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Wittgenstein Revisited

By Bertrand Russell, logical positivism, Tractatus, Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1947

There are some very different interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) was an influential work receiving much commentary over the years. 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.

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. While one version tends to interpret him as a sceptic, others find in him a strong religious streak of a nonconformist complexion.

“The idea that philosophy is not a doctrine, and hence should not be approached dogmatically, is one of the most important insights of the Tractatus” (Anat Biletzki, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). However, by 1931, the author was referring to his Tractatus as “dogmatic” (ibid).

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” (Von Wright 1958:15).

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 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 that the Tractatus proved the positivist proposition about language to be untenable.

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 version, 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).

Wittgenstein wrote as though philosophy, prior to his time, amounted to a hopeless confusion. The traditional “problems of philosophy” were mere pseudo-problems arising from a lack of attention to the employment of language. How we use language is here the denominator. Language gains a monumental significance for Wittgenstein. “The limits of language are the limits of my world.” He restricted attention to the “language games,” a straitjacket which is not inevitable outside his worldview. 

Some commentators explain the situation by claiming that Wittgenstein transited from logic to ordinary language in his rejection of dogmatism. He preferred an aphoristic style of composition to anything systematic. 

Investigators have found a contradiction in Wittgenstein’s  so-called “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 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 1958:69).

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: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 1958:71). However, 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 (Monk 1990). 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. Both of these entities can be criticised for lifestyle problems without denying their intellectual merits.

To his credit, Wittgenstein evidently believed that philosophy is useless unless facilitating a morally superior lifestyle. To him, the routine profession of philosophy amounted to a “living death.” This perspective contradicts the status profile frequently awarded that profession elsewhere. His reaction to British Empire academic philosophy is memorable. He exhorted his students to apply themselves to a practical pursuit, such as medicine or manual labour, implying this to be the  best resort if they were serious about philosophy. 


Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1958).

McGuinness, Brian, ed., Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995; second edn, 2008).

McNally, Thomas, Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Language: The Legacy of the Philosophical Investigations (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990).

——–Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000).

Oskari, Kuusela, and Marie McGinn, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Sullivan, Peter, and Michael Potter, eds., Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: History and Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Von Wright, G. H., “Biographical Sketch,” in Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1958).

Von Wright, G. H.,  and Friedrich Waismann, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1961).

——–Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 11th 2010, modified 2021

ENTRY no. 8

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1930

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, a form of political rhetoric saturating Germany and other countries during  the 1930s and early 1940s.

Wittgenstein was born in Austria, coming from a wealthy industrialist family, his father being a steel magnate. 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 dating to 1973. 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  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, as many undergraduates did at that time. I was a citizen exception to the intellectual fashion. I never did find the Tractatus inspiring; to me, the format was obscurantist. That book is generally considered significant in the history of philosophy.

Stern was one of the more liberal academics in Cambridge. Even he could not understand my citizen viewpoint on some matters. He assumed that one had to elevate Wittgenstein and Kant for the purpose of gaining intellectual clarity. I merely regarded these thinkers as interesting, not as figureheads of an ultimate philosophy. In some Cambridge colleges, there was an attitude of semi-worship attaching to Wittgenstein, despite his own aversion to such trends. 

Wittgenstein had early read Schopenhauer, whose worldview he apparently believed was to some extent correct. He was impressed by his predecessor’s theory of the “world as idea,” but not the “world as will.” Schopenhauer therefore needed “adjustments and clarifications” (Anscombe 1959:11ff). “Schopenhauer’s influence on Wittgenstein was considerable, but for the most part indirect and negative” (Severin Schroeder, Schopenhauer’s Influence on Wittgenstein, p. 23, online). Nevertheless, Wittgenstein assimilated Schopenhauer’s division between the noumenal and the phenomenal, himself emphasising the phenomenal world in his Tractatus (Magee 1997:310ff). Schopenhauer was acknowledging a theme of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who earlier defined the noumenal as the unknowable, using the terminology of Thing-in-Itself (Ding an Sich). In contrast, the Vienna Circle believed that only the phenomenal world existed, seeing support for their ideology in the Tractatus.

Wittgenstein conveyed that any metaphysical reality is beyond conceptual grasp, and therefore a factor of which nothing can be said. Only the phenomenal world can be described. Various objections have been lodged against this perspective. However, in the 1970s, the exegesis of Wittgenstein was very much in the ascendant at Cambridge. When meeting incredulity from academics (as I sometimes did), there is nothing that can usefully be said.

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 format 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, and fought on the Russian front. After the war, he became a schoolmaster, teaching at various remote villages in Austria. At a school in Otterthal, he gained a reputation for administering severe corporal punishment to pupils finding difficulty with mathematics, in which he was himself very competent. He subsequently became a gardener and an architect. He later expressed a discontent with scientism.

Two of his friends criticised the 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 his unconventional lectures uttered 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. Wittgenstein 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 (he was partial to Hollywood westerns and musicals). 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 Malcolm 1958; for a more detailed biography, see Monk 1990).

Some critics accuse Wittgenstein of being idiosyncratic, self-absorbed, suicidal, and homosexual. He certainly possessed a strong personality; he criticised both himself and colleagues.  “His sexuality was ambiguous but he was probably gay; how actively so is still a matter of controversy” (Duncan 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. Wittgenstein regarded philosophy as a therapeutic activity for dispelling linguistic confusions. 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. Wittgenstein is unusual in this respect.

The intrinsic struggle to penetrate “philosophical problems” is a feature of mind rather than language. This factor 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. (Carnap Meets Wittgenstein)


Anscombe, G. E. M., An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (London: Hutchinson, 1959).

Frongia, Guido, and Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein: A Bibliographical Guide (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

Klagge, James C., ed., Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Magee, Bryan, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (1983; revised edn, Oxford University Press, 1997).

Malcolm, Norman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1958).

McGuinness, Brian, Wittgenstein: A Life, The Young Ludwig, 1889-1921 (University of California Press, 1988).

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Cape, 1990).

Redpath, Theodore, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Student’s Memoir (London: Duckworth, 1990).

Sluga, Hans, and David G. Stern, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein (second edn, Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1961).

——–Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
November 17th 2009  (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 2

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.