Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born into one of the most wealthy families of turn-of-the-century Vienna. His father had made a fortune from engineering enterprises, and the family entertained such artists as Brahms, Mahler, and Gustav 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 quickly led him to an interest in the mathematics that underlie engineering, and then to an interest in the philosophy that underlies mathematics.

On the recommendation of Gottlob Frege, in 1911, Wittgenstein went to study 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 World War I. Wittgenstein signed up with the Austrian army, and constantly requested placement in the most dangerous places, for he had a morbid desire to confront death. During this time, Wittgenstein worked intensively on fundamental problems in the philosophy of logic. He ultimately applied his conclusions to the nature of language, reality, and ethics, among other topics. 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 and given the Latin title Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Before the war ended, however, Wittgenstein was taken prisoner by the Italians. He had to mail his manuscript to Russell from a prisoner-of-war camp.

After the publication of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein felt he had nothing more to contribute to philosophy. He spent the 1920s in a variety of positions, working as a schoolteacher in a small Austrian village, as a gardener, and as an amateur architect. During this time, he still had some connection with the philosophical world, notably in his conversations with Frank Ramsey on Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that gradually led Wittgenstein to recognize that this work was flawed in a number of respects. In the late twenties, Wittgenstein also came into contact with the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, who were greatly inspired by his work on Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Somewhat reluctantly, Wittgenstein accepted a teaching position at Cambridge in 1929 (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuswas 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. Throughout the thirties and early forties, he worked out his more mature philosophy, but did not publish. The Blue and Brown Books are lecture notes dictated to his students, the Blue Book being dictated in 1933–34 and the Brown Book in 1934–35. They are an indication of the direction Wittgenstein's thinking took during these years. Wittgenstein had only three copies of these notes made, and circulated them only among close friends. However, interest in them was such that many further copies were made and circulated. One set of notes were wrapped in blue paper, one set in brown paper, which accounts for the names "Blue Book" and "Brown Book."

The only work Wittgenstein felt was suitable for publication was the first part of the Philosophical Investigations, but he insisted that it not be published until after his death. Wittgenstein succumbed to cancer in 1951, and Philosophical Investigations were published in 1953. Following their publication, a number of posthumous writings culled from Wittgenstein's notebooks or from lecture notes taken by his students at Cambridge were also made public. The Blue and Brown Books were among the first of these writings to be published, in 1958.

Historical Context for Blue and Brown Books

In the 1930s, England was going through a period of unrest and change. The economy was still depressed after the stock market crash of 1929, and government initiatives were largely ineffectual. The League of Nations, meant to ensure world peace after World War I, was beginning to crumble, as aggressive powers such as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to rearm and expand.

In the field of arts and letters, this unrest was reflected in a dissatisfaction with tradition and a search for new means of expression. Many of the great writers of the previous two decades, such as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats, continued to innovate in the novel and poetry, while younger writers such as Dylan Thomas and W. H. Auden rose to prominence.

This spirit of innovation and inventiveness can be seen in Wittgenstein's work. In the Blue and Brown Books, he abandons many of the more rigid doctrines of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and develops not only new solutions, but new methods of approaching age-old philosophical problems.

Both the approach and conclusions of Wittgenstein's later philosophy seem characteristic of postmodernism, which dominated artistic thought after World War II. Particularly characteristic of postmodernism are language games and the mistrust of general statements about the world or the meanings of words. In this respect, Wittgenstein was several decades ahead of his time.

Philosophical Context for Blue and Brown Books

One of the remarkable aspects of Wittgenstein's later philosophy is that it is not clearly influenced by earlier thought or thinkers. We can trace a connection between Wittgenstein's own earlier work in the Tractatus and the Blue and Brown Books, but connections to other philosophers are more difficult to find.

Throughout his later works, Wittgenstein rarely alludes to the ideas of others. When he does, he rarely does so in order to summarize a position that he will then argue against (though occasionally he attacks ideas that are distinctly Russell's). Wittgenstein is not interested in entering into dialogue with other philosophers, because he sees the enterprise of philosophy as generally misguided. He sees complex philosophical theories as elaborations on initially misguided impulses.

Therefore, in his later work he focuses on the impulses toward philosophical thinking in order to show us that these embryonic impulses are so flawed that no further refinement will improve upon them. If Wittgenstein were simply to disagree with a particular philosophical position and argue against it, he would be engaging in the same fundamental errors as his opponents, and arguing on their terms. Wittgenstein's method is to lead us out of traditional philosophical thought by questioning philosophy's basic assumptions. These basic assumptions are as present in Plato or Aristotle as they are in Russell, Frege, or any of Wittgenstein's contemporaries. Thus, Wittgenstein is less arguing with particular philosophers than he is with philosophy as a whole.

Wittgenstein's early thought was deeply influenced by Frege and Russell, and seasoned with a dash of the mystical outlook of Schopenhauer. Because of Frege's and Russell's influence, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicusdeals heavily with questions of logic and of how language connects with the world. Frege and Russell came to identify the analysis of language as the proper subject matter of philosophy, arguing that if we can unravel how it is that words have meaning, we can unravel philosophical problems. This "linguification" of philosophy is one of the major, lasting effects of Frege's and Russell's analytic philosophy. In their theories of linguistics, Frege and Russell were anti-metaphysical. They believed that the solution to questions about the nature of the soul, the self, and the world could be solved not through rational speculation but through properly analyzing the language in which these questions are framed.

Wittgenstein supports this linguistic outlook. Specifically, he argues that philosophical problems arise primarily out of a misunderstanding of grammar. This conviction is present in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which also uses logic as a tool to sort out the relationship between language and the world. In his later work, Wittgenstein abandons the idea that logic should be used to understand language and the world. Logical analysis relies on a symbolism that assumes that words and sentences can have fixed meanings. Wittgenstein increasingly comes to believe that logic was a straightjacket, not a tool, and that it deluded 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.

Though the influence is faint, we can also find traces of the Vienna Circle in the Blue Book, though we find this influence already vanishing in the Brown Book. The Vienna School sharply distinguishes between propositions with content and framework propositions—propositions that define the logical structure within which rational discourse can take place. The idea that we cannot argue fruitfully over framework propositions, but only agree to them as a matter of convention, can perhaps be read into Wittgenstein's discussion of notation in the Blue Book.