Twentieth-century philosopher whose two major works, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations determined the course of Anglo-American philosophy for a long time after their publication. Each book was the impetus for a school of philosophy; however, Wittgenstein himself believed that both groups (and just about everybody else) misunderstood his writings.

The Tractatus was the product of several years of work trying to solve problems in logic and the foundations of mathematics. However, as Wittgenstein came closer to what he perceived as a solution (the preface to the work claims that all philosophical problems have been solved), his interests in philosophy broadened. By the time he wrote the draft of the Tractatus that was eventually published, he thought of it as a work in ethics. He wrote to a friend that the most important part of the book was that which was not written. This is not how the Vienna Circle (composed of Moritz Schlick, Friedrich Waismann, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, and others) viewed it. To these logical positivists, the Tractatus was a perfect explication of their belief in the principle of verificationism.

Philosophical Investigations was not published during Wittgenstein's lifetime, but drafts of sections (particularly the Blue Book) were circulated. In this work, Wittgenstein introduced the notion of a language-game. The language used in this work is deceptively simple, and the book is written in a more approachable style than the Tractatus. It often seems that Wittgenstein uses the way people talk in everyday language to provide support for his claims. Whether or not this was his intention, this is how the work was perceived by a group of philosophers (including J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and Peter Strawson) who became known as the ordinary-language philosophers.

Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler did indeed attend the same school for a year. There is as far as I know no good evidence that they knew each other.

Wittgenstein, much like Duchamp in the arts, has contributed more by contributing nothing of solidity. He has proffered nothing but the most critical eye, on an outstretched hand, and asked us to perform the same operation.

But I want only to interject with an important story which secures Wittgenstein a place as the first punk in history, because not only did he uproot the intellectual elite of his time and also the less abrasive of his contemporary readers, but it is rumored that he and Hitler attended the same upper-level school (I think that's Gymnasium in German) and at one point they got into a fight which ended with Wittgenstein clocking Hitler in the head. Don't take my word for it, but the story somehow seems to justify a liberal arts education.

Ich sitze mit einem Philosophen im Garten; er sagt zu wiederholen Malen "Ich weiß, daß das ein Baum ist", wobei er auf einen Baum in unsrer Nähe zeigt. Ein Dritter kommt daher und hört das, und ich sage ihm: "Dieser Mensch ist nicht verrückt: wir philosophieren nur."

(I sit with a philosopher in a garden; he says repeatedly, "I know that is a tree", while pointing to a nearby tree. Someone else comes by and hears this, and I say to him, "This man isn't mad; we're only doing philosophy".)

-- Wittgenstein, On Certainty

To say that Wittgenstein left no lasting impression on philosophical thought is doing him a vast disservice. To be sure, he repudiated in the Philosophical Investigations his early claims from the Tractatus. Likewise, he never really had a school of followers (unless one counts the logical positivists and the ordinary-language philosophers, all of whom Wittgenstein considered to be misinterpreting him). However, the influence of the language-based philosophy of the Investigations can still be felt, in philosophy as well as literary criticism. Much as the Renaissance and Enlightenment saw a movement from society to the individual as the fundamental philosophical entity, the twentieth century saw a movement away from the study of the individual to a study of language; Wittgenstein's philosophy (though not the man himself) has been one of the leading driving forces behind this change. Reports of the death of Wittgenstein's ideas have been greatly exaggerated.

If you liked Philsophical Investigations, you may also enjoy On Certainty (Über Gewissheit); this work, collected from notebooks Wittgenstein kept over the last few years of his life (the last note was written two days before his death), is in large part a response to G.E. Moore's "In Defense of Common Sense" and "A Refutation of Idealism". It deals with the nature of knowledge and certainty, especially as grammatical concepts (in the Wittgensteinian sense of "grammatical").

To say that Wittgenstein laid the groundwork for logical positivism is pushing it slightly; what Wittgenstein considered to be beyond language and (thus) beyond reason was taken by the positivists to be meaningless. Wittgenstein himself states in his Tractatus "And unless I am mistaken in this regard, then this book has worth secondly in displaying how little is achieved with the solution to these problems", referring to all philosophical problems. The translation (from Finnish this time) is mine, but should be fairly accurate. Wittgenstein alludes to the importance of what cannot be said by showing that logical pictures or thoughts are tautological.

Wittgenstein and Hitler's time in the same school in Linz is documented in a book called 'The Jew of Linz'

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on April 26, 1889, one of eight children, to a rich and musical Viennese family which was of Jewish descent, but had converted to Catholicism. His father was a heavyweight in the steel industry, owning the largest Austrian company in the sector. It was not uncommon for private concerts to be performed at the Wittgenstein residence; Brahms' Clarinette Quintet was premiered there, and house-guests included Gustav Mahler and Bruno Walter. Ludwig's brother, the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, had pieces composed for him by both Ravel and Prokoviev.

Up until 14, Wittgenstein was educated privately at home. After a fairly undistinguished school career, first at Linz and then at a technical college in Berlin, he travelled to Britain in 1908 in order to do research in aeronautical engineering at Manchester University. Most of his time there was spent contructing and testing his own high-flying kite designs at the Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station, near Glossop, before he went on to design an early jet reaction propellor. But the mathematics involved proved to have a fascination of its own, and he developed an obsessive interest in the foundations of mathematics and logic. At the prompting of Gottlob Frege, he met with Bertrand Russell at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1911. Recognising an extraordinary intellect and an exceptional student, Russell persuaded him to change his course and study mathematical logic, in which field Russell, one of its top exponents, said he "soon knew all I had to teach".

Under Russell's tutelage, during 1912 and 1913, he began the work that would lead to his early masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. In 1914, apparently tiring of the self-congratulatory pretensions of Cambridge life, he left for Skjolden in Norway to work in more secluded surroundings, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He returned immediately to Austria to enlist as an artillery officer and fought on the German side, seeing action both at the Russian front, where he won many distinctions for bravery in 1916, and in North Italy, where he fought as a member of an artillery regiment until 1918.

At the end of the war, he was captured by the Italian army and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp at Montessino. The completed manuscript of the Tractatus was found in his rucksack, and this became his PhD thesis after the Italians allowed him to send it to Russell by post (though it wasn't published until 1921). The book aimed at showing the limits of the propositional mode of thought and language, exposing the general character of representation, and examining the nature of logical truths, dethroning them from their place as the most general truths about the world, to see them instead as mere tautologies, though useful as forms of logical argument.

Having (as he then saw it) solved all philsophical problems, Wittgenstein retired from the field to become a schoolteacher in Lower Austria, which became his occupation between 1920 and 1925. He'd given away most of his considerable inheritance on the death of his father in 1913 (amongst others, the poets Marie Rilke and Trakl benefitted). His short career as a primary school teacher he considered a failure - he practised the methods of the Austrian School Reform Movement, which sought to engage the student's mind, rather than to submerge it in endless repetitive rote learning, and though he was popular with the children he taught, never reconciled himself to the other teacher at the school, or to the very different culture of the farming community it served. It's thought he seriously considered suicide on several occasions during this time.

He did a short spell as an assistant gardener in a monastery, and was then commissioned as an architect by his sister (Margaret Stoneborough) to design a large house, in Vienna, which kept him busy for a couple of years.

By the late 1920's, his thoughts were turning back to philosophy. Discussions (and, it is sometimes speculated, an erotic relationship) with the young logician Frank Ramsey who was to die tragically early in 1930, prompted him to return to Cambridge in 1929, where he was to lecture until the outbreak of the next war. His lecture material, ironically, was largely spun off from his developing critique of the position he put forward in the Tractatus. Notes of these lectures (1933 - 35) taken by some of his students, including J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe, were circulated in different coloured notebooks, eventually being published in 1958 as The Blue and Brown Books.

The British Foreign Office considered him loyal enough to be made a naturalised citizen in 1938, and he was made a professor in 1939, but he decided to spend the years of the war first as a hospital porter in London's Guy's Hospital, and then as a laboratory assistant in Newcastle Upon Tyne.

He was a professor at Cambridge from the end of the war until 1947, when he retired and moved to the Galway coast in Ireland to try and get his mature philosophy into publishable shape.

Working from the Blue and Brown books, he compiled many short aphorisms and philosophical sketches, but didn't succeed in creating anything he considered worth sending to the presses, and ceased to work on the project in 1949, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Returning to academic life in Vienna, Oxford and Cambridge, he continued philosophical work for another two years before succumbing to the disease on the 29th of April, 1951. His output from this period was posthumously published as On Certainty.

Two years after his death, in 1953, the material he had created, and all but abandoned, in Ireland was published as Philosophical Investigations, which many regard as one of the most significant philosophical works of the Twentieth Century. Arguments about its meaning and significance are still very much raging today, fifty years later. His last words were "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

and others collected at

The Poker Incident.

In October 1946 Karl Popper was a guest speaker at the Cambridge Moral Science Club at King's College.

He was delivering a talk on 'Are there any philosophical problems?', to which his answer was, briefly, yes.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, not widely known for his tolerance of other people, or his genteel social skills, is variedly reported as:

  • Picking up a poker
  • Waving a poker
  • Waving a poker rather threateningly at Karl Popper.

Bertrand Russell was also present. This means that, amongst other academics, three of the most eminent philosophers of the twentieth century were present in a small room in Cambridge, yet no one can come up with definitive view of what happened.

Perhaps the most notable exchange of that evening was when Wittgenstein (allegedly) asked for an example of a moral rule, and Popper replied "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."

After this Wittgenstein was variedly reported as:

  • Walking out
  • Storming out
  • Throwing down the poker, and barging out of the door slamming it shut behind him.

If anyone can find a moral in this I'd be glad to hear it.

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