Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein


The Tractatus

Wittgenstein's philosophical thought is unified by a constant concern with the relationship between language, mind, and reality; but it divides into two importantly different phases. The first phase, expressed in the Tractatus, posits a close, formal relationship between language, thought, and the world; there is a direct logical correspondence between the configurations of simple objects in the world, thoughts in the mind, and words in language. Thus the shape of ideas in the mind and the relationship of words in a sentence are identical in form with the structure of reality or "state of affairs" they represent. Language and thought work literally like a picture of the real, and to conceive or speak of any state of affairs is to be able to form a "picture" of it.

To understand any sentence one must grasp the reference of its constituents, both to each other and to the real. Meaning in thought and language requires a direct reference to the real. The Tractatus, however, made a distinction between what language could say and what it might show. The structures of language and thought could indicate, but not represent, their very correspondence to reality; unsayable things thus exist, and sentences whose structures of meaning amount strictly to nonsense can result in philosophical insight. Thus the Tractatus did not, like the logical positivists, reject the metaphysical; rather, it denied the possibility of stating the metaphysical: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Philosophical Investigations and Later Works

The second phase of Wittgenstein's philosophy commenced with his return to Cambridge in 1929 and continued until his death in 1951; his major work of that period is the Philosophical Investigations (1953). In this period he revised his own thought in the Tractatus, stressing the conventional nature of language. Its meaning was influenced not only by the formal resemblance of its constituents to reality but by the situation, the "language game," in which it was used. Wittgenstein's work greatly influenced, and indeed in a sense occasioned, what has come to be called ordinary language philosophy, that is, the position that maintains that all philosophical problems arise from the illusions created by the ambiguities of language. Philosophy, therefore, must be chiefly concerned with the analysis and proper use of language. This outlook still forms a powerful trend in Great Britain and the United States.

Other of Wittgenstein's posthumous works are Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the Philosophical Investigations (1958), and Notebooks 1914–16 (1961).

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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