Life and His Early writings
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
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
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
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