Wittgenstein Revisited

By Bertrand Russell, logical positivism, Tractatus, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are some very different interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). I mentioned certain of these in entry no 2. I also stated that the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) did not inspire me, but only interested me. This famous treatise was certainly an influential and significant work.

A key sentence of the Tractatus is well known. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Much depends upon what we really can speak about.

A basic problem looms. There is still no definitive or standard view of what the Tractatus means. Contrasting interpretations of this salient text can evoke irritation. The ambiguity discernible here perhaps underlines Wittgenstein’s own statement, made to his publishers, that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. This paradox is sometimes interpreted in the context of a “metaphysical” dimension which Wittgenstein regarded as being beyond speech.

According to one trend of exegesis, Wittgenstein recognised deficiencies of the Tractatus in his later years. “It was above all [Piero] Sraffa’s acute and forceful criticism that compelled Wittgenstein to abandon his earlier views and set out upon new roads” (G.H. Von Wright, “Biographical Sketch,” in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958; repr. 1980, p. 15).

Another interpretation suggests that he was less discontented with the Tractatus in his mature years than is often believed. The crux here is that Wittgenstein was more dissatisfied with the assumptions that he probed, not with his actual conclusions. The basic confrontation transpired to be with logical positivism. He examined the belief that an entirely empirical language is possible. Adherents of this explanation say the Tractatus proved the proposition about language to be untenable. In this perspective, Wittgenstein had no reason to correct anything in the Tractatus at a later date.

From this angle, his main point of disagreement was with what other philosophers made of the Tractatus, especially the Vienna Circle, who were enthusiastic about this work. Wittgenstein is said to have perceived that Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and others did not fully understand the arguments involved. In this light, the flawed interpretation of the Tractatus, by the Vienna Circle, was the main reason for Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929, likewise his subsequent application to the Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Some investigators have found a problem in Wittgenstein’s “contemplative philosophy.” His form of verbalism avoided “metaphysical” identifications. However, he did at least once express a positive view about the conception of God. There are different commentarial statements about whether he actually believed in God. In theory, he should have remained silent about such beliefs, in accord with his austere discussion of language philosophy as represented in the Tractatus.

The significant memoir by Professor Norman Malcolm states: “Wittgenstein frequently said to me disparaging things about the Tractatus. I am sure, however, that he still regarded it as an important work” (Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, repr. 1980, p. 69).

Malcolm also penetrated the difficult subject of religion in this instance. Wittgenstein told Malcolm that he had been contemptuous of religion in his youth; at about the age of 21, a change occurred in him, when “for the first time he saw the possibility of religion” (ibid., p. 70). Then during his service in the First World War, he was strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s writings on the Gospels (ibid.). He nevertheless produced such an ostensibly “positivist” work as the Tractatus, from which Malcolm cites 6.44: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” Like other aphorisms of Wittgenstein, special interpretation is needed.

Wittgenstein was impatient with declared proofs of the existence of God. He disliked the writings of Cardinal Newman, “but revered the writings of St. Augustine” (Malcolm, op. cit., p. 71). Yet he cannot be called a Christian. The verdict of Malcolm was:

I believe that he looked on religion as a ‘form of life’ (to use an expression from the Investigations) in which he did not participate, but with which he was sympathetic and which greatly interested him. Those who did participate he respected – although here as elsewhere he had contempt for insincerity. I suspect that he regarded religious belief as based on qualities of character and will that he himself did not possess. (Malcolm, Memoir, p. 72)

Wittgenstein has been described as a tortured genius, subject to bouts of depression and suicidal tendency as a consequence of his homosexual disposition. One interpretation is that he was ashamed of the disposition, from which he wanted to escape. He contrasts with the more suave and socialising heterosexual figure of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), his former tutor who became a figurehead of the radical liberalism gaining popularity at the end of Russell’s long life. It is possible to criticise both of these entities for lifestyle problems without denying their intellectual merits.

See further Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990); Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2001).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 11th 2010

ENTRY no. 8

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

By J. P. Stern, Nietzsche, Tractatus, Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of the most celebrated modern philosophers is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He early wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), believing that he had solved all the outstanding problems of philosophy in this compact work. The Tractatus was much favoured by the Vienna Circle, a group of scientists and philosophers who pioneered logical positivism, and who interpreted Wittgenstein in that light. The Vienna Circle emphasised language, in terms of a presiding insistence that the only meaningful statements are those which are empirically verifiable. In other words, what you cannot prove, never state, because such a statement is worthless. Metaphysics, for instance, is out of bounds.

The Vienna Circle survived their diaspora in the face of the Nazi regime. Logical positivism lived on in America and Britain, later  becoming influential. This contingent made a relevant critique of Fascist propaganda; that form of political rhetoric saturated Germany and other countries in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Wittgenstein was born in Austria, coming from a wealthy industrialist family. However, he became a British citizen,  one strongly linked to Cambridge University. When I was a young man (and a resident of Cambridge), the dons would discuss “what Wittgenstein really meant.” There were permutations of this during my temporary employment under Professor J. P. Stern, who enthused about Kant, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche in our conversations. These talks occurred in his book-lined study overlooking a panoramic garden in a select area of Cambridge.

Professor Stern (who taught German at London University) was an expert on Nietzsche. I found great difficulty in conceding the importance of Nietzsche. I also found the Tractatus a rather disconcerting work, though in a different way to Thus Spake Zarathustra. Professor Stern pressed upon me the Tractatus when he grasped that I had an interest in philosophy. He expected me to enthuse over the treatise, like many undergraduates at that time. I was an exception to the fashion. This was in 1973. I never did find the Tractatus inspiring, only interesting; it is generally considered significant in the history of philosophy.

[Wittgenstein had early read Schopenhauer, and believed that the latter was basically correct in his worldview. Wittgenstein persisted in the attitude that ultimate reality was beyond conceptual grasp, and therefore a factor of which nothing can be said. Only the phenomenal world could be described. Various objections have been lodged against this rather inflexible view. However, in the 1970s, the exegesis of Wittgenstein was still in the ascendant at places like Cambridge].

Wittgenstein himself demonstrated a dissatisfaction with the Tractatus at a later phase of his career. By then he knew that he had not solved all the problems of philosophy. The Tractatus had been influenced by theories of the mathematician Gottlob Frege and the author’s own tutor Bertrand Russell. Critics say that the Tractatus is ambiguous and contradictory; they even urge that Wittgenstein’s version of logic made nonsense of his own propositions. He maintained that philosophical problems arose from a failure to understand the logic of language.

Amongst the academic philosophers, Wittgenstein is the one who came closest to being a citizen philosopher. In 1912 he became an undergraduate at Cambridge, but reacted to the example of his tutor Bertrand Russell, who at this time authored The Problems of Philosophy (1912).

“ ‘How few there are who do not lose their own soul,’ remarked Wittgenstein one day. Russell felt obliged to tell Wittgenstein that he would not get his degree unless he learnt to write ‘imperfect things,’ a constraint which incurred the junior’s displeasure.” (Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, Cambridge 1991, p. 149)

Neglecting the degree, Wittgenstein moved back to the Continent. At this time he became a rich man, gaining the fortune of his deceased father, an industrialist tycoon. Yet he retired to Norway, building himself an isolated hut near Skjolden, his intention being to live in complete seclusion. The First World War changed his plans; he then volunteered to join the Austrian army. After the war, he became a schoolmaster, teaching in various remote villages in Austria. He subsequently became a gardener and an architect.

Two of his friends criticised the emerging Tractatus. Wittgenstein is said to have abandoned his earlier views. In 1929 he returned to Cambridge, quickly acquiring a Ph.D. (on the basis of the Tractatus) after his lengthy absence of sixteen years in obscurity. He thereafter did much writing, but without publishing the result, apparently because he did not wish to be misunderstood. Dr. Wittgenstein was noted for giving unconventional lectures in a mood of deep concentration.

The advantages of his transition to academic status are not totally convincing. He remained a virtual alien within academic life; his aversion to appearing in the college dining room is a well known detail. He regarded all the talking as superficial. He frequently visited the local cinema in an effort to suspend his prolonged concentration on philosophy; he could appear quite desperate not to be distracted while watching the film. During the 1930s he escaped for nearly a year to his distant hut in Norway. In 1947 he ceased to lecture at Cambridge, instead moving to Ireland, where for a time he lived alone in a hut beside the sea in Galway (for a partisan account, see Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958).

Some critics have said that Wittgenstein was idiosyncratic, suicidal, and homosexual. He certainly possessed a strong personality; he was apparently an exacting schoolteacher in the 1920s. “His sexuality was ambiguous but he was probably gay; how actively so is still a matter of controversy.” See D. J. Richter, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

After his death, many of his writings surfaced in print. The most famous of these later works became his Philosophical Investigations (1953). Wittgenstein was here committed to what is known as linguistic philosophy. He emphasised language as a tool, and introduced the concept of “language game.” A number of differing interpretations of his ambiguous output have emerged. Critics say that his treatment of philosophy as language can be considered more of a philosophical problem than a solution.

The meaning of life remains a mystery to much contemporary philosophical language. Wittgenstein failed to describe his own notable striving for experiential equipoise. The new language philosophy did not describe, for instance, the hut in Norway or his recurring thought of entering a monastery. His frustration with artificial surface discourse is evident. He is unusual in this respect.

The intrinsic struggle to penetrate “philosophical problems” is a feature of mind rather than language. This appears to be confirmed by what Rudolf Carnap described as “an act of inspiration,” referring to the manner in which Wittgenstein communicated:

When he started to formulate his view on some specific problem, we often felt the internal struggle that occurred in him at that very moment, a struggle by which he tried to penetrate from darkness to light under an intensive and powerful strain, which was even visible on his most expressive face. (Carnaps Meets Wittgenstein)

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 17th 2009  (modified 2020)

ENTRY no. 2

Copyright © 2020 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.