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Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Ludwig WittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889, in Vienna, Austria to Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein, the youngest of eight children. Ludwig's father was a wealthy and successful industrialist who enjoyed a position of prominence in Viennese society.

Although he was brought up in a very cultural and musical environment, Ludwig did not attend school until he was 14 years old. He studied engineering first in Berlin and then in Manchester, England.

While he was at Manchester he became interested in philosophy, particularly Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics. On the advice of Gottlob Frege, with whom he was friendly, he went to Cambridge in 1912 to study with Russell.

Wittgenstein's studies were interrupted in 1914 by the beginning of the First World War, whereupon he joined the Austrian army, serving mainly on the eastern front. It was during this time that he kept notebooks on what would eventually become Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), his first great work and for which he would later earn a doctorate from Cambridge.

The central theme of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the relationship between language, thought and reality. For Wittgenstein, language was the observable form of thought and bound to reality by a common logical form or structure. He insisted that the meaning of linguistic expressions must be determined by the nature of the world otherwise the meaning or sense of an expression would be vague and uncertain. From Russell he borrowed the idea that both language and the world must be understood in terms of their fundamental components. However, he veered from his teachers by arguing that the core structure of sentences must mirror exactly, or picture, the essential structure of the world. 

This became known as his 'picture theory' of meaning - that sentences are representations (pictures) of possible states of affairs. Since logical order is necessary for sense, ordinary language, according to Wittgenstein, could not be logically imperfect as both Russell and Frege had put forth. Instead, he argued, "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence." 

Tractatus TheologicoAfter the publication of Tractatus, Wittgenstein declared that in it he solved all the problems of philosophy and he consequently retired from academic life. He gave away his inherited fortune and lived in Austria, first as a schoolteacher and then as a gardener.

However, by 1929 Wittgenstein became unhappy with some aspects of his early work and returned to Cambridge. In the meantime, his work was receiving critical acclaim and beginning to exert major influence in European schools of thought. This left Wittgenstein with the unusual predicament of being the most fervent critic of his own early work. He spent the next 20 years clarifying and rectifying the confusion of his early thinking.

In the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1952), Wittgenstein remained concerned with the nature of language, thought and reality; however, this time he rejected both the claim that meaning is dependent on reality and that language is essentially concerned with representation. Objects are not literally the meanings of names, rather they serve as illuminations of meaning.

As an example, pointing to a table helps explain what the word 'table' means. At the same time, Wittgenstein realized, language has many functions. Words are tools that we use for many different purposes in different contexts. What a word means depends both on what it is being used to do and the context in which it is used. It is a mistake to consider meaning as essentially tied to the nature of reality. Meaning cannot be separate from the activities and behaviors of language users which both reflect and explain the meaning of words. In other words, language is multifaceted and context-dependent. It can be used for, as well as accomplish, many different things. Words gain their meaning from the rules which govern their usage. 

It was Wittgenstein's belief that it is the job of philosophy to uncover and analyze the various ways in which language can be confusing and perplexing. Philosophy, as he put it in Investigations, "is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

Wittgenstein has been considered one of the most interesting and influential of the great philosophers. He was described by Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating." In 1999 Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was ranked as the most important book of 20th-century philosophy.

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