Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
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Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889-1951), Austrian-British philosopher, who was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, particularly noted for his contribution to the movement known as analytic and linguistic philosophy.


Born in Vienna on April 26, 1889, Wittgenstein was raised in a wealthy and cultured family. After attending schools in Linz and Berlin, he went to England to study engineering at the University of Manchester. His interest in pure mathematics led him to Trinity College, University of Cambridge, to study with Bertrand Russell. There he turned his attention to philosophy. By 1918 Wittgenstein had completed his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921; trans. 1922), a work he then believed provided the "final solution" to philosophical problems. Subsequently, he turned from philosophy and for several years taught elementary school in an Austrian village. In 1929 he returned to Cambridge to resume his work in philosophy and was appointed to the faculty of Trinity College. Soon he began to reject certain conclusions of the Tractatus and to develop the position reflected in his Philosophical Investigations (pub. posthumously 1953; trans. 1953). Wittgenstein retired in 1947; he died in Cambridge on April 29, 1951. A sensitive, intense man who often sought solitude and was frequently depressed, Wittgenstein abhorred pretense and was noted for his simple style of life and dress. The philosopher was forceful and confident in personality, however, and he exerted considerable influence on those with whom he came in contact.


Wittgenstein's philosophical life may be divided into two distinct phases: an early period, represented by the Tractatus, and a later period, represented by the Philosophical Investigations. Throughout most of his life, however, Wittgenstein consistently viewed philosophy as linguistic or conceptual analysis. In the Tractatus he argued that "philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts." In the Philosophical Investigations, however, he maintained that "philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

The Tractatus

Language, Wittgenstein argued in the Tractatus, is composed of complex propositions that can be analyzed into less complex propositions until one arrives at simple or elementary propositions. Correspondingly, the world is composed of complex facts that can be analyzed into less complex facts until one arrives at simple, or atomic, facts. The world is the totality of these facts. According to Wittgenstein's picture theory of meaning, it is the nature of elementary propositions logically to picture atomic facts, or "states of affairs." He claimed that the nature of language required elementary propositions, and his theory of meaning required that there be atomic facts pictured by the elementary propositions. On this analysis, only propositions that picture facts—the propositions of science—are considered cognitively meaningful. Metaphysical and ethical statements are not meaningful assertions. The logical positivists associated with the Vienna Circle were greatly influenced by this conclusion (see Positivism).

Philosophical Investigations

Wittgenstein came to believe, however, that the narrow view of language reflected in the Tractatus was mistaken. In the Philosophical Investigations he argued that if one actually looks to see how language is used, the variety of linguistic usage becomes clear. Words are like tools, and just as tools serve different functions, so linguistic expressions serve many functions. Although some propositions are used to picture facts, others are used to command, question, pray, thank, curse, and so on. This recognition of linguistic flexibility and variety led to Wittgenstein's concept of a language game and to the conclusion that people play different language games. The scientist, for example, is involved in a different language game than the theologian. Moreover, the meaning of a proposition must be understood in terms of its context, that is, in terms of the rules of the game of which that proposition is a part. The key to the resolution of philosophical puzzles is the therapeutic process of examining and describing language in use.

Additional works of Wittgenstein, all posthumously published, include Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), The Blue and Brown Books (1958), and Notebooks 1914-1916 (1961).

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