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Ludwig Wittgenstein Biography

It's Christmas! And Christmas means there's plenty of time to read (non-technical) books. Ludwig Wittgenstein by Edward Kanterian (2007) is one of the most highly recommended introductions into the life of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, best known for being a public school teacher in Otherttal writing two of the greatest books on the philosophy of language ever written.

The first one being the Logische Philosophische Abhandlung bettern known as the Tractatus logico-philosophicus. It received the Latin title on the insistence of fellow philosopher G.E. Moore in 1921 [1].

The second one is the Philosophische Untersuchungen (philosophical investigations) which was released in 1953, two years after the author had already died. Moore did not care about this title being Latin, possibly on the account of him having suffered a stroke and his wife not allowing him to talk to Wittgenstein for more than 1 hour at a time [2].

Tractatus logico-philsophicus

If you don't know anything about Wittgenstein, then I want you to know these two things:

  1. Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist. (Roughly: The world is everything that is the case.)
  2. Worüber man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. (Roughly: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.)

Those two statements are the first and last sentence of the Tractatus respectively and describe, in short, pretty well young Wittgenstein's attitude toward most continental philosophy and philosophy in general. "The sole task for future philosophy is to monitor the bounds of sense in order to delimit science from the nonsense of metaphysics, namely by elucidating the hidden logical forms of philosophically problematic sentences." [3]

It is a fiercely complicated book but written in a way that is very appealing to me as a programmer: A ordered list, starting at point 1 and Ending at point 7. However, the content is very tightly packed. Wittgenstein was not a friend of many words. He was attracted to Adolf Loos's and Otto Weininger's idea of minimalism and that every 'ornament is a crime' [4]. He later stated that every proposition in the Tractatus should have been the heading of its own chapter [5]. It is very hard to read and understand without proper guidance or a good commentary on it (still looking for one myself right now).

It took him six years to write the Tractatus.

Personal Life between Tractatus and Investigations

While reading about Wittgenstein it shocked me how often he was met with tragedy. He lost several loved ones who were all at a very young age (David Pinsent being the most important one, probably). He wrote to Russel that he still thought of Pinsent every day and that '[Pinsent] took half [his] life away with him'. He was still haunted by that very late in his life.

In Cambridge, he tried to follow up on the Tractatus by putting its thesis into action. After a long time of trying to do so, he acknowledged that he failed in the only Journal article he ever published [6]. So he tried a new approach in his later life, breaking with many of the axioms he set up in Tractatus. The ultimate results of this labor were the Philosophical Investigations.

Things you might want to know

  • There apparently still is a yearly Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg, the capital of the district he was a school teacher in. Supposedly, quotes from the Tractatus line some of the roads.
  • Even though he was born a Jew, he was a big fan of the gospel. He carried Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief with him at all times during WWI. It is thought that Tolstoy's writing inspired him to try a more mundane, down-to-earth life during his 20s and 30s.
  • He appeared at The Heretics society in Cambridge once, in 1929, where he presented his 'most accessible text' and his only work on Ethics called 'Lectures on Ethics'  [7].
  • What made him an awesome and even terrible person was his integrity, which he did not spare himself or anyone else.
  • One of the most readable introductions to Wittgenstein's thinking is, supposedly, The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy.
  • The Wittgensteins, in order to be spared prosecutions by the Nazis leading up and during WWII, paid 'a staggering 1.7 tons of gold to the Nazi state, no less than 2 percent of Austria's gold reserves at the time' [8].

[1]: Kanterian, Edward. Ludwig Wittgenstein. London: Reaktion Books, 2007, p. 73.
[2]: Ibid., p. 167.
[3]: Ibid., p. 84.
[4]: Ibid., p. 75.
[5]: R. Rhees, ed., Recollections of Wittgenstein. Oxford: 1984, p.159.
[6]: Wittgenstein, Ludwig. "Some remarks on logical form." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 9 (1929): 162-171.
[7]: Wittgenstein, Ludwig. "I: A Lecture on Ethics." The Philosophical Review 74, no. 1 (1965): 3-12. Accessed March 1, 2020. doi:10.2307/2183526.
[8]: Kanterian (2007), p. 150.