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Wittgenstein, Ludwig


WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (18891951), one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Born of a wealthy family in Vienna, Wittgenstein did most of his philosophical work at Cambridge, England. He became a British subject in 1938 and succeeded G. E. Moore as professor of philosophy at Cambridge in 1939. His two principal works were largely responsible for the "linguistic revolutions" in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (German edition 1921, English translation 1922, second English translation 1961), completed in the Austrian army during World War I, was the only one of Wittgenstein's books published during his lifetime. It inaugurated a logical-structuralist approach to philosophical analysis. The Philosophical Investigations (Oxford, 1953) initiated what came to be called ordinary language philosophy. Some dozen other books of lectures, notes, letters, and various manuscripts and manuscript fragments have been published posthumously; the most important is probably On Certainty (Oxford, 1969). This material, on which Wittgenstein was working at the time of his death, seems to point the way toward still a third period of his philosophy.

Wittgenstein concerned himself primarily with the nature of language, a concern that for him entailed the understanding and clarification of meaning. Thus he believed language to be the proper subject of philosophy, for it is according to the terms of language that the world and human life become comprehensible. The function of philosophy is to see language clearly and thereby dissolve (particularly at certain critical nodes) metaphysical problems and anxieties created by deep misunderstandings about the grammatical possibilities of language. Wittgenstein excelled in the subtle examination of how ordinary words with ordinary uses come to seem fraught with metaphysical complexities.

The spirit in which these profound philosophical (and not merely linguistic) studies were carried out was the very reverse of a positivistic or scientistic one, though some of Wittgenstein's early interpreters, such as Bertrand Russell, misunderstood him on this point. In his notebooks, excerpts from which have been published under the title Culture and Value (1977; Eng. ed., 1980), he declared himself out of sympathy with the scientific and progressivistic spirit of the age. Even in his early letters to Paul Engelmann and Ludwig Flicker, he made it clear that the purpose of the Tractatus was an ethical and not a scientific or positivistic one.

Wittgenstein once told a friend that he could not help seeing everything from a religious point of view. He belonged to no religious group or institution, though his mother was Catholic and he had been baptized a Catholic. (Three of his grandparents are said to have been of Jewish extraction.) During World War I he came under the influence of Tolstoi's writings on the Gospels and adopted a Tolstoyan mode of life, giving away his considerable inheritance and living ascetically as a village schoolteacher in southern Austria. To his friends he expressed admiration for Kierkegaard and Augustine and for some of the writings of George Fox and the prayers of Samuel Johnson. Engelmann reported that Wittgenstein believed in the Last Judgment but could make little out of the biblical doctrine of creation.

Wittgenstein wrote very little specifically on religion; the most important documents in this regard are Lectures on Religious Belief (Oxford, 1966) and Remarks on Frazer's "Golden Bough" (London, 1979). Yet his philosophy is permeated with a religious spirit. It was one of his strongest convictions that religion should be shown and demonstrated in everything rather than talked about as a separate matter. He advised his students that philosophical problems must arise out of a genuine need rather than as an expression of wit and cleverness. The important question about a philosopher, he said, is how much his ideas cost him. Wittgenstein believed that a philosophy is no better than the life out of which it arises and that in order to see things clearly it is necessary, above all, to destroy vanity. Unexamined biases and commitments are a mortgage against clarity.

Wittgenstein's reserve on the subject of religion arose not only from his feeling that it is more important to talk to God than to talk about God, but also from his awareness that in the present age religious expressions are almost certain to be misunderstood. Thus he considered dedicating one of his books, later published after his death as Philosophical Remarks, "To the glory of God," but decided against it.

What is evident from the study of Wittgenstein's life and work is that he was a clear-cut "supernaturalist," in the sense that he sharply separated God from the world. He told a student, Friedrich Waismann, that it is more profound to believe that something is good because God commands it than to believe that God commands it because it is good.

Religion for Wittgenstein was a matter of belief, and such beliefs outranked any explanations, reasons, or logic. Wittgenstein had no patience with either sociological or psychological "explanations" of religion, and even less with scientific attempts to bolster religion or to create religious emotions as responses to scientific wonders. Religion had to do with a different and more important dimension than that of fact: the dimension of how we are to live.

His most important contribution to the philosophy of religion was in his analysis of belief in Lectures on Religious Belief, included in Lectures and Conversations, compiled by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees, and James Taylor (Oxford, 1966). Here Wittgenstein examines the role played by religious beliefs in the guidance of life and attempts to disentangle them from all factual matters, including claims about existence. He makes the important point that denying a religious belief or disagreeing with it is not contradicting anything, since the essence of religious belief has nothing to do with whether something is or is not the case, or was or will be the case. Rather, it has to do with how we live and die. When people are willing to suffer and die for their religious beliefs, it is not for some factual proposition that they are willing to suffer and die, though it may appear so. Thus a belief in the Last Judgment should not be taken as an assertion that a certain event is or is not going to take place, but as something like an icon guiding our thoughts and actions, particularly in times of crisis. The attempt to make religious beliefs appear reasonable Wittgenstein regarded as often "ludicrous."


Hacker, P. M. S. Insight and Illusion: Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience. Oxford, 1972.

Kenny, Anthony. Wittgenstein. London, 1973.

Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. London, 1958. Includes a biographical sketch by G. H. von Wright.

Rhees, Rush, ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections. Totowa, N. J., 1981.

Henry Le Roy Finch (1987)

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