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date: 21 July 2024

Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johannfree


Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johannfree

  • P. M. S. Hacker

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951)

by unknown photographer, 1929

Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), philosopher, was born in Neuwaldeggerstrasse, Neuwaldegg, Vienna, on 26 April 1889, the youngest of eight children of Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein. He studied philosophy at Cambridge from 1911 until 1913, and taught there from 1930 onwards, holding a chair in philosophy from 1939 until his premature retirement in 1947. He was the author of two philosophical masterpieces of the twentieth century, the Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1921) and the posthumous Philosophical Investigations (1953). Both changed the course of philosophy. The first was the inspiration for the Cambridge school of analysis of the inter-war years and of the logical positivism of the Vienna circle, which spread from Vienna to Berlin, Warsaw, Britain, the Scandinavian lands, and the USA. The second was a primary influence upon the form of analytic philosophy which sprang up in Oxford after 1945, whence it spread all over the English-speaking world and beyond, dominating analytic philosophy until the 1970s.

Family background

Wittgenstein's haut bourgeois family was of Jewish extraction. The name Wittgenstein was adopted by Ludwig's paternal great-grandfather, Moses Maier, who was a land agent of the princely family of Sayn-Wittgenstein. With the Napoleonic decree of 1808 requiring Jews to adopt a surname, the family took the name of the county of Wittgenstein. Moses' son, Ludwig's grandfather, Herman Christian Wittgenstein (1802–1878), was converted to protestantism, as was his wife, Franziska (Fanny), née Figdor (1814–1890), daughter of an eminent Viennese Jewish family. In the 1850s they moved from Leipzig, where Herman had established a prosperous wool business, to Vienna. Karl Otto Clemens Wittgenstein (1847–1913), Ludwig's father, was the sixth child among the eleven children of Herman and Franziska. Ludwig's mother, Leopoldine Maria Josefa (Poldi; 1850–1926), was the daughter of Jakob Kalmus (b. 1814), who, although brought up a Catholic, was descended from a prominent Jewish family, and of Maria Stallner (1825–1921), of an Austrian Catholic landowning family. All eight children of Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein were baptized into the Catholic faith, although there was little churchgoing in the family.

Karl Wittgenstein was the leading steel baron of Austria. Of powerful personality and intellect, quick-witted and decisive, he was an entirely self-made man. His career began at the age of twenty-five, when he was employed as a draughtsman at the Teplitz rolling mill in Bohemia. Within five years he was managing director of the firm in Vienna. Over the next decade he proved himself to be an outstanding industrialist, who came to dominate the Austrian steel industry as Carnegie did the American. By the 1890s he was one of the wealthiest men in the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1898, at the age of fifty-one, he retired from business with a huge personal fortune sapiently invested in the USA, a decision which was to secure the fortune for his children after the First World War despite the hyperinflation in Austria. He was a renowned patron of the arts, financing the Sezession building in Vienna and amassing a distinguished collection of paintings and sculpture. The family lived in aristocratic style in a large mansion (commonly known as the Palais Wittgenstein) in the Alleegasse, with an additional house on the outskirts of Vienna in the Neuwaldeggergasse and a country estate, the Hochreit, where they spent the summers.

Leopoldine Wittgenstein was a devoted wife, but an inattentive mother. The children were brought up largely by nursemaids and tutors, idolizing their domineering father from a distance. The ethos of this remarkable family was demanding, both culturally and socially, with an acute sense of the obligations of their station and wealth. Leopoldine was exceptionally musical, a pianist of outstanding sensitivity and expressiveness. Music was integral to the life of the family. Brahms, Bruno Walter, Mahler, and Josef Labor were friends of the family and frequented the musical evenings at the Alleegasse. The violinist Joseph Joachim, a cousin of Fanny Wittgenstein, performed there, as did the young Casals, Marie Soldat-Roeger (Brahms's favourite violinist), and Marie Baumayer. The eight children, Hermine, Hans, Rudolf, Kurt, Margarete, Helene, Paul, and Ludwig, all inherited their parents' love of, and talent for, music—indeed, in some cases, much more than talent.

Karl intended his sons to follow him into business. They were to be educated privately at home, and trained in engineering and entrepreneurship. The effect on two of the elder sons was tragic. Hans was a musical prodigy, who had no desire to inherit his father's business empire. Forced against the grain to try to learn the business skills his father demanded, he fled to America. A year later, the family was informed that he had disappeared from a boat in Chesapeake Bay in 1902, and was presumed to have committed suicide. Rudolf, submitted to a similar educational regime, rebelled too. He went to Berlin in 1903, in pursuit of a career in the theatre. In 1904 he committed suicide, probably because of an inability to come to terms with his supposed homosexuality. The third brother, Kurt, a much more stable personality, was later to commit suicide too, although in quite different circumstances. A cavalry officer in the First World War, he shot himself during the retreat on the Italian front in 1918, apparently through shame at his unit's refusal to fight on. This sequence of suicides haunted Ludwig for the whole of his life. He was often tempted by suicide, but simultaneously held it contemptible.

As a result of the tragic deaths of the two elder brothers, the younger sons were differently treated. Paul, two years older than Ludwig, was sent to a Gymnasium in Vienna, which provided a classical education. Thereafter he was allowed to pursue his chosen career as a pianist. He made his début in 1913. Early in the war, he lost his right arm in action. Subsequently learning to play with his left hand alone, he commissioned works from Richard Strauss, Ravel (concerto for the left hand), Prokofiev, Britten, Josef Labor, Erich Korngold, Franz Schmidt, and others, and continued his career as a concert pianist and teacher. Ludwig, a delicate and sensitive child, showed none of the rebelliousness of his elder brothers. As a child he was above all eager to please, and fell in with his father's engineering ambitions for him. He was taught at home by private tutors until the age of fourteen, when he was sent as a boarder to a Realschule in Linz, which offered an education in scientific and technical subjects. The young Adolf Hitler was at the same school, although in a lower class; there is no evidence that they ever met. Given Ludwig's retiring nature and his social and cultural fastidiousness, he found school a painful and unhappy experience, beset with loneliness and alienation. He was an undistinguished pupil and his grades were mediocre. It was during his school years that he lost his childhood religious faith.

Ludwig's moral and cultural formation was determined by his home and family. His sister Margarete (Gretl), seven years his elder and the acknowledged intellectual of the family, with a passion for literature, art, and, like all the Wittgensteins, music, as well as an interest in psychoanalysis (she was psychoanalysed by Freud, later befriended him, and assisted his escape from the Nazis), was a major influence upon the boy. Like the rest of the family, he was intensely musical, although he did not learn to play an instrument in his childhood (later he taught himself the clarinet). Nevertheless, he mastered the technicalities of music with ease, and learned to whistle whole compositions with great accuracy and expression. His taste in music was, and remained, strictly classical—from Haydn to Brahms. His preferences in literature were similarly conservative—Goethe, Schiller, Lichtenberg, Mörike, Lessing, Gottfried Keller, Kleist, Grillparzer, and Nestroy were part of his cultural heritage. Later he was to find inspiration in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, St Augustine and Kierkegaard. He had little interest in the modernist literature of Young Vienna, with the exception of the writings of Karl Kraus, to whose journal Die Fackel Gretl introduced him. Kraus's ruthless moral criticism, his passion for integrity and detestation of humbug, his concern for clarity of language and honesty of expression, left a lasting mark on young Ludwig. Other early, more philosophical, influences upon him were Schopenhauer, and the philosopher scientists Hertz (in particular the introduction to his Principles of Mechanics) and Boltzmann (especially his Populäre Schriften). A more pernicious influence was Weininger's hysterical Sex and Character, seemingly because of its insistence upon the duties of genius, the characterization of logic and ethics as duties to oneself, the demands of honesty, and the separation of love from sexual desire.

After leaving school, Wittgenstein was sent to study mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, Berlin. He matriculated in October 1906, and was awarded the diploma in May 1908. While there, he developed an interest in the budding science of aeronautics, and after graduation he went to the University of Manchester to pursue studies in aeronautics. He began by experimenting on the design of kites at a meteorological observation centre near Glossop. In the autumn of 1908 he registered as a research student at the department of engineering. He attended lectures by E. J. Littlewood on the theory of mathematical analysis and was led into questions concerning the foundations of mathematics. He read Russell's The Principles of Mathematics, and was attracted by the problems. Russell's book led him to read Frege's Grundgesetze der Arithmetik, and in April 1909 he wrote to the mathematician Phillip Jourdain, Russell's friend, proposing a solution to the set theoretic paradoxes which Russell had detected in Frege's attempt to prove that arithmetic is derivable from pure logic alone. Jourdain, after consulting Russell, rejected the proposed solution. Wittgenstein continued his researches at Manchester until 1911, working on the design of a jet-reaction propeller, which he patented in August 1911. However, his interest in fundamental problems in logic and the foundations of mathematics continued to obsess him, and at the end of the vacation he travelled to Jena to meet Frege and discuss the problems with him. As he later related, Frege 'wiped the floor' with him, but encouraged him to go to Cambridge to study with Russell (Drury, Conversations, 124).

First steps in philosophy: Cambridge and Norway, 1911–1914

Although still registered at Manchester, Wittgenstein went to Cambridge in Michaelmas term 1911, and introduced himself to Russell on 18 October. He attended Russell's lectures throughout the term, at the end of which he asked Russell's advice on whether to continue with philosophy or to resume aeronautic engineering. Russell told him to write something over the vacation. In January 1912 Wittgenstein showed Russell what he had written. After reading the first page, Russell told him that he must continue with philosophy. He was admitted to Trinity College on 1 February as an undergraduate. Over the next months, Wittgenstein rapidly assimilated what Russell could teach him. In June he was admitted as an advanced student to a course of research, under Russell's supervision. Russell later described him at this period as being 'perhaps the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and dominating' (Russell, 2.98–9). Within six months the two men were discussing philosophy as equals, and Russell looked upon Wittgenstein as his successor in philosophical research (H. Wittgenstein, My brother, 3). A year later Wittgenstein was criticizing Russell and reducing his thought to paralysis. His criticism of Russell's 1913 manuscript 'Theory of knowledge' led to the latter's suppression (it was published only posthumously, and provides valuable insights into the ideas Wittgenstein rejected). While Wittgenstein had been attracted to the subject by problems in the foundations of mathematics generated by the logicist project of reducing arithmetic to pure logic, his interests quickly led him to investigations into the nature of logic itself. The new logic which Frege and Russell had invented for the purpose of their logicist project gave logic a philosophical prominence it had not had for many centuries. The question of the relation of logic to natural languages was pressing, as were the questions of the subject matter of logic and the nature of logical truths. Wittgenstein's investigations of these matters matured over the next seven years into his first masterwork, the Tractatus.

At Trinity, Wittgenstein became acquainted with the leading figures associated with Cambridge philosophy, including A. N. Whitehead, G. E. Moore, W. E. Johnson, and John Maynard Keynes (who was then working on the theory of probability). Although he was elected to the Apostles, he found the group distasteful and left it within a term. He made one close personal friend while at Cambridge, David Pinsent, a second-year undergraduate mathematician, who shared his passion for music. Together they spent a vacation in Iceland in September 1912. Apart from philosophy, Wittgenstein also conducted psychological experiments on the role of rhythm in the appreciation of music with the psychologist C. S. Myers. In January 1913 his father Karl died of cancer, leaving Wittgenstein a huge personal fortune. By the end of the academic year he was evidently feeling that there was nothing further that Russell could teach him. Moreover, there was personal friction between the two, stemming apparently from Wittgenstein's disapproval of Russell's outlook on life in general and his attitude towards philosophical work in particular. Together with Pinsent he went on holiday to Norway for August and September, where he continued to work on the problems of logic. One consequence was the decision to leave Cambridge in order to work in solitude in Norway, free from the distractions of personal relationships and of Cambridge, which adversely stimulated his morbid sensitivity and irritable disposition. He returned to Cambridge briefly in October, and while there dictated to Russell a paper, 'Notes on logic'—the first surviving result of his work. It contains fundamental criticisms of Frege's and Russell's conception of the nature of logic, which were later incorporated into the Tractatus. Immediately thereafter he returned to Norway, and settled in Skjolden, north of Bergen, on the Sognefjord, taking rooms with a local family. He was evidently eager to communicate his new results in logic to Frege, and on his way home for Christmas he spent some days of intensive conversation with him. He later remarked that on this occasion he 'wiped the floor' with Frege (R. L. Goodstein, Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics, in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Language, ed. A. Ambrose and M. Lazerowitz, 1972, 271–86, 272). His criticisms turned on Frege's conception of the sense of a sentence as the mode of presentation of a truth-value as the value of a function for an argument and on Frege's conception of the determination of a function. He rejected Frege's notion that propositions such as 'A believes that p' signify a relation between a person and a thought, on the grounds that when we think truly that p, what we think is precisely what is the case and not some object—a thought—which is somehow related to what is the case. Contra Frege, he denied that sentences are names of truth-values, that truth and falsehood are logical objects of equal status, insisting instead that a sentence with a sense is essentially capable of being true and capable of being false, that truth has priority, and that a proposition and its negation jointly exhaust logical space. He held that Frege's conception of the unasserted sentence was incoherent, since it does not tell us under what circumstances such an ‘assumption’ is to be called ‘true’ or ‘false’. Consequently he held that Frege's conception of the assertion sign in his concept-script is likewise confused. And, as we shall see, he subsequently argued that Frege's conception of logic and of the propositions of logic was mistaken. These criticisms are deep, but it is doubtful whether Frege understood them.

After his vacation in Vienna, Wittgenstein returned to Skjolden. Moore visited him for a fortnight in March–April, and he too took a dictation from Wittgenstein. 'Notes dictated to G. E. Moore in Norway, April 1914' reveals vividly the progress Wittgenstein was making as his ideas on the nature of logical propositions evolved and the distinction between what a proposition says and what it shows occurred to him (see below). After Moore's departure, Wittgenstein had a small wooden house built for himself a mile from the village on the shores of a small lake, evidently envisaging a yet longer and even more private sojourn. To avoid the impending tourist season, he left Norway in June 1914 for a visit to Vienna. He was not to return until 1921.

The war years

On his return to Vienna, Wittgenstein contacted Ludwig von Ficker, editor of the literary journal Der Brenner, offering him 100,000 crowns (£4167) to distribute to needy artists of merit. Among the beneficiaries were Rilke, Trakl, Dallago, Kokoschka, and the architect Adolph Loos, to whom Ficker introduced him. Wittgenstein admired Loos's spare, unadorned modernist architecture, which was later to influence him in his own architectural endeavours. On 28 July Austria declared war on Serbia. Although not liable to military service owing to a double hernia, Wittgenstein volunteered for service on 7 August and was assigned to an artillery regiment in Cracow. He found the company of common soldiers excruciating. He viewed the war as a personal test, believing that he would only discover his worth by facing death. Consequently, he spent much effort endeavouring to get to the front lines and seeking maximal danger. He participated in the Galician campaign of 1914. From February 1915 his skills as an engineer were called upon, and he worked in an artillery workshop in Cracow. It was not until March 1916 that he was posted to the Russian front. Throughout this period he continued working on philosophy. His method of work, then as later, was to enter insights into notebooks in the form of consecutive remarks. These were often no more than a sentence or two of highly condensed reflection, the trajectory of which was indicated but not elaborated.

At the front, Wittgenstein typically volunteered for service at the artillery observation post at night, the place and time of maximal risk. During this period his philosophical work moved from logical considerations to reflections on ethics, death, and the meaning of life, which show a marked Schopenhauerian influence, perhaps also the impact of the writings of Emerson and Nietzsche, which he was reading at the time, and a distinctive solipsistic drift. These were integrated into his more general logico-metaphysical ideas via the distinction between what can be said and what cannot be said but only shown. Everything that belongs to the domain of value, all that is ‘higher’, he held, cannot be stated by means of language, but only shown. In the summer of 1916 he was involved in the heavy fighting of the Austrian retreat in the Brusilov offensive. He was decorated for bravery, and at the end of the summer was sent to Olmütz for an officer's training course.

In Olmütz, in October 1916, Wittgenstein met Paul Engelmann, a young architect and pupil of Loos, as well as a disciple of Kraus. They became close friends, and Wittgenstein's time in Olmütz was a happy one, in which he could share his ideas with a sympathetic listener and participate in his social circle. Before returning to active service, he donated 1 million crowns to the state for the funding of a 12 inch howitzer. In January 1917 he returned to the Russian front as an officer. He was awarded the silver medal for valour for his conduct in the defence at Ldziany. In February 1918 he was promoted lieutenant, and in March was transferred to the Italian front. In the June offensive he was recommended for the gold medal for valour (the Austrian equivalent of the Victoria Cross), but was awarded instead the band of military service medal with swords, since his action, though outstandingly brave, was held to have had insufficient consequences to merit the higher honour. On leave in the summer, he completed the Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (the German title of the Tractatus), and gave a copy to Engelmann. At the same time he was heartbroken to hear of the death of his closest friend, David Pinsent, to whose memory he dedicated the book. He submitted the typescript of his book to Jahoda, Kraus's publisher, before returning to the front at the end of September. At the end of October the Austrian army disintegrated, and Wittgenstein was taken prisoner by the Italians. He was in a prisoner-of-war camp, first in Como and later in Cassino. While prisoner, he managed to contact Russell and, through the good offices of Keynes, was able to send him the manuscript of his book. A copy was also sent to Frege.

Return to civilian life, 1919–1921

Wittgenstein was released from prisoner-of-war camp on 21 August 1919. Adaptation to civilian life was painful. Five years in the army had wrought fundamental changes in him, including a religious awakening under the influence of Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief, which throughout the war he had carried with him everywhere. (In later life his belief faded, leaving him with a religious view of life, craving perfection and purity, beset with religious angst and guilt, but without religious faith.) The first thing he did on his return was to unburden himself of the huge inherited fortune which he now possessed, turning his entire estate over to his siblings. In addition, he decided to abandon philosophy, believing himself to have solved the fundamental problems, and to become a primary school teacher. He enrolled in a teachers' training college, and refused to live at home in the wealthy surroundings of his family. Indeed, henceforth his lifestyle was simple and frugal. He dressed in the simplest way possible, rejecting altogether the role of the cultured, wealthy young man of high society. He went through a long period of suicidal depression, which was exacerbated by the difficulties encountered in getting his book published. Jahoda rejected it, and other publishers whom he approached likewise turned it down or offered to publish it under unacceptable terms. Frege's response to the book showed total incomprehension; indeed, it seems that he read no more than the opening pages. When asked for assistance in getting it published in a philosophical journal, he suggested that it be split up into a number of articles. Russell's response, however, was enthusiastic, although there was much about it that he could not understand. They resolved to meet in The Hague in December in order that Wittgenstein might explain his work to Russell, finance for the trip coming from Russell's sale of the books and furniture Wittgenstein had left in storage in Cambridge in 1913. They spent a week in The Hague going over the book in detail, and Russell offered to write an introduction which would explain its main ideas. As a consequence, Reclam agreed to publish it. But when Russell's introduction arrived in March, Wittgenstein was so disappointed with Russell's remaining misunderstandings that he refused to let it be published with the book, and Reclam accordingly withdrew their offer. Russell generously volunteered to try to get it published himself. On completing the teachers' training course, Wittgenstein spent the summer working as a gardener at the Klosterneuburg monastery outside Vienna; in the autumn of 1920 he took up a teaching post in the village of Trattenbach in the mountains of Lower Austria. This retreat from society was motivated by a Tolstoyan craving for a pure and simple life of service among simple people—an ambition that was to be no more successful than Tolstoy's.

While Russell was in China, his friend Dorothy Wrinch secured the publication of Wittgenstein's work in Wilhelm Ostwald's journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie (1921), with the introduction by Russell. This edition was defective, and Wittgenstein considered it to be in effect pirated. But in 1922 Russell engineered its publication in English, translated by the young Frank Ramsey, together with the original German text, in the Routledge and Kegan Paul series of monographs the International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method, edited by C. K. Ogden. Wittgenstein was sent the draft translation by Ogden, and made numerous corrections and elucidations. The title, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, with its deliberate Spinozistic echo, was suggested by Moore.

The Tractatus

The Tractatus is a highly compressed work of a mere seventy-five pages, dense with technical terminology and apparatus of formal logic, and not easily penetrable without familiarity with the logic and philosophy of Frege and Russell, which are a critical target. Here only a sketch of its contours can be essayed. It is a logico-metaphysical treatise on representation in general and propositional representation in particular, with specific concern for the nature of logic. It ranges over metaphysics, logic and logical truth, the nature of the proposition, the status of mathematics and of scientific theory, solipsism and the self, ethics and the mystical. It is written in marmoreal sentences, beginning with 'The world is everything which is the case' and ending with the sibylline 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'.

According to the Tractatus, the world is the totality of facts, not things. The substance of all possible worlds consists of the totality of sempiternal simple objects, such as spatio-temporal points, and simple, unanalysable properties and relations. The form of a simple object consists in its combinatorial possibilities with other objects. The possible concatenation of objects constitutes a state of affairs, the obtaining of which is a fact. A representation of a state of affairs is a model or picture. It must possess the same logical multiplicity as, and be isomorphic with, what it represents. Propositions, no less than literal models and pictures, are logical pictures. They are essentially bipolar, that is, capable of being true and capable of being false, thus reflecting the essence of states of affairs thus represented, whose nature it is to obtain or not to obtain. An elementary proposition depicts an (atomic) state of affairs. Its constituent simple, unanalysable, names go proxy for the objects in reality which are what they mean. The logico-syntactical form of a name, that is, its syntactical combinatorial possibilities, must mirror the form (the metaphysical combinatorial possibilities) of the object which is its meaning. A proposition is a sentence in its projective relation to reality. What represents in a propositional representation is the fact that the names in the propositional sign are arranged as they are, in accordance with logical syntax—for it is this which says that things are arranged thus-and-so in reality. So just as only simple names can represent simple objects, only facts can represent facts. Language, therefore, mirrors the logico-metaphysical forms of the world. The method of projection is thinking the sense of the propositional sign, that is, meaning by the constituent names such and such objects, thereby connecting language and reality, and meaning by the sentence the state of affairs in question. The sense of a proposition consists in its agreement and disagreement with possibilities of the obtaining and non-obtaining of states of affairs. For the proposition that p agrees with the obtaining of the state of affairs that p and disagrees with its non-obtaining. A proposition is true if things in reality are as it depicts them as being. The essence of the proposition is given by the general propositional form 'This is how things are', that is, the general form of a description of how things stand in reality.

The new logic invented by Frege and Russell is not, as they thought, an ideal language, superior to natural languages, but a fragment of an ideally perspicuous notation, which will disclose the hidden depth-grammar of every possible language. The logical analysis of propositions must yield elementary propositions which are mutually logically independent, that is, have no logical implications and the truth of which depends only on the obtaining or non-obtaining of states of affairs. By means of truth-functional operators (namely the logical connectives 'not', 'and', 'or', 'if … then …'), one can form molecular propositions (for example, 'Not-p', 'Either p or q', 'p and q', 'If p then q'). Contrary to Frege and Russell, the logical connectives are not names of anything (for example, of logical objects or functions), but are merely truth-functional combinatorial devices, which generate truth-dependencies among propositions. All logical relations between propositions turn on the composition of molecular propositions, that is, on the truth-functional combination of the constituent elementary propositions. Two limiting cases of truth-functional combination are senseless (not nonsense): tautologies (for example, 'Either p or not-p'), which are unconditionally true, and contradictions (for example, 'p and not-p'), which are unconditionally false. The necessary truths of logic, that is, tautologies, are not, as Russell thought, descriptions of the most general features of the universe, nor are they descriptions of relations between logical objects, as Frege thought. Propositions of logic, that is, molecular propositions the constituent propositions of which are so combined that bipolarity, and hence all content, cancels out, all say the same thing, namely nothing. So, although well-formed, they are senseless. But different tautologies are internally related to distinct forms of proof, that is, distinct rules of logical inference. So logic is not a domain in which pure reason alone can attain knowledge about reality, since to know the truth of a tautology, for example, to know that it is either raining or not raining, is to know nothing about the world. Logic is not a genuine science with a subject matter. It is rather a transcendental condition of thinking and reasoning.

The only expressible necessity is logical necessity. Non-logical, metaphysical necessities cannot be stated in language. For metaphysical utterances, such as 'red is a colour', 'one is a number', by contrast with the senseless propositions of logic, are nonsense—transgressions of the bounds of sense. For the apparent categorial concepts that occur in them, for example, 'proposition', 'fact', 'object', 'number', 'relation', 'colour', are not genuine concepts at all, but in effect forms of concepts which cannot occur in a fully analysed proposition. Moreover, such pseudo-propositions do not satisfy the bipolarity requirement on propositions with a sense, since their negation is inconceivable (for example, red could not be anything other than a colour). But what one tries to say by means of the pseudo-propositions of metaphysics is shown by syntactical features (forms) of genuine propositions containing substitution-instances of these formal concepts (for example, 'This is red', 'I have one apple'). What is shown by a notation cannot be stated by it. The Tractatus delimits language in order to make room for ineffable metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and religion, the truths of which can be shown by language, but not said.

Hence too there are no philosophical propositions, that is, propositions describing the essential natures of things or the metaphysical structure of the world. So the very propositions of the Tractatus itself are finally condemned as nonsense—futile attempts to say what can only be shown. The task of the Tractatus is to lead one to a correct logical point of view. Once that is achieved, one can throw away the ladder up which one has climbed. Philosophy is not a science; nor is it in competition with the sciences. It does not lay the foundation of the sciences. It is not a cognitive pursuit and cannot add to the sum of human knowledge. Given the (strictly ineffable) insights already achieved by the Tractatus, the sole task for future philosophy is to monitor the bounds of sense, to elucidate by depth-analysis the hidden logical forms of philosophically problematic sentences, and to show that attempts to transgress the bounds of sense in order to make metaphysical pronouncements about the nature of things are futile.

The impact of the Tractatus

The Tractatus marked a decisive break with the conception of analysis advocated by Moore and Russell. 'All philosophy', it declared, 'is a critique of language', in effect initiating the ‘linguistic turn’ that was to characterize analytic philosophy over the next fifty years. It reorientated philosophy from the investigation of phenomena that are seemingly its concern to the investigation of the language employed in describing phenomena. This linguistic orientation was to take many different forms, from the invention of ideally perspicuous languages for the purposes of science to the description of natural language—these differences marking fundamental divides between styles of analytic philosophy. As noted above, the Tractatus also marked a decisive break with the conceptions of logic advocated by Frege and Russell. For the propositions of logic are not generalizations that describe anything—they say nothing and have no genuine subject matter.

The most important impact of the Tractatus was upon the Vienna circle, a group of scientifically and mathematically trained philosophers gathered around Moritz Schlick in Vienna from 1924 onwards. These philosophers, partly through their dispersal in the mid- and late thirties due to the rise of Nazism, were to change the face of analytic philosophy, especially in the USA. The circle spent two years reading the Tractatus line by line in their meetings. They viewed it as making ‘consistent empiricism’ for the first time possible, because of its elucidation of the nature of logical truth. On their mistaken assumption that the Tractatus agreed with the logicist reduction of arithmetic to logic, this seemed to show that there was no domain of synthetic a priori truth and that all knowledge was derived from experience. Accordingly, in their manifesto The Scientific Conception of the World: the Vienna Circle (1929), they hailed Wittgenstein, together with Einstein and Russell, as a leading representative of the scientific world-view.

This was misconceived. The members of the Vienna circle were self-conscious heirs to the spirit of the Enlightenment, with faith in social and intellectual progress, the engine of which was held to be human rationality and the science and technology which are its fruits. They viewed metaphysics as a residue of theology and religious superstition, which was accordingly to be eradicated. Hence they welcomed Wittgenstein's condemnation of metaphysics, while rejecting its rationale and objective. Their repudiation of metaphysics rested on the argument that the propositions of metaphysics are not verifiable in experience and that its concepts are not reducible to immediate experience. By contrast, the Tractatus in effect delimited the sphere of science in order to make room for ineffable metaphysics. While the Vienna circle reduced ethical value to the mere expression of emotion, the Tractatus conceived of ethics as the domain of absolute, although ineffable, value. Far from embracing the scientific world-view, Wittgenstein, both then and later, had a Spenglerian world-view, holding the emerging scientific-technological societies of the twentieth century to be co-ordinate with the decay of high culture and the decline of western civilization. In spirit and attitude, Wittgenstein had closer affinities with the nineteenth-century German counter-Enlightenment than with the optimism and faith in progress of Voltaire and Condorcet.

Where the Tractatus did accord with the scientific spirit of the circle was in its account of the propositions of logic as vacuous tautologies, in its programme of reducing all propositions to truth-functions of elementary propositions—on the assumption that these are conceived to be ‘protocol sentences’ describing immediate experience—and in its delimitation of the role of philosophy to the analytic clarification of thought. This paved the way for the circle's conception of philosophy as the analysis of the logical syntax of the language of science. Unsurprisingly, the logical positivists rejected the doctrine of saying and showing, and the mysticism of ineffabilia that went with it; they repudiated the atomistic ontology of simple objects and states of affairs, and they gave an unwarranted conventionalist twist to Wittgenstein's account of the propositions of logic, conceiving of them as true in virtue of conventions of symbolism (whereas Wittgenstein viewed them as flowing from the essential nature of the proposition as such). It was through contact with Wittgenstein from 1928 onwards that they derived the hallmark of their logical positivism, the principle of verification. It is noteworthy that, although Wittgenstein mooted this at the time, he rapidly came to reject verificationism.

The other main influence of the book was upon the Cambridge school of analysis. Shortly after its publication, on 29 March 1924, Keynes wrote to Wittgenstein: 'I still don't know what to say about your book, except that I feel it is a work of extraordinary importance and genius. Right or wrong, it dominates all fundamental discussions at Cambridge since it was written' (Cambridge Letters, 201). Among the younger generation of philosophers in Cambridge, who were thus influenced by the book, were Frank Ramsey, Richard Braithwaite, and John Wisdom. But at the end of the twenties its impact was superseded by Wittgenstein's own teaching there.

The wilderness years, 1920–1929

Wittgenstein's years as an elementary school teacher were not happy. He was revolted by the peasant society in which he found himself, and the dislike was reciprocated. He demanded high standards from his pupils and was willing to give them time and attention without stint if they seemed promising. On the other hand, he was irascible and prone to inflict corporal punishment upon them not only for misbehaviour but also for what seemed to him to be stupidity. He spent a miserable two years teaching at Trattenbach, followed by two years at Puchberg, and two years at Otterthal. While at Otterthal, he compiled and published a spelling dictionary for elementary school children. Young Frank Ramsey, who had translated the Tractatus and written a perceptive review of it (Mind, 32, 1923), visited him at Puchberg in September 1923, spending every afternoon for a fortnight going over the Tractatus with him. It was through Ramsey and Keynes that Wittgenstein, eager to renew pre-war friendships, was persuaded to visit England in August 1925, where he re-established his friendship with Keynes, with Johnson, and with W. Eccles, a friend from his Manchester days.

Wittgenstein's career as schoolteacher came to an abrupt end in April 1926, as a result of excessive corporal punishment inflicted on a child. He resigned, but had to face the humiliation of a public trial. He was cleared of misconduct, but guilt about the incident haunted him for many years thereafter. He worked for three months as a gardener for the monks at Hütteldorf, before returning to live in Vienna in the summer. His sister Margarete Stonborough (Gretl) had commissioned his friend Engelmann to design and build a mansion for her on the Kundmanngasse. Wittgenstein was invited to join Engelmann in the project, and quickly came to dominate it. This occupied him until the end of 1928. The house, which still stands, is monumental, austerely beautiful in its severe proportions and symmetry, and, like Loos's architecture, entirely without ornament.

It was while he was working on the house that Wittgenstein met Marguerite Respinger, a young Swiss from a well-to-do background, who was attending art school in Vienna. He fell in love with her, and wished to marry her, but envisaged a childless marriage, for he could see no justification for bringing children into a world of sorrow. He sculpted a bust inspired by her (or possibly by his cousin Steffe von Brücke) in the studio of his sculptor friend Michael Drobil, and gave it to Gretl, who displayed it in the Kundmanngasse house. Wittgenstein courted Marguerite for the next three years, but after a holiday together in Norway in the summer of 1931, she decided that he could not give her the life she wished for.

In the autumn of 1927, through Gretl, Wittgenstein met Moritz Schlick and started discussing philosophy again. Unwilling to attend meetings of the Vienna circle, he did, however, meet regularly with Schlick, Friedrich Waismann, Rudolf Carnap, and Herbert Feigl for conversations, of which Waismann later began to keep a record (published as Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, 1979). In March 1928 he attended two lectures by the originator of intuitionist mathematics, L. E. J. Brower, which stimulated his thought, both positively and negatively. Schlick persuaded Wittgenstein to co-operate with Waismann in a joint project of writing a more accessible account of his philosophy than the Tractatus. The ideas were to be Wittgenstein's, dictated to and ordered by Waismann. Entitled Logik, Sprache, Philosophie, it was advertised as the first volume of the Vienna circle's series of publications Schriften zur Wissenschaftlichen Weltauffassung, and was to outline the fundamental orientation of the circle. The project ran into endless difficulties as Wittgenstein's views changed rapidly throughout the early thirties, and collapsed after Schlick's murder in 1936. The book, found in Waismann's Nachlass, was published only in 1965 in English translation as The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy, under Waismann's name. It gives a perspicuous introduction to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language in the mid-thirties. In January 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge to resume work on philosophy.

Cambridge, 1929–1941

Wittgenstein was readmitted to Trinity on 18 January, and kept residence during the Lent and Easter terms. He needed a degree to qualify for a grant and to apply for a teaching position. Ramsey was formally appointed his supervisor, and on 18 June, having submitted the Tractatus in lieu of a thesis, Wittgenstein was examined by Moore and Russell, and granted the PhD. The viva consisted of an amicable chat between old friends, which was brought to an end by Wittgenstein's clapping Moore and Russell on their shoulders and exclaiming 'Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it.'

Wittgenstein's immediate objective was to begin investigations into the analysis of propositions concerning the visual field, that is, upon what, in the Tractatus, he had called 'the application of logic'. But over the next few months the philosophy of the Tractatus started to crumble in his hands. This is evident in the paper 'Some remarks on logical form', which he wrote for the joint session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in Nottingham in July 1929. (In the event, he did not deliver it, but spoke on infinity in mathematics; it was, however, published—and is indeed his only post-Tractatus publication during his lifetime.) The root of the trouble was the realization that there are logical relations between elementary propositions, exemplified by any attribution of a determinate of a determinable to an object, such as 'This is red', which are not consequences of truth-functional composition, but of the inner character of the relevant elementary proposition. Thus 'This is red' entails 'This is not green (or yellow, etc.)', although this logical exclusion is not a consequence of the first proposition's being a molecular one. But the logical theory of the Tractatus stood four square on the thought that the whole of logic flows from the bipolar and logically independent nature of the elementary proposition. As he probed deeper, the central theses of the Tractatus collapsed like a row of dominoes. He was to spend much of the next three years dismantling and criticizing his earlier views and forging the central ideas of his later philosophy. His method changed, as he put it, 'from the question of truth to the question of meaning'. In destroying the supporting pillars of the philosophy of the Tractatus, he also saw himself as undermining the great tradition of Western philosophy, destroying the very conception of metaphysics (effable or ineffable) as traditionally conceived and depriving philosophy of its nimbus. With him, he declared, there occurs a kink in the evolution of philosophy, as occurred in physics with Galileo's dynamics. What he was doing was the heir to what used to be called ‘philosophy’. The task of philosophy, as he now conceived it, was not to disclose the language-independent essential nature of all things, nor to elicit the transcendental conditions of reasoning and of experience, but to clarify our thought by describing the language in which it is expressed and to disentangle the knots in our thinking generated by misunderstandings of language and by false analogies with scientific theories and scientific forms of explanation.

For the first year his main philosophical companion was Ramsey, whose criticisms provided a stimulus to his thinking, as did those of the economist Piero Sraffa, both then and later. Discussions with Ramsey came to an end with his tragically early death at the age of twenty-six in January 1930. During the academic year 1929–30, Wittgenstein was paid a small grant to lecture on philosophical logic at the invitation of the moral sciences faculty board. He was appointed to a faculty lectureship in October 1930. He submitted a typescript of his current work as a fellowship dissertation (posthumously published as Philosophical Remarks, 1964), which was approved by Russell and the mathematician, G. H. Hardy, and he was elected to a five-year fellowship, under Title B, at Trinity on 5 December 1930.

Wittgenstein's first lectures were delivered in Lent term 1930. Pupils who attended his lectures from 1930 to 1935 included A. Ambrose, Max Black, Richard Braithwaite, K. Britton, M. Cornforth, Reuben Goodstein, A. Duncan-Jones, M. Macdonald, G. E. Moore, C. L. Stevenson, and John Wisdom. Among his students from 1935 to 1939 were J. N. Findlay, D. A. T. Gasking, Casimir Lewy, Norman Malcolm, G. A. Paul, Rush Rhees, Alan Turing, and G. H. von Wright. All were to become distinguished academic philosophers or mathematicians. It was through these pupils that Wittgenstein's new ideas were transmitted to the rest of Britain, and to the USA, Australia, and the Scandinavian lands.

The period up to 1932 was spent dismantling the Tractatus and replacing it with a quite different conception of thought, language, and representation. This transitional period contains the seeds of Wittgenstein's later philosophy. He briefly toyed with a form of phenomenalism, with methodological solipsism, and with verificationism, but rapidly came to reject these doctrines. Wittgenstein is unique in the history of philosophy in having produced two complete powerful philosophical world pictures, which stand in diametric contrast to each other, the one characterized by a striving for a sublime Wesensschau, the other by 'a quiet weighing of linguistic facts'; the one informed by a vision of the crystalline purity of the logical forms of thought, language, and the world, the other imbued with a heightened awareness of the motley of the phenomena of language, the deceptive forms of which lead us into confusion; the one placing its faith in depth analysis to reveal the hidden essence of things, the other demanding no more than the description and arrangement of what is simple and familiar, ‘hidden’ only because it is always before our eyes and so goes unnoticed. Whereas the Tractatus has its roots in the philosophical and logical tradition of Western philosophy, Wittgenstein's later work is autonomous. It challenges the most fundamental presuppositions of traditional philosophical thought. There are, to be sure, continuities between Wittgenstein's early and later philosophies—most notably of theme and of negative doctrine. Controversy persists over the extent of continuity and of change.

Wittgenstein's mode of composition was to enter remarks in notebooks, to rework these in more polished notes in large manuscript ledgers, and to extract and order the best of them in dictation to a typist. The fruits of his work from 1929 to 1932 were embodied in a 762 page typescript, known as the 'Big Typescript', dictated at the Hochreit in the summer of 1932, and evidently intended as a draft of a major book. A third of it is concerned with philosophy of mathematics. Like the Philosophical Remarks, it represents an intermediate phase in the development of his thought. He rapidly became dissatisfied with the Big Typescript (a version of which has posthumously been published as Philosophical Grammar, 1974). He attempted to redraft it at least three times, but finally abandoned it, although many of its remarks were incorporated in his final masterwork. In 1933 he dictated the ‘blue book’ to five of his pupils, and copies of it were circulated among his students. In 1935 he again attempted a dictation, the ‘brown book’, which likewise entered circulation (the two were published in 1958).

Wittgenstein's classes at Cambridge became legendary. They were typically held in his rooms in Whewell's Court, Trinity College, or in the rooms of a friend, and lasted for two hours. He spoke without notes, thinking on his feet with intense concentration. Questions were invited, and his classes often consisted of dialogue. His discourses, like his writings, were illustrated with a wealth of vivid imaginary examples, wonderful metaphors and similes. His themes throughout the 1930s ranged over philosophy and its nature, the philosophy of logic and language, the intentionality of thought and language, the critique of metaphysics, solipsism and idealism, the philosophy of mathematics, and, later in the decade, sense data and private experience, cause and effect, aesthetics, religious belief, and Freudian psychology. Extensive student notes of some of these classes have been published. They convey well the intellectual passion, high seriousness, and profundity of Wittgenstein's teaching. He detested Cambridge academic life, and held professional academic philosophy, with its temptations of pretentiousness, charlatanry, and humbug, in contempt. Consequently, he commonly urged his pupils not to become academic philosophers, but to do something decent with their lives. He befriended many of his pupils, and established an intimate relationship with Francis Skinner and close friendships with Maurice Drury and Rush Rhees. His friendship was demanding, requiring high standards of allegiance and tolerance of his irascibility. He inspired love and loyalty, as well as fear. His intensity, ruthless honesty, and charisma left a permanent mark on many of them, not always to their benefit—for the impact of his powerful personality sometimes distorted theirs. He was jealous of his ideas, and pupils, acquaintances, or friends (for example, Carnap, Braithwaite, Waismann, Ambrose, Ayer, Wisdom, and Ryle) who attempted to publish anything that bore the marks of his thought incurred his wrath, irrespective of their acknowledgements.

Throughout the thirties, aware of the rising tide of Nazism and of the mass unemployment, and convinced of the decline of European civilization, Wittgenstein was sympathetic to Soviet communism, viewing Russia as a new experiment in human and social relations. He learned Russian from Fania Pascal, and in 1935 formed the tentative decision to abandon philosophy, entertained the thought of taking up medicine, and contemplated settling in Russia either as a medical assistant or as a manual labourer on a collective farm. He spent a fortnight in Leningrad and Moscow in September, where he was offered academic posts as a philosopher at Moscow and Kazan. It was, however, made clear to him that his services as a labourer or medical assistant were not needed.

At the end of the academic year of 1935/6, Wittgenstein's fellowship, already extended for one year, expired. He left England for Norway in September, resolved to spend the next year in isolation in Skjolden to try yet again to compose his book. He first reworked the dictations of the ‘brown book’, translating it into German and adding further remarks, but abandoned the project as worthless (it was posthumously published as Eine philosophische Betrachtung, 1970). He started afresh, and composed what was to be the first draft of the Philosophical Investigations, up to §189(a), and a continuation, which concerns the philosophy of mathematics, which he later cut out (posthumously published as part 1 of Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 1964). Apart from visits to Vienna and Cambridge, he stayed in Norway until Christmas 1937, when he again visited his family in Vienna, before returning to Britain.

With the Anschluss on 12 March 1938, Wittgenstein decided to apply for British citizenship. On Sraffa's advice he first sought permanent employment. With Keynes's assistance, he was appointed to a university lectureship at Cambridge, and then applied for naturalization. In the meantime his brother Paul fled Austria, first to Switzerland and thence to America. Gretl was an American citizen by marriage, but the rest of his family was in dire danger owing to the Nuremberg laws. Wittgenstein's application was granted only on 2 June 1939. Immediately thereafter, he travelled to Berlin, Vienna, and New York, helping Gretl in complex negotiations with the Nazis to have the family declared Aryans (on the spurious grounds that their grandfather Herman Christian Wittgenstein was not Jewish) in exchange for a large part of the family fortune. This was successfully achieved in August 1939, and Hermine, Helene and her children, and other members of the Wittgenstein family were not molested by the Nazis.

In the summer of 1938 Wittgenstein prepared the material he had written in Norway for publication, and offered it to Cambridge University Press in September, under the title Philosophical Remarks. A month later he withdrew the offer, perhaps partly because of dissatisfaction with the draft translation made by his friend and pupil Rush Rhees. In early 1939 Wittgenstein applied for the chair in philosophy recently vacated by Moore, and submitted the draft translation as a token of his work. He was doubtful about whether he would be elected, but, as C. D. Broad remarked at the time, 'To refuse the chair to Wittgenstein would be like refusing Einstein a chair of physics' (Drury, Conversations, 156). He was elected professor on 11 February 1939.

Wittgenstein's first course of lectures as professor was on the foundations of mathematics. These are exceptionally well documented (Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, 1976), and are of special interest, not only because of their lucidity, but also because of the exchanges with the great mathematician Alan Turing, whose conception of mathematics was under constant challenge. With the outbreak of war, Wittgenstein was eager to be involved in war work of some kind, and to be, as he put it, 'where the bombs are falling'. This, however, was not achieved until 1941, and he reluctantly continued teaching in Cambridge.


Wittgenstein had met the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1929 at the Mind and Aristotelian Society meeting, and established a friendship with him. Through him he met Ryle's brother, Professor John Ryle, and it was he who in September 1941 arranged for Wittgenstein to take up a job, first as a dispensary porter and then as a pharmacy technician, at Guy's Hospital in London. Throughout this period he returned to Cambridge at weekends and lectured on Saturday afternoons. At Guy's, he met Dr E. B. Reeve and Dr. R. T. Grant, who were working at the Medical Research Council clinical research unit on wound shock. Wittgenstein showed interest in the project. The unit moved to Newcastle, and he was invited to join it as a laboratory assistant in April 1943. He stayed there until February 1944, and his hand is evident in conceptual distinctions drawn in the report on wound shock that was the final fruit of the research project in 1951. He also invented an improved apparatus for recording pulse pressure and its relation to breathing depth and rate.

Although Wittgenstein had little time for philosophical work in Newcastle, he had evidently continued working on his book in the early war years. In September 1943 he had again approached Cambridge University Press with a different version of his book, now called Philosophical Investigations. This he envisaged publishing together with the Tractatus in a single volume, since his new thoughts 'could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking' (Preface, Philosophical Investigations). The offer was accepted by the syndics on 14 January 1944. However, he again drew back from publication.

When he left Newcastle, Wittgenstein's purpose was to complete the book. After spending some weeks in Cambridge, he was given leave of absence until the beginning of the next academic year. He went to Swansea, partly in order to be able to discuss his ideas with his friend Rhees, then teaching in the philosophy department there. For the first few months he worked on the continuation of the mathematical part of the existing draft, but during the summer his conception of the form of the book changed. He excised the material on mathematics, and continued in the direction of reflections on the nature of subjective experience and the impossibility of a ‘private’ language (see below). He never again resumed work on the philosophy of mathematics, although there is some reason for thinking that he envisaged a sequel to the Investigations with the title 'Beginnings of mathematics', which would incorporate the results of his labours. By the end of the summer much of the material for the ‘intermediate version’ of the Investigations (that is, up to §421) existed in draft.

Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in October 1944 and resumed lecturing. Thenceforth, until his retirement, his lectures were primarily on the philosophy of psychology. Among his students during these last years were G. E. M. Anscombe, P. T. Geach, A. C. Jackson, G. Kreisel, Norman Malcolm, S. Toulmin, and G. H. von Wright. During the Christmas vacation of 1944–5, which he spent in Swansea, he must have felt that he was nearing the end of his labours, for he drafted the final preface to the still incomplete book. It is, he wrote, 'the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years', adding grimly: 'It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.' However, he was still not satisfied with what he had done, and spent much of the next year trawling yet again through his numerous manuscript notebooks from 1931 onwards, selecting further remarks and expanding the intermediate version with them, as well as with new material. The final typescript of what we now call ‘part 1’ was completed in 1945–6, but even then Wittgenstein could not bring himself to publish it, and minor emendations were added in manuscript over the next years.

Wittgenstein now found teaching at Cambridge increasingly intolerable. In one of his lectures he remarked, 'The only seed I am likely to sow is a certain jargon', and expressed the fear that he was doing more harm than good by his teaching. His distaste for Cambridge academic life grew even stronger, and he resolved to retire. He visited his family in Vienna in the autumn of 1947, and was shocked and depressed by the devastation and the Russian occupation. On his return, he resigned his chair as from December, but was told that he could take a sabbatical leave over the Michaelmas term. A month later he left Cambridge for Ireland.

The Philosophical Investigations, part 1

The Investigations is written in a different style from the Tractatus. Like the Tractatus it is a permanent contribution to German letters. Unlike the Tractatus, it avoids all technical terminology and logical notation. The prose is limpid, the sentences short and strong. There is no division into chapters. The 693 numbered sections range in length from single sentences to a few paragraphs. Some consist of imaginary dialogues between a wayward interlocutor (often, as it were, the voice of the young Wittgenstein) and a wiser respondent. Literary ornamentation is eschewed, but aphorisms, striking metaphors, and imaginative similes abound. There is an affinity, not merely of style but also of cast of mind, with Lichtenberg. Like the great aphorists, Wittgenstein often gives one only the seed of a thought.

The book opens with a quotation from Augustine's Confessions, in which he delineates how he takes himself to have learned to speak. In this philosophically unselfconscious sketch, Wittgenstein found a pre-theoretical picture of the nature of language, which, he thought, perniciously informs a multitude of philosophical theories (including the Tractatus). From this picture he extracts three theses: that the essential function of words is to name objects, which are their meanings; that words are connected to the objects they represent by ostensive definition (that is, pointing to the object and saying 'That is A'); and that the essential function of sentences is to describe. The criticism of these doctrines and their ramified elaboration in sophisticated philosophical theories of thought and language is a leitmotif running through the book (as well as his writings on the philosophy of mathematics). The central themes of the book are the nature and relation of language and thought, but the investigation of these leads deep into questions in the philosophy of mind which bear on them.

In his philosophy of language Wittgenstein now rejected the assumption that the meaning of a word is a thing it stands for. That involves a misuse of the word ‘meaning’ (for the destruction of the bearer of a name does not deprive a name of its meaning) and vacuous use of ‘stands for’ (for although one can say that 'N.N.' stands for N.N., 'red' stands for the colour red, and 'three' stands for the number three, this obscures the distinctively different uses of proper names, colour predicates, and number words). Words are not connected to reality by meaning-endowing links. That supposition misconstrues ostensive definition (see below). It is not objects in the world that endow words with meaning, but their rule-governed use in a practice. The very ideal of analysis, inherited from the post-Cartesian tradition and reinstated by Moore and Russell, is misconceived. The terms ‘simple’ and ‘complex’, which are relative, were misused as a result of philosophical analysts' assuming that there is such a thing as absolute simplicity, and confusing the absence of criteria of complexity for the presence of criteria of simplicity. Many concepts, especially philosophically crucial ones, such as 'proposition', 'language', 'number', are united by family resemblance, that is, by overlapping similarities, rather than by common characteristics. Propositions do not share an essential nature and there is no such thing as the general propositional form. Not all propositions are descriptions. For example, 'I have a pain' is typically an expression of pain, not a description of anything; 'I'm going to leave' is an expression of intent; and 'I believe A is at home' is a tentative assertion of A's location, not an autobiographical description. Even among those propositions that are descriptions, there are many logically distinct kinds of description—compare describing a scene and describing one's impression of a scene, describing how something has been done and describing how it should be done. The institution of language can only be elucidated by attending to the use of words and sentences in the stream of life. For speaking a language is an activity, part of a form of life. Language does not have foundations in the sensory data of experience, but, in a different sense of ‘foundations’, in the training and teaching involved in acculturation in a human community. What are ‘given’ are not the raw data of experience (as empiricists suppose) but forms of life. They are what has to be accepted, and it is they that constitute the unquestioned framework of thought and action.

In opposition to the conception that makes truth pivotal to the elucidation of meaning, letting understanding take care of itself, Wittgenstein argues that meaning is what is given by explanations of meaning, which are rules for the use of words. It is what is understood when one understands what an utterance means and knows how to use a word. Understanding is an ability, the mastery of the technique of using an expression, exhibited in its correct use, giving or recognizing correct explanations of what it means, and responding appropriately to its use, which are severally criteria of understanding. Forms of explanation are diverse, analytic definition being only one among many, such as ostension, paraphrase, exemplification, and explanation by examples. Ostensive definition, which looks as if it connects word and world, in fact introduces a sample, providing a standard for correct applications of the definiendum. The sample belongs to the method of representation, not to what is represented; hence no link is forged with reality, that is, with what is represented.

Consequently, the central thought of the Tractatus, that any form of representation is answerable to reality, that it must, in its formal structure, mirror the metaphysical form of the world, is misconceived. Concepts are not correct or incorrect, only more or less useful. Rules for the use of words are not true or false. They are answerable neither to reality, nor to antecedently given meanings. Rather they determine the meanings of words. Grammar is autonomous. Conceptual clarification is not to be conducted by depth-analysis, for nothing is hidden. The ‘logical geology’ of the Tractatus is replaced by ‘grammatical topography’, that is, by the painstaking description of the use of words, of their modes of context-dependence, and of their roles in action and interaction.

Hence a new critique of metaphysics emerged. Rather than allocating metaphysics to the domain of the ineffable, the truths of which are shown by language but cannot be stated, Wittgenstein now condemned metaphysics without qualification. What appear to be objective, language-independent necessities in reality are merely the shadows cast by grammar on the world. Non-logical necessary truths are actually merely rules of language in the misleading guise of statements about things. The necessary truth that red is darker than pink is no more than the expression of a rule, which is constitutive of the meanings of the colour words, licensing the inference from 'A is red and B is pink' to the conclusion 'A is darker than B'. What seemed in the Tractatus to be a metaphysical co-ordination between language and reality, for example, between the proposition that p and the fact that p which makes it true, is merely an intragrammatical articulation, namely that in appropriate contexts the expression 'the proposition that p' can be replaced by the expression 'the proposition which is true if it is a fact that p'. Grand metaphysical theories, such as idealism or solipsism, are at best confused recommendations to adopt a new form of representation—a form which is typically incoherently articulated, and inconsistently incorporates elements of our existing one. The main source of metaphysical nonsense in the modern world is science, when it overreaches its proper domain, and scientism in philosophy, which tries to emulate the methods of science in philosophical investigation.

Running through the mainstream tradition of philosophy, Cartesian and empiricist alike, is the thought that what is given is subjective experience, which was conceived not only as the foundation of empirical knowledge, but also as the foundation of language. For it seemed as if all definable words must ultimately be reducible to names of indefinables given in experience. The meanings of these words, the ostensible building blocks of language, are then readily conceived to be fixed by naming subjective impressions by private ostensive definition (for example, ‘pain’ means this, which I now have). Wittgenstein's private-language arguments mount a comprehensive assault on the presuppositions of this conception. If things were so, Wittgenstein now argued, then everyone's language would be private to himself, and no one else would be able to understand it. Worse still, the speaker himself could not understand the words of language thus conceived. Indeed, it is an illusion of reason that there can be any such thing as a language the words of which are defined by private ostensive definition referring to subjective experiences. The roots of language lie in the public domain, in the form of life of a culture.

Wittgenstein's investigations into the mythology of a private language led him deep into issues in the philosophy of mind. Here he strove to undermine the received conception of the ‘inner’, subjective experience, and of its relation to the ‘outer’, its behavioural manifestation. Empiricists and rationalists alike held that a person knows indubitably how things currently are with him (that he is experiencing this or that), but must problematically infer how things are ‘outside’ him. So the private is better known than the public, mind is better known than matter. But, Wittgenstein argued, conceiving of one's current experience as an object of subjective knowledge is misleading, since the ability to avow one's pain, for example, does not rest on evidence and there is no such thing as satisfying oneself or verifying that one is in pain. Being ignorant of, or doubting, one's pain makes no sense, nor therefore does knowing or being certain that one is in pain. To say 'I know I am in pain' is either an emphatic avowal of pain or nonsense, and 'I am in pain' is typically an expression of pain—a learned partial substitute for a groan, not a description of anything. So too 'I want …' and 'I am going to …' are not typically descriptions of how things are with the speaker, but severally expressions of desire, learned as a substitute for trying to get, and of intent, learned as an utterance heralding an action. The speaker does not learn to identify something in himself and then to describe it for the benefit of others. Rather, he learns a new form of expressive behaviour. The received conception of the ‘outer’ is likewise distorted. We often do know how things are with others. Their behaviour is neither inductive nor analogical evidence, but a logical criterion for their subjective condition. Although such criteria are defeasible, in the absence of defeating conditions it is senseless to doubt whether, for example, a person exhibiting pain behaviour is in pain. The behavioural criteria for the application of a psychological predicate are partly constitutive of its meaning, although it is mistaken to suppose that the inner is reducible to behaviour. Cartesian mentalism and logical behaviourism are two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

Wittgenstein held that language is misrepresented as a vehicle for the communication of language-independent thoughts. Speaking is not the translating of wordless thoughts into language, and understanding speech is not interpreting dead signs into living thoughts. It is not thought that breathes life into the signs of language, but the use of signs in the stream of human life. The limits of thought are the limits of the possible expression of thoughts. So a mere animal can think only what can be expressed in its limited non-linguistic behavioural repertory. The possession of a language not only expands the intellect, but also the will, which is why a dog can want a bone now, but only a language user can now want something next week.

Wittgenstein's investigations extended into the analysis of volition and action. Here he opposed the empiricist conception of action as caused by inner acts of will. He distinguished sharply between reasons and causes, and held that explaining action by reference to agential reasons is not a form of causal explanation. Here he in effect revived and gave sharper form to the nineteenth-century German hermeneutic tradition, opposing the received methodological monism, which held that explanation of human behaviour in psychology and the humanistic disciplines is logically of a piece with, or even reducible to, explanation in the natural sciences.

The revolutionary conception of future philosophy sketched in the Tractatus has an even more radical counterpart in the Investigations. Philosophy, Wittgenstein continued to argue, is not a cognitive discipline. There are no philosophical propositions, and there is no philosophical knowledge. If there were theses in philosophy, everybody would agree with them, for they would be mere grammatical truisms (for example, that we know that someone is in pain by observing what he says and does). The ‘therapeutic’ task of philosophy is to clear away conceptual confusions that stand in the way of accepting these rule-governed articulations in our language. Philosophical problems stem from entanglement in linguistic rules, for example, projecting the grammar of one kind of expression onto another, or projecting norms of representation onto reality and then thinking that we are confronted by metaphysical necessities in the world. The methods of philosophy are purely descriptive. Unlike science, there are no theories or hypotheses in philosophy, for in philosophy we are moving around in the grammar of our language, dissolving philosophical problems by examining rules for the use of words with which we are perfectly familiar. The connective analytic task of philosophy is to give an overview, a perspicuous representation, of the rules of our language, entanglement in which gives rise to philosophical confusion. It aims at a form of understanding unlike that of the sciences, a form of understanding which consists in seeing conceptual connections. Wittgenstein associated this Weltanschauung with other thinkers of his times, in particular, Spengler, Freud, and Loos, all of whom aim to further understanding not by hypothetico-deductive explanation but by sharpening our eye to formal connections.

The last years

Wittgenstein departed for Ireland in disgust. He thought English civilization to be 'disintegrating and putrefying' and felt himself to be an alien in the world. As in his earlier flights to Norway, he again needed solitude, both for his own stability and for his work. He remained in Ireland from late 1947 until June 1949, often in poor health. He spent most of this period in co. Wicklow, Connemara, and Dublin, where he continued working on the philosophy of psychology. He visited Vienna in September 1948 and again in April 1949, where his sister Hermine had been diagnosed as having cancer.

In 1949, his old pupil Norman Malcolm, then professor of philosophy at Cornell University, invited Wittgenstein to visit the USA. Before his departure in July, he dictated from his recent manuscript notebooks what is now part 2 of the Philosophical Investigations. It is not evident that this was intended to be part of the same book or to be incorporated in it. An alternative possibility is that his voluminous writings on these themes (published as Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, 2 vols., 1980, and Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, 2 vols., 1982–92), although perhaps originally envisaged as additional material for the Investigations, came to be seen as forming the basis for a book on the philosophy of psychology.

Wittgenstein stayed with Malcolm at Cornell from July until late October 1949. It was as a result of discussions with Malcolm about Moore's papers 'Proof of an external world' and 'A defence of common sense' that he was subsequently stimulated into writing for the first time on the subject of knowledge and certainty. His notes on these themes, which continued to preoccupy him until his death, have been published as On Certainty (1969). Unfinished as they are, they plough up the field of traditional epistemology no less thoroughly than his other writings did the philosophy of language, mathematics, and psychology.

On his return to England, Wittgenstein was diagnosed as having prostate cancer. He flew to Vienna for Christmas, concealing the nature of his illness, to be with Hermine, who was now dying. She died on 11 February 1950. He returned to England in March. He stayed for a while with G. H. von Wright, the successor to his chair in Cambridge, and then with Elizabeth Anscombe in Oxford, from late April until October. During this period he wrote on epistemological themes, and also on the subject of colour. In October he travelled for the last time to Norway, together with his friend Ben Richards. By January 1951 his health was declining rapidly. His doctor was Edward Bevan at Cambridge, who, knowing of Wittgenstein's horror of dying in hospital, invited him to stay with his family for his last days. He died on 29 April 1951 in Dr Bevan's home at 76 Storeys Way, Cambridge. His last words before he lost consciousness were 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life.' On the decision of his Catholic friends, he was given a Catholic burial at St Giles's cemetery, Cambridge, the following day.

The aftermath

Wittgenstein left the task of editing and publishing his Nachlass of more than 20,000 pages to his literary executors, Anscombe, Rhees, and von Wright. The Investigations was published in 1953, and was immediately hailed by many leading philosophers as a work of genius, although others reacted with bafflement, incomprehension, and negative criticism. Over the next forty years another fifteen volumes of his writings, six volumes of notes of his lectures and conversations, and a substantial part of his correspondence were published.

For the quarter century after his death, Wittgenstein's influence upon the development of philosophy was paramount, especially in Oxford, the fountainhead of post-war analytic philosophy, where Elizabeth Anscombe, George Paul, Stephen Toulmin, and Friedrich Waismann transmitted his ideas to what was the largest philosophy faculty in Britain. In Cambridge he was succeeded in his chair first by G. H. von Wright and in 1952, when von Wright returned to Finland, by John Wisdom, who was in turn followed in 1970 by Anscombe. His influence spread from Britain to the rest of the English-speaking world. In the United States his pupils Max Black and Norman Malcolm transformed the Cornell University philosophy faculty into one of the leading departments in the land and the main centre for Wittgenstein-inspired philosophy. Stenius, von Wright, and Hintikka ensured the transmission of his ideas in Finland. His work was well received in Norway, but its impact in Sweden and Denmark was later and lesser. Awakening of interest in the Germanic lands was surprisingly slow, although by the last two decades of the twentieth century it was manifest. French philosophers, with a few exceptions (for example, Jacques Bouverresse), held aloof. There was hardly any branch of philosophy which was not profoundly affected by Wittgenstein's writings, including some about which he had written little if anything, such as philosophical aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of the social sciences, and moral, legal, and political philosophy. This influence was not always beneficial, and often involved misunderstandings. His thought was revolutionary, and did not fit into existing preconceptions of what is philosophically possible. Hence misinterpretations abounded, and the process of eradicating them and offering plausible interpretations of his philosophy is taking many years. The writings about his work are legion—some 10,000 books and articles by the end of the twentieth century.

Wittgenstein's impact on analytic philosophy up to the mid-1970s is manifest in five respects. First, in the linguistic turn which characterized the methodology of the subject, in the abandonment of formal analysis of language with the tools of mathematical logic, and in the replacement of the reductive analysis of the 1920s and 1930s by connective and therapeutic analysis. Second, in the conception of philosophy as the elucidation of conceptual structures by description of the use of words, the goal of which is an understanding of the conceptual forms in which our thought takes shape rather than knowledge about mental, physical, or metaphysical reality. Third, in the anti-foundationalism in the philosophy of language and epistemology. Fourth, in the analytic philosophy of mind which flourished during this period. Following Wittgenstein, it rejected Cartesian dualism and behaviourist reductionism alike, repudiated the classical conception of the ‘inner’ as prior to and logically independent of the ‘outer’. Fifth, in the philosophy of action, a hermeneutic orientation prevailed for a while, which insisted upon the methodological autonomy of explanation of human action. This had profound implications not only for psychology, but for the social sciences and humanities, emphasizing the distinctiveness of forms of understanding and explanation appropriate to the study of man as a cultural, social, and historical being.

However, by the 1980s, while Wittgenstein scholarship flourished, Wittgensteinian philosophy declined. It was submerged by the rising tide of scientifically inspired philosophy, in particular in philosophy of language and of psychology. Such scientism would not have surprised Wittgenstein. He would have viewed it as symptomatic of the malaise of modern culture.

Wittgenstein's impact, however, reached far beyond the confines of academic philosophy. Gnomic remarks from the Tractatus and striking, but opaque, aphorisms from his later works were widely quoted in belletristics—commonly with little understanding. A motet based on the Tractatus was composed (by Elisabeth Lutyens), a film about him was made (by Derek Jarman), a set of prints entitled Wittgenstein in New York was etched (by Eduardo Paolozzi). Wittgenstein became, as a television programme about his life put it, 'the thinking man's hero'. This phenomenon is partially explained by the fact that he became a legend in his own lifetime, before the publication of his later writings. His philosophy, therefore, acquired an alluring hermetic reputation. A deeper explanation, however, might be ventured. From time to time in our culture, literary and artistic figures become objects of veneration in circles far wider than the reach of their works. Their lives are held to be of deeper significance than the mere fascination of their biography. Their travails and their intellectual and spiritual strivings are inchoately sensed to incorporate and to represent the deepest tensions and conflicts within the culture of their times. So, perhaps, it has been with Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein was small of stature, and of slender build. As a young man he was unusually good-looking. After the war years, his features were gaunt, bearing the marks of his ordeals. He had a shock of dark brown hair and piercing blue eyes. His face was mobile and expressive. He spoke English without any German accent, although with occasional Germanisms. In discussion he would gesture expressively with his hands. His personal charisma was overwhelming and remarked on by all who met him. A sculptured head of him was made by his friend Michael Drobil. Numerous black and white photographs of him exist, but there are no recordings of his speech.


  • R. Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius (1990)
  • B. McGuinness, Wittgenstein: a life, 1: Young Ludwig, 1889–1921 (1988)
  • N. Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: a memoir, 2nd edn (1984)
  • P. M. S. Hacker, Wittgenstein's place in twentieth-century analytic philosophy (1996)
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘A biographical sketch’, in G. H. von Wright, Wittgenstein (1982), 1–34
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘The Wittgenstein papers’, Wittgenstein (1982), 35–62
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘The origin of the Tractatus’, in G. H. von Wright, Wittgenstein (1982), 63–110
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘The origin and composition of the Philosophical investigations’, in G. H. von Wright, Wittgenstein (1982), 111–36
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘Wittgenstein in relation to his times’, in G. H. von Wright, Wittgenstein (1982), 201–16
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘Wittgenstein and the twentieth century’, in G. H. von Wright, The tree of knowledge and other essays (1993), 83–102
  • G. H. von Wright, ‘Wittgenstein and tradition’, in G. H. von Wright, Colloquium philosophicum II, 1995/96 (1997), 31–46
  • H. Wittgenstein, ‘My brother Ludwig’, Ludwig Wittgenstein: personal recollections, ed. R. Rhees (1981), 1–13
  • P. Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a memoir, ed. B. F. McGuinness, trans. L. Furtmüller (1967)
  • B. Russell, The autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 2 (1968)
  • R. Monk, Bertrand Russell: the spirit of solitude (1996)
  • F. Pascal, ‘Wittgenstein: a personal memoir’, Ludwig Wittgenstein: personal recollections, ed. R. Rhees (1981), 26–62
  • G. P. Baker, ‘Verehrung und Verkehrung: Waismann and Wittgenstein’, Wittgenstein: sources and perspectives, ed. G. C. Luckhardt (1979), 243–85
  • M. O'C. Drury, ‘Some notes on conversations with Wittgenstein’, Ludwig Wittgenstein: personal recollections, ed. R. Rhees (1981), 91–111
  • M. O'C. Drury, ‘Conversations with Wittgenstein’, Ludwig Wittgenstein: personal recollections, ed. R. Rhees (1981), 112–89
  • M. Nedo and M. Ranchetti, eds., Wittgenstein: sein Leben in Bildern und Texten (1983)
  • L. Wittgenstein, Culture and value, ed. G. H. von Wright and H. Nyman, trans. P. Winch, 2nd edn (1980)
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: Cambridge letters, correspondence with Russell, Keynes, Moore, Ramsey and Sraffa, ed. B. F. McGuinness and G. H. von Wright (1995)
  • L. Wittgenstein, Geheime Tagebücher, 1914–16, ed. W. Baum (1991)
  • L. Wittgenstein, Denkbewegungen: Tagebücher, 1930–1932/1936–1937, ed. I. Somavilla (1997)
  • parish register, Dornbach, near Neuwaldegg, Vienna, 19 May 1889 [baptism]


  • Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna
  • University of Bergen, Norway
  • University of Helsinki, department of philosophy
  • Wittgenstein Museum, Kirchberg-Wechsel, Austria
  • CUL, letters to G. E. Moore; notes on lectures made by G. E. Moore
  • King's Cam., letters to J. M. Keynes
  • McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, letters to Bertrand Russell
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Norman Malcolm
  • Trinity Cam., MSS and letters to G. R. Pattison
  • Trinity Cam., corresp. with G. H. von Wright
  • University of Innsbruck, Brenner archive



  • photograph, 1925, Hult. Arch.
  • photograph, 1929, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • M. Drobil, portraits, repro. in Nedo and Ranchetti, eds., Wittgenstein, following p. 214
  • photograph, Trinity Cam.
  • photographs, repro. in Nedo and Ranchetti, Wittgenstein

Wealth at Death

£3247 12s. 7d.: probate, 10 July 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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