Ludwig Wittgenstein


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), the Austrian-British philosopher, is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. His thoughts and views brought revolutionary changes in the philosophical scenario not only once but twice, as he himself went through two philosophical phases of his life. The first phase being culminated in his masterpiece Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which also earned him his doctorate, and the second being marked by his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 in Austria in a family of Jewish descent. But he was baptized as a Roman Catholic and was given a Roman Catholic burial by his friends upon his death. Wittgenstein had initially decided to pursue a career in aeronautical engineering but engineering led him to an interest in mathematics, which in turn showed him the path to fundamental philosophical questions regarding mathematics and logic. He visited the mathematician Gottlob Frege and at his advice began to study with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. He was deeply influenced by Russell, and Wittgenstein in turn influenced Russell. Russell was at that time becoming more interested in social, political and religious issues, and saw in Wittgenstein a successor who would carry on his work in analytical philosophy. Although Wittgenstein was in the company of most shinning academics at Cambridge, he felt the need of solitude for philosophical reflection. So in 1913 he retreated to a remote village in Norway, and devoted himself with full concentration on his philosophy. During the First World War, Wittgenstein fought in the war and also wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Russell wrote an introduction to the book and claimed that the book "certainly deserves ... to be considered an important event in the philosophical world." Interestingly, however, Wittgenstein was very unsatisfied with the introduction that Russell had written and thought that it contained fundamental misunderstandings of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein believed that by treating philosophical issues as problems of language, he has solved all philosophical problems in Tractatus and there was nothing left for philosophers to do. True to his conviction, Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy for nearly a decade, first working as a school teacher and then as a gardener’s assistant. Later he was contacted by Moritz Schlick, who was one of the leading members of the Vienna Circle. The Tractatus had been a great influence on the development of Logical Positivism, and some of the members of Vienna Circle began to meet with Wittgenstein for philosophical discussion. But they failed to make Wittgenstein a part of the Vienna Circle, because Wittgenstein believed that they had fundamentally misunderstood the Tractatus. However, as a result of these discussions, Wittgenstein began to have doubts regarding his earlier work, and returned to Cambridge in 1929. On Russell’s advice he presented the Tractatus as his doctoral thesis. It was examined by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defense, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it." Moore commented in the examiner's report: "In my opinion this is a work of genius; it is, in any case, up to the standards of a degree from Cambridge." Wittgenstein was therefore appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College. During this philosophically fertile period, Wittgenstein published nothing. The notes he delivered to his class were later published as The Blue and Brown Books. G.E. Moore sat in Wittgenstein’s lectures during the early thirties and also published a summary of his notes. After G. E. Moore's resignation in 1939, Wittgenstein, whose philosophical brilliance was beyond doubt and obvious to everyone, was appointed to the chair of Philosophy at Cambridge. In 1945 Wittgenstein prepared the book Philosophical Investigations for publication which contained his changed philosophical views, but withdrew it at the last minute, and it was published only after his death. He died of Prostate cancer in 1951. It is said that his last words before death were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

To understand Wittgenstein, we will first have to understand the philosophical context in which he lived. Since he was deeply influenced by Russell and Frege, many of the issues which Wittgenstein deals with are related to the ideas of these two philosophers. Frege and Russell are beyond doubt the founders of modern analytical philosophy or modern logic, and they believed that logic had a central role to play in philosophy. One of the main themes of Russell’s logical philosophy was that the grammatical structure of a proposition is different from its logical structure, and that many metaphysical problems arise just because of ignoring this division.

Like Russell, the ‘early’ Wittgenstein looked forward to the formation of an ideal, logical language which would be free of the vagueness and errors of the everyday language. In Tractatus, Wittgenstein has shown what such a logical language can and cannot be used to say.

The Tractatus begins with metaphysics: The world is the totality of facts, not of things. What a fact is, we would learn as we move on. So, Wittgenstein believes that the world is made up of facts, and not of objects.

Wittgenstein moves forward using the idea of a picture. A picture is a model of reality. Pictures depict the world. They represent it. To know whether a picture is true or false, we have to compare it with the real world. If the two match, the picture is true. If they don’t, the picture is false. But it is impossible to tell from the picture alone that it is true.

The world consists of facts, and we become aware of these facts by virtue of our thoughts. And these thoughts are a logical picture of the facts. And just like a picture depicts reality, our thoughts are also a depiction of the world.

The question arises: What is thought? Wittgenstein answers: A thought is a proposition with a sense. We become aware of our thoughts only by virtue of the propositions; the sentences which constitute the language we speak. An important point to note here regarding Wittgenstein’s view of language is that Wittgenstein believes that a name means its object. This is the representational view of language. For example, the name ‘table’ means the object ‘table’ which is in front of me at the moment. This point is importance because we will see how Wittgenstein later disagreed with his previous view of language.

So, the world consists of facts, which are pictured in our thoughts, and our thoughts manifest themselves through propositions. The totality of propositions is language. So, the reality, the thoughts and the language share a common structure, which is fully expressible in logical terms. And therefore, an ideal language would be a picture of reality. Just like a picture is true or false in virtue of its relation to reality, a proposition is true or false in virtue of its corresponding to reality. If a proposition corresponds to reality, it is true. If it does not, it is false. The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science.

The nature of the picturing relationship cannot be stated because it is not a fact or an object, it can only be shown. Even though the relation cannot be articulated, it is possible to see it, and it must hold if language is to represent the way the world is.

The language, we find, is made up of Molecular sentences, which can be broken down to simpler Atomic sentence. An atomic sentence cannot be further broken down to a simpler sentence. For example, “Alex is a human” is an atomic sentence. You can’t make any simpler sentence out of it. But “Alex and Jane are going to the cinema” is a molecular sentence. You’ll see on analysis that it is made up of two sentences, “Alex is going to the cinema” and “Jane is going to the cinema.” So, a molecular sentence is made up of atomic sentences and logical connectives. An atomic sentence is always in the subject-predicate form. For example, “James is mortal”. James is the subject, and being mortal is the predicate. The subject, the noun, as we discussed before, refers to a particular object or person in the world, while the predicate is the property associated with that object.

As we mentioned before, the language is a picture of reality. So that means the logical structure of language is also the logical structure of the reality. Therefore, just as language consists of Atomic Sentences, the reality consists of Atomic Facts. For every proper name there is a corresponding entity, and for every predicate there is a corresponding property. So, a fact consists of an object and its property. This is called Logical Atomism.

Only those sentences which upon analysis can be broken down to Atomic sentences are meaningful and make sense. A sentence which does not lead to an atomic sentence upon analysis is simply nonsense because it doesn’t picture any atomic fact. This is because only factual states of affairs, which can be pictured, can be represented by meaningful propositions. Anything else would not represent any factual state of affair, and therefore would be nonsense. And this is where the impact of Tractatus begins to appear, because Wittgenstein believes that most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophy are not false, but nonsensical. Upon analysis, they don’t lead to atomic sentences reflecting atomic facts. Wittgenstein says that most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language. Most of the statements that we find in metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics are nonsensical. They contain propositions which cannot picture anything. This does not mean that anything that cannot be said is insignificant because there are some things, which cannot be said, but which can only be shown, such as the logical form of the world and the pictorial form.

Mathematics and logic are true, but they are senseless, because they are tautologies. They are true by virtue of repeating the same thing in different words. They don’t give any new information about the world. So, even though they are true, they are senseless. Keep the distinction between Senseless and Non-sense. The statements of metaphysics are neither true, nor false, but nonsense. Mathematics is true, but senseless.

So what remains of philosophy now? Wittgenstein believes that philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries. Simply, the purpose of philosophy is analysis.

What about the great questions of life? The questions of meaning? What is meaning of this world? The questions of ethics: What is good? What is bad? There can be no propositions of ethics, since it cannot be formulated in a logical language, and therefore there are also no ethical facts. That means, if this world has any sense, it must lie outside the world. If there are any ethical realities, they are outside the world, and therefore beyond our reach.

In fact, applying Wittgenstein’s own strict standards to his Tractatus, the propositions of Tractatus itself are rendered meaningless. He himself wrote that he who understands him will recognize them as nonsense. Because to say that language pictures facts is to try to give a picture of the pictorial relation which holds between statement and fact, which is erroneous since this pictorial relation shows itself, and what shows itself cannot be said. He called his metaphysics important nonsense which helped one to recognize it as nonsense. (“He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up it.”) And Tractatus ends with the somber (and quite famous) conclusion: What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Later Wittgenstein began to have doubts regarding what he had expressed in Tractatus and therefore returned to Cambridge to work again. He realized that the problem with logical analysis was that it demanded too much precision. A narrow approach such as this could not tackle the varieties of linguistic usage. A variety of grammatical forms may be employed to present the same basic idea. Wittgenstein abandoned the ideal of developing an ideal formal language that would accurately picture the world because he now believed that such a goal was not only impossible to achieve but also completely wrong. The vagueness of everyday language is not to be seen as problem to be solved, but as a factor which contributes to the richness of language.

Wittgenstein believes that words serve different functions, and that people play different ‘language games’. Meaning of a word just is its use. We don’t define words by reference to things but only in the way they are used. It is wrong to attempt to fix the meaning of a particular expression by linking it referentially to things in the world. The link between reality and language is reduced to a special case. “The meaning of a word or phrase or proposition is nothing other than the set of (informal) rules governing the use of the expression in actual life.”[1] Wittgenstein asks his reader to try and define ‘game’. However, there is no definition that can properly explain all the ‘games’ from football to solitaire and chess to the games children play in the grounds. It is not that it is impossible to define ‘game’ but that it has no definition, and more importantly, we don’t need to define it in order to use it successfully in ordinary life. The meaning of a word is just the way it is used. Wittgenstein’s attention also moved to meaningfulness of gestures, questions, orders, greetings, guesses etc, and he catalogued cases in which meaning of a sentence was independent of the precision and determinacy of words.

Language is developed and formed as an attempt to cope with everyday problems, and functions satisfactorily within the context in which it has arisen. The problems arise when language tries to explain something outside its sphere, something for which it had not evolved to describe. There are bound to be complications when language aims to comprehend something beyond the domain of everyday life. We can easily ask, understand and answer the questions like “What time is it?” but when asked, “What is time?” we will find the ordinary language incapable of giving a proper answer. Although it is a perfectly valid question in traditional metaphysics, Wittgenstein shows that it is in fact not a question at all, since it is a question for which there is no answer.

The rules of this everyday language, Wittgenstein maintains, are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false. They are just rules of the language-game a particular society has decided to use to serve their needs.

The purpose of philosophy, therefore, is not to try and answer these questions, but to show that they are not really valid questions. Philosophy is to be thought of as therapy, something by means of which we are to relieve the bewilderment produced by the misuse of language, by showing that questions, which preoccupy the philosophers, are only the result of linguistic confusion.

Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) was another philosopher of analytical tradition, who paid great emphasis on the use and misuse of ordinary language in philosophy, although in a very different way from Wittgenstein. I am describing him here because it is convenient for me to do so.
Ryle is well known for his criticism on Cartesian dualism; he claims that the Cartesian view is guilty of making ‘category mistakes’, that is, the Cartesian has been mislead by systematically misleading expressions. Ryle calls the Cartesian dualism as a philosophy of ‘ghost in the machine’. The Cartesian wrongly assumes that certain words and expressions like “knowing”, “believing”, “inferring” represent the different states of a shadowy entity inside humans called ‘mind’, while these words, in fact, refer to different aspects of behavior. Nicholas Everitt explains, “Realizing that talk about the mind is not talk about a physical entity, the Cartesian concludes that it must be talk about a non-physical entity, failing to realize that it is not talk about an entity of any kind.” [2]Expressions which seem to represent the working of a person’s mind actually refer to different aspects of a person’s behavior. When we say that a painter was painting thoughtfully, we are saying something about the manner in which the painter was painting, not that there was some process called ‘thinking’ going on in his ‘mind’. If we pay attention to the proper usage of these expressions, the Cartesian fallacy will become apparent.


[1] Garth Kemerling, Philosophy Pages,
[2] One Hundred Twentieth- Century Philosophers, entry on Ryle written by Nicholas Everitt, Routledge New York 1998, page 178