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A-Z of thought: Wittgenstein

Matthew Kirkpatrick


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Bertrand Russell, often considered the second, called him 'the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating'.

Despite being born into one of the richest families in the world (one that entertained Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Rodin and Klimt) Wittgenstein and his siblings seemed to carry the full weight of their existence, three out of five brothers committing suicide. Wittgenstein was a deeply restless character, rarely at home in any discipline or social group, and struggled to be understood.

After trying his hand at engineering and maths, Wittgenstein found a certain peace in philosophy. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (one of only two books he wrote) is seen as one of the greatest works of analytic philosophy (a school of thought holding reality to be objectively expressed and proven through logic). He argues that the problems of philosophy arise because the language we use is imprecise, inconsistent, and often senseless. He says the task of philosophy is not to explain reality - to make clear what is essentially hidden - but to create a perfect language to describe reality - to state what is around us. Reality is not a mystery, but the world in which we simply live and act. Using the perfect language of logic, philosophy is not to create radical theories, but to guide the natural sciences in organising the facts it discerns.

Wittgenstein believed that with the Tractatus the problems of philosophy were solved, so he retired and again wandered restlessly, working as a primary school teacher, gardener and architect. But after profound encounters with Tolstoy and Kierkegaard, he realised his error. In the greatest U-turn of philosophy, his Philosophical Investigations argues that the pure, objective thought of logic - and so the argument of the Tractatus - is a chimera. Both individuals and language are inescapably created and conditioned by their community and context. Language cannot be bound by logical rules, but is simply what the community wants it to be: the meaning of a word is in its use. Reality is still not ultimately hidden, but to understand it, one must understand the 'language games' in which we exist that define both the meaning of our words, and therefore also the way we think.

With these two works, Wittgenstein is the defender of schools at both ends of the spectrum, analytic philosophy and post-modernism. But, despite their radical differences, his task was the same: to shun abstract theories, and describe the life that normal people live every day.