Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ludwig Wittgenstein


One of the most celebrated modern philosophers is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He early wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), and believed that he had solved all the outstanding problems of philosophy in this compact work. The Tractatus was much favoured by the Vienna Circle, a group of scientists and philosophers who pioneered logical positivism, and who interpreted Wittgenstein in that light. The Vienna Circle emphasised language, and in terms of the presiding insistence that the only meaningful statements are those which are empirically verifiable. In other words, what you cannot prove, never state, because such a statement is worthless. Metaphysics, for instance, is out of bounds.

The Vienna Circle survived their diaspora in the face of the Nazi regime. Logical positivism lived on in America and Britain, and became influential. This contingent made a relevant critique of Fascist propaganda; that form of political rhetoric saturated Germany and other countries in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Wittgenstein was born in Austria, but became a British citizen, and one strongly linked to Cambridge University. When I was a young man (and a resident of Cambridge), the dons would discuss “what Wittgenstein really meant.” There were permutations of this during my temporary employment under Professor J. P. Stern, who enthused about Kant, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche in our conversations, which occurred in his book-lined study overlooking a panoramic garden in a select area of Cambridge.

Professor Stern (who taught German at London University) was an expert on Nietzsche. I found great difficulty in conceding the importance of Nietszche. I also found the Tractatus a rather disconcerting work, though in a different way to Thus Spake Zarathustra. Professor Stern pressed upon me the Tractatus when he grasped that I had an interest in philosophy. He expected me to enthuse over the treatise, like many undergraduates at that time. I was an exception to the fashion. This was in 1973. I never did find the Tractatus inspiring, only interesting; it is generally considered significant in the history of philosophy.

[Wittgenstein had early read Schopenhauer, and believed that the latter was basically correct in his worldview. Wittgenstein persisted in the attitude that ultimate reality was beyond conceptual grasp, and therefore a factor of which nothing can be said. Only the phenomenal world could be described. Various objections have been lodged against this rather inflexible view, though in the 1970s, the exegesis of Wittgenstein was still in the ascendant at places like Cambridge].

Wittgenstein himself demonstrated a dissatisfaction with the Tractatus at a later phase of his career. By then he knew that he had not solved all the problems of philosophy. The Tractatus had been influenced by theories of the mathematician Gottlob Frege and his own tutor Bertrand Russell. Critics say that the Tractatus is ambiguous and contradictory, and even that Wittgenstein’s version of logic made nonsense of his own propositions. He urged that philosophical problems arose from a failure to understand the logic of language.

Amongst the academic philosophers, Wittgenstein is the one who came closest to being a citizen philosopher. In 1912 he became an undergraduate at Cambridge, but he reacted to the example of his tutor Bertrand Russell, who at this time authored The Problems of Philosophy (1912).


“ ‘How few there are who do not lose their own soul,’ remarked Wittgenstein one day. Russell felt obliged to tell Wittgenstein that he would not get his degree unless he learnt to write ‘imperfect things,’ a constraint which incurred the junior’s displeasure.” (Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, Cambridge 1991, p. 149).

Neglecting the degree, Wittgenstein moved back to the Continent. At this time he became a rich man, gaining the fortune of his deceased father, an industrialist tycoon. Yet he retired to Norway, building himself an isolated hut near Skjolden, his intention being to live in complete seclusion. The First World War changed his plans, and he volunteered to join the Austrian army. After the war, he became a schoolmaster, teaching in various remote villages in Austria. He subsequently became a gardener and an architect.

Two of his friends criticised the Tractatus, and Wittgenstein is said to have abandoned his earlier views. In 1929 he returned to Cambridge, quickly acquiring a Ph.D. (on the basis of the Tractatus) after his lengthy absence of sixteen years in obscurity. He thereafter did much writing, but without publishing it, apparently because he did not wish to be misunderstood. Dr. Wittgenstein was noted for giving unconventional lectures in a mood of deep concentration.

The advantages of his transition to academic status are not totally convincing. He remained a virtual alien within academic life, and his aversion to appearing in the college dining room is a well known detail. He regarded all the talking as superficial. He frequently visited the local cinema in an effort to suspend his prolonged concentration on philosophy; he could appear quite desperate not to be distracted while watching the film. During the 1930s he escaped for nearly a year to his distant hut in Norway. In 1947 he ceased to lecture at Cambridge, and moved to Ireland, where for a time he lived alone in a hut beside the sea in Galway. (For a partisan account, see Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958.)

Though he exhibited certain unusual characteristics, some critics have said that Wittgenstein was idiosyncratic, suicidal, and homosexual. He certainly possessed a strong personality, and he was apparently an exacting schoolteacher in the 1920s. “His sexuality was ambiguous but he was probably gay; how actively so is still a matter of controversy.” See D. J. Richter, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

After his death, many of his writings surfaced in print. The most famous of these later works became his Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein was here committed to what is known as linguistic philosophy. He emphasised language as a tool, and introduced the concept of “language game.” His treatment of philosophy as language can be considered more of a philosophical problem than a solution.

The meaning of life remains a mystery to much contemporary philosophical language. Wittgenstein failed to describe his own notable striving for experiential equipoise. The new language philosophy did not describe, e.g., the hut in Norway or his recurring thought of entering a monastery. The intrinsic struggle to penetrate “philosophical problems” and the artificiality of surface discourse eluded his mode of language tool.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 17th 2009

ENTRY no. 2

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