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Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (Vienna, 26 April 1889 – Cambridge, 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-born philosopher who mostly worked and taught at the University of Cambridge. He is widely considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century.
Born into a wealthy bourgeois family, the young Wittgenstein was acquainted with some of the most important figures of Viennese fin de siècle culture (Johannes Brahms, Gustav Klimt, Gustav Mahler, Karl Kraus). While completing his studies in mechanical engineering in Manchester, Wittgenstein developed a keen interest in logic and the philosophy of mathematics through the works of Gottlob Frege (1948–1925) and Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). He moved to Cambridge in 1911 to attend courses taught by Russell, who immediately noticed Wittgenstein's sharp perspicacity, as well as his troubled attitude.
Later, Wittgenstein spent some time (1913–1914) in Skjolden, Norway, where he wrote and dictated his first works on logic (the Notes on Logic and the Notes Dictated to G.E. Moore in Norway). At the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted as a volunteer in the Austrian army. The war was one of the most influential experiences of Wittgenstein’s life. Amid the harshness of the conflict, his first work – the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, completed during his imprisonment in Cassino (1918–1919) – came to light. The book was first published in 1921 as a German edition, of which the author disapproved, and later in 1922 as an English translation by Wittgenstein’s friend Frank Ramsey (1903–1930). The Tractatus was the only philosophy book that Wittgenstein published during his lifetime.
Turning away from philosophical thought, from 1922 to 1928 Wittgenstein devoted himself to teaching elementary school in a small Austrian village, to architecture – he built his sister Margarete’s house – and to working as a gardener in a convent. The newly-founded, neo-positivist Vienna Circle took an interest in his work, which elicited rather cold reactions on Wittgenstien's part.
In 1928, however, a conference held by mathematician Luitzen Brouwer (1881–1966) in Vienna reawakened Wittgenstein's interest in philosophy, convincing him to move back to Cambridge, where he obtained the teaching qualification. The years from 1928 to 1941 are remembered as a period in which the logical-philosophical theories of the Tractatus were thoroughly reconsidered: starting with the Lecture on Ethics (delivered in 1929), he revised and modified his ideas on language, logic, the foundations of mathematics, psychology, anthropology, and symbolic forms. The result of these reflections was collected in a series of manuscripts and typescripts written by Wittgenstein himself, or transcribed by his students during lectures. These include the Philosophical Remarks, Philosophical Grammar, the Big Typescript, the Blue Book and the Brown Book, and Zettel.
During World War II, Wittgenstein served in a civilian hospital. Between 1947 and 1950 he spent time in England, Ireland, and the USA. Between 1949 and 1951 he wrote the remarks that were later published as On Certainty. But his best known and most memorable, albeit unfinished work from this period remains the Philosophical Investigations, the masterpiece of the “later” Wittgenstein, which, ever since its publication in 1953, has been fertile ground for contemporary philosophy.
In his last years, Wittgenstein deepened his acquaintances with G.H. von Wright (1916–2003), Rush Rhees (1905–1989) and G.E.M. Anscombe (1919–2001), who later became his literary executors and published much of his posthumous work. He died in 1951 at the age of 62.
His most famous words: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 7). His last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”.
An outline of Wittgenstein’s thought
Wittgenstein’s philosophical works touched upon numerous critical points in contemporary philosophy. It is not incorrect to say that Wittgenstein’s major concern throughout his life was the investigation of language, but it would be reductive to limit the scope of his thought to the philosophy of language and logic. Wittgenstein was influenced by Hertz, Frege, and Russell, but also by Kraus, Spengler, Weininger, Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard. Nor were his influences limited to the philosophical sphere: Wittgenstein was an attentive reader of Goethe and an appreciator of German poetry. Music, moreover, and particularly the classical romantic music of the Liederists and Brahms, remained one of Wittgenstein's primary sources of inspiration.
At the time of the Tractatus's writing, the influence of the prevailing logicism framed Wittgenstein's consideration of symbolism in a representational and “realist” perspective, although he brought brilliant innovations to coeval philosophy. The key idea of this first book is the distinction between what can be said (or represented, i.e., the facts in the world) and what can only be shown (i.e., the forms of representation). The Tractatus aims to delimit the realm of meaningful propositions to the realm of science and to prove that ethics, aesthetics, and logic are alike in that they cannot be expressed by meaningful propositions. Wandering between the strictly logical and the mystical, Wittgenstein discusses topics that range from the picture-theory of proposition and logical atomism to truth-functionality, from the foundations of ontology and epistemology to the conception of the normativity of natural laws, from reflections on solipsism to ethics, aesthetics and theology. The logical Wittgenstein of the Tractatus particularly conditioned the emergence of the neo-positivist philosophy of the Vienna Circle, which was formed in the Austrian capital during the first post-war period and brought together thinkers such as Moritz Schlick (1882–1936), Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970), Otto Neurath (1882–1945) and Friedrich Waismann (1896–1959).
The period of the Philosophical Investigations coincides with an evolution in Wittgenstein’s consideration of language, which is now traced back to linguistic practices – the well-known “language games” – that reveal specific configurations of human behaviour – “forms of life”. These notions reveal an affinity with the “linguistic-pragmatic turn” in the philosophy of language, and are applied variously by the author in the philosophy of psychology, in anthropological reflections (see, for example, his Notes on Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”) and in his work on the foundations of mathematics.
The discontinuity between Wittgenstein's early thought and his mature reflections has often been emphasized – even by Wittgenstein himself, in some passages – especially with regards to the evolution of his conception of the nature of language: as formally structured in the “early” Wittgenstein, and as linked to the variable forms of culture in the “later” Wittgenstein. However, lines of continuity can be discerned, especially in the conception of philosophy as a “critique of language" and the “ethical point” of philosophical work, which is not intended to operate as a foundation nor give rise to a theory, but rather reflects the transformative force of the human being.
About Wittgenstein’s works and The Ludwig Wittgenstein Project’s policy
Wittgenstein wrote a lot but published little: a very short review of Peter Coffey’s The Science of Logic; the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; a dictionary, or rather a spelling book, for German-speaking schoolchildren; an academic article by the title Some Remarks on Logical Form; a letter to the editor of Mind. Almost everything we now have in volume format was published posthumously. After Wittgenstein died in 1951, his appointed literary executors, G.E.M. Anscombe, R. Rhees and G.H. von Wright, were left with the task of sorting and grouping his handwritten notes and typescripts in order to publish them.
Now, the Nachlass itself – the collection of Wittgenstein’s manuscript material, the “raw” Wittgenstein – has been available online since the 2010s, almost in its entirety, both in a fac-simile edition and in an XML/HTML transcription. This was made possible by the generosity of the copyright holders of the originals, The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the work of the Wittgenstein Archives Bergen. Much of the digitalized content has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.
A scan of Ms-102,14v (diary entry dated 13 November 1914). The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge, The University of Bergen, Bergen, CC BY-NC.
Some parts of the Nachlass were carefully prepared for publication by Wittgenstein himself, and it is fair to assume that he would have had them printed had he lived longer. The Philosophical Investigations, for which he even wrote a preface in 1945, are the best example of a text thoroughly crafted by Wittgenstein and ready for the press by the time he passed away. In other cases, however, his notes were only published as books after undergoing extensive editing: this is the case, for example, with the lectures he held in Cambridge and the private conversations, that we have received through notes taken by his students and interlocutors. There are midway cases as well, texts such as On Certainty, Remarks on Colours, Zettel, Philosophical Grammar, Culture and Value. In order to prepare these texts for publication the editors selected, grouped, and sorted the remarks.
Based on our expertise in the field of copyright, we at The Ludwig Wittgenstein Project decided to only publish those texts for which we had strong reasons to determine that the editors' work can not be considered creative. The list of available texts meeting these criteria is constantly being updated.
Individual works (forthcoming)
This paragraph lists Wittgenstein’s writings that are available on this website and provides a very short introduction to their editorial history and philosophical content.
Review of P. Coffey, The science of logic Expand
In 1913, Wittgenstein published a very short review of philosopher and mathematician Peter Coffey’s The science of logic in The Cambridge Review (vol. 34, no. 853, 6 Mar. 1913, p. 351) as part of his academic duties as a bachelor student. In an openly ironic tone, Wittgenstein argues against the antiquated views of the author and the inaccuracies of the logical notions he expresses, some of which – such as the subject-predicate form of the proposition, the relationship between thought and reality, and the logical-semantic function of the verb “to be” – will have an important development in Wittgenstein’s own works from the 1910s.
Remarks on Frazer’s The Golden Bough Expand
According to Rush Rhees, in 1929 Wittgenstein’s disciple Maurice O’Connor Drury (1907-1976) procured and read to his mentor passages from the English anthropologist Sir James George Frazer’s (1854-1941) The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (in the 12-volume edition of 1906-1915). A series of remarks in German were drawn by Wittgenstein from the reading in 1931; they were later revised and expanded, after 1936 and probably after 1948. Rhees edited the notes on Frazer for publication and they appeared in 1967 in the German journal Synthese. The published text brings together extracts of Wittgenstein’s Nachlass Ms-110, Ts-211 and Ms-143.
In his Remarks on Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, Wittgenstein openly opposes the tendency in anthropology to rationalize apparently irrational practices and behaviours belonging to the sphere of magic and the sacred in non-western societies. To this type of reduction Wittgenstein opposes an account based on the cultural-relative validity of linguistic practices, significantly accusing Frazer of being “far more savage than most of his savages, for these savages will not be as far removed from an understanding of spiritual matters as an Englishman of the twentieth century”. The understanding of anthropological phenomena, Wittgenstein argues, must therefore be relative to the context in which they take place, and in which, for example, a sacrificial or ritual practice is not traceable to the modern scientific explanation, because it arises in an entirely different form of life. Such forms of life are manifest in the language games in which they are embodied, so that, quoting another famous statement from the book, “a whole mythology is deposited in our language”.
In bringing an explicit content to contemporary anthropology, Wittgenstein's philosophy thus takes on here some epistemological questions, which will be called up on several occasions in the Philosophical Investigations and in On Certainty.
Philosophical Investigations Expand
"Philosophical Investigations" is the title that Wittgenstein, starting from the mid-1930s, began to attribute to a collection of manuscripts, often converted into typescripts, which he submitted many times to extensive and compulsive revisions, in an attempt to shape a second book of philosophy that never saw the light of day during the author's lifetime: it was only in 1953 that Wittgenstein's literary executors posthumously published the text. Although the final version of the first part of the work (which we reproduce on our website... for which reasons? why not the second part? etc.) was only composed between 1943 and 1945, with some marginal rehashes thereafter, it would be flawed to argue that the Investigations reflect Wittgenstein's thought limited to the late 1940s. As he writes in the Preface, the ideas contained in the book are “the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years”. Therefore, the Philosophical Investigations can be considered a synthesis of Wittgenstein's mature thought, following his return to philosophy in 1929. Once again, the result of years of gestation was a complex work, devoid of a hierarchical structure and a definitive status unlike the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, but equally rich and surprising.
In the 693 numbered paragraphs of the first part of the work, which follow slender and rarely explicit logical threads, Wittgenstein addresses many subjects, as summarized in the Preface: “the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition and sentence, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things”, without, however, providing a systematic treatment of them, but rather free remarks or, as the author puts it, “a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of those long and meandering journeys”. This method corresponds to a renewed conception of the nature of the philosophical enterprise, which Wittgenstein presents in paragraphs 109-133: as he had already argued in the Tractatus, the aim is to solve philosophical pseudo-problems by dissolving the confusions that arise in the everyday use of language. However, for the author of the Investigations, this activity of clarification no longer involves a refinement of the linguistic code according to ideal, logical criteria. “Every sentence in our [ordinary] language is in order as it is” (PU 98): these kind of observations convey the idea that the principles that define the meaningfulness of language reside within language itself, and its intelligibility does not derive from compliance with logical rules, but rather from "grammatical" rules, that is, from the overall evaluation of the diverse uses of signs. Consequently, the philosopher's task does not consist in providing explanations about the nature of language, but rather in offering descriptions of language use, thus elucidating the inconspicuous implications of the linguistic activity that are not immediately recognizable.
Throughout the work, therefore, Wittgenstein establishes some cornerstones of his new thought, such as the idea that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PU 43): in order to know the meaning of a sign, one must observe the situations in which that sign is used, evaluate the ways in which its usage is taught, and the customary practices by which that usage is transmitted, preserved, or transformed. Hence, Wittgenstein's constant tendency to put on scenes of instruction or plausible episodes from the lives of less civilised people, to demonstrate that even the most basic form of complex linguistic-conceptual constructions, such as mathematics or abstract reasoning, is not a system of propositions based on logical laws, but a set of elementary practices, whose rules are mastered by the owners of a given language through training.
The inclination to disappoint the rationalist perspectives with a heuristic approach to language and to present several “language games” as “objects of comparison” (PU 130) for examining the meaning of problematic expressions represents both a critique of classical theories of language, built upon the concepts of "representation", "proposition", and "logical atomism" (including those presented in the Tractatus logico-philosophicus), and a renewal of the research method. Language, according to Wittgenstein, plays a role only when it is engaged in specific activities. With language, we do all sorts of things: that is why every language has sense within a specific "form of life", which is the set of contexts and circumstances that contribute to determining meanings, and the famous expression “language-game” is precisely intended “to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life” (PU 23).
The themes explored by Wittgenstein are too numerous and disparate to be briefly summarized. He focuses on the ostensive learning of language, challenging the ideas attributed to Augustine; he reflects on the notions of "rule" and "understanding"; he raises questions about animal language; he discusses the relationship between word and thought and the plausibility of a "private language" in a series of famous reasonings that include the example of the "beetle in the box" (from which the logo of our project is derived). But, essentially, in both the first and second parts of the work, Wittgenstein unceasingly applies the principles of his new philosophical method: by presenting several examples, thought experiments, imaginary situations, and comparisons, he examines the “misunderstandings concerning the use of words […] in different regions of our language” (PU 90) and encourages the reader to adopt a more cautious and contextual approach to understanding language, ultimately arguing that what we call “philosophical problems” are merely confusions, which are only dispelled by achieving a “perspicuous vision” of our ordinary language.
The style of the Philosophical Investigations is often aphoristic and fragmented. Wittgenstein repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the form he was able to give to the book, as he recalls at the end of the Preface. It is not surprising that many passages have generated lively interpretative debates and continue to do so. Its nature as an open work, the hypnotic structure of the argumentation, and the innovative variety of themes and methodology make it a milestone in recent philosophy, at least on par with the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as demonstrated by the massive influence this text had on the development of the so-called "ordinary language philosophy" and on Western thought as a whole in the second half of the 20th century.