William Gass, “A Memory of A Master,” in his Fiction and the Figures of Life [N.Y.: Vintage, 1958], pp. 247-252). 

[25] William W. Bartley, III, Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 20-21.  I believe Bartley overstates this, however.  It is clear that after the Second World War Wittgenstein spends far less time in Austria than before (his time away from Cambridge is more likely spent in Ireland than in Vienna, for example).  Still, Bartley’s corrective to a tendency to treat him as if he were British is clearly on target. 

[26] Richard Rorty, “Introduction: Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy,” in The Linguistic Turn, ed. Richard Rorty,  (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1967), pp. 1-39, p. 3. 

[27] A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London: Gollancz, 1936), p. 35. 

[28] Rudolf Carnap, “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language,” in Logical Positivism, ed. A.J. Ayer (N.Y.: Free Press, 1959), pp. 60-81, p. 61.  The essay was originally published in German in Erkenntnis v. 2 (1932). 

[29] Ibid., p. 69.  Carnap is citing from Martin Heidegger’s What is Metaphysics? [1929].  In a footnote to this passage, Carnap says that “we could just as well have selected passages from any other of the numerous metaphysicians of the present or past; yet the selected passages seem to us to illustrate our thesis especially well. 

[30] Indeed, Rorty’s essay is an excellent discussion of the topic of “philosophical revolutions,” and I recommend it as a worthwhile discussion of what is often called “metaphilosophy” as well as an excellent introduction to the period of philosophizing we are concerned with. 

[31] David Pears, “Wittgenstein,” in Companion to Epistemology, eds. Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 523-527, p. 524. 

[32] David Pears, The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy v. 1 (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1987), p. 3. 

[33] Ibid., p. 4.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[34] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1921], trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1961), p. 3.  Emphasis is added to the passage.  Further citations to this work will be noted with the appropriate paragraph number. 

[35] A proposition is a sentence which can be either true or false.  Not all sentences are propositions (questions and commands, for example, don’t make assertions, and can’t be considered “true or false”). 

[36] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks, 1914-1916, eds. G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscome, trans. G.E.M. Anscome (N.Y.: Harper, 1961), p. 39. 

[37] William W. Bartley, III, Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 62. 

[38] The letter is quoted by W.W. Bartley in his Wittgenstein, op. cit., pp. 48-49; and in Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 178. 

[39] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, ibid., p. 134. 

[40] William W. Bartley, Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 130.  Cf., also pp. 128-129. 

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