Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889-1951)

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Among the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein made important contributions to the philosophy of logic, theory of meaning, and philosophical psychology and methodology.

Wittgenstein was born into a wealthy Viennese family and began his education in engineering, before turning his attention to problems of mathematical logic and the philosophy of language. He studied with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge University, where he developed a unique perspective on emerging topics of analytic philosophy. He combined an extraordinary rigor of logical methods with a penetrating, uncompromising demand for clarity and philosophical justification of many aspects of logic and mathematics about which working theorists in the field, including Russell, were willing to take for granted. After World War I, in which he served as an artillery officer in the Austrian army, Wittgenstein's reflections on logic and philosophy took a more ethical and aesthetic turn, due in part to his wartime experience, but also due to the influence of his early reading of the Bible and works by Arthur Schopenhauer and Leo Tolstoy.

Wittgenstein's philosophy is divided into early and later periods. In the early period, usually dated from 1912 to 1922, Wittgenstein was preoccupied with the task of developing a formal semantics for possible languages and the proper understanding of formal symbolic logic. He believed that language could only be meaningful if sentences are analyzable into ultimate atomic constituents that stand in one-to-one correspondence with possible facts that the sentences represent as a logical picture of the world. Specifically, Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) interprets all propositions as describing facts that collectively constitute the world. Sentences in colloquial language are conventional sign-system expressions for what on analysis in their transcendental symbolic aspects are concatenations of names for simple objects. Therefore, the meaning of a proposition is explained in Wittgenstein's early picture theory of meaning as a one-to-one correspondence between the articulated combinations of simple names that constitute fully analyzed propositions and the assemblages of simple objects that constitute the atomic facts that propositions describe. A proposition is true in Wittgenstein's analysis just in case the possible state of affairs it pictures actually occurs. Language, and with it all communication of information, is meaningful only insofar as it describes contingent empirical states of affairs. Wittgenstein limits meaningful expression to whatever can be said, which he distinguishes from the transcendental aspects of language that can only be shown by the picturing relation in the correspondence of simple names and simple objects.

The saying-showing distinction supports Wittgenstein's efforts to eliminate all traditional philosophical problems as literally nonsensical, which he argues cannot arise except through a misunderstanding of the logic and semantic requirements of language. The simple objects are the substance of the word, according to Wittgenstein's metaphysics of "logical atomism" in the Tractatus, because the same objects must exist in different configurations constituting different atomic facts in different, logically possible worlds. If it were not so, Wittgenstein argues, then there could be no extrasemantic foundation for semantics, and the meaning of a sentence would have to depend on the meaning of another sentence, in a semantic circle or infinite regress that contradicts the assumption that at least some language is determinately meaningful. All possible language in its symbolic aspect can be specified in terms of the sum total of logical combinations of names for all possible existent or nonexistent atomic facts interpreted as all possible combinations of simple objects. Wittgenstein describes the totality of meaningful expressions in a language by what he terms the general form of proposition, which he conceives as a truth functional operation on all elementary propositions that picture all atomic facts. The general form of proposition demarcates the class of all possible language, of all possible meaningful expressions, and, hence, of all meaningful thought. It thereby excludes as meaningless all efforts to use language to express ethical or aesthetic values (which Wittgenstein regards as one and indistinguishable), logical and mathematical form, forms of representation, the self as a subject of intentional states, religious awe and the sense of the mystical, whatever can be shown rather than said, and, finally, all traditional pseudoconcepts, pseudoproblems, and pseudo-propositions of traditional philosophy. Wittgenstein concludes that there are no meaningful philosophical problems or philosophical theses and that the only proper task for philosophy is the clarification of meaning and the debunking of efforts to use language improperly to express anything that is not a logically contingent proposition about a logically contingent state of affairs.

After a seven-year hiatus, during which he taught schoolchildren in the Austrian Alps and worked on artistic and architectural projects, Wittgenstein decided that he might once again have something of interest to contribute to philosophy. In his later development, after 1929, Wittgenstein rejected the picture theory of meaning but continued to regard ethics as deeply rooted in common social practices or "forms of life." In his Philosophical Investigations (1953) and other posthumously published writings, on which he continued to work until shortly before his death, Wittgenstein regards philosophy as a kind of therapy for eliminating philosophical problems that arise through the misunderstanding of language. It is no part of philosophy to offer a positive doctrine of right and wrong, good and evil, but only to explain what Wittgenstein calls the "philosophical grammar" of these terms as they can permissibly be used in the language of ethics. The business of philosophy is to arrive at a correct understanding of meaning, rather than to formulate and defend substantive commitments to particular doctrines. As in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein in the later period resists the idea of philosophy as a discipline like pure science, which has a special subject matter and special methods of inquiry. Instead, he continues to see philosophy as a method of clarifying meaning in order to arrive at a perspective from which all traditional philosophical problems evaporate. The later Wittgenstein interprets meaning in terms of rule-governed "language games," in which linguistic and extralinguistic activities are fully integrated with ordinary nonphilosophical human purposes, and in which language is an instrument or tool whose meaning cannot be dis-associated from its use in a language game.

See also:Language and Communication; Language Structure.


Baker, Gordon P., and Hacker, P. M. S. (1980). Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning. Oxford, Eng.: Basil Blackwell.

Baker, Gordon P., and Hacker, P. M. S. (1985). Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity. Oxford, Eng.: Basil Blackwell.

Black, Max. (1964). A Companion to Wittgenstein's "Tractatus." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Fann, K. T. (1969). Wittgenstein's Conception of Philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Garver, Newton. (1994). This Complicated Form of Life: Essays on Wittgenstein. LaSalle, IN: Open Court.

Jacquette, Dale. (1998). Wittgenstein's Thought in Transition. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Kripke, Saul A. (1982). Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGinn, Colin. (1984). Wittgenstein on Meaning: An Interpretation and Evaluation. Oxford, Eng.: Basil Blackwell.

Monk, Ray. (1991). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Penguin Books.

Pears, David. (1987). The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein's Philosophy, 2 vols. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press.

Dale Jacquette

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889-1951)

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