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 on Ludwig Wittgenstein

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 Biography 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.