Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
is an acknowledged classic of contemporary philosophy. Along with his later
major work, Philosophical
Investigations, this book assures him of an enduring place in the history of philosophy. ...
In the Preface to his Tractatus Wittgenstein says, "I
am indebted to Frege's great works and to the writings of my friend Mr.
Bertrand Russell for much of the
stimulation of my thoughts." The fact that Wittgenstein singles out Frege and Russell for acknowledgment is important. The linkage of his work with these two
contemporaries must be borne in mind if we are to get a proper introduction to some of the kinds of problems with which he was concerned. From their writings
Wittgenstein acquired not only the stimulation but also in large part the technical vocabulary and an awareness of the network of problems in logic that preoccupied the
early stages of this thought. It is necessary to grasp this background in order not to go astray in understanding Wittgenstein.
At the same time we must not dwell exclusively on the
connection between Wittgenstein's thought and that of Frege and Russell.
It should be noted that Wittgenstein
speaks of the stimulation given by Frege and Russell to his thought. He was led to think of certain problems by the way they introduced them. He took over much of
their terminology and many of their conceptual distinctions, and he shared in some of the philosophic concerns they had. However he was far from being a disciple of
either, for he developed his own thought and conclusions through the force of his intellectual genius. He enlarged the scope and altered the orientation of the
problems these philosophers were concerned with, to fit them more clearly with his primary interests. The underlying context of his thought was provided by his own
philosophic concerns and motivations, and the latter were not, on the whole, those of either Frege or Russell. So `stimulation' should not be read as `closely following
in the footsteps.'
Indeed, when the Tractatus was finally finished
Wittgenstein tells us it was not understood at all by Frege, and fundamentally
misunderstood by Russell. In a
letter written to Russell from the prison camp to which Wittgenstein was confined at the end of the World War I, there occurs the following passage:
Now I'm afraid you haven't really got hold of my main contention, to which the whole business of logical prop[osition]s is only a corollary. The main point
is the theory of what can be expressed [gesagt] by prop[ositionls-i.e. by ]anguage-(and, which comes to the same, what can be thought) and what can not be
expressed by prop[osition]s, but only shown [gezeigt]; which, I believe, is the cardinal problem of philosophy.
I also sent my M.S. to Frege. He wrote me a week ago and I gather that he doesn't understand a word of it all. So my only hope is to see you soon and
explain all to you, for it is VERY hard not to be understood by a single soul!'
On the same point, Ludwig's sister Hermine Wittgenstein, in her Family Recollections, writes the following:
By the way, I have to mention that Ludwig, who had become such close friends with Professor Frege before the war that several times he spent a few
days with him, sent him the first section of his book in typescript during the war. Surprisingly enough Frege did not understand the book at all and wrote this
quite honestly to Ludwig. It seems that somehow Ludwig had developed away from him and the friendship was never reassumed [sic]. Things fared similarly
with Russel [sic], who had even translated Ludwig's book into English during the war and had it published in a bilingual edition: as far as I know, Ludwig took
some of his more popularized essays amiss, and the friendship did not endure.'
Wittgenstein was a complex and many-sided figure. His work in the philosophy of language and logic-his `Fregean' heritage-was only one side of his total philosophic
concern. To appreciate something of the other dimensions of his life and thought it is helpful, among other things, to study his Viennese background. He was part of an
intellectual milieu that numbered many avant garde writers, creative artists, musicians, architects, and others whose work marked the fin de siedcle of the
AustroHungarian Hapsburg monarchy. Among the prominent names of this group are those of the influential journalist Karl Kraus, the architects Paul Engelmann and
Adolf Loos, the writers Fritz Mauthner, Robert Musil, and Otto Weininger, the scientists Heinrich Hertz and Ludwig Boltzmann, the composer Arnold Schonberg, and
In addition, one must mention the following as having
played their varying roles in stimulating Wittgenstein's mind: the writings
of Schopenhauer; and as
mediated through the latter, the essential `message' of Kant's philosophy as well as that of Buddhism; the novels of Dostoyevsky; Tolstoy's writings and preachment in
behalf of the Gospels; some of the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian and founder of modern existentialism; and William James's Varieties of
It should be recognized, too, that beyond these historical,
intellectual, and cultural influences there is in the case of Wittgenstein
something that transcends them
all. His was a mind and spirit able by virtue of its deep sensitivities and genius to respond to the recurrent and abiding features of the world and human existence quite
independently of the colorations .or influences that shape people's minds in the special character of an age., language, or culture. There comes a point at which, simply
because people are people and live under the same sky, certain individuals will raise the same basic questions and give voice to the same basic human queries and
feelings. Wittgenstein's mind was able to operate on that universal level in an important and original way. He didn't have to be steeped in the history of philosophy (he
wasn't) or to be a deeply learned scholar in order to come upon these questions or to be .provoked to meditate about them. When he did, he was able to give
expression to them in a distinctively personal and arresting way.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1891. He was
the youngest of a family of eight children (five brothers and three sisters)
born to Karl and Leopoldine
Wittgenstein. The father was the head of the largest iron and steel company of Austria. The heritage of the family was predominantly Jewish (three of Ludwig's
grandparents were Jewish). His paternal grandfather had converted to Protestant Christianity, and two others of his grandparents had been baptised as children.4
Ludwig's mother was Catholic, and he was baptized as a Catholic.
As a member of a wealthy and artistically gifted family,
Ludwig grew up in an environment in which the intellectual and artistic
currents of the cultural life of
Vienna were dominant. Music was a part of the daily life of the home. (Brahms was a friend of the family and a frequent visitor, along with other prominent musicians
of the day. Ludwig's brother Paul. who had lost his right arm, was an internationally famous concert pianist for whom Ravel had been commissioned to write his
Concerto for Left Hand.) Ludwig played the clarinet, had a great gift for whistling, and retained a passionate devotion to music throughout his life.
Up to the age of fourteen Ludwig was educated at home, and then attended the Real Gymnasium at Linz, Austria, for three years. He later became a student at the
Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he remained until the spring of 1908. From boyhood on Ludwig possessed a deep interest and
unusual facility in all things technical and mechanical. (He even constructed, at the age of ten, a sewing machine out of little sticks and pieces of wire-one
that actually worked!) In following out this type of interest and aptitude, Ludwig at first prepared himself for a career in engineering. By the summer of
1908 he was in England, and for a brief time was associated with the Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station of Derbyshire. By the autumn of 1908 he
realized that the future development of aeronautics lay in the design of efficient engines. Accordingly he enrolled in and did research at the Engineering
Laboratory of the University of Manchester, where he remained until the winter term of 1911. While there he worked on the design of jet-reaction
engines and propellers; some of his work proved to have genuine practical value.*
*"Wittgenstein's idea of a combustion chamber together with a tangential reaction nozzle at the tip of a propeller blade did get a practical application at a much later date. It was brought into practical use for the rotor blade of a helicopter by the Austrian designer Doplhoff during the Second World War. It has been adopted by Fairey's for their Jet Gyrodyne, as well as by other aviation firms."Wittgenstein's work on the design of jet-reaction engines and propellers required the extensive use of applied mathematics. In the course of these
I knew Wittgenstein first at Cambridge before the War. He was an Austrian, and his father was enormously rich. Wittgenstein had intended to become an
engineer, and for that purpose had gone to Manchester. Through reading mathematics he became interested in the principles of mathematics, and asked at
Manchester who there was who worked at this subject. Somebody mentioned my name, and he took up his residence at Trinity. He was perhaps the most
perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating. He had a kind of purity which I have
never known equalled except by G. E. Moore. I remember taking him once to a meeting of the Aristotelian Society, at which there were various fools whom I
treated politely. When we came away he raged and stormed against my moral degradation in not telling these men what fools they were. His life was turbulent
and troubled, and his personal force was extraordinary. He lived on milk and vegetables, and I used to feel as Mrs. Patrick Campbell did about Shaw: `God
help us if he should ever eat a beefsteak.' He used to come to see me every evening at midnight, and pace up and down my room like a wild beast for three
hours in agitated silence. Once I said to him: `Are you thinking about logic or about your sins?' 'Both', he replied, and continued his pacing. I did not like to
suggest that it was time for bed, as it seemed probable both to him and me that on leaving me he would commit suicide. At the end of his first term at Trinity,
he came to me and said: `Do you think I am an absolute idiot?' I said: `Why do you want to know?' He replied: 'Because if I am I shall become an aeronaut,
but if I am not I shall become a philosopher.' I said to him: `My dear fellow, I don't know whether you are an absolute idiot or not, but if you will write me an
essay during the vacation upon any philosophical topic that interests you, I will read it and tell you.' He did so, and brought it to me at the beginning of the
next term. As soon as I read the first sentence, I became persuaded that he was a man of genius, and assured him that he should on no account become an
aeronaut. At the beginning of 1914 he came to me in a state of great agitation and said, `I am leaving Cambridge, I am leaving Cambridge at once.' `Why?' I
asked. `Because my brother-in-law has come to live in London, and I can't bear to be so near him.' So he spent the rest of the winter in the far north of
Norway. In early days I once asked G. E. Moore what he thought of Wittgenstein. `I think very well of him', he said. I asked why, and he replied: 'Because at
my lectures he looks puzzled, and nobody else ever looks puzzled."
In the autumn of 1913 Wittgenstein went to Norway with a young mathematician friend from Cambridge, David Pinsent. (Pinsent was later killed in
World War I, and the Tractatus is dedicated to him.) While in Norway Wittgenstein built himself a but near Skjolden, where he was able to carry on his
writing and research in seclusion. He remained there until the outbreak of the war in 1914.
During the entire period from 1911 to the end of the war,
Wittgenstein was engaged in original researches in the field of logic.
culminated in the publication of the Tractatus. Some of the earliest notes for, and drafts of, this work have been preserved and are of great value in
helping to clarify the ideas behind the highly compressed final form in which the Tractatus appears.' Throughout his life it was Wittgenstein's habit to
write down his thoughts in the form of `remarks' in separate paragraphs, and to collect these in a series of notebooks. (In some cases he also dictated
these `remarks' to a colleague or students.) Wittgenstein volunteered for military service in the Austrian army and saw active service at the front, yet
managed to find time during this period to do some writing. He carried the manuscript of his work in his rucksack, and it was with him when he was captured
at the end of the war, was made a prisoner, and confined at Monte Cassino in 1918.
The story of his repeated frustrations in trying to get
his manuscript published at the end of the war marks one among the many
unhappy chapters in his life. Wittgenstein
desperately and repeatedly sought a publisher for his book and was turned down by five publishers! It narrowly missed not being published at all. Only through the assistance that Russell gave by offering to write an Introduction did it finally appear in 1922 in English. (It had appeared in German under the title Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung in the final issue of the Annalen der Naturphilosophie edited by Wilhelm Ostwald in 1921.)"
Of the various items of correspondence having to do with
Wittgenstein's efforts at getting his manuscript published, there are two
letters to Russell of special interest. In the first, written from his
prison camp, Wittgenstein informs Russell about his book. In the second,
written a year later, after he had exhausted all his efforts at getting
it published, he indicates that he has given up the whole enterprise.
[Cassino, Provincia Caserta, Italy]
Thanks so much for your postcards dated 2°' and 3rd of March. I've had a very bad time, not knowing whether you were dead or alive! I can't write on Logic as I'm not allowed to write more than two post] c[ard]s a week (15 lines each). This letter is an exception, it's posted by an Austrian medical student who goes home tomorrow. I've written a book called "Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung" containing my work of the last six years. I believe I've solved our problems finally. This may sound arrogant but I can't help believing it. I finished the book in August 1918 and two months after was made Prigioniere. I've got the manuscript here with me. I wish I could copy it out for you; but its pretty long and I would have no safe way of sending it to you. In fact you would not understand it without a previous explanation as it's written in quite short remarks. (this of course means that nobody will understand it; although I believe, it's all as clear as crystal. But it upsets all our theory of truth, of classes, of numbers and all the rest.) I will publish it as soon as I get home. Now I'm afraid this won't be "before long". And consequently it will be a long time yet till we can meet. I can hardly imagine seeing you again!
It will be too much! I suppose it would be impossible for you to come and see me here? or perhaps you think it's colossal cheek of me even to think of such a thing. But if you were on the other end of the world and I could come to you I would do it.
Please write to me how you are, remember me to Dr. Whitehead. Is old Johnson still alive? Think of me often!
bei Herrn Zimmermann
Very many thanks for your kind letter. Reclam has, naturally, not accepted my book and for the moment I won't take any further steps to have i published. But if you feel like getting it printed, it is entirely at your disposal and you can do what you like with it. (Only, if you change anything in the text. indicate that the change eras made by you.)
Today I got my certificate, and I can now become a teacher. How things will go for me-how I'll endure life-God only knows. The best for me,
perhaps, would be if I could lie down one evening and not wake up again. (Bin perhaps there is something better left for me.) We shall see.
Warmest regards from your devoted friend
Ludwig Wittgenstein '°
Upon the death of his father, Karl Wittgenstein, in 1912, Ludwi, inherited a large sum bf money. The first thing he did upon his return fror military service was to give away all this money. He insisted on living u great simplicity and frugality, as he did for the rest of his life. His 'uncon ventional' dress, his sparsely furnished rooms at Cambridge and else where, his very few possessions, all testify (in a way somewhat reminis cent of Spinoza) to a life totally dedicated to matters of intellect and spirit a life unencumbered by distractions of material goods, 'power', am status.
His personality, as all who knew him attest, was of an intense, sens] tive sort. There are many anecdotes and reminiscences by former stt dents and colleagues that make absorbing reading." However, there i also a considerable mystique that has grown up around his name and pet son, with the danger that much of what is written or recalled may b exaggerated and wide of the mark. There is no full biography of him, an it is unlikely that enough has been retained or would be discovered t permit a full, detailed record and analysis of his life. Here are some brif recollections by some persons who knew him.
Rudolf Carnap writes:
In general, he was of a sympathetic temperament and very kind; but he w: hypersensitive and easily irritated. Whatever he said was always interesting ar stimulating. and the way in which he expressed it was often fascinating. His poii of view and his attitude toward people and problems, even theoretical problem were much more similar to those of a creative artist than to those of a scientis one might almost say, similar to those of a religious prophet or a seer. When I started to formulate his view on some specific philosophical problem, we oftt felt the internal struggle that occurred in him at that very moment, a struggle I which he tried to penetrate from darkness to light under an intense and painful strains which was even visible on his most expressive face. When finally, sometimes after a prolonged arduous effort, his answer came forth, his statement stood before us like a newly created piece of art or a divine revelation. Not that he asserted his views dogmatically. Although some of the formulations of the Tractatus sound as if there could not be any possibility of a doubt, he often expressed the feeling that his statements were inadequate. But the impression he made on us was as if insight came to him as through a divine inspiration, so that we could not help feeling that any sober rational comment or analysis of it would be a profanation.The philosopher Karl Britton, who attended one of Wittgenstein's seminars at Cambridge in 1931, reports the following:
Wittgenstein spoke without notes but knew very well what he wanted to discuss and what he wanted to "put across," though sometimes he seemed to change his mind on some point while he was speaking . . . . On the whole, Wittgenstein was tremendously impatient in his discussion: not impatient of the raw newcomer to philosophy, but of the man who had developed philosophical views of his own. Wittgenstein talked often standing up and walking excitedly aboutwriting on the blackboard, pointing, hiding his face in his hands. But the most characteristic of all his attitudes was a very quiet, very intense stare-suddenly adopted and leading to a slow deliberate utterance of some new point.Paul Engelmann, a close friend of Wittgenstein during the war years and after, writes:
Very often he got thoroughly "stuck": appealed in vain to his hearers to help him out: he would walk about in despair murmuring: "I'm a fool, I'm a fool." And such was the difficulty of the topics he discussed, that all this struggle did not seem to us to be in the least excessive.
The various military citations and reports concerning Wittgenstein and some reminiscences by fellow-soldiers show, as might be expected, that he stood out as a man of education and culture. Yet he is described as 'guter Kamerad' . . . . In this respect the harsh circumstances of the war seem to have imposed a naturalness and a freedom from artificiality which were congenial to him. On troops under his command he had a good effect, particularly in battle, calming them and getting the best out of them, principally by reason of his own ability to continue steadily with his tasks as artillery observer even under heavy fire. It is natural to suppose that the hardships and effort of those years were partly responsible for the withdrawal from the world and the search for peace of the years that followed, though Wittgenstein himself would have been more likely to ascribe them to inner reasons.M. O'C. Drury, a psychiatrist who had studied with Wittgenstein at Cambridge, and was a friend of many years standing, writes:
Anyone who knew Wittgenstein at all well will appreciate the hesitation I feel in speaking about him. He would have found a panegyric extremely distasteful. But since his death there have grown up so many false legends about him andhis teaching that I think it necessary for some of us who knew him well to try to give them their quietus.
Some people seem to think that Wittgenstein was a rather cantankerous, arrogant, tormented genius; content to dwell aloof in the profundity of his own speculations. That was not the man at all. During the twenty years or so I knew him he was the most warmhearted, generous, and loyal friend anyone could wish to have. Friendship meant a great deal to him. Two incidents come to my mind out of a host of similar memories. Wittgenstein looking for a birthday present for a friend and saying: "You don't need a lot of money to give a nice present but you do need a lot of time." Wittgenstein saying goodbye to me as I boarded a troopship for the Middle East, giving me a silver cup and saying:
"Water tastes so much nicer out of silver; there is only one condition attached to it-you are not to worry if it gets lost."
He was a delightful companion. His conversation and interests extended over an immense range of topics. After I left Cambridge we seldom discussed specific
philosophical problems. He preferred me to tell him about books I was reading or the medical problems I was at present engaged with. He had the ability to make one see a question in an entirely new light. For instance, I was telling him of some psychiatric symptoms that puzzled me greatly. Wittgenstein said: "You should never cease to be amazed at symptoms mental patients show. If I became mad the thing I would fear most would be your common-sense attitude. That you would take it all as a matter of course that I should be suffering from delusions."