PHIL 2060  Wittgenstein

Lecture 1:Wittgenstein’s Life and His Early writings

1. Biography.  As Gordon Baker points out in his Frege, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, it is rash to offer an interpretation of a philosopher's writings without a thorough appreciation of that writer's intellectual and cultural milieu.  We must avoid the temptation of `reading back' into those writings our own philosophical preconceptions and our own perspective which has been shaped by developments subsequent to his work.  The definitive biography of Wittgenstein is being written by Brian McGuinness; vol. 1 (Wittgenstein: A Life, Young Ludwig, 1889-1921) has now appeared, and there is also a highly readable biography by Ray Monk.  Also useful is A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein's Vienna which gives us a feel for the intellectual atmosphere in which Wittgenstein grew up, and W.W. Bartley III, Wittgenstein which contains a rather controversial account of Wittgenstein's sexuality and of that period of his life when he was a schoolteacher in the small village of Trattenbach in Lower Austria.

1.          Influences:  The German tradition, especially Kant and Schopenhauer.  In his This Complicated Form of Life, p.xiv, Newton Garver claims that `Wittgenstein's later work solves the Kantian problem that his earlier work stumbled over'.  Other German influences are Herz (symbolization as the picturing of external objects, and the provenance of illegitimate questions), Bolzmann (mechanical models as analogies for physical behaviour).  Bolzano is not mentioned.  Note that in the Preface to Tractatus, Wittgenstein says that `what I have written here makes no claim to novelty in detail, and the reason why I give no sources is that it is a matter of indifference to me whether the thoughts that I have had have been anticipated by someone else.  He does, however mention that he is `indebted to Frege's great works and to the writings of my friend Mr. Bertrand Russell'.

2.       The beginning of Wittgenstein's later period is marked by The Blue and Brown Books, dictated to members of his Cambridge class, 1933-4.  A version of what is now Philosophical Investigations §§ 1-189 was completed in 1937 or 1938; the final TS version was complete by 1946 or 1947, but the published version includes modifications that were made right up to 1950.  For the history of the composition of Philosophical Investigations from its MS sources, see G.H. von Wright, `The Origin and Composition of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations' in C.G. Luckhardt (ed.), Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives, revised and repr. in von Wright's Wittgenstein (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

3.       A reading of Philosophical Investigations won't make any sense at all without some preliminary intercourse with the Tractatus.  Why?  Because Philosophical Investigations is in large part a reaction against the preconceptions that informed Wittgenstein's earlier philosophy. `[The new thoughts] could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking' (Philosophical Investigations Preface, p.viii).  There are several explicit critical references to the Tractatus in Philosophical Investigations and in Wittgenstein's other late writings.  In his book Nothing is Hidden (subtitled, `Wittgenstein's Criticism of his Early Thought'), Norman Malcolm rightly says (p.viii) that in Wittgenstein's later period there is a `massive attack' on the principal ideas of the Tractatus.  He lists fifteen positions that are taken in the Tractatus and rejected in Wittgenstein's later writings.  See also the voluminous works of Baker and Hacker, including Hacker's Epilogue to the Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations.).

4.       The only book that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, commonly known just as the Tractatus.  It was finished before he was 30 years old, and developed from notes that he had been writing since the age of 18.  Before the first world war, he had left the stifling atmosphere of Cambridge University, and had gone to Bergen in Norway where he lived alone in a secluded hut at the mouth of a fjord.  By this time (1913) he was already recognized as a genius, and the great philosopher G.E. Moore visited him and took notes on his thoughts.  Much of the Tractatus was composed while Wittgenstein was on active duty during the war.

5.  What one encounters, immediately after the `Contents' page of the Tractatus is an `Introduction' by Russell.  When the Tractatus was first offered for publication, it was regarded as so obscure that publishers were unwilling to risk investing in it.  Only through the inclusion of Russell's Introduction did the book get published.  Wittgenstein thought that Russell had badly misunderstood the work.  Next comes a dedication to David Pinsent, followed by the author's Preface, a curious mix of arrogance and false modesty.  Wittgenstein says that the `whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence'.  If so little constitutes the `whole sense' of the book, it wouldn't be much of a read.  Charitably, one might interpret Wittgenstein here as protesing against some of the far-from-clear philosophy that had been written in the previous century.  (In a letter to Ludwig von Ficker of October 1919 (see Schulte, p. 41) he says that there is no `gassing' in the Tractatus) He continues with some humble words about the limitations of the work and of his own intellectual powers, but his final paragraph begins: `On the other hand, the truth of the thoughts that are here set forth seems to me unassailable and definitive.  I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems.'  This is vanity unbounded.

6.       When one comes to the text proper, one is immediately struck by the style of the writing.  There are a series of oracular aphorisms, each with a decimal number attached.  These propositions have a certain austere beauty.  The writing is spare, with no ornamentation.  It is inspiring.  An extremely intelligent girl I once knew would recite sections of the Tractatus to her boyfriend before they retired to bed.  Elizabeth Lutyens set the words to music.

7.       In a footnote, Wittgenstein explains the system for numbering the propositions.  If the numeral in the rth place of decimals is `s', then the proposition to which this number is attached is the sth comment on the proposition to which the number attached has just r-1 decimal places.  The seven propositions in the Tractatus which are numbered by the integers 1 -- 7 are those with the greatest `logical importance'.  One unsatisfactory feature of this numbering system is that when a series of comments constitutes an argument, then the number attached to the conclusion will indicate low logical importance.  But that can't be right.  Such propositions as 3.1432 and 4.1272 are of key importance.  They are big.  Joachim Schulte (Wittgenstein, p.39) points out that a paradoxical consequence of the numbering system is that what Wittgenstein himself terms the `fundamental thought' of the Tractatus receives the very undistinguished number 4.0312.

8.       One is also struck by the absence of sustained argument.  Parodying 4.5, we can characterize Wittgenstein as saying `This is how things are', rather than arguing for their being that way.  Sometimes he is able to do this because he simply adopts a position of one of his contemporaries (e.g. Frege on functions 3.318, or Russell on analysis 4.0031) and can presuppose their arguments.  Where he rejects the views of others he rarely spells out why the rejected views are mistaken.  Sometimes he makes a large claim and, instead of arguing for it, he simply elaborates on it or traces out some consequences.  In such cases, the decimal numbering system works well.  Wittgenstein, at this time in his life, thought that to spell out the arguments would be to spoil the beauty of a philosophical work.  He later came to regret that he had composed the Tractatus as a series of `chapter headings’.  In some recent papers, Leo Cheung (Baptist University) has performed the useful service of re-creating what would have been Wittgenstein’s arguments for some of his major claims.

9.       Another notable general feature of the Tractatus is its range.  Here a mathematical proof (6.241), here a remark on God (6.432), on the mystical (6.522), reflections on logic (5.42), the theory of truth-tables (4.42, 5.101), methodological remarks (4.111), ontology (2.027).

10.     The style of the Philosophical Investigations is again distinctive, and quite different from that of the Tractatus.  Although the sections are numbered, most sections are of substantial length.  It is striking how many of the sentences are interrogative.  Sometimes the questions are rhetorical, even schoolmasterly, but frequently Wittgenstein is expressing genuine doubt.  Also, there is a lot of dialogue.

11.     Hacker (Epilogue TS p.171) says that the Philosophical Investigations as a whole stands opposed to the philosophical spirit of the Tractatus, the latter offering a grand vision, the former `a quiet weighing of the linguistic facts' (Zettel §447).  In the Tractatus, so Hacker says (p.172) `[t]he insight into the essential nature of the elementary proposition was held to yield a comprehensive account of the nature of logic, and of the metaphysical structure of the world.  From the essential bipolarity of the proposition all the logical constants and hence all the combinatorial possibilities of propositions flow, and with them all the propositions of logic.  If elementary propositions are given, then at the same time all elementary propositions are given (5.524) and therewith the limits of language and description.  If objects are given, then at the same time we are given all objects (5.524).  If all objects are given, all possible states of affairs are given (2.0124) and therewith all possible worlds ... This sublime vision is shattered by the Investigations'. (See p.173).

12.     What did Wittgenstein think was the central point of the Tractatus?  In a letter to Russell (1919), Wittgenstein says that the main point is the theory of what can be expressed by propositions and what cannot be expressed but only shown.  Garver, op. cit., p.10 says that the main project of the Tractatus is to answer the question `How are Sätze possible?' (Kant's question in the Critique of Pure Reason had been `How are judgments possible?')  It is useful to know that, before adopting the Latin title suggested by G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein had proposed titling his book Der Satz.  Most of the text is related in one way or another to problems about the nature of the Satz.  For example, `What must the world be like if we are able to convey information about it by means of Sätze?'; `What are the constituents of a Satz?'; `What distinguishes a Satz from a non-Satz?'; `Can Sätze be represented by means of a notation so that their inferential relations are transparent?'.

13.       There are various metaphilosophical remarks in the Tractatus (e.g. 4.003, 4.11-4.116, 7).  Here Wittgenstein evinces a concern with the `logic of language' - something that lies hidden beneath the surface of natural languages (Tractatus 4.002).  Example: Russell's analysis of sentences containing definite descriptions (n.b. Tractatus 4.0031).  The Tractatus proposes a theory that makes explicit this alleged logical structure of language, which enables us to distinguish legitimate propositions from nonsense and which shows how language mirrors the world.  This is the picture theory of language.