Wittgenstein is by far one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. He is strongly associated with the birth of analytic philosophy, along with such notable figures as Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege (both of whom were close acquaintances of Wittgenstein). He was born to an enormously wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1889. His name survives in infamy for many and maybe even most philosophers, for it was his self-appointed task to end philosophy as we know it. He saw philosophy as an affliction of the mind, to which he himself was particularly susceptible, and sought to cure the disease by clarifying the nature and boundaries of thought and thereby solve or dissolve all of the problems contained therein. He was a perfectionist, arguably to the point of pathology, and suffered immensely (by his own account) from his philosophical struggles with the dilemmas that ailed him. He is credited with the birth of such movements as logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy, the former of which he opposed, lamenting that it grew from a fundamental misunderstanding of his work. Wittgenstein has traditionally been understood as a dichotomy between his early and later self, since he managed to produce two radically different yet equally profound philosophical systems (though he would reject that characterization), one epitomized in the Tractatas Logico Philosophicus (the only work published in his lifetime) and the other in the Philosophical Investigations. However, further research has revealed a middle, transitional, Wittgenstein who cataloged the transformation from his thought in the Tractatas to his thought in the Investigations through a series of notebooks and recorded conversations. In reviewing this material, one can witness a chain of thinking that connects the two works by gradually adding new ideas and discarding old ones. I’ve tried to arrange this post to reflect these three periods.

The Early Years

Wittgenstein went to school for engineering, specifically focusing on aeronautics, during which time he designed a new type of jet propeller. However, he became extremely interested in the math involved in his work in and of itself and, consequently, in the foundations that supported it. This interest was fueled by his reading of books by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege on the subject. Accordingly, he decided to visit Frege to whom he presented a philosophy paper that he’d written, which by Wittgenstein’s account was torn apart by Frege (figuratively speaking :P). Nonetheless, Frege encouraged him to visit again and soon suggested that Wittgenstein seek to study under Russell at Cambridge. Russell describes their first meeting as follows:

“… an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.”

and a little later described Wittgenstein as “a perfect example of genius — passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”. Wittgenstein began as a great admirer of Russell but rapidly came to question several of Russell’s most fundamental assumptions about philosophy which provoked numerous debates between them; Russell once commented that Wittgenstein was the only man capable of taxing his own (Russell’s) intellect. Some even contend that Russell’s career in philosophy was devastated by Wittgenstein because he forced Russell to strive for impossible standards of clarity, coherence, and precision. This is said to have prevented Russell from maintaining any single view through time, as he was constantly questioning himself due to Wittgenstein. As the first World War broke out, Wittgenstein decided to enlist “in order to confront death”. He ended up fighting on the front lines and received several military decorations for bravery. It was during this time that he wrote most of the Tractatus, then a mere collection of ideas scribbled in notebooks in the war trenches. He refined and completed it after he left the service and sent it to Russell who reviewed it along with G.E. Moore, the latter of whom Wittgenstein referred to as “an example of how far someone could get in life with no intelligence whatsoever”; Moore was an internationally renowned philosopher. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein develops the Picture Theory, whereby every proposition is understood as a picture of some fact. The world, according to Wittgenstein, is “everything that is the case”, or as he next puts it “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”. Thus, every proposition represents some piece of the world. Wittgenstein claims that in order for a proposition to be a picture of a fact it must have the same form as that fact, this can be seen by observing a painting. A painting of a corn field surely doesn’t represent the corn field by copying its properties exactly, for the painting is two-dimensional and far smaller in scale, however one can view the painting and immediately know that it represents a corn field. This is because the arrangement, or structure, or form of the painting is shared by the corn field; this relation is paralleled between propositions and facts. However, one must not make the mistake that Wittgenstein is only referring to artwork when he calls a proposition a picture, for he gives several other examples such as posters, maps, models, and board games. The key point is that all of these things lack the physical properties of the things they represent, but they still manage to represent them by virtue of sharing a common form. The form of a proposition, according to the early Wittgenstein, can not be said by that proposition; form can only be shown. For, as he reasons, in order to state the form of  the proposition the proposition would need to exist outside of that form which is impossible. He further claims that proper philosophy is no more than the activity of clarifying the logic, and thus the form, of language which is hidden by the clothing of ordinary usage. He uses this distinction between what can be said and what can be shown to declare that the propositions of traditional philosophy (i.e. metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics) are all guilty of attempting to say what can only be shown. In the end, he reflects on the paradoxicality of his own work, namely that throughout the book he appears to be saying the unsayable, for he is engaging with these formal value systems in his very effort to destroy them. He thus closes the book with a now famous passage, writing “My propositions are elucidatory in this way : he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them.  (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” and “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Despite his philosophical rejection of these unspeakable realms, Wittgenstein found himself fascinated with them and referred to them as “the mystical”. In fact, Wittgenstein famously claimed that what was most important about the Tractatus was what it didn’t say.

The Middle Years

After publishing the Tractatus, and thus having solved all of the problems of philosophy to his satisfaction, Wittgenstein spent some time teaching children in an old schoolhouse and working as an assistant gardener. Letters that he wrote during this period have been recovered to reveal contemplations of committing suicide. He had, in fact, suffered through such dark meditations before, for he once remarked that being encouraged in philosophy by Bertrand Russell had “ended nine years of loneliness and wanting to die”. It might provide some perspective here to note that 3 of his brothers did in fact kill themselves and another (Paul) also contemplated it. His brother Hans threw himself from a boat into the Chesapeake Bay, his brother Rudi ingested potassium cyanide, and his brother Kurt shot himself. During this time he entirely ceased philosophizing (vocally at least). Eventually he was convinced to return to philosophy by Russell and company, who suggested that Wittgenstein submit the Tractatus as his dissertation and assume a professorship at Cambridge. He was shocked to find that he had become a famous figure in philosophy during his absence due to the circulation of his book. In his position as a professor he became known for discouraging his students from pursuing philosophy and, in particular, urging graduate students to abandon philosophy and use their intelligence for “something useful”. (More could be added to this portion but the post is already becoming excessive and I fear tired eyes and brief attention spans).

The Later Years

Wittgenstein’s other major work, The Philosophical Investigations, marked a radical departure from the most fundamental assumptions of the Tractatus. Where the Tractatus painted the portrait of an orderly determinate world built on essences, the Investigations describes an indeterminate world without foundations or external referents. For the later Wittgenstein the proper mode of philosophy is descriptive and when he describes the world it turns out to consist of what he terms “language-games”. He claims that what gives a word or concept meaning isn’t some fact existing outside of language, but rather the way that it is used in the appropriate language-game. Language-games are interwoven with what he calls “forms of life”, so for instance there will be a language-game interwoven with baseball that may involve such meaningful uses of language as “Here!” “I’ve got it” “Strike” “Go home” “You’re out” “He’s stealing”; some of these words/phrases may have meaningful uses in other language-games, but they won’t mean exactly the same thing because they will be used differently. “He’s stealing” may be used in the language-game of a security guard to mean something very different than in baseball. All of these uses of language are appropriate, it’s only when we try to use language in a way that doesn’t have meaning within the context of a language-game that we express nonsense. Wittgenstein claims that this is just what philosophy does. Philosophy takes concepts away from the language-games where they are at home and tries to investigate them for essences and such; this is how philosophy is able to take seemingly familiar and obvious concepts and make them appear profound and mysterious. So, Wittgenstein asserts, the problems of philosophy are merely the nonsensical results of an improper use of language. His reasoning for calling them “language-games” largely rests on his idea of “family resemblance”. Family resemblance is a cornerstone of Wittgenstein’s rejection of the widespread philosophical assumption that every thing must have an essence, that is, some set of conditions that are necessary and sufficient to identify that thing as what it is. He illustrates the point by using the concept of games, about which he asserts there is no definition that would include all games and exclude all non-games; there are competitive games, social games, games of self-improvement, instructive games, etc. Much of the methodology for the Investigations focuses on forcing the reader to think for him/herself and his rejection of an essentialist definition of the concept “game” is no different, after “laying everything bare before us” he challenges the reader to find a definition of “game” that won’t either exclude some games or include some non-games. After this display, he remarks that this lack of essence doesn’t render the concept of “game” any less intelligible, that is, we are still able to talk about games with complete clarity and comprehensibility. He attributes this to “family resemblance” between different games, which is to say that they are all linked but only by virtue of an overlapping network. So, for instance, game 1 might share significant traits with game 2 while game 2 shares significant traits with game 3 and yet game 3 shares no such traits with game 1. It might be helpful to imagine it as a chain where the last link is only connected to the first by virtue of their common connection with the whole through it’s interlocking parts. One can also think of it in familial terms, hence “family” resemblance, that is to say that you may not bear any single physical feature in common with all your kin but you might have your father’s eyes and your grandmother’s ears, and so on.
In 1952 Wittgenstein died of prostrate cancer at the age of 62. His final words were “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Posted in Legacy.


  1. There’s a tendency to think of Wittgenstein’s middle period – as a teacher and gardener – as the charmingly erratic marks of a wayward genius. I always feel as if I’m being invited to look at this period with condescension and to make snide remarks about his lack of teaching skills.

    But after the first world war any intellectual with a grain of integrity and an ounce of sensitvity despaired of the nature of humanity; *everyone* had a project of reformative education designed to prevent future wars (my own grandfather planned to set up a worldwide scientifico-philosophical institute using the funds of the last Ottoman sultan). Wittgenstein’s teaching project should be placed alongside Russell’s experimental schools, and a host of others.

    Wittgenstein may have been naive in thinking that his own passion for education reform was sufficient to carry through his project; but we shouldn’t be dismissive of the impulses that led him to try. [Not that you were being dismissive; and not that my historical evidence for this comment is particularly water-retentive/]

  2. (btw, it goes w/out saying that Joseph’s being able to knock out the text freehand-like as he did is flat-out amazing. The truth is, it’s too difficult for me to comprehend, grammar mistakes or not!)

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