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Wittgenstein’s Significance

Mark Cain on the 50th anniversary of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s death.

April 29th was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is one the few genuinely famous 20th century philosophers. He has been the subject of a prize-winning biography (Ray Monk’s excellent Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius), several TV and radio documentaries, and a Derek Jarman feature film and his name is frequently dropped by those who want to emphasise their intellectual credentials. And he is probably unique amongst philosophers in provoking the ridicule of Rupert Murdoch’s henchmen as, in response to speculation about his mental health, he featured in a Sun editorial comment entitled ‘Loopy Ludwig’ in 1991.

This prominence might suggest that Wittgenstein’s status as a significant philosopher is assured. However, this is far from being the case. For, during the period in which Wittgenstein’s fame within the public arena has escalated, his influence within academic philosophy has sharply declined. This raises a fascinating question: does Wittgenstein’s significance reside solely in the details of his life and personality or is his philosophical output of sufficient quality to merit the continued attention of philosophers?

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into one of the wealthiest families in the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father was a major figure in the Austrian iron and steel industry and headed a family at the centre of Viennese artistic and cultural life. The young Wittgenstein had an undistinguished school career (he attended the equivalent of a secondary modern school in Linz; Adolf Hitler was one of his fellow pupils) and after attending technical college in Berlin he came to England registering as a research student in aeronautics at the University of Manchester in 1908. At Manchester he developed an interest in logic and the philosophy of mathematics. As a result of this interest, he went to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell in 1912, beginning a lifelong association with that University. Here he discovered his true vocation and quickly convinced Russell of his philosophical brilliance. In his autobiography Russell described Wittgenstein as “perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and dominating.”

Over the years Wittgenstein was to form many important friendships at Cambridge and gained much intellectual sustenance from discussions with his fellow academics. However, his feelings towards Cambridge were always ambivalent as he loathed the self-satisfaction and superficial cleverness that he saw as being endemic there. Accordingly he spent many periods – some amounting to several years – away from Cambridge.

With the outbreak of World War One Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austrian army, fought at the front and was decorated for bravery. Nevertheless, he was able to continue his philosophical work throughout the war and completed the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his first major work, while imprisoned in an Italian P.O.W. camp. After the publication of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy, believing himself to have solved all the major problems of the subject. When his father died he inherited a fortune which, in keeping with the ascetic tendencies he had developed during the war, he gave away to his siblings, thereby placing himself in difficult economic circumstances for many years to come. Throughout the 1920s Wittgenstein pursued a troubled career as an elementary schoolteacher in rural Austria, worked as a gardener, and played an important role in the design and construction of a house for one of his sisters.

Much to the relief of his family, who feared that he wasting his prodigious talents, Wittgenstein began discussions with members of the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists in the late 1920s and came to see that he had not, after all, solved all of the problems of philosophy. So, in 1929 he returned to Cambridge to resume his philosophical career. After teaching for several years he was appointed Professor of Philosophy in 1939 and, horrified by the absorption of Austria into Nazi Germany, became a British citizen. During World War Two, in order both to contribute to the war effort and escape Cambridge, he worked first as a porter in Guy’s Hospital and then as a laboratory assistant in a research project into wound shock based in Newcastle. In 1947 he finally resigned his chair and led a nomadic existence for the last few years of his life, taking in spells in Ireland, Norway, the US, Vienna and Oxford. He was plagued by ill-health throughout this period and was diagnosed as having prostate cancer in 1949. He died in the home of his doctor in Cambridge on April 29 1951, shortly after his 62nd birthday.

The Tractatus was the only philosophical book that Wittgenstein published in his own lifetime. However, he left a body of work amounting to some 20,000 pages in the form of handwritten notebooks and typescripts. The many books published under his name since the early 1950s consist of material selected from this corpus by his literary executors, the most important being the Philosophical Investigations.

That a man of Wittgenstein’s background and ability led such a difficult and unsettled life is indicative of his complex and troubled personality. He was prone to introspection and self-castigation and throughout his adult life experienced suicidal impulses and bouts of depression and at times feared for his own sanity. Being something of a loner he often sought complete solitude yet was a magnetic personality who formed many friendships and evoked awe in virtually all who met him. He was a compelling teacher who had a profound influence on many of his students, both on the philosophical outlook of those who became philosophers and on the life choices of those who did not. But he could be a difficult, demanding and overbearing friend and several major Cambridge figures, though admiring of his intellect and integrity, eventually broke off their friendships with him or sought to keep him at arm’s length.

It has frequently been claimed that Wittgenstein was gay and that he fell in love on several occasions (usually with young men who combined intelligence with innocence and gentleness). However, it is probable that his sexual life was very limited as he believed that sex, and physical proximity in general, only serve to undermine true love.

In short, Wittgenstein was the archetypal tortured genius and this goes a long way towards explaining the appeal which has served to generate and sustain his fame. Yet the importance of the highly distinctive form of his writing should not be overlooked for, unlike most philosophers, he was a brilliant literary stylist. To anyone other than the expert the Tractatus is nigh-on impenetrable as it consists of highly compressed and mysterious remarks of which the opening “The world is all that is the case” and the closing “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent” are typical. Yet the book has an austere beauty that is highly visible. His later writings are, at least superficially, much less daunting as they are written in an expansive and almost colloquial style and are replete with striking metaphors and similes. However, to the uninitiated it can be difficult to understand the point and direction of these writings, as Wittgenstein provides little by way of overt structure. But for many of his readers this has proved irrelevant, as the poetic quality of his sentences make them compelling even when their content is obscure.

Although the Tractatus is of great historical importance, it is fair to say that Wittgenstein’s standing as a philosopher mainly rests upon his later work, much of which focuses upon a closely-related battery of issues to do with language, mind and mathematics. It had a huge influence on philosophy in the middle decades of the 20th century, particularly in Britain. Throughout his later period Wittgenstein championed a revolutionary conception of the nature of philosophy and the way in which the philosopher should proceed. He rejected the traditional idea that the task of the philosopher is to solve philosophical problems by means of the construction of theories that present facts that were hitherto hidden or unknown. Hence, philosophy is to be sharply contrasted with science. Rather, the philosopher’s concern should be to describe our concepts and the relationships between them and so make explicit something that we all know (yet tend to lose sight of when we philosophise). For Wittgenstein, grasping concepts involves mastering the use of words and sentences. Consequently, carrying out the conceptual investigation that he recommends involves focusing on the manner in which we use the words and sentences of our language.

Wittgenstein thought that human beings have an irresistible urge to philosophise but when we give in to this urge we often lose sight of the nature of familiar concepts and so fall into error and confusion. Sometimes we set ourselves problems that are spurious. The ‘problem of other minds’ is one example, as our psychological concepts and the concept of knowledge are such that it is nonsense to fear that we can never know what another person thinks or feels. And sometimes we are seduced by tempting pictures to make claims that are conceptually confused. Two such pictures are central targets of Wittgenstein’s reflections. The first is a picture of language according to which words name objects (the meaning of a word being the object that it names) and sentences are combinations of such names that serve to describe possible facts or states of affairs. In order to break the grip of this picture, he presented a battery of examples of language in use, some involving the use of imaginary simple languages. For example, in the opening section of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein describes a case where someone enters a shop and presents the shopkeeper with a slip of paper marked ‘five red apples’. The shopkeeper responds in the following manner. He opens a drawer marked ‘apples’. Then he consults a colour chart to find the colour sample opposite the word ‘red’. As he says the series of cardinal numbers up to ‘five’ he takes an apple out of the drawer that matches the colour sample for each number. Such examples are designed to establish that we use words and sentences in many different ways and that such usage is intimately bound up with non-linguistic activities that constitute our distinctive human form of life. The second pernicious picture that Wittgenstein went to great pains to undermine is that of the mind as being an inner theatre and mental phenomena (such as thoughts, intentions, states of understanding, and sensations) as residing inside this theatre and lying hidden behind our publicly accessible behaviour. It was in this context that he developed his famous argument against the possibility of a private language (a language that, in principle, can be understood only by a single person).

Wittgenstein held that philosophy as he conceived it has great value, even though it doesn’t generate theories or new knowledge. For it can help reveal spurious problems as such (thus dissolving them) and break the grip of dangerous pictures and so help us to avoid error and confusion. For this reason Wittgenstein described his philosophy as a kind of therapy and wrote that its purpose was to “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

In the English-speaking philosophical world Wittgenstein’s influence has declined markedly in recent years and he is in danger of becoming a marginal figure. This is in no small part due to the shift in the centre of gravity in the philosophical world from Britain to the United States and the influence of WVO Quine who argued that there is no sharp dividing line between philosophy and science.

Does this decline of influence mean that Wittgenstein’s writings are no longer of any relevance or importance and should be consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history? I don’t think so. His work constitutes a coherent challenge to much contemporary philosophical output, particularly in the philosophy of mind, arguably the most prominent area of the discipline. Views of the mind and mental phenomena that Wittgenstein attempted to undermine are still widespread and the idea that philosophical reflection on the mind is continuous with the scientific study of mental phenomena is dominant. Moreover, his challenge equally applies to much scientific work on the mind, for example, Noam Chomsky’s theories on language and language acquisition. So, if Wittgenstein’s position is tenable then it has hugely significant ramifications. Yet despite all this, Wittgenstein’s challenge has never been adequately addressed. His opponents, faced with his subtle and abstruse writings, have been far too quick to characterise him as holding crude and discredited views (such as behaviourism) that he probably didn’t hold and they dismiss him accordingly. In short, his views have not had a fair hearing.

It is far from clear whether Wittgenstein should be regarded as one of the greats. But one thing that is clear is this. Until his ideas have been successfully engaged with and defeated, Wittgenstein will continue to be a haunting figure who threatens to undermine the very coherence of many views widely held by philosophers and scientists today.

© M.J. Cain 2001

Mark Cain is Leverhulme Special Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham.


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