Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/wittgenstein-ludwig-josef-johann-1889-1951/v-1
Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on 26 April 1889 and died in Cambridge on 29 April 1951. He spent his childhood and youth in Austria and Germany, studied with Russell in Cambridge from 1911 to 1914 and worked again in Cambridge (with some interruptions) from 1929 to 1947.
His first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was published in 1921. It presents a logical atomist picture of reality and language. The world consists of a vast number of independent facts, each of which is in turn composed of some combination of simple objects. Each object has a distinctive logical shape which fits it to combine only with certain other objects. These objects are named by the basic elements of language. Each name has the same logical shape, and so the same sort of possibilities of combination, as the object it names. An elementary sentence is a combination of names and if it is true it will be a picture of the isomorphic fact formed by the combination of the named objects. Ordinary sentences, however, are misleading in their surface form and need to be analysed before we can see the real complexity implicit in them.
Other important ideas in the Tractatus are that these deep truths about the nature of reality and representation cannot properly be said but can only be shown. Indeed Wittgenstein claimed that pointing to this distinction was central to his book. And he embraced the paradoxical conclusion that most of the Tractatus itself is, strictly, nonsense. He also held that other important things can also be shown but not said, for example, about there being a certain truth in solipsism and about the nature of value. The book is brief and written in a simple and elegant way. It has inspired writers and musicians as well as being a significant influence on logical positivism.
After the Tractatus Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy until 1929, and when he returned to it he came to think that parts of his earlier thought had been radically mistaken. His later ideas are worked out most fully in the Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953.
One central change is from presenting language as a fixed and timeless framework to presenting it as an aspect of vulnerable and changeable human life. Wittgenstein came to think that the idea that words name simple objects was incoherent, and instead introduced the idea of ‘language games’. We teach language to children by training them in practices in which words and actions are interwoven. To understand a word is to know how to use it in the course of the projects of everyday life. We find our ways of classifying things and interacting with them so natural that it may seem to us that they are necessary and that in adopting them we are recognizing the one and only possible conceptual scheme. But if we reflect we discover that we can at least begin to describe alternatives which might be appropriate if certain very general facts about the world were different or if we had different interests.
A further aspect of the change in Wittgenstein’s views is the abandonment of solipsism. On the later view there are many selves, aware of and co-operating with each other in their shared world. Wittgenstein explores extensively the nature of our psychological concepts in order to undermine that picture of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ which makes it so difficult for us to get a satisfactory solution to the so-called ‘mind–body problem’.
Although there are striking contrasts between the earlier and later views, and Wittgenstein is rightly famous for having developed two markedly different philosophical outlooks, there are also continuities. One of them is Wittgenstein’s belief that traditional philosophical puzzles often arise from deeply gripping but misleading pictures of the workings of language. Another is his conviction that philosophical insight is not to be gained by constructing quasi-scientific theories of puzzling phenomena. Rather it is to be achieved, if at all, by seeking to be intellectually honest and so to neutralize the sources of confusion.
Heal, Jane. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/wittgenstein-ludwig-josef-johann-1889-1951/v-1.
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