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Summary Article: Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889–1951) from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Epistemology

Austrian-born philosopher who spent much of his working life at Cambridge.

The self-criticism of thought lacks the appeal of speculation, and critical philosophy has sometimes struck people as an evasion with no right to the title “philosophy”. The impression of irrelevance became much stronger in this century when the direct critique of thought was replaced by a critique of the language expressing the thought. Wittgenstein, the greatest philosopher in this school, once said that the subject on which he worked might be called “one of the heirs of the subject which used to be called ‘philosophy’” (1958, p. 28). However, his writings have seldom been dismissed as irrelevant. He draws the line between the meaningful and the meaningless, but he draws it imaginatively and without the flat repressiveness of Positivism (see LOGICAL POSITIVISM), and he never conveys the feeling that the horizon has contracted. His work has even achieved an unusual popularity among people with no training in philosophy who find that it has something to say to them in spite of the difficulty of its interpretation.

His philosophy falls into two periods separated by an interval during which he turned to other things. Born in Vienna, he studied engineering in Berlin and Manchester, became interested in the foundations of mathematics and from 1911, when he went to Cambridge to work with Russell, until the end of the First World War, in which he served in the Austrian army and was taken prisoner, he developed the theory of language and logic which he published in his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). After that he abandoned philosophy and did not return to it until the end of the 1920s, when he discussed his book with some of the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, became for a short time Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, and continued to elaborate a largely new set of ideas until his death. The first result of his later work was his posthumous Philosophical Investigations (1953), which has been followed by the publication of many volumes of his notes.

His aim in both periods of his philosophy was to determine what language can and cannot do. This is a more radical enterprise than fixing the scope and limits of human knowledge, because knowledge is expressed in sentences, which have to achieve sense before they can achieve truth. He develops his critique of language in two quite different ways in the two periods of his philosophy. In the Tractatus a general theory of language is used to fix the bounds of sense, while in Philosophical Investigations no such theory is offered, and the line between sense and senselessness is drawn not on any general principle but with an eye on the special features of each case that is reviewed. If his first book is like a map with a superimposed grid, his second book is like the diary of a journey recording all the deviations which looked so tempting but would have ended in the morass of senselessness. He himself drew attention to the analogy between this later work and psychotherapy (PI, pp. 47, 91).

The theory that fixes the bounds of sense in the Tractatus assimilates sentences to pictures. A sentence can achieve sense only in one of two ways; either it will picture a fact, or else it will be analysable into further, more basic sentences which picture facts. The sense-giving relation between language and the world is called “picturing” because the words in a basic (elementary) sentence are supposed to stand for objects in the same way that points on the surface of a picture stand for points in physical space. Everything that we can say, and equally everything that we can think, must be a projection of a possible arrangement of objects.

The Picture Theory draws the boundary of sense very tightly around factual sentences, excluding moral, aesthetic and religious discourse. The Tractatus was, therefore, naturally adopted by the philosophers of the Vienna Circle as a model for Logical Positivism. However, it is a work which presents many facets to the world and there is another, more sympathetic way of reading it: the excluded types of discourse are not eliminated, because they are preserved by the very different roles that they play in our lives. The assimilation of their roles to the role of factual discourse is a misunderstanding, whether it is intended to preserve them (as in H. Spencer’s scientific ethics) or to destroy them (as in the writings of Positivists). The Tractatus gives factual language (ordinary and scientific) the central place but resists Scientism.

Consistently with their general interpretation of the Tractatus, the Vienna Circle construed the Picture Theory as an empiricist theory of meaning (see EMPIRICISM) and identified Wittgenstein’s “objects” with sense-data (see SENSE-DATA). But he himself had avoided any such identification. His “objects” were, by definition, simple (i.e. they had no internal structure) and he deduced from the Picture Theory that they must exist at some level of analysis in order to give factual sentences their senses. However, he never claimed to have discovered them or even to know their category, and he never shared Russell’s view (see RUSSELL) that when we acquire factual language, we find that there are words whose meanings we can learn only through acquaintance with the things designated by them and that those things are simple objects (see Russell, 1956, pp. 193–5) (see KNOWLEDGE BY ACQUAINTANCE/BY DESCRIPTION). That was an empirical argument for an empiricist account of the foundations of language, and he neither followed that route nor arrived at that destination.

The Tractatus is a work of rare originality and the history of philosophy shows that such books often produce effects which do not square with their authors’ intentions. Fortunately, in this case we have the journal (Wittgenstein, 1961) which allows us to follow the development of the ideas that went into it, his own, Russell’s and Frege’s (see FREGE). This is a much better guide to its interpretation than the reactions of its early readers. It should be taken as an abstract treatise on language and, though its results affect other disciplines and even the nature of philosophy itself, it is not based on the doctrines of any particular school of philosophy.

Its main achievement is a uniform theory of language which yields an explanation of logical truth. A factual sentence achieves sense by dividing the possibilities exhaustively into two groups, those that would make it true and those that would make it false. A truth of logic does not divide the possibilities but comes out true in all of them. It, therefore, lacks sense and says nothing, but it is not nonsense. It is a self-cancellation of sense, necessarily true because it is a tautology, the limiting case of factual discourse, like the figure o in mathematics.

It was precisely the uniformity of this theory of language that Wittgenstein found unacceptable when he took up philosophy in the late 1920s for the second time. Language takes many forms and even factual discourse does not consist entirely of sentences like “The fork is to the left of the knife”. However, the first thing that he gave up was the idea that this sentence itself needed further analysis into basic sentences mentioning simple objects with no internal structure (see Wittgenstein, 1929; 1975, pp. 105–14, 317). He now conceded that a descriptive word will often get its meaning partly from its place in a system, and he applied this idea to colour-words, arguing that the essential relations between different colours do not indicate that each colour has an internal structure which needs to be taken apart. On the contrary, analysis of our colour-words would only reveal the same pattern – ranges of incompatible properties – recurring at every level, because that is how we carve up the world.

This may look like a small change, a footnote to the Tractatus, but in fact it was the first sign of a revolution in his philosophy. He ceased to believe that the actual structure of our discourse can only be explained as the confused manifestation of a deeper structure, which will be revealed by an analysis yet to be successfully completed. “We make our moves in the realm of the grammar of our ordinary language, and this grammar is already there. Thus we already have everything and need not wait for the future” (1979, p. 183).

Indeed, it may even be the case that the grammar of our ordinary language is created by moves which we ourselves make. If so, the philosophy of language will lead into the philosophy of action. Certainly there is a close connection between the meaning of a word and the applications of it which its users intend to make. There is also an obvious need for people to understand each other’s meanings and that requires agreement in the applications of their words. There are many links between the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind and it is not surprising that the impersonal examination of language in the Tractatus was replaced by a very different, anthropocentric treatment in Philosophical Investigations.

If the logic of our language is created by moves which we ourselves make, various kinds of realism (see REALISM) are threatened. First, the way in which our descriptive language carves up the world will not be forced on us by the natures of things, and the rules for the application of our words, which feel like external constraints, will really come from within us (PI, §§I30–242). That is a concession to nominalism which is, perhaps, readily made. The idea that logical and mathematical necessity are also generated by what we ourselves do is more paradoxical. Yet that is the conclusion of Wittgenstein (1956) and (1976), and here his anthro-pocentrism has carried less conviction. However, paradox is not a sure sign of error and it is possible that what is needed here is a more sophisticated concept of objectivity than Platonism provides (see OBJECTIVITY).

In his later work Wittgenstein brings the great problems of philosophy down to earth and traces them to very ordinary origins. His examination of the concept of following a rule takes him back to a fundamental question about counting things and sorting them into types: “What qualifies as doing the same again?” Of course, an expert would regard this question as extraneous rather than fundamental, and would suggest that we forget it and get on with the subject. But Wittgenstein’s question is not so easily dismissed. It has the naive profundity of questions that children ask when they are first taught a new subject. Such questions remain unanswered without detriment to their learning, but they point the only way to a complete understanding of what is learned (see Wittgenstein, 1974, pp. 381–2).

The philosophy of mind, recessive in the Tractatus, dominates his later work, both because of its connections with meaning and necessity and in its own right. Solipsism (see SOLIPSISM), for example, is important, not, of course, because many philosophers have adopted it but because it may well be the unavoidable consequence of more moderate and, therefore, more popular theories of mind, and it is discussed briefly in the Tractatus and at length in his later writings. His critique of solipsism should be contrasted with Russell’s. Russell argued that the solipsist has overwhelming inductive reasons for believing in the existence of things outside his own mind and of other people like himself observing them (Russell, 1956, pp. 125–74). Wittgenstein’s criticism was the more radical one, that when the solipsist cuts himself off from the external world, he deprives himself of any way of giving sense to his thoughts about his private world (see Tract., 5.6–5.641; PI §§243ff; and Wittgenstein, 1968).

This is his famous private language argument (see PRIVATE LANGUAGE ARGUMENT), which in exegeses of his ideas is often presented as an isolated, self-sufficient refutation of any philosophy with a purely mentalistic basis. In fact, it is part of a more general critique of the kind of intellectualism which assumes that a philosopher can stand in the position of the solipsist and still bring all the resources of his mind to bear on his restricted set of data. But if he really turns his mind back on the physical world, how will he ever have acquired and maintained the concept of himself as a person? Any sentence beginning “I ...” will pose an insoluble problem for his understanding. If the sentence continues “... am in pain,” the understanding of those words is not a purely intellectual achievement for us, because they replace our natural pain-behaviour, but he will not have that resource (see PI, §§244–5). Similarly, our vocabulary for identifying points in local space was not correlated with the facts directly by the intellect working alone, but based on a picture of the world which antedated the advent of language and in which we could already find our way around. Has the philosopher who experimentally adopts the standpoint of the solipsist and so deprives himself of all such resources any right to assume that he can keep meaning safe?

Wittgenstein does not confine himself to showing that the solipsist’s position is untenable, but also offers a diagnosis of the mistakes that led him into it. The first, perhaps the most important, mistake was uncritical scepticism about the physical world. This is dismissed with characteristic brevity in the Tractatus: “Scepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked.” Towards the end of his life he returned to this topic and developed a more detailed and satisfying critique of the sceptic’s voracious doubts. The leading idea of this later treatment was holistic: some statements about the world achieve immunity from doubt not because they are more thoroughly confirmed, but because they provide the framework within which alone other statements can be questioned and confirmed or rejected (see Wittgenstein, 1969).


  • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922); trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961; 2nd edn 1974).
  • Some Remarks on Logical Form,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society supp. vol. 9 (1929), 162-71; reprinted in Essays on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, ed. Beard, R. and Copi, I. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).
  • Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953).
  • Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1956).
  • The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958).
  • Notebooks 1914–1916, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961).
  • Notes for Lectures on “Private Experience” and “Sense Data,” Philosophical Review 77 (1968), 275-320.
  • On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969).
  • Philosophical Grammar, trans. A. Kenny (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974).
  • Philosophical Remarks, trans. R. Hargreaves and R. White (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975).
  • Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, ed. Diamond, C. (Hassocks: Harvester, 1976).
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, trans. J. Schulte and B. McGuinness (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).
  • Hacker, P. M. S.: Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-century Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).
  • Kenny, A.: Wittgenstein (London: Penguin, 1973).
  • McGuinness, B.: Wittgenstein: A Life. Young Ludwig 1889–1921 (London: Duckworth, 1988).
  • Monk, R.: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Cape, 1990).
  • Pears, D. F.: The False Prison, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, 1988).
  • Russell, B.: Logic and Knowledge: Essays 1901–1950, ed. Marsh, R. C. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1956).
  • Stroll, Avrum: Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
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