the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a Writer’s Philosopher

leave a comment »

“A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world. They are all constructed according to a common logical plan.”

In Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, renown British philosopher A.C. Grayling makes a strong case for summarizing the late-philosopher’s views. Critics of the idea argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work, often stated in aphorisms, is compressed enough already and that any further breakdown would misrepresent both the content and intention.

For those first coming to Wittgenstein it’s helpful to know beforehand that his later writing is largely a takedown of his earlier work with his middle writing acting as a transition. Another problem posed to newcomers is where to start. His first book, the one that garners most of Wittgenstein’s criticism, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was the only book published in his lifetime. All others emerged posthumously and are often featured in many different collections, making difficult to know which one to buy.

A Very Short Introduction, aptly named, moves swiftly through Wittgenstein’s personal details—born in Vienna in 1889 to a wealthy family, taught at the University of Cambridge before serving in the First World War, after returning he took a 10-year hiatus from teaching, at the age of 40 he went back to Cambridge, World War II broke out, he felt compelled to help and left teaching for the last time, and finally, at the age of 62, he died of prostate cancer. Instead, Grayling spends most of  the 134 pages charting the ins-and-outs of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and explaining the trajectory of his evolving theories.

Categorizing Wittgenstein is not easy. In another book on this towering figure, a collection of analytical essays, The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, the editor, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hans Sluga, says that what makes it difficult to peg the twentieth century philosopher is “first of all the unconventional cast of his mind, the radical nature of his philosophical proposals, and the experimental form he gave to their expression.”

What does help provide context is his main influence, and possibly biggest supporter, the prolific philosopher Betrand Russell. It was Russell’s 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, where the author argues that mathematics and logic are identical, that put Wittgenstein on the path to a career in philosophy. With Russell, Wittgenstein, at the time of their writings, took part in what Sluga calls a “sense of a new beginning in philosophy”. Together they broke from the traditional and national constraints that prevailed.

Russell was instrumental in getting the Tractatus published and had written an introduction to the edition in 1921. Known to be irascible, Wittgenstein had a bad reaction to what Russell’s interpretation and in an angry letter claimed his friend had not understood a word of his work. However, as Wittgenstein’s theories progressed he realized that he had not reached his objective: “to solve the problems of philosophy . . . by showing how language works”.

Wittgenstein’s focus on language makes him something of a writer’s philosopher. With saying such as, “Language must speak for itself” and “Language is like a collection of very various tools,” his books are brain candy for those who love words.

Throughout Wittgenstein’s work there are brilliant sayings that make him sound like a spiritual leader: “A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of discussion,” “Philosophy is not a body doctrine by an activity,” and famously, the last line of the Tractatus, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But as with those gurus from the 60s, it’s tempting to hang onto Wittgenstein’s theories as if they were absolute truths; they’re concise, poetic, and have a koan-like quality to them. Unfortunately, history shows them to be misguided, refuted by the very same man who had once believed in them wholeheartedly.

It’s refreshing, however, that Wittgenstein was not afraid to disagree with himself and that over the years he continued to flesh out his ideas. Sluga believes that “Wittgenstein’s development from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations parallels that of the culture at large” and goes on to explain that the analytic tradition as a whole “progressed from the single-minded pursuit of an ideal of formal unity to the acceptance of informality, pluralism, and proliferation of forms.”

Grayling summed up the shift saying that the Wittgenstein made the “rejection of [the Tractatus’] central doctrines the very cornerstone of his later philosophy”. What Wittgenstein had originally asked readers to believe he later felt was oversimplification and instead began to argue the opposite, “that language is a vast collection of different activities each with its own logic.”

Abandoning his earlier assumptions, Wittgenstein focused on language as a medium of communication that doesn’t follow strictly prescribed rules and became interested how language is learned. In short, he went from asking “What is the meaning of a word?” to “What is it to explain the meaning of a word?”. He even went so far in the Philosophical Investigations to make the critical view of the function of rules his central theme.

One is left to wonder, does Wittgenstein’s sharp divergence from his early work mean that the Tractatus should be thrown out the window? The answer, if we are to listen to the man himself, is no. Wittgenstein felt that the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations belonged side-by-side, understanding that the latter is largely a reaction to the former.

A.C. Grayling prepares the casual philosopher and autodidact for the content and context of Wittgenstein’s theories while The Cambridge Companion’s essays, spanning a diverse range of views regarding the philosophers work, expands the reader’s scope of analysis. Both introductions will create a more confident reader and spark an interest for further investigation.

Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling
The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein edited by Hans Sluga and David Stern
The Puzzlement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone
The Unhappy Family of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone


Written by Gabrielle

August 9, 2011 at 8:31 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: