Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (/ˈvɪtɡənˌstaɪn/;[6] German: [ˈvɪtgənˌʃtaɪn]; 26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.[7] From 1929 to 1947, Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge.[8] 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.[9] His voluminous manuscripts were edited and published posthumously. Philosophical Investigations appeared as a book in 1953, and has since come to be recognised as one of the most important works of philosophy in the twentieth century.[10] His teacher Bertrand Russell described Wittgenstein as "the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating".[11]

Born in Vienna into one of Europe's richest families, he inherited a fortune from his father in 1913. He initially made some donations to artists and writers and then, in a period of severe personal depression after the First World War, he gave away his entire fortune to his brothers and sisters.[12][13] Three of his brothers committed suicide, with Wittgenstein contemplating it too.[14] 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 where he encountered controversy for hitting children when they made mistakes in mathematics; and working as a hospital porter during World War II in London where he told patients not to take the drugs they were prescribed while largely managing to keep secret the fact that he was one of the world's most famous philosophers.[15][16] He described philosophy as "the only work that gives me real satisfaction".[17]

His philosophy is often divided into an early period, exemplified by the Tractatus, and a later period, articulated in the Philosophical Investigations. The early 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. The later Wittgenstein rejected many of the assumptions of the Tractatus, arguing that the meaning of words is best understood as their use within a given language-game.[18]

A survey among American university and college teachers ranked the Investigations as the most important book of 20th-century philosophy, standing out as "the one crossover masterpiece in twentieth-century philosophy, appealing across diverse specializations and philosophical orientations."[19] The Investigations also ranked 54th on a list of most influential twentieth-century works in cognitive science prepared by the University of Minnesota's Center for Cognitive Sciences.[20] However, in the words of his friend Georg Henrik von Wright, he believed "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 was writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men."[21]

Philosophy of Psychology[edit | edit source]

The second part of Philosophical Investigations contains analysis of some psychological phenomena such as "aspect seeing".

Aspect seeing[edit | edit source]

Aspect seeing is the ability to see one thing in multiple ways. An example used by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations is that we can see the "duckrabbit" either as a duck or as a rabbit.

Duckrabbit. This figure can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit.

One of the ways we can become bewitched by language is that we can come to think that there must be such a thing as "THE meaning" of words and sentences. If we fall into making this assumption then it is easy to imagine that there exists the possibility of having some kind of database containing the meaning of every word and that to understand a sentence all you have to do is use that database to find the meaning of all the words in the sentence. However, words are like the "duckrabbit". One word can easily be "seen" to have two meanings.

Just as we can see the "duckrabbit" as either a duck or a rabbit, we can mentally construct many subtle meanings for a single word depending on the context of that word. Rather than imagine that there is a fixed meaning for any word, we can view words as tools that we use socially to activate certain elements of memory so as to allow us to share common patterns of thought. Each time we make use of a word, it goes to work and shapes a new meaning in each listener according to past experiences of the listener and the current context of the word's use.

The "duckrabbit" and aspect seeing are iconic of Wittgenstein's philosophy and his shift from the idealistic theory of the Tractatus to the realistic investigations of human language found in Philosophical Investigations. One of the great dangers we face in making use of our minds is getting trapped in only being able to see the world in one way. Wittgenstein's experience of first seeing language in terms of an over-simplified formal and logical system and then later being able to liberate himself from that view is one of the great intellectual adventures of 20th century philosophy.

See also[edit | edit source]

  • Note: The Language Journal has an article about Wittgenstein that needs peer review.
  • "Way is obscured when men understand only one of a pair of opposites, or concentrate only a partial aspect of being. Then clear expression also becomes muddied by mere wordplay, affirming this one apsect and denying the rest." - Zhuangzi
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