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Wittgenstein, Ludwig (Josef Johann)


(b. Vienna, Austria, 26 April 1889; d. Cambridge, England, 29 April 1951)


Wittgenstein was one of the most imaginative and original thinkers of the twentieth century, a legend during his lifetime and an enduring influence since. To his numerous admirers and followers, his work marks a decisive turn in the history of philosophy and in all fields of investigation to which philosophical method id pertinent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, as he always called him self, was the youngest of eight children. His father, an engineer and a successful steel magnate, was a prominent patron of the arts in Vienna. Wittgen stein was never at home in this worldly and sophisticated setting; and his life and work alike show the imprint of a deeply serious temperament, radically at odds with the compromises of bourgeois society.

Educated privately until he was fourteen Wittgenstein spent only three years at school (in Linz)before entering the Technical Institute at Berlin Charlottenburg with a view to becoming an engineer. As a research student at Manchester University (1908–1911) he made original contributions to the design of a jet-reaction propeller for airplanes. His interests having turned to the foundations of mathematics and to logic, in 1911, on the advice of Gottlob Frege, he became a student of Bertrand Russell’ at Cambridge University. In 1913–1914, while living in solitude in Norway, he was already composing the Traqctatus, although it was not published until 1921. During the period 1919–1926 Wittgenstein studied for and obtained a diploma qualifying him for elementary school teaching, and eventually taught in a number of small village schools in Austria. For a while he worked as a gardener’s assistant at a convent near Vienna. He also designed and built, for one of his sisters, a remarkable house that is still standing (at the time this article was written) in the Kundmanngasse (and declared a national monument by the Austrian government). In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, was made a fellow of Trinity College, and began the famous succession of informal classes through which his philosophical views gradually became known. Ten years later he was appointed professor of philosophy in succession to G. E. Moore. He worked in a medical school and a medical his professorship in 1947. He died of cancer four years later.

The last two decades of Wittgenstein’ life were filled with unremitting intellectual work. His many manuscripts include, in addition to his masterpiece, the Philosophical Investigations (which he left almost ready for press), several full-length books, and thousands of pages of additional materials. His last finished piece of work, On Certainty (composed in 1950–1951), shows him in full possession of penetrating powers of insight and expression.

Wittgenstein’s later work stands in sharp contrast with and opposition to the conceptions presented in the Tractatus. That book, written in short, epigrammatic paragraphs carefully arranged in quasi-logical form (with a special system of decimal references marking the relative subordination of successive item), remains cryptic on essential points and lends itself to a variety of different in terpretations. A central theme is the delineation of the essential characteristics that any language or symbol system must manifest. It would therefore not be unfair to call it a “Critique of Pure Language.” Wittgenstein’s celebrted “picture theory of language” insists upon the presence in language, as the root its semantic power, of an isomorphism between sentences and the possible states of affairs to which they ultimately refer. Reality must be composed of “facts” –patterned clusters of ultimate simples or “objects” –each standing in one-one correspondence to the simple names that underlie the superficial complexity of ordinary language. Thus the “logical form” of reality (roughly speaking, the pattern of possible co-occurrence of the simple “objects”) must be reflected in the “logic of language” (the corresponding patterns of cooccurrence of the semantic elements).

It was part of the originality of this version of “logical atomism” to reject any possibility of the representation, from some external standpoint, of the “logical form” itself. The “logic” of reality and its linguistic mirror must “show itself,” through the impossibility of “saying” what cannot be said: the limits of language are the “limits of thought.” What philosophers have tried to say about metaphysics, transcendental ethics and aesthetics, and theology turns out to consist of pseudo propositions that are “nonsense.” The book accordingly ends with the much quoted line, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” (This article must necessarily omit reference to Wittgenstein’s important technical contributions to the foundations of logic, focusing on the notion of “tautology” ; to probability theory; and the philosophy of science.)

Some hostile critics, such as Karl Popper, have regarded the conclusion of the Tractatus as a self refutation, which reduces the book itself to the sort of “nonsense” that cannot be “said” ; other readers, notably early members of the Vienna Circle, have sought to purge the Tractatus of its allegedly irreleant “mystical” instructions and to quarry from it a positivistic critique of metaphysics. But a more sympathetic reading would treat it as a peculiar sort of demonstration (“showing”) of how a powerful conception of the necessary relations between symbolism and reality, pushed to its logical consequences,results in an impasse, from which there is no escape except through a revolution in perspective and approach. From this standpoint the Tractatus is a prime example of what Wittgenstein later came to call a “metaphysical cramp,” an obsession with a single conception of what the metaphysical situation must be – and the natural springboard for his subsequent revolution in method.

Although there is considerable continuity between the Tractatus and the later masterpiece, the Philosophical Investigations (completed some twenty-five years later), the second work reads at first sight like a wholesale rejection of the earlier methodology. In the Investigations, the earlier interest in the one and only “logical form,” manifested in every adequate linguistic or symbolic system, is rejected as arising from a distorted metaphysical conception. Attention shifts to language as it is used in concrete social practices, constituted partly by rules of syntax and application, but even more importantly by a background “agreement in the form of life” that shows itself in practice but is not reducible to formal principles. The a priori considerations that dominated the Tractatus are replaced by meticulous attention to the “natural history” of language, the complex and various ways in which men actually communicate and express their thoughts. The prime philosophical error is to impose upon this motley of speech practices some a priori model of what language must be like. Witt genstein shows, by detailed discussion of questions that have been the staple of philosophical dispute for two thousand years, how such oversimplified impositions generate insolubilia. He hoped to have shown how such “philosophical sickness” can yield to rational treatment.

Wittgenstein’s later work introduced a number of special notions that continue to be high value, despite their often cryptic and controversial character.Among them are the notions of a “language game” (a deliberately simplified model of speech practice, introduced for the sake of comparison), of a “criterion” of use, and of “family resemblances” (the overlapping pattern of relations that hold together the items referred to by some general term).

Wittgenstein’s later methods of investigation are “dialectical,” in the sense of proceeding repeatedly from the real or fancied philosophical difficulties of an imaginary interlocutor. His writing provide tantalizing glimpses of his incomparable style of face-to-face philosophizing with friends and pupils.

Despite a lifelong interest in science and its relations to philosophy, Wittgenstein did comparatively little work on the philosophy of science (although the Tractatus contains some important on the other hand, he left voluminous manuscripts, still in process of publication and critical evaluation.

It is misleading to assign to Wittgenstein, as is too often done, the stock labels “behaviorist” or “positivist.” His life was devoted, with exemplary single–mindedness, to discovering a radically new way of leading men out of the darkness of conceptual confusion.


I. Original Works. All of Wittgenstein’s works, except the first and third, were published posthumously. Since he composed in German, translations are, at his desire, published with the original German text facing. Exceptions to this are indicated below.

1. Tractatus Logico–Philosophicus, translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, with intro. by Bertrand Russell (London, 1961). The trans. by C. K. Ogden in the original English ed. (London, 1922), although faulty in places, still deserves attention. There also have been translations into Italian, Russian, French, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, and Chinese.

2. The Blue and Brown Books, with a preface by Rush Rhees (Oxford, 1958). Originally dictated in English (1993–1935) for the use of Wittgenstein’s pupils. Although superseded by the Investigations, still the best introduction to the later work.

3. Notebooks 1914–1916, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, edited by Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Oxford, 1961). Surviving parts of the notebooks used in preparing the Tractatus. An indispensable aid to the study of that work.

4. Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, edited by Anscombe and Rush Rhees (London, 1953). The great masterpiece of Wittgenstein’s later thought.

5. Remarks on the Foundation of mathematics, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford, 1956). Compiled from MSS by the literary executors, G. H. von Wright, Rush Rhees, and G. E. M. Anscombe.

6. Philosophische Bemerkungen (Oxford, 1964). German text only. Composed 1929–1930.

7. Zettel, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford, 1966). Based on notes arranged as for a book.

8. Philosophische Grammatik (oxford, 1969), translated by Anthony Kenny, edited by Rush Rhees, as Philosophical Grammar (Berkeley, Calif., 1974).

9. On Certainty, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (oxford, 1969). Composed in 1952–1951.

10. Ludwig Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis, B. F. McGuinness, ed. (Oxford, 1967). Conversations with Moritz Schlick, based upon verbatim shorthand reports by Friedrich Waismann.

11. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Phychology and Religious Belief, Barrett, ed. (Oxford, 1966).

Other sets of lecture notes, some of them transcribed verbatim, are in private circulation.

Almost all of Wittgenstein’s voluminous MSS are preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The entire Nachlass has been microfilmed by Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York, from which microfilm copies and Xeroxes can be purchased. A detailed guide to the Cornell collection is in G.H. von Wright, “The Wittenstein Papers,” in Philosophical Rerierr,78 (1969), 483–503.

A very full bibliography of primary and secondary writings is in K. T, Fann, Wittgenstein’s Conception of Philosophy (Oxford-Berkeley, 1969), with a supp. by Fann in Revue internationale de philosophie,23 (1969), 363–370.

II. Secondary Literature. For Wittgenstein’s life and teaching, see especially Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, rev. ed. (London, 1966), which also contains a biographical sketch by G. H. von Wright and a photograph. An authorized biography by B.F. McGuinness is in course of preparation.

Among the many commentaries on the Tractatus are G.E.M. Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (London, 1959), the earliest and in some ways the most useful; Max Black, A Companion to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (Cambridge-Ithaca, N.Y., 1964), an elaborate exegesis; J. Griffin, Wittgenstein’s Logical Atomism (London, 1964), which stresses the influence of Heinrich Hertz: and E. Stenius, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (Oxford, 1960), a penetrating but controversial analysis.

For the later work, see especially Norman Malcolm, “Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations,” in Philosophical Review,63 (1954), 530–559; and Peter Winch, ed., Studies in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (London, 1969). A useful comprehensive authology is K.T. Fann, ed., Ludwig Wittgenstein : The Man and His Philosophy (New York, 1967).

Possible applications to science are well illustrated in W.H. Watson, Understanding Physics Today (Cambridge, 1963).

Max Black

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Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

After making important contributions to logic and the foundations of mathematics, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) moved away from formalism to an investigation of the logic of informal language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on April 26, 1889, the last of eight children in a wealthy and highly cultured family. He was educated at home, particularly in music, which both parents pursued, and raised as a Catholic. At the age of 14, having shown a talent for mechanics, Ludwig was sent to a school in Linz that emphasized mathematics and physical sciences. Three years later he entered the Hochschule in Berlin to pursue a course in mechanical engineering. Becoming dissatisfied, Wittgenstein moved to England, where he did experimental work in aeronautics and eventually registered as a research student in engineering at the University of Manchester.

In 1912 Wittgenstein read Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics and became fascinated with the question of the foundation of mathematics. Immediately he applied to enter Trinity College, Cambridge, where Russell lectured. Wittgenstein made rapid progress in his studies of logic and mathematics at Cambridge, but within two years his restless temperament moved him on again, this time to a solitary life in a primitive hut in Norway. Several times in his life Wittgenstein responded to an underlying passion for a simple and authentic life, what he called "purity," by abandoning academic society for a hermit's existence.

On the outbreak of World War I, Wittgenstein returned to Austria and saw service on the Eastern front and later in the Tirol, where he was taken prisoner by the Italians. From his prison camp he was able to send Russell the draft of the only book published in his lifetime. After years of discussion and disagreement, the work was finally published in 1922 under the title Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. At the time Wittgenstein regarded it as his definitive contribution to philosophy.

After the war, having been profoundly influenced by reading Leo Tolstoy on the Gospels, Wittgenstein gave away his considerable fortune and became a school-teacher in an Austrian village. For years he resisted the overtures of the group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle, who were excited by his book, and turned down the invitations of Cambridge friends. Finally, in 1929, he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer and resumed his work in philosophy. His classes there were always small seminars of about 20 students who had passed Wittgenstein's stringent requirements of seriousness and dedication. He refused to take part in the social amenities of a don's life.

In the Tractatus Wittgenstein had stated that all positive inquiry falls into the domain of one of the sciences and had relegated philosophy to the clarification of what can meaningfully be said. He believed he had set final limits to the expressible and exposed the remainder as either nonsense or inexpressible. Now he began to doubt the finality of these results. He became more sensitive to the importance of shifting contexts in meaningful expression. He now thought it mistaken to search for invariant forms or rules of expression. Sentences are meaningful within the rules of a particular "language game," but each game is nothing more than a part of language, and the various parts do not share a common essence but only a "family resemblance." In analyses of great subtlety, rich with vivid metaphors and striking examples, Wittgenstein led his students on a search for the implicit rules in various language games, without claiming that everything involved in the communication of meaning can be made explicit—and without claiming that any a priori limits can be set on linguistic inventiveness. Some of this work was published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1952), and since then his students have issued a steady stream of selections from his notebooks.

Wittgenstein's teaching was interrupted by World War II, during which he insisted on doing menial work in a hospital laboratory. Thereafter he became increasingly dissatisfied with academic philosophy and in 1947 resigned the chair which he had assumed, after G. E. Moore, in 1940. Again he sought seclusion on the Irish coast and in Norway. He visited his family in Vienna and spent three months in the United States. Meanwhile his health had deteriorated, and it was discovered that he had cancer. He died in the home of his Cambridge physician on April 29, 1951.

Wittgenstein had unusual gifts in architecture, sculpture, and music, besides his talents for engineering and philosophy. He was a charismatic teacher and yet was fearful of making disciples. Although melancholy and depressive all his life, he radiated strength and authority. Always longing for solitude, he had many friends and, like Socrates, influenced most by personal contact. He repudiated academic philosophy, but he remains a decisive force in English and American universities.

Further Reading

A convenient place to begin a study of Wittgenstein is the anthology edited by K. T. Fann, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Man and His Philosophy (1967). This contains a number of memoirs by his friends, critical essays on his work, and a good bibliography. Two full-length studies of Wittgenstein are Justus Hartnack, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy (1960; trans. 1965), and George Pitcher, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein (1964). The short biographical essay by a former student, Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (1958), is a moving tribute. A definitive biography is being prepared by B. F. McGuinness. For background information see John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1957; rev. ed. 1966).

Additional Sources

Ludwig Wittgenstein, personal recollections, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: a memoir / Malcol, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

McGuinness, Brian, Wittgenstein, a life: young Ludwig, 1889-1921, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: the duty of genius, New York: Free Press: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1990.

Pinsent, David Hume, A portrait of Wittgenstein as a young man: from the diary of David Hume Pinsent 1912-1914, Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Basil Blackwell, 1990. □

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig J. J.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig J. J. (1889–1951) Though he was born in Vienna and lived in Austria until 1912, Wittgenstein is often regarded as the most important English-language philosopher of the twentieth century. His extraordinary achievement was to have produced two profoundly influential but mutually incompatible philosophies in the course of his relatively short academic career.

Wittgenstein's early philosophical work was influenced by Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics, and its most complete expression was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, first published in German in 1921 and then in English in 1922. At the core of this work was a view of language and meaning, according to which each sentence is a picture of some possible state of affairs. Sentences are combinations of names, which, in some ultimate analysis, must refer unambiguously to simple objects. For this relationship of picturing between reality, language, and thought to be possible, they must share a common logical form. But this logical form is, of course, not in the world and so cannot itself be pictured in language. Similarly, moral values and the relation of the self to the world are not states of affairs which can be pictured in language. These are metaphysical matters about which nothing meaningful can be said and about which one must be silent. Wittgenstein's early work was often misunderstood as sympathetic to the anti-metaphysical verificationism of the Vienna Circle. However, unlike the adherents of that school, Wittgenstein acknowledged the depth and seriousness of metaphysical questions, whilst denying their answerability.

Wittgenstein's later philosophy emerged piecemeal, in notebooks written during the 1930s and 1940s, and in his lecture-courses at Cambridge during the same period. It took the form of a devastating critique of the very view of language and meaning to which his earlier philosophy had been committed. The major source for this later philosophy is the Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953).

This work begins with descriptions of a series of imaginary ‘language-games’ in the course of which Wittgenstein tries to dispel the powerful temptation to think that there must be some single underlying essence of all language, that this essence consists in some relation of representation of the world, and that words function primarily or exclusively through naming. As described by Wittgenstein, language-games are rule-governed human practices, in which the meaning of utterances is given by the part they play in the context of the practice. Generally, the meaning of a word or sentence is its use in such a practice, and so meanings can be as diverse as the practices and purposes to which humans may put them. Similarly, the rules governing language use are not somehow fixed for all time by a definition or logical formula, but are established by social practice itself. To give the meaning of a word is to describe the practices in which it is used, to consider how it is learned, and under what circumstances misuse of the word can be corrected.

This, in turn, forms the basis of one of Wittgenstein's most influential and controversial arguments. If meaning depends on use, and use is itself established only in the context of a human practice in which misuse can be detected and corrected, then there can be no such thing as a logically private language. The important consequence of this is that a whole range of pervasive ways of thinking about the language in which we talk about our inner, subjective life have to be rejected. Indeed, widely held images of language itself as an external expression of our inner thoughts are exposed as radically misleading. Wittgenstein insists that if the language in which we talk about our thoughts, dreams, imaginings, sensations, and so on is meaningful at all, then it can only be so in virtue of there being some publicly accessible way of learning how to use it correctly, correct misuses, and so on. As he puts it, an inner process stands in need of an outer ‘criterion’.

Wittgenstein has been widely misrepresented as a kind of behaviourist, but far from denying that we do have an inner life or even that we can meaningfully talk about it, he rather offers a powerful account of what makes it possible for us to do so. The possibility for practices of talking about subjective life to become established, and to be learned by children, is grounded in a repertoire of natural expressions of pain, pleasure, distaste, and so forth, which can reliably and consensually be recognized in the course of living a common ‘form of life’. Here, interpretations of Wittgenstein diverge. Is a shared form of life a common natural history, such as might define and distinguish species (Wittgenstein's writings contain often amusing references to the psychological capacities of dogs, or lions), or does it designate the culture of a people, as in anthropology? The latter interpretation takes some of its followers in the direction of culturally relative views on language, meaning, and rationality. The former interpretation would be consistent with a more naturalistic approach which linked the possibilities of human social and cultural life with certain facts of the natural history of the species.

Wittgenstein's later philosophy has been profoundly influential across the whole spectrum of humanities and social sciences. His account of meaning in terms of rule-governed social practice provided an important means for bringing philosophy and the social sciences back into communication with one another, and offered a powerful challenge to positivistic forms of social science methodology. It is also arguable that in his rejection of essentialism, his displacement of representation as the core image for thinking about linguistic meaning, and in his way of treating human subjectivity, Wittgenstein anticipated some key themes of post-modernism.

For a good short introduction to his work see A. C. Grayling , Wittgenstein (1988

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (loŏt´vĬkh yō´zĕf yō´hän vĬt´gənshtīn), 1889–1951, Austrian philosopher, b. Vienna.


Originally trained as an engineer, Wittgenstein turned to philosophy, went to Cambridge, where he studied (1912–13) with Bertrand Russell, and further developed his philosophy through solitary study in Norway (1913–14). After serving in the Austrian army in World War I, he taught elementary school (1920–26) in Lower Austria and was an architect in Vienna (1926–28). The Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, one of his major works, appeared in 1921 but initially attracted little attention. During the 1920s Wittgenstein came in contact with the so-called Vienna Circle of logical positivists, who were profoundly influenced by the Tractatus (see logical positivism). Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, received his doctorate, and began lecturing in 1930; in 1937 he succeeded G. E. Moore in the chair of philosophy. Retiring in 1947, he worked in seclusion until his death.


The Tractatus

Wittgenstein's philosophical thought is unified by a constant concern with the relationship between language, mind, and reality; but it divides into two importantly different phases. The first phase, expressed in the Tractatus, posits a close, formal relationship between language, thought, and the world; there is a direct logical correspondence between the configurations of simple objects in the world, thoughts in the mind, and words in language. Thus the shape of ideas in the mind and the relationship of words in a sentence are identical in form with the structure of reality or "state of affairs" they represent. Language and thought work literally like a picture of the real, and to conceive or speak of any state of affairs is to be able to form a "picture" of it.

To understand any sentence one must grasp the reference of its constituents, both to each other and to the real. Meaning in thought and language requires a direct reference to the real. The Tractatus, however, made a distinction between what language could say and what it might show. The structures of language and thought could indicate, but not represent, their very correspondence to reality; unsayable things thus exist, and sentences whose structures of meaning amount strictly to nonsense can result in philosophical insight. Thus the Tractatus did not, like the logical positivists, reject the metaphysical; rather, it denied the possibility of stating the metaphysical: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Philosophical Investigations and Later Works

The second phase of Wittgenstein's philosophy commenced with his return to Cambridge in 1929 and continued until his death in 1951; his major work of that period is the Philosophical Investigations (1953). In this period he revised his own thought in the Tractatus, stressing the conventional nature of language. Its meaning was influenced not only by the formal resemblance of its constituents to reality but by the situation, the "language game," in which it was used. Wittgenstein's work greatly influenced, and indeed in a sense occasioned, what has come to be called ordinary language philosophy, that is, the position that maintains that all philosophical problems arise from the illusions created by the ambiguities of language. Philosophy, therefore, must be chiefly concerned with the analysis and proper use of language. This outlook still forms a powerful trend in Great Britain and the United States.

Other of Wittgenstein's posthumous works are Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the Philosophical Investigations (1958), and Notebooks 1914–16 (1961).


See D. Pears, Wittgenstein (1970); W. W. Bartley, Wittgenstein (1973); A. J. P. Kenny, Wittgenstein (1973); G. P. Baker and P. M. S. Hacker, Wittgenstein (2 vol., 1980); D. Bloor, Wittgenstein (1983); R. Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1990); A. P. Griffiths, ed., Wittgenstein Centenary Essays (1991), E. Gellner, Language and Solitude (1999); A. Waugh, The House of Wittgenstein (2009).

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889–1951). Austrian philosopher. He studied mathematical logic with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge in 1912–13, fought in the Austrian army in the First World War, and wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921; tr. 1922) whilst a prisoner of war in Italy. He gave up philosophy for several years, but resumed work in it in the late 1920s. He returned to Cambridge, and became Professor of Philosophy there in 1939. Apart from a single article, he published nothing further in his own lifetime: his later works were all published posthumously, starting with the Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Wittgenstein's later philosophy took a different direction from that of the Tractatus, and was critical of it in many respects. But in both cases he was concerned with the relation between language and the world. The Tractatus sees meaningful language as ultimately analysable into basic propositions, which picture the world. Since ethics, aesthetics, and religious language do not picture anything, they are relegated to the realm of the mystical and inexpressible. In his later work, however, Wittgenstein disclaimed any attempt to give a unitary account of the nature of language. Instead, he saw language as composed of many different ‘language-games’, a term used to indicate that uses of language are rule-governed and go with activities and practices; he also compared language to a set of tools, each having its own use.

Wittgenstein wrote little about religion as such, though interesting observations about it are scattered throughout his works. In 1938 he gave some lectures on religious belief, in which he presented the distinctiveness of such beliefs as lying in the ways in which they express certain reactions and regulate our lives.

It is Wittgenstein's later philosophy in general, however, that has had more influence on the philosophy of religion and theology than his few writings on religion as such. Whereas the Logical Positivists (who were much influenced by the Tractatus, though it can be argued that they misunderstood it) dismissed religious language as meaningless because unverifiable in empirical terms, Wittgenstein's later philosophy seemed to offer a more tolerant approach which would permit the inclusion of religious language amongst meaningful uses of language. For religious language-games are just as much parts of human life as other uses of language, and indeed Wittgenstein includes ‘praying’ in his list of common language-games, in Philosophical Investigations § 23; and there is no superior vantage point from which this, or any, language can be assessed.

If this account is correct, the philosophy of religion and much theology should be concerned more with coming to understand the distinctive nature of religious beliefs and practices, through a perspicuous description and analysis of them, than with shoring them up with intellectual defences. We are, however, left with the questions of what kind of truth religion and theology might have, and how it is discerned.

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889–1951) Austrian philosopher. His masterwork, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921), influenced logical positivism, arguing the strict relationships between language and the physical world. After 1929, he criticized this hypothesis in his Cambridge lectures, published posthumously as Philosophical Investigations (1953). He claimed language was a conventional ‘game’, where meaning was affected more by context than formal relationships to reality.

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