welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Brief Lives

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Alistair MacFarlane sketches Wittgenstein’s life with words.

When Ludwig Wittgenstein was persuaded to return to Cambridge in 1929, he was virtually penniless and had no degree. Bertrand Russell realised that Wittgenstein’s previous status as an undergraduate in Trinity College would allow him to apply for a doctorate; and G.E. Moore suggested that he submit his book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) as a doctoral thesis. The examination has passed into legend. After the oral, Wittgenstein clapped his two examiners – the eminent philosophers Russell and Moore – on the shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry. I know you’ll never understand it.” Moore’s report was masterfully succinct: “I consider that this is a work of genius but, even if it is not, it is well above the standard required for a PhD degree.” Posterity has been less ambivalent. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is now recognised as a masterpiece. Indeed, as his former student continued to develop, Russell became concerned that his own reputation might be overshadowed.

Wittgenstein is unique in that he produced two different and highly influential philosophies. Each had a decisive effect on two successive generations of philosophers. The Tractatus was the only book published by Wittgenstein in his lifetime. A later, and quite different, work was published after his death, under the title Philosophical Investigations (1953). These two books, published over thirty years apart, had a major influence on the development of modern philosophy. Only 25,000 of Wittgenstein’s words were published while he was alive; but the 3,000,000 left behind unpublished have sustained a small philosophical industry ever since.

Ludwig Joseph Johann Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on 26 April 1889, son of the richest and most powerful steel magnate in Austria. Impelled by his family background, he developed an interest in machinery. After attending a school specialising in mathematics and the physical sciences he enrolled in the Technische Hochscule in Charlottenburg, Berlin in 1906, to study mechanical engineering, leaving with a diploma after only three semesters. He moved to the University of Manchester in 1908, planning to take a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. In order to gain a more secure understanding of the mathematics underlying these studies, he studied Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics and Gottlob Frege’s Grundegesetze der Arithmetik [The Foundations of Arithmetic], and his whole life changed. Wittgenstein felt an urgent need to study philosophy which put him “in an almost pathological state of agitation.” On impulse, he visited Frege in Jena, wishing to become one of his students. Frege suggested instead that he go to Cambridge and study under Russell. On 18 October 1911, Russell was having tea in his rooms in Trinity College when “an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English, but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg but had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics, and has now come to Cambridge to hear me.”

Russell’s life was also about to change. Having registered as an undergraduate in Trinity, Wittgenstein was soon attending Russell’s lectures. For Wittgenstein, lectures were a two-way street. He constantly interrupted, and argued at length. Such behaviour soon made Wittgenstein notorious, and at first Russell thought him a crank. But he soon changed his mind, coming to regard him as the epitome of genius, in both its positive and negative aspects. Indeed Russell later said that “I feel he will solve the problems I am too old to solve.”

Wittgenstein began working on what was to become the Tractatus in 1912, leaving Cambridge for the first of several visits to Norway, where he found he could work without distraction. Like Philosophical Investigations, it is written in a unique, supremely terse style, as a set of schematically numbered paragraphs, and . Some of these are now famous aphorisms.

Ludwig’s father died in 1913, and inheritance made him one of the wealthiest men in Europe. On the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered for service in the Austro-Hungarian army, serving with distinction and gaining several medals for bravery. Captured in 1917, he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp working on his philosophy. At the war’s end he returned to the family home in Vienna and completed what became the Tractatus.

His masterpiece finished, Wittgenstein decided that nothing of consequence remained to be done in philosophy. He thought this because he saw philosophy in very narrow terms. To him, at that time, the essential problem was to use logic to relate language to experience in a precise and comprehensive way, and he felt that he had done this. He attended some meetings of the Vienna Circle, where his ideas were enthusiastically received, but Wittgenstein was never happy to be a member of any organised group. After some difficulty (over who was to write a Preface), the Tractatus was published in German in 1921, then translated into English by Frank Ramsey, a brilliant Cambridge undergraduate. Ramsey became convinced that Wittgenstein was a genius, and subsequently made several attempts to persuade him to return to Cambridge.

The illusion that he had finished philosophy threw Wittgenstein into crisis. He may have felt that he had no goals left to pursue. For whatever reason, he decided to give away his entire fortune, vowing never in future to spend anything which he had not earned, and to train as a school teacher. He divided his inheritance among his relatives, turned his back on philosophy, and began a new life as an elementary school teacher in Austria. This was not a success.

For most of the decade following the publication of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein had a very hard time. But his admirers in Cambridge continued to believe in him, and in 1929 he was persuaded to return there. The once immensely wealthy man was penniless, and needed a degree. Luckily, thanks to Russell and Moore, the Tractatus did the trick. Having acquired a doctorate, he became a Fellow of Trinity, was appointed to a lectureship, and again applied himself to philosophy. He returned to Norway in 1936-37, working on what was to become Philosophical Investigations. When G.E. Moore resigned his Chair of Philosophy in 1939, Wittgenstein replaced him. Few Chairs have ever been successively occupied by such very different people.

Although he had become a British subject, the outbreak of the Second World War made the Austrian Wittgenstein’s professorial position increasingly hard to bear, and he obtained work as a porter in Guy’s Hospital in London. He resigned his professorship in 1947 in order to concentrate on writing. The remainder of his life was marred by a succession of increasingly severe illnesses. Eventually he was diagnosed as having metastised prostrate cancer. He died on 29 April 1951. He had confessed to his doctor, Edward Bevan, that he was afraid of dying in hospital. Bevan took him into his own home and, helped by his wife (who was initially scared of Wittgenstein), nursed him until his death. All his life Wittgenstein had great difficulty relating to colleagues, and was widely regarded as rude, intolerant and unsociable. Yet he received great kindness and forbearance from these colleagues – and a loyalty which survived his death, ensuring that his second great masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations, was published in 1953.

Wittgenstein’s two philosophies are not in conflict; they are complementary. The philosophy of the Tractatus sees propositions as logical pictures, and seeks to construct a logical foundation for those aspects of experience expressible in language. It is a philosophy born of science. That of Philosophical Investigations is concerned with a detailed study of language as commonly used rather than with logical abstraction. It is a philosophy born of human experience. He moved from a position which seeks to capture meaning in a net of logic, to one which allows the everyday use of language to give rise to meaning. Wittgenstein’s restless energy and ruthless but narrow intellectual honesty compelled him to reject one approach before embarking on the other. Perhaps if he had taken an interest in the monumental struggles taking place in contemporary science over quantum physics, he might have been less harsh in judging his own work.

Wittgenstein led a tortured life. He was an intellectual unable to interact satisfactorily with other intellectuals, a once wealthy man unable to put a fortune to constructive use, a homosexual unable to form lasting partnerships, an academic who despised academic activities, a philosopher who tried to drive others away from taking up philosophy. Yet his genius was manifest to his colleagues, who gave him a loyalty to which, tragically, he was unable to respond. His name is now a byword for a certain type of academic genius – for a towering intellect, aloof and isolated. He was driven by a relentless passion to understand, and an absolute refusal to compromise.

© Sir Alistair MacFarlane 2011

Sir Alistair MacFarlane is a former Vice-President of the Royal Society and a retired university Vice-Chancellor.

Wittgenstein’s famous books

Wittgenstein’s two famous books are both concerned with meaning and the nature of language. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Wittgenstein claims that thought involves ‘logical pictures’ of facts or states of affairs, expressed through a proposition, that is, a single idea asserted about the world through language. Only propositions which picture state of affairs in this way are meaningful. Unfortunately this excludes all propositions concerned with religion and ethics. Therefore even though Wittgenstein felt that these were vitally important subjects, he concluded that it was impossible to talk about them meaningfully. Or in the famous concluding words of the book: “That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.”

In the posthumous Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein came up with not one but two new ways of explaining how language works. He argued that language was like a bag of tools, with different tools being useful on different occasions. And he also argued that language is like a set of games, each with rules accepted among a particular group of people. People play different ‘language games’ in different situations. Despite the fact that no single set of rules covers all language use, we all know the rules for meaning in language (without necessarily being able to express what they are). These new ways of seeing language offered the possibility that talk about ethics might be meaningful after all.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X