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Ludwig Wittgenstein

(1889—1951) philosopher


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(1889–1951)

Austrian-born philosopher and logician, author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) and Philosophical Investigations (1953), two of the most influential philosophical works of the century. He became a naturalized British citizen in 1938.

One of nine children, Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, the son of an immensely wealthy industrialist. Trained originally as an engineer in Berlin, he went to Manchester in 1908 to study aeronautical engineering. In the course of this work he became aware of some intractable problems in the foundations of mathematics and, seeking guidance, obtained an intruduction to Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. Russell quickly recognized Wittgenstein's genius and gave him every encouragement to pursue problems in logic puzzling to both of them. Before this work could be completed, however, World War I broke out and Wittgenstein as an Austrian returned home to fight for his country against Britain. He served on the eastern front and late in 1918 was taken prisoner by the Italians.

By this time he had actually finished the Tractatus, which he was keen to publish. Though a prisoner of war, he managed to send a copy of the work to Russell, who met him in 1919 and eventually arranged to have it published in 1922 in both its original German together with an English translation. It is a remarkable work. Written as a series of numbered propositions rather than continuous prose, it claims to solve all philosophical problems. It did in fact present a picture theory of meaning combined with the view that logical truths are tautologies. From these two points many of the characteristic later doctrines of the Vienna Circle (see Schlick, Moritz) were to emerge.

Wittgenstein, however, consistent with his claim to have solved all philosophical problems, abandoned the subject and from 1920 to 1926 worked as a schoolteacher in remote Austrian villages. By the late 1920s he had begun to doubt the success of the Tractatus and seemed willing to return to Cambridge to consider once more the problems of philosophy. Help was needed. Although he had inherited a great fortune, he had given it all away on the grounds that such wealth could only inhibit genuine philosophical thought. Funds were found and Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, when he was awarded a PhD for the earlier published Tractatus. Cambridge remained Wittgenstein's base for much of the rest of his life. From 1939 to 1947 he served there as professor of philosophy, although for much of World War II he was absent working as a hospital porter, first in London and later in Newcastle.

Although Wittgenstein's thought had developed considerably since the Tractatus, none of it appeared in print before the posthumous publication of the Investigations. Much of this later philosophy had, however, been transmitted in lectures and circulated in the form of cyclostyled notes dictated to selected pupils. In place of the picture theory of meaning Wittgenstein proposed that we no longer ask what a term means but how it is used. He also made the notion of a rule, and how to follow one, central to his philosophy. From such simple beginnings Wittgenstein drew conclusions that seriously challenged some of the deepest assumptions of the earlier positivism he inspired. Among his papers Wittgenstein had left the manuscripts of many works in various states of completion. By now most of it has been published, making the Wittgensteinian canon one of the richest, most complex, and largest in contemporary philosophy. It is not just the philosophy of Wittgenstein that has attracted attention. The character and life of the man have proved to be as puzzling and complex as his thought. Consequently he has become the subject of many memoirs and anecdotes while much of his correspondence has also been published.

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Subjects: Philosophy.


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