Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wittgenstein: Final Report



Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austria philosopher who was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna. He came from a large, wealthy family, as his father was one of the most successful businessmen in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although his family was originally Jewish, his father, Karl Wittgenstein, was brought up Protestant and his mother, who was also part Jewish, had been raised as Catholic. The Wittgensteins were full of creativity and talent, and their family home was always abundant with famous intellectual visitors, such as Karl Kraus, Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Johannes Brahms, Bruno Walter, and many others. Despite their wealth and power, Wittgenstein’s family often suffered from tragedy. He was the youngest of eight children, and of his four brothers, three of them committed suicide.


As for his career, he studied mechanical engineering in Berlin and then went to England in 1908 to study aeronautics. For a long time he wanted to be an architect, even helped one of his sisters with an architectural project in Vienna, but life led him elsewhere eventually. His interest in engineering led him to an interest in mathematics, which in turn led him to thinking about the foundations of mathematics and thus philosophical questions. After that, Wittgenstein went to Cambridge where he met and studied with several great philosophers of the time such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and GE Moore. Upon meeting Wittgenstein, Russell was reported to have said “An unknown German appeared… obstinate and perverse, but I think not stupid.” As he continued his work on logic, he greatly impressed these philosophical thinkers. Within a year of their meeting, Russell was convinced of Wittgenstein’s great potential, saying “I shall certainly encourage him. Perhaps he will do great things… I love him and feel he will solve the problems I am too old to solve.” Coming from Bertrand Russell, this was a glowing compliment that showed Wittgenstein’s brilliant ability to think philosophically. As their relationship progressed over the years, the two grew incredibly close emotionally.

Wittgenstein was a very charismatic man, although he highly valued his privacy and even built himself a hut in Norway so he could live in seclusion. He himself said that he wasn’t sure that philosophy was the right line of work, even went so far as to call it a “trivial job”, as he wasn’t sure there was even such a thing as a real philosophical question. He was very articulate, although he was also seen as severe and was considered an overbearing talker. He worked for a while as a gardener at a monastery, and then during the Second World War he was a porter at a hospital in London. Interestingly, he was a homosexual, but he felt uncomfortable in the famous gay community at Cambridge, and he in turn made those community members uncomfortable as well. He was a very private man.

Wittgenstein’s first work was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was first published in German in 1921 and then was translated and published in England in 1922. This work evolved as a response to Russell and Frege’s ideas on language and logic, addressing the central problems of philosophy that deal with the world. In it, Wittgenstein sees the world as consisting of facts, rather than the traditional concept that the world is made of objects. His main message in this work was that the most important questions, such as those regarding ethics and religion, are beyond our understanding and if we cannot talk meaningfully about them, we should not talk about them at all. One of the most famous lines was ‘Death is not an event in life’, which, according to A Little History of Philosophy, demonstrates the idea that events are things we experience, but our death will be the removal of the possibility of experience. Our own death is not something that we ourselves can experience or somehow live through. It was a revelation in the world of philosophy and to thinkers of the time.



One of Wittgenstein’s later works was Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953. In it, he describes what came to be known as the Private Language Argument, which provided a critical objection to the idea of solipsism (the idea that other people are just things that we perceive and this make up). Those who argue against defining art, claiming that there is too much variation to find a common denominator, use another idea from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, the idea of family resemblance. The idea is this: a child may look like his father, and the child’s father may look like his sister, but the child may look nothing like the father’s sister. It can be so with art. Despite clear similarities between some works of art, there may be no common feature that they all obviously share. Wittgenstein’s thinking was influential to many intellectuals in many disciplines, in his time and in the present day.


The video below is a scene from Derek Jarman's 1989 film "Wittgenstein". In the scene, Wittgenstein is attempting to explore the thoughts that go into language, which was the central theme in his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He talks about the lion, which we could not understand even if the lion could speak, because we do not know what the lion's world is like, and therefore cannot begin to interpret his language. "Philosophy is just a bi-product of misunderstanding language."



To wrap, I wanted to share some of Wittgenstein’s quotes, which really stuck out to me. Some of these were found earlier in this report, and some I added at the end to encourage our own philosophical thinking. These are words we could all reflect on.

 “The limits of my language mean the limits to my world.”

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

 “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to meet not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”

“The world is independent of my will.”

“One of the most misleading representational techniques in our language is the use of the word ‘I’”.

And of course, some words that we could all get a laugh from.

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

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

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


“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

-Kayla Karlovic, Section 10

Sources used (MLA citations):

1) Warburton, Nigel. Philosophy: The Basics. Fifth ed. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

2) Warburton, Nigel. A Little History of Philosophy. London: Yale UP, 2012. Print.

3) Fulford, Robert. "Wittgenstein, the Fun Philosopher." National Post. 19 July 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/07/19/wittgenstein-the-fun-philosopher/>.

4) Biletzki, Anat, and Anat Matar. "Ludwig Wittgenstein." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 3 Mar. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/#Ear>.

5) Monk, Ray. "Ludwig Wittgenstein." Encyclopedia Britannica. Enclyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 7 July 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/646252/Ludwig-Wittgenstein>.

1 comment:

  1. Very good, Kayla. Outstanding, in fact.

    What a strange and intriguing guy, "Witty" (a nickname hung on him by a former student). And, what an experience it must have been, to be his student! (Although physicist Freeman Dyson, a student at Cambridge while Wittgenstein was still there, says he was hopelessly misogynistic.)
    As for understanding the Lion: I think I'd get his body language well enough!

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