Favorite Philosophers (2): Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born in Austria and spent much of his life in Cambridge. He lived a fascinating and very sad life – for example, three of his four brothers committed suicide. His main areas of focus are logic, math, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. His two major works are Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. He has had a huge impact across many disciplines, and is considered by some to be greatest philosopher of 20th century.

Wittgenstein does not fit into any philosophical school, but he is similar to Kant in his emphasis on the limits of language and reason in philosophy, and similar to some of the existentialists in that he emphasizes that philosophy should be practically helpful and is skeptical of metaphysical claims. Much of his work was in the attempt to limit the ability of human language to refer to metaphysical reality. Knowledge of ultimate reality must be shown, not told. Philosophy is descriptive, not deductive. The problems of philosophy are solved only when they go away. In the Tractacus he wrote, “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”

In college I had a professor who would occasionally dismiss a student’s comment with the remark, “that’s just a language game.” This was a Wittgensteinian influence, and a Wittgensteinian phrase. According to Wittgenstein, words do not have a static meaning corresponding to some external object, but rather take on various meanings according to the way they are used in their speaker’s language. To understand the meaning of a word, you must look at its context, and how it is being used by the speaker – how it fits in with the overall “game” of what the speaker is saying. Some interesting quotes:

“Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it.”
“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”
“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”

One thing I find interesting about Wittgenstein is that, despite being very post-modern and skeptical, he seemed to recognize some of the problems inherent in rigorous skepticism. He was certainly not a Christian – Bertrand Russell (his teacher and one time friend) said of him: “he is far more terrible with Christians than I am.” But he recognized that doubting is only possible when there is already faith. According to Wittgenstein, doubting is only possible where testing is possible (in which a belief is found wanting of evidence, and thus doubtful), and tests presuppose something that is not doubted and not tested. He said, “our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like the hinges on which those turn.” Therefore, he claimed, “the game of doubting presupposes certainty.”

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  1. That’s a great post, Gav. They had us read Philosophical Investigations in college, but it went way over my head. I need to re-read it; I think W. was right on in terms of language: i.e., languages are anything but static ways of naming things, but already a kind of interpretation of the world, and are thus creative.