Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), A Perspective

Who was he? He was from Vienna Austria. He studied engineering in Germany and England. However, he showed interest in the ground of mathematics and studied philosophy with Russell and Frege prior to entering Austrian army during the First World War. He wrote while in the military and his notebooks became the foundation of his great work called ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ (1922). It was this book that got him a doctorate degree from Cambridge and later on influenced the thinkers of the Vienna Circle. Even though he was only 32 years of age when his book was published, he announced and claimed that he had solved all the problems of philosophy and quickly retired from academic life. This sounds like a quite a jump to reach such a conclusion.

The focal point of the ‘Tractatus’ is the relationship between language, thought and reality. Wittgenstein argues that language is the perceptible form of thought and tied or closely connected to reality through a common logical form or structure. Being influenced by the thought of Frege, he argued that the meaning of linguistic expressions has to be determined by the nature of the world. Otherwise the meaning or sense of an expression could be vitiating with obscurity and ambiguity.    He learned from Russell that both language and the world have to be comprehended in terms of their constituent or atomic parts. He, however, disagreeing with his mentors maintained that the foundation logical structure of sentences has to mirror or picture the indispensible structure of the world. This became famous as ‘picture theory’ of meaning, namely sentences are but representations or pictures of possible states of affairs. He believed ordinary language was not logically imperfect as both Russell and Frege had argued to be. Language, he held, is ordered as it is. Whatever can be said is able to be said clearly and if not it has to be left in silence. But why would he care about language among all other subjects in philosophy such as death, for example, espetially in the middle of the First World War? I have no clue as to why he even changed from being an engineer to philosophy?

After he published the ‘Tractatus’, Wittgenstein went through a great change and gave away his inherited fortune. He decided to live and work in Austria, first as a schoolteacher and in later years as a gardener. However, in 1929 he realized he was not happy with certain parts of his early writings. Consequently he went back to Cambridge. While he was not fulfilled with his past works and was absent from where he was, the ‘Tractatus’ had won critical loud approval and was about to create major influence in European schools of philosophy. Wittgenstein came to the understanding that he had become fierce critic of his own past philosophy. What happened to him psychologically or philosophically? Was he following Kant’s philosophy that our knowledge begins with experience but doesn’t come from it? The world of reality induces but my thinking shapes these experiences. I’m, I experience, then I think, and finally I speak. I’m stimulated by what I experience, because I’m aware of my surroundings. I think and I talk. What does he want? What is he after? He went back to the simplicity of life by teaching but not at college level. He acted a little like Heidegger. He went back to nature by gardening. He went into exile but not because he was sent there by force. He went into seclusion by his own volition. He detached himself from what he had received from his parents. After all he was from an important and well to do Viennese family.

 He spent 20 years, practically till he died, making an effort to clarify and drive away the philosophical confusions that had influenced his early thinking. The bodies of his later works were published after his death as ‘Philosophical Investigation’.

In the ‘Investigations’ he continued searching for the nature of language, thought and reality. Babies listen to the language and they repeat what they hear. However, let us not forget that their minds are structured to receive this reality. Then thoughts set in. Is this what he is trying to convey? However, he killed two birds with one rock: he separates himself from both the claim that meaning relies on reality and that language is basically concerned with representation, namely his ‘picture theory’. Objects or things are not literally the meanings of names. They rather help as clarification of meaning. For instance, to point to a table serves to make clear what the term ‘table’ means. The little babies as growing up point to what they see and in response their mothers say, honey that is a car. It sounds like Kant’s position that is our knowledge starts with experience, and yet it doesn’t come from it. The table seems to be inducing labor in my mind. Language is not just made use of picturing or representing or describing reality. He argued that language has a number of functions. Terms are very much like instruments or tools which we apply for a number of varieties of purposes in various contexts. Here I’m reminded of the way Heidegger spoke of tools to be used. Language is not just employed to represent or describe, but also to ask questions, play games, give orders, come up with results and so on. What a term means relies both on what it is being employed to do and the context where it is used. This is what was meant by ‘a language-game’ which became known by Wittgenstein: approximately, that it is the context that clarifies the meaning of an expression applied in particular circumstances. Wittgenstein is simply telling us that it is an error to conceive of meaning as basically bounded to the nature of reality. Meaning, in other words, is not capable of being separated from the activities and behavior of language users that both reflect and clarify the meaning of our terms.

In his first theory, namely ‘picture theory’ of meaning: sentences are representations of the world. Language, in other words, represents or pictures the world. Doesn’t this   remind us of Kant’s Copernican revolution? In the past, Kant argued, our mind reflected the world. But now, very much like what Copernicus discovered the world reflects our mind categories. In the past our language reflected the world. However, today it is the world that reflects our language. Was Wittgenstein following Kant’s footsteps in his later work called ‘a language-game’? For Wittgenstein it is now the context, that is “the parts just before and after a word or passage that determine its meaning” (Webster’s) which illustrates the meaning of an expression applied in particular circumstances. Language is not bound to the nature of reality. Meaning is to be disconnected from the works and acts of the users of language, which both reflect and illustrates the meaning of our terms. This sounds like putting man back in charge unlike what had happened with Copernicus. Once the earth was no longer the center of the universe, its role became secondary. In fact It was the sun that was stationary and not the earth. The earth moves around itself and the sun. Kant brought back human being’s glory back to the center by imposing his categories on the world.

 Wittgenstein’s later writings influenced J.L. Austin and the Oxford ‘ordinary language’ school of philosophy and the modern speech-act theorists. Nonetheless, the assumptions introduced and worked out by his past writings are still cherished in modern philosophical programs represented by Quine, Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett.

Did anyone notice Wittgenstein’s Copernican revolution? Who am I compared to all these great minds? However, even though I could be as small as the black ant observed by Timur-e Lang, I believe I still can make a difference intellectually while I drop my head like a tree with many fruits in humility.

(philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)