Sunday, February 21, 2010


Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
From Encyclopædia Britannica

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein

I know that this World exists
That I am placed in it like my eye in it’s visual field
That something about it is problematic
Which we call its meaning
That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it
That life is the World
That my will penetrate the world
That my will is good or evil
Therefore that good or evil are somehow connected with
the meaning of the World

It is true: Man is the microcosm
I am my World
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

Austrian-born English philosopher, regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s two major works, Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (1921; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922) and Philosophische Untersuchungen (published posthumously in 1953; Philosophical Investigations), have inspired a vast secondary literature and have done much to shape subsequent developments in philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition. His charismatic personality has, in addition, exerted a powerful fascination upon artists, playwrights, poets, novelists, musicians, and even filmmakers, so that his fame has spread far beyond the confines of academic life.
(Ray Monk at Encyclopædia Britannica)
In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein uses an analogy in an attempt to clarify some of the problems involved in thinking of the mind as something over and above behaviour. Imagine, he says, that everyone has a small box in which they keep a beetle. However, no one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box, only in their own. Over time, people talk about what is in their boxes and the word “beetle” comes to stand for what is in everyone’s box.
Through this curious analogy, Wittgenstein is trying to point out that the beetle is very much like like an individual’s mind. No one can know exactly what it is like to be another person or experience things from another’s perspective (look in someone else’s box), but it is generally assumed that the mental workings of other people’s mind are very similar to our own (everyone has a beetle which is more or less similar to everyone else’s). However, it does not really matter – he argues – what is in the box, or whether everyone has a beetle, since there is no way of checking or comparing. In a sense, the word “beetle” – if it is to have any sense or meaning – simply means “what is in the box”. From this point of view, the mind is simply “what is in the box” – or rather “what is in your head”.
Wittgenstein argues that although we cannot know what it is like to be someone else, to say there must be special mental entity called a mind that makes our experiences private is wrong. Part of the reason he thinks this way is because he considers language to have meaning through public usage. In other words, when we talk of having a mind (or a beetle), we are using a term that we have learnt through conversation and public discourse. Furthermore, the word we have learnt can only ever mean “whatever is in your box” – i.e. your mind – and should not therefore be used to refer to some entity or special mental substance since no one can know that such a thing exists (we cannot see into other people’s boxes).
(Andrew Sewell's IB Philosophy at Pearson College Web Site)
In Culture and Value p.29e Wittgenstein wrote: Rules of life are dressed up in pictures. And these pictures can only serve to describe what we are to do, not justify it. Because they could provide a justification only if they held good in other respects as well. I can say: "Thank these bees for their honey as though they were kind people who have prepared it for you"; that is intelligible and describes how I should like you to conduct yourself. But I cannot say: "Thank them because, look, how kind they are!"--since the next moment they may sting you.
The similarities between the sentences "I'll keep it in mind" and "I'll keep it in this box," for instance, (along with many others) can lead one to think of the mind as a thing something like a box with contents of its own. The nature of this box and its mental contents can then seem very mysterious. Wittgenstein suggests that one way, at least, to deal with such mysteries is to recall the different things one says about minds, memories, thoughts and so on, in a variety of contexts.
What one says, or what people in general say, can change. Ways of life and uses of language change, so meanings change, but not utterly and instantaneously. Things shift and evolve, but rarely if ever so drastically that we lose all grip on meaning. So there is no timeless essence of at least some and perhaps all concepts, but we still understand one another well enough most of the time.
When a person says something what he or she means depends not only on what is said but also on the context in which it is said. Importance, point, meaning are given by the surroundings. Words, gestures, expressions come alive, as it were, only within a language game, a culture, a form of life. If a picture, say, means something then it means so to somebody. Its meaning is not an objective property of the picture in the way that its size and shape are. The same goes of any mental picture. "The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it."
Without sharing certain attitudes towards the things around us, sharing a sense of relevance and responding in similar ways, communication would be impossible. It is important, for instance, that nearly all of us agree nearly all the time on what colors things are. Such agreement is part of our concept of color, Wittgenstein suggests. Regularity of the use of such concepts and agreement in their application is part of language, not a logically necessary precondition of it. We cannot separate the life in which there is such agreement from our concept of color. Imagine a different form or way of life and you imagine a different language with different concepts, different rules and a different logic.
Language involves rules establishing certain linguistic practices. Rules of grammar express the fact that it is our practice to say this (e.g. "half past twelve") and not that (e.g. "half to one"). Agreement is essential to such practices. Could a solitary individual, then, engage in any practice, including linguistic ones? With whom could he or she agree? This is a controversial issue in the interpretation of Wittgenstein. Gordon Baker and P.M.S. Hacker hold that such a solitary man could speak his own language, follow his own rules, and so on, agreeing, over time, with himself in his judgements and behavior. Orthodoxy is against this interpretation, however.
(Duncan J. Richter at The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Although he detested people on the whole, Ludwig had immense charisma and the body of an Apollo, who looked 20 when he was 40. He attracted a coterie of Cambridge disciples who hung on his words like the gospel. Heavily influenced by Tolstoy, he gave away his fortune to his siblings.
Long after the war, he kept wearing his stained Army uniform to show his indifference to comfort. He seems to have been indifferent to most social pleasures. He once proposed to a woman on the condition they did not have sex.

Paul (second from left) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (right)
on leave from the war
Family estate Neuwaldegg in Vienna in 1917
Michael Nedo/ Random House via Bloomberg News

Ludwig would go on to become, as Alexander Waugh puts it in his new book, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, an icon of the 20th century.” The visual metaphor is a deliberate one. Waugh is uninterested in Ludwig’s thought. Every story he tells reinforces the impression, unmistakably Waugh’s own, that the cult of Ludwig Wittgenstein is the product of eminent men like Bertrand Russell and George Moore who had fallen under the spell of Ludwig’s striking looks, manner and extraordinarily persuasive personality,” and gone to find in his incomprehensible” writings an intellectual richness that may or may not have existed. This derisory attitude was shared by Ludwig’s family. Shaking their heads, they found it amusing that the world was taken in by the clown of their family, that that useless person had suddenly become famous and an intellectual giant in England.” Ludwig renounced his share in the family fortune and went to work as a primary school teacher, eventually getting himself fired for brutalizing his students. He had first considered suicide at 11, and the thought never strayed very far from his consciousness.
(Wesley Yang at Tablet Magazine)
During his lifetime, Ludwig's influence was compared with Einstein's. After his death, in 1951, as the first of the 20,000 pages of philosophical writings he left in manuscript began to be published, his reputation solidified as one of the three or four most creative philosophers of all time.
(Christina Robb at
In the Wittgenstein family, it was not the philosopher who was the unworldly one. Ever since childhood, the last-born Ludwig had had a passion and a facility for mechanical things. At the age of ten, he constructed a working model of a sewing machine out of bits of wood and wire; while serving in the Austrian Army, he demonstrated a more dangerous practicality by improvising his own mortar in the field. After leaving school, Ludwig studied engineering in Berlin, specializing in hot-air balloons, and then moved to Manchester to work on aeronautical engines; in 1910, he patented an improvement in propeller technology. It was then that he heard of Bertrand Russell’s work on logic and decided to study with him in Cambridge.
Russell found him to be a tormented soul, unsure of his own abilities and unsure whether to be an engineer or a philosopher. Russell soon decided that Ludwig was the most perfect example of genius he had ever known, and persuaded him not to continue with engineering. “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother,” Russell told Hermine. But he feared that his new pupil was on the brink of suicide, as he explained in a letter to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Ottoline wrote back that hot chocolate would calm Ludwig’s nerves, and enclosed a packet of cocoa tablets for Russell to give him.
If they ever reached Ludwig they did not do the trick. He continued to work with a feverish intensity on the problems of logic that he was discussing with Russell and to agonize about his life. The way those two topics were entangled in Ludwig’s mind can be seen from his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” a gnomic masterpiece that he completed as a soldier in 1918. The “Tractatus” is a mixture of logical symbols and mystical remarks in which Ludwig attempted to delineate the limits of language. Certain things could be expressed in language, and these were best understood in terms of the logical techniques developed by Russell, he maintained. But others—and these were the most important things in life—could not be expressed in language at all. Hence the book’s famous closing line: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The problems of philosophy could thus be dispatched by being divided into those that could be perspicuously rendered into Russellian logic, and thereby answered fairly easily, and those about which nothing could be said.
Frank Ramsey, one of Ludwig’s most brilliant friends, who had reviewed the “Tractatus” in Britain’s main philosophical journal as an undergraduate, quipped that “what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” Ramsey meant that Ludwig seemed to be cheating by trying to specify exactly what cannot be said. As it happens, Ludwig—who, unusually for a Wittgenstein, seems not to have mastered any musical instrument as a child—impressed his musical friends with displays of virtuoso whistling. Several Cambridge dons recalled hearing him whistle the solo part of an entire concerto while a pianist played the orchestral part. Whether or not Ramsey had this curious feat in mind, the Wittgensteins were certainly in the habit of using music to express what they couldn’t say in words.
Ludwig’s big idea was to apply this method to philosophical problems. In his “Tractatus,” he had tried to show that some philosophical questions were illegitimate because they tried to say the unsayable. The new approach was gentler and more therapeutic. By painstakingly examining how language works in everyday life, Ludwig now believed that one could be cured of the misconceptions that give rise to philosophical puzzles, and thus stop worrying about them. That is what he toiled on, mostly in Cambridge, until his death, in 1951.

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