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Wittgenstein, Ludwig


WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1889–1951), Austrian-British philosopher who profoundly influenced Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy through his analysis of language; brother of the musician Paul *Wittgenstein.


Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the eighth and youngest child in a well-off and cultured family. He had three Jewish grandparents. As a child he was baptized, but he never was a religious Catholic. After a private education at home, he attended school in Linz, where, coincidentally, Adolf Hitler also was a pupil. He studied engineering in Berlin and then went to Manchester, England, to study aerodynamics. There he read Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics and became interested in logic and the logical basis of mathematics. In 1911 he met Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) who demonstrated that one can derive mathematics from logic, and singled out the problem of the inaccuracy of language. Frege referred him to Russell, whom Wittgenstein visited in the same year, and who stimulated him to be active in philosophy.

What vividly interested him was language. In 1913 and 1914, he worked during long periods in Norway in order to clarify logic. With the outbreak of World War i he became a volunteer in the Austrian army. In 1916 the first version of his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein's essay on language and logic, was ready. In the same year, he left for the front. In 1918, he was taken prisoner of war in Italy. Upon his return to Vienna, he studied to become a teacher and gave away his personal fortune.

At first, Wittgenstein could not find a publisher for his Tractatus. It was finally published in 1922 in the series Annalen der Naturphilosophie. He worked as a gardener and also as a teacher in several elementary schools. He was successful when teaching superior pupils, but was a failure with other pupils, whom he treated harshly. In 1925 he again visited England where he became an advanced student, and in 1929 received his Ph.D. on the basis of his Tractatus. In 1930 he started teaching in Cambridge. The Tractatus was the only work he published, although he desired also to publish his later work Philosophische Untersuchungen.

Teaching at the university did not prevent Wittgenstein from opposing any form of academic philosophy. He developed a growing resistance toward the mathematical and scientific way of thinking as the only ways of philosophizing. In 1935 he pondered immigrating to Russia. In 1939 he was promoted to the rank of professor.

During the difficult years of the Shoah, the Wittgenstein family in Vienna were considered non-Jewish, thanks to a friend, the Catholic teacher Ludwig Hänsel, who had access to leading political figures of that time. It was probably on instructions of Arthur *Seyss-Inquart, who was responsible for the destruction of Dutch Jewry and who was tried in the Nuremberg trials, that the family was not killed.

For some time, Wittgenstein left his academic position and worked in a London hospital. In 1948 he left for Ireland. In the summer of 1949, he visited America, where he became ill. In 1950 he returned to London, without a job and without money. During the last months of his life he wrote On Certainty. He died in 1951.


Customarily, one distinguishes between Wittgenstein's early work, the Tractatus (1922), and his later work, e.g., the Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953).

Fortunately, there exists Wittgenstein's voluminous Nachlaß, of which various manuscript were published, as Zettel, On Certainty, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Culture and Value, and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. There are further the Notebooks 19141916 and, finally, the notes made by his students, e.g., The Blue and Brown Books, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, and Psychology and Religious Belief.

The Vienna Circle interpreted his early work in the direction of logical positivism, on the basis of the picture-language discussed in the Tractatus. It is, however, questionable if there is enough supporting evidence for speaking of Wittgenstein i and ii. It is the same person who, during his entire life, developed a critique of language, attacking the picture theory of meaning. In all of his philosophical activities, he waged "the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language" (ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache) (Philosophical Investigations, 109) and wanted the reader to take upon himself the task of clarifying his language. The theory developed in the early work was written to be rejected, and the Investigations clarified the questions that were raised in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein wanted the old thoughts and the new ones be published together.

Philosophical problems were for him first of all problems of language. He was convinced that, if one would study the logic of language, one would be able to solve many philosophical problems.

Investigation of the Use of Language

The Tractatus describes the limitations of language. Logic is what is "true." There is the simple tautological equation a = a. Further, there is the formula A is not not-a: I cannot eat and not eat at the same time. Finally there is the dilemma: or a or not-a: or it rains or it doesn't.

Wittgenstein doubts if one really says something with this logic that it is true under all circumstances. Mathematics, too, is logic: it is a priori true, not based upon experiments: 5 and 5, for instance, is 10, and one does not have to verify that. Finally, Wittgenstein maintains in his Tractatus that only scientific utterances give certainty about reality. But scientific utterances are not necessarily true: reality could also be different.

The last sentence of the Tractatus (7) reads: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen). Through this sentence, Wittgenstein makes much of human life unspeakable, at least in the logical picture-language. The entire domain of speaking on ethics and God has to remain separated from the purely descriptive language. Ethical utterances are authoritative, but distinguished from utterances on facts. About God you cannot speak as about things in the world. Aesthetic and ethical judgments cannot be expressed within logical language, they are not facts and cannot be pictured in thought. Real questions, questions of life, are not scientific questions. Picture-language is thus problematical. Wittgenstein therefore found it useful to study ordinary language with its different language games. Philosophy can, accordingly, be a remedy against the bewitchment of thought by language.

the complexity of ordinary language

It was Wittgenstein's life task to understand ordinary language. One may say for instance that one "has" a book, that one "has" children, or that one "has" a headache. All these are different forms of "having" which are not reducible to each other. One cannot solve this complex reality by speaking about the "essence" of having (as did Plato), which would transcend all these forms of "having." Neither can one reduce something to something else, as is frequently done in psychology. All this proves that we are "bewitched" by wrong visions on language.

The word "essentially" was for Wittgenstein a word that one has to avoid. He left out the "eternal" truth beyond or above reality and concentrated upon the detail that always deviates from a preexisting "essence." We should stop using the word "essentially," as if in having a child, a book or a headache the same unchangeable "having" would return. This would come to being guilty of a logical way of speaking (a = a), that says nothing.

Wittgenstein and Judaism

Recent research has investigated Wittgenstein's thought in light of his Jewish background. Rush Rhees has written on Wittgenstein's self-understanding. He notes that, in 1936, Wittgenstein confessed to his friends and family that he was more Jewish than was generally known. In his book on Wittgenstein and Judaism, Ranjit Chatterjee writes that, with this confession, Wittgenstein indicated that in his work, one may find many a Jewish element, and that Wittgenstein developed an intellectual Jewishness and expressed his inner Jewish feeling in a disguised way. Wittgenstein also remarked to his friend M.O'C. Drury that his own thinking is not Greek, but "one hundred percent Hebrew thinking." With his "Hebrew thinking" he wanted to unmask the idolatry of picture language. On the other hand, Steven Schwarzschild saw Wittgenstein as being alienated from his Jewishness, and as suffering from self-hatred.


detailed biographies: b. McGuiness, Wittgenstein: A Life. Young Ludwig 18891921 (1988); R. Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius (1990). on wittgenstein: a. Ambrose (ed.), Wittgenstein's Lectures, Cambridge 19321935 (1979); G. Anscombe, An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus (1959); C. Barrett, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief (1991); O. Bouwsma, in: J.L. Craft and R. Hustwit (eds.), Wittgenstein: Conversations 19491951 (1986); R. Chatterjee, Wittgenstein and Judaism. A Triumph of Concealment (Studies in Judaism 1) (2005); T. De Mauro, Ludwig Wittgenstein: His Place in the Development of Semantics (1967); P. Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir (1968); K.T. Fann, Wittgenstein's Conception of Philosophy (1971); H.L. Finch, Wittgenstein: The Later Philosophy (1977); G. Hallett, A Companion to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1977); W.F. Hermans, Wittgenstein (1992); A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna (1972); A. Janik, Essays on Wittgenstein and Weininger (1985); S. Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982); N. Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Memoir, with Wittgenstein's letters to Malcolm (1984); B. McGuiness, "Wittgenstein and the Idea of Jewishness," in: J.C. Klagge (ed.), Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (2001), 221–36; D. Pears, Wittgenstein (1970); M. Perloff, Wittgenstein's Ladder; Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (1999); G. Pitcher (ed.), Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations (1966); R. Rhees (ed.), Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (1981); S. Schwarzschild, "Wittgenstein as Alienated Jew," in: Telos, 40 (1979), 160–65; D. Stern, "Was Wittgenstein a Jew?" in: James C. Klagge (ed.), Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (2001), 237–72; B. Szabados, "Was Wittgenstein an Anti-Semite? The Significance of Anti-Semitism for Wittgenstein's Philosophy," in: Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 29 (1999), 1–28; C. Wright, Wittgenstein on the Foundations of Mathematics (1980).

[Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

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