Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part One

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN (1889 – 1951)

Part One: Early Work

During the War to End all Wars, it would be the self-appointed task of an obscure Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein but bring Kantian philosophy to its logical conclusion. As biographer Edward Kanterian noted in the 2007 book, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein began writing his seminal work two days after he volunteered to serve with the Austrian army. The son of a cultured and wealthy Viennese family, the young man began writing while the European continent was mired in trench warfare and ended his studies in an Italian prison camp. “My work has extended from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world,” he remarked in 1916. The result of Wittgenstein’s wartime work was a book that would change philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein was but one philosopher who was part of an Anglo-American shift to an analytic and pragmatic philosophy, the next stage after positivism and materialism. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Analytic philosophy would be countered by existentialist movements, such as the “vitalism” of Henri Bergson, and the neo-Kantian or Kantian revivals in both Germany and France.

As Bertrand Russell explained in the Introduction to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein used the terms “symbol” and “language” interchangeably, meaning that language is a form of symbolism. The study of language, linguistics, as seen in the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an acceptance of the “Kantian paradigm,” without the transcendental aspects of Kant’s thinking. Yes, the mind structures reality which is expressed through the only available tool: language. Without getting into a debate about the a priori, analytic philosophy is based upon logic or analyzes that which can be deduced only from that which is observed. As Russell explained, Wittgenstein asserted that “Every philosophical proposition is bad grammar…A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions,’ but to make propositions clear.” The result–a statement about reality can be expressed only in language–would be, for Wittgenstein—the end of philosophy itself. Or so he thought, until he changed his mind.

To say that there is only one way to explain the world and that way is language is put aside the question of whether or not we can ever truly experience “reality.” Once that question of “reality” is removed from the dialogue, another question surfaces: the obvious direction of philosophy becomes whether or not we can ever know the world. Given that all we have is words, the epistemological grounds are based upon how we use language: what is appropriate to say or not, what constitutes a meaningful statement and what statements are, according to Wittgenstein, mere metaphysics. For Wittgenstein, “Metaphysics” takes on another meaning. In contrast to Kant, for whom metaphysics had the taint of superstition and mysticism, and in contrast to the materialists, for whom metaphysics was the same as idealism or the transcendental a priori, for Wittgenstein, metaphysics was improperly concerned statements that could not be proved or was about subjects that were inaccessible. Yes, one can talk about magic, but why bother?

Wittgenstein announced that “It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense” in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1918 (published in German in 1921 and in English in 1922). His compilation of philosophical remarks was turned into a treatise and after the Great War, he returned to his mentor, Bertrand Russell at Trinity College and announced he had succeeded in solving all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein opened the Tractatus with Hemingway beautiful writing: “The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of the facts, not of things.The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.” Wittgenstein developed the notion of the proposition, that is, a statement about the world. A proposition can be complex but it can be meaningful only if it can be broken down into smaller components—simpler propositions—that in turn can be broken down into elements that are elementary: names.

The Austrian philosopher was interested in names and in the act of naming or pointing. Names are the terminus of analysis; they are the simple signs of simple objects. “Simple” means, in this context, that the element “named” cannot be defined or talked about and can only be shown (by pointing). These “primitive names” refer to a simple object that can be elucidated by primitive propositions and without these acts of pointing and naming. Without a point of reference, the sentence would be meaningless. “Meaningless” does not mean that the sentence cannot be understood. “Meaningless” means that a sentence without a reference is nonsense. The “mystical” is “thing that cannot be put into words”. Wittgenstein was inspired by reading of a trial in which the lawyers replayed an event using dolls and toys that served both as a point of reference and as a means of re-enactment. From this inspiration, he developed the “Picture Theory,” which Wittgenstein explained as, We picture facts to ourselves…The picture must have something in common with what it depicts. What it has in common is its pictorial form.”

A proposition, like a picture, must have a logical form, for without a logical form, it would be “nothing about the world”. For Wittgenstein, there are three types of expression: tautologies, contradiction, and propositions with sense. The first two say nothing useful or “nothing” while propositions show what they say. We can say nothing about the world as a whole. We can show that language has a relation to the world but we cannot say what the relation is. In the end we are constrained by this finitude: we are imprisoned in language and the world we live in is bounded by this language. Philosophy has been reduced to an activity of displaying the limits of what can be said. As Wittgenstein stated, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Thus ended the Tractatus.

There were years in which the philosopher “retired” from philosophy. The son of a wealthy family, he had given up his inherited wealth in 1913 and, after the War became a school teacher in rural Austria. Coming from a family in which three of the sons had committed suicide, Wittgenstein was ill-suited for such a job and was strict and difficult towards his students—allegedly beating some of the boys—and spent the later years of the twenties designing a severely restrained home, in the manner of Adolf Loos, in Vienna for his sister, Gretl. The house, Wittgenstein’s only architectural work, is an austere and stern masterpiece, one of the great works of modernist architecture.

However, Wittgenstein was disturbed by his own philosophical conclusions laid out so clearly and clearly in the Tractatus, because, however, impeccably logical the philosopher had been, under his analysis much of what people say was declared to be out of bounds of “philosophical investigation.” Fortunately for school children everywhere and unfortunately for architecture, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and mentored a generation of older (and more controllable) college students. It is only at this point, in 1929, did Wittgenstein submit the Tractatus as his dissertation and join the faculty. His biographer, Norman Malcolm, a former students wrote movingly three years after Wittgenstein’s death of his former mentor in Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Life. Malcolm explained that Wittgenstein never wrote down his lectures and spoke entirely extemporaneously as he labored intellectually to move away from his early work to his later thoughts. As Malcolm stated, “It has been said that Wittgenstein inspired two important schools of thought, both of which he repudiated.” For the rest of his life, Wittgenstein published nothing.

In his 1930s lectures to his students at Cambridge, later published as The Blue and the Brown Books, an older Wittgenstein rethought Tractatus. These “books” were these free form lectures written down by his worshiping students and are rare records of philosophical thinking, later formalized into what Malcolm called “the Oxford School” of linguistic philosophy. It was the Blue Book which introduced the new idea of meaning: meaning is in the use; and the Brown Book developed the concept of “language games,” in which words are used in particular ways and are connected through use and “family resemblances.” In other words, words have no fixed and final meaning; and, contrary to Tractatus, there is no link between language and reality. Named after the color of the papers that bound them, the “books,” published in 1958, are repudiations of Wittgenstein’s early work and lead to the publication of more posthumous works which continues his free form discussions of meaning, Philosophical Investigations (1958) and Philosophical Grammar (1969). The next post will discuss the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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