Apr 262014


Today is the birthday (1889) of Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. One of my great heroes. During his lifetime he published just one slim book, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article, one book review, and a children’s dictionary. He spent years editing his voluminous manuscripts into the magnum opus, Philosophical Investigations, which was published posthumously in 1953. It became a classic, ranking Wittgenstein with the powerhouses of modern philosophy. Bertrand Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.”

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna into one of Europe’s richest families and inherited a large fortune from his father in 1913. He gave considerable sums to poor artists, and in a period of severe depression after World War I, he gave away his entire fortune to his brothers and sisters. Three of his brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein contemplated it too. He left academia several times: serving as an officer on the front line during World War I, where he was decorated a number of times for his courage; teaching in schools in remote Austrian villages; and working during World War II as a hospital porter in London, where he told patients not to take the drugs they were prescribed, and where he largely managed to keep secret the fact that he was one of the world’s most famous philosophers. He described philosophy, however, as “the only work that gives me real satisfaction.”


His philosophy is often divided into an early period, exemplified by the Tractatus, and a later period, articulated in the Philosophical Investigations. In his early work Wittgenstein was concerned with the logical relationship between propositions and the world, and believed that by providing an account of the logic underlying this relationship he had solved all philosophical problems. In the later period Wittgenstein rejected many of the assumptions of the Tractatus, arguing that the meaning of words is best understood as their use within a given context. This is classic:

Think of the following use of language: I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked ‘five red apples’. He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked ‘apples’, then he looks up the word ‘red’ in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers—I assume that he knows them by heart—up to the word ‘five’ and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer.—It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words—”But how does he know where and how he is to look up the word ‘red’ and what he is to do with the word ‘five’?” Well, I assume that he acts as I have described. Explanations come to an end somewhere.—But what is the meaning of the word ‘five’? No such thing was in question here, only how the word ‘five’ is used.

The very last piece is priceless. What is “five-ness”? This is the kind of question I used to ask my students (along with “what is blue-ness?” etc.), much to their frustration. We can use these words effectively, but definition is illusive. Look up “left” or “right” in the dictionary and see what you get. Here’s one of my common questions for students, following Wittgenstein: “prove to me that 2 + 2 = 4.” Most would show me by putting items (such as fingers) into two groups of two and then putting them together to make four. But I would reply by pointing out that this was merely demonstrating (using), and not proving. At that point they all got baffled, as well they should. You can (sort of) prove it mathematically, but you need a sophisticated understanding of set theory and other complicated stuff. Even then you have to accept certain things on faith such as that zero and the natural numbers exist at all! By the way, these were anthropology classes; I am not a philosopher. Wittgenstein has a long reach.

Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in nearly every field of the humanities and social sciences, yet there are diverging interpretations of his thought and, therefore, of its value. In the words of his friend and colleague Georg Henrik von Wright:

He was of the opinion that his ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples. He doubted he would be better understood in the future. He once said he felt as though he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.

There is a story told of someone going up to Wittgenstein and saying, “What a lot of morons they were back in the Middle Ages. They looked up at the dawn every morning and thought what they were seeing was the Sun going around the Earth, when every school kid knows that the Earth goes around the Sun,” to which Wittgenstein replied, “Yes, but I wonder what it would have looked like if the Sun had been going around the Earth?” (Incidentally, Einstein showed that without a frame of reference external to the universe it is just as legitimate to say that the sun goes round the earth as that the earth goes round the sun. Very few people understand the implications of relativity).


Here are some of my favorite quotes from the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations in no particular order:

I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself.

The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.

If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.

Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.

Only describe, don’t explain.

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree’, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Not how the world is, but that it is, is the mystery.

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.

Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push.

Problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known all long.

Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.

If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different. It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

How small a thought it takes to fill a life.

I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.

If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing.

The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy.

It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic.

If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him.

To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.

I hope Wittgenstein will approve of today’s “recipe.” It comes in the form of a story. John Maynard Keynes wrote this about him after meeting Wittgenstein in Cambridge in 1929:

My wife gave him some Swiss cheese and rye bread for lunch, which he greatly liked. Thereafter he more or less insisted on eating bread and cheese at all meals, largely ignoring the various dishes that my wife prepared. Wittgenstein declared that it did not much matter to him what he ate, so long as it always remained the same. When a dish that looked especially appetizing was brought to the table, I sometimes exclaimed “Hot Ziggety!” — a slang phrase that I learned as a boy in Kansas. Wittgenstein picked up this expression from me. It was inconceivably droll to hear him exclaim “Hot Ziggety!” when my wife put the bread and cheese before him.

So . . .bread and cheese it is. Have yourself a ploughman’s lunch. Here’s one I made for Plough Monday 2012.