Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was born in Vienna into a wealthy, highly cultured family. His father was a Jew who had converted to Protestantism, his mother a Roman Catholic, in which religion Wittgenstein was brought up. Wittgenstein went to study engineering at the University of Manchester. Having read the work of Bertrand Russell, in 1912 he transferred to Cambridge University, where Russell was teaching, to study under him. Russell soon realized that his student was a genius and also an extremely eccentric and intense young man. Russell relates the following story about his pupil.
At the end of his first term at Cambridge he came to me and said, “Will you please tell me whether
I am a complete idiot or not?” I replied, “My dear fellow, I don't know. Why are you asking me?”
He said, “Because, if I am a complete idiot, I shall become an aeronaut; but if not, I shall become
a philosopher.” I told him to write something during the vacation on some philosophical subject
and I would then tell him whether he was a complete idiot or not. At the beginning of the fol-
lowing term he brought me the fulfillment of this suggestion. After reading only one sentence, I
said to him, “No, you must not become an aeronaut.”1
Wittgenstein returned to Austria to serve in the Austrian army during the First World War. He was captured by the Italians and spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp, where he finished writing his first work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1919). The work was to show the logical relationship between language and the world, to show what could and could not be said. He writes in the preface:
The book deals with the problems of philosophy, and shows, I believe, that the reason why these
problems are posed is that the logic of our language is misunderstood. The whole sense of the
book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and
what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
A selection from this work is reprinted below.
After the war, he worked as a schoolmaster and gardener in a monastery before returning to Cambridge in 1929. There he submitted the Tractatus as his PhD dissertation. Russell and G. E. Moore were his examiners. He was appointed a lecturer at Cambridge and continued in that capacity until his death in 1951. His second book, Philosophical Investigations, was published posthumously in 1953.
Wittgenstein came to reject the reasoning of the Tractatus, believing his solution of giving logical structure to language solved the problem of how language related to the world. In this second work, Wittgenstein denies his earlier views that words have essences and that propositions have pictorial form which reflects the world. Instead he claimed that languages were various games that occurred within different cultures or forms of life. Philos
1 Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (George Allen & Unwin, 1956), 26–27.