Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important Philosopher Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus introduced the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers.

Summary of Event

Published in German in 1921 and translated into English in 1922, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus remains a model of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s spare, elegant prose. Consisting of seven postulates and their logical derivatives, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus represents Wittgenstein’s attempt to create a logical language, and thus a framework, for philosophical investigations. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein) Philosophy;Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein) [kw]Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important Philosopher (1921) [kw]Philosopher, Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein) Philosophy;Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein) [g]England;1921: Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important Philosopher[05310] [g]United States;1921: Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important Philosopher[05310] [c]Philosophy;1921: Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important Philosopher[05310] [c]Publishing and journalism;1921: Wittgenstein Emerges as an Important Philosopher[05310] Wittgenstein, Ludwig Weininger, Otto

Biographers agree that Wittgenstein’s interest in philosophy began when he was approximately eight or nine years old, when he wondered if one was obliged to be honest at all times. His conclusion that situational honesty has advantages seems at odds with the unrelenting honesty that he customarily displayed when he matured. As a child, Wittgenstein found it necessary to placate the adults in his life. His father, Karl, devoted himself to his extensive business interests, and his mother, Leopoldene, devoted herself to her husband and to music, in that order. Although the youngest of eight children, Ludwig found himself virtually an only child as a result of the fifteen-year gap between him and his next-eldest sibling, Hermine. Most biographers believe that the Wittgenstein children consisted of two separate generations, but some have argued that in effect there were three generations, by reason of the large age difference between Ludwig and Hermine. Apparently, none of the children met their parents’ exacting standards; in any case, Ludwig’s elder brothers’ suicides testify to a collectively unhappy childhood.

Introduced to the writings of philosopher Otto Weininger while still in his teens, Wittgenstein found himself drawn to Weininger’s nihilistic philosophy. Weininger castigated women, denounced sexual love, disparaged Jews, and exalted suicide. Wittgenstein incorporated Weininger’s harsh convictions into his life and, to some extent, his work, as exemplified by his unending search for purity and his personal definition of honesty and perfection.

The writing of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus occupied Wittgenstein until 1918; he finished it while detained as a prisoner of war in Italy. In this work, Wittgenstein argued that the world consists of facts and that language pictures, or models, these facts. Thus, in Wittgenstein’s view, language limits thought; as far as possible, therefore, language should be limited to elementary propositions. By “elementary proposition,” Wittgenstein meant a concentration, a nexus, of names. An object can be named, but that name does not constitute the object. Internal properties, such as motion or location, of an object are designated as part of, or as belonging to, that object. One should be able to recognize the truthfulness of a proposition from its symbol—that part of the proposition that characterizes its sense—alone. Misunderstanding occurs when two people use the same symbol differently.

In his preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein stated that he had solved the problem of philosophical language. Wittgenstein’s commitment to philosophy ruled his life, however, and his definition of honesty compelled him to rework some of this publication. Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations, 1953) Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein) published in 1953, two years after his death, includes these variations. Publication of this work distinguished Wittgenstein as the author of not one but two major, but differing, philosophies.

During the years from 1929 to 1951, Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge; during those years—and, indeed, for almost all of his lifetime—he kept notebooks of his philosophical musings. He liked to work his way through one philosophical problem and then move on to another. He did not publish very much during his lifetime, but a number of works drawn from his notes and lectures were published posthumously, as, of course, was Philosophical Investigations.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein maintained his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus format inasmuch as he numbered the paragraphs, but he expanded on, expounded, and, at times, disagreed with his original ideas. In the later volume, he portrayed language as a game. He defined a language game as a small portion of an entire language consisting of words and the actions they join.

The language Wittgenstein proposed in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, consisting only of propositions, had severe limitations. He did not give examples of elementary propositions. His critics maintained that he did not because he could not; elementary propositions do not exist.

In Philosophical Investigations, he enlarged his ideas about names. For example, he asserted that language disguises thought but that a word has no meaning if it has nothing to correspond to it.

Wittgenstein did not change his ideas about the source of misunderstanding and the need for agreement about definitions. In Philosophical Investigations, he proposed that individuals examine their personal beliefs, asking, for example, how one learns and knows the meaning of a word. He stressed the importance of personally understanding the underlying assumptions of the words one speaks.

In the later work, Wittgenstein virtually abandoned the notion of an ideal philosophical language. Context assumed major proportions in his mature theory; objects related to and depended on their language games. For example, the meaning of the word “pain” depends both on personal conditioning history and on the idiosyncratic meaning of the word “pain” in its context.

Wittgenstein discarded his central idea in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that sentences picture reality. Instead, in Philosophical Investigations, he asserted that idiosyncratic meanings and context dictate the meaning of a sentence. “Projecting,” or attributing another’s meaning to a sentence, constitutes, in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, diseased thinking.

Although some have described Wittgenstein as detached and solitary, it is clear that he entered into several committed relationships, primarily with David Pinsent, Frank Plumpton Ramsey, and Rush Rhees. That he expected others to use his ideas and to go beyond them sums up his general attitude.


Credited with divorcing words from what they represent, Wittgenstein inspired a number of thinkers in the twentieth century. Some of these philosophers elaborated on his theory or used it as a springboard for their own ideas in such ways that they might be said to have competed with him. Others devised theories that directly conflicted with his.

During his lifetime, Wittgenstein addressed the Vienna Circle, Vienna Circle a group of philosophers organized by Moritz Schlick Schlick, Moritz that gave birth to the movement known as logical positivism, Logical positivism but he did not consider himself a member of the group. The Vienna Circle met regularly to discuss the philosophy of science; its members included Kurt Gödel and Rudolf Carnap.

Influenced by Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the logical positivists credited Wittgenstein with an important aspect of their philosophy, the verifiability principle. They also credited him with substantiating logic and mathematics. The logical positivists believed that Wittgenstein defined a proposition as the sum of experiences that proved a proposition. In doing so, however, they neglected Wittgenstein’s distinctions between tautologies and identities; the two definitions differed widely. Wittgenstein believed he had created a rule of thumb, not the universal application adopted by the logical positivists.

Wittgenstein and the logical positivists also differed significantly in their views of the limitations of language. For Wittgenstein, language could not encompass, or make, metaphysical assertions. In Wittgenstein’s opinion, thoughts about mystical subjects occur only to those who view the world as a limited whole. Viewing the world as limitless fosters an expanded view of the range of possibilities. Clearly, Wittgenstein did not consider himself part of the Vienna Circle.

In 1933, Alfred Korzybski Korzybski, Alfred published Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Science and Sanity (Korzybski) In this work, Korzybski drew on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to develop a system of language evaluation that he named “general semantics.” General semantics Although Korzybski used Wittgenstein’s notions about words and objects, he departed from Wittgenstein’s thinking when he abandoned Aristotelian logic; nevertheless, general semantics, which influenced a number of twentieth century thinkers, owes Wittgenstein’s work a significant debt.

Philosophers concerned with the acquisition of knowledge tend to divide along Cartesian and Wittgensteinian lines. The basic differences between the two groups can best be summed up as follows: Cartesian argumentation may be defined as the notion that beliefs reflect natural facts; Wittgensteinian reasoning may be described as the conviction that a belief may reflect only social convention. Wittgenstein’s contribution redirected philosophical attention from certainty to ambiguity. Incorporating ambiguity into philosophy and research tends to maximize answers and can often lead to additional stimulating questions.

Some of the interesting questions raised by Wittgenstein’s philosophy merge epistemology with neuroscience. Some researchers study human cognition by seeking to establish and understand the way the brain works. Others try to establish the theory that if a specific neuron structure does not exist, then a specific thought cannot exist. These discussions have generated noteworthy research into memory.

Wittgenstein maintained a lively interest in psychology, and at least two therapeutic approaches developed from his work. The “social constructionists,” Social constructionist therapeutic approach influenced by Wittgenstein, revised family therapy by using a storytelling approach. They contend that each member of a troubled family has a unique “story” about the family’s problems. Such therapists think of themselves as storytelling experts who can listen to and merge the “stories” of family members into a single version that everyone in the family can agree on as acceptable and workable. “Rational-emotive” therapists Rational-emotive therapeutic approach[Rational emotive therapeutic approach] base their therapy more on general semantics than on Wittgenstein’s ideas per se. Such therapists actively direct their clients to examine all sides of a question or problem and then to ask Wittgensteinian questions such as “How do I know?” and “How can I prove it?” In addition, Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the contextual has influenced many psychologists to take a more holistic approach to their discipline and has led many physicians to learn how to listen to their patients.

It has been reported that when he was dying, Wittgenstein said, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” He devoted himself to work that he loved, and he wielded enormous influence in the disciplines that come under the rubric of philosophy. The psychotherapy theories influenced by his work have helped untold numbers of people reconcile their problems. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein) Philosophy;Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Wittgenstein)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartnack, Justus. Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy. 2d ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985. Discusses and compares Wittgenstein’s early and mature philosophies. Devotes a chapter to Wittgenstein’s influence on, as well as his differences with, the logical positivists. Another chapter outlines the work of some contemporary philosophers the author views as Wittgenstein’s successors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kölbel, Max, ed. Wittgenstein’s Lasting Significance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Collection of essays by twelve philosophers examines the relevance of Wittgenstein’s work for philosophy in the twenty-first century. Discussion covers of all of Wittgenstein’s major works, including 1>Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. 5th ed. Lakeville, Conn.: Institute of General Semantics, 1994. Introduces a system of evaluating words that is built on Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and also expands it. General semantics retains Wittgenstein’s basic premises about words and what they represent. It also includes Wittgenstein’s mature theory of language games.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Free Press, 1990. Comprehensive biography, written by a philosopher, places Wittgenstein’s work in historical perspective. The author’s access to previously unpublished letters and writings gives this book a depth that others lack. Discusses Wittgenstein’s sexual orientation frankly and with sensitivity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savickey, Beth. Wittgenstein’s Art of Investigation. New York: Routledge, 1999. Examines the influences on Wittgenstein and places his work in historical context. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999. Wittgenstein explains in a foreword how he came to this theory and his thoughts about Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Excellent reading for serious students of the philosophy of language as well as those whose interests center on epistemology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. Rev. ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Incorporates Wittgenstein’s own suggestions regarding earlier editions along with comments that can be found in his correspondence with C. K. Ogden. Includes an introduction by philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell.

First Meeting of the Vienna Circle

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