Who was Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, Austria in 1889. As a young man he studied engineering, but his mathematical work in this area led him to developing an interest in the philosophy of mathematics and then philosophy in general. Wittgenstein read and admired the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s book, The Principles of Mathematics. In 1911, he went to England to study with Russell at the University of Cambridge, but left to fight for Austria in World War I. During the war he wrote a philosophical book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,1 which became very influential. The work focused on showing how language and the world relate to each other, explaining how our words and sentences acquire meaning. Believing he had now solved philosophy’s main problems, Wittgenstein gave up philosophy and became a schoolteacher in Austria.


In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge to teach and began a new phase in his philosophical thinking. There he argued against many of the things he once believed, including what he had written in the Tractatus. He now thought that the Tractatus account of language was too far removed from our everyday experience of using language.

Wittgenstein did not, however, publish his new ideas during his lifetime. Instead he discussed them with friends and students. He wrote many sets of notes and drafts for a book setting out his ideas, though he was never quite happy with what he had written. His students compiled and edited the material included in Philosophical Investigations, publishing the book after his death in 1951.

Investigations, like the Tractatus, gave rise to new schools of thought in philosophy. Wittgenstein is now widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, and many people see Philosophical Investigations as his best work.

What Does Philosophical Investigations Say?

Published in 1953, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a complex work. In it, Wittgenstein does not focus on a single argument, but instead develops a number of themes, the most important of which is about language. He believes that philosophical problems arise from the confused use of language and that the way to solve those problems is by clarifying language use—not by discovering new facts or inventing new theories.

Investigations provides an alternative to conventional ways of thinking about philosophy. Philosophers often view themselves as producing general theories about the world. Wittgenstein argues that this is a mistake. He also challenges the popular belief at the time that he wrote Investigations that science can solve all important intellectual problems. To him, philosophical problems are quite different from scientific ones and cannot be solved by finding out more about the world.

If we want to understand both language and mind, Wittgenstein thinks we must study ordinary uses of language. We must look at how people use language in their everyday lives. This will differ greatly in different societies and cultures. So when Wittgenstein asks: what is the meaning of a word or sentence? He answers: the meaning lies in the way it is used in language. In other words, to understand meaning, we should look at how different people, cultures, and communities use words and sentences because meaning is essentially a public and social phenomenon.

Wittgenstein criticizes the idea that the German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege, among others, proposed: that meanings are abstract. Wittgenstein contended instead that the needs of everyday life determine the way we use words and sentences. We use language to make jokes, buy food, or play games, he says. Abstract rules do not govern the way we use language, and the way people have used language in the past does not tell us how to use words now.

Wittgenstein argues, too, that private language—language that can only one person can understand—is impossible. So language cannot take its meaning from a particular individual’s inner thoughts because meanings are not private mental states. Language depends on public use to have meaning.

Investigations moves away from the abstract and highlights the importance of human context. Wittgenstein argues that the problems of philosophy cannot be understood independently of the human situations in which they arise. In order to understand abstract philosophical ideas like truth and meaning, we need to look at how human beings actually live their lives.

The book is still very widely studied and discussed. It is certainly one of the most influential philosophical works of the twentieth century. However, few people would say that it has been entirely understood. Interpreters still argue about what it means, while philosophers and other readers continue to find new insights and ideas in it.

Why Does Philosophical Investigations Matter?

Philosophical Investigations is a difficult work to understand, partly because it deals with difficult and complex questions. But Wittgenstein also writes in an unusual way. Rather than putting forward the themes of the book in a straightforward argument, he offers remarks on and illustrates those themes.  As a result, even though individual sections are often easy to read, it becomes hard to see how they all fit together.

Nevertheless, Investigations can still be pleasurable to read. Wittgenstein writes well, so the book can be enjoyed on a literary level. It is full of interesting ideas, metaphors, and suggestions. His idea of comparing the ways that we use language to the playing of games, for example, has had an impact on many readers. They have found that the book inspires them to think in new ways. Wittgenstein himself says in the preface that his aim is to stimulate readers to develop thoughts of their own.

The book is relevant to many different disciplines. It is certainly a revolutionary work of philosophy, but it has also had an impact on a number of other areas. Its emphasis on how social environment shapes language was important to linguists. In addition, Wittgenstein’s thoughts on how we use language to do things other than to state truths has influenced both theologians and literary critics. For example, theologians are interested in how religious language not only states supposed facts about God, but also expresses emotions.

Philosophical Investigations has also had an effect outside academia, inspiring writers, poets, and film-makers, including I. A. Richards, Derek Jarman, and David Foster Wallace. That is because Wittgenstein emphasizes the importance of everyday life and language and the differences between societies and cultures. This still matters today when we are much more aware of the importance of cultural differences than writers had been before Wittgenstein’s time.

The book also offers a method from which readers can learn. Wittgenstein approaches difficult problems by finding new ways to look at them. He believes that the best way to solve a problem is to formulate it correctly. Often, once we know what questions to ask, then it becomes easier to find the solution. Suppose, for example, that we ask for the meaning of the word “please.” We would go wrong if we looked for a single meaning that the word stands for. Instead we should look to how it is used. We say “please” in order to acquire something, to be polite, and so on.

Wittgenstein thinks philosophical problems come about because of the way we use language. So if we clarify the words and sentences that we use, we will come to see the world much more clearly. Wittgenstein believes that philosophical problems are essentially linguistic confusions. It is a controversial view. To what extent are philosophical problems really a language issue? But, whatever the case, Wittgenstein’s method of approaching problems by examining the ways in which we describe them is useful.

Source: Macat

Posted by on 3. December 2015.. Filed under Ludwig Wittgenstein,Philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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