Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was born into one of the richest families of turn-of-the-century Vienna. His father had made a fortune from engineering enterprises, and the family entertained artists such as Brahms, Mahler, and Klimt. Wittgenstein was not an exceptional student, but did well enough in school to pursue studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Manchester. His study of engineering problems quickly led him to an interest in the mathematics that underlies engineering, and then in the philosophy that underlies mathematics.
On the recommendation of Gottlob Frege, in 1911, Wittgenstein went to study at Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, one of the leading philosophers of the day. The roles of teacher and pupil were soon reversed, and Wittgenstein's first contribution to philosophy, the 1913 "Notes on Logic," was dictated to Russell.
Wittgenstein's intensive studies were interrupted by the onset of the First World War. He enlisted in the Austrian army, and frequently requested placement in the most dangerous places. He had a morbid desire to confront death. During this time, Wittgenstein worked intensively on fundamental problems in the philosophy of logic, ultimately applying his conclusions to the nature of language, reality, and ethics. By the end of the war, he had completed a draft of his Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, which was first published in 1921 and translated into English in 1922 as Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus. Before the war ended, however, he was taken prisoner by the Italians, and had to mail his manuscript to Russell from a prisoner-of-war camp.
After the publication of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein felt he had nothing more to contribute to philosophy. He spent the 1920s in a variety of jobs. He was a schoolteacher in a small Austrian village, a gardener, and an amateur architect. During this time, he still had some connection with the philosophical world, notably in his conversations with Frank Ramsey on the Tractatus that gradually led him to recognize that this work was flawed in a number of respects. In the late twenties, he also came into contact with the Vienna Circle of logical positivists who were greatly inspired by his work on the Tractatus.
Somewhat reluctantly, Wittgenstein accepted a teaching position at Cambridge in 1929 (the Tractatus was submitted as his doctoral dissertation), and spent most of the rest of his life there. He remained skeptical about philosophy, and persuaded many of his students to pursue more practical careers in medicine or elsewhere. Throughout the thirties and early forties, he worked out his more mature philosophy, but did not publish.
Wittgenstein wrote in a series of painstakingly edited notebooks. He would constantly revise, cut, and edit, going through more than a dozen drafts before he arrived in 1945 at what is now published as the first part of the Philosophical Investigations. The same process went into the formation of Part II of the work, though it never reached a state that Wittgenstein felt was ready for publication. Wittgenstein insisted that his work not be published until after his death; he succumbed to cancer in 1951, and the Investigations were published in 1953. Following their publication, a number of writings culled from Wittgenstein's notebooks or from lecture notes taken by his students at Cambridge were also made public. These include the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, On Certainty, three volumes on the philosophy of psychology, and The Blue and Brown Books, which collect a series of lectures he dictated in the early 1930's.
The Philosophical Investigations were completed and then published in a Europe that was just emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. A general sense of malaise pervaded Western Europe as it slowly set about rebuilding and coming to terms with the scale of destruction that had been wreaked. At the same time, the Soviet Union had cemented its hold on Eastern Europe, had developed the nuclear bomb, and was rapidly working toward launching rockets into space. People feared that Europe would be dominated by communism.
This malaise and reconstruction was reflected not only in politics, but also in the arts and letters. The holocaust and the devastation of the war had soundly demolished the 19th century myth of evolution and progress. In a world that made increasingly little sense to the people in it, narratives meant to explain and justify the course of history or the arts on a grand scale no longer seemed plausible.
There is no straightforward definition of postmodernism, but Wittgenstein's piecemeal approach of language-games, his critique of the notion of ultimate grounds of justification, and his mistrust of general statements about the world or the meanings of words may be seen as characteristic of postmodern thought.
One of the remarkable aspects of Wittgenstein's later philosophy is that it does not build in any clear way upon the thought of earlier thinkers. We can trace a connection back to his own earlier work in the Tractatus, and identify many similarities between his earlier and later thought, but it might be more interesting first to remark on the way in which his later thought detaches itself from its surrounding philosophical context.
Throughout his later works, Wittgenstein rarely alludes to the ideas of others. When he does, he rarely does so in order to identify a position that he then argues against. Wittgenstein is not interested in entering into dialogue with other philosophers because he sees the enterprise of philosophy as generally misguided. His method in his later work is to identify impulses toward philosophical thinking rather than develop well-formed philosophical theories. His reason for doing this is to help us recognize these impulses as flawed in such a way that no further refinement will improve upon them. He believes that complex philosophical theories are simply elaborations on initially misguided impulses. If Wittgenstein were simply to disagree with a particular philosophical position and argue against it, he would be participating in the same fundamental errors as his opponents. Wittgenstein's method is to lead us out of philosophical thought by questioning the basic assumptions that lead us into philosophical thought. These impulses are as present in Plato or Aristotle as they are in Russell, Frege, or any of Wittgenstein's contemporaries. Thus, he is less arguing with particular philosophers and more arguing with philosophy as a whole.
Wittgenstein's early thought was deeply influenced by Frege and Russell, as well as by the mystical outlook of Schopenhauer. Frege's and Russell's influence led the Tractatus to deal heavily with questions of logic and of how language connects with the world. One of the major, lasting effects of Frege's and Russell's analytic philosophy is a deeper focus on language within philosophy. These thinkers came to identify the analysis of language as the proper subject matter of philosophy. They believed that if we could unravel how it is that words have meaning we could unravel philosophical problems. In this respect, they were markedly anti-metaphysical, seeing the solution to questions regarding the nature of the soul, the self, and the world as being solved not through rational speculation but through properly analyzing the language in which these questions are framed.
Wittgenstein inherits this linguistic outlook, refining it to argue that philosophical problems arise primarily out of a misunderstanding of grammar. This conviction is present also in the Tractatus, but Wittgenstein's later philosophy differs from his work in this book largely due to his abandonment of logic as a tool for sorting out the relationship between language and the world. Logical analysis relies on a fixed symbolism that assumes that words and sentences can have fixed meanings. Wittgenstein increasingly came to recognize that logic acted less like a tool and more like a straightjacket, by deluding us into thinking of words as fixed symbols that could be manipulated according to a mathematical calculus.
In abandoning logic, Wittgenstein abandons one of the primary tools of analytic philosophy, thus breaking with the tradition established by Frege and Russell. Nonetheless, Wittgenstein's emphasis on the significance of language is inherited from these predecessors.
Wittgenstein is also deeply concerned with the growing field of psychology. William James, one of the pioneers of modern psychology, receives as much mention by name as any other thinker in the Investigations. Psychology was being established as a scientific field with its own experimental method, and any failures of psychological methodology were passed off as the growing pains of a science in its infancy. The Investigations deal at length with the fear that psychology is on the wrong track altogether because its fundamental ideas contain deep philosophical confusion.
Another strain we can detect in the Investigations is an interest in the ultimate grounds of justification. If one proposition can only be justified by a second, more certain proposition, how can we find propositions that are themselves absolutely certain and thus not needing justification? Logical positivism in particular sought to distinguish sharply between synthetic and analytic propositions, the former stating facts and the latter outlining the rules or linguistic framework in which synthetic propositions could be justified. Wittgenstein addresses logical positivism as much as anything else when he criticizes the idea that there must be an ultimate ground of justification.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!