Wittgenstein Anyone?

Three questions here:

Has anyone actually read Wittgenstein?

What is the main thrust of his philosophical work?

Do you like or dislike his philosophy? Why??

I have read Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, The Blue and Brown Books, and On Certainty. Later this summer I plan to read Philosophical Investigations, probably his most significant work.

Wittgenstein was something of an anti-philosopher. Rather than try to resolve philosophical problems, he tried to dissolve philosophical problems by showing that they were due to “bewitchment with language”–people playing a “language game” that suggested that there was a problem when there really wasn’t.

Wittgenstein’s most illustrious student was Elizabeth Anscombe, who was perhaps the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 20th century.

On Certainty is probably the most accessible one of his works… He approaches the problem of knowledge and gives some arguments against traditional forms of skepticism.

His philosophy is worth reading because it is an intellectual exercise, and he is insightful. It’s also important to be careful with language. I don’t agree with all of his positions, though many people don’t, I feel. Wittgenstein occupies a curious place in philosophical parlance. He is almost a commonly recognized authority–authors will occasionally try to argue that their view is compatible with Wittgenstein’s, or try to dispel some apparent contradiction with some argument Wittgenstein made. John Searle in an interview said that the only philosopher he really reads these days is Wittgenstein, because reading Wittgenstein is like a dialogue where you want to push back.

Wittgenstein’s thought is compatible and incompatible with Catholicism in different ways… He was raised Catholic and had a Catholic burial, but he was agnostic. He had a pretty favorable opinion of religious believers, and to some extent his philosophy of religious language is compatible with Catholic positions, though in others there would be some tension. (In a way he saw believers as playing a different language game than nonbelievers.) He was a “common language” philosopher, which dovetails nicely with the Catholic tendency toward realism, though Wittgenstein was more skeptical of constructing metaphysical systems.

It has been suggested (by Anthony Kenny) that Wittgenstein is a good way for analytic philosophers to “enter” Aquinas’s philosophy of mind, because they are both notably anti-Cartesian/Platonist, externalist, etc. (For Aquinas, because the intellect is one of the soul’s powers, and the soul is the form of the body, and we can encounter a human’s form just as we can encounter anything else’s form, there is a robust solution to the problem of other minds. Wittgenstein’s thought can be seen as similar to this, where mindedness has to do with observable, in principle public language acts. Some have read Wittgenstein as a behaviorist, but that seems to me a mistake.)

Wittgenstein strikes me as a figure too puzzling to figure out.

The implications of his work in logic nearly drove Bertrand Russell to distraction. Russell later abandoned his work in logic and he gave himself almost entirely over to the traditional problems of philosophy that seemed not to interest Wittgenstein at all.

That Wittgenstein wrote so litle also seems a bit of a puzzle. It’s as if he thought all his genius (and all his ego?) was vested in logic and not much else. Why could he not break out of the analytical mode of thought? For that reason alone Will Durant expressed his greater admiration for Russell than for Wittgenstein, not that Will Durant should be the last word on the subject of Wittgenstein’s worth.

Was Wittegenstein’s life really a tragic moment in the history of philosophy just by virtue of his stubborn refusal to break out of the analytical mode?

Or was his genius simply confined to the role of language in logic, and not much else?

It’s difficult foir me to understand why, in the estimation of so many, his narrow range of interests and his paucity of writings should place him so near the top of the modern philosophical heap.

I think largely because he was very influential. Both the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations were very important works (though very different). Anscombe described them as Wittgenstein’s “two cuts” in academic philosophy… where a philosopher makes a “cut” if he contributes a work such that philosophy can’t quite be exercised in the same way before and after.

Though Wittgenstein wasn’t a logical positivist, the Tractatus influenced that whole movement a good deal. And Philosophical Investigations had a big influence on the common language philosophy that was prominent in the middle of the century.

(Though it’s also worth noting that Wittgenstein’s influence was not restricted to his writings. His lectures also contributed a lot.)

I wouldn’t say his life was a tragic moment in the history of philosophy, nor does he really seem to have occupied the “analytical mode” any more stubbornly than his colleagues. He had a great respect for ordinary language, and that was the locus of his later philosophical work at least, since he saw so many people as kicking up dust by abusing ordinary language.

One of the only pieces of Wittgenstein’s work that I have read was an extended analogy in which he describes how a librarian must circulate books on the shelves of a library as new books arrive, are checked in and out, etc. He speculated that when two books are put in their right order, they are not in their final places.
I like the analogy because it shows nicely that the human life is a process, and that conclusions are tentative in many ways; and juxtapositions — nothing but transient. They all will eventually perish as a more catholic, embracing view forms a greater context in which they may be researched and examined.

Could you elaborate on that last sentence? :confused:

Sorry to confuse you. Looking back on the last sentence I feel confused also – and it was my sentence. I think what I meant was that as each of the temporary associations of nearness on shelf is broken by the circulation process, there needs to be a more encompassing view to keep coherent the associations that were formed for but a time by the transient shelf life of the association. Research, which can involve looking for perennial truths, patterns of associations that may emerge conceptually between past associations, etc, has to be approached with a catholic or universal view, or else all conclusions are tentative and there is no ground or measure by which the proposed truths (temporary place) find there true footing on the shelve (final place). E.g. You grow up thinking that such and such a Saint will someday be your patron. Then you encounter a true life dilemma and suddenly the choice of Saint is urgent and your patron becomes obvious. This happened to me with Saint Jude at a certain point in life. I began to pray to him everyday many times a day; and I was saved through his graces and devotion to Jesus. There is a resting place. Sorry to make the case for a sentence in such a dramatic way; and I don’t mean to imply that that I don’t need all of the Saints just like everyone else does; but the most important book on the shelf is clear now. I know that from experience; and that is research; just wish I didn’t get so curious about every other book from time to time. I think in physics this is analogous to the uncertainty principle.

Wittgenstein was a philosopher who proved conclusively and correctly that 99% of philosophy is senseless and cannot be done.

Other philosophers noticed him in passing, said he was correct, and then continued to do the type of philosophy that can’t be done.

The philosophical public thought it was all in good fun, and now Wittgenstein is basically ignored. :o

I wish I could have attended a debate (had there been one) between Elizabeth Anscombe and Ayn Rand on the subject of “Atheism and Ethics.”

Whose clock do you think would have been cleaned? :wink:

That was an interesting elaboration of the sentence.

I think it’s clear now.

I also have been moving books about on my shelf, and I keep coming back to the two greatest inspirations of my life: the Bible and G.K. Chesterton. As you might say, they are the Catholic books that are the ground of all the other books we might read. :thumbsup:

I do believe that so far as the general public is concerned.

For some who knew him Wittgenstein posed the same problem that Ayn Rand posed.

Although more popular than Wittgenstein in some circles, Rand seemed to have a severe limit to the range of her philosophical interests (the evils of collectivism), and an offensively dominating and arrogant attitude to boot. I don’t think I would have liked to be in the same room with Wittgenstein or Rand any more than was necessary.

As to Wittgenstein, I expect Karl Popper at least might have agreed. :rolleyes:


I don’t think it could be articulated how thoroughly Anscombe would have demolished Rand. She was a formidable debater. (Check out the account of her debate with CS Lewis.) She also contributed seminally to moral philosophy, particularly on the subject of what atheistic moral philosophy is committed to. Rand, by contrast, was not much of a philosopher.

I read the Tractatus for a course in Philosophy of Mysticism back in 1979. I think I liked it .

Indeed, for all her much celebrated veneration of the power of Reason, she seemed more wrapped up in Ego than in Truth.

I read plenty of Rand when I was an atheist. Finally dawned on me that you could not read her without the uncomfortable sense that she was shouting at you. I wonder how many people left her behind for the same reason.

Philosophy of Mysticism?

Sounds like an oxymoron. :wink:

Which possibly explains why he apparently didn’t write a lot, as one of the earlier posters commented.

Having proved that “99% of philosophy is senseless and cannot be done”, then he probably didn’t have a great deal more to say. Anything else would have been just academic hot air.

As a curious footnote, Wittgenstein at one stage was photographed in the same school class as Adolf Hitler.

They may have shared some common educational facilities, but they came to very different conclusions about life.

This link should lead to the photograph in question. Hitler’s in the back row, Wittgenstein in the second last row.


From my stock knowledge, the man was into examining language and experience, and I am now in my intellectual phase into examination of existence and experience.

Witt’s conclusion is that experience is much more broader and deeper than language can grasp and expound on.

So, what is new with this observation?

Isn’t it obvious to anyone for example and forgive me, with ourselves here trying to expound on our ideas finding it always problematic to get the words we need to explain our thoughts?

Anyway, if you want to have a rich intellectual life, consider my invitation to you, always investigate the experiences of what people are talking about when they talk about an issue.

Do they talk from experiences or from rote memory of what they read but never ever by themselves experience or read on the same topic from people who talk from their experiences, unlike a lot of folks here who conduct themselves with repeating what they read of this or that author and these authors themselves are reporting on what they read from this and that author, and so on and on and on, and no one notices that anyone at all is or not is into talking from his own experiences of the topic in question.


From what has been said above, I will bypass Wittgenstein. I know something about Anscomb, a noted scholar who worked for years at the Vatican. Fr. John A. Weisheipl has some interesting comments on her work in Nature and Motion in the middle ages.


I’m familiar with the fact that Wittgenstein was a serious and powerful critic of what has come to be called Scientism. In that respect, he was the true philosopher who recognized the many ways of knowing that science is helpless to address … music and poetry, for examples.

What then puzzles me is that he should have been an atheist/agnostic, while at the same time seemingly approving of the Catholic love of the sacred and the mystical.

What held him back from making the same leap Elizabeth Anscombe made … his homosexuality? :confused:

Here is an odd commentary by Bertrand Russell on Wittgenstein.


How could you tell this after only one sentence?

Even Wittgenstein was not certain of his own genius … that or he was eager for flattery from the “great one.”

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