April 26, 2010
The thought of Austrian-English philosopher LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN (1889-1951) is typically broken into two distinct periods. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1929), his early masterpiece of numbered propositions, includes famously gnomic statements such as “The world is all that is the case” and “Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” The air of mystery around this book, written during the First World War, has led some to see the Tractarian Wittgenstein as a kind of mystic. He was not; but he was certainly a brilliantly imaginative philosopher, perhaps the most vivid mind to enter the field since Spinoza. The major text of his late period, Philosophical Investigations, rejects the views of “the author of the Tractatus” even as it deepens the problems of language and meaning. Published just after Wittgenstein’s death, this loopy sui generis book is the most significant single work of philosophy in the twentieth century. Every central problem of thought is addressed, aided by (among other things) primitive builders, talking lions, people learning to count, people crying out in pain, and the profound insight that we play language as a series of games. A cult of personality developed around Wittgenstein at Cambridge, with disciples who jealously protected his image and posthumous publications. But he didn’t need the shielding, for his thought transcends his life. As he might have said himself, A picture held them captive.
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