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Why Ludwig Wittgenstein Matters

This piece has been excerpted from Simply Wittgenstein by James C. Klagge, part of Simply Charly’s Great Lives series.


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born in Vienna into a family of enormous wealth and culture. Since Wittgenstein and his family spoke German, they would have pronounced “w” like a “v,” “st” like “sht,” and “ei” like a long “i”—Lud-vig Vit-gun-shteyen. But I have heard some German-speaking scholars pronounce the name using British pronunciation—Wit-gun-steen. So it probably does not matter very much how you pronounce it, as long as you choose one way and stick to it.

Ludwig’s father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a businessman and industrialist, comparable in wealth and influence to the Krupps in Germany and Andrew Carnegie in the United States. One critic of Karl’s aggressive business style remarked that “the Vienna Stock Exchange stands in fear of God, Taussig [a trade economist], Wittgenstein and nothing else in the world.” The father’s forceful style and influence extended to his family as well. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide—two of them likely due to the unrelenting pressure and expectations of their father. 

The youngest of eight children, Ludwig managed to avoid some of the pressure from his father and choose his own career, but he retained Karl’s business-like purpose. He told his friend, Con Drury, in 1930: “My father was a businessman and I am a businessman: I want my philosophy to be businesslike, to get something done, to get something accomplished.” In 1940, he began discussing a presentation by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, with these words: “Let’s talk business with each other. Ordinary business….” Ludwig was impatient with the abstractions and theories of other philosophers.

Karl was also a patron of the arts, receiving frequent visits from the composers Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms, and commissioning a wedding portrait of his daughter Gretl by Gustav Klimt. He was married to Leopoldine Kalmus, a meek and devoted woman who played piano excellently and inspired her children with a love of music. Ludwig once bragged that there were seven grand pianos in his father’s house. Two of the sons aspired to careers in music, but Ludwig seems only to have mastered whistling, often performing whole movements of symphonies, either solo or with piano accompaniment. Near the end of his life, Ludwig told Drury: “It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?” 

Despite these important resemblances, Ludwig also strove to separate himself from his origins. For his university studies, he left Austria for Germany, and then eventually for England. After his father died in 1913, Ludwig took legal steps to ensure that he would inherit none of the family wealth. And for the time that remained of his mother’s life, until 1926, he avoided Vienna and family as much as he could. 

While Karl stood for progress in all of its cultural, economic, and technological manifestations, Ludwig used as the epigraph for his second book a line from the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy: “The trouble about progress is that it always looks much greater than it really is.”

In one way, Wittgenstein did “get something done.” At his death, he left behind some 20,000 pages of writings, he had lectured over a period of 17 years in some four dozen classes, he had fought in a world war, and he had designed and built a large house in Vienna. But, of those 20,000 pages, fewer than 100 were published in his lifetime. His students were few. And he fought on the losing side of a war that would largely destroy the culture in which he was raised. By all rights, he should have disappeared from history.

Yet, Wittgenstein is widely considered to be the most important philosopher of the 20th century. The popular “Leiter Reports” philosophy blog did three polls in 2009. In answer to “Who is the most important philosopher of the past 200 years?” 600 respondents voted Wittgenstein number one (LP1). He easily beat out better-known names such as John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx, as well as other 20th-century competitors such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. In a poll selecting “The 20 ‘Most Important’ Philosophers of the Modern Era [roughly, the last 400 years],” nearly 750 respondents voted him number four, trailing only Immanuel Kant, David Hume and René Descartes (LP2). And in a competition for “The 20 ‘Most Important’ Philosophers of All Time,” nearly 900 respondents placed Wittgenstein in 7th place. He was beaten by Plato, Aristotle and Socrates (LP3)—not bad company.

But if you know little about Wittgenstein and his work, this book is your chance to learn more.

There are three main reasons for the high regard in which Wittgenstein is held: 

Firstly, he emphasized the importance of language to philosophy. This attention to language was not altogether new, but it was sustained. At first, he took the language of science to be a model, but later he came to see the value of the wide range of uses of language from everyday life. His initial orientation toward scientific language influenced a movement called “Logical Positivism,” which took science as a model for philosophy. But his later appreciation of the wide range of uses of language influenced a reaction against Logical Positivism. It seemed that everyone could find in Wittgenstein’s work something to like and something to dislike. 

Secondly, he maintained that philosophy is not a set of doctrines, but a method to help avoid confusions of thought. This view set him apart from his predecessors and contemporaries. While they were trying to create a philosophy, Wittgenstein was trying to do philosophy. In this respect, he was like Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. Some philosophers might see progress in the creation of a large theoretical system of thought. Wittgenstein sought progress only in curing confusions. It’s progress, but not as great as it might seem.

Lastly, he insisted on the importance of context for understanding. Philosophers may have the popular reputation of navel-gazing, as though we might figure out something just by thinking about it, and it alone, hard enough. But Wittgenstein took a wider view. To him, words were part of sentences, sentences part of language, and languages part of communities. One of Wittgenstein’s students recalled that “it didn’t matter what subject matter Wittgenstein discussed. What was important was the method he brought to bear on the subject, which was always the same. He always emphasized the importance of the context for understanding things—when we ignore the context, what remains is flawed” (PPO, p. 356).

Wittgenstein’s writings create a certain fascination among readers or would-be readers. The one book that he published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP), was cryptic, oracular, and obscure; thus, it seems profound even if it is not understood. A second book, the Philosophical Investigations (PI), which was published shortly after his death, was more extensive and wide-ranging, but without a clear point. It could be, and was, put to a wide range of uses, both inside philosophy and outside. Figures as diverse as Stanley Hauerwas in theology, Marjorie Perloff in literary criticism, Steve Reich in music composition, and the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, have drawn on Wittgenstein’s work for guidance or inspiration.

But as important as Wittgenstein is taken to be, I have not met a person who has tried to read either of his two great books and come away without a feeling of deep frustration. This is especially true of readers with little background in philosophy, but it is even true of those with a good deal of background and experience in philosophy. Invariably, the problem is that the context is missing.

It is most common to put the book down after several pages and wonder what Wittgenstein could be talking about. Unfortunately, he gives us almost no guidance, and it is difficult to guess for ourselves. So, it is best to read the books in the company of a guide. That is the purpose of Simply Wittgenstein. Once you get to know him and get a sense of what he is talking about and why, once you see how his comments raise or contribute to issues of larger interest, you will agree that reading Wittgenstein is well worth the effort. 

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