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It is frequently said that Ludwig Wittgenstein is the most important philosopher of the 20th century, and it is clear that he is the most puzzling.  The logical positivists recognized him as a major influence and he repudiated them.   He founded one branch of ordinary language philosophy but seems to have left no true heirs.  He treated students and other philosophers brutally, having little interest in the direction of their thought, but he was also capable of unexpected acts of kindness.  An ascetic with a sort of charismatic power, he often impressed those who met him as being either a charlatan or a saint.  He was born into one of the richest families in Europe, but gave his fortune away to his relatives when it descended to him.  Few doubted that he was a genius

The only book he published in his lifetime was the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus  (TLP); his other major work, the Philosophical Investigations (PI), was published after his death (as were many volumes compiled from his notes, even including a collection of fragments, Zettel).   Anyone who burrows into this mass of material will doubt that it would ever have been published except for the profound effect his personality made on those around him.  The TLP is an aphoristic and sketchy treatise on mathematical logic and the world, written in numbered paragraphs and ending on the mystical number 7.  I doubt that logicians can make much of it without a great deal of hand-waving.  The PI is tiresomely prosaic and seems not to go anywhere.  (It apparently mirrors his lecture style, but his disciples were tremendously impressed with the visible struggle to bring an idea to birth, the process of thinking made manifest.)

The problem of understanding Wittgenstein the philosopher is clearly the problem of understanding Wittgenstein the man, and this means that we must be ready to throw away the philosophizing in order to recognize the impulse which moved him.  He tells us to do as much.  In proposition 6.54 of the TLP, he says:

6.54  My propositions explain matters in this way:  whoever understands me knows them to be nonsensical at the end, when he has climbed through them—on them—over them.  He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.  He must surmount these propositions:  then he will see the world correctly

And in the preface he says:  “Perhaps this book will only be understood by someone who has already had the same thoughts—or thoughts similar to those expressed in it.” It is obvious from this that the real purpose of the book is not to work out a mathematical-logical language that will allow us to solve the problems of philosophy.  After all, details of such a system could easily be understood by logicians.  Instead, the main point is something that they might find hard to grasp . . . or to accept!  The preface goes on to say:

“This book deals with philosophical problems and shows—I believe—that the formulation of these problems is based on a misunderstanding of the logic of our language.  The whole sense of the book can be stated in these words:  what can be said can be said clearly, and we must be silent about those things that cannot be said”

Again, if this is the sense of the book, the logical system developed in it is quite beside the point.

Wittgenstein clearly believes that the problems of philosophy can be solved by recognizing a truth about philosophy and language, and that this is a means of “stopping doing philosophy.”  He makes this very clear in the book itself.  Let’s go through it, picking out the salient points as we reach them.

3.323  In everyday language it is extremely common for one word to have different kinds of meanings . . . or for two words with different kinds of meanings to be used in similar ways.

3.324  The most fundamental confusions easily originate in this way—and philosophy is full of them.

4.003    Most of the propositions and questions written about philosophical things are not false but nonsensical. . . .  Most questions and propositions of philosophy originate in the fact that we don’t understand the logic of our language. . . .  And it is not surprising that the deepest problems are not really problems at all.

Wittgenstein believes that there is something wrong with the philosophical use of language itself—with activity of philosophizing.  He goes on to contrast this with the everyday use of language.

.5563  All of the propositions of our everyday language are on a completely logical footing, just as they stand.

Then he turns to logic.

6.1  The propositions of logic are tautologies.

6.11  Therefore the propositions of logic say nothing.

And later . . .

6.1251  Thus, there cannot be any surprises in logic.

This is why he believes that logic cannot be used to answer the fundamental human questions, as he and Russell had once believed.

6.44  It is not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is.

6.5  When the answer cannot be given, the question cannot be asked.  The puzzle does not exist.  If the question can be asked, the answer can be given.

Thus, the questions of philosophy are pseudo-questions.

6.52  We feel that when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life are still untouched. But no questions then remain, and this is, itself, the answer.

6.521  The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. . . .

6.522  There are things that cannot be said.  They reveal themselves.  They are what is mystical.  (Remember, it is not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is.)

6.53  The correct method of doing philosophy would be this:  to say nothing except what can be said—that is, the propositions of science—that is. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone wanted to say something metaphysical, to show him that he has not given meaning to certain signs in his propositions.  Although this would be unsatisfying to him—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—this would be the only strictly correct method.

Then in 6.54, the passage already quoted, he says that his propositions are nonsensical, and concludes:

7  Of those things we cannot talk about, we must be silent.

This is the message of the TLP.  But what fills up the spaces between these propositions?  To answer this question we need to know what happened to Wittgenstein before and during the First World War.  He had been a student of Bertrand Russell, one of the authors of the Principia Mathematica, the monumental work which established the logical underpinnings of mathematics.  For Russell, this was the beginning of a program to create a mathematical-logical language that could be used to solve the questions of philosophy.  Wittgenstein had gone to Norway just before the war, and was living in isolation, struggling with Russell’s problems (which he then called “our problems”).  When the war started, he joined the Austrian army, serving with conspicuous courage, and was captured and interned by the Italians.  In a letter sent to Russell from the prison-camp he says:

“I’ve written a book called “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung” containing all 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.”

This book was the TLP, which didn’t receive its Latin title, an echo of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, until later.  (That title was suggested by G.E. Moore.)

Thus, the origins of the book lay in Russell’s program, which Wittgenstein shared before the war.  What transformed it to the book we know is best described by Russell.  He is not usually a good source of information on Wittgenstein’s thinking because he didn’t understand it, but that is exactly what makes him useful here.  He is writing to Lady Ottoline:  “I had felt in his book a flavour of mysticism, but was astonished when I found that he has become a complete mystic. . . . It all started from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience . . . . ”  To further make his point he gives a list of the insidious books Wittgenstein had been reading: Kierkegaard, Angelus Silesius, Tolstoy on the Gospels, and Dostoevsky!   Wittgenstein had changed, but while he was undergoing this transformation, he was still enmeshed in mathematical logic.  The book he had been working on for years kept its mathematical-logical framework, but it was turned in a new direction to become a sort of reductio ad absurdum of philosophizing.

The TLP sketches out what an ideal logical/philosophical language might be like, characterizing language and errors of language use as it goes. It then concludes that such a language wouldn’t touch on the vital questions of life at all.  Thus, Wittgenstein finds the logical system he has developed irrelevant because it can only mirror the world and cannot penetrate into it, comment upon it, inform it.  The inflection point is somewhere around 6.41:  “The sense of the world must lie outside of it.  In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it happens:  there is no value in it—and if it there were any, then that would have no value.”  Such statements bother philosophers who work their way through the TLP in a step-by-step manner, locked into the development of the logical system—and the statements are dismissed as Wittgenstein’s mysticism.  In fact, they are near the core of the book.  Wittgenstein believed that ordinary language as used in science was the means of answering all of the questions that can be answered.  He makes this quite clear in 5.5563 and 6.52, quoted above.  The irony is that it was the development of the logical system that made the TLP a philosophy classic, not its central argument.

After its publication, Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy; after all, he believed he had solved its problems.  He had given away his fortune, and he had a powerful need to live a useful life so he became a primary school teacher.  The Pedagogic Institute where he was trained was the nucleus of educational reform in Austria, and Wittgenstein was taught to encourage children to learn by themselves, rather than to drill them.  For the next six years he labored to teach the children of the rural poor, and it is clear that he didn’t have the temperament for it.  He was frustrated by the fact that most of the children had no desire to learn, his exacting personality made him a disciplinarian, and he grew to dislike the people among whom he had to work.

When he returned to Cambridge in 1929, he didn’t approach philosophy in the same way he had before.  His training with the Pedagogic Institute may have had something to do with this, for in the Philosophical Investigations he makes use of “language games” that elicit the uses of words.  Nonetheless, much of what he does in the PI is prefigured in the TLP.  Remember that in proposition 3.324 he says that philosophy is full of confusions brought about by the misuse of words and in 6.53 he says that the only way to do philosophy is to point out errors in the language use of others.  Then, in 6.211 he hints at a technique that becomes central to the PI:  “Time after time in philosophy the question, ‘what do we really use this word or this proposition for?’ leads to valuable insights.”

The Philosophical Investigations bears a distinct resemblance to the Blue Book and Brown Book, books of notes he dictated for his students’ use, and it sounds like the descriptions we have of his classroom teaching.  It is organized by numbered paragraphs, and if it seems interminable, that is because it is.  He once said something like the following:

“In teaching you philosophy I’m like a guide showing you how to find your way round London.  I have to take you through the city from north to south, from east to west, from Euston to the embankment and from Piccadilly to the Marble Arch.  After I have taken you many journeys through the city, in all sorts of directions, we shall have passed through any given street a number of times—each time traversing the street as part of a different journey.  At the end of this you will know London; you will be able to find your way around like a born Londoner.”

His “student” is never given a map, but he does learn the city.  Such driving could go on forever, but the goal—understanding—could be reached at almost any time.  In the Investigations, we are exploring the ways in which we misuse language, and we could—if we were very dense—continue to do this forever, as well.

But let’s put all of that aside and look at the sections that speak to us directly about philosophy and tell us what the enterprise should be about.

  1. . . . philosophical problems originate when language goes on vacation.
  2. . . . Problems are not solved by producing new information, but by putting together what we have long known. Philosophy is a struggle against the enchantment of our understanding by means of language. [W. must mean any “true” philosophy.]
  3. . . . We take words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.
  4. What does this examination get its importance from, since it seems to destroy everything that is interesting, everything that is great and important? . . . But these are just cloud castles we are destroying, and we leave open the ground of language upon which they stood.
  5. . . . The results of [our] philosophy are the uncovering of some plain nonsense and the bumps that our understanding has gotten by running up against the limits of language.
  6. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way around.”
  7. What is your goal in philosophy?—to show the fly the way out of the fly-trap.
  8. What I want to teach you is to recognize in [W. has übergehen, “pass from”] something that is not obvious nonsense, something that is patent nonsense

From all of this, you could think that philosophy, as Wittgenstein conceives it, is an activity that philosophers might engage in for a long time, clearing out the rubble created by earlier philosophers, setting the house of language in order.  That is how many philosophers would like to interpret it, but to do so is to miss the point entirely, as paragraph 133 makes clear.

  1. . . . The real discovery is the one that makes it possible for me to stop philosophizing when I want to. The one that brings peace to philosophy so that it is no longer tortured by questions that bring itself into question

We can stop philosophizing because we come to understand the logic of our language, and we recognize that philosophizing—itself—is what creates the problems.  Then, all of the problems vanish and we will not create any more because we will not philosophize any more.  Once again, it is clear that Wittgenstein believes he has solved all of the problems of philosophy, and it would be absurd to think that he is claiming to have done so in an entirely different way than he did before.  For him, the paragraphs of the PI are no more important than the propositions of the TLP were.  What is vital is understanding the logic of the language.

Those who argue that his view of philosophy had changed since 1919 often quote his remarks from the preface to the PI.  Here, he says, “I have been forced to recognize serious errors in what I said in that first book.” It would be surprising if he didn’t find mistakes in the development of the logical system of the TLP, and he gives credit to Frank Ramsey, a logician, for helping him see them.  He also refers to his “old way of thinking,” and that, of course, is the logico-mathematical approach, but I believe it is a mistake to think that this is a repudiation of the core of the TLP we have extracted above.  The fact that he has abandoned the mathematical-logical approach for the ordinary language approach has little to do with what is being argued.  The PI is an outgrowth of the TLP.  Philosophizing creates disguised nonsense, Philosophical problems do not exist, and of those things we cannot talk about, we must remain silent.

We might stop there, but it is useful to look at just a few of his remarks on philosophers and philosophizing.  When he was trying to get the Tractatus published, he said that it would be like casting pearls before swine to show a book of philosophy to a philosophy professor.  To Gilbert Ryle he said, “As little philosophy as I have read, I have certainly not read too little, rather too much.  I see that whenever I read a philosophical book:  it doesn’t improve my thoughts at all, it makes them worse.”  And, when he was examined for the Ph.D. in 1929, using the Tractatus—which was already famous—as his dissertation, he clapped his examiners, Russell and Moore, on the shoulders and said:  “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”


People often talk about the Zen-like aspects of Wittgenstein’s teaching.  This is amusingly illustrated by the following comparison.  In paragraph 116 of the PI—the one in which he talks about taking words back from their metaphysical to their everyday uses—he says:

When philosophers use a word—“knowledge,” “being,” “object,” “I,” “proposition,” “name”—and strive to catch the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: would this word actually be used like that in the language that is its home?

This harmonizes perfectly with the teaching of a fourteenth century Zen Master:

Yuen-men one day produced his staff before an assembly of monks and said:  “Common people naively take it for reality; the two Yanas analyze it and declare it to be non-existent; the Pratyekabuddhas declare it to be a Maya-like existence; and the Bodhisattvas accept it as it is, declaring it empty.  As regards Zen followers, when they see a staff, they simply call it a staff.  If they want to walk, they just walk; if they want to sit, they just sit.

When I first read the Tractatus, it crystallized for me a number of ideas I had had, and I have always been grateful to Wittgenstein for that.  (In fact, the Tractatus is on the list of books that I think everyone should read—which, in this case, means “skim.”)  This essay originated in a paper I wrote for a Wittgenstein Seminar in 1966.  Since then I have made this interpretation the subject of a public lecture and part of a conference paper.  I have also shared it with friends in the American Philosophical Association—to little avail, I might add.

The English translations from the TLP and the PI are both mine.  They are rather free, for my intention has been to make his statements as readable as possible while maintaining the sense of what he is saying.  One must remember that he was sketching out a complex logical system (and despite his opinion of philosophers, they would have been his primary audience) so his statements are very precise.  That being said, I have only quoted those parts that have a clear, direct meaning, for they are the only ones that are relevant to my argument—and ultimately to his.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D.F. Pears and Brian McGuiness.  London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations 2d ed. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe.  New York:  The McMillan Company, 1958.

These books were the ones I used when I was studying Wittgenstein in the sixties.  As you might gather from the remarks I have made above, I don’t think that more precise translations could alter the meaning of what Wittgenstein was saying.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore.  Trans. G.H. von Wright.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.  The source of the letter to Russell from the prison-camp, Cassino.

Monk, Ray.  Ludwig Wittgenstein:  The Duty of Genius.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1990.  An excellent biography, and the source for the quotes in the last paragraph.  (I might add that I think that there are some things that biographies should not delve into—this is my one objection to Monk.)

Fann, K.T.  Ludwig Wittgenstein:  the Man and His Philosophy.  Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1967.  One essay in this, “Wittgenstein as a Teacher” by D.A.T. Gasking and A.C. Johnson, is the source of Wittgenstein’s analogy about teaching philosophy and teaching someone how to find his way around in London.  This is not a verbatim account, but a transcribed memory.  I have always thought that Fann’s discussions of Wittgenstein’s thinking are interesting.

Dumoulin, Heinrich.  A History of Zen Buddhism.  McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963.  Yuen-men’s lecture on the staff is quoted from D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism, volume III.

Edwards, David, and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein’s Poker.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2001.  I didn’t refer to this, but I recommend it as a first source for anyone who knows little about the philosophy of the period between the wars.