home | philosophers

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna into one of Europe's richest families. As a teenager, he clung to Schopenhauer, who had written World as Will and Idea. But later in life Wittgenstein dismissed Schopenhauer as "shallow" and as having "quite a crude mind."

Wittgenstein received a diploma in mechanical engineering at age nineteen, and he began doctorate work in aeronautics. He had read Bertrand Russell's Principals of Mathematics and was fascinated by the subject of math and logic. In October 1911, when he was twenty-two he became one of Russell's students at Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1913, following the death of his father, Wittgenstein inherited a large fortune. He gave some of it away to poor artists. He retreated to a village in Norway. There he rented the second floor of a house for the winter, learned Norwegian to converse with the locals. He wrote Notes on Logic and read the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

After serving in Austria-Hungary's military during World War I he gave away much of his money and decided to draw on his ability with mathematical logic and his familiarity with the philosophers Russell and Frege to clean up the discipline commonly called philosophy. It wasn't a whole new coherent philosophical ideology or system that he wanted to create. From notes written during the war, Wittgenstein created his one book – 75 pages – which was first published in 1921, the English edition in 1922, the title: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein concluded that philosophy should not be approached dogmatically, that philosophy is not doctrine, that philosophy is investigation, questions and derived simple propositions.

He focused on language. He wanted to purge the discipline of nonsense, to expose utterances that transgress rules of logic and syntax. Language, wrote Wittgenstein, is a tool, a communications tool. People should describe the world in words that make sense, and they should not distort. He wanted common sense. Wittgenstein wrote that the meaning of words is constituted by the function they perform within any given culture, that we should try to understand what someone is trying to say by the context of his statement. The purpose was simple communication which both parties in an exchange can understand. Nonsense occurs, according to Wittgenstein, when a statement transcends the bounds of sense. Nonsense he saw in two forms: contradiction and tautology. The fault of contradiction is obvious, one statement negating the other. Tautology is not so obvious. My example: "God is nature" or "God equals nature" are simple equations like 2 = 2. Why do we need two words to express something exactly identical? By putting the two words into a simple equation we have added nothing understandably significant or meaningful. About tautology and contradiction, Wittgenstein wrote:

Tautology leaves to reality the whole infinite logical space; contradiction fills the whole logical space and leaves no point to reality. Neither of them, therefore, can in any way determine reality.

The task of the philosopher he held was to look at the world and to picture connections, associations and differentiations, not to manipulate or bend the picture to construct an ideology. Whatever might appear as paradox was ignorance that might eventually be resolved by a gain in knowledge. Wittgenstein described statements as propositions that create mental pictures. The sequence of words "The cat is on the mat" was taken as a picture of one object (the cat) standing in a certain relation to another object, the mat. Understanding what the cat was about required a knowledge of its anatomy, but the purpose of the proposition here is not a complete scientific rundown of the biology of the cat; it's a simple proposition, not complete knowledge.

According to Wittgenstein, philosophical problems arise when language is forced into a metaphysical environment, where all the familiar and necessary landmarks and contextual clues are removed. He describes this metaphysical environment as like being on frictionless ice: where the conditions are apparently perfect for a philosophically and logically perfect language, all philosophical problems can be solved without the muddying effects of everyday contexts; but where, precisely because of the lack of friction, language can in fact do no work at all. Wittgenstein argues that philosophers must leave the frictionless ice and return to the "rough ground" of ordinary language in use. Much of the Investigations consists of examples of how the first false steps can be avoided, so that philosophical problems are dissolved, rather than solved: "the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear."

Often, people writing about Wittgenstein concern themselves with what is called "Wittgenstein's ladder," a metaphor he used in advocating philosophical language with which to climb to his level, the ladder to be kicked away upon reaching his level. This was expressed Tractatus in 1921. Wittgenstein continued to question and to think as he grew older. That he changed his mind about his ladder concept I can't say. But there are those who describe Wittgenstein as having been opposed to philosophy – that which was to be thrown away by kicking away his ladder. However Wittgenstein might have defined philosophy, in my opinion philosophy that clears the mind of the clutter has good reason not to be kicked away. Whether Wittgenstein eventually believed this I cannot say. I have not been able to get a hold of his second and final book.

This book, titled Philosophical Investigations, was ready for publication in 1946, but it was to be published posthumously. Wittgenstein developed prostate cancer and died in 1951 at sixty-two. Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953.

Of concern to some is Wittgenstein's attitude to metaphor. Wittgenstein believed in the language of science and science aims to describe literally, whereas poetry bends toward metaphor, as done here with the word "bends." This is something for academicians to fuss over. Wittgenstein used metaphors. His ladder was a metaphor. I sometimes use metaphors, but I like the clarity offered by prose. For Wittgenstein clarity was a major issue but he was loose and engaged with common sense enough to allow himself use of the metaphor occasionally, without much damage to clarity.

An opinion on Wittgenstein by the theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson:

I found [Wittgenstein's] book enlightening and liberating. It said that philosophy is simple and has limited scope. Philosophy is concerned with logic and the correct use of language. All speculations outside this limited area are mysticism. (New York Review of Books, November 8, 2012)

Wittgenstein became a professor of philosophy at Cambridge. In 1946, the philosopher Karl Popper, also from Austria but thirteen years younger than Wittgenstein, was at an elite Cambridge club with Russell and Wittgenstein. Popper claimed that there were problems in philosophy that arise from more than faulty language. There were different values that people had that impact how people relate to each other, and Popper applied this to morality. Annoyed, Wittgenstein asked Popper to offer one philosophical moral rule. Wittgenstein was not the most serene of philosophers. He is reported to have threatened Popper with a hot poker from the fireplace, and Popper replied to Wittgenstein with such a moral rule: "Not to threaten visiting speakers with pokers." Wittgenstein then left the gathering, with Popper to claim later that Wittgenstein stormed out.

Philosophically it was not an important debate. Morality remained something people could work on with questions and words not on the slippery "frictionless ice" of metaphysics but on Wittgenstein's "rough ground" of ordinary life and language.

An article in the New York Times by Paul Howich, on Mar 3, 2013, writes of "what is pretty clearly the real cause of Wittgenstein's unpopularity within departments of philosophy: namely, his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced."

Here are Wittgenstein's ideas on YouTube:

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.