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Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on April 26, 1889 as the youngest of eight children of Karl and Leopoldine (nee Kalmus) Wittgenstein. His father was a protestant, his mother a catholic, and the children were brought up in catholic faith. Wittgenstein was of partly ‘Jewish’ descent (three-quarters according to Nuremberg laws), and he accepted this classiﬁcation to the point of self-attributing character traits that counted as Jewish in the Habsburg monarchy of the turn of the century. (Weininger’s Geschlecht und Charakter impressed him deeply.) The family had become one of the wealthiest of the Habsburg Empire in the iron and steel business, and young Ludwig got his early schooling from private teachers until his father decided to send him to the Realschule (technical gymnasium) at Linz in 1903, no doubt hoping him to become an engineer, where he passed his ‘Matura’ in 1906.
The Wittgenstein home in Vienna was very ﬁn de siecle. On the positive side, the house was open to artists and composers, the family exercising generous Maecenatism; Ludwig read intensively in his youth, and there is documented inﬂuence from Goethe, Schopenhauer, Heinrich Hertz, Karl Kraus, Wolfgang Kohler, and others. On the negative side, the children were attended more by staff than by their parents, and the sons had deﬁnitely self-destructive tendencies. At least two of Ludwig’s brothers, possibly a third one, committed suicide, a tendency which Ludwig had to combat himself for most of his life. Looking back at his childhood, he considered it to have been unhappy.
Having graduated from the Linz Realschule, Ludwig went to the Technische Hochschule Charlottenburg (now Technische Universitat Berlin) where he studied mechanical engineering and was awarded his ‘Diplom’ in 1908. He went to Manchester in the same year to do research in aeronautics; however, he began to develop a growing interest in pure mathematics and read Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics of 1903 and Gottlob Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik of 1893. Fascinated by these books’ enterprise of deriving mathematics from logic, he visited Frege in Jena in 1911 who encouraged him to study with Russell in Cambridge. He was a student in Cambridge from 1911 to 1914, but although attending some classes in philosophy (notably with George Edward Moore), his work had more or less the character of an extended dialogue with Russell on questions of logic and the foundations of mathematics.
During his Cambridge time, Wittgenstein experienced the ﬁrst of a number of deep emotional friendships with young men. Although he was homosexual, the relation with David Pinsent probably remained platonic until it was ended by the latter’s death in World War I. One love relationship, with Francis Skinner in Cambridge in the 1930s, is known to have been fulﬁlled sexually, but Wittgenstein broke it off, just as if unﬁt for happiness in human bonds, and in addition, deeply ashamed of his disposition.
He volunteered for the Austrian army in 1914 and served, with distinction, throughout the war; extant diaries testify to ongoing work that was to lead up to his only philosophical book published during lifetime, the Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, which was actually ﬁnished in summer 1918 and ﬁrst appeared, very poorly edited, in Ostwald’s Annalen der Naturphilosophie for 1921. The book became famous only after an English translation, under the title Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, had been published in 1922 when Wittgenstein, after having trained as an elementary school teacher, was teaching children in villages in Niederosterreich—evidently in order to live a morally meritorious life. However, he had to resign in 1926 because of punishing a schoolboy too severely, and he would probably have given way to despair had not his sister, Margarete Stonborough, asked him to build her new Vienna house together with his friend, the architect Paul Engelmann. (The building now houses the Bulgarian embassy.)
Philosophical contact with Cambridge had never been cut off completely. Back in Vienna, Wittgenstein had some philosophical conversations with members of the ‘Vienna Circle,’ notably Moritz Schlick and Friedrich Waismann. Thus, although a lecture by L. E. J. Brouwer is said to have given the last push, it was not completely out of the blue that Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1928. Having given away his inherited fortune to his brothers and sisters after the war, he had to apply for a fellowship (submitting the now famous Tractatus as a doctoral dissertation). This was his way of earning his living until his death, except for holding a chair in Cambridge from 1939 to 1947 and living on savings now and then. He held regular classes in Trinity College, laconically entitled ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Philosophy for Mathematicians.’ A difficult person and not popular with most of his colleagues, his teaching success with a small number of students was enormous and accounted for his burgeoning philosophical ideas to be spread far ahead of the posthumous publication of his constantly rewritten notebooks and typescripts.
Except during wartime, Wittgenstein regularly went to Vienna in summer and for Christmas to see his family. Also, he several times went to Skjolden on the Sognefjord in Norway where he had had a little solitary house built before World War I. In 1939, with the assistance of John Maynard Keynes, he succeeded in applying for British citizenship which allowed him to travel in ‘Großdeutschland’ even as an Austrian ‘Jew’ and to arrange for two of his sisters to be declared ‘Aryan’ in exchange for transferring large valuta parts of the family money to the German Reichsbank. During World War II, he served different jobs outside the university that he considered more important than doing philosophy.
Wittgenstein’s second book, the Philosophical Investigations, was more or less ﬁnished in 1946—ﬁnished in the sense of Wittgenstein himself considering it as printable. But a general mood of dissatisfaction with philosophical results seems to have got an increasing grip on him. Even though he continued writing and discussing philosophical questions, he was suspicious of ﬁnished answers. Asking the proper questions was, in his view, the important thing—an attitude which he had developed in the 1930s and which he expressed more and more sharply. In this mood, Wittgenstein did not press for publication. Living outside Cambridge for much of his remaining time, he alternately sought company and solitude until cancer of the prostate, diagnosed late in 1949, had worsened so much that traveling became impossible. He died in Cambridge on April 29, 1951.
2. Philosophical Work
Wittgenstein’s early (Tractatus) philosophy can be regarded usefully as an attempt at answering two questions: Why are logical truths true? How can we recognize that they are? He did this by inventing a theory of meaning which, in turn, was based on an ontological theory of the most general features of reality. Starting from the observation that logical truths, as he had come to know them from the work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, are always syntactically complex, Wittgenstein ﬁrst stipulated that there is but one way of constructing complex sentences from components, viz., by combining the components in a complex which is a ‘truth function’ of the components (if every single component is either true or false, this is sufficient for the complex sentence to be deﬁnitely true or deﬁnitely false). The components may be complex themselves; but according to a second stipulation, the combinatory process originally starts from components that are elementary sentences, i.e., sentences which are not truth-functional complexes of anything else. If a complex sentence has been constructed from n elementary sentences, there are 2n different combinations of each of them being either true or false; this is the postulate of mutual independence of the elementary sentences which is characteristic of ‘Logical Atomism.’ If the complex sentence comes out as true in every such combination, then it is logically true (e.g., ‘If it is neither raining nor snowing, then it is not raining’ is true, no matter whether or not it is raining and whether or not it is snowing). This is manifest for anybody who understands the complex sentence; thus logical truth ‘shows itself,’ and both questions above are answered if every elementary sentence is either true or false. Here a third stipulation comes in: Every elementary sentence is a ‘picture’ of an elementary ‘state of affairs’ which either exists, in which case the elementary sentence is true, or does not exist, in which case the corresponding elementary sentence is false. Existing elementary states of affairs make up the ‘world’ as it is. By a picture, Wittgenstein means an isomorphic correlation of the simple signs (which he called ‘names’) whose concatenations form the elementary sentences and of simple ‘objects’ which make up the elementary states of affairs. Given a set of elementary states of affairs and a set of elementary sentences, normally there will exist several possibilities to correlate simple signs and simple objects while preserving isomorphy; the actual correlation, according to a further stipulation, is chosen by the speaker who correlates sentences with states of affairs by thinking a state of affairs as a sentence’s sense. Since ‘names’ occur in many different sentences, this thinking of the senses of whole sentences reduces the alternative correlations and thus determines certain objects as the meanings of given names which can form other sentences; so the understanding of new sentences can be explained.
So far, Wittgenstein’s stipulations add up to a referential and speaker-oriented theory of the meaning of sentences that explains logical truth. However, he added restrictions two of the most provocative of which are the following: First, the states of affairs that make up the world and are necessary for language to be meaningful are all natural ones; there are no moral or aesthetic states of affairs. Evaluative pronouncements are, therefore, nonsensical. Second, the fact that a state of affairs is correlated with a sentence as the latter’s sense, or the fact that a speaker correlates sentences with states of affairs (and in consequence, names with objects) by this or that ‘projection rule’ is not itself a state of affairs, which means that any description of this correlation is nonsensical too. Wittgenstein accepted this consequence by declaring all Tractatus sentences nonsensical, even if helpful, in the book’s last propositions. On which Frank P. Ramsey is said to have commented ‘What you cannot say you cannot say, and you cannot whistle it either’ (an allusion to Wittgenstein’s popular gift of whistling entire pieces of classical music). A third restriction often goes unnoticed, viz. that the Tractatus theory of meaning is restricted to declarative sentences, excluding questions, imperatives, optatives, and interjections. Wittgenstein hoped these might be incorporated into his framework by proper analysis, without, however, attempting to do so; the same holds for his failure to even look for real examples of elementary sentences.
In a period of hard work from 1929 until about 1936 which it has become customary to call ‘intermediate,’ Wittgenstein renounced Logical Atomism, i.e., the supposition that elementary sentences are mutually independent; all candidates (e.g., simple color statements) proved to exhibit meaning relations with other ones of the same kin (what is green is not red). So the idea of systematic dependency being co-responsible for meaning emerged. This fell in line with the new idea of devising a nonrepresentational (nonsymbolic) conception of meaning: pieces in chess have a meaning (a role), without representing anything, simply in virtue of their place in the rules of the game. If linguistic elements played a role in a system of rules for their use in social interaction, this might well suffice for their meaningfulness. However, the appeal to rules implied a problem of its own. If rules are identiﬁed by means of their linguistic expressions, there must be meaningful expressions for there to be meaning (an obvious interpretation regress), and if rules have to be agreed upon there must be rules to confer validity on the agreement procedures (an obvious ruling regress known from constitutional and international law). Sticking to the idea of meaning to be found in systems of rules, Wittgenstein invented one of his most famous tools, the ‘language-game,’ which he elaborated in the posthumous masterpiece of his ‘late philosophy,’ the Philosophical Investigations. A language game may be understood as a set of regularities in behavior, involving several people, where the use of certain elements (to be identiﬁed as linguistic on further inspection) on the one hand depends on what has been done and what the other circumstances are, and on the other hand is relevant for further things to be done subsequently, either by the ‘speaker,’ ‘audience,’ or by third parties. These regularities in behavior have to be rich enough to differentiate, e.g., statements from commands; thus ‘The window is open,’ if playing the role of a command, will evoke responses different from when it is used as an answer to a question.
Commands do not qualify as such simply by being followed by someone else’s doing something. They occur only where the speaker has the required kind of authority, and the addressee, rather than actually doing something, has to do it. (This is why utterances with given meanings are possible only in a social setting that provides for the characteristic rights and duties—languages are embedded in ‘forms of life.’) Both facts can, in the event, be analyzed as certain rules being followed by the people concerned, and it is here that Wittgenstein’s solution to the double-regress problem about rules sets in. Rather than asking how to identify or how to establish rules, he asked how behavior looks like if it is rule-following behavior. If behavior is rule-following, the rule it follows can be extracted from it in the following way. There is a description of the behavior that makes use of the rule although the people who follow the rule do not make any use of the rule themselves. With Wittgenstein, a behavior B follows the rule R if B conforms to R, if it is learnable and if it goes without saying, i.e., is mutually expected among the people concerned. This is not new to present-day sociology, of course, but it served Wittgenstein to cut off both regresses sketched above. Nobody among the people who follow the rule need be able to identify it, and it need not be enacted, or agreed upon.
Anchoring linguistic meaning in practices that are complex in such a way that they can truly be described as rule-following has the consequence that there is no linguistic meaning outside a community. Whether or not an utterance is a command depends on others to expect a certain person now to do something. Unless they expect the person to do so, the speaker has not uttered a command. Meaning an utterance in a certain way is not something a speakers achieve by exhausting their very own mental resources and capacities (it is not due to their capacity of ‘intending’ in a traditional sense). Saying something meaningful, as well as meaning something, depend on others to be prepared to understand the speaker in a given way. This implies one of Wittgenstein’s most famous theses, viz. that there cannot be a language private to one speaker, i.e., a language whose signs have their meanings no matter whether or not others understand them or react to them. However, Wittgenstein argued his critique independently, thus providing indirect evidence for his social account. The only rule available to a ‘private meaner’ would stipulate something like: ‘S means x if and only if I remember S to have meant x in the past’; since what is to be explained, viz. ‘S means x,’ occurs in the explanation, the only available rule turns out to be void.
Whereas this famous ‘private language argument’ has attracted much philosophical debate, a side effect has proved to be more fruitful. Wittgenstein used the language of sensations as his example and so proved, by implication, that it is not possible to report on one’s own sensations by way of privileged inner observation. (For in an unproblematic situation of observation, using the right words is a test of the observer’s linguistic competence; if others cannot interfere, reports on one’s own sensations would have private meanings in the sense deﬁned above.) The idea that there is privileged knowledge of one’s own sensations (and other ‘conscious’ psychological states like moods, emotions, impressions, and the like) originates in the fact that speakers have a special authority in expressing them, and Wittgenstein took two ingenious steps. First, he pointed out that the speaker’s privilege is just one case among others of utterances (often prefaced by ‘I know’ as in ‘I myself know best what is good for me’) which are privileged according to our social rules rather than epistemically. Second, he interpreted them, rather than as reports, as being meaningful in the same way as nonverbal expressive behavior is, viz. in virtue of playing a recognizable role in a behavioral pattern. Thus, ‘Ouch’ or ‘I am in pain’ are meaningful insofar as they occupy the place of crying in the series injury / crying / winning attention (a series that exhibits nicely the structure, which is characteristic of commands, of authority/imperative / expected behavior, or the structure of precondition / utterance / expected reaction that characterizes meaningful utterances in general).
By parity of reasoning, the symmetry of verbal and nonverbal expressive behavior implies a last important result. Just as verbal utterances owe their meanings to others’ reactions, so nonverbal behavior expresses what it does in virtue of others’ socially established response. Now if one cannot make head or tail of the notion of an inexpressible psychological state (as Wittgenstein argued at length), a person’s psychological state is what he or she could express at the moment, and then what that person is feeling, thinking, wishing, etc. is co-deﬁned by how others would react should he or she exhibit expressive behavior. Wittgenstein is, thus, the ﬁrst philosopher to have touched the topic of what has come to be called ‘Social Anti-individualism.’ In an unduly neglected paper, Fleming (1978) has likened Wittgenstein’s view of the interpretation of expressive behavior to the interpretation of pictures. Pictures owe their content to a civilization’s way of seeing them. Their content is manifest because it is deﬁned by established interpretation. Just so, established responses to other persons’ behavior are operative in determining their psychological situation. This is what distances Wittgenstein from Logical Behaviorism. Rather than being inferred from behavior, psychological facts are directly observable; and rather than just being ascertained by observation, they are dependent on external interpretation.
Although Wittgenstein developed his ‘middle’ and later philosophy in opposition to and correction of his Tractatus ideas, there is considerable continuity both as regards content and methodology. In point of content, Wittgenstein is sure to be the ﬁrst philosopher in history who developed his philosophical ideas from thoughts about how it is that the elements of language have meaning. In this respect, our linguistic competence plays a role, with Wittgenstein, not unlike that of our epistemic abilities in Kant’s far-reaching deductions outside epistemology. As regards methodology, Wittgenstein insisted, both in the Tractatus and in later writings including the Philosophical Investigations, that good philosophy has a peculiar task, i.e., that of clarifying obscurities that have been and are constantly being produced, either when scientists misunderstand what they are doing or when scientiﬁc or everyday questions and experiences are misunderstood and linguistically distorted by bad philosophy. This continuity has often been stressed, but for at least two reasons it should not be over-estimated. First, the task of clarifying was all that was left over for philosophy in the Tractatus since its theory of meaning reserved all meaningful statements for the natural sciences. Second, the assignment was a piece of explicit methodology which Wittgenstein did not obey in practice. In contrast, Wittgenstein’s later conception of meaning admits to philosophy every useful language-game (e.g., that of describing language games), the assignment of the task of clarifying being motivated by his experience of how much linguistic distortion his own early philosophy had suffered from; and clariﬁcation meant method rather than methodology—there is sure to exist no other corpus of philosophical writing so densely packed with repeated demonstrations of how translating philosophical questions and theses into everyday language provides clarity. As an original contribution to our picture of what philosophy can achieve, Wittgenstein developed this clariﬁcatory way of handling philosophical thinking into intellectual therapy. The real aim is achieved when the philosopher, by way of rectifying his distorted use of language, has come to see that there has never been any philosophical problem except for the riddles he got entangled with by falling prey to the temptation of highbrow speaking. Wittgenstein went so far as to say that after such therapy, there was no place in philosophy for controversial theses or theories. Whereas many take these declarations at face value, others have argued that in view of the substantial and controversial achievements of his later philosophy, the declarations should be either interpreted in a restrictive way or taken as overstating an otherwise valuable methodological warning.
Wittgenstein’s inﬂuence on the intellectual life of the twentieth century has not been uniform or coherent; early and late philosophy, written work and teaching contact, work and personality have appealed to different interests. The general public has been and still is mostly interested in his disconsolate life; following the arbitrary turns of fashion, he has been canonized in a way that would, to his utter disgust, have nowadays turned him into an unwilling victim of talk shows. Furthermore, Wittgenstein’s prose style has been all the rage since the Tractatus was published, and whereas every Tom, Dick, and Harry arranged their texts in decimal notation before 1953, quoting aphorisms from the Philosophical Investigations became imperative for feuilletonists in Anglo-Saxonia from that date, and in the German speech area after 1960 when Suhrkamp had timidly published a joint edition of both of Wittgenstein’s masterpieces (together with a ‘Beiheft’ in order to secure respectability for an unknown Austrian–British philosopher by documenting the interest of poets like Ingeborg Bachmann).
As regards more serious questions, research has been affected differently by the Tractatus and by subsequent work, and by the latter differently depending on whether people were confronted with Wittgenstein’s teaching in Cambridge or with his writing. The Tractatus gained a great popularity soon after the publication of the bilingual edition in 1922, and it exerted considerable inﬂuence on some of the members of the ‘Vienna Circle’ who had gathered around Moritz Schlick and were striving for a really scientiﬁc philosophy. The most enduring effect was to be the ‘veriﬁcation theory of meaning’ which, as stated in the Tractatus, identiﬁed any proposition’s meaning with the set of distributions of ‘true’ and ‘false’ to its elementary sentences which make the proposition true; elaborated by the circle’s most inﬂuential member, Rudolf Carnap, it made its way into logic, philosophical semantics (the present-day truth-condition semantics), and is even inﬂuential in linguistic semantics. Karl Raimund Popper’s disclaimers notwithstanding, the Tractatus theory that only those sentences have sense which risk to wreck on experience is a clear forerunner of his falsiﬁability theory of cognitive signiﬁcance, inﬂuential in sociology and psychology since the 1940s.
In his philosophizing since 1929, Wittgenstein inﬂuenced some bright Cambridge students who learnt, from his live example, that being sober, honest, and clear was more important than, and at least as attractive as, producing high-faluting and sloppy nonsense. Following the advice to rephrase any philosophical sentence in everyday idiom, they began to form a veritable movement, Ordinary Language Philosophy, which had its high tide in the 1950s and early 1960s. The most famous and most important representative was Gilbert Ryle, Oxford based but on friendly terms with Wittgenstein, whose seminal Concept of Mind of 1949 inaugurated Logical Behaviorism, to be superseded by Functionalism; so it is a safe guess that without Wittgenstein, present-day research on the mind-body problem would look entirely different. Further effects resulted from the publication of the Philosophical Investigations, jointly in German and English, in 1953; the impact in philosophy was heavy, but surprisingly small in linguistics (the reason being, perhaps, that John L. Austin’s speech act theory won the day). At present, the most interesting developments, in the behavioral sciences outside philosophy, seem to be going on in Cognitive Science and in Ethnomethodology. In Cognitve Science, Hubert Dreyfus and others have argued forcefully that intelligent achievements cannot be accounted for by supposing that subjects are following explicit rules but have to follow them implicitly in Wittgenstein’s sense. This has been condensed into the prediction that the architecture of the brain’s working is to be regarded as connectionist rather than computational. In Ethnomethodology, Peter Winch and others have suggested that without a Wittgensteinian conception of forms of life, an adequate understanding of alien societies cannot be attained.
On the whole, however, Wittgenstein’s inﬂuence, on the behavioral sciences, has remained marginal outside philosophy. In particular, social anti-individualism is still awaiting proper conversion into research strategies, just as is an adequate use of Wittgenstein’s conception of language games in linguistic pragmatics.
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