Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Ludwig Joseph Johann Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was a Austrian and English philosopher. In his life he only published one work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was very influential amongst the logical positivists, also known as logical empiricists, but which was later critequed by Wittgenstein himself, in the unpublished [Blue and Brown Books] and in his final unpublished work Philosophical Investigations. He was an alumnus of the University of Cambridge/Trinity College. Wittgenstein communicated with the finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, who succeeded Wittgenstein as professor at University of Cambridge in England.

Short Biography

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born on April 26th 1889 in Vienna. His Jewish grandparents of his father's side had, after they had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, moved from Saxony in Germany to Vienna, where Ludwig's father, Karl Wittgenstein, gained wealth and esteem as one of the leading bussinessmen in the iron and steel industry in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ludwig's mother, Leopoldine (née Kalmus) was a Catholic, but her father was also of Jewish descent. After his birth Ludwig was baptized in a Catholic church (and when he died he would be given a Catholic burial although he never was a practicing nor a believing Catholic).

Ludwig grew up as the youngest of eight children in a family that provided an intellectually and a artistically stimulating environment. Ludwig's parents were both very musical and all their children were both artistically and intellectually gifted. Moreover the Wittgenstein's house attracted many people of culture, especially musicians. The family was often visited by artists such as Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. All his life music would would remain important to Ludwig and he used many musical examples in his philosophical writings. Another less fortunate inheritance would be his suicidal tendencies; three of his four brothers committed suicide.

Until 1903 Ludwig was educated at home but after that he began three years of schooling at a school which specialized in mathematics and natural science. In 1906 Ludwig took up studying mechanical engineering in Berlin. In 1908 he went to the University of Manchester to study for his doctorate in engineering. For this purpose he registered as a research student in an engineering laboratory. There he did research on the behavior of kites in the upper atmosphere of the earth. From that he moved to aeronautical research on the design of a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades. He succesfully designed and tested it.

For his research Wittgenstein needed to study more mathematics than he knew and he became interested in the foundations of mathematics. Especially after he had read Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics (the predecessor of Principia Mathematica).

In 1912 he went to the University of Cambridge and studied there with Bertrand Russell. There he made a great impression on Russell and G. E. Moore and started to work on the foundations of logic and mathematical logic. In this period he had three big interests: philosophy, music and travelling.

Wittgenstein inherited in 1913 a great fortune when his father died. Because he felt that the discussions he had with other academics lacked depth he retreated in the same year to a life of solitude in a mountain cabin in Skjolden in Norway. This turned out to be a very productive period where he developed his ideas on logic and language that would provide the basis for the Tractatus.

The outbreak of World War I in the next year took him completely by surprise as he was living a secluded life at the time. He volunteered for the Austria-Hungarian army. He first served in a ship and then in an artillery workshop. In 1916 he was sent as a member of a howitzer regiment to the Russian front where he won several medals for bravery.

During the war Wittgenstein wrote his philosophical contemplations in his notebooks that he kept with him. At the end of the war in 1918 he was sent to north Italy in an artillery regiment and there he became a prisoner of the Italians. When he was taken prisoner they found a ready manuscript of the Tractatus in his rucksack. He was allowed to send it (with help from John Maynard Keynes) from his prison camp in Italy to Bertrand Russell in Cambridge. Despite Russell's efforts it was not published until 1921 and then only in German and in Wilhelm Ostwald's journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie. A year later it would be published as a book in a bilingual (English and German) edition under the Latin title that it is now famous under. Of the original notebooks only the three remain that were published in 1961.

When Wittgenstein was released in 1919 he donated a large part of the family fortune that he had inherited when his father had died, to Austrian artists and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl and the rest was given by him to his sisters. Because in his own opinion Wittgenstein had now solved all problems of philosophy, he retired and returned to Austria to be trained as as a primary school teacher. He was educated in the methods of the Austrain School Reform Movement which advocated the stimulation of the natural curiosity of children and their development as independent thinkers, instead of just letting them memorize facts. Wittgenstein was very enthusiastic about these ideas but ran into problems when he was appointed as a elementary teacher in a small village in rural Austria. Although the children seemed to appreciate him, he had a long series of disagreements with the children's parents and his colleagues. During this period Wittgenstein was very unhappy and came on a few occasions close to committing suicide. In 1925 he gave up his job as a teacher with the feeling that he had failed miserably as a primary school teacher.

After that he worked as a gardener's assistent in a monastery near Vienna. In the period 1926-28 he would work on the design and construction of a mansion house near Vienna for his sister Margaret ("Gretl") Stoneborough. At the end of this period Moritz Schlick brought him in contact with the Vienna Circle. He accepted the invitation but only on the precondition that they would not criticize any of his philosphical positions.

During this whole period that Wittgenstein was away from university he was not completely isolated from the study of the foundations of mathematics and philosphy. On several occasions he met Frank P. Ramsey who was making a special study of the Tractatus and had travelled several times from Cambridge to Austria to meet with Wittgenstein and also with philosophers of the Vienna circle. As Wittgenstein later admitted, these discussions showed him that there might be some "grave mistakes" in his work presented in the Tractatus.

In 1929 he decided to return to Cambridge. There Russell urged him to offer the Tractatus as a doctorate thesis, which he did. Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College. He was appointed to the chair in Philosophy at Cambridge in 1939. Apart from a period in World War II when he volunteered as a hospital porter in Guy's hospital in London and a laboratory assistant in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, he would teach there until 1947 when he resigned to concentrate on his writing.

Much of this was done in the rural isolation that was so much preferred by him, on the west coast of Ireland. By 1949, when he was diagnosed as having prostate cancer, he had written most of the material that would be published after his death as Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) which arguably contains his most important work. The last two years of his life were spent by him working in Vienna, Oxford and Cambridge. His work from this period has been published as On Certainty. He died in Cambridge in April 1951. His last words were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

Important Publications

  • Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, Annalen der Naturphilosophie, 14 (1921)
    • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by C.K. Ogden (1922)
  • Philosophische Untersuchungen (1953)
    • Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (1953)
  • Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik, ed. by G.H. von Wright, R. Rhees, and G.E.M. Anscombe (1956) (a selection from his writings on the philosophy of logic and mathematics between 1937 and 1944)
    • Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe, rev. ed. (1978)
  • The Blue and Brown Books (1958) (Notes dictated in English to Cambridge students in 1933-35)
  • Philosophische Bemerkungen, ed. by Rush Rhees (1964)
    • Philosophical Remarks (1975)

Further reading